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Since the abolition of apartheid in 1994, South Africa has worked hard at becoming a nation, where blacks and whites live alongside each other as equals. While the history of apartheid has left South Africa with serious poverty and high crime rates, South Africa is rearing its head as one of Africa's prime destinations. Countless national parks and nature reserves can be visited around the land, but the best known is the Kruger National Park, one of the world's oldest and largest national parks.
Away from the national parks, many tourists have found Cape Town to be South Africa's shining gem: beautiful, within close range of fine beaches, and boasting an exciting nightlife, Cape Town is one of Africa's most popular cities. And visitors should not forget to visit Robben Island, the former political prison where Nelson Mandela was held until his release.
For information about the World Cup 2010, which will be held in South Africa in June and July, see this article: World Cup 2010.
There is evidence of human existence in South Africa from as far back as 125,000 years ago. The Klasies River Caves in the Eastern Cape have revealed evidence of some of the oldest known homo sapien habitation in the world. The descendants of these nomadic Stone-Age people (the San bushmen) still lived in the Cape when the first Europeans arrived.
Although the Portugese rounded the Cape first in 1488, the Dutch were the first European nation to send out an envoy to South Africa in 1652. What followed was essentially a battle between colonial powers (Holland and Britain) and the indigenous people of the country for control over its resources. The colonial forces ultimately won and the unification of South Africa followed, as did white minority rule and the notorious implementation of apartheid.
Apartheid was a system of racial segregation legitimised through law, enforced by the National Party in 1948. The population was classed into separate groups; white, asian, coloured, and black. The blacks were granted the least civil rights and freedoms, the whites the most. Many rights we take for granted today were removed: mixed marriages were outlawed; identity cards were introduced specifying the owner's race; people of different races weren't allowed to use the same public amenities (restaurants, public swimming pools, restrooms). Only whites were allowed to vote, and black people were eventually classified as no longer being South African citizens but rather citizens of one of ten 'homeland' territories.
Naturally there was resistance to the Apartheid system, in particular from the African National Congress (ANC), and later in the 1970s from the black consciousness movement. The apartheid government responded to this resistance with vicious brutality, which only served to strengthen the support for the struggle.
Because of this resistance, and due to international pressure garnered by it, the early nineties saw the eventual fall of apartheid. And in 1994 the first free elections were held, and Nelson Mandela, leader of the ANC, was sworn in as president. Since the abolition of apartheid, many of the problems it created have come to the surface, with the majority of wealth still lying in the hands of the white minority. But things are slowly changing, and with one of the most progressive constitutions in the world, a huge variety of wildlife and natural environments, and a growing economy, South Africa has every chance to heal itself from it's difficult past.
South Africa is a large country, bordering Namibia, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Mozambique, Swaziland and Lesotho, the latter lying totally within South Africa's territory. Apart from it land borders, it has a long coastline bordering both the Atlantic Ocean as wel as the Indian Ocean. The two come together at the southernmost point of the country, in fact of the continent, Cape Agulhas. The are immediately behind the coastline and in the east of the country is the lower part of the country, but going inland the land becomes hilly and eventually mountainous. Especially the Drakensbergen, forming the eastern border with Lesotho, is an area of stark beauty, steep mountains and rucked peaks. Much of the country is made up by the higher plateau, especially in the central northern and western parts of the country, eventually dropping off again to the Kalahari desert basin.
The east and northeast mostly is savanna area (bushveld) and to the southeast of the country the vegatation becomes tropical, especially in the eastern parts of Kwazulu-Natal. These are the best areas for wildlife trips, including parks like Kruger, Madikwe, Pilanesberg and many of the Kwazulu parks.
South Africa is also the only country in the world which has one of the six floral kingdoms entirely within its territory: the Cape floral kingdom, stretching from Cape Town east just past Port Elizabeth and north to the Olifants river. It mainly contains of fynbos (fine bush) with small narrow leaves and sterms. Most of the fynbos though is conserved within protected areas like the Table Mountain NP and Cape Peninsula.
South Africa is divided into 9 main regions:
See also South African National Parks
South Africa is a country with plenty of oppurtunity for 'once-in-a-lifetime' experiences. Shark diving tours can be done from Gansbaai, offering people the chance to see the infamous Great White in its natural habitat. Another well known activity is the Bloukrans Bridge, boasting to be the highest commercially operating Bungee Jump in the world, at a height of 216 metres. All of this combined with one of the biggest highlights of South Africa being the wildlife, with many parks to be visited throughout the whole country. The country is one of the best places for a first time safari, and the Kruger National Park probably is one of the best known parks in the world.
Purchasing a Wild Card
If you are a nature and wildlife enthusiast and you want to visit many parks during your stay, you might consider buying a Wild Card which enables you to unlimited visits of all of the South African National Parks and many others as well, including the Cape parks, Swaziland parks and Kwazulu Natal parks. There are also possibilities to buy 'cluster' cards, for example only the arid parks in the northwest or the parks in Kwazulu-Natal. The card is available for adults/couples/families and is valid for one year after purchasing the card. Especially when you are planning an extensive stay in on of the larger and more expensive parks like Kruger or Kgalagadi, it pays to get one as a 5-6 day stay is already more expensive when paying the per day rate. Wild Cards can be bought online, but also at the entry gates of all the joining parks as well as the park camps if present.
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This park is the largest of all of South Africa's game parks with around 19,000 square kilometres to explore. The park is located in the northeast of the country in both the provinces of Mpumalanga and Limpopo, at the borders with Mozambique and Zimbabwe. Recently the park has become part of the Great Limpopo Transfrontier Park, a peace-park consisting of Kruger National Park, Gonarezhou National Park (Zimbabwe) and Limpopo National Park (Mozambique). It is the most visited of all national parks in South Africa and can become very busy during the South African holiday periods. Also, some of the roads are tarred, which makes this park one of the best to visit when you just have a small 2wd vehicle. More about Kruger National Park or visit the official Kruger Park website.
