South Africa is located at the southern tip of Africa. It is bordered by Namibia, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Mozambique, Swaziland and Lesotho (which is completely surrounded by South Africa). It is a vast country with widely varying landscapes and with 11 official languages, an equally diverse people. South Africa is renowned for its wines and is the world's largest producer of gold. South Africa has a strong economy and is an influential player in African politics.
If you want to travel in southern Africa then South Africa is a good place to start. While you can fly into any country in southern Africa, most flights will route through South Africa anyway. South Africa is also a good place to get used to travelling in the region (though some would argue that Namibia is better for that). Of course South Africa is not only a jumping off point, it is itself a superb destination rich in culture, fauna & flora and history.
Outsiders' views of South Africa are colored by the same stereotypes as the rest of Africa. Contrary to popular belief, South Africa is not devastatingly poor with an unstable government that is rapidly going to hell. South Africa is among the most economically stratified nations in the world, and poverty in the townships can be appalling. Progress is being made, though it is necessarily slow after apartheid, which lasted for almost 46 years. South Africa boasts a well-developed infrastructure and has all the modern amenities and technologies. The government is stable, although corruption is rife. The government and the primary political parties all have a high level of respect for democratic institutions and human rights.
Most nationalities get up to 3 months entry on arrival. Check with your travel agent if you need to pre-arrange a visa.
Make sure you have 2 blank pages back to back in your passport and that it is valid for at least six more months or you will be sent back! Make sure you have a return ticket available or they will send you back. If you need to pick up a ticket at the airport have the flight number and details handy and speak with the customs guy, they should check your story out and let you in (be firm). Be wary of arriving with a damaged passport as new security measures might trip up your entry.
South Africa's two major international airports are at Cape Town and Johannesburg. Regular flights arrive from major centers throughout Africa including: Blantyre, Cairo, Gaborone, Dar es Salaam, Harare, Lilongwe, Livingstone, Luanda, Lusaka, Kinshasa, Maputo, Manzini, Maun, Mauritius, Nairobi, Victoria Falls and Windhoek.
Direct flights also arrive from major European centers, including: London, Paris, Frankfurt, Munich, Zurich and Athens. There are also direct flights from Dubai, Doha, New York, Atlanta, Washington (D.C.), Buenos Aires, Mumbai, Hong Kong, Kuala Lumpur and Perth. You may also want to have a look at Discount airlines in Africa.
See Air travel in South Africa for detailed information.
The roads within South Africa and between it and its immediate neighbors are very good. There are many highways connecting the cities and larger centres, including the N1 running from Cape Town through Johannesburg and Pretoria up to Harare, Zimbabwe, the N2 running from Cape Town to Durban, which passes through the world-famous Garden Route near Knysna, and the N3 between Durban and Johannesburg.
Some of the main roads have only one lane in each direction, especially where they are far from urban centers. Toll roads generally have two or more lanes in each direction. South Africa has a high rate of traffic fatalities, and you may want to avoid driving at night except in urban areas. Watch out for unsafe drivers (minibus taxies), poor lighting, and pedestrians (who are the cause of many accidents, especially at night). If you see an animal on or by the road, slow down, as they are unpredictable. Do not stop to feed wild animals!
Also, make sure you understand the road signs.
There are scheduled bus services between Cape Town, Johannesburg, Durban and other cities (with stops in between), as well as connections to neighboring countries. The three main bus companies are:
An alternative is the Baz Bus(www.bazbus.com). It offers a regular hop-on-hop-off service on some of the most interesting routes for the tourist (Cape Town to Durban via the Garden Route; Durban to Johannesburg via Swaziland; Durban to Johannesburg via the Drakensberg). Baz Bus picks you up and drops you off at many hostels along the route, so you don't have to hang around at a downtown bus stop at night.
If you're really in a pinch, you can use minibus taxi's. They are poorly maintained and rarely comply with safety standards. They also require patience as they make many detours and changeovers at the taxi rank (hub) where the driver will wait for passagers to fill up the bus. But they cover many routes not covered by the main bus service and are quite cheap (25 cents per kilometer per person on the main routes).
South Africa has 11 official languages. Most people other than rural Africans speak English, although not many as a first language. Afrikaans is also widely-spoken, especially by the white and coloured population. Afrikaans has roots in Dutch, so it can be understood by Dutch speakers and sometimes deciphered by German speakers. Other widely spoken languages are Zulu (mainly in KwaZulu-Natal) and Xhosa (mainly in the Western Cape and Eastern Cape), as well as Sotho and Venda. This changes, according to the region you are in.
A few words you may encounter are:
You’ll find the Wikipedia page on South African English well worth reading.
The currency is the Rand (ZAR). Rough conversion rates are: 6:1 (USD), 8:1 (EUR) and 13:1 (GBP). It is recommended you carry one of the above currencies, as conversion between any of them and the Rand can be done at any bank without trouble. The Rand is also used in Namibia, Lesotho and Swaziland, although it is not an official currency in these countries.
Recommendable is the use of Traveller's Cheques. They can be changed into local currencies everywhere and you will get a refund when they are lost.
Automated teller machines (ATMs) are available throughout the country. It is best to use only teller machines that are inside a mall or other building. Always be careful to make sure no one is watching you enter your PIN, and be vigilant about typical scams (e.g. machines that seem to eat your card and won't give it back after you enter the PIN). Some Banks (like First National Bank) only give out R1000 a day, while others (like ABSA) will allow you to take R3000 a time.
Prices in shops are fixed, but prices in open markets or from street vendors are open to barter.
Foreigners should note that fuel cannot be bought on credit cards. Fortunately many gas stations have ATMs.
South Africa has every kind of accommodation you can think of ranging from budget hostels right up to luxury resorts. The country is well outfitted to handle tourists.
Well, there is much to see, but what can't be missed is here:
South Africa has a relatively high crime rate. However, warnings about crime should be taken in context. The threat is not as serious as it might sound. If you are alert and take some common-sense precautions then you will have no problems. As you spend more time in the country, you will get a better understanding of how things are. Don't make it obvious you are a tourist - conceal your camera and binoculars and know where your destination is.
Visiting the townships is possible, but don't do it alone unless you really know where you're going. Some townships are safe while others can be extremely dangerous. It's best to go with an experienced guide. Some tour companies offer guided visits to the townships, and this is perfectly safe.
South Africa has very few earthquakes, cyclones, tornados, floods, terrorist incidents or contagious diseases (with the exception of AIDS and malaria).
The north-eastern areas of the country (including the Kruger Park and St. Lucia and surrounds) are seasonal malaria zones especially in the hot summer months of November to March. Consult a physician regarding appropriate precautions, depending on the time of year you will be travelling. The most important defenses against malaria are:
Municipal water is mostly safe to drink throughout the country, although a strong risk of bilharzia exists for stillstanding water. In the Western Cape mountain water is safe, as long as it has been stained brown due to vegetation.
The private hospitals are of the highest standard.
South Africa's country code is 27. Each region or city has an area code which is prefixed with a '0' when dialing long distance within South Africa. Johannesburg: 011. Cape Town: 021. Durban: 031.
To dial out of South Africa, dial 09 then country code, etc.
South Africa has an extensive GSM network, working on the same frequency as the rest of Africa and Europe. There are three cell phone providers in South Africa: Vodacom, MTN, and Cell-C.
There are plenty of Internet cafes and access rates are cheap. Even cheaper would be to buy a prepaid cell phone starter pack (less than 10 rand) and access the internet with GPRS (2 rand per MB).