Explore The World TRAVEL

Essential guide for traveling to South Africa

 

Why go?

Having visited South Africa every year since I was born, I have been fortunate enough to witness its miraculous transformation from a bitterly divided racial mess into what Archbishop Desmond Tutu called a “Rainbow Nation”. Just two decades after the country’s first democratic elections in 1994 – the result of the long revolution charted in the Nelson Mandela biopic, Long Walk to Freedom – South Africa now welcomes more than nine million tourists a year: a quarter of the number that visit Africa as a whole.

Why so many? Hosting the World Cup in 2010 did much to promote the country’s attractions around the globe, from landscapes and people to languages and food. Because of its sheer size – it has 1,500 miles of coast, facing both Atlantic and Indian oceans, and a landmass about five times the size of Britain – its geography is incredibly diverse, from the Kalahari Desert in the north to the cool vineyards of the southwest. Then there are its Big Five game reserves; spectacular beaches, from family-friendly coves to long stretches of empty sand; untouched areas of wilderness; cultural and sporting activities as diverse as you’d expect in a country with so many different tribes.

n spite of its size, South Africa is pretty easy to traverse. Highways are well maintained and rules are similar to those in Britain (ie, they drive on the left, and signposts are generally clear and in English). There are three international airports (in Johannesburg, Cape Town and Durban) and numerous domestic airports (including a handy one beside Kruger National Park), as well as air-conditioned buses and (not quite as well maintained) trains. The Blue Train (bluetrain.co.za) and Rovos Rail (rovos.com), though both colonial in style, are extremely comfortable.

While officially 11 national languages are spoken, most South Africans working in the tourist sector speak some English and appreciate that tourism provides four per cent of jobs in this largely poor country. And very poor it is. It may be one of the world’s biggest producers of diamonds, gold and platinum, but more than 40 per cent of its population lives below the poverty line. As a result, petty theft and crimes such as violent car-jackings have become commonplace. It’s not a country in which you want to get lost, alone, at night. However, by African standards, it is a safe tourist destination. In nearly 50 years, I have never been robbed or mugged (I stay streetwise and drive at night only in well-lit areas I know).

Besides, the government has had just two decades to try to rectify more than a century of inequality. Visit one of the museums that chart the revolution against apartheid, such as the Hector Pieterson Memorial and the Apartheid Museum (apartheidmuseum.org), or take a township tour with a local guide (from uthandosa.org), and you come away with an even greater admiration for a people whose freedom has been won but whose battles are far from over.

Why go?

Having visited South Africa every year since I was born, I have been fortunate enough to witness its miraculous transformation from a bitterly divided racial mess into what Archbishop Desmond Tutu called a “Rainbow Nation”. Just two decades after the country’s first democratic elections in 1994 – the result of the long revolution charted in the Nelson Mandela biopic, Long Walk to Freedom – South Africa now welcomes more than nine million tourists a year: a quarter of the number that visit Africa as a whole.

Why so many? Hosting the World Cup in 2010 did much to promote the country’s attractions around the globe, from landscapes and people to languages and food. Because of its sheer size – it has 1,500 miles of coast, facing both Atlantic and Indian oceans, and a landmass about five times the size of Britain – its geography is incredibly diverse, from the Kalahari Desert in the north to the cool vineyards of the southwest. Then there are its Big Five game reserves; spectacular beaches, from family-friendly coves to long stretches of empty sand; untouched areas of wilderness; cultural and sporting activities as diverse as you’d expect in a country with so many different tribes.

South Africa is pretty easy to traverse. Highways are well maintained and rules are similar to those in Britain (ie, they drive on the left, and signposts are generally clear and in English). There are three international airports (in Johannesburg, Cape Town and Durban) and numerous domestic airports (including a handy one beside Kruger National Park), as well as air-conditioned buses and (not quite as well maintained) trains. The Blue Train (bluetrain.co.za) and Rovos Rail (rovos.com), though both colonial in style, are extremely comfortable.

While officially 11 national languages are spoken, most South Africans working in the tourist sector speak some English and appreciate that tourism provides four per cent of jobs in this largely poor country. And very poor it is. It may be one of the world’s biggest producers of diamonds, gold and platinum, but more than 40 per cent of its population lives below the poverty line. As a result, petty theft and crimes such as violent car-jackings have become commonplace. It’s not a country in which you want to get lost, alone, at night. However, by African standards, it is a safe tourist destination. In nearly 50 years, I have never been robbed or mugged (I stay streetwise and drive at night only in well-lit areas I know).

Besides, the government has had just two decades to try to rectify more than a century of inequality. Visit one of the museums that chart the revolution against apartheid, such as the Hector Pieterson Memorial and the Apartheid Museum (apartheidmuseum.org), or take a township tour with a local guide (from uthandosa.org), and you come away with an even greater admiration for a people whose freedom has been won but whose battles are far from over.

The first decision to make when planning a holiday is what sort of break you want – a week lying on the beach, for instance, or a two-week trip combining bush, beach and culture – or alternatively which area (the Western Cape, for instance, or KwaZulu-Natal) you want to visit, depending on your interests (see breakdown of areas on the “Where to start” tab). Visitors who relish cultural activities and a European-style city, gourmet restaurants and fine beaches might enjoy Cape Town; those who like exploring coastlines might like to drive the Garden Route, with its pretty beach towns and malaria-free game reserves; safari-lovers who want bigger expanses of wilderness might want to go north to Mpumalanga, or for beach and bush to KwaZulu-Natal.

When to go

Take into account the weather: the west, particularly the Western Cape and Eastern Cape, is best visited in warmer months, from November to April, whereas Johannesburg, Durban and Kruger are more comfortable when the weather is cooler, from May to October.

Although most visitors come to explore the country’s bush and its beaches, Cape Town and Johannesburg are worth stopping at, too. Both have accommodation ranging from B&Bs to glamorous hotels, consistently high-quality food and lots to do, from golf and art galleries to street markets and township tours.

The easy-to-use South African Tourism website is useful (southafrica.net), with holiday choices broken into either geographical zones or areas of interest.

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