This country offers lots of contrasts. Black and white, poor and rich, organisation and chaos, ...
Nature lovers who are not afraid of adventure, chaos, poison and dangerous animals and so on, will be able to see a lot - without jetlag! The landscape is great, but not as spectacular like in the southwestern U.S. - but you will see more and often spectacular animals. You'll experience a great bandwidth of different people, but to us they were always very friendly and cooperative.
It is often said that South Africa could be compared with the U.S.: I think that is exaggerated. The landscape is partly similar to that in the U.S. (and at some places like in Scotland), the traffic on the major highways is comparable (relaxed outside the metropoletan areas). But the moment that it gets worse (narrow streets, metropoletan areas, construction zones), the word 'criminal' describes the situation much better! The worst trip was that between the Kruger NP or Johannesburg and the Sta Lucia NP or Durban - that was pure horror! You should consider a dertour via Swasiland - but you have to know this when hiring your car (you'll need a permission what costs a small fee).
Keyword 'car': The roads in general are by far better than expected. Even the unpaved roads were not critical and can be used even with a 'standard' vehicle (at normal weather conditions). A '2*4' car (what offers some more ground clearance) can be a good compromise. You should obligatory check the suitcase room of the car - those are often pretty small (like in the U.S.) and the bigger cars do have an open (visible) car boot (not a good idea because of the burglars). You shouldn't expect too much accessoires or gadgets in your car. A radio and a air condition should be the standard, that's it! 'Specials' like fog lights or an automatic gearbox are uncommon and the engine power is mostly poor (important when you try to pass other cars). In 2011, we had a somewhat bigger car with a more powerful engine as well as some 'extras' like a back view camera. Obviously this now begins to change!
Driving on the left side is no issue for me, but some could have difficulties. As pedestrian, you should be extremely careful (to which side do you look first?). When you drive in rural areas (with less traffic), you should be extremely alert the first days (otherwise it can happen you drive on the 'right' side)!
The truck drivers are mostly very cooperative as well as the majority of the other drivers. On the highways, you'll mostly have a broad hard shoulder and it is common to use it to let you pass. So passing other cars is easy as rule.
It is usual to use the hazard flasher twice as a thank-you, as answer the dipped headlights can be used. Cooperation is a priority in South Africa!
But one group of drivers is the pure opposite: The minitaxi drivers, available in vast numbers! If you encounter one of those (a minibus is mostly a minitaxi), you should give extreme attention! They definitely ignore each rule, they have no regard to the others and do force the right of way. If you've studied their attitude for some days, maybe you'll be able to force back... ;-)
You shouldn't ignore the reality: Some of the other road users can definitely be a danger for the traffic! To signal is optional, abrupt lane changes are usual. Pedestrians walk on the road at will, the car drivers have no regards for them. Lots of drivers are insecure - no wonder, the driver's licences are often purchased (in some regions, you have to wait more than a year for your real driver's licence). Tourists not knowing the practice are also often a formidable obstacle.
I was often warned to follow the traffic rules - especially the speed limits. The first days, I did this. Then I learned that that's not the best approach and adapted my behavior to the local drivers. The one who uses the brake is the looser and traffic signs (including the traffic lights) have to be seen as suggestion! But you should keep an eye on the behavior of the other drivers - in some regions (including Cape Town, Durban and Port Elizabeth), there are lots of speed cameras: supposedly a very important source of income! We got an tip from an local inhabitant: The speed limit to 80km/h should be the most monitored. But I've seen more speed cameras in 120 km/h zones...
The traffic lights (here called 'robot' at the beginning are somewhat irritating. There additional ones behind the crossroads, so when make a right you think there's another red traffic light. Stopping here will definitely 'out' you as tourist!
I've read often that you have to pay cash for your fuel purchase. That is no longer the truth - in 2010, I could pay with credit card at all gas stations without one (in the middle of nowhere). As a common rule, paying with credit card is the standard. You don't need too much cash, even smaller amounts are payed with credit card. Since getting cash from an ATM is sayed to be risky (we met a tourist who lost her card in an ATM), this is a real advantage! As further advantage, you'll benefit from a better exchange rate. If you need to exchange money, you should do this in South Africa (expect an up to 10% better exchange rate). We recommend doing this directly at the airport. Here, you will have an uncomfortable feeling (all is new, lots of people) but you'll notice lots of police forces and an open eye is mandatory at any place!
