Getting to South Africa
Johannesburg’s O.R. Tambo International Airport is the major destination for international flights to Southern Africa, served by most major airlines from across the globe. Flights often transit in Johannesburg en route to other parts of the country or region. If you stop here on a flight from, say, London to Cape Town, you may clear South African customs here rather than at your final destination.
The many direct flights from the UK and Europe are generally overnight and just a snooze away; an aperitif and dinner, a sound sleep and a good breakfast – and voila, you’re in South Africa! Flights from London to Johannesburg take about 12 hours, while those from New York are about 15 hours.
Cape Town International Airport and Durban’s King Shaka International Airport increasingly receive direct international flights, for example Turkish Airlines’s daily Istanbul-Cape Town service. However, it often works out cheaper to travel via the major hub of Johannesburg.
When to visit South Africa
South Africa’s seasons are the opposite of those in the northern hemisphere. Spring runs roughly from October to November, summer from December to March, autumn/fall from April to May and winter from June to September. Different areas and activities are best at different times of year (see Wonderful weather for more info), making the region a year-round destination.
Bear in mind that tourism here is very seasonal and that tourist destinations are busy and prices are high around Christmas, New Year and Easter. Otherwise, your timing will depend on your interests. Here is a rough guide of the best seasons for activities:
- Wildlife watching: Late winter to early spring (July to October).
- Namaqualand wildflower bloom: Late August to early September.
- Whale watching: June to November.
- Surfing: Best surf is from March to September, with the least rain during April and May.
- Diving: Year round. The best visibility in KwaZulu-Natal is from May to September and the highest visibility and temperatures in the chilly Atlantic is from November to January.
- River rafting: The Cape experiences most of its rainfall and high rivers in winter. Summer rainfall is more common in other parts of the country. The Orange River is recommended year-round.
- Hiking: During the milder spring and autumn months.
- Beach bumming: South Africa’s superb climate makes this possible all year round.
South Africa is 2 hours ahead of Greenwich Mean Time (GMT/UTC) throughout the year, making it:
- 1 hour ahead of British Summer Time.
- 1 hour ahead of Central European Time (the same as Central European Summer Time).
- 7 hours ahead of Eastern Standard Time (6 ahead of Eastern Daylight Time).
- 8 hours behind Australian Eastern Standard Time (9 behind Australian Eastern Daylight Time).
Passports & visas
All visitors to South Africa must be in possession of a valid passport in order to enter the country, and in some cases, a visa. The passport must contain at least ONE unused page and be valid for at least 30 days after the end of your intended visit.
Travellers from visa exempt countries do not need to formally apply for a visa if planning to holiday in South Africa for less than 90 days. Visa exempt countries include most Commonwealth and Western European nations, Japan and the USA.
You will need a visitor visa if you hold nationality for a country outside of the visa exempt countries, and you may need a study visa or volunteer visa if you are planning to do either while in South Africa.
Consultancies like SAvisas.com can help you apply for these visas, as well as for temporary residence (which typically lasts two years) and permanent residence. Complete the SAvisas.com online assessment and receive free advice on your visa eligibility, as well as affordable assistance in obtaining your required visa should you need help.
In 2015, South Africa’s Department of Home Affairs introduced strict new legislation for children aged under 18 travelling to/from South Africa. All children were required to show an unabridged birth certificate (as opposed to the equally common abridged certificate), plus additional paperwork in many cases. The legislation was subsequently relaxed, but check online or with your airline before travel, as an unabridged birth certificate will probably still be required.
Travellers who have recently visited a yellow fever zone, or transited in one en route to South Africa, must have a valid international yellow fever vaccination certificate.
In addition to routine immunisations (for example, measles, mumps and polio), hepatitis A and typhoid are suggested for visitors to South Africa. Check with your doctor, and ask for an International Certificate of Vaccination or Prophylaxis (ICVP or ‘yellow card’), listing all the vaccinations you’ve received.
Malaria is found in the northeastern Lowveld, including Kruger National Park and Swaziland. Depending on the season, you may require malaria prophylaxis (essential in summer).
