Everything you need to know about your self-drive South Africa holiday
Welcome to Drive South Africa's ultimate self-drive South African holiday guide. What you will encounter is a comprehensive journey through most of South Africa's gems; a country brimming with immense natural beauty and friendly people. Curate your holiday experience and let us do the rest for you. It couldn't be easier.
Combine a trip to Cape Town with a few days exploring the Cape Winelands. It’s a huge area, with almost 100,000 ha of wine-producing grapes under vine. … There are hundreds of wine farms to visit from the West Coast to the Overberg and the Little Karoo, and most offer free or inexpensive tastings and on-site sales. Many estates also have excellent restaurants and a few have rooms and cottages with magnificent views of the surrounding mountains and vineyards, in case you fancy spending a day or two in the area. If you have limited time, then the areas nearest Cape Town will suit you best. These include Cape Point, Constantia and Durbanville in Cape Town’s southern and northern suburbs respectively, plus the traditional wine-growing towns nearby: Stellenbosch, Paarl, Franschhoek and Wellington. There are established routes to follow through all of these regions, but with so many to choose from it’s a good idea to head for a well-known estate and explore outwards from there. Groot Constantia, Boschendal, Solms-Delta, Warwick and Delheim are just a few good starting points to aim for. Each is within an hour’s drive from central Cape Town so you can make day trips, or book yourself a vineyard cottage and stay in the countryside for longer. Franschhoek in particular is highly regarded for its quality restaurants, hotels and farm-style accommodation, and makes a great base for exploring the surrounding estates.
Four hours north of Cape Town, the Cederberg offers a range of self-catering cottages, relaxed riverside campsites and a remarkable lodge, called Kagga Kamma, cut directly out of the rock face … This is by no means a verdant area – these rugged mountains receive very little rain and temperatures can top 40°C in summer. The small rivers that do flow feed beautiful, deep swimming holes and there are stunning hiking trails when the weather’s cooler. One not to miss is the full-day hike through the towering, ochre rock formations known as the Wolfberg Cracks, to the famous Wolfberg Arch. Permits are available from Cape Nature. The roads through the Cederberg are gravel, but you can explore most of them in a regular car. From Cape Town, take the scenic route through Bainskloof Pass to Ceres and then it’s about an hour until the first dirt road. The drive is particularly beautiful in the late afternoon so time your arrival for sunset. And be sure to stay at least three or four days to let the otherwordly scenery sink in. Sanddrif Holiday Resort has camping and cottages along a good swimming river and gets special mention because of its association with the nearby wine farm, Cederberg Wines. They do an excellent wine tasting Monday to Saturday, and brew a very good craft beer too.
South Africa’s West Coast starts just north of Cape Town and continues for 600 km to the Namibian border. It’ll take a few weeks to explore the entire coastline, which becomes increasingly wilder and less populated as you drive north … The West Coast is renowned for its friendliness and down-to-earth locals. Afrikaans is the predominant language, but many also speak good English and you’ll find a laid-back, hospitable reception wherever you go. In the south, the West Coast National Park protects a huge tidal lagoon and is well-worth a few days, especially in July and August when the spring flowers are blooming. The nearby fishing village of Paternoster is one of the prettiest in the region, with neat, white-washed houses in a wide, sandy bay. For excellent fish, stop at Die Strandloper in Langebaan or Muisbosskerm near Lambert's Bay. Both restaurants offer a huge set menu of fresh seafood, served on rustic wooden trestles right on the beach. North of Lutzville you’ll need a 4x4 to stay on the coast. Other vehicles can take the N7 highway inland, and cut back to the sea on a few well-graded gravel roads. The best route, however, is along the sandy coastal tracks which run from Lutzville to the tiny, and quite charming, fishing village of Hondeklip Bay. Just south of Hondeklip Bay, Namaqua National Park has spectacular beach campsites that are 4x4 only. They’re definitely worth the sandy drive if wild, adventurous camping is your thing.
The Great or ‘Groot’ Karoo is the name given to the sprawling semi-desert that covers much of the south-central interior of South Africa. Its boundaries are not clearly defined, but you know when you’re in it: endless horizons, parched earth and the occasional rusty windmill creaking in the breeze … It’s the harsh emptiness that makes the Great Karoo so special. Although it can be ferociously hot in summer and blanketed in snow in winter, the incredible landscapes, sunsets and stars are worth any discomfort, and are unlike anything else in South Africa. The main N1 highway between Johannesburg and Cape Town runs directly through the Great Karoo for hundreds of kilometres. Some consider this the most tedious section of the drive, but if you turn off onto the backroads you’ll find yourself suddenly absorbed, cruising miles of sinuous gravel through sleepy desert towns. Take the dirt roads from Colesberg to Ceres and spend a few extra days - you have to slow down a bit to get the best out of the Karoo. If you don’t have time for a big detour, the Karoo National Park is just off the N1 highway and is a great stopover to get a taste for the landscape. You may get lucky and see a lion. Otherwise it’s about meandering your way through. A 4x4 is not required, but you’ll have more choice if you’re able to camp. Sutherland is a popular stop, and the home of the largest optical telescope in the Southern Hemisphere - SALT. Also, check out the Tankwa Karoo National Park, which borders the Great Karoo to the west and has lovely self-catering cottages.
Sandwiched between the Great Karoo to the north and the fertile coastal plains of the Overberg to the south, the Little Karoo gets more rain than its big brother, and is known for its wines, quirky towns and stunning mountain views … At roughly 50 km wide and 300 km long, the Little Karoo forms an extended east-west valley between Montagu and Uniondale and is flanked by mountains to the north and south. The entire length can be driven on the paved R62. The roads through the Cederberg are gravel, but you can explore most of them in a regular car. From Cape Town, take the scenic route through Bainskloof Pass to Ceres and then it’s about an hour until the first dirt road. The drive is particularly beautiful in the late afternoon so time your arrival for sunset. And be sure to stay at least three or four days to let the otherwordly scenery sink in. Route 62 is an established and popular tourist route, but that’s not to say it’s overcrowded. This is still a very laid-back and tranquil region with a variety of places to stay, good restaurants and wine-tasting, including plenty of interesting roadside farm stalls and art galleries to visit. On the west, the Breede River region has some excellent wine estates and riverside accommodation, and on the eastern edge, Oudtshoorn is a popular stop for its ostrich and crocodile farms, and the impressive Cango Caves which are situated north of the town. There’s lots to see and do in between. You could drive the whole route in a day, but as with the Great Karoo, it’s best not to rush – the late afternoons are particularly beautiful as the sun sets down the length of the valley.
The coastal plains of the Overberg stretch from the towns of Hermanus and Bot River in the west to Mossel Bay and the start of the Garden Route in the east. It’s an incredibly diverse region that includes lovely seaside towns, bucolic farmland … and a number of small, but excellent reserves and national parks. There’s lots to do – from wine tasting and whale watching, to mountain hikes and waterfall swims. You could easily spend a few weeks in the Overberg alone, although it can be tempting to pass through too quickly on the way to and from the Garden Route. Perhaps the main attraction in the Overberg is Agulhas National Park, the southernmost tip of Africa. The park itself is small and rather windswept, but the chalets at the rest camp are excellent and a great place to get away from it all. To the east, De Hoop Nature Reserve is desolate, but wonderful, and ideal for whale-watching from June to November. Closer to Cape Town, Hermanus is the busiest seaside town in the region. It has good restaurants and local wine estates, and lots of whales to spot in season. Inland, peaceful farming villages dot the fertile hills to the foothills of the Langeberg Mountains. Near the town of Swellendam, Bontebok National Park is a sanctuary for this highly endangered species of antelope, and further east, the tiny Grootvadersbosch Nature Reserve has beautiful forest hikes and amazing bird life. Both have camping and excellent self-catering accommodation and, if time is short, make good stopovers between Cape Town and the Garden Route.
South Africa’s Garden Route is famous and for good reason. It’s a relaxing mix of bustling seaside towns, languid lagoons, rivers, mountains and miles of verdant forest. And all of this is spread out along a pristine and largely-protected … coastline known for whale and dolphin sightings. You’ll need weeks to see it all, but it’s worth the drive even if you only have a few days. The roads through the Cederberg are gravel, but you can explore most of them in a regular car. From Cape Town, take the scenic route through Bainskloof Pass to Ceres and then it’s about an hour until the first dirt road. The drive is particularly beautiful in the late afternoon so time your arrival for sunset. And be sure to stay at least three or four days to let the otherwordly scenery sink in. The main route runs along the N2 highway between Mossel Bay and Port Elizabeth, with the stretch between Wilderness and Tsitsikamma the most forested and lush. It’s only 380 km long if you stick to the N2, but every few kilometres brings another seaside town or forest trail to explore. It’s best to stay in one place for a while and visit the immediate surrounds from there. Also, keep in mind the many activities on offer and where they’re based. Bungee jumping (the highest in the world at Bloukraans Bridge), paragliding, hiking, kayaking, mountain biking and trail running – there’s plenty on offer for thrill seekers. Staying in the Garden Route National Park is particularly worthwhile, especially the Wilderness and Tsitsikamma sections which have beautiful campsites and chalets. The towns of Knysna and Plettenberg Bay are also great options, although they can get busy during the school holidays. Wilderness, Sedgefield and Nature’s Valley are quieter, but there’s really nowhere on the Garden Route where you wouldn’t want to spend a few days.
The southern end of the Wild Coast begins at the Great Kei River and runs 150 km northeast to the holiday town of Port St. Johns. After crossing the Kei by pontoon you’ll find no roads at all running parallel to the coast … Each successive seaside resort and reserve must be reached by first looping back inland, often on rough gravel roads. It’s time-consuming and bumpy, but for such a wonderfully pristine coastline, every bump is worth it. The roads through the Cederberg are gravel, but you can explore most of them in a regular car. From Cape Town, take the scenic route through Bainskloof Pass to Ceres and then it’s about an hour until the first dirt road. The drive is particularly beautiful in the late afternoon so time your arrival for sunset. And be sure to stay at least three or four days to let the otherwordly scenery sink in. This is a very rural area with scattered Xhosa villages and very little infrastructure and development. There’s a paved road to the northern village of Coffee Bay, a popular spot for backpackers and scuba divers. Otherwise, all the roads are gravel and the surface quality is unpredictable and often quite bad. It’s a region best explored by 4x4, although a sturdy, high-clearance car will also be fine. Before you cross the Kei, the beach towns of Chintsa and Morgans Bay make excellent stopovers. From there head to Wavecrest, Kobb Inn or The Haven – three stunningly located, laid-back resorts with their own restaurants and bars overlooking the sea. For a more rustic setting, try Bulungula Lodge which is run by the local Xhosa community and has neat bungalows and communal meals. Don’t miss one of South Africa’s best natural wonders at Hole in the Wall, and one of its most peaceful and relaxing coastal parks at Hluleka Nature Reserve.