The supermarkets do offer a fair range of goods (less than in Europe or the U.S., but you will not lack anything important), the prices are comparable (special goods like electronics are even more expensive). You can save lots of money in the hotels and restaurants (I assume the cheap personnel as main reason). But as tourist, you should not forget: Like in the U.S., the staff has only the tip! So if you were satisfied, don't forget to add 10% of the (mostly very low) invoiced amount! If possible, you should give the tip in cash (don't add it to the credit card). In locations visited mostly by tourists (not our first choice), they started to make the tip mandatory - with good reason!
The telephone network is mostly pretty good. Hotels in rural areas often do use the mobile network for internet access. But there are some areas with almost no infrastructure - at the wild coast, several hotels don't have internet and some not even a phone number!
Internet isn't available in all hotels. We mostly stayed in above average and business hotels, but only one of them offered free internet (three others offered payed internet access). In some other hotels, we were allowed to use the private internet conections of the owners(for free or payed). The connection wasn't too good in most cases, only in Cape Town it was excellent. In most cases, access to European or U.S. sites wasn't possible at each time of the day (it is commonly known that the connection between Africa and the rest of the world is very expandable) whereas access to local sites mostly was no issue. Lots of the pictures I've uploaded during our holiday had to be uploaded again (more as 50%) because of upload errors.
In the future, I always purchase a prepaid card of one of the major South African cell phone providers directly after arriving. That is not too expensive (not more than the cost for internet in the hotels) and much more flexible!
Parts of South Africa are at risk of malaria and also the cholera isn't exterminated. The risk is much less than in other African countries, but at certain times of the year (rainy season, December up to April) you should consider some kind of prevention if you visit the eastern parts of the country (Kruger national park, Santa Lucia Wetland Park)!
You'll find lots of tips in the internet, for example here.
There's a oral vaccination against the cholera - with the great advantage that this also should work as anti-diarrhoea vaccine (at least for one or two quarters of the year)!
Other references: CDC, WHO
The first impression of this town was deterrent. A endless drive through townships, the traffic one pure chaos (at least as much cars as in Johannesburg or Pretoria, but much narrower streets and lots of full-size busses).
The pretty nice downtown area (including a pedestrian area) changed that impression. Our hotel was superb, we found very good restaurants.
So also from the culinaric standpoint visiting this area is valuable. The prices are often higher than in other regions of South Africa, you have to leave the urban regions to change that.
Since this is maybe the most 'European' town in South Africa, you'll feel less 'foreign' than in other parts of the country. So this would be a good starting point of your journey. But travveling to here is somewhat 'tricky' since immigration is similar than in the U.S. - you've to collect your luggage before the customs, afterwards you've to check in again. So you shold plan enough time if you hava a connection flight! In the surroundings of the city, there are several attractive places (Cape of Good Hope, Hermanus, Stellenbosch and others) - but you must always pass the townships and accept the traffic congestions! We often heard that here the criminality should be above average. But we didn't see anything from this. We often passed townships (thanks my navigation system, even on side roads) and we walked through the midtown even at night. But not any time I had a bad vibe about this (not even in the side roads we had to pass on our way to a restaurant)! It is obvious that the country did a lot to ensure secure World Soccer Championships, we had an intense police presence in the whole country and particularly in the metropolitan areas.
Important towns: Cape Town, Hermanus, Franschhoek, Stellenbosch
Highlights: In this town, you can spend several days. There's not that attraction, but lots of nice places. Most interesting how they do the road construction: They demolished a highway bridge to make place for a new skyscraper, but only as far as necessary (see the picture)!
Apart from the attractions in midtown (Waterfront and others) you'll find lot more in the region. The table mountain (accessible via a strenous hiking trail or a very interesting cable car), the Cape of Good Hope (lots of animals), Hermanus (great opportunity to watch whales), the wine-growing region near Stellenbosch and Franschhoek, ...!
See also the pictures in the next section (Garden Route / Hermanus)!
