A little local know-how goes a long way in South Africa. Here you will find all the essential advice and information you will need during your stay.
Although South Africa has a reputation when it comes to crime, it’s fairly rare for visitors to encounter anything other than the usual petty crime associated with large cities. Security is good in most places that tourists are likely to visit and the risk of serious crime is low, but there is a small chance that you may encounter bag-snatching or pickpocketing. Take sensible precautions when walking around – don’t publicly flash expensive items such as jewellery and mobile phones and avoid going out alone, especially after dark; if you do, stick to busy and well-lit tourist areas. Women should never walk alone anywhere after dark. If you are mugged, do not challenge the thief – simply hand over your phone or your money. Follow local advice about which areas to avoid, and be vigilant about the people around you. Hotel doors should be locked as noisy fans or air conditioning can provide cover for thieves. Report any incident immediately; you will need to obtain a case reference number from a police station in order to make an insurance claim.
On public transport, especially crowded suburban trains and minibus taxis, be vigilant and guard possessions closely. When travelling by car, keep the doors locked and the windows only slightly open. Use covered or supervised parking where possible, and as you leave the car make sure nothing of value is visible inside before you lock it. In the event of a breakdown emergency in a remote area, stay in your locked vehicle if possible, and phone the AA Emergency Roadside Assistance from a mobile phone.
South Africa generally has no unusual or serious health risks, but there is a low seasonal risk of malaria in the Kruger National Park and immediate environs, and in the extreme north of KwaZulu-Natal. The main risk period is usually the rainy summer months of October to April. If you are travelling to these areas at that time, consult your doctor or travel clinic about taking antimalarial drugs. Travellers are highly unlikely to be bitten or stung by a venomous creature, but should watch where they place their hands and feet on safari or on a hiking trail. Few snakes in South Africa are deadly, most are not poisonous at all, and those that are usually strike only when attacked or threatened. Most species of scorpion are harmless or only slightly venomous.
Smoking is illegal and socially unacceptable in buses, trains, taxis, restaurants and most public buildings.
Alcohol is served in practically all hotels and licensed restaurants, as well as in bars. The consumption of alcohol on beaches is illegal, and drink driving legislation is strictly enforced.
The personal consumption of cannabis by adults in private was decriminalised in 2018, but laws prohibiting buying and selling it, or consuming it in public, remain in place. Travellers caught using illegal drugs may be arrested and face a heavy fine or jail time.
It is not required to carry ID on one’s person. Drivers must be in possession of their driving license when behind the wheel.
South Africa is a relatively Westernized and cosmopolitan country, and visitors are unlikely to find themselves in any situations where they are culturally out of their depth. The Dress code is casual, except for a few top restaurants and formal events. On the beach, it is illegal for women to swim or sunbathe topless. Visitors should observe appropriate religious customs when visiting mosques, churches, temples and other places of worship.
The rights of homosexuals are enshrined in South Africa’s constitution. But while Cape Town is certainly the LGBT+ capital of Africa, and other cities have a host of gay bars and theatre venues, smaller towns and rural areas retain more conservative attitudes.
It is worth buying a local SIM card with airtime and a data bundle to allow you to make local calls, send texts and use the internet cheaply. This can be organized in the prominently signposted outlets of the main independent providers, Vodacom, MTN or Cell C, found in all airports and malls. Wi-Fi is available in virtually all hotels, as well as in many cafés, restaurants and shopping centres.
International post to and from South Africa is slow and unreliable. Valuable items and time-sensitive packages are better entrusted to a courier service such as DHL.
A 15 per cent VAT is levied on all purchases and services other than a select list of essential grocery items such as bread and milk. It is permitted for visitors to reclaim VAT on any goods bought to export home. This can be done at the VAT reclaim desk at any international airport or border post, provided you can produce the original receipts.
Arranging a safari is a fairly straightforward procedure. The biggest hurdles at the planning stage will be choosing between a self-drive adventure or an organized safari and deciding which reserves to visit – with the diversity of South Africa’s national parks and wildlife reserves, visitors are spoilt for choice. If you’re opting for the DIY approach, it’s easy to book everything online – the South African National Parks (SANParks) website is extremely user-friendly. If your itinerary includes visits to more than one reserve, it may be worth investing in a SANParks Wild Card, which provides unrestricted access to most of South Africa’s conservation areas for a year.
For the less adventurous, there are plenty of reputable tour operators in South Africa and elsewhere to offer specialist guidance and to set transport and accommodation arrangements in place. It is best to choose a company that is recognized by the Southern Africa Tourism Services Association (SATSA).
The best season for game viewing is winter (July to September), when the dry weather forces animals to gather around rivers and waterholes. The disadvantages are that animals are not in optimal condition and the winter landscape is stark. Summer (November to January) brings high rainfall, and the landscape becomes green and lush. This is the best time of year for viewing flora, though the wildlife will be more widespread and difficult to spot. The wide availability of water also leads to a higher threat of malaria in risk areas.
Southern Africa Tourism Services Association
National parks and provincial game reserves such as Kruger, Kgalagadi, Addo Elephant, Hluhluwe-Imfolozi and Pilanesberg are generally far better suited to a self-drive safari than their counterparts elsewhere in Africa. Internal roads are generally either surfaced or well-maintained murram (gravel), so can be navigated in an ordinary saloon car. There are also well-equipped rest camps with amenities such as restaurants, grocery shops and self-catering facilities, though this should be checked for the specific reserve before you visit, as should the availability of fuel for larger or more remote places. Most conservation areas impose a speed limit of 40 km/h (25 mph) or less, but the ideal speed for game spotting is more like 25 km/h (15 mph), so bank on covering around 20 km (12 miles) per hour, allowing for stops to view and photograph wildlife. Driving at night is forbidden in most reserves. Allow animals the right of way, be cautious around elephants (especially single bulls or mothers with young), and under no circumstances get out of your car except at designated spots such as picnic sites.
Guided safaris in an open-sided 4WD form part of the all-inclusive package offered by most upmarket private reserves or concessions such as Sabi Sands. They are also now offered at several rest camps in Kruger and other reserves around the country, and can be arranged via SANParks. Generally you will see more wildlife on a guided safari than self-driving, and spotlighted night drives in particular offer the opportunity to encounter species you are unlikely to see by yourself.
Need to know Practical Information
Need to know Practical Information
South Africa Time Zone (UTC/GMT +2). There is no daylight saving.
Tap water is safe to drink in South Africa unless specifically stated otherwise.
Need to know Practical Information
South African Tourist Board
For useful information on visiting South Africa see www.southafrica.net.
For detailed information about South Africa’s 20 national parks, and to make bookings for accommodation within them, visit sanparks.org.
A good local news service with an associated app is news24.com.