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The relatively small Pilanesberg National Park (around 580 square kilometres) is located just a few hours of driving northwest from Johannesburg and Pretoria near Sun City and despite the fact that it is small, there are huge numbers of animals. It is a park which is somehow undervalued but for no apparent reason. The park is centred around a crater of a long extinct volcano and Pilanesberg is one of the largest volcanic complexes of its kind in the world, with rare rock types and structures making it a unique geological landmark. The park has enormous numbers of both birds and mammals, and although for some mammals this wouldn't have been their national habitat, numbers have been introduced here in the 1970's and have been growing ever since. Lions, elephants, white and black rhinos, buffaloes, leopards, zebras, hyenas, giraffes, hippos and crocodiles are all present, but not in the numbers you would find in Kruger National Park. On the other hand, you can visit most of the park in 1 or 2 days, so densities are almost comparable. Have a look at the official Pilanesberg Game Reserve website for more information.
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The Madikwe Game Reserve is an off the beaten track park in the central north of the country. In the north the border of the park forms the border with Botswana. Despite the fact that it might not be known to the general public, it is the 5th largest park in South Africa and is regarded as one of the better conservation areas in Africa. It offers all the major species, including lion, leopard, elephant, buffalo, both white and black rhino (Big Five) along with almost all the regular antelope species on these plains. The park can be reached by a short drive from Pilanesberg National Park (see above) via a good gravel road. You can also take a longer route along tarmac roads, approaching the park from the south instead of the east. From Johannesburg and Pretoria it is roughly a 4-hour drive. It is quite a luxurious place to stay and you need to arrange accommodation before you arrive (you can not drive in the park yourself!). These usually include fullboard and a couple of game drives and sometimes a minimum stay of 2 nights is required (which is actually the minimum to enjoy a stay anyway). There is only one relatively affordable accommodation but prices are already around $200 a night! For more information check the official Madikwe Game Reserve website.
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Hluhluwe-Umfolozi Game Reserve is located in the east of the country, in KwaZulu Natal, north of Durban. The park is around 96,000 ha big and is the oldest national park in Africa and the only one in KwaZulu where you can see the Big Five. Apart from these (lion, rhino, elephant, leopard and buffalo) you can see crocodile, hippo, cheetah, hyena, wildebeest, jackal, giraffe, zebra, waterbuck, nyala, eland, kudu, impala, duiker, suni, reedbuck, warthog, bushpig, mongoose, baboons, monkeys and wide varieties of birds, over 300! All this can be done by your own car, tours and even boat tours and walking safaris are a possibility. For more information about getting and staying here have a look at the official Hluhluwe Umfolozi National Park website.
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The Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park is located in the arid northwest of the country and is actually comprising two adjoining national parks, namely the Kalahari Gemsbok National Park in South Africa and Gemsbok National Park in Botswana. The part in South Africa is more easily accessible than the park in Botswana and although technically you don't really need a 4wd vehicle, still it is better and gives you the opportunity to visit some more remote parts where several off the self catering wilderness camps are located. The park is located in the southern reaches of the Kalahari desert and red sand dunes with some sparse vegetation is the main vegetation here. Much of the wildlife can be found along the dry riverbeds of the Nossob and Auob rivers and the main gravelroads run along these riverbeds. Animals which you are likely to see are predators like black-maned Kalahari lions, cheetahs, leopards, and hyenas, hunting for animals like oryx, springbok and wildebeest. From December to February it can get extremely hot here, with temperatures well over 40 °C. Access is from the towns of Upington and Kuruman towards the main gate at Twee Rivieren (meaning Two Rivers). Check Sanparks' Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park website for more information. It's advised to book well in advance as accommodation quickly fills up and there are few possibilities of staying outside the park.
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Addo Elephant National Park is located in the south of the country, close to Port Elizabeth. Although the park is famous for its elephants, there are many more animals here and species include buffalo, the endangered black rhino, antelope species and lion and spotted hyena are here in small numbers as well. The park is about to be called Greater Addo Elephant National Park as it has been expanded to include several islands and marine wildlife, including African penguins! And whales and great white sharks are in those waters as well and as a consequence the park is promoted as the only park to see the Big 7, which includes the famous Big 5 (elephant, rhino, lion, buffalo and leopard) and the whale and great white shark as mentioned above. A truly unique park which is a very easy to visit and located in a malariafree area. Check Sanparks' Addo Elephant National Park website for more information about getting and staying here.
The Mountain Zebra National Park is another park in the East Cape Province, just like Addo Elephant NP, and therefore makes for a good combination to visit this park as well. Although it is much smaller, it is especially made a national park to preserve the endangered Mountain Zebra, a subspecies of the common zebra. Apart from zebra, you are likely to see many other mammals within the park like caracal, buffalo, black rhino, eland, black wildebeest, red hartebeest, gemsbok and grey rhebok. Have a look at Sanparks' Moutain Zebra National Park website for more detailed information.
The iSimangaliso Wetland Park, formally known as the St Lucia Wetland Park, is a park in the South African province of Kwazulu-Natal. It is the country's third largest protected area, covering 3,300 square kilometres of natural habitat.
