If you are planning a trip to South Africa for the Fifa 2010 World Cup Tournament, or for any reason at all, here are a few tips to help you navigate through this vast and beautiful country.
Crime: Caution pays better dividends than denial…
There is no getting around the fact that South Africa is a dangerous country. Crime statistics are astronomical, with the added leavening of a widespread taste for gratuitous violence that sees many otherwise reasonably benign crimes lapse into extreme and unnecessary bloodshed and loss of life.
Why this is so has consumed endless debate among sociologists and civic leaders, but the fact remains that it is so, and for a visitor to this fair land caution pays a better dividend than denial, so here are a few pointers:
South Africa has a deceptively ‘Developed World’ appearance that lulls a visitor into believing he/she is in the developed world. In Africa such conspicuous wealth floats on a deep pool of corresponding poverty, so don’t be fooled, and take nothing at face value.
Take note of the razor wire and iron gates at your backpackers lodge or hotel, and recognize that such lavish security is not there for no reason at all.
If you travel with a group stick together, and follow the advice of your tour leader or hotel proprietor when navigating local conditions. Try not to travel independently if you can help it, and stay away from any city center after dark, and try and stay away from city centers the rest of the time too, they are rarely the most pleasant parts of town.
Don’t put yourself at unnecessary risk. Don’t pull up on the side of the road for a nap, drive or walk into any high density residential area, and try not to be out on the roads after dark
The best advice of all would be to book a trip if you intend to travel and do not leave it until the last minute and wing it on your own.
Your instincts of survival and self preservation should turned up to the maximum at all times in South Africa!
Culture: The Rainbow Nation is alive and well in South Africa…
South Africa is the Rainbow Nation, and the cultural diversity you will encounter everywhere you go can only amaze you. South Africans also have a history of race division, however, and although they seem on the surface to enjoy a highly developed sense of inter-race humor, it pays as a rule to keep clear of any searching debates about race and race politics.
The upside of the South African race diversity is the cultural wonderland that invites a curious visitor into many culinary and sensory adventures. Consider the many diverse restaurant, cafes and bars for example, and just one regional example is Cape Dutch cuisine, that aromatic synthesis of East Indian and colonial mixes seems to have emerged strongly in South Africa, and particularly in hotspots the Cape and Durban.
Cape Dutch food and wine is widely available all over the region, and melds together the influences of early Dutch settlers with a plethora of Indian and Malay. Then there is Indian itself, with such local variants an the Durban Masala, a fiery version of the original that is a must for curry buffs. Look out for samoosas, known in local parlance as dri-hookie-coolie-cookie. Dutch/Afrikaans borrows liberally from this culture, as it does from all sub-cultures in South Africa. Afrikaans cuisine is focused often on the ubiquitous braai, a local barbecue tradition, and on one-pot fire-cooked meals called potjies, and then of course the cinnamon and cumin laced delicacies of the Cape-Colored community.
Music and dance is also very much a feature of South African culture. Here again a range of social influences have fused to throw up a variety of different sights and sounds, characterized…well…by variety. If World Music of a pan-African texture is what you will be looking for, you will find it in many forms, but also you will find a developed and highly sophisticated jazz culture, variants of hip-hop, lashings of mainstream homegrown rock and punk, and the deeply traditional and sentimental Boer Musiek that caters to the fading white middle classes.
A range of music and arts festivals are held annually throughout South Africa, and an unfortunate visitor indeed will be he or she who finds nothing to suit their tastes.
South Africa is very well covered by guide books, local history and one or two Nobel literary laureates that collectively offer an almost unlimited choice of reading material to introduce you to South Africa.
South Africa has more to see than any other African country…
Most of the main travel destinations in Africa sport a handful of attractions, usually defined by idyllic tropical beaches and wildlife parks, and of course South Africa has these in abundance, but it has so much more besides. From east to west, from north to south, the possibilities are endless.
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The Cape is famous for temperate landscapes, traditional Europeanesuqe architecture and wine and cuisine, but look out for the vibrant nightlife and plethora of cultural venues in Cape Town, Shark Diving in Gansbaai and whale watching in Hermanus. The heartland of open road touring in South Africa is the Western Cape region that encompasses the Karoo, Namaqualand and the Kalahari fringe of Richtersveld and the Kgalghadi TransFrontier National Park.
Kwa/Zulu Natal is the sultry east coast of South Africa, lapped by the warm waters of the Indian Ocean, and studded with wonderful beachside towns and villages, headed up by the metropolis of Durban, that original cultural melting pot in an already culturally diverse nation.
KNZ is the homeland of the Zulu Nation, and traditional cultural expression tends to reflect this, but it is also the home of the largest East Indian population outside of India, and so seethes with color, fragrance and flavor. It is the most populous province in South Africa, and is highly developed along its coastline, although further north thing are a bit wilder with the St Lucia Wetland complex and smaller but iconic parks such as Hluhlue and Umfolozi.
It is an intensely green and tropical region of South Africa, but it also enjoys The Midlands which is the soft heart of the nation, and composed mostly of green, rolling hill country that culminates in the rugged escarpment of the Drakensberg Mountains.
The North and Northeast of South Africa is big game country, and the province of Mpumulanga boasts the greatest wildlife park of the all: Kruger National Park, the flagship of South African conservation, and without doubt one of the best eco-travel destinations in Africa.