If you will be visiting rural areas, coming into regular contact with locals and spending a long time in South Africa, you should consider hepatitis B and rabies. Again, check with a health professional before leaving home.
Banks and money
The South African currency is the rand (R), with 100 cents (c) making up R1. Coins come in 5c, 10c, 20c, 50c, R1, R2 and R 5 denominations. Notes come in R10, R20, R50, R100 and R200 denominations.
The rand is extremely weak against Western currencies, so paying and withdrawing money with a foreign card normally works out cheaply – despite conversion charges and bank fees.
Visa and Mastercard are widely accepted, American Express and Diners Card less so. You can also use Visa Electron and Maestro cards to withdraw rand at cash machines (ATMs).
Foreign currency can be exchanged at local banks and bureaux de change.
If anything irregular happens when you are making a card payment or ATM withdrawal, retrieve your card as quickly as possible and do not try the transaction again.
Telkom operates South Africa’s landline telephone network. You can save on calls by telephoning during the off-peak period, which is between 7pm and 7am (between 8am and 8pm for international calls) and over the weekend.
Telkom’s WorldCall prepaid calling cards are widely available, and can be used on landlines and payphones. Blue payphones are coin-operated; green phones take cards.
If you do not bring a laptop, smartphone or tablet with Skype to South Africa, you can often use the Skype facilities of backpacker lodges and internet cafes for a fee.
South Africa has GSM and 3G digital networks. Bring along your mobile phone and arrange international roaming before you leave. Alternatively, provided your phone is unlocked, you can use a local prepaid SIM card.
The major local mobile networks are MTN and Vodacom (the most comprehensive), Cell C and Virgin Mobile. SIMs are widely available and should cost about R20. When you buy a SIM, you have to show some identification and proof of address (which can be a letter or receipt from accommodation) to register the card.
It is well worth bringing a digital device, as wi-fi is widely available. Most backpacker lodges offer wi-fi access, either free or for a small fee, and some provide a computer for guest use. Urban malls, cafes and restaurants also offer wi-fi, often through a hotspot, for which you purchase a token from the establishment or buy credit online using a credit card. Internet cafes are still common in major towns and even smaller destinations.
In rural areas such as the Eastern Cape, wi-fi availability and quality is unreliable. If regular access is important to you, consider buying a USB modem or smartphone data package from a local operator such as MTN or Vodacom.
Do keep laptops, tablets and so on out of sight while travelling as they are popular targets for thieves.
Safety & security
South Africa is notorious for its high crime rate, but, while you should be more cautious and vigilant than at home, do not be put off visiting. Most trips to the country are trouble free and most areas can be visited safely, provided you follow basic common sense. For example, do not walk or drive alone in deserted areas at night; be circumspect about how much photographic equipment and flashy jewellery you display on the street; and do not leave valuables on display in parked vehicles.
Most crime in South Africa takes place between people who know each other; random acts of violence are the minority of cases. Indeed, the main risk to travellers is the road-racing drivers on South Africa’s hazardous roads; always drive defensively and be prepared to encounter aggressive and erratic motorists.
Most major cities have organised crime prevention programmes. If you are in doubt as to the safety of a particular area or attraction, contact the National Tourism Information and Safety Line on 083 123 2345. This number may also be used for practical assistance in replacing lost documents or reporting incidents. Also visit the Tourism Safety Initiative for tips on travelling safely and to report an incident. Very importantly, we want to ask that you report incidents to the police regardless of whether you will be remaining in the country long enough for you to get any results.
More important numbers:
- Police 10111
- Ambulance 10177
- Emergencies (from mobiles) 112
- Netcare 911 medical emergencies (private service) 082 911
- Cape Town emergencies 107 (from mobile 021 480 7700)
Attitudes across races and cultures are more old fashioned and sexist than in most Western countries. However, the country is generally safe for female travellers, even those travelling alone.
Just bear in mind that the country has among the world’s highest levels of sexual assault, violence against women and AIDS/HIV infection, with townships being the most affected areas. There have been cases of travellers being raped. Follow the common-sense precautions listed in the previous section and do not walk or drive alone at night; always carry a mobile and avoid isolated areas, travel with someone else if possible; behave conservatively in African areas and buy a can of pepper spray if you are spending a long period in a city.
