The word “safari ” probably springs to mind when you think of South Africa. Indeed, the country’s abundant wildlife reserves are home to Africa’s Big 5: lions, elephants, leopards, buffalo and Black rhinos. While in South Africa, don’t spend so much time on safari that you neglect to see all this unique country has to offer. As you’ll learn in this insider guide to South Africa, there’s much to see and do.
Due to its ethnic and cultural diversity, South Africa is known as the “Rainbow Nation.” It has experienced a tumultuous history, resulting from European colonialism followed by multiple wars and apartheid in the 20th century. Today, South Africa has emerged from its turbulent past to become a sought-after destination for travelers who seek one-of-a-kind adventures.
South Africa is located at the base of the African continent. Immediately north are the countries of Namibia, Botswana, Swaziland and Mozambique. To the south, east and west are the Atlantic and Indian oceans, which gives South Africa 1,800 miles of pristine coastline. The independent country of Lesotho is located completely within South Africa’s boundaries. Most of the country’s 47 million people live along the east and southern coasts. The interior is dry and sparsely populated.
Money and Tipping
The currency is South Africa is the rand (R). Most businesses will only accept rand, but you might a few that will take American dollars. ATMs are easy to locate in urban centers, and most establishments accept major credit cards. Be sure to always have local currency on you, you never know when you’ll need it. As with all traveling be sure to inform your bank that you’ll be visiting South Africa to avoid declined transactions.
Haggling is expected in craft markets, but not in restaurants and hotels. You should also tip for services. Tip 10 to 15 percent in restaurants and cafes, 10-20 rand for hotel assistance and 2-5 rand for car guards and gas station attendants. Tipping is not expected in taxis.
Reflective of its cultural diversity, South Africa has 11 official languages. Don’t worry though—most people speak English and visitors should have no difficulty communicating. However, it’s still wise to learn a few phrases in Afrikaans.
When to Go
South Africa is located in the southern hemisphere, so its seasons are opposite those in the United States. Winter is from May to August; summer, from November to February. The climate is temperate, and the days long and sunny. September to April is generally the most popular period to visit, but early December to mid-January are extremely busy. You’ll need to book early and expect to pay more if you plan to visit then. Whale watching is best in the spring, and wildflowers bloom in late August. Winter is a great time to see wildlife, but be prepared for rain, especially in Capetown and the Western Cape.
Food and Meals
Food in South Africa is as varied as its population. You’ll find excellent seafood in the Eastern Cape. In the towns and villages of Free State, find traditional boerekos (farm-style food) and potjiekos (pot stew). While visiting KwaZulu-Natal, look for curries in Durban and traditional Zulu fare in cultural villages. Gauteng, offers your choice of international cuisines. Drink Amarula Cream in Limpopo. And expect braais (barbecues, pronounced “bry”) just about everywhere. Steak, ribs and boerewors sausage are staples, but don’t be surprised to see more exotic meats like crocodile on a menu.
Adventure and Exploration
South Africa will take some time to navigate. Our insider guide to South Africa will help you decide where to start your adventure.
The Eastern Cape is a province of extremes, including the snow-capped Drakensberg Range, the verdant forests of Tsitsikamma National Park and 509 miles of untamed coastline along the Indian Ocean. While there’s plenty to do outside, such as hang-gliding, fly fishing, surfing, mountaineering and big game viewing, the area is filled with historical and cultural touch points, too. Visit the Wild Coast Region, the birthplace of Nelson Mandela and home of the museum that bears his name. Stop over in Port Elizabeth and enjoy some whale-watching from a sunny beach.
South Africa’s Free State offers a culturally diverse, historically significant experience. You’ll see the Vredefort Dome, the world’s oldest known meteorite impact, as well as ancient rock art and dinosaur fossils at the National Museum in Bloemfontein. Delve into the country’s gold mining past with visits to the Lejweleputswa district. Explore the red sandstone peaks of Golden Gate Highlands National Park where you might be lucky enough to spot a rare bearded vulture.
The commercial heart of the country, Gauteng is home to the major cities including Pretoria and Johannesburg. Shopping and entertainment opportunities abound as do museums and cultural experiences. Outside of the cities, find game reserves, watersports on the Vaal River, diamond mining in quaint Cullinan and the Zuluka Tribal Village. Ninety minutes west of Johannesburg, visit The Cradle of Humankind World Heritage Site, home to 15 fossil sites that hold around 40 percent of the world’s human ancestor fossils.
Home of the mighty Zulu tribe, KwaZulu-Natal is ripe for exploration. From touring traditional Zulu villages to walking on the battlefields of the Zulu-Boer-British wars, you’ll discover everything there is to know about Zulu culture. In the uKhahlamba-Drakensberg mountains, see thousands of rock paintings completed by the San, the oldest inhabitants of southern Africa. Explore the provincial capital of Durban, where you can learn about the efforts to end apartheid.
View wildlife from Limpopo’s rolling savannas, including the northern section of the renowned Kruger National Park. Limpopo also offers fascinating cultural heritage. You’ll find the remains of the lost kingdom of Mapungubwe, now a UNESCO heritage site, as well as fossilized dinosaur footprints and San rock paintings. For a unique experience, have a drink at the bar located inside the world’s oldest and largest baobab tree.
From world-class wineries to whale watching at Cape Agulhas, you’ll find plenty of adventures in the Western Cape. Drive from Cape Town to Knysna, taking in any number of quirky towns along the way. See Cape Dutch architecture at its finest in Swellendam. Go cage diving with sharks in Gansbaai, hike along the Otter Trail or even ride an ostrich in Oudtshoorn. Want a different experience? Head north into the Karoo, a semi-arid and sparsely populated region that’s filled with opportunities for adventurous excursions.
Mpumalanga, Northern Cape and North West
Mpumalanga offers some of the most stunning geologic formations in Africa. Blyde River Canyon, Sudwala Caves, God’s Window and Bourke’s Luck Potholes should be on any itinerary. Kruger National Park, one of the largest and most visited wildlife preserves in the world, can also be found here. If black maned lions are to your liking, visit Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park in the Northern Cape, a semi-arid region popular for off-roading and getting away from it all. Be sure to see the Kimberley Mine Museum and discover more about the famous Big Hole. In North West Province, you’ll find more game reserves, adventure sports, underwater cave diving and a large water park.
Thanks to its variety of experiences and relatively inexpensive costs, travel to South Africa has become more popular than ever. This insider guide to South Africa will help you as you start planning an adventure of a lifetime!