The Drakensberg Mountains cover an enormous area, from the north of Swaziland to south of Lesotho. The southern section falls largely inside Lesotho, but there are paved routes around the border, with gravel roads connecting the more rural areas … and some challenging 4x4 routes and high-altitude passes. Along Lesotho’s northern border the Drakensberg is known as the Maluti Mountains, an area characterised by picturesque rolling foothills against a backdrop of soaring peaks. The towns of Ficksburg, Fouriesburg and especially Clarens, are popular holiday destinations, as is the Golden Gate Highlands National Park with its majestic red sandstone cliffs. To the south and east, the Amphitheatre, Cathedral Peak and Giants Castle Game Reserve have spectacular cliffs and spires. And further south the towns of Himeville and Underberg are good staging posts for a 4x4 drive into Lesotho, up the famous Sani Pass. A particularly good route, which should take a few days, is from Mount Fletcher to Lady Grey through the pretty mountain village of Rhodes. The roads here are all gravel and west of Rhodes they are good enough for a normal car. To the east, however, a high-clearance or 4x4 vehicle is required, especially in bad weather over Naudé’s Nek Pass, which is one of the highest dirt roads in South Africa.
It’s a 400 km drive along the KwaZulu-Natal coast from Port Edward to St. Lucia. As you head north, the vegetation becomes increasingly tropical along the shoreline, while inland, a sea of green sugar plantations blanket the rolling hills. … South of Durban, laid-back holiday towns and resorts follow one after the other. Durban itself is as laid-back as a big city can be, and the vibe continues up to St. Lucia as the towns thin out, but seem if anything, more relaxed. Around two weeks is ideal for this route, with two or three days in Durban, and three or four in iSimangaliso at the end. If you’re happy sunbathing and surfing or just generally hanging out, then anything less will feel like a rush.
North of Johannesburg, there are a number of small parks and reserves which are popular with locals for short wildlife holidays. Pilanesberg Game Reserve, Marakele National Park and various private reserves in the northern and central Waterberg … are all good options for a short safari, or can be combined into a longer road trip to Mapungubwe National Park on the border with Zimbabwe. The Limpopo Province is known for its vast African savannah, dotted with rocky ridges and the occasional larger mountain range. The roads are a mix of paved and gravel, and although some paved sections can be heavily potholed, they’re generally suitable for all types of vehicles. The west of the province offers a range of accommodation, from well-run campsites to first-rate luxury lodges. Pilanesberg and Marakele are also good Big Five alternatives to Kruger National Park. Pilanesberg is luxury-orientated with more in the way of balloon safaris and guided drives. Marakele has camping, safari tents and cottages. There are many other excellent private campsites and lodges in the area so if you’re in Johannesburg and only have a few days, head this way and you’re certain to find something to match your budget and travel style, just a few hours north of the city.
with enough time to spend a couple of days at each of the highlights along the route.In two weeks, you can drive from Cape Town along the Garden Route, to Port Elizabeth, with a few days in Cape Town and a short Big Five safari in Addo Elephant National Park at the end. Keep to the coastline and you can spend a night in Hermanus and Cape Agulhas on the way. Other highlights include Wilderness, Knysna, Plettenberg Bay, Nature’s Valley and Tsitsikamma National Park. In two weeks, you can drive from Cape Town along the Garden Route, to Port Elizabeth, with a few days in Cape Town and a short Big Five safari in Addo Elephant National Park at the end. Keep to the coastline and you can spend a night in Hermanus and Cape Agulhas on the way. Other highlights include Wilderness, Knysna, Plettenberg Bay, Nature’s Valley and Tsitsikamma National Park.
Explore the Kwa-Zulu Natal Coast
The best two-week route for winter is along the KwaZulu-Natal coast. It offers endless coastlines and extremely mild, to warm temperatures throughout the year. From May to September these beautiful beaches …
through the Karoo to the Cederberg Mountains and the Cape. Spend a night or two in Golden Gate Highlands National Park and Clarens, then head straight down the N1 highway for two nights in the Karoo National Park. Visit the western Karoo town of Sutherland next, before dropping down the escarpment into the Tankwa Karoo National Park. Spend a couple of nights in this beautiful semi-desert and then a few more nights in the Cederberg Mountains on the way back south to the Cape. This route is best in spring and autumn when the weather is less extreme and you will need a high-clearance vehicle for the passes between Sutherland and the Tankwa Karoo.
Joburg to Durban
If you only have a week then consider one of these three routes to get the most out of your self-drive holiday to South Africa. From Johannesburg or Durban …
you can loop around Lesotho and experience the best of the Drakensberg in seven days. You’ll need a high-clearance vehicle for the roads east of Rhodes – book two nights there to get the most from this beautiful mountain village. Spend another two nights in Golden Gate Highlands National Park, and a night each in Clarens and Underberg.
The Cape Winelands
Cape Town and the Cape Winelands is a classic one-week route. Spend a few days exploring Cape Town and driving the stunning coastal roads which will lead you through dusty and beautiful valleys …
around the peninsula. From there you can branch out into the surrounding winelands, either on day trips, or by booking accommodation nearer the estates. Stellenbosch and Franschhoek are excellent bases from which to explore, but there are hundreds of beautiful places to stay throughout the winelands.
Overberg to the Little Karoo
The Overberg and Little Karoo also make an excellent one-week route from Cape Town. Make sure you drive the coastal R44 past Betty’s Bay which offers a diverse range of vistas and terrain …
and spend a night or two in Hermanus and Cape Agulhas, the southern tip of Africa. From there you can visit Bontebok National Park or Grootvadersbosch Nature Reserve (both are excellent) and, if you have time, the caves and ostrich farms in Oudtshoorn. If not, cut north through the Langeberg Mountains at Riversdale, then head back west on the R62, with a night in Barrydale or Montagu on the way.
There’s a lot to see and do in Cape Town and the highlights and attractions are spread out over a large area so you’ll need some planning to get around. Cape Town is known for its wonderful beaches and spectacular Table Mountain, as well as its excellent restaurants, lively bars and nearby wine estates. It has a laid-back, relaxed atmosphere throughout the year, although it can get very busy in summer.
In three or four days, you can cover the essentials. Take the cableway (or hike) up Table Mountain, visit Robben Island where Nelson Mandela was imprisoned, taste some excellent wine, have a sunset picnic on Clifton or Camps Bay beach, and tour the Cape Peninsula – preferably with a visit to the Simon’s Town penguin colony on the way. With more time, the options are practically endless. There are many wonderful hikes and walks, mountain reservoirs to swim in, beaches to discover, paragliding, rock climbing and water sports, great bars, food markets and restaurants, shopping at the V&A Waterfront, open-air concerts at Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens, and hundreds of wine estates. The list goes on.
Cape Town has very limited public transport, but Uber operates across the city and is the most convenient way to cover short distances. There’s also a hop-on hop-off bus service that connects most of the city’s central attractions. To explore the more distant winelands and Cape Peninsula you’ll need a car, and with your own transport you can also look at staying in one of the pretty coastal towns that form part of the greater Cape Town area. Kalk Bay and Simon’s Town are particularly worth checking out, and there are some beautiful villages on the western side too: Kommetjie, Noordhoek and Llandudno all have stunning beaches and are favourite surf spots. Don’t visit South Africa without spending at least a few days in Cape Town, ideally a week or more.
Johannesburg has a reputation for being dangerous, but there’s an edgy pulse, openness and energy that sets it apart from other South African cities. Locals are fiercely proud of their home town and are very often welcoming, and quick to make friends. This huge, sprawling metropolis can be intimidating, and one should definitely take precautions when visiting, but if you want to experience a true African city at full pace, then Johannesburg is the place to be.
Don’t miss a visit to the Apartheid Museum for a fascinating and disturbing portrayal of South Africa’s recent history. Take an inner city walking tour, and visit the vibrant downtown Maboneng Precinct, for its art galleries, local designer stores, restaurants and bars. There are excellent bars and restaurants all over Johannesburg, with a wide variety of authentic cuisine brought in by immigrants from all over Africa and the world. To the west of the city centre, Soweto’s Hector Pieterson Museum and Nelson Mandela's House are both excellent, and from there you can have a braai with the locals on the famous Vilakazi Street. Despite being somewhat touristy, there’s a friendly atmosphere and you’ll find some good deals on souvenirs, African fabrics and clothing.
Spend a few days in Johannesburg and remember to take precautions. Keep an eye on your belongings at all times and avoid carrying or leaving expensive items in the open. Don’t walk anywhere at night and be generally vigilant, but also don’t be too put off – Johannesburg is not a warzone. Remember that millions of people conduct their normal daily lives here, but that there is also widespread poverty and a very real problem with crime.
Durban is South Africa’s third largest city and unofficially recognised as its most easy-going. Miles of city beachfront and a warm Indian Ocean have created a relaxed, surfing, sea-loving and generally outdoorsy culture. Winters are warm and dry and the summers hot and humid, with afternoon thunderstorms and plenty of rain. It’s a green and hilly city, where the gardens and parks burst with subtropical plants. Laid-back ‘Durbs’ is a great place to hang out for a few days before heading off to explore the surrounding coast.
Besides the many surfers, Durban is well-known for its thriving Indian community and you’ll find plenty of choice if you like a good curry. Bunny chow is a local specialty: your pick of curry served in fresh hollowed-out bread. Down by the sea, the Durban promenade runs for 6 km along the waterfront and includes the Golden Mile, a busy stretch of swimming beaches, cafes, water parks and the 16-hectare uShaka Marine World.
To be near the centre, find a hotel on North or South Beach just behind the Golden Mile, or head up the coast to the quieter, leafy suburbs of Durban North. A little further up the coast you’ll find the beach hotels of Umhlanga, arguably Durban’s most popular seaside resort. You can get a good feel for Durban in a couple of days, before heading off to one of the beautiful towns up or down the coast.
Avian variety is greatest in the southern summer (Nov-Mar) when several resident species assume a colourful breeding plumage and dozens of migrant species arrive from Europe or elsewhere in Africa. Several good regional field guides can be bought at any decent bookshop in South Africa.
The seaside town of Hermanus is famous for its whales. Whale-spotting season runs from June to December and during this time they can be seen all along the southern coast, but seldom as close up and active as in the sheltered waters of Walker Bay.
