Facts about South Africa – what you should know
Want to have a great trip? Knowing the facts about South Africa will ensure that the planning and enjoyment of your trip is the best it can be.
Before you arrive
Many countries do not need a visa to enter South Africa. See if your country is exempt from visa requirements.
To apply for a visa, visit the South African Department of Home Affairs. If you will be crossing the borders on more than one occasion during your trip, request a multiple entry visa which will allow unlimited entries in a specified period.
From 1 October 2014, both South Africans and visitors to South Africa will need to produce an Unabridged Birth Certificate for each child travelling with them. Airlines will be forced to refuse travel to families not in possession of these documents. This also applies when both parents are travelling with their children.
You may also need to have a yellow fever injection certificate if you come from any of the following countries. Yellow Fever: Angola, Argentina, Benin, Bolivia, Brazil, Burkina Faso ,Burundi ,Cameroon, Central African Republic, Chad, Colombia, Guinea-Bissau, Congo, Côte d’Ivoire, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Ecuador, Equatorial Guinea, Ethiopia, French Guyana, Gabon ,Gambia ,Ghana ,Guinea ,Kenya, Liberia, Mali, Mauritania, Niger, Nigeria, Panama, Paraguay, Peru, Rwanda, Sao Tome and Principe, Senegal, Sierra Leone, Somalia ,Sudan ,Suriname ,Togo Trinidad and Tobago, Uganda, United Republic of Tanzania, Venezuela and Zambia.
It is wise to have your polio, typhoid and tetanus boosters and the 10 year hepatitis vaccination. If you are bringing children, they should have the BCG anti tuberculosis vaccination.
Make sure you have travel insurance to cover medical expenses, airlifts and repatriation. SA has no national health service and although the private health service is excellent, it can be expensive.
Should you wish to contact a South African mission close to your home, visit the SA government website to find one.
South Africa enjoys a temperate and pleasant climate, with lovely warm sunny days most of the year. The seasons of the southern hemisphere are opposite to those in the northern hemisphere so our summers run from November to February, when most of the country is characterised by hot weather with afternoon thunderstorms. Winters are generally mild and dry. The area around Cape Town has a Mediterranean climate with hot dry summers and wet winters. South Africa enjoys one of the world’s highest average daily hours of sunshine – 8.5 compared with 3.8 in London, 6.4 in Rome and 6.9 in New York.
Average temperatures in South Africa in Celcius and Farenheit
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Find out more about the climate in South Africa and which clothes to bring on your visit.
Busy periods and National holidays
South Africa has two different school calendars. That for the government schools which breaks the year into four terms, and that for the private schools which breaks the year into three or four terms. The vast majority attend government schools, so traffic at holiday destinations is busiest when they are on holiday. All schools are on holiday from about the second week in December to mid January. For visitors wishing to visit SA in summer, and who want to miss the holiday rush, then November or mid January onwards is perfect. See the South African School Terms.
Most of the major international airlines fly to Johannesburg and Cape Town, both international airports. South African airlines, SAA, flies in from most international cities.
At the airports, you will find numerous means of transport. Car rentals taxis, shuttles, and at the OR Tambo, the Gautrain, which can take you to Sandton, Johannesburg or Pretoria. See a map of Gautrain stations.
Car Rentals are handled by Budget, Hertz, Avis and Tempest among others and booking can be made online. These companies have branches in most towns across the country. If you are travelling long distance, make sure your contract has unlimited mileage. Be careful of the costs of any additional options like insurance and make sure you have air conditioning. Most car rental companies have offices at all the international airports. They are often busy, so booking ahead will make sure you are not disappointed.
You can also make arrangements for your cell phone at the airports. There are MTN and Vodacom shops at the airport. Dialling codes for calling home from South Africa: Australia 0061; New Zealand 0064; UK 0044; US and Canada 001 and the Republic of Ireland 00353.
There are plenty of opportunities to exchange your money at the airport. See the section on South African money.
Remember to change your watch – South Africa operates two hours ahead of Greenwich Mean Time throughout the year, making it an hour ahead of Central European Winter Time, seven hours ahead of Eastern Standard Winter Time and seven hours behind Australian Central Time.
Tipping: When you use any service, you are expected to give a tip. For porters,R4-R5 per bag and 10% for waiters is standard.
Six major domestic airlines operate in the country, as well as a number of smaller charter airline companies.
British Airways, operated by Comair, operates flights between the major centres.
All flight operators offer online booking services, with payment by credit card or directly into the relevant bank account.
You need to be at the airport an hour before departure for domestic flights.
Other important facts about South Africa
The most important health hazzards for visitors to know about are malaria, aids, bilharzia and tuberculosis.
Malaria is caused by mosquito bites in the malaria zones as seen on the map. If you intend going to these areas, preventative medication can be taken for the short term only, due to the side effects. Some of the more expensive malarial tablets have minimum side effects and only need be taken whilst you are in the affected areas.
However, the best strategy is to prevent the bite in the first place.
Mosquitoes come out towards sunset, so change into lightweight long sleeve tops, long pants, socks and shoes. Spray any exposed skin with any of the freely available sprays. Sleep under a mosquito net and burn mosquito coils to keep them out of your space. If you are camping, you can also use mosquito repellent candles whilst sitting outside.
Aids is prevalent in South Africa and is transferred during intercourse and blood contamination. Always use a condom. Never use a needle that does not have protective wrapping or has been used by anyone else. Do not help someone who is bleeding without protective gloves.
Tuberculosis is also prevalent. It is not easy for adults to catch it from someone else unless you are living in close proximity for a long period. Children should have a BCG vaccination before coming to SA.