Please report any incidents that may have happened to you to the police and to the Tourism Safety Initiative. It is important not to be alone at times like these, and in addition to support from friends who may be with you, it is also important to get support from these associations:
- Cape Town Rape Crisis: 021 447 9762
- Lifeline Johannesburg (rape counselling): 011 728 1347
South Africa is one of the continent’s best destinations for travellers with disabilities, but facilities in the budget sector can be improved. Few backpacker hostels have wheelchair ramps and bathroom facilities for the disabled. Facilities elsewhere include:
- Almost every national park has at least one accessible chalet.
- Many accommodation establishments other than backpacker hostels offer a wheelchair-friendly room.
- Most sports stadiums have accessible suites, stands or areas for wheelchairs near accessible parking, as well as special toilet facilities.
- Most public buildings cater for wheelchair access.
- Some nature reserves and gardens have Braille or dedicated trails for visually impaired people.
- Many attractions have boardwalks for wheelchair access.
- Major car-rental agencies offer hand-controlled vehicles.
- Tour operators offer trips to destinations including Kruger National Park.
The seasons in the Southern Hemisphere are directly opposite to those of the Northern Hemisphere. For summer months, lightweight (cottons and linens), short-sleeved clothes are best, although a light jersey/jumper might be needed for the cooler evenings. Umbrellas and raincoats are essential for the summers and the Western Cape winters. Warmer clothes are needed for the winter months.
South Africans have a good laugh at the expense of lobster-red tourists. The sun is dangerously hot and we don’t want you to get sunburn, or even worse, skin cancer. Please pack sunblock, sunglasses and a hat and remember to use them religiously. Try to stay out of the sun between 10a.m and three p.m. If you have to be out, even in windy and cloudy weather, be generous with the sunblock and don’t forget the back of your neck and the tops of your ears. Reapply frequently.
Many foreigners are unaware that South Africa has a well-developed infrastructure, high standards of water treatment and medical facilities equal to the best in the world. Here we address any health and safety questions you may have.
Hospitals & medical care
In a great many medical disciplines, South Africa is a global leader. In fact, South African trained doctors are sought after all over the world, so this should give an indication of the standard of medical care available. There is a large network of public and private hospitals countrywide, offering excellent service. However, clients must have adequate health insurance to cover the fees private hospitals charge.
Without going into the stats, we can tell you that AIDS is a big problem in South Africa. AIDS does not discriminate between races, but the sad truth is that most victims are black. Many tourists come to our country curious about the sexuality of Africans. Holiday flings between travellers are also common. If you’re going to have sex in Southern Africa with anyone, a local or a fellow traveller, always use condoms. Using condoms is not the African way, that’s why AIDS and HIV statistics in Southern Africa are so sad. It’s also why you alone are responsible for protecting yourself.
Malaria is found only in the Lowveld of Mpumalanga and Limpopo and on the Maputaland coast of KwaZulu-Natal. Malaria is not much of a risk in the winter months. Although the incidence of malaria is rare, it would be best to take adequate precautions if you choose to visit these areas. Our government has embarked on an extensive anti-malaria programme (in co-operation with Swaziland and Mozambique) and the incidence of malaria is decreasing. One reassuring thing about malaria is that there is absolutely no way at all that you can contract it unless you are bitten by an infected mosquito. And with modern insect repellents and some common sense one can reduce the chances of being bitten to close to zero. The cheapest, safest and most effective measures against malaria are physical barriers such as a mosquito net, and the use of a good insect repellent. If you decide to take malaria prophylaxis, it is essential that you take the drugs according to the directions on the package insert. You will need to start a week or two before entering a malaria-endemic area and should continue taking the drugs for four weeks after leaving the malaria risk area. It is advisable to consult a medical professional before embarking on a course of malaria prophylaxis. Note that expectant mothers should avoid malaria medications.
Water and food
As a rule, tap water in South Africa is safe to drink as it is treated and is free of harmful microorganisms. In hotels, restaurants and nightspots, the standards of hygiene and food preparation top-notch. It is safe to eat fresh fruit and salads and to put as much ice as you like in your drinks – a good thing, too, after a day on the beach or in the bush.