Hermanus sits atop a long, low cliff that provides an excellent vantage point from which to view the bay. A cliff-top path runs for many kilometres – almost the entire length of the town – and whales can sometimes be seen basking in the water mere metres away. Southern right whales are the most numerous, but humpback and Bryde’s whales can also be spotted, as well as pods of dolphins and seals. If the whales are offshore, whale-spotting boat and kayaking trips can be booked to see them up close.
The Hermanus Whale Festival takes place at the end of September and the town can get very busy. The beautiful promenade fills with people and it can be hard to find a table at one of the many excellent restaurants that overlook the sea. The eastern side of the town tends to be quieter, and the low cliffs give way to stunning coves and beaches.
At the back of town, against a low ridge of hills, is one of the oldest and most beautiful golf courses in the country, and in the basin behind you’ll find the excellent wine estates and restaurants of the Hemel en Aarde Valley. Hermanus is somewhere you could easily spend a relaxing week, but stay at least a night or two.
Situated halfway along the Garden Route, Knysna makes a great base from which to explore the surrounding region. The town itself has good restaurants, excellent self-catering cottages and hotels, and offers a range of water-based activities on its huge, tranquil lagoon. Knysna is arguably the Garden Route’s prettiest town and a must-see stop on this beautiful stretch of coastline.
Each year the Knysna Oyster Festival attracts thousands of visitors and for 10 days in early July, the town turns itself over to all things oyster, with restaurants, bars and pop-up stands all vying to deliver the ultimate fresh oyster to their patrons. The festival is now also one of South Africa’s most popular sporting events for road cycling, mountain biking and trail running, and it’s a year-round destination for nature and water sport lovers. Both the lagoon in front and the forests behind Knysna are protected as part of the Garden Route National Park and have hiking trails and picnic areas.
The N2 highway runs directly through the town and the small beach communities of Buffels Bay and Knoetzie are just a few minutes’ drive in either direction. Over the ridge that separates Knysna from the ocean, Brenton-on-Sea has phenomenal views and an amazing beach. There’s lots to see and do in the area and nothing along the Garden Route is more than a few hours’ drive away.
Cape Agulhas is the southernmost tip of Africa – not to be confused with Cape Point, the far more spectacular southern tip of the Cape Peninsula, near Cape Town. Cape Agulhas may not be as striking as Cape Point – few places in the world are – but it is lovely nonetheless. This wild, windswept stretch of coastline is beautiful in its isolation and a wonderful place to spend a few days.
Cape Agulhas itself lies within the Agulhas National Park, which also offers excellent self-catering cottages and chalets, right on the sea. The Cape Agulhas Lighthouse has a small museum and you can climb the stairs to the top to see the view. There’s not much else to do in Agulhas than put your feet up and search for whales. The neighbouring village of Struisbaai has a few small restaurants, and there’s a surfing school and sea charters for the more adventurous. Keep an eye out for the inquisitive stingray which often frequents Struisbaai harbor.
There are no coastal routes into Cape Agulhas, only a single access road to the north. It’s not on the way to anywhere, which keeps it quiet and adds to its charm. You’ll want to spend at least two nights and a full day seeing the sights, although if you’re staying at the beautifully-situated Agulhas Rest Camp chalets, you’ll probably wish you were staying for longer.
The Kgalagadi Transfrontier National Park straddles the South Africa / Botswana border and is jointly managed by both countries. This southern corner of the Kalahari Desert forms a vast semi-arid savannah known for its red sand and low, acacia-covered dunes. Herds of oryx, wildebeest and springbok are preyed upon by numerous lion, cheetah and the occasional leopard. Sightings are common along the usually-dry riverbeds and the scattered waterholes where the animals congregate.
Although not a Big Five destination, the Kgalagadi is famous for its black-maned lions and there’s a good chance of seeing them even on a short safari. With such open vistas, the opportunities for wildlife photography are excellent, and the incredible landscapes themselves also attract photographers from all over the world. This is a great destination for outdoor enthusiasts looking for unspoilt wilderness. There are a number of truly wild 4x4 trails on both the South African and Botswana sides of the border.
The South African park gate is at Two Rivers (or Twee Rivieren). It’s possible to cross directly into Botswana or Namibia from inside the park, but if you wish to do so you’ll need to complete immigration at Two Rivers as you enter. You won’t need a 4x4 unless you’re planning to do one of the 4x4 trails, but a high-clearance vehicle is highly recommended. The roads through the park are all dirt and can be alternately bumpy and sandy in places. Autumn (March to May) is generally the best time to visit, although the park can be beautiful and green in the brief summer rainy season, providing you can handle the +40°C temperatures. The biggest downside, however, is the time needed to get there. The park isn’t on the way to any of South Africa’s most popular destinations, but does make an excellent stop on an extended holiday into Botswana or Namibia.
The Ai-|Ais/Richtersveld Transfrontier Park lies across the border between South Africa and Namibia. It’s one of the least-visited parks in South Africa, but also one of its most beautiful. An extremely arid region, the park is home to the world’s richest and most diverse desert flora, with up to 360 species found in a single square kilometre. About a third of these plants are endemic.
Large animals are scarce and rarely spotted, and this definitely isn’t a wildlife-viewing destination unless you like mice and mongooses. Visit the Richtersveld for its stunning desert landscapes, rocky ochre peaks and the majestic Orange River which cuts through it all. Camping along the Orange River is one of Africa’s most wonderful experiences. Daytime temperatures can get very hot in summer, but the river is warm and safe to swim in, and the stars have to be seen to be believed.
The Ai-|Ais/Richtersveld Transfrontier Park has very limited facilities and visitors are advised to bring everything they might need with them, including adequate drinking water. The roads are rough gravel and the whole park is 4x4 or high-clearance only. Regular cars are not allowed. Camping at one of the basic rest camps is the most common way to experience the park, but self-catering chalets are available at some sites. It’s a long way to drive to reach the Richtersveld from anywhere in South Africa, so give yourself at least a week to explore and enjoy it, or use it as a stopover on the way into southern Namibia.
The Garden Route National Park is made up of three distinct sections: Wilderness, Tsitsikamma and the Knysna Lakes. On the far west, the Wilderness section protects a meandering system of rivers and lakes between the sea and the Outeniqua Mountains. Around Knysna, the lagoon estuary and the forests behind the town are covered, and to the east, the Tsitsikamma section extends 65km along the coast from Nature’s Valley to the Groot River, including a marine protected area that extends offshore. The park is a wonderland of rivers, lakes, forest-clad mountains and often-stormy ocean, and should not be overlooked on any drive along the Garden Route.
Wilderness’s Ebb and Flow Rest Camp sits on the banks of the Touws and Serpentine Rivers and there are canoes for hire for a lovely, gentle paddle to a stunning waterfall. In the forest behind Knysna the Diepwalle campsite there are beautifully-constructed timber camping decks between the trees, each with its own camp-kitchen alcove and fireplace. Nature’s Valley is surrounded by pristine indigenous forest and the small, peaceful village has a wide beach and lagoon, and nothing to do but kayak, swim and sunbathe. The highlight of the Tsitsikamma section is Storms River Mouth Rest Camp and the short hike to the suspension bridge which crosses the river. The rest camp is one of the most picturesque in South Africa, with an excellent campsite and wooden cabins on the seafront.
The Garden Route National Park runs almost the full length of the Garden Route itself and you can’t drive along the coast without passing through sections of the park. Both the Wilderness and Tsitsikamma sections have very good accommodation and make good bases from which to explore the west and east of the Garden Route, respectively. They are national parks, however, so daily conservation fees do apply and this can add up over an extended stay. The N2 coastal highway is tolled between Nature’s Valley and Storms River so you’ll need cash or a local credit card when crossing between the two.
iSimangaliso Wetland Park is a protected strip of ocean, coastal estuary and dune forest that runs from St. Lucia to the Mozambique border. It’s a Big Five park, although there are only a few lions, which are confined to the western uMkhuze section. The park is known for its turtles, excellent scuba diving, beautiful beaches, birdlife and secluded beach lodges and campsites.
The Incredible Sani Pass
Sani Pass is the highest mountain pass in South Africa, although considering the road ends in Lesotho, there is some debate as to whether it counts. The pass begins northwest of Underberg in the KwaZulu-Natal Midlands, and swiftly climbs over a kilometre in altitude before topping out near a small dilapidated building that serves as the Lesotho border post. The altitude at the summit is 2,876 m and the views at the top are magnificent.
The views are spectacular all along the pass. From the bottom looking up, the rough track ascends into an increasingly narrow valley, with no discernible exit and grassy cliffs looming in from three sides. As you climb, the views back down become and more impressive – especially in the early morning as dawn light fills the gorge. The landscape changes substantially from season to season. In summer the mountains are covered in lush, green grass, which by winter dries to a golden tan, regularly blanketed in snow. Sani Mountain Lodge is located immediately after the Lesotho border post and has a great little pub and restaurant, with fantastic views. Chalets, dorm beds and camping are available.
You’ll need your passport and a 4x4 to drive Sani Pass. The South African border post is in the valley and the Lesotho post at the top. The lower section of the pass is relatively easy-going. There are some washouts and the track is rocky, but nothing too difficult. It’s the final few switchbacks near the top that can cause trouble, especially in wet weather. Up near the top, the pass can be icy and snow-bound in winter, and summer thunderstorms can dump rain with little warning. If the weather is particularly bad you may need to postpone, but if it’s dry, and you drive cautiously, you should be fine.
The Blyde River Canyon is the centrepiece of the Panorama Route, a fabulous scenic drive through the verdant Mpumalanga lowveld, northeast of Johannesburg. It’s a very worthwhile, minor detour between Johannesburg and Kruger National Park, with a seemingly endless procession of waterfalls and spectacular views.
This was a gold-rush area in the 19th century and at the southern end of the canyon the old mining town of Pilgrim’s Rest has been preserved as a national monument. You can even try your hand at panning for gold in the Blyde River which runs through the village. As you head north you’re into the canyon proper. Look out for the Bourke's Luck Potholes, where years of swirling water and rocks have carved out deep, smooth holes in the canyon bed. The viewpoint of the Three Rondavels peaks is nearby, and from there you can drive south to the panoramic views at God’s Window and Pinnacle Rock. Boat cruises, flights and guided tours are also available.
If you’re driving between Johannesburg and Kruger, you’ll need to leave very early to see the canyon properly without fear of arriving late for the park gate. Avoid rushing and spend a night in the area – there are excellent lodges, cottages and campsites around Sabie, Graskop and Hazyview. The roads along the canyon are paved and suitable for all types of vehicle.