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The Blyde River Canyon is a significant natural feature of South Africa, located in Mpumalanga, and forming the northern part of the Drakensberg escarpment. It is 25 kilometres in length and is, on average, around 750 metres deep. The Blyderivierpoort Dam, when full, is at an altitude of 665 metres. The canyon consists mostly of red sandstone. The highest point of the canyon, Mariepskop, is 1,944 metres above sea level, whilst its lowest point where the river leaves the canyon is slightly less than 561 metres above sea level. This means that by some measure the Canyon is 1,383 metres deep. Blyde River Canyon is one of the largest canyons on Earth, and it may be the largest 'green canyon' due to its lush subtropical foliage.
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The Garden Route is a popular scenic drive along a stretch of the southern coastline of South Africa. Although the Garden Route extends into the Western Cape, most of it is actually located in the Eastern Cape: a fantastic drive along the beautiful southern coastline, where ancient forests, surf spots, hiking and bungeejumping can all be combined within days. There are loads of cities, towns and small settlements along the Garden Route or its immediate vicinity. The major cities and towns include Mossel Bay, Knysna, Oudtshoorn (technically north of the Garden Route), Plettenberg Bay and George, the Garden Route's largest city and main administrative centre. The official start is in Heidelberg, Western Cape, the westernmost point.
Route 62 is a great alternative to the coastal route (N2) in South Africa's Western Cape. Better known as the Wine Route, it runs partly across some of the best wineries and most fantastic landscapes anywhere in the world. A visit to the wine areas of Wellington, Tulbagh, Worcester, Robertson and the Klein Karoo is possible and it's one of the longest wine routes in the world. Activities along Route 62 include wine tours, safari drives, tribal art, cultural tours, museums, hiking, mountain climbing, 4x4 routes, canoeing, horse riding, ostrich riding, fishing, and caving. The original regional Route 62 runs between Montagu and Humansdorp, but the total route spans a distance of 850 kilometres from Cape Town to Port Elizabeth.
The Blue Train (Die Bloutrein in Afrikaans) is a train that travels between Pretoria and Cape Town. It is one of the most luxurious trains in the world and a great alterative to the regular trains if you have the money. Before 2002, it also operates along the Garden Route, to the Victoria Falls and towards Hoedspruit (for Kruger National Park, but nowadays the only one is the 1,600-kilometre-long route (taking about 27 hours) between the capital and the Cape, although there are a few occassional trips to Durban and Pilanesberg National Park.
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The Drakensberg is the highest mountain range in Southern Africa, rising to 3,482 metres in height. Its geological history lends it a distinctive character amongst the mountain ranges of the world. Geologically, the range resembles the Simien Mountains of Ethiopia. The Drakensberg mountains span the Eastern Cape, KwaZulu-Natal, Lesotho, Swaziland, Mpumalanga and end in Tzaneen in Limpopo Province.
Drakensberg usually also refers to the region in the northwest of KwaZulu-Natal ranging from Underberg and the Sani Pass in the south to Royal Natal National Park in the north, including areas which are on the UNESCO World Heritage List, mostly in the central region around Champagne Valley (the most popular area with an abundance of accommodation, restaurants, shops and activities) and immediately north and south (including Giant's Castle and Cathedral Peak).
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Table Mountain National Park is located in and near Cape Town, South Africa and was established in 1998, for the purpose of protecting the natural environment of the Table Mountain Chain, and in particular the rare fynbos vegetation. The most famous feature of course is the Table Mountain itself: like the 1,000 or so geysers on the world which are named after the Icelandic Geysir, Cape Town's Table Mountain is the grandfather of all table mountains in the world. It towers above the city, while Devil's Peak and Lion's Head tower above the mountain itself. The flat top is about 3 kilometres wide and offers tremendous views over the city and the ocean. There are only small differences in height on this flat, with the cable car station only 19 metres lower than the highest point. Although in 2 to 3 hours you are able to climb (walk) up to the top, the Table Mountain Cableway takes passengers up and down the mountain, ascending over 700 metres from Table Mountain Road.
The Cape Floristic Region is a floristic region located near the southern tip of South Africa. It is the only floristic region of the Cape (South African) Floristic Kingdom, and includes only one floristic province, known as the Cape Floristic Province. The Cape Floristic Region, the smallest of the six recognised floral kingdoms of the world, is an area of extraordinarily high diversity and endemism, and is home to more than 9 000 vascular plant species, of which 69% are endemic. Much of this diversity is associated with the fynbos biome, a Mediterranean-type, fire-prone shrubland.
The Cape Floral Region Protected Areas is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The site includes eight representative protected areas: Table Mountain National Park, Cederberg Wilderness Area, Groot Winterhoek Wilderness Area, Boland Mountain Complex (Limietberg Nature Reserve, Jonkershoek Nature Reserve, Assegaaibosch Nature Reserve, Hottentots Holland Nature Reserve, Kogelberg Nature Reserve), De Hoop Nature Reserve, Boosmansbos Wilderness Area, Swartberg Complex (Swartberg Nature Reserve, Gamkapoort Nature Reserve, Towerkop Nature Reserve), and
Baviaanskloof Mega Reserve.
The Vredefort crater is the largest verified impact crater on Earth, more than 300 kilometres across when it was formed. What remains of it is located in the present-day Free State Province of South Africa and named after the town of Vredefort, which is situated near its centre. Although the crater itself has long since eroded away, the remaining geological structures at its centre are known as the Vredefort Dome or Vredefort impact structure. In 2005, the Vredefort Dome was added to the list of UNESCO World Heritage Sites for its geologic interest. The asteroid that hit Vredefort is estimated to have been one of the largest ever to strike Earth (at least since the Hadean Eon some four billion years ago), thought to have been approximately 5-10 kilometres in diameter. The crater's age is estimated to be 2.023 billion years (± 4 million years), which places it in the Paleoproterozoic Era. It is the second-oldest known crater on Earth, a little less than 300 million years younger than the Suavjärvi Crater in Russia.