Our transport infrastructure is excellent and our roads are in good condition. However, the distances between towns are significant, so if you’re planning to self-drive, it is a good idea to plan your itinerary to ensure you don’t drive long distances. Fatigue is a major cause of road accidents – and South Africa’s roads are among the world’s most dangerous.
Avoid long car journeys that necessitate driving at night, as it always carries more risk. In Johannesburg, there is a risk of carjacking after dark; in remote rural areas, roads are not fenced so there may be stray animals on the road – which could be very dangerous at night. Always treat other motorists with caution, as South Africans drive aggressively, overtake on blind corners and so on.
National roads generally have a hard shoulder, marked by a yellow line. It is customary to pull over into this area to let other cars pass, and they will often tailgate you until you do so. Another local idiosyncrasy is three- and four-way stops, which work on a first-come, first-served basis. Cars drive on the left throughout Southern Africa. The wearing of seatbelts is compulsory and enforced by law.
Drinking & driving
South Africa has strict drinking and driving laws, and police road blocks are common in both urban and rural areas. Many locals still drink and drive, but do not be seduced by this relaxed attitude; it could end badly for you, so nominate a driver or take a taxi. The maximum allowable alcohol blood content is 0.05g per 1000ml – allowing you to drink about one unit of alcohol per hour (http://www.aa.co.za/about/press-room/press-releases/drinking-and-driving-what-is-over-the-limit.html).
South African speed limits are 120kmph on major highways, 100kmph on smaller roads and between 60 and 80kmph in towns. Be aware that even major national roads pass through residential areas, so there may be a speed limit of 80 or 60kmph on a road that looks like a motorway. This is to protect pedestrians, especially children, so we really do encourage people to comply. Speed cameras and guns are common throughout the country.
You can use your driving licence from home if it is in English and, in South Africa, it carries your photo. Otherwise, you should obtain an international driving permit. Motorists found driving without a licence/permit will be fined, usually around R500; keeping a photocopy of your passport in your car (if you prefer not leave the original there) is also a good idea. Visitors must generally show their licence/permit and passport to rent a car; most companies also require a credit card.
South Africa’s electricity supply is 220/230 volts AC 50 Hz. Power cuts are common nationwide.
Most plugs have three round pins (15 amps), but plugs with two smaller pins (five amps) are also found on appliances. Accommodation generally has sockets and adaptors for both.
Adaptors can be purchased locally. US-made appliances may need a transformer. Many hotel rooms have 110 volt outlets for electric shavers and appliances.
With a time-honoured culture of braai-ing (barbecuing) and eating well, South Africa is gaining a reputation for its excellent restaurants. Tourists are impressed by the quality of beef, lamb and seafood – at much lower prices than in Western countries. Adventurous eaters can sample venison, crocodile, ostrich and traditional African dishes. Even our home-grown steak and burger chains, such as Spur and Steers, beat the global players any day.
The South African appetite tends towards the carnivorous, but most restaurants offer at least one or two vegetarian dishes. Ask your backpacker hostel for their pick of restaurants in the area.
Most restaurants do not add a service charge to bills – and it is customary to leave a 10-15% tip. Petrol station attendants should be given about R5, a few rand more if they check your oil, water, tyre pressure and so on. Tip car guards about R2 – a few rand more for longer stays. This is always appreciated even though it may seem a small amount.
Most major shopping centres and malls operate seven days a week, but you will find in small towns that shops close on Sunday. General opening hours are 8.30am to 5pm on weekdays and 9am to noon on Saturday. Major supermarkets and malls have longer hours, typically opening until the evening.
Markets, shops and galleries nationwide sell a wide variety of African arts and crafts. You can find exquisite sculptures, beading, jewellery, fabric, grasswork and many other beautiful items. Designs are both traditional and contemporary, ranging from African masks to township art.
Value-added tax (VAT) of 14% is charged on most items. Foreign tourists to South Africa can get the VAT refunded, if the value of the items purchased exceeds R250. VAT is refunded at the point of departure provided receipts are produced.