South Africa: Gold and Wine

South Africa has wines that are world famous and sought after as well as being the largest producer of gold in the world, but these are not its true treasure, which is the multitude of different peoples and fantastically varied wildlife.


Getting in, out, and about


US travelers to South Africa do not need to apply for a special visa if traveling for tourist purposes and staying for 90 days or less. You will need a passport that’s valid for at least another six months and has two unstamped visa pages in it.


The World Health Organization designates some countries as yellow fever countries. South Africa is not one of these, but it will deny entry to anyone who has been in one of these countries without having had a yellow fever vaccination and a certification of this, called a yellow card. Make sure it’s the original. South Africa is quite strict about this. Even if you have touched down in a designated country and never left the plane, if you don’t have a valid, original yellow card, immigration officials will deny you entry.


There is no risk of yellow fever in South Africa, so you only need the vaccine if your travel plans include as much as a layover in a yellow fever country. There are no other required vaccines, however. The US Center for Disease Control recommends you are up to date on the common vaccinations. It also recommends vaccinations against hepatitis A and typhoid for most travelers, but you should consult your local doctor before doing so.


Other vaccinations to consider are those against rabies and hepatitis B, depending on your plans. Another treatment to consider with your doctor is antimalarial medicine, which technically isn’t a vaccine because it won’t make you immune to malaria, so much as resistant to it. Avoiding mosquito bites altogether is the only way to absolutely avoid contracting malaria. The northeastern part of South Africa is the high mosquito area, so be sure to use proper insect repellant as an additional precaution if your travels take you there.


South Africa does have a high rate of crime, even though most travelers will experience no problems in this regard. US travelers should be especially vigilant when near US diplomatic facilities because there have been high instances of mugging there. Another common occurrence to watch out for can happen when you travel from the airport to your hotel. Many criminals will follow vehicles and look for an opportune time to detain your car and rob you. The US State Department recommends that travelers use the Gautrain service to transit from the airport to their hotels. Please consult the State Department website for additional safety precautions:


If you have a valid driver’s license in the US, you are able to drive legally in South Africa for up to six months. However, most insurance companies will not process an insurance claim in the event you get in an accident unless you provide proof of an International Driver’s Permit. Driving occurs on the left side of the road rather than the right, so be sure and reverse all driving procedures (such as providing right of way to drivers coming from your right – in South Africa, this would be to your left instead). It is also advisable to refrain from driving at night outside of major cities. Watch out for potential distractions, and before leaving any place where you have been parked, be sure to check your tires for any sabotage. A common approach to mugging is to stick something in a victim’s tires to cause them to go flat down the road, so robbers can pretend to be good Samaritans and help out, when it’s really a setup to mug you. Other options for getting around outside the cities are to take a bus or a train or hire a driver. For some parts of South Africa, it’s better to have a vehicle with four-wheel drive capabilities. Public transit within cities varies, but is mostly underdeveloped and can even be dangerous, so your best bet is to rent a car.


The traveler’s tongue


South Africa has eleven different languages that are official languages. The most popularly spoken language is Afrikaans, though you’ll find other languages spoken primarily in various regions. Despite its name, Afrikaans actually derives from Dutch rather than a language native to the continent. Other popular languages include Zulu, Sotho, Venda, and Xhosa. English is also spoken widely, primarily as a second language for most, although some residents do speak English as their first language. You’ll find English speakers far fewer when you travel in South Africa’s more rural areas.


Money matters in South Africa


South Africa uses the rand as its unit of currency. Prices are written with a capital R in front where the US equivalent would put the dollar sign, so that something that costs 100 rand would be written thus: R100. You can get rand in denominations of 10, 20, 50, 100, and 200, but R200 bills may not be accepted in many places because they have been prone to counterfeiting. Major credit cards are accepted throughout most of urban South Africa, and there are numerous ATMs. Stay safe by using ATMs only inside buildings, such as your hotel or a bank or mall. Even then, remain vigilant and beware of people trying to help you with your transaction because they are probably trying to help themselves to your transaction instead. Traveler’s checks are one safe option because you can cash them at banks throughout South Africa, rural and urban, and they are insured against theft.


Prices in South Africa are slightly lower than in the US, so your money can stretch a bit further. For example, a decent bottle of wine averages around $5 USD. A mid-range restaurant dinner entrée can cost around $15 USD, but about half that at cheaper restaurants, while fast food value meals will run under $5 USD.


Mid-range accommodations at a three-star hotel range from approximately $30 to $90 USD a night, although at the upper end of that range you can also find 4- and 5-star hotels. Hostels can be found for as low as $2 USD per person per night, but this is rare. They average around $10 to $15 USD. For travelers on a budget, you can get by reasonably on a budget of about $50 to $70 USD a day, and even less than that when you camp or stay in hostels that provide meals or they have kitchens and you buy your own groceries.


Tipping is appropriate throughout South Africa because many of the workers are paid extremely low wages. Tips of 10-15% are standard at restaurants. A R2 to R5 (20-50 cents) is an appropriate tip for gas station attendants who wash your windows, or for parking attendants (which is often a way to avoid petty thefts because the attendants will watch your car for you). Hotel porters tend to get around R15 (around $1.50 US) per bag, and housekeeping tips are usually about R50 per day (or just under $5 USD). Tour guides, drivers, and taxi drivers should also accept tips; the amount varies depending on the length or distance involved.


Highlights of a vacation to South Africa


South Africa is a country of people who appreciate the outdoors. You’ll find plenty of opportunities for hiking and adventure sports. Here are some highlights for a South African vacation:


  • Cape Town. The second largest city in South Africa sits near the Cape of Good Hope and beneath Table Mountain. There are amazing climbing and hiking activities outside the city that give you a commanding view of the city below, or if hiking up mountain trails is too much for you, there is a cable car short cut. Places to check out include the Castle of Good Hope, which is the oldest building in South Africa; Robben Island, which houses the prison where Nelson Mandela and other political prisoners were kept during the height of the apartheid era; the Bo-Kaap Museum, which, located in the colorful Bo-Kaap neighborhood, offers insight into the history and life-ways of the Muslim population in Cape Town.
  • Johannesburg. Take a guided tour through the Soweto Township in the largest city in South Africa, or visit the Cradle of Humanity site nearby, a UNESCO World Heritage site that explores the origins of humanity. To experience a unique and authentic cultural exchange, visit the Lesedi Cultural Village, where you can learn about the Zulu and other African cultures. At the Lion Park, you have an opportunity to feed giraffes and touch lion cubs, or you can go for a more complete nature excursion at nearby Suikerbosrand Nature Preserve.
  • Kruger National Park. Make this a destination point only if you have been taking antimalarial medication because it is in the malaria zone. But whether you take a safari tour by vehicle or walk some of the nature trails, this experience of unique and varied wild life is one of Africa’s main attractions.
  • Durban. This city on the east coast of the country and is one of South Africans’ vacation destinations of choice. Numerous beaches that form the Golden Mile provide fun water activities from surfing to scuba diving. With a large Indian population, this was the city where Mohandas Gandhi lived before moving to India and leading that country’s break from British rule.
  • Vredefort Dome. This is the oldest and largest meteorite crater in the world and a UNESCO World Heritage site.


South Africa provides numerous fantastic settings for a safari, in addition to opportunities to interact with a multitude of different cultures. Start planning your trip today for a vacation experience that will be completely unique.