South Africa is a bit like the US…actually in many ways it is a lot like the US, and in matters of mass transit it is similarly an automobile society where to the middle classes public transport is a dirty word. As a consequence the far reaching public transport network that serves the people is not particularly accessible to tourists. There are however many ways to get around in South Africa, and here are a few examples:
Planes: For a ‘Developing Country’ South Africa is extremely well developed indeed, and across the board the communications infrastructure is impressive, not least in the matter of regional and local airports.
Johannesburg International, or Oliver Tambo International, is about as functional an airport as you will find anywhere, and a lot more functional than some international heavyweights like JFK, Charles de Gaul or Schipol, and is the busiest transport hub in Africa. To get from Johannesburg to any of the other three main provincial capitals of Cape Town, Bloemfontein and Durban, the quickest and easiest way is to fly.
A dozen or so local air services operate in South Africa…
…including the national carrier South African Airways, one of the most highly rated in the world. One or two other prominent names in the industry are Kalula.com, 1-Time, Mango, Interlink, South African Airlink, South African Express, Comair and Pelican Air Services.
With such a competitive industry at work it stands to reason that standards of service and reliability will be high, and they are.
Inter city flights are not particularly cheap, although at around US$100 –US$120 they are also not that expensive.
Every corner of the country is covered.
Trains are the people’s transport, but expect standards of service and reliability to be high
Train travel is not something that middle and executive class South Africans do for reasons of practicality or need. Inner city commuter trains (metrorail) have a reputation for seediness and crime and should be avoided, but inter-city commuter trains are a pleasant way to travel, at least at the 1st and 2nd class levels.
Luxury: No train service in world probably touches the Luxrail Blue Train for old-world luxury on wheels. This services has reputation akin to the Orient Express, and is a South African institution. It Is not a means to get from one place to another, since it is what might be termed a Rail Cruise, but it does get you where you need to go in the most memorable and comfortable way possible.
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There are varied routes attached to this train service, but nowadays it tends to be limited to Johannesburg/Pretoria to Cape Town, and since that is the major route of transit for visitors to SA, this might be an option worth considering.
Premier: A reasonably affordable Premier Train Service runs twice weekly between Johannesburg, Cape Town and Durban. Again this is something to do for the experience rather than to get from one place to another. At a cost of between US$100 and US$200 per person this is not cheap as train trips go, but being an overnighter full berth and bedding are available, as well as meals.
You don’t need to know where the trains stations are. They are never in nice parts of town, so don’t risk it, use a taxi or a lodge or hotel shuttle.
Shosholoza Meyl long-distance passenger trains: This is one of South Africa’s best kept travel secrets, utilizing the same rails, and passing through the same lovely countryside, these comfortable but affordable services cover most of the main centres on a regular, scheduled service, costing on average under US$100 for a bed in a 2 or 4 bunk sleeper. Recently a Tourist Class option has been included which offers comfortable berths and a dining car, all served to a reasonably high standard.
Look out for the Outeniqua Choo Tjoe, the last continuously operating steam commuter train in South Africa. Operating between George and Mossel Bay in the Cape, it is a tourist attraction these days, but still proudly working a scheduled service.
Like every country in Africa the main system of local and long distance mass transit is the informal local taxi sub-culture
In South Africa everything is a bit more regulated than mainland Africa and so the taxi services here are a bit less informal than most, but South African commuter taxis still nurture a reputation for maverick driving habits and anti-social road use.
However this is how the people get around, and if you want to get under the skin of the nation, this is the quickest and easiest way to do it.
However, be warned that this is the soft underbelly of the nation, and wide-ranging travels on a commuter taxi exposes to you to the potential for crime, since you will never pass as a local, and keen eyes will always be watching you as a foreigner for the fanny pack that will be somewhere on you, and the US dollars you are bound to be carrying.
Inter-city coaches have in recent years become a common sight on the roads of South Africa…
…and services are offered between the main cities of South Africa, with many side schedules also offered, and these days international services as far afield as Zambia and Malawi. The main players are TransLux, InterCape.
Car Hire is the best way to get around South Africa
The road system in South Africa is phenomenal and all the major international, and quite a few local car hire agencies are represented at all the airports and major hotels, so getting connected could not be easier. Most of the regions are sub-divided into tourist districts….such as the Midland Meander of the Panorama Route, the Garden Route or Route 62, so the potential for road touring is endless.
The only drawback of car hire as a means to get around is crime. The highways and byways of South Africa are not safe. Roadside breakdowns, nap-stops or picnics are not advisable. Make sure you are cell phone connected, signed up with the Automobile Association and have all the relevant emergency numbers programmed into your cell phone before you leave.
If you break down for any reason call for help and sit tight!
The Baz Bus: Baz Bus is a great service applying mainly to backpackers, and is a regularly scheduled service operating on a jump-on-jump-off basis between just about every backpackers lodge in South Africa. Bax Bus is the business.
Hitch hiking: …verboten!!!