Northwest of Johannesburg, the Cradle of Humankind is an interconnected archaeological area covering nearly 500 square kilometres. Some of the world’s earliest hominin fossils have been found here – our earliest ancestors in the human line. It’s a UNESCO World Heritage Site in recognition of this strong fossil evidence that suggests Africa as the birthplace for all of humanity.
The Maropeng Visitors Centre is the hub of the area and has an excellent museum and interactive exhibition. The exhibition takes visitors on a journey from the formation of the earth, through the major archaeological discoveries in the region and across the world. It’s very informative, well managed and suitable for all ages. Down the road, the Sterkfontein Caves is the other main site that’s open to the public. It has another good exhibition, but the main attraction is the cave tour which goes into the famous cave complex where hominid fossils over 4 million years old have been discovered.
The Cradle of Humankind is about an hour’s drive from Johannesburg and can be visited in a day in any vehicle. The Sterkfontein Caves are closest to the city and the Maropeng Visitors Centre is about 11km further northwest. There’s a reduced-price combined ticket if you’d like to see them both.
The KwaZulu-Natal Battlefields cover an extensive area from the coastline north of Durban, west to Lesotho and northeast to the town of Vryheid. It includes the sites of many important battlegrounds that shaped the history of South Africa, the Zulu nation, and the British Empire. These rolling grasslands, dotted with rocky hills, saw battles involving Shaka Gandhi, Churchill, the early Voortrekkers and numerous Boer commandos, led most famously by General Louis Botha who became the first Prime Minister of the Union of South Africa.
The Battle of Isandlwana in 1879 was the first major encounter between the British Empire and the Zulu nation. It was a resounding victory for the Zulus and the worst defeat the British had ever suffered at the hands of an indigenous army. 21 years later, almost to the day, the Dutch Boers beat the British at the Battle of Spioenkop. It was another heavy defeat and most of the British soldiers who died are still buried on the top of Spioenkop hill, some in scattered pockets where they fell. Their whitewashed gravestones look out onto panoramic views of the Tugela River below. Mahatma Gandhi was a stretcher-bearer at the battle and Winston Churchill was a courier carrying messages to and from British headquarters.
Many of the battlefield sites are at the end bumpy dirt tracks so you’ll need a sturdy car, if not a 4x4. It’s highly recommended to book a tour with a registered battlefield guide who can take you to the best sites in their own 4x4. These sites rarely have any shops or facilities, but there is sometimes a small entrance fee so you’ll need to carry some cash.
It can be a bit overwhelming when first planning a self-drive holiday to South Africa. For a start, it’s a big country. At 1,2 million km2 it’s larger than France, Germany and the United Kingdom combined. On the far west, the icy Atlantic Ocean thumps against 600 km of sun-drenched beaches. To the east, it’s over 1,400 km to the sugar plantations and laid-back surfer vibes of Durban’s North Coast. South Africa’s reputation as the world’s third-most biodiverse country can be seen by the sheer variety of landscapes along it’s beautiful terrain. You won’t find tundra, but the winter months (June to August) bring enough snow to the interior that Tiffindell, South Africa’s only ski resort, can still open its slopes in the uKhahlamba-Drakensberg mountains. In summer, mountains across the country offer a network of incredible hiking trails and wonderful alpine drives that would take years to explore. And on the plains below, a network of national parks and reserves criss-cross the deserts, forests and savannah, providing guests with some of the most affordable and rewarding self-drive safaris in Africa.
South Africa is remarkable when it comes to the ‘smaller stuff’. Indeed, some ecologists regard it to be the world’s third most important country in terms of overall biodiversity, thanks to its unusually high level of endemism. The tiny Cape Floral Kingdom, centred on Cape Town, contains something like 5% of the world’s plant species, two-thirds of which occur nowhere else on the planet.
Wildlife aside, South Africa’s 2,500km coast line is one of the most varied in the world. Split between the warm Indian Ocean and cooler Atlantic, it is studded with idyllic sun-kissed swimming beaches, but also embraces everything from the subtropical forested dunes and coral reefs of iSimangaliso Wetland Park to the craggy windswept cliffs of the Cape and Robberg Peninsulas.
South Africa today displays a unique cultural blend of African, European and Asian influences. There’s the brash economic powerhouse of Johannesburg and its altogether more stately coastal counterpart Cape Town, as well as the curry houses of Indian-influenced Durban, and the French vinicultural tradition and Dutch-derived architecture that characterises the winelands around Stellenbosch. Elsewhere, traditional Zulu and Ndebele cultural villages pay homage to the country’s indigenous cultural diversity, as does the incomparable wealth of prehistoric rock art found in the uKhahlamba-Drakensberg.
A significant part of modern South Africa’s fascination is the immense progress it has made as a unified nation since the first democratic election was held there in 1994, a progression placed in sobering historical perspective by visit to Johannesburg’s Apartheid Museum or Cape Town’s District Six Museum. At the opposite end of the immediacy scale, the three-million-year-long hominid fossil record preserved in the ancient limestone caverns of Gauteng’s Cradle of Humankind has no peer elsewhere in the world.
All in all, South Africa is a country like no other.
The first half of January is summer holiday time in South Africa. It’s the hottest month across the country and beaches and seaside towns are at their busiest. In the south and west, January is also the driest month of the year, but up towards Durban, and inland, the hot days almost always end in spectacular thunderstorms. This is especially true in Gauteng where January is Johannesburg’s wettest month.
Schools resume in the middle of January causing a huge increase in traffic on the national roads. It’s best not to travel on the weekend before schools return, but once the rush dies down, late January is a great time to explore the coast. Fewer people also means more accommodation options and prices are generally lower outside of the holiday period.
In the Western Cape, the sun sets after 9:00pm for most of January, with sunset in Johannesburg an hour earlier on average. The long evenings are ideal for beach picnics and evening barbecues (or braais) and the smoke and smell of cooking fires drifts from back gardens and braai areas everywhere.
The west coast and central regions can be particularly hot at this time of year. Hot summer evenings in the semi-desert Karoo are spectacular, but daytime temperatures can easily exceed 40°C.
The Kruger National Park and the other inland national parks are always an option, but while January’s lush vegetation is beautiful, it also makes the animals harder to spot. On the plus side, park gates operate from dawn to dusk so there’s as much as 2.5 hours’ more time for game drives in summer.
Late January’s ideal coastal conditions spill over into the entire month of February. The Western Cape can be windy in spring and summer, but as the month goes by, these coastal winds become gentle, cooling breezes, and some of the Cape’s most glorious days are in February and early March.
February is also the Cape’s prime grape harvest season with harvest festivals from late January into March. The Franschhoek and Stellenbosch wine festivals both take place in February and there’s an excellent Harvest Festival in Robertson as well.
With the weather at its hot, dry best, there’s a summer-time buzz all along the coast as locals and visitors pack the beach bars and public spaces. Expect things to be busy in all the major centres, but with schools and universities in session, not unbearably so.
Although not quite prime safari time yet, February is one of the best months to visit South Africa. Whether you’re leaping into mountain pools or sipping cocktails on the beach, February is about being outdoors while the summer vibes are still high, but the busy school holiday season well past. Head for water, whether it’s the sea, rivers or dams. It’s essential to have somewhere to swim if you’re driving through South Africa in February.
Weather-wise March is less predictable than January and February, as rainfall drops off in the interior and more regular cold fronts bring cooler weather to the coast. On the whole, March is still hot across South Africa, and from March to May it’s a good time to visit Johannesburg as the thunder storms subside, but temperatures remain high. Wherever you’re travelling, pack a mix of cool- and warm-weather clothing – conditions can change rapidly from one day to the next.
March is a good month for music in South Africa. The Cape Town Jazz Festival is the biggest of its kind in Southern Africa and attracts top artists from around the world. Splashy Fen, in the foothills of the Drakensberg Mountains, is South Africa’s longest-running music event, and there are many others to look out for across the country.
One of South Africa’s biggest sporting events and the biggest timed sporting event in the World take place in Cape Town during March: The Cape Town Cycle Tour. The event attracts tens of thousands of visitors so be aware that accommodation can be harder to find.
The Easter school holidays start in late March, which means busier roads throughout the country. It’s a popular time for camping and long weekends away, and the more popular places can book up months in advance. March can still be very wet and humid around Durban, but the Lowveld and Kruger National Park become drier making late March and April a good time to combine an inland safari with a beach-hopping coastal drive.
Accommodation in the main tourist areas is usually relatively quiet in March.
Johannesburg and the highveld is warm by day, cool at night and might receive occasional rainfall.
Cape Town and the Western Cape is mild by day, cool at night and might start receiving occasional rainfall to mark the start of the wet winter period.
The Kruger Park and surrounds sees the seasonal shift towards autumn with noticeable drops in temperatures, occasional late summer rains and cool evenings.
April is an ideal time for beach holidays along the east coast because of its warm and tropical climate throughout the year. However, it may not be the ideal time for a beach holiday in the western or eastern cape because the weather is cooler and rains start falling around this time.
Game viewing in the Kruger Park and other reserves is can be relatively challenging as animals are dispersed away from water sources and thick vegetation tends to reduce visibility. This is arguably compensated by the lush green condition of the bush and clearer skies (better for photography). Most Intra-African and Palaearctic migrant birds will have flown north by April.
Accommodation tends to be very full during the school holidays focussed on the easter break.
The Easter weekend coincides with South Africa’s longest running music festival, the four-day Splashy Fen, which has been held on a farm in the Ukhahlamba-Drakensberg foothills near the town of Underberg since 1990.
May is the first month of winter in South Africa, but it’s not all clouds and ceaseless rain. In the interior, the nights get colder, but daytime temperatures can still hit 25°C, with low rainfall and plenty of sun. On the west and south coasts, it can be wet and stormy, but each storm usually lasts only a few days and the two- or three-day gaps in between are often warm and bright.
May is a great time to visit Durban and the entire eastern coast. From the Wild Coast to iSimangaliso, the rains recede, bringing warm sunny days and cool, but not cold, evenings. Swimming in the sea is still very doable – Durban’s average sea temperature is around 24°C in May. In general, South Africa’s north-eastern beaches are excellent in winter, and after the public holiday on 1 May, there are no other local holidays and the seaside resorts stay quiet.
The northern national parks also come into their prime as the bush thins out and the lack of rain forces animals to the waterholes and rivers. May is an excellent month for Kruger National Park, but although the days are warm, be prepared for increasingly cold mornings and nights.