The Kaapse Klopse or the Minstrel Carnival is an annual festival held in Cape Town. It begins on New Years Day and continues into January as thousands of people take to the streets dressed as minstrels in bright colours, spinning umbrellas and playing instruments.
Despite the fact that the first one was held as recently as 2001, the Cape Town International Jazz Festival has rapidly gained status with recent performers including Courtney Pine, Herbie Hancock and Youssou N'Dour.
Launched in 2004, the Soweto Wine Festival brings over 100 of South African's finest wineries offering over 1,000 wines to taste into trend-setting Soweto. Held in the first weekend of September over three nights, the University of Johannesburg, Soweto Campus, is transformed into an up-market VIP experience for thousands of visitors. The Soweto Wine Festival boasts wine lounges by some of South Africa's premium wine producers, wine and food pairing classes hosted by Cape Wine Masters and Celebrity Chefs, Soweto's Finest Restaurants, Entertainment and wine for sale. The festival attracts an international audience of wine lovers who spend three days in Soweto tasting South Africa's fine wines by night, and touring some of Soweto's top tourist destinations by day. The Soweto Wine Festival is organised by South Africa's official wine and education authority, the Cape Wine Academy.
Knysna Oyster Festival is held at the Garden Route town of Knysna every July. Dignitaries bill the event “the finest 10 days of winter” and a worthy tribute to the humble oyster. Over 100 events take place including shucking contests, eating challenges, the Knysna Forest Marathon and cycle tours of the region. The state navy dispatches a selection of its fleet as an added diversion for the 65,000 festival attendees.
Northam, north of Johannesburg and Pretoria, is the venue for the Oppikoppi Bushveld Festival in August. Oppikoppi began life as a rock festival, but has grown significantly and now has several stages where folk and jazz artists, house DJs and even comedians cater to all tastes. The original campground at the bottom of the hill still exists and has been complemented by an RV site.
In the first half of September, up to 10,000 Zulu maidens don traditional garb and make their way to the Zulu king’s KwaNyokeni Palace in KwaZulu-Natal Province via a four-day processional. The women spend a lot of time preparing the beads and the reeds to sing and dance as the parade arrives at the royal palace. The festival is a popular add-on to Durban holidays at this time of year.
During September, Johannesburg hosts the Arts Alive Festival, a 10-day spectacle dedicated to South Africa’s visual and performance arts. Theaters and other venues in the city’s old Newtown precinct stage dance and musical shows. Audiences are just as likely to see local performers enact Afro-fusion as Spanish flamenco dances. International acts often include Chinese puppet groups and ballet troupes.
Due to its copious number of jacaranda trees, Pretoria is often referred to by South Africans as Jacaranda City. In late spring when the trees are in bloom, the area takes on a purplish hue. October’s Jacaranda Festival honors the native symbol with family entertainment and a special market.
South Africa's climate is the opposite of the northern hemisphere with summers lasting from November to March and wintertime being from May to September. Wintertime in South Africa is a mostly dry period, with the exception of the Western Cape (including Cape Town) where the climate is frequently described as Mediterranean.
The Western Cape area is more moderate with day time temperatures in Cape Town around 26 °C in the months of January and February and just below 20 °C during the May to September period. Occasional frost is possible but very rare, as the warming effect of the sea keeps things much warmer than they are inland, especially at night.
Johannesburg has dry, bright winters with temperatures averaging late teens and early twenties during the day, and occassionally dropping below zero overnight. In the summer it gets warmer, and the hotter weather often brings afternoon storms to the area.
The east and northeast, for example in Kwazulu-Natal, has a sub-tropical climate with high humidity and warm temperatures year round. Winters can be wonderfully mild while during summer time the humidity can be a bit overwhelming.
The Northern Cape is a very dry, hot and arid area, particularly in summer when temperatures can exceed 45 °C, but winters are nicely warm with occasional frosts at night.
South African Airways is the main national airline of South Africa and has its base at OR Tambo International Airport (JNB) near Johannesburg and at Cape Town International Airport (CPT) near Cape Town. From the latter, international destinations include Frankfurt and Amsterdam. Much less so, King Shaka International Airport near Durban offers a few international flights, mostly to Dubai, Maputo and Mauritius.
South African Express flies between Cape Town and Walvisbaai and Windhoek in Namibia, Gaborone in Botswana and Maputo in Mozambique. KLM flies between Amsterdam and both Cape Town and Johannesburg directly. Singapore Airlines and Malaysia Airlines fly from Singapore and Kuala Lumpur to Cape Town as well. The latter has flights onwards to Buenos Aires. Cape Town has flights to Istanbul, Düsseldorf and Munich and from June 2008 to New York as well and several African cities, mainly in the south of the continent.
From Johannesburg there are significantly more flights within the continent and South African Airways has flights to and from Abidjan, Accra, Dakar, Dar es Salaam, Entebbe, Hong Kong, Kigali, Lagos, Libreville, Lilongwe, London, Mumbai, Munich, Nairobi, New York, Perth, Sao Paulo and Washington, D.C. among many others. Numerous other airlines from all continents in the world fly to and from Johannesburg and it has one of the busiest airport within Africa. Other examples of destinations include Bangkok, Dubai, Paris, Cairo, Tel Aviv, Athens, Sydney, Jeddah, Zürich and Moscow, Lisbon and Madrid.
