Step 1: Where to Start?
So, you want to go to South Africa? Cool! What do you want to see and do? How long do you have? It’s a very big country, with lots of things to experience, many different cultures to learn about, amazing natural sights and a fascinating history. Figuring out what your options are is going to require some research. If you had as little prior knowledge as we did, you are going to want to do your homework, and then make a prioritized list of your “Must See / Do” items, and also a “Would Be Nice” list.
Basic Facts & Figures
With over 58,000,000 people, and 759,000 square miles of area, South Africa is both large and diverse in all aspects. Over 80% of the population is of Bantu ethnicity, and there are 11 official languages. The mix of Dutch, Portuguese and British historical dominance, and myriad indigenous cultures and languages have left their influences, as have migrants from India, East Asia and Malaysia.
Afrikaans is the Germanic language with Dutch roots spoken by roughly 60% of white South Africans and by about 90% of the local ethnicities, according to one major South African website. To clarify, mid-2019 government estimates report four main racial / ethnic subgroups: Black (African): 80.7% / Cape Coloured (Mix of Ethnicities): 8.7% / Asian Indian: 2.6%.
English is spoken as one of the official languages, and is widely used as a second language for most, but has its own vocabulary and distinct uses not found elsewhere called South African English (SAE). There are also three main sub-dialiects of SAE which depend on the historical ethnic and cultural group of the speaker. Here is a word cloud common terms you’ll hear on the ground in South Africa. See if any ring a bell!
In addition, there is also a truly great mix of slang terms widely used throughout the country. You will enjoy learning and using them.
Example: I know my bokkie and I had a lekker braai at our pozzy in the rest camp most evenings on this trip.
Translation: My wife and I had great barbecues and drinks with neighbors outside our accommodation (rondavel hut, wall tent, etc.) most evenings in the organized camping areas of the national parks. Braai is both a noun (the thing you barbecue in) and a verb (an important social activity) in South African local culture. South Africans take their “braai” efforts very seriously. You will, too, if on your own!
In any case, if you travel independently, you’ll need to understand some of the most common slang terms:
Instead of a single capital South Africa has three: Pretoria (Executive branch); Cape Town (Legislative branch); and, Bloemfontein (Judicial branch). Try the South Africa Wikipedia entry for a quick overview, and references to basic cultural and history aspects. The South African government has some basic geography and climate information, and you should probably take a glance at the general information about the country’s nine provinces, or “states”, which are also layered into the climate zone map below.
We are not able to give the rich and fascinating history of South Africa the space or treatment it deserves here, but the South Africa government history page overview is succinct and to the point, and there is a decent Wikipedia page on the topic. You should educate yourself a bit before arrival to understand more of your visit and the context of the places and things you’ll see.
When to Go
There are distinct season in South Africa, and when you want to go may partially be determined by what you plan on doing. Don’t forget that South Africa is in the Southern Hemisphere, and seasons are somewhat the opposite of North America and Europe. South Africa’s “winter” refers to our summer months in Florida, and vice versa. Also, be aware that “winter” does not mean cold by North American standards. We consider South Africa to have a mostly warm, dry climate, with an almost Mediterranean feel around Cape Town area. Where and when it is “cold” – mostly in the central plateau areas or in the mountains – it is typically temperatures around freezing (32° F / 0° C) due to elevation more than latitude.
So, think of it this way:
Summer: December, January & February
Autumn: March, April & May
Winter: June, July & August
Spring: September, October & November
For a more detailed description of South Africa’s climate zones (and many other South Africa topics) see Mary Alexander’s excellent SouthAfrica-info.com website, which is the source of the climate map above, and temperature chart by city below. She uses layers of mostly Open Source data and merges it into very good visualizations – something that is lacking when researching this particular country.
“When” Depends on “What” and “Where”
What follows is not a concrete set of recommendations for dates. Travel guides vary a bit, but there are some themes that you can generalize from, mostly specific to your interests. We cover some of the basics of how to determine what activities and tourist and cultural are available in a later section.
Our Opinion: The best time to go for a variety of activities and destinations for us is probably between May and the end of September. Every year that we looked at flights, we were shooting for August or September, as this is toward the end of the cooler, drier “Winter” season for prime animal viewing, and we wanted to spend some time exploring the country before the rains came. “High Season” is actually in the South African summer (North America winter). So, your timing, or “When to Go” is going to be dependent on what it is you are planning on doing in the country.
In general, August and September are better for viewing wildlife due to reduced plant cover, and because animals tend to stay near water sources. Prices of nearly everything are also lower between April and September than during the high season months of October through March, so that is good for those interested in safari-type activities in Kruger, Sabi Sands, Pilanesberg or Addo Elephant National Park.
- Interested in whale watching? July through November would be your best bet.
- Cape Town beaches and water sports? November through March are likely your target.
- Durban surfing and beach pursuits can be had most of the year; winter has the best waves, but the warmest water is in summer, and the surf is good then, too.
- Want to see the fantastic Namaqua Flower Route parks ( Richtersveld National Park, Goegap Nature Reserve and Skilpad Wild Flower Reserve) in full bloom glory? Then plan for August and September.