For those seeking more a remote wilderness, May is one of the best months to visit the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park. As the rainy season ends (in April and May), animals gather along the open riverbeds making the most of the surface water before it completely subsides.
Game viewing in the Kruger Park and other reserves tends to improve following the end of the rains, as animals congregate close to perennial water sources and the undergrowth clears to improve visibility.
June marks the start of the whale-watching season along the Cape south coast. June to September is the best time to see whales, although they can be spotted as late as December. The whales are wonderful, but expect the roads and seaside towns to be busier, particularly from mid-June to mid-July, which is South Africa’s winter school break.
Cape Town itself is quieter in winter and you’re more likely to find good deals, even during the school holidays. Cape winters are unpredictable. In just a few days, it can flip from wild storm to bright sunshine and back again. Cool weather and rain are more likely, but pack for every season – you could experience them all.
As you journey up the coast the chance of rain decreases, with the west coast generally cool and clear and the east warming significantly towards Durban. Early June and late July are the best times to visit the Wild Coast. From June, the weather is dry and mild, and outside the holiday period you’ll have the wide, sandy beaches almost to yourself.
June is an ideal time for beach holidays on the Indian Ocean coastline of the KwaZulu-Natal coast, which tends to be temperate to hot over the nominal winter months, and very dry. Conditions on the coast of the Eastern and Western Cape are less predictable and cooler.
June in the north means cold nights and crisp, sunny days. After months of little rain, the vegetation in Kruger National Park thins out completely and wildlife spotting is at its best as the animals congregate around the waterholes and rivers. Daytime temperatures can be high, but can drop below freezing overnight. Pack warm clothing, especially if you’re planning any early morning game drives.
The same is true if you’re driving through the interior. The cold winter nights are ideal for stargazing, but some areas do see snow, in particular the central Karoo, Cederberg and all along the Drakensberg.
If you’re visiting South Africa in July, don’t miss the spectacular wild flowers that bloom each year along the West Coast. Spring comes early here, and if the winter rains have been good, the otherwise Spartan semi-desert explodes in colour. The end of July is a great time to see flowers in the West Coast and Namaqua National Parks. August is the high season for flower tours, but by mid-July they’re already out in force, so catch them then and avoid the crowds.
Further north, the |Ai-|Ais/Richtersveld Transfrontier Park is also excellent at this time of year. It’s not a major wildlife destination, but the desert mountains are spectacular and visitor numbers low. Only 4x4 and high-clearance vehicles are allowed.
July is Cape Town’s wettest and coldest month, but the sun still shines at least a couple of times a week and the city is at its least crowded. Note that the Table Mountain Cableway closes for annual maintenance in the last week of July, reopening again in early August. Durban and the North Coast are your best bet for a beach holiday. It won’t be very hot, but the sea is warm and there’s minimal chance of rain.
When the schools go back in mid-July, the game parks become quieter so it’s best to delay your safari until then. The vegetation is also at its thinnest now, making it easier to see the animals.
Finally, July is a good time to visit the Eastern Cape Highlands where South Africa’s highest mountain passes will take you up into the snow. This is 4x4-only for much of the winter, although a sedan will manage the lower altitude roads year-round.
Although spring is in the air, and the West Coast flowers in bloom, August can feel very wintery across most of South Africa. Regular storms still bring rain to the Cape and snow still covers the peaks of the Southern Drakensberg. Expect cool temperatures across the country, with the exception of Durban. The KwaZulu-Natal coast is still a good bet for a warm, sunny beach holiday.
August is the driest month in the African bushveld and the wildlife sightings around waterholes and rivers are at their best. There are no school holidays in August, but it’s still a very popular time to visit the national parks so be sure to book well in advance. The south of Kruger National Park is particularly busy in early August when the Kruger Park Marathon takes place. If accommodation in the south is hard to find, try the north where it stays relatively quiet.
From Cape Town to the Garden Route, the southern right whales are now out in force and mothers and their calves can often be seen swimming very close to the shore. Although the sea is cold, the winter swells produce the best surfing conditions in the Cape so if you’re looking to learn, August is a good time to head to one of the surf schools on Cape Town’s Muizenberg Beach.
August is an ideal time for beach holidays on the Indian Ocean coastline of KwaZulu-Natal coast, which tends to be temperate to hot over the nominal winter months, and very dry. Conditions on the coast of the Eastern and Western Cape are less predictable.
September is springtime in South Africa and a good month to holiday anywhere in the country. In the north, the rainy season doesn’t begin until October, but the nights start to warm up and the first afternoon thunderstorms can bring a splash of green to the land.
Like August, September is prime safari time, with good visibility through the dry vegetation, and predictably good wildlife sightings around the busy permanent waterholes.
September can be hit and miss in Durban, with increasingly rainy afternoons and fewer hours of sunshine. That said, mornings are invariably sunny, and the pretty resort towns that can get so overcrowded in summer, are still peaceful and empty before the holiday season starts.
By the end of the month, South Africa is already gearing up for summer. 24 September is the first summer public holiday and many South Africans take a few days off to celebrate. Finding a place to stay over this long weekend can be difficult so best to book hotels, and especially campsites and cottages, well in advance.
The spring school holidays usually start around this time and run into early October. By now the weather is much warmer in the Cape and in late September the Hermanus Whale Festival draws big crowds to the southern coastline.
The September shoulder season is also a good time for a road trip through the central Karoo and along the West Coast. By now the flowers will be fading, but there’ll still be some out, and the warmer nights will make sitting around the campfire much more pleasant.
October is probably the best month to visit Johannesburg, when the winter chill has broken and the jacaranda trees are in full bloom. For a few weeks, before the summer rains knock the flowers to the street, the city’s long, leafy avenues turn a vivid purple. Take a drive through the suburbs of Greenside and Parktown to see them at their best.
Like September, October is a good month to combine regions, in particular the northern parks, and the south and west coasts. Temperatures are heating up everywhere, but it’s not yet too hot in the interior and along the coast there’ll be some wonderfully mild days. The odd big storm may still batter the Cape and the first thunderstorms will be gathering inland. The centre and northwest will likely be dry, but expect some light rain everywhere else in the country.
Spring and early summer is notoriously windy in Cape Town with windy days continuing through to January. The most sheltered areas are along the beach suburbs on the Atlantic Seaboard – Seapoint, Clifton and Camps Bay. They can get very busy in summer, but are ideal at this time of year.
October is still an excellent safari month, although daytime temperatures in the north will regularly exceed 30°C. The icy early mornings will be a thing of the past however, and the Kruger National Park gates open half an hour earlier so there’s more time for game drives.
The South African summer begins in November so expect warm, breezy days along the coast, and afternoon thunderstorms in the northeast and interior. School holidays don’t begin until the first week of December, so the roads are usually quiet and the parks and holiday towns less full.
November is a lovely month to visit the Western Cape. The weather is good, the summer crowds have yet to arrive, and there’s a lot to do as festivals and markets gear up for Christmas. Along the coast, whales can still be spotted and there are plenty of hotter days for tanning on the beach.
Although not usually considered the ideal time for a safari, a November trip to Kruger National Park has three things in its favour. First, it’s the shoulder season so accommodation prices at all national parks are lower. Second, Kruger’s gates change to summer time, allowing 2.5h more for game drives. Third, and undoubtedly best, the parks are full of new-borns and this is a great time to see calves and cubs frolicking in the summer rain. November in the interior can already be very hot and humid however, so prepare temperatures to reach 35°C.
Durban is also increasingly hot and wet throughout November, with sunny mornings and overcast afternoons. The coastal towns and beaches have yet to fill up and there’s usually good deals on hotels and beach cottages. If you’re on the North Coast at this time of year, pick one or two towns and stay a few days. With the variable weather, it’s best to explore from a base, and you can always head home if it suddenly pours.
December to mid-January is South Africa’s busiest period, with local holiday-makers packing the beaches, and the campsites and game parks full. In many ways, it’s a bad time to visit – prices are higher, traffic is worse, and the best accommodation is harder to find.
That said, it’s a shame not to experience South Africa at its most summery and relaxed. The crowds flock to the coast for good reason. The weather in the Cape and Garden Route, is hot and clear, the evenings are long, and there’s a general holiday mood wherever you go. Durban and surrounds can be very humid and hot, but that hardly matters if you spend the whole day in the sea or swimming pool.
The busy national parks are perhaps best avoided, especially as high season rates return for a month from mid-December. The whole of the interior, from Kruger National Park to the West Coast is particularly hot and anyone not at the coast usually heads for whatever river, pool or dam they can find.
The week between Christmas and New Years’ Eve is taken as holiday by most South Africans. Christmas itself can be very quiet on the streets, with locals spending time at home with family. The 26th is traditionally a beach day on the coast and by the end of the week the party is back in full swing. Johannesburg is probably at its quietest during this period, with many residents away on holiday and those that remaining enjoying the lighter traffic and afternoon thunderstorms.
December is the peak nesting season for loggerhead and leatherback turtles along the beaches of iSimangaliso, and turtle-tracking tours can be undertaken in the evening.
South Africa has two excellent options for a Big Five safari and beach holiday in one. Both are accessible with any type of vehicle and have superb campsites, self-catering cottages and luxury lodges to choose from.
In the northeast, iSimangaliso Wetland Park combines 220 km of immaculate, subtropical coastline with a wonderful, sprawling network of inland estuaries, rolling grassland and lush coastal forest. In 1999, iSimangaliso was declared South Africa’s first UNESCO World Heritage Site, partly because of its importance as a breeding ground for loggerhead and leatherback turtles. These giant, mysterious creatures come ashore each November to lay their eggs, with the hatchlings struggling back to the sea from January to March. The whole process is carefully monitored and controlled, but guided excursions are available.
Offshore, the coastal waters are also protected. Sodwana Bay is South Africa’s top scuba diving destination with favourable diving conditions year-round. To get further out, there are deep sea fishing charters, but you won’t need a boat to spot whales - breaching humpbacks are frequently seen from the beaches, which can also be explored by horseback safari.
The park’s swimming beaches are wide and sandy but you don’t have to worry about lions while you’re catching a tan. Lions are confined to the western uMkhuze section, with larger numbers in neighbouring Hluhluwe-iMfolozi Park. Hluhluwe-iMfolozi is where you’ll find the best wildlife viewing in the region, with all the Big Five, including the critically threatened white rhino.