There is a regular overnight train service with TransNamib, the national railway company of Namibia, from Upington in South Africa to Windhoek in Namibia via Keetmanshoop. The total trip takes about 26 hours. Although the domestic service from Keetmanshoop to Windhoek rides every day except Saturdays, the train between Upington and Keetmanshoop only rides on two days: from Upington on Sundays and Thursdays at 5am arriving 11 and a half hours later in Keetmanshoop and from the latter on Wednesdays and Saturdays around 9 am, taking well over 12 hours to reach Upington in South Africa's Northern Cape Province.
South Africa shares borders with Lesotho, Swaziland, Mozambique, Zimbabwe, Botswana and Namibia.
The main bordercrossing with Namibia is at Noordoewer/Vioolsdrif, which is along the main Windhoek to Cape Town road. Other crossings are Nakop between Upington and Karasburg, Noenieput between Upington and Aroab, Onseepkans between Pofadder and Karasburg and Rietfontein between Askam and Araob. Currently it is not possible to cross from the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park directly into Namibia, you have to go back and cross at Rietfontein. Also the border between Alexander Bay and Oranjemund in Namibia is only open if you have special permits.
From Zimbabwe, there are two crossings, near Beitbridge and Pafuri. Mozambique has 3 access points, near Lebombo (Kruger National Park) and Ressano Garcia along the N4 route and at Manhoca/Farazela.
To and from Botswana, you have a wide variety of choices, but the main crossings are at Bray Derdepoort, Kopfontein, Middelputs, Grobler's Bridge and Stockpoort. More east there are possible crossings at Platjan, Pont Drift and Zanzibar, but these are less used, close early and sometimes require a 4wd to cross riverbeds, like the one at Pont Drift across the Limpopo River. When the river is actually flowing you need to be transported by cable car across the border and cars (even 4wd) are to be left at the border post.
Lesotho and Swaziland both have about a dozen of bordercrossings with South Africa and because they are small countries, this often means you don't have to drive huge distances to cross into the country.
Buses travel between South Africa and all neighbouring countries. From Johannesburg there are connections to Maputo in Mozambique (8 to 9 hours), to Gaborone in Botswana (6 hours) and to Bulawayo and Harare in Zimbabwe. To Maputo, it is also possible to board in Pretoria or Nelspruit (near the Kruger Park). To Lusaka in Zambia, there are buses, most of which stop on their way in Bulawayo, taking a total of 26 hours. It takes almost as long to get from Johannesburg to Windhoek (21 hours), the capital of Namibia. Daily connections also travel to Mbabane, the capital of Swaziland. From Bloemfontein there are minibuses to and from Maseru, the capital of Lesotho, taking about 2 hours. There are several more options between South Africa and Lesotho though, mostly involving minibuses between the closest towns on either side of the border.
Minibus taxis travel between Johannesburg and Gaborone, Johannesburg and Palapye (Botswana) and between Mafikeng in South Africa and Lobatse in Botswana.
Minibuses also travel between Johannesburg and Manzini in Swaziland (4 hours). To and from Manzini, there are also minibuses that connect with Durban.
There are even daily buses between Blantyre in Malawi and Johannesburg, travelling through Mozambique and Zimbabwe, taking about 30 hours to cover the distance.
There are many companies offering services, but the main operators are Greyhound South Africa, Intercape and Translux, all offering at least services between major cities in neighbouring countries from Johannesburg and/or Cape Town.
The Royal Mail Ship "Saint Helena" travels regularly between Saint Helena and Ascension Island, Walvis Bay and Cape Town. The schedule is primarily designed to meet the needs of locals and cargo for St. Helena, and thus follows a timetable but not a consistent routing. In general terms, the ship leaves Cape Town once a month, before heading to Saint Helena, sometimes via Walvis Bay. From St. Helena it will then run 1 or 2 shuttles to Ascension Island, before returning to Cape Town, again sometimes via Walvis Bay. Occasionally, Cape Town is omitted, and the ship returns to Saint Helena directly from Walvis Bay.
For travelling directly to Tristan da Cunha, there are only a few boats a year from South Africa (and sometimes Namibia). If you are lucky enough though, the trip takes 5 or 6 days and will mean you have to spend months on the island. Tickets roughly cost about 1000 to 1200 for a return trip. It's best to check the Tristan da Cunha website for details.
Other than these off the beaten track international ferries/boats, there are no connections whatsoever. Only cruises to the Indian Ocean islands like Mauritius are possible.
There are many choices regarding airlines when you want to fly several to several of the domestic destinations.
South African Airways flies between Johannesburg, Durban, Bloemfontein, East London, Pietermaritzburg, Port Elizabeth and Cape Town. Sout African Airlink flies between George, Kimberley, Nelspruit, Upington and Cape Town. South African Express flies between Bloemfontein, East London, Port Elizabeth and Cape Town. Mango flies between Bloemfontein, Cape Town, Johannesburg and Durban as well.
Shosholoza Meyl is the national railway, with services between most major South African cities. Most of the connections are tourist and economy, but there is a Premier Class train between Johannesburg and Cape Town.
The main routes are:
In the larger cities like Johannesburg, Pretoria, Cape Town, Durban, Port Elizabeth and East London there are so called commuter trains and these are run by Rail Commuter. These services are not always safe and can get very crowded. In the near future (at least before 2010 when the World Championship Soccer is held) the Gautrain should be finished, offering speedy transport between Johannesburg and Pretoria via Johannesburg OR Tambo Airport.
The Blue Train and the Pride of Africa by Rovos Rail are luxurious options to cross South Africa. The Bluetrain usually travels once or twice week between Pretoria and Cape Town in about 27 hours. Rovos Rail does the same trip in three days/two nights, with stops in Kimberley and Matjiesfontein. There are also Pretoria - Durban and Cape Town - George routes with them.