Besides this the northern end of the Drakensberg Escarpment is a uniquely beautiful region of highlands, canyons, caves and forests, offering historic glimpses of the old mining heritage of South Africa.
The cities of South Africa each enjoy a distinct individuality, with Cape Town leading the pack, but Johannesburg following close behind, and the runners up of Durban, Port Elizabeth and Bloemfontein each offering unique cultural insights and vibrant urban grooves.
Get around easily in a highly traveler friendly environment
South Africa, it often seems, does not belong in Africa at all. It enjoys a transport and communication infrastructure that by world standards is impressive, but by African standards is miraculous. Expect therefore to experience no problems getting around.
Each of the provinces has an international class airport with all the facilities that might be expected from a first class facility. Thanks to the prevalence of crime in South Africa these airports are very stringently regulated, and most hotels and lodges offer a complimentary airport pickup, which takes much of the guesswork out of coming and going.
Besides this there is an excellent domestic and regional flight network that covers not only the main airports but many of the smaller ones, and again your hospitality proprietor or tour operator will usually collect and drop you off.
Inter-city travel by coach and scheduled bus service is always easy to arrange, and the selection of services, as well as destinations, is, as would be expected, very good.
For budget travelers a dedicated bus services is in operation that completes a series of circuits around South Africa, taking in almost all the main backpackers lodges, on a jump-on-jump-off basis. These is the Baz Bus.
Everything under the sun for the comfort traveler
Here again expect astonishing variety and high standards of service and facilities.
Brand name hotels proliferate in South Africa, and most, if not all, enjoy a solid web presence so information and bookings are easy to arrange.
Likewise South Africa has a widespread and growing network of backpackers lodges that are also well represented on the web and also offer all the sensible services necessary to keep you safe in a high crime neighborhood.
Also a common feature in South Africa are a litany of game and theme lodges set in and around the main national parks and beauty spots, probably most notably game lodges, but all kinds of these high end facilities exist. They are rarely cheap, but standards are universally high and usually the service is integrated with some sort of safari/excision option that explores the surrounding area.
Lastly a vast network of B&Bs and Guesthouses are to be found all over South Africa, and rarely does a town of village not have at least one. These tend to be less well represented on the web, and often they serve road touring parties and work along the lines of drop-in bookings.
All in all South Africa is well set up to handle large numbers of travelers from budget to elite with everything in between.
World class standards of health care…
A growing feature of the South African hospitality industry in the Health & Wellness phenomenon, and in most of the upscale wilderness lodges – and there are few of these that are not upscale – an emphasis is placed on spa and wellness facilities that try as much as possible to lean on local tradition herbalism and practice.
In the Cape the industry has a much more cosmopolitan flavor, while throughout the country there are themed resorts that tap into geo-thermal springs offering a variety of curative properties.
South Africa is also one of the global medical tourism destinations, Safari & Surgery being the local variant, and bearing in mind that the first successful heart transplant was conducted in South Africa, facilities and expertise across the board are very high.
It is not unknown, however, for hospitals to refuse care, even emergency care, to the uninsured, so while you will probably have better care than you can expect at home, it is not free, and health insurance is vital.
Emergency response on South Africa’s roads and countryside is exceptional, but again make sure you have insurance.
Step into a fully fledged consumer nation…
Seasoned African travelers who are accustomed to a complete lack of consumer culture on the ground are usually amazed when crossing the Limpopo into South Africa to be confronted immediately by an American style Mall culture that in many respects exceeds the lavish supply of the original.
The Sandton Center in Johannesburg, for example, is regarded as one of the world premier shopping destinations. It is only just slightly more lavish than many other luxury malls scattered around the country, and thousands of other smaller shopping centers countrywide that offer everything you are ever likely to need, and usually much more.
So don’t worry if you forget something, and more importantly if you are planning a trip north into the African heartland any last minute requirements as well as any pharmaceuticals you will need along the way are all easily available in South Africa.
Use your plastic anywhere in South Africa..
This is again something that you need not worry about too much in South Africa. The local currency is the Rand, it is internationally traded and there is no local currency black market as there is in many other African countries. Most banks will change money, and credit cards are widely accepted almost everywhere that you will need to use one. Local ATMs proliferate, and are usually very reliable.
Get the word out with the best communications infrastructure in Africa
The web is alive and well in South Africa, wi-fi is everywhere and every hospitality facility, even the most humble, is connected. It is very easy to get connected up with a cell phone, and pay-as-you-go set up is a simple matter of walking into your local or airport Vodacom or MTN store.
Find out what you need to know in the most out-of-the-way places…
Once again the web is replete with South African tourist information, but most hospitality establishments will offer a complimentary copy of Coast to Coast, a jazzy, up to the minute publication that covers just about everything you need to know about South Africa.
Besides this all the main, and even most of the peripheral, tourist destinations have a tourist Information office, with the main ones being in the main cities.
Backpackers Lodges operate on a network, and the information exchange that exists in these establishments is second to none. Everything that is hot and current, bad or disreputable, or even downright dangerous, will be known about very quickly on the backpack circuit, so it is there that you should look for up to the minute info if you are an independent traveler.