Restaurants: You'll find a great selection of restaurants. We tried several ones and were always satisfied. You shouldn't expect such low prices than in the rural areas of South Africa, but we Europeans can expect a very affordable meal.
The selection of wines is mostly excellent, but the wines will not be given away.
We had our most exotic experience in the Mama Africa, what is that African restaurant in Cape Town. So you shouldn't expect the chance for a seat without reservation, especially if there's a live band! The meal is quite exotic, even specialities like crocodile meat. See my review on TripAdvisor!
In our preferred hotel (see below), you'll find some recommendable restaurants. The one at the roof terrace (with pool) offered a great atmosphere and great food. Unfortunately it is currently closed!
In Hermanus, we were extremely satisfied with the Fisherman's Cottage, see details in the next section (Garden Route, south coast). In Kalk Bay, directly at the harbor, there are several recommended fish restaurants. The Live Bait has convinced us totally, like the Fisherman's Cottage this will be in future part of our visits here in the region!
Hotels: I found our clear favorite per random in the internet, our hotel we visited in 2010 now is the reference in Cape Town.
The Mandela Rhodes Palace is a chic city hotel that offers not only a great atmosphere, superb rooms (nearly 1,000 square feet), several good restaurants and the perfect location (at the border of the pedestrian area).
As a business hotel, it has also a perfect infrastructure and a real high speed internet (that was the only one during our whole last holiday).
See my review on TripAdvisor.
If you stay for at least three nights, you'll mostly receive a 50% rebate what makes this hotel a really great deal!
Unfortunately the restaurant at the pool now (2011) has closed!
Best season: The whole year!
Next highlights: Garden Route, south coast
The southern coast (the 'Sunny Coast', between East London and Port Elizabeth) made a very good impression to us. Less intensive farming, a varying landscape, lots of beautyful fjords, sand dunes and a good road network promise a nice holiday.
Arrival seems to be straightforward, both East London and Port Elizabeth provide international airports. The climate seems to be mild.
Port Alfred is on the way to the new touristic hot spot, some call it 'the new Knysna'.
Obviously there are lots of jobs in Port Elizabeth. You'll not encounter extreme poverty like we've seen it in Johannesburg or Durban. Within a 20-mile-radius, we didn't see any township but lots of middle or upper class suburbs! The town was announced as pure manufacturing town - we were nicely surprised!
The Western Cape, the area between (roughly) Port Elizabeth and Cape Town, is pretty well known - the Garden Route is much more popular then other regions in South Africa.
We drove through and can understand this only partially. The 'garden' is only to be seen near Knysna, the other parts are mostly farmland.
If you approach Cape Town, the landscape gets more interesting and you'll see lots of wineries and fruit plantations. Quite beautiful, but you can see this at other places. We found the sunny coast more attractive!
Two regions were pretty beautiful and we will come back to give them a closer look: Knysna (including the Storm River area) and Hermanus (not far away from Cape Town). All the other areas are nothing special if you've been at the U.S. west coast and/or in Scotland.
Important towns: Cape Town, Hermanus, Mossel Bay, Wilderness, Knysna, Plattenberg Bay, Stormsriver, Humansdorp, St Francis, Port Elizabeth
Highlights: Near Cape Town (Hermanus), the landscape is great and you have a good chance to see whales from the coast!
Knysna (including the Storm River area) offers lots of attractions, here we want to spend some days the next visit. Natural monuments like the 'big tree', the Storms River suspension bridge, several petting zoos and safari offers, interesting roads (for example the Seven Passes or the Swartberg pass in the backcountry), ... - most possibly you will not be bored!
Restaurants: In Hermanus, we loved the Fisherman's Cottage what now is our reference in this area.
In Knysna, we were positively surprised by a pizzeria: the Chatter's offers not only good pizza, but also very good salads, burgers and excellent desserts! All is really homemade.
Hotels: The Inyathi Guest Lodge offers beds for a reasonable price. The stuff is very friendly and cooperative. The small cabins are nicely equipped. But for a longer staying, they are only convenient during the summer season (late autumn to spring. In the cabins, there's no seating accommodation and on the nice terraces in front of the cabins it is too cold in the summer evenings!
Best season: The whole year! If you want to swim in the sea, you have to come in the summer season (late autumn to sring).