All of this is accessible in any type of vehicle, but for the far north you’ll need a 4x4. Up towards the Mozambique border, Lake Sibaya is the largest freshwater coastal lake in Southern Africa, a Ramsar Site, and a must for birders. Further north, Kosi Bay boasts a spectacular system of lakes and wetlands where local fishermen weave traps and snare fish as they’ve been doing for centuries.
iSimangaliso can take some time to explore and it’s a bit out of the way for visitors also wishing to see the Cape and Garden Route. If you are staying south, head to the Eastern Cape’s Sunshine Coast where beautiful beaches are just a short drive from the excellent Addo Elephant National Park. Addo is home to much of South Africa’s most iconic wildlife, including the Big Five, and sea charters are available for whale and great white shark spotting. Horseback safaris are also popular inside the park.
The roads in Addo are suitable for all vehicles and day visitors are welcome if you’d rather stay near the beach. Jefferys Bay is South Africa’s surfing capital with a right-hand point break that attracts top surfers from across the globe, while a short drive north Kenton-on-Sea’s golden beaches are a favourite local holiday spot.
A South African holiday as a couple
Great wines, fine dining, beach walks and stunning mountain views – the Western Cape has everything you need for a romantic self-drive holiday. With a seemingly unending selection of beautiful, cosy and downright luxurious places to stay, the Cape has enough variety for a hundred unique getaways.
First on the list is a drive around the Cape Peninsula. Start with a seaside breakfast overlooking the many-coloured fishing boats in Kalk Bay harbour then follow the coastal road south, past Fish Hoek, Simon’s Town and down to the Cape of Good Hope. You’ll pass secret coves and sandy beaches, plus a colony of jackass penguins – cute and ungainly as they waddle across boulders, but streaking, streamlined bullets once they hit the sea.
The Cape of Good Hope has breath-taking 360-degree views, but by now the sun will be dipping towards the west and it’s time to head up along Chapman’s Peak Drive, skirting the cliff tops with stomach-churning drops to the sea below. Round off the day with a sunset picnic on Clifton Beach or some fine dining and palm-fringed views at one of the top restaurants on the Camps Bay strip.
Don’t leave the Cape without spending a few days in the Cape Winelands. With 18 official routes, the winelands covers a huge area – the famous Stellenbosch region has over 200 vineyards alone. For the best romantic drive, with wonderful beaches, views and, of course, great wines at the end, head out from Cape Town on the N2 and take the R44 coastal road towards Rooi-Els. This might be the most beautiful drive in South Africa, a winding ribbon of tar that clings to the cliffs between the Kogelberg Mountains and the rocky False Bay coast. Each of the small towns you’ll pass have something to offer, but Hermanus is a favourite. From July to October southern right whales pass by in their hundreds and can often be seen from the restaurants and boutique hotels along the shore.
In the hills behind Hermanus you’ll find the Hemel en Aarde (Heaven and Earth) Valley with a selection of beautiful self-catering cottages, and some very fine wines. Wine tasting and food pairing are available at most vineyards and the views across the Hemel en Aarde provide the perfect romantic backdrop.
A family holiday in South Africa
South Africa’s Garden Route is ideal for a family holiday. This beautiful stretch of forested coastline runs roughly 400 km between Mossel Bay and Port Elizabeth with a huge variety of family activities to do along the way. Driving distances are short, with lots of interesting places to stop and take a break. There’s plenty of great family accommodation too, from self-catering cottages to stunning beach campsites and family-friendly hotels.
There’s so much to see and do on the Garden Route, it would take months to explore it all. With limited time, don’t commit to driving every day. Better to decide on some key stops and spend a few days in each, slowly exploring the nearby attractions and making the most of the beaches, forest walks and adventure activities in the area.
Wilderness, Knysna, Nature’s Valley and Tsitsikamma National Park are highlights not to be missed. There’s canoeing, swimming and gentle river walks in Wilderness, yachting and boat trips in Knysna, and long days on the beach in sleepy Nature’s Valley. Tsitsikamma is arguably South Africa’s most beautiful park, with cosy wooden cabins and a wonderful seafront campsite wedged between the cliffs and the waves. Nearby Storms River village has treetop zip-lining and for older kids there’s white water tubing too.
Another good base is Plettenberg Bay, right in the heart of the Garden Route. This popular seaside resort can get very busy during the summer months, especially in December and during the South African school holidays. For the rest of the year the town is quieter and ideal for families. Beautiful beaches, nature walks and the nearby bird, elephant, snake and monkey sanctuaries are all popular attractions. It’s also only a half-hour drive to Knysna or Tsitsikamma in either direction.
A little further inland, Oudtshoorn’s Cango Caves are great for rainy days. The cave tour is not strenuous, although kids over six years old can tackle the Adventure Tour which involves some cramped wriggling through narrow passages towards the back. Combine the journey with a trip to an ostrich farm and, weather permitting, a crocodile cage dive and you have an excellent day out for the whole family.
Finally, don’t miss the best family safari on the Garden Route – Addo Elephant Park, just outside of Port Elizabeth. Here the Big Five and many other iconic African species roam free in their natural habitat, and the generally low, open vegetation makes for easy viewing, ideal for younger kids. It’s also a malaria-free safari experience.
The advantage of a camper is much the same as with a 4x4. You won’t have the off-road capabilities, but you can save even more on costs if you’re travelling in a bigger group. Campers are generally the most expensive to hire, but divided by up to six people they can also be the most economical. Although eating out is likely to be much less expensive than at home, you can also save by buying groceries in bulk and cooking your own meals on the road. If you’re travelling in a camper or motorhome you must expect to sleep in it every night to get value for money. It’s definitely not a good vehicle for the major cities where campsites are scarce and standards are often quite poor. But outside the cities, and also in the smaller towns, campsites are plentiful, almost always excellent, and ideal for motorhomes.
What are my options if I’m travelling by 4x4 through South Africa?
Hiring a 4x4 will obviously cost more than a regular car, but there are some advantages, and potentially even some savings, especially if you’re more than two people, and having the vehicle enables you to camp. Camping is by far the most affordable option, especially if you’re in a group. Fees are often calculated per site, which usually allow up to six people each. Expect $8 to $12 per person if you’re one or two people, or down to $4 per person if you fill the entire site. Good self-catering starts at around $30 to $40 per person and a two-sleeper bungalow in Kruger National Park is $100 or more, so the savings can add up quickly for every night you camp. 4x4s also have the added advantage of being that little bit higher off the ground on game drives, plus there’s the four-wheel drive itself which will get you into every corner of the country.
What is great about travelling through SA in a car?
It’s hard to make the most of South Africa without having your own vehicle for at least part of your holiday. Public transport within cities is very limited and between them, almost non-existent. Uber operates in the major centres, and it’s very useful for short rides to restaurants and beaches, but most of South Africa’s highlights are outside urban areas – even the Cape of Good Hope is almost two-hours’ drive from Cape Town’s city centre. A car gives you the freedom to explore the many attractions outside the cities, and to do so at your own pace.
A regular car will get you almost everywhere. The national highways are excellent and even the rural dirt roads are generally well maintained and suitable for sedans. There are some notable exceptions, but if you’re sticking to the towns, cities and major parks, then a car is all you need. For long road trips, they’re also the most economical option for the distances you’ll be covering. Cape Town to Port Elizabeth is 900 km via Cape Agulhas and the Garden Route, and that’s without any sightseeing detours on the way. If you’re driving in summer, make sure you have air conditioning – it can get very hot throughout the country.
Self-drive is also the most affordable way to go on safari. Kruger National Park and most others, are 100% accessible to normal cars. The only limitation with sedans is that they tend to be relatively low to the ground – not the ideal vantage point for game viewing.
South Africa drives on the left and the speed limit is 120 km/h on highways, and normally 60 km/h in town. Speed control cameras are commonly used. South Africans also have a tendency to call traffic lights ‘robots’ so keep that in mind if you’re ever asking for directions.
Almost all visitors from abroad fly to South Africa. The main hub for international flights is OR Tambo International Airport on the outskirts of Johannesburg, but some carriers also operate international flights to Cape Town and/or Durban.
The national carrier SAA, operates an extensive network of flights between Johannesburg and a large number of major cities in North and South America, Europe, Asia, Australia and elsewhere in Africa.
Most major international carriers operate direct flights between their home country and South Africa, among them Air China, Air France, Alitalia, British Airways, Cathay Pacific, Delta, EgyptAir, EL AL, Emirates, Ethiopian Airlines, Etihad, Iberia, Kenya Airways, KLM, Lufthansa, Qantas, Qatar, RwandAir, Singapore Airlines, Swiss, Turkish Airlines and Virgin Atlantic,. Particularly coming from a major European city such as London or Paris, there might be dozens of indirect options and you can save a lot of money by shopping around.
It is also possible to enter South Africa overland from the neighbouring countries of Mozambique, Zimbabwe, Botswana and Namibia, but you’d only be likely to do so as part of an extended overland trip through Africa.
There are overland borders with the Kingdoms of Lesotho and Swaziland, the former surrounded entirely and the latter on three sides by South Africa. It’s highly unlikely anybody would enter South Africa directly via either of these small countries, but some itineraries pass through them (Swaziland in particular) in which case any visitor who requires a visa should apply for multiple-entry.
A good network of domestic flights connects Johannesburg and Cape Town to other major cities such as Mbombela (for the Kruger Park), Durban, East London, Port Elizabeth and George (for the Garden Route).
Trunks roads are all surfaced and well maintained, so self-drive is a straightforward option, provided you have a valid license. The usual international car rental companies are represented in all major cities and airports. Driving is on the left side of the road, as in the UK, which may require some adjustment for drivers from mainland Europe, the USA and elsewhere who are accustomed to driving on the right.
A wide selection of countrywide and more local tours is available through various international and local operators.
Several Big Five reserves protect the more charismatic large mammals associated with the African savannah. Foremost among these is the Kruger National Park and abutting private reserves, but other key safari destinations include iSimangaliso Wetland Park, Hluhluwe- Imfolozi, Madikwe, Pilanesberg, Addo Elephant National Park and a variety of smaller and more exclusive private reserves.
These premier reserves all support healthy populations of lion, elephant and buffalo. South Africa stands as the world’s most important stronghold for rhinos (around 90% of the global population of white rhino and black rhino is concentrated there), while the private reserves bordering Kruger have few if any rivals when it comes to intimate leopard encounters.
Other wildlife associated with these reserves includes African wild dog, cheetah, spotted hyena, giraffe, zebra, warthog, baboon and vervet monkey. The country supports around two dozen species of antelope, ranging from the outsized eland and stately spiral-horned greater kudu, to the gregarious blue wildebeest and impala, to arid-country specialists such as gemsbok and springbok and the diminutive forest-dwelling red and blue duikers.