The Shongololo Express is less luxurious but still quite expensive and has longer trips as well.
If you would like to travel around by car, there are numerous car rental companies available from the airports and downtown locations. Just make sure that you have sufficient insurance to cover you if the need arises. Some of them offer the possibility to reduce excess (the amount you pay when involved in an accident) for a daily fee. Car hire companies include Avis, Hertz, Budget as well as many other international and local ones. Usually, the local ones are cheaper but don't have the same standard as the international ones, which have more branches throughout the country and therefore are able to help you more quickly if needed.
If travelling by car, be sure to plan your routes carefully to insure that there are sufficient places to fill the tank with petrol as some towns are located quite a distance apart with no filling stations in between. It's a good idea to fill up with fuel when you have about half a tank left if possible.
South Africa has a very good road system with national highways (N-roads) and the regional roads (R-roads) which are almost all paved. Even the main gravel roads are of quite a good standard. The R-roads are all two-lane roads. This applies to many of the N-roads as well, although some of them are 4-lane roads, mainly in and around the main cities like Cape Town, Johannesburg, Port Elizabeth and Durban as well as some longer stretches between these cities, for example the N3 from Johannesburg to Durban. Some of the 4-lane roads though, don't have a separation in between both directions, which can feel a little dangerous while overtaking slower vehicles. In hilly and mountainous areas with 2-lane roads, there are usually small sections to overtake other slower vehicles (trucks are extremely slow) when going uphill. But even without these sections, slower vehicles will almost always keep extremely left on to the hard shoulder. Usually, the one that overtakes, as a courtesy, uses his signals after overtaking the slow vehicles, which in turn usually will flash his lights again, that way thanking eachother for being polite. Quite an experience!
Most of the N-roads are toll free, but some of them require a small fee. This is indicated on the road signs with the letter 'T'. There is always an alternative road indicated as well with the letter 'A'.
The main roads in South Africa are:
There are many companies offering services, but the main operators are Greyhound South Africa, Intercape and Translux, with daily connections between most major cities and towns, including Johannesburg, Pretoria, Durban, Cape Town, Port Elizabeth and Upington.
The Baz Bus is a bus where you can hop on and of and is mostly used by backpackers travelling on a budget. They are dropped off at hostels. There are three routes. One is running between Cape Town and Durban and there are two routes between Durban and Pretoria via Johannesburg: one via the Drakensberg (Drakens Mountains) and one via Swaziland. Keep in ming that the Baz Bus used primarily for foreign visitors, and is much more expensive than the alternatives.
The preferred mode of transport for the (non-white) locals is the complex combi network, also called mini-bus taxis. These are getting better, but are certainly only recommended for adventurous men with good health insurance. There is schedule or route map, service changes frequently, and you may find yourself someplace, trying to get somewhere else, but no one knows how you can get there, even the combi drivers. Another danger is that the driver will tell you it's leaving in half an hour, but you actually have to wait 5 hours, only to be told that the combi won't be departing that day. Good luck.
Other than the occasional cruiseship that harbors in Cape Town or Durban or getting on a boat joining a tour on the ocean or one of the few national parks that actually has rivers, your options are fairly limited.
Nationals from the following countries and territories are exempted from visa for tourism purposes for a limited stay period. 
Residents from other countries will need to apply for one of the South African visas listed on the Department of Home affairs website.
See also Money Matters
The currency of South Africa is the Rand, often called the 'buck', and it's divided into 100 cents. The sign for it is R and the financial code is ZAR. It was introduced in 1961 to coincide with the establishment of the Republic of South Africa, replacing the South African pound.
Notes come in R10, R20, R50, R100, and R200 denominations. Coins of 5, 10, 20 and 50 cents exist, as well as R1, R2 and R5.
If you're looking to exchange money, it's currently around R12 to the British Pound, R7.5 to the US Dollar and R10.5 to the Euro (dec 2009). Even in the smaller towns, there is almost always an ATM, which usually accepts both. Creditcards as well as foreign debit cards (look for the cirrcus, maestro which mostly means you can withdraw money). Although many places do accept creditcards, this is not always the case, so be sure to have some cash with you at all times as well.
Currencies of Namibia, Lesotho and Swaziland all have the same exchange rates as the South African Rand. But, although you can pay with Rand in those countries, you can not pay with their currencies in South Africa.
As unemployment is high, work is pretty hard to find in South Africa and not as popular as for example in Australia, New Zealand or even Europe.
There are high penalties for employers taking on foreigners without work permits, although finding work in restaurants or bars in tourist areas is still possible. You can earn anything from 25 Rand an hour or more, depending on the work and the place you find work.
Best time to find work is just before the high season starts, around October or November, which is also before the holiday season starts (half December) when students are trying to find work as well.
South Africa is a great destination to combine travel with a study program. There are many well-run high school and university programs throughout the country. The main cities to study are Johannesburg, Pretoria, Cape Town, Port Elizabeth, Durban and Bloemfontein, but some regional cities/towns have facilities as well. For more information about specific universities, have a look at the respective cities' articles, where you'll find links to those universities.
Most students come to South Africa for a year, but shorter (or longer) programs are widely available. Also check your home university for information about options in other countries, which might include South Africa.
As there are almost a dozen of official languages, it's important to choose a facility where English is the main language, as you may find it difficult to learn one of the other languages.
For more information about studying in South Africa, visit the Study in South Africa website.
Visitors to South Africa can generally get by with speaking English. Together with English, there are 11 official languages spoken in South Africa, namely English, Afrikaans, Ndebele, Xhosa, Zulu, Sepedi, Sesotho, Setswana, Si Swati, Venda and Tsonga.