Links: You'll find lots of information in the internet.
The Wild Coast (Transkei) is not attractive for tourists - most of the round trips skip it (the tourists flight from Durban to Port Elizabeth or Cape Town).
So you can experience 'pure Africa' - with all advantages and disadvantages! It is pretty strenous to drive the car, sometimes it gets really dangerous. In two days driving through this area, we saw two serious accidents with lots of accidential deaths.
Sometimes it can be lots of fun, what you can see on the streets!
In 2010, we were surprised about a real 'zero stars hotel' - the Carlton (don't mix up with the Ritz Carlton). In 2011 we could see that the better weather doesn't make any change...
The mini taxis here are unbelieveable. The direct comparison 2010/2011 shows that that was not only the one case! The rope to hold the door closed can also be used to hold the passengers...
The weather is subtropical, reminds me of Teneriffa. Theres's always some sea foam in the air, so wet clothes can not dry. The sea view is great, but has its drawbacks! Now we know why the additional charge for the rooms with sea view is such low... Because of the huge distances and the poor infrastructure (the side roads are often unpaved), you will not leave the hotel facilities too often. If your hotel offers activities, those are as a rule economical priced.
Important towns: East London, Butterworth, Idutywa, Umtata, Port St Johns, Port Edward, Margate, Port Shepstone, Kokstad
There are lots of activities. Since all hotels are far away from the highway (often two hours on unpaved roads), there's no real alternative to the hotel offers. Those often are pretty attractive: quad bike tours, horseback rides, canoeing and others at a very reasonable price...
If you've selected your hotel carefully, you'll have a great and unspoilt landscape - extensive hikes or other outdoor activities are a must. There are no dangerous animals (lions, snakes and so on) so you can do that even without guide.
Next to the Transkei (to the north / Durban), there's another interesting area - the Oribi Gorge. Here you can find lots of activities, see the hotel tips.
South of East London, there's another interesting area we liked. If you search for a scenic coastline and nice beaches, you should have a closer look to this area around Port Alfred - see Garden Route, south coast!
Restaurants: Because of the huge distances and the poor road network, almost nobody will leave the hotel - so there are not too much restaurants.
Only in the periphery (East London, Port St Johns, Port Edward), the major roads allow direct access to the coastline - here, you'll find some restaurants (but we didn't visit them).
South of the Wild Coast, you should plan a stop in Port Alfred. The Barmuda is a very recommendable restaurant!
Hotels: It is not as easy to find a good hotel in this area: in the internet, you'll find only a rare number of hotels, most of them without internet presence (some of them don't even have a telephone!).
After a long selection process, we selected the Kob Inn Beach Resort, what was a good choice - but we had bad luck with the weather (lots of rain).
Since there's always some sea foam in the air, the wet clothes will not dry!
See also my review on TripAdvisor.
In the north, in direction to Durban, there's a hotel that from the outside looks very attractive: The Oribi Gorge Hotel.
Best season: Late autumn up to the spring, consider the rainy season! In the summer season, it can be pretty wet and the wet clothes will not dry because of the sea foam in the air..
Links: The Southern Explorer offers information mainly about the northern part of the Wild Coast (in direction to Durban) - Port Edward, Margate, Port Shepstone, Oribi Gorge and so on.
The region around Durban offers all a tourist could want. I expect that tourism will get more important in the future, obviously the Soccer World Championships were a starting point for this process. The climate is moderate, you'll find lots of great beaches (but there are sharks in the water). All in all, it looks like in the southern part of Teneriffa (Los Christianos and Las Américas). We liked the town, but it mustn't be more than a short break...
Important towns: Durban, Umhlanga (sophisticated beach resort, en route to the Saint-Tropez of Africa?)
Highlights: The sandy beaches, the soccer and the rugby stadium are most impressive. The Ushaka Marine World offers fun for a whole day!