A number of large mammal species are endemic to South Africa. The black wildebeest and blesbok are associated mainly with grassy habitats in the highveld, while the Cape mountain zebra and bontebok are fynbos-dwellers more-or-less confined to the Western Cape.
Marine wildlife is a strong feature of South Africa. The clifftop town of Hermanus offers the world’s finest land-based whale-watching, while other marine wildlife attractions range from caged shark dives at Mossel Bay and turtle-nesting excursions in iSimangaliso to the penguin colony at Cape Town’s Boulders Beach and dolphins that frequently visit many of the country’s bays.
South Africa is a key bird watching destination. The national checklist comprises around 840 species, and includes the world’s largest bird (ostrich) and what is reputedly its bulkiest flying species (kori bustard) along with a dazzling variety of bee-eaters, turacos, parrot, rollers and waxbills. Around 35 bird species are more-or-less endemic to South Africa (some have a range extending into the small bordering kingdoms of Swaziland and Lesotho) and several more are near-endemics with a range that extends a small way into Namibia and/or Botswana. Avian variety is greatest in the southern summer (Nov-Mar) when several resident species assume a colourful breeding plumage and dozens of migrant species arrive from Europe or elsewhere in Africa. There are several sites in South Africa, most notably perhaps Kruger, where a moderately skilled birder could tick 100 species in a day.
South Africa is a linguistically diverse nation with 11 official languages, more than any other country, and several other minor regional tongues. The most numerically significant language is isiZulu, which is the mother tongue of roughly 22.5% of South Africans, follows by IsiXhosa (16%) and Dutch-based Afrikaans (13.5%). English, the first language of 9.5% of South Africans, is the lingua franca of the tourist industry and will be spoken to a high to middling standard by practically all waiters, bartenders, shop assistants and staff of hotel and other tourist-oriented institutions. The other official languages are SeSotho, Sepedi (also known as North SeSotho), IsiNdebele, Tshivenda, Setswana, Xitsonga and siSwati.
Crime rates are high but as a rule not directed specifically at tourists. The main crime hotspots areas are probably the CBDs of the three largest cities (Johannesburg, Cape Town and Durban) but an element of risk exists everywhere. That said, the overwhelming majority of visitors have hassle-free holidays and so should you if you follow the commonsense do’s and don’ts below:
Before you leave home, make sure you have a scan or other electronic version of all important travel documents, in case they are lost or stolen. Carry copies of these scans on all suitable devices, as well as emailing them to yourself.
Make sure your luggage can easily be padlocked; this won’t prevent a determined thief from slashing it open, but it is a strong deterrent to casual light fingers.
Never leave cash, mobile phones, electronic devices and other valuables lying around openly in your hotel room, and where possible show your passport and other important documents, as well as spare cash and cards, in a hotel safe.
Avoid displaying expensive jewellery, cameras, laptops or large amounts of cash in urban areas.
Avoid walking around towns after dark. If you do, there is safety in numbers, and it is always advisable to stick to busy and well-lit streets.
Be very alert around ATMs, especially in quiet areas and after dark.
The South African rand (ZAR) trades at very favourable rates to most international currencies. There’s no need to bring large amounts of hard currency cash or to buy rands in advance. Major international credit/debit cards (for instance Visa, Master and to a lesser extent American Express) can be used to draw local currency at 24-hour ATMs throughout the country (the one exception being in most national parks and game reserves) and to pay directly for almost all services and goods. That said, it’s a good idea to carry a bit of hard currency cash as a fallback, say the equivalent of around US$200-400; this can be exchanged into rands at any bank or bureau de change.
Johannesburg, Cape Town, Durban and other large cities are liberally dotted with shopping malls that typically contain several supermarkets and a plethora of other retail outlets selling the sort of goods you’d expect in similar establishments in North America and Europe. Home-grown foodstuffs, wine, beer and other local produce tends to be very inexpensive by international standards but imported goods can be pricey. Smaller towns tend to have at least one mall offering a similar range of goods but less choice than their big city counterparts. Shopping opportunities are rather more limited in game reserves.
Handicraft shops and stalls can be found at many lodges and most towns and other places where tourists congregate. And a mind-boggling array of crafts from all over Africa is on sale at markets such as Greenmarket Square in Cape Town and Norwood Rooftop Market in Johannesburg. Shops invariably charge fixed prices, but bargaining is essential at markets.
South Africa drives on the left, and road conditions are generally very good throughout the country. There are paved highways and secondary roads between all the major towns, and a network of gravel roads connecting rural areas. The paved roads aren’t always perfect, however, and some sections can be badly potholed. Particularly bad sections are usually signposted so keep an eye out for ‘slaggate’ – the word for potholes in Afrikaans. Also, keep a lookout for people and livestock, especially on the dirt roads of the Wild Coast and in rural KwaZulu-Natal. Drive cautiously on gravel regardless of the type of vehicle you’re driving. Providing you drive slowly, even regular cars will be fine on most dirt roads.
Parts of the West Coast, north-eastern coast and the Drakensberg, are 4x4 or high-clearance vehicle only. Unless you specifically look for 4x4 trails, most Drakensberg roads are easily manageable, even by inexperienced drivers.
In the west and northeast, you’ll find soft sand and you’ll need to drop your tyre pressure before tackling it. Around 1.5 bar is usually fine, but drop to 1.2 bar for deep sand. Avoid going below 1 bar or the tyre may come off the rim. Note that tyre pressures should be taken when tyres are cold. Hot tyres will read up to half a bar higher than when they’re cool.
Once you have the right tyre pressure, stretches of deep sand (and mud) become a lot easier to manage. Engage 4x4, choose and remain in either first or second gear depending on how steep or bumpy the track is, and keep your engine revs high, applying constant power until you’re through.
Be sure to re-inflate your tyres once back on firmer ground. Hitting rocks or potholes with soft tyres can severely damage the rim.
You can have a great self-drive holiday in South Africa in any type of vehicle. The choice depends entirely on your itinerary and budget, and whether you prefer hotels and cottages, or if you’re happy to camp. South Africa has great campsites and a motorhome or 4x4 with a roof tent makes camping comfortable and easy. 4x4s are also higher, and better for game viewing, but unless you are drawn to the most remote corners, such as the Richtersveld or northern iSimangaliso, a 4x4 is a nice-to-have, not a necessity. Almost everywhere in South Africa is accessible in a regular car. If you’re planning on spending time in the cities or in popular areas such as the Garden Route, then a car will be more economical and perfectly adequate. Wherever you’re heading, be prepared for long distances. Radio stations have limited coverage so make sure you have some good playlists or audiobooks, especially if you’re travelling with kids.
Radio may be limited, but mobile phone cover is good. There’s 4G in all the major cities and high-speed data along the highways and most national roads. The most poorly-covered regions are the Karoo and the north west. Large parts of Kruger National Park and the Kgalagadi are also out of range. Of the local mobile operators, Vodacom and MTN have the best cover so choose one of these if you’re buying a local sim card. Foreign visitors are allowed to buy local prepaid sim cards, but you’ll need to provide your passport and proof of address when purchasing. This can be proof of a hotel reservation on an official letterhead, or if you’re staying with friends, you’ll need them to draw up an affidavit to verify their house as your temporary residence. You can also buy a local sim card before you leave and collect it at the airport. Getting a local sim card is by far the cheapest and easiest way to stay in touch with the world. Check that your phone is not blocked from accepting new sims before you travel. If you have data, then Google Maps will get you around most of South Africa and there’s good signposting to cover the rest. Do get a physical map for Kruger, and any other major parks you’re visiting, but in general, you won’t need a map book to navigate, although a good paper map can be invaluable for planning routes.
To keep your phone and cameras charged, make sure you have an appropriate adaptor. South Africa uses both 2- and 3-pin sockets. The 2-pins are EU-standard, but most wall-sockets use a circular 3-pin that’s not common elsewhere. You’ll find adaptors at any South African airport travel shop. A portable battery pack is also good for emergencies, especially if you’re travelling to very remote areas that might not have power. A pair of binoculars is essential for game viewing and a good animal and bird identification book will add enormously to your enjoyment on safari. There’ll be plenty of great photo opportunities too, so if you’re ever going to invest, now would be a great time to buy that zoom lens. Take a spare camera battery and memory cards. You may not have time to download or charge while you’re on the road.
Make sure you know where your jack and tyre tools are, and speak to your rental company about what to do if you break down completely. If you can phone them they’ll probably be able to send someone to assist you, no matter where you are. It’s a good idea to have a local sim card with calling credit. Roaming calls can be very expensive.
Private towing companies operate in certain areas and they can be a nuisance when trying to get business. Tell them you have a rental and that help is on the way, and don’t take no for an answer.
If you break down at night, deploy your reflective triangle to warn traffic. Long-haul trucks often pull into the hard shoulder to allow other vehicles to pass – give them at least 100m warning if you can.
If you feel unsafe for any reason you can and should call the police. But don’t panic, there’s seldom cause for alarm, just inconvenience. Don’t be afraid to ask for help from locals. They’ll usually assist you in any way they can.
Campsite rules vary, but keep an eye out for regulations that are wildlife specific. Baboons, monkeys, birds and even honey badgers can wreak havoc in an unattended camp so look out for signs and heed any warnings. If there are lids on the bins, make sure you replace and secure them. Wherever you’re camping, don’t leave food in the open and put any leftovers in your vehicle overnight.
Many campsites have electricity, but plug points aren’t always conveniently placed. An extension cord can be useful for charging items safely in your car. Power can cost extra, but once you’ve paid for your campsite there should be no further fees. There’s never an extra charge for the ablutions or hot showers.
Most campsites ask for silence after 10pm, but campfire conversation, at a reasonable volume, is generally acceptable into the night. Make sure your fire is properly extinguished before you head to bed.
Music is rarely allowed and national park campsites are particularly strict on noise. Busy resort campsites, however, can get a bit rowdy in the holiday season.
Perhaps the most important rule in the Big Five parks is don’t get out of your vehicle. There are designated picnic spots and ablutions where you can do so, but otherwise stay inside. It’s not only unsafe, but you risk getting ejected from the park if caught. Get a map of the park at the gate. It’ll show you the places you can stretch your legs.
The Big Five parks all require visitors to be back in camp before dark. Gate times are seasonal so check them before you head out on a drive – you’ll be fined if you’re late without a very good reason.
If you’re arriving late at the main entrance gate, you may be allowed access if it’s before 9pm, your camp is near the gate, and you have proof of a booking. Best not to risk it however – there are no guarantees.