Zulu is spoken by most people: almost a quarter of the total population, followed by Xhosa (18%), Afrikaans (13%), northern Sotho (Sepedi, almost 10%) and English (just over 8%).
Afrikaans is the main language spoken by white people, although many others understand and will be speak it as well. It is related to Dutch and people from the Netherlands and Flanders (Belgium) can usually understand most of it if speaking slowly. English speaking visitors need not worry while travelling almost anywhere, it's unlikely you'll find a hotel/shop/town where English is not spoken.
It would be quite hard to pin down one style of cooking as official 'South African cuisine'. One thing that does seem to unite South Africans however, is a love of meat. An adventurous visitor will find an interesting array of meat on offer from ostrich to giraffe, with dried meat, or 'biltong', also very popular. South African's also love a good braai (barbeque), where the country's favourite sausage, boerewors, is often sizzling away.
Some game lodges offer a taste of wildlife you may have never tried before, like springbok, gemsbok, zebra, kudu, eland and crocodile. Springbok and gemsbok are very rich meats, while ostrich is very versatile and healthy (high in protein, low in fat). You might think eating wild game would be bad for the environment, but often the opposite is true. Breeding tame animals (like cows and sheep) means large swathes of bush have to be cleared for farmland, whereas hunting wild animals means the natural environment is largely left intact.
Bobotie is a traditional South African dish, often thought to originate from Dutch East India. Bobotie consists of spiced minced meat baked with an egg-based topping. It is quite heavy foot but it is a lovely dish and you should at least try it once.
Seafood in South Africa is particularly good in the coastal towns, with a wide variety of fish, lobster, oyster and mussels available. Often hake and limefish is on the menu as well.
The vegetarian visitor will generally find that there are at least one or two veggie options at most restaurants, a few vegetarian eateries are even starting to spring up in the big cities.
South Africa offers a wide range of sleeping options, ranging from budget camping grounds to top luxury hotels and lodges. Most of them, including the cheapest, usually offer very good value for money and are generally clean and service is good as well. Prices are higher than much of Africa or Asia, but lower compared to North America, Europe or Australia and also cheaper compared to neighbouring Botswana for example or East Africa.
Apart from camping grounds, which are very popular among South African tourists, there are well-run backpackers hostels throughout the country. Some of the cheaper homestays, guesthouses or self-catering cottages can be very good value as well, especially when you are with a group and want to rent larger cottages. Also these are located mostly in quiet places in nature, for example along rivers, lakes or in parks.
Prices for budget accommodation of course vary a lot but you can get camping places for as little as 20 rand and a bed in a dormitory for around 50 rand upwards. Some of the more expensive budget options can be as high as 200 rand but usually means excellent value, sometimes with breakfast.
Midrange accommodations usually contains of Bed and Breakfast (B&B) and guesthouses, the latter mostly being just a different name offering the same thing basically. It is a more intimate option compared to larger hotels and usually includes better personal service, good breakfasts, large rooms and in some cases the options of having dinner as well for an extra fee. Double rooms in this price range usually start at around 400-500 rand and for 1,000 rand you may expect 4 star ratings. In rural areas, there are quite a few options for farm stays as well, which only adds to the charm and experience.
The top-end accommodations usually include the larger 4 and 5 star hotels, more expensive B&B's and guesthouses and, mainly in (private) parks, the lodges. You will find larger hotels mainly in bigger cities while most of the lodges are located within national parks and private game parks. The latter are usually the most expensive ones found in the country with prices upwards of 1500 rand per person, while hotels are much cheaper. The sometimes include 3 meals and 2 gamedrives a day though, which can still be good value. The most expensive ones can easily be 5-10 times as expensive though!
One of the better hotel chains are the Protea Hotels which offer good rooms and service, though again: not as personal or intimate as guesthouses or B&B's. Another decent option are the Formula 1 hotels.
Note that some most of the accommodation tends to get sparse during the major holiday season from around half December to the end of January, around Easter and also during July when winter holidays are together with summer holidays in the northern hemisphere. Also note that prices during these times are higher. Also, places along the coast, some national parks and cities like Cape Town tend to be somewhat more expensive as well.
Many accommodation options are well signposted along the main roads and when approaching or entering villages, towns and cities. It usually pays to have an idea of the options in town and what you want exactly, because sometimes the choice is huge!
When you want to stay within one of South Africa's beautiful national parks, it is best to book well in advance, as they are very popular, especially during the South African holiday periods. You can find all sorts of accommodation and prices at the South African National Parks website. Note that many of the national parks are not SAN parks and usually have options as well.
With regards to drinking water, South Africa's tap water is rated among the best for domestic and intake use.
There is a wide variety of spirits, liqueurs and beers within South Africa, most of which are manufactured and bottled within its borders like Castle Lager. There are the exceptions such as Windhoek Lager and Heineken. When travelling, you are bound to find at least one liquor/bottle store in every town.
Also, wine is among the best in the world and usually available for very modest prices, even in restaurants. When you are with two people it often pays to buy a bottle for as little as 40 rand. The better ones are at least double that amount but you really get quality.
See also Travel Health
There are no vaccinations legally required to travel to South Africa. There is one exception though: you need a yellow fever vaccination if you have travelled to a country (7 days or less before entering South Africa) where that disease is widely prevalent. So although Yellow Fever is not a problem in South Africa, you will need to carry a certificate of vaccination if you are arriving from an infected country.