- The Garden Route towns and parks, and the wine country near Cape Town are great year round.
- Oh, you’re a birder? South Africa has a stunning variety of over 840 (10%) of the world’s bird species, and a wide variety of habitats. But, timing a birding trip is a bit more complicated, and species dependent. The best bird viewing of the 500 or species found in Kruger National Park, for instance, is during the rainy period between October and March, which is not ideal for big game viewing.
- Hang gliding in Cape Town is a year round thing, but some say best November through March.
Regardless of your interests, avoid the official South African school and government holidays if at all possible, as South Africans love to travel during these times. If you can’t avoid it, then plan your reservations far in advance. Here is a direct link to the 2020-2021 Government calendar (PDF).
Typically, the schools have their breaks something like 2020’s version:
- Last week of March (1.5 weeks)
- Second week of June through first week of July (3 weeks or so)
- Third week of September (1 week)
Here are some links with subtle, but distinct variations on the “Best Time to Go to South Africa”:
Updated Note: When we finally secured mileage award tickets, they were actually for the last week of September, a school holiday period, and we were hit with “high season” pricing because most of our trip was in October and November. Even though it was not in our ideal target period of August and September, we ended up with mostly great weather, and great animal viewing.
Gateway Cities – Flight Arrivals
Although there are technically about 10 international airports in South Africa, you are likely to arrive in either Johannesburg or Cape Town initially. There are more direct flights from most countries to Johannesburg (JNP), as compared to Cape Town (CPT). So, your chances are better, in theory, of getting a discounted or frequent flyer mileage award to Johannesburg than Cape Town. That doesn’t always hold true, so check around if you would prefer to start in the southwestern corner versus the area closer to Kruger and eastern attractions.
There is a very useful German-owned website we have been relying on for quickly checking airline routes called FlightConnections.com. The site has tons of visualized information about both direct and indirect airline routes, and can be filtered by variables like airline and mileage award alliance. The site is free to use in demo mode, but does have some ads. Their basic plan is $26 USD per year, and may well be worth it if you are a frequent traveler on more than one or two airlines or alliances. We have not used them for booking links, and are just users of their site. And, no, we don’t get any ad revenue from them. 😉
Here is what they show for South African direct arrivals, with the map images as links to drill down on current info for those flights:
Direct Flights to Johannesburg (JNB)
Entry & Visas
You have to make sure you can get into the country, and know how long you can stay for, so check the latest visa information. The good news is that South Africa makes it pretty easy. There are currently 133 countries on the “Visa Exempt” list, and whose citizens can spend anywhere from 30 day (some countries) to 90 days (most countries) without applying for a visa. The United States is a “90-day” country, so we knew we would have plenty of time without the hassle and expense of a visa.
Republic of South African Department of Home Affairs – Visa Exemption List
If your country is not on the visa exempt list, or you think you need more time in South Africa, here is the official page that describes the visa application process.
The electricity is 230V / 50Hz, but none of your adapters will work. 😉 Really, only South Africa and Namibia seem to use the Type M plug, which is a grounded, round-pin three prong affair. If you have an all-in-one multi-plug “World Adapter”, it probably won’t work either. We bought a three-pack of Type M adapters on Amazon for under $7.00, with free shipping, and had no issues. Well, Eskom brownouts and scheduled “load shedding” were an inconvenience at times, but that had nothing to do with plug type! The image to the right links to the Ceptics Type M 3-pack we actually purchased. We talk lots more about making sure your devices, like cell phones, cameras and battery chargers are “universal” voltage (100V – 240V / 50-60 Hz), and tips and tricks for staying juiced up on the road in a later post.
Shots & Other Health Considerations
There are some recommended shots for travelers if you don’t already have them, and possibly some anti-malarial medication. It all depends on where you plan to go, and what you plan to do. Better plan ahead. For us, it wasn’t too bad. We only needed a booster of one type, and both got prescriptions for a preventive anti-malarial.
Here are some links to the skinny on potential health concerns:
Recommended Shots: We used the CDC’s excellent page on South Africa as our guide. Remember that some vaccinations, such as the various Hepatitis ones, require a series of shots over weeks or months, not just a single injection.
For South Africa, the CDC recommends the usual measles-mumps-rubella (MMR) vaccine, diphtheria-tetanus-pertussis vaccine, varicella (chickenpox) vaccine, polio vaccine for all. We already had Typhoid shots, but it is on the list for those “visiting smaller cities or rural areas, or if you are an adventurous eater.”, both of which are “us” in most countries. Hepatitis A is recommended for all. Hepatitis B is on the “maybe” list, but we already had it anyway.
Yellow Fever: South Africa does not have Yellow Fever, but if you are coming from (even traveling through an airport as a transit passenger) one of the countries on this list, then you will need proof of a Yellow Fever vaccination to enter the country. Mostly, the countries on the YF list are in Africa, or South America. Otherwise, you don’t. In the USA, Yellow Fever is very difficult (and expensive) to get, so if your route to South Africa involves a country on the list, make sure you can get it from your own doctor prior to departure.