If you spot an animal and you’re the first vehicle there, park on the side of the road closest to it, even if this faces oncoming traffic. Don’t go so close that you disturb the animal, but you’ll get a better view yourself, and the animal will be less bothered by passing traffic. Once you’re parked, switch off your engine. Be ready to start again quickly and keep a clear exit open, particularly around elephants. If elephants flap their ears, it’s usually a sign of distress – be especially careful around large bulls. If necessary, back off, and give the animal plenty of space. It’s particularly dangerous to separate a mother elephant and her calf – never drive your vehicle between them.
If you’re not the first to a sighting, respect those already there. Don’t drive into their line of sight, and move on if there are already many vehicles and the animals are being disturbed. Speed limits are low in the parks, but pull over if someone is looking to pass. And be careful of the smaller creatures – dung beetles and other insects often use the road.
Finally, if you’re visiting a number of parks, or especially if you’re travelling as a family, it may be worth purchasing an International All Parks Wild Card which grants access to over 80 parks across South Africa, without paying conservation fees. Check the daily conservation fees for the parks you’re planning to visit – these will be in addition to any overnight accommodation costs and are higher for foreign visitors than for locals. The Wild Card can provide huge savings.
South Africa has some very fine restaurants, serving all types of cuisine, and it’s usual to tip 10-15% if the service has been good. But if you’re really unhappy, withholding your tip will definitely show your displeasure.
South Africa is well-known for quality beef, lamb and seafood, but look out for the more exotic game too. Springbok, kudu, wildebeest and ostrich are all excellent and you’ll find even more unusual meat for sale in the camp shops in Kruger. Biltong, a dried-meat snack similar to beef jerky, is sold everywhere. It’s extremely popular and you’ll find it made from all kinds of red meat. Buy the unsliced sticks, they’re usually the best.
Braais, or barbecues, are a national pastime and you’ll find meat, wood, grids and tongs sold everywhere. But vegetarians needn’t panic, there’s also a huge choice of vegetables and fruit, and almost all restaurants will have at least a few vegetarian options on the menu.
The African sun is particularly fierce – even through cloud cover – so a hat is essential when spending any time outdoors. Long sleeves and loose trousers are also a good idea, both against the sun and any mosquitos. Malaria is confined to the northeast of the country, but mosquitos are a nuisance even where there is no risk. Covering up is the best way to avoid bites.
On the coast, the weather can be very unpredictable so regardless of the season, pack a rain jacket and something warm. Head-to-toe khaki is not necessary for a safari, but many animals do spook at bright colours, especially red, so make sure you pack something more subdued for the game parks.
South Africans don’t call themselves the Rainbow Nation for nothing. The mix and variety of local languages and cultures is unlike anywhere else in the world. Each culture has its own frames of reference and idiosyncrasies, but hospitality, warmth and openness are common traits to all. Be prepared to slow down a little, and take the time to chat. You’ll find people from all walks of life keen for a conversation, especially if you can start things off with a few words in their home tongue. Punctuality is not particularly important, or rather people tend to be less specific about the time they’ll arrive. ‘Africa time’ is a cliché, but it’s apt. You’ll hear the phrase ‘just now’ a lot. It means some indeterminate time in the future (not the past), so no need to hurry, whatever’s happening, will happen in a bit. Common courtesy will get you as far in South Africa as anywhere else in the world. There’s a general awareness and acceptance of difference, and there’s not much you could do to offend that wouldn’t also be offensive at home.
Visitors from Australia, North America, and most of South America and Europe, can get a ‘Port of Entry Visa’ for visits up to 90 days. These are issued on arrival, providing your passport is valid for at least 1 month from your date of departure. 1 month is the official guideline, but best to have at least 6 months to avoid questions and delays.
It’s difficult to get a visa extension beyond 90 days. If you’d like to spend more than 90 days in South Africa, the simplest option is to leave and come back, but you will need to travel to a country beyond South Africa’s immediate neighbours. Border hopping to Botswana and back will not suffice.
If you’re travelling with children under 18 you must, in addition to their valid passport, also carry an unabridged birth certificate for each child. The birth certificate must clearly state the names of both parents, and whoever is named must either be there in person, or must provide an affidavit giving their consent for the child to travel.
Providing you are not a resident in South Africa and have a valid entry visa for your holiday, you can drive on any foreign driver's’ license as long it’s currently valid, has your photo on it and is written in English. If it’s not in English, you will need to get an International Driving Permit from your home country before departing.
South Africa’s currency is the ‘rand’ and the country has a modern and extensive banking system. There are cashpoints / ATMs in even the smallest towns and while it’s advisable to carry a small amount for emergencies, you can draw extra cash almost everywhere. Criminals do sometimes target ATMs, especially in busy urban areas. Be attentive and don’t use machines which look like they may have been tampered with. If you see anyone suspicious, move on.
Credit cards are accepted almost everywhere, including petrol stations. Some retailers refuse Diners Club and American Express, and foreign credit cards are not accepted at toll roads or international road borders, so be sure to have cash for those specific situations.
If you do arrive with cash, note that any foreign currency to the value of $10,000 or more (or local currency of more than R25,000) must be declared to South African customs. If you purchase clothes, presents or other goods within South Africa, you can also claim the 15% VAT back at the airport when you leave. To do this, you must have the full tax invoice for each item. It must say ‘tax invoice’ on it, and include the seller’s full details (including tax number) and the cost of the goods in rands.
South Africa has great food, with large modern supermarkets in the main cities, and smaller grocery stores in most rural towns. Eating out is not expensive compared with Europe and North America. There’s everything from Burger King to hipster farmers’ markets, plus exceptional restaurants serving quality meat, vegetables and seafood. The country caters well for road trippers. Roadside farm stalls sell local produce and snacks, and most petrol/gas stations have small shops and fast-food outlets attached. Tap water is drinkable everywhere in South Africa unless specifically stated otherwise, which is very rare. Some rural areas rely on boreholes, which can taste a bit earthy or brackish, so keep some bottled water with you if you’re leaving the main tourist track.
South Africa has 11 national languages, but you can get by with English nearly everywhere. Most white South Africans speak only English or Afrikaans (related to Dutch), while many black South Africans will speak one or more local African languages, plus English, Afrikaans or both. isiZulu and isiXhosa are the two most spoken first languages. About 40% of the population speaks one or other as their mother tongue. On the whole, English is more widely spoken along the coast and Afrikaans more common inland. All non-native English speakers will appreciate a few words in their home language and you’ll get a big smile if you’re willing to make the effort.
So you’ve arrived in South Africa, picked up your vehicle and now you’re ready to hit the road. Before you drive off, make sure your paperwork is in order. If you’re crossing any borders, you’ll need a Letter of Authority from your rental company and a copy of the vehicle’s registration papers. Depending where you’re going you may also have to display reflective stickers on your vehicle, and you’ll likely need an International Driving Permit along with your driver’s license. Your rental company should provide all relevant details before departure. Crossing by road into Zimbabwe can take time and patience, but other land borders are more efficient and usually very friendly. If you have your vehicle paperwork, a few hundred rand for road taxes, and assuming you’re eligible for a visa, you’ll have no trouble. For the best experience, pick small border posts, furthest from the national roads. They’re usually very quiet and you’ll probably be through in minutes. Note that if you’re crossing into Botswana there are restrictions on importing certain fruit and fresh meat. These change from time to time, and you’ll need to check current regulations before you travel.
Visitors from Europe do not require vaccinations, but those arriving from Yellow Fever zones in Africa or the Americas may be asked for proof of vaccination on arrival. Yellow Fever regulations change regularly so check the current situation before you travel. Other precautionary vaccinations are optional. Consult your doctor regarding Typhoid, Hepatitis A and B, and Tetanus in particular. Malaria prophylaxis may also be required depending on where you travel. It’s not necessary for any of the major cities, or anywhere in the centre, south or west of the country. The highest risk is along the Mozambique and Zimbabwe borders – this includes Kruger National Park.
South Africa’s emergency medical services are excellent and they’ll treat and stabilise you with no questions asked. The nationwide emergency number for the police is 10111 and for an ambulance it’s 10177. Both are free from any landline. You can dial these numbers from a mobile as well, but there’s a dedicated mobile emergency number that’s better.
112 is free from any mobile phone and you can place the call without a contract or calling credit. 112 will put you through to an emergency call centre and can also be used for police, fire and sea rescue.
Various provinces and regions also have dedicated local services which are listed on signs and notice boards at the entrances to hiking trails and beaches. In the Cape, the mountain search and rescue teams can be reached on 021 937 0300.
Public and private healthcare systems operate in tandem in South Africa. Public healthcare is subsidised by the government, but it’s understaffed and underfunded. The private healthcare system is exceptionally good, however, with quality of care at first-world standards.
If your medical emergency requires hospitalisation, you’ll likely end up in a private hospital. You should have medical insurance to cover any emergency, but even so you may be required to pay cash or credit up front while your insurance is being processed. Whatever your emergency you can expect very high levels of care from all medical and healthcare services in South Africa.
Travel insurance is highly recommended. Make sure it covers theft, loss, cancellation, and also all the activities you’re planning to do. Read the fine print carefully. Adventure activities such as scuba diving are often excluded from standard policies and may require additional, explicit cover. Some activities, walking safaris for example, will require you to produce appropriate insurance before you begin. Your medical cover should include airlifts and evacuations – South Africa is big, and emergencies can happen far from the major hospitals. For minor treatment, most doctors’ surgeries will require payment upfront in cash or by credit card, and expect you to claim the costs back from your insurance later. South Africa’s private hospitals are excellent, and for more serious emergencies, they’re where you want to be. These private hospitals may also require payment upfront until they’ve verified your policy. Check how long your insurance company takes to provide guarantees of payment and make sure you have access to cash or credit in case of delay.
South Africa has a reputation for crime, but the kind of crime that targets visitors is much the same as in most other countries. In the main tourist areas, you’ll find occasional pickpockets and bag theft, and it’s best to avoid carrying expensive camera equipment out in the open. It’s also important not to leave belongings visible on your car seat, even during the day, and never walk through unfamiliar suburbs after dark. Whatever the situation, trust your instincts and if any conversation or interaction is concerning you, move on immediately. Don’t be afraid of offended feelings. If you follow this advice and are generally attentive (especially when withdrawing money from ATMs), then you’re extremely unlikely to have any trouble. And don’t let the thought of crime deter you from exploring beyond the cities. The countryside is generally even safer, and the further you are from the tourist centres, the more welcoming and hospitable your stay is likely to be.