Like with most countries, it's advisable to have general injections regarding diseases like Hepatitis A. Most travellers are already injected against DTP (Dyphteria, Tetanus, Polio) and Hepatitis A, especially if you travelled already to countries outside the western world. If you are staying longer than 3 months or have a particular risk (travelling by bike, handling of animals, visits to caves) you might consider a rabies vaccination. Vaccination against Tuberculosis as well as hepatitis B are also sometimes recommended for stays longer than 3 months.
The main concerns in South Africa probably are HIV (which can cause AIDS), which is widespread and Malaria. If you do have the possibility to have sexual activity, protect yourself using condoms for example. Most travellers won't have any problems relating to this potential hazard though. Malaria on the other hand, although not prevalent in most of the country, is a serious disease which must not be underestimated. If you are travelling in the eastern quarter of the country (including Kruger National Park!), take malaria pills like malarone, especially when travelling during the warmer and wetter summer season (October to April/May). Also use long-sleeve shirts and use DEET-containing insect repelling after dawn (mosquito is active during the night).
Dengue Fever, although not a major risk in South Africa, does occur and there are outbreaks every now and then, mainly in urban areas. There is no way to prevent it totally (like injections or pills), but use DEET-containing insect repellent. The mosquito causing Dengue Fever is usually active during the day.
Finally, other possible health issues include diarrhea and other general travellers' diseases like motion sickness. Watch what you eat and drink and in case you get it, drink plenty of fluids (to prevent dehydration) and bring ORS (Oral Rehydration Solution). To prevent getting diarrhoea, avoid eating at some local food stalls for example. Still, the risk is far lower compared to many other African countries, and tap water is usually very safe to drink as well, meaning that items like ice cubes or salads don't have to be avoided.
See also Travel Safety
Safety is often an issue that concerns visitors to South Africa. Crime is a serious problem in some of the urban areas, particularly in parts of Johannesburg and the townships. But you have to keep in mind that the vast majority of travellers visit South Africa without any incident.
You can minimise any risks by taking some sensible precautions:
Big cities and most of the popular places in the country usually have an internet café though they are not as abundant as in, for example, Asia or South America. It's also relatively expensive, usually 20-30 rand an hour, sometimes even more. Many of the accommodation options have internet access available, either wireless with your own laptop or by their own computer(s). Wireless access is also available throughout the country in more and more cafes and eateries, sometimes free and sometimes for a small fee. Note that you usually have to login anyway and agree with the terms and conditions. It is cheapest to buy a prepaid cell phone starter pack (less than R10) and access the Internet with GPRS or 3G. Generally R2 per MB for out of bundle data from most providers (50c for Virgin Mobile), but it becomes a lot cheaper if you buy a data bundle. In general coverage is good except the more rural parts of the northern and northwestern parts of the country (especially Northern Cape).
See also International Telephone Calls
South Africa's country code is 27. Telephone numbers in South Africa are 10 digits, including the local area code. There are also some prefixes like 0800 (toll free), 0860 (charged as local call) and 0861 (flat-rate calls). The general emergency number is 10111, ambulance is 10177 and police is 1011.
South Africa has very good phone facilities, which are also becoming more and more competitively priced, now that more operators are active on the market. The main ones are Neotel and Telkom South Africa. Local phone calls are cheap (about one Rand an hour), domestic long-distance calls are about twice as expensive. International calls start at around 6 Rand an hour but can be (much) higher to less usual countries. Note that public phones are about twice as cheap as new private phone centres. Phone calls tend to be the cheapest during the weekend and during business hours (8:00am to 5:00pm) on weekdays and more expensive during the evening and nights at weekdays.
There are also good mobile-phone facilities, with GSM and 3G networks. There are five cell phone providers in South Africa: Vodacom, MTN, Cell-C, Virgin Mobile and 8ta. SIM card prepaid starter kits are available from R10. You will need a passport and a proof of residential address and it has to be registered before you can call or receive calls. You can buy credit for prepaid phones just about everywhere, remembering you will usually need cash to do so from service stations.
The SAPO (South African Post Office) is the nation's postal service. They have a track & trace system for parcels as well. Post offices are open from 8:30am to 4:30pm from Monday to Friday, and 8:00am to noon on Saturdays. Domestic and international deliveries are reliable but can sometimes take up to several weeks. If you want to send something oversees of any value, try using one of the private mail services, like Postnet. Also international courier companies like TNT, UPS and DHL tend to be fast, very reliable and competitively priced.
Ask Utrecht a question about South Africa
Travelled around South Africa 3 times for about a month in 2009, 2011 and 2013, mainly in the central and northern parts, including the Kalahari, the Karoo and some coastal areas like the Cape Region. Been to Madikwe and Pilanesberg Game Reserves twice and three times to Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park, the latter totalling about 3 weeks, so can help you with that too. Been a few times to Clarens, Golden Gate Highlands NP and the Drakensberg Region too.
Ask harbinger a question about South Africa
I lived in South Africa for nearly 30 years, and have travelled and worked throughout the most remote and obscure parts of the country. I have also survived - and enjoyed - living and working in Big Bad Johannesburg (a much underrated travel destination)!
Ask Demian a question about South Africa
I live and work in Johannesburg for over five months now, and will stay another two. I think I know a little bit on how newcomers feel overwhelmed and maybe even frightened by 'big, bad & beatiful Jozi'. But I know as well how and where to overcome that first impression and see the true beauty of the city! I can give some tips on Cape Town and travelling the country by car as well.
Ask uhambo a question about South Africa
Certified Fundi specialist/desitation specialist on South Africa
Ask Anja Fourie a question about South Africa
Cape Town is my home town, but I've travelled through South Africa. Contact me if you are planning a trip to South Africa!
Use our map of places to stay in South Africa to explore your accommodation options and to compare prices across the country at a glance. To narrow the results down by budget category, use the links below.
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