If you got a nerve, here you can experience the world of the inhabitants. You'll see not much townships, but the 'normal' roads besides the sea front are 'tourist free zone'. We walked through this roads, visited a big shopping mall and so on - and didn't see any tourist in two hours. Then we were stopped by a police car. The policemen adomished us strongly to leave that area in a taxi (it needed a full discussion to be allowed to leave the area by foot)... ;-)
Restaurants: You'll find lots of good restaurants. Several chains (Ocean's basket is a good choice for seafood lovers) and some good restaurants in hotels at the sea front (see my hotel recommendation) offer a good choice. If you want to experience authentic Indian food, you should do this here. The locals call this toen 'Little Bombay', with good reason! We visited a Indian snack bar ('House of Curries') where we experienced how widespread the term 'Hot' can be interpreted! Who doesn't want to ride the porcelain god, can be sure: After you've eaten such a meal, all germs wil be killed foolproof! ;-)
Hotels: Like Cape Town, Durban is a (little) metropoletan area, the third largest town in South Africa with key industries. So you can find attractive offers for weekends or holiday times in one of the business hotels. We can recommend a reasonably priced hotel directly at the beach front, the Belaire Suites.
Best season: The whole year. If you want to swim in the sea, you should come in the winter season.
Links: You'll find lots of information in the internet.
On the first view, the Santa Lucia Wetland Park isn't too much different to the Kruger NP. But here, not too far away from the sea, is much more water. You can find the 'big five' (and much more, crocodiles etc.).
Since this area is relatively populous, most of the wild animals are to be found only in areas bounded by a fence (mostly private properties). You'll watch the animals in specialized properties. Often there's an optional 'interaction' (you can touch the animals).
Since the bush is much denser than in ther Kruger NP, you will not see too much animals in the wild. So without guide, you'll see almost nothing. Several activities are on offer (see the highlights section).
The Hluhluwe Nationalpark was the absulute highlight of our trips to South Africa up to now, a tree with eight lions in it!
Important towns: Richards Bay, Santa Lucia, Hluhluwe, Mbazwana
Highlights: The Cheetah Project offers several cats up to the cheetahs, the world's fastest animal, up to 8m miles per hour) - you can touch some of them if you got a nerve!
If you like snakes and/or corcodiles, you should see the show at ZuluCroc!
A canoe tour with Temba requires some persistence - but it is worth it: among the very interesting person, you'll have lots of nature, hippos, flamengos, maybe crocodiles...
The national parks (especially Hluhluwe and iMfolozi) are not as well known as the Kruger NP - but not less spectacular. Since there are less visitors and less heat, we prefer those!
Restaurants: If you stay in one of the private game reserves, you will mostly have your dinner there - often, the doors are closed at night and nobody wants to drive through a open range area (with wild animals) by night...
So it is clear that there's not a broad selection of restaurants.
We got the recommendation to go for lunch to another game reserve (with golf course and so on) what offers also a 'public' restaurant. You have to register when entering the areal (the car registration number will be recorded), but that is not unusual in this region. The Amorello Bush Golf Lodge was above and beyond all expectations!
Hotels: Here we found another gem we will visit again: the Leopard Walk Lodge.
Here, you can live in luxury in the outback for a very reasonable price! The meals are O.K., but nothing special - but at a very fair price. The 10% rebate for the 'repeaters' are the icing on the cake...
See also my review on TripAdvisor (and all the other hymns of praise)!
Best season: Spring and autumn. In the winter season, there will be lots of rain and some risk of malaria, for me it would be too hot.
Links: You'll find some information in the internet.
The Kruger NP offers lots of highlights and activities and a relatively good infrastructure in an environment you'll expect in Africa - desert, poverty, some quiet high) mountains and lots of lowlands.
The main roads are splendidly constructed, the unpaved side roads much less critical than expected (at least if it's dry).
The bush is close to the rain season very dry and offers lots of insights - in the rain season, you'll see not too much because of the leaves.
It can become quiet hot. There's a versatile wildlife (of course you can see the 'big five').
The best chance to watch animals is along the rivers (which are partly very attractive). You can see a lot without guide, safaris offer deepened insights.
The park is pretty long, some hundred kilometers.So it is clear that the landscape is not the same in all parts of the park. Depending on the time of the year, you should see the most animals in the areas with plenty water (near the big rivers). The area between Komatipoort / Lower Sabie and Satara seems to be perfect for animal sightings!
Important towns: Nelspruit, Graskop, Phalaborwa, Komatipoort, Skukuza
Highlights: You'll see a lot even on unguided tours. But you should start very early, the animals are active especially at sunrise!