Malaria: Malaria is found in South Africa, but unless you are visiting the area around Kruger National Park, or the Limpopo, your risk is low, and only mosquito avoidance precautions are recommended. The time of year matters, too, in terms of risk levels, but Kruger is at risk year round. We were going to Kruger, and so ended up bringing our medication with us. It’s recommended that you obtain it in your home country prior to arrival to simplify things. Typically, you take it prior to arrival in the area with risk, and then for a period of days after you leave that area. Here is a map that may help from the CDC.
HIV/AIDS: South Africa has the highest number (7.7 million), and the fourth-highest percentage of adults with HIV and AIDS in the world. According to the United Nations, AVERT and other sources, around 21% of the adult population (15-49 years old), or one out of every five, is infected with HIV. It’s South Africa’s biggest health problem, and you should therefore be very careful about potential blood exposure, or unprotected sex.
Maps, We Need Maps!
As you go through your planning process, you’re going to need maps. We had only the vaguest idea where things are in South Africa, and while we are doing our research, we always use maps to try to get name / place association, and a better “sense of place” about the things we are reading about. We recommend you do this for South Africa, as it takes at least a couple days to get from one end to the other even if you are just driving.
Thanks to a very cool geography visualization site linked to the image below, here is a comparison of the contiguous United States to South Africa at the same scale. As you can see, South Africa is about 1/3 as big as all the Lower 48 states put together. There is another handy link that uses comparisons between South Africa and other countries.
Online Maps – General Planning Use
Just for general planning purposes, there are some online map sources that we found useful for reference. Note that the two blank spots that appear on most South Africa maps – and puzzled us at first – are the small independent Kingdoms of Lesotho and Eswantini (until 2018 this was known as Swaziland). Between these resource sites, and use of your online mapping tools, you should be fine.
Here is a low resolution one that is good for a starter overview / orientation of roads, towns and some national parks and reserves, but without province boundaries:
SouthAfricaVenues.com – This is an impressive planning resource with over 400 different maps of South Africa, including specialized versions for game lodges and national parks, the N-series “national road” system (limited access tar highways with services), physical relief maps, and then detailed maps of various types for each province.
OrangeSmile.com – Another site with planning resources. Not nearly as comprehensive, but they do have some good maps and other resources. The map linked to the image below is particularly useful, as it has the core mix of road map details, as well as some parks and geographic features.
Printed Maps – Road Use
We will discuss Google Maps, Tracks4Africa and other route planning resources later. But, regardless of what else you use, you are going to want at least one good paper map during your trip. Despite not have a plethora of options in US for South Africa maps, we were generally very happy with the quality and accuracy of coated National Geographic map we purchased. There is also a Michelin map on Amazon that gets good reviews, but it was not in stock when we needed one, so went with the “Adventure Map”.
National Geographic Adenture Map – South Africa – $11.95 (2012 – Updated regularly)
Good map that came in handy during our trip. Nicely coated, and durable in our experience.
Michelin South Africa Map 748 – $12.00 (2018)
Did not try this one, but saw it for sale in South Africa, and others spoke highly of it. More recent publication date (2018).
The South African Rand (ZAR) is the unit of currency, and many / most prices you find in your research will use Rand as their basis. To do quick currency conversions, here some easy links using US dollars. You can toggle both of these easily to your currency:
In general, the cost of things in day-to-day life out and about is not expensive at all in South Africa. Accommodations and restaurants are quite affordable, by American standards. Some items, such as gasoline, are more expensive that in the United States, but no more so than in Canada or European countries.
Is South Africa Safe for Independent Travelers?
We deal with this topic in more detail elsewhere on on our blog. The short version is, “Yes”. However, South Africa definitely has significant pockets of poverty, lots of income disparity, and there is a fair amount of crime in certain areas – including petty theft, armed car jacking and robbery – that is sometimes aimed at tourists.
Update: Now that we are back, we wanted to update this section. Even the sketchiest situations we were in had seemingly manageable risk. Nearly everyone we interacted with was great. No issues at all, for the most part, with people very friendly 90% of the time. Oh, sure, we had some gruff attendants here and there, and there were some places along the way that we considered, but looked pretty scary, so we kept rolling. Any big urban area in most countries have difficult neighborhoods. More so, I think, in South African cities and the “township” areas, but it is doable with a bit of caution and applied practical common sense.
We do try to detail some of the steps we took to mitigate risk as much as possible in the next section, and I think these were helpful for us. There were certainly places we would not stay, things we did not feel comfortable doing, and hazards we avoided successfully avoided because (we think) we approached research on potential risks as an important part of our planning. We plan on going back in 2021 for a longer trip.
Next up, we’ll talk more about what you might want to experience on your trip, and how to educate yourself about options, and get a plan together. In addition, we’ll discuss some resources, tips and tricks for making your own arrangements for a self-drive safari, and other roll-your-own adventures.
Remember this post is part of a “Trip Thread” tag on our site, which means that you should be able to recreate our travels from initial planning through departure, and then until we return home by reading the posts in chronological order.