When you come too late, it can happen that you're not allowed to entrance the park!
There are more highlights in the surroundings, for example the Blyde River Canyon (third largest canyon in the world).
For us, the highlight is Jessica! A hippo (what is said to be the deadliest animal - thousands of people are killed each year) to be touched and hugged...
Since January 2012, Jessica has a little 'brother' - Richard. This bundle of joy is unbelievable cute! I had the unique privilege to have some time with the small animal in March 2012. He laid on my bosom and slept most of the time. For sure, an absolute unique experience! In just a few weeks, this experience would kill me (the little animal had a weight of 45 kilograms and gained half a kilogram per day).. ;-)
You can combine that perfectly with a visit to the 'Upside Down Restaurant' (see below) and the Moholoholo Wildlife Rehabilitation Centre not far away, where injured and abandoned animals are hosted. It is not a typical animal shelter, the animals here serve as some kind of 'ambassador'. It is important to raise the awareness of the people to the real issues, here the poor and (not always) small individuals can help. The boss, a very smart black man, holds a presentation of more then a half hour what is really entertaining - alome that is worth the visit.
Afterwards you go to a walk with a guide of almost two hours where you can see the animals from a very close distance.
If you stay in one of the private game reserves, you will mostly have your dinner there - nobody wants to drive through a open range area (with wild animals) by night...
So it is clear that there's not a broad selection of restaurants.
Two restaurants will be part of our plans the next visits: The 'Upside Down Restaurant' (the baobab tree is also named 'upside down' because of its shape) close to Jessica and the Nandini - what is a gourmet restaurant and only can be visited with an arrangement.
Hotels: You should select one of the private game reserves. That gives you the chance to see some wild animals at breakfast or dinner at one of the water holes (the lodges are constructed such that that is possible).
We stayed in the Casart Game Lodge - and will for sure come back! Sonia and Jan (the owners, expatriates from Belgium and the Netherlands) do offer luxury rooms and the perfect service at a very reasonable price: around €100 per room - in Germany, a middle class city hotel mostly costs the same! The 10% rebate for the 'repeaters' are the icing on the cake...
See my review on TripAdvisor (and all the other hymns of praise)!
In the southern part of the park, you'll also find lots of attractive lodges - some of them are very popular. The Buckler's Africa (near Komatiepoort) or the Utopia in Africa (Nelspruit) seem to be insider's tips, you should expect that they are booked out at many times (what we experienced)!
Best season: Spring and autumn. In the winter season, there will be lots of rain and some risk of malaria, for me it would be too hot. In the autumn, the bush is very dry and offers lots of insights - you'll see the animals!
Johannesburg and Pretoria are the economic and political center of the country (gold, diamonds) - the touristic highlights are not visible on the first view.
After some recherche, you'll find also some private game reserves and other attractions, what we didn't tested up to now.
Here, the extreme contrast between poor and rich is particularly visible: we didn't encounter more beggars on the streets than here. Each time you approach a traffic light, you'll be addressed by lots of beggars and dealers... Since this region is far away from the sea and in the northern part of the country (closer to the equator),the temperatures are higher than at the coast. The infrastructure is excellent and there's no risk of malaria and other diseases.
Important towns: Johannesburg, Pretoria, Soweto
Highlights: There are several private game reserves, offering wild animals (often you can even touch them). The South African part of the Kalahari isn't far away. The cities are quite interesting, but obviously you have to consider your private security (more intensive than in other parts of the country).
Restaurants: We very much liked the Cafe 41 in Pretoria, see my review on TripAdvisor.
Hotels: You shouldn't expect too much. Like in most metropoletan areas, you can find good business hotels at a reasonable price at weekends or in the holiday season. Since the crime rate is obviously quite high, you shouldn't be surprised if your hotel looks like a high-security prison (cameras, electric fences, use of firearms and so on)!
Best season: The whole year. In the winter season (what here is the summer season) it would be too hot for me. In the rain season, you should expect difficult driving conditions in the national parks here in northern South Africe (and the borderiung countries). I wouldn't take the risk without a 4WD car!
Links: You'll find lots of information in the internet.