Bilharzia is carried in most fresh water lakes and rivers, except in the mountains. Bilharzia is spread by tiny parasites carried by the water snail host. Avoid swimming in dams and rivers unless you have confirmation that they are free of bilharzia. Areas of stagnant pools of water in rivers are most suspect.
Tick bite fever is transferred by Infected ticks. Avoid ticks by using insect repellent, especially if you are walking though long grass. If a tick does bite you, you can remove it by covering it with a thick layer of Vaseline. It will drop off due to suffocation without the head remaining in your skin.
Sun - the climate villain. With all the hours of wonderful sunshine, the UV rays can wreak havoc. Remember to bring hats and then purchase the best available sunscreens and keep re-applying them if you are outdoors. Sunglasses in summer are also a must.
South Africa’s unit of currency is the rand, which is divided into 100 cents. Notes come in denominations of R10, R20, R50, R100 and R200; and coins come in 5c, 10c, 20c, 50c, R1, R2 and R5. All transactions are rounded down to the nearest 5c. See the current exchange rate.
With a favourable exchange rate for many international currencies, you’ll find South Africa an inexpensive destination. And an easy one – our financial institutions are world-class, with no shortage of banks, bureaux de change and automatic tellers.
The major banks have branches as well as automated teller machines (ATMs) in most large towns – and all over the cities. ATMs are linked to all major international networks, and it is possible to draw currency from them. They accept Cirrus or Maestro cards as well as all major credit and debit cards. You will not be charged any fees over and above those levied by your own bank. South Africa’s ‘big four’ banks: Absa Bank, First National Bank, Nedbank and Standard Bank. Please note to be vigilant when drawing cash from an ATM. Scam artists sometimes stand around trying to get details.
Thomas Cook and American Express travellers’ cheques can be cashed at all banks, bureaux de change and at some hotels. To exchange cheques for cash at foreign exchange dealers, you must present a valid passport.
There are ATM’s in most places and credit cards such as MasterCard and Visa are accepted in most places. Some establishments do not accept Diners Club or American Express as the bank charges are too high.
Small businesses may not always have credit card facilities, so it is best to check beforehand.
Remember to notify your bank in advance that you will be travelling and make sure they have activated your credit card for foreign transactions.
Many International visitors are not aware of the size of South Africa. It is the 25th largest country in the world, five times larger than Great Britain and three times the size of Texas. It has 2798 km of coastline, with the cold Atlantic Ocean on the west coast, and the warm Indian Ocean on the east coast. Plan your trip taking into account where you might drive and where you need to fly between destinations.
From Cape Town to the Zimbabwe border in the North is 1931 km; from Cape Town to Johannesburg is 1400 km; from Cape Town to Port Elizabeth is 751 km; from Cape Town to Durban is 1638 km and from Johannesburg to the Kruger National Park is 386 km.
To get the distance between any towns and directions, visit this site.
To the north of SA lie the neighbouring countries of Namibia, Botswana and Zimbabwe; to the east are Mozambique and Swaziland; within it lies Lesotho, an enclave surrounded by South African territory. There are border posts with all these countries which are normally open from 08h00 and 18h00.
Although distances are huge, the good news is that there is an excellent network of airports so the visitor can explore one place, drop off the rental car and get to the next place by plane.
if you have the time, much of South Africa has stunning and extremely varied scenery, so a road trip is a special experience. See the wonderful ShowMe Self Drive Routes.
Our road network between almost all towns is hardtop. If you do want to explore out of the way areas, then it is likely that the roads could be dirt. Most dirt roads are passable with a sedan, and if they are not, there are normally warnings.
In South Africa you drive on the left hand side of the road. The traffic signs are clear and the speed limits are 60km and hour in towns, 80km to 100km an hour in areas that need caution and 120km an hour on the open road and freeways. There are cameras all over and fines are high. Seat belts are compulsory and talking on cell phones without a handset is an offence. Driving under the influence is against the law. Make sure you always carry a valid driver’s licence. Fuel is available in most towns. Keep change for toll roads. The Automobile Association can be called for emergency rescues on 0800-010101.
Should you wish to go anywhere off the beaten track, then you will either have to hire a car, or take a minibus taxi. The minibus taxi system is vast, but the least comfortable and safe way to travel, with a high accident rate. There is no advance booking on taxis. All main towns have standard taxi services.
Do not hitch-hike and if you are driving, do not pick up hitch-hikers.
South Africa has an excellent network of camping sites, both in the National Parks and everywhere else. Camping is an inexpensive alternative accommodation option. In each caravan park, as they are known, there are sites for tents and for campervans. Many sites have electrical points and almost all camps have ablutions. Some camps have limited supplies like wood or maybe even a small shop. All national game reserves have well stocked shops and restaurants.
Security in South Africa is much the same as any country where there is a big difference between the poor and rich. It is very important to be careful when walking around cities – do not wear expensive jewellery and watches and try not to look like a tourist. Make sure your wallet is secured safely. Do not walk out on the streets at night unless you have checked up on the safety of the area first with your hotel. It is better to drive or take a taxi to your destination at night. Car guards abound and will ask you if they should look after your car. Always agree and then give them a tip for the evening’s work. This is not only a good security move, but depending on how long you park, a tip, their only form of income, of R2-R10, will be most appreciated.
Do not leave valuables in full view in the car. Whilst driving, lock all the car doors. Do not accept any help at ATM’s nor let anyone stand close to you.
Having said this about the large cities, most small towns in South Africa are very safe.
Phone 10111 and you will be directed to the correct authority.
South Africa’s electricity supply runs at 220/230V, 50Hz AC. Most hotel rooms have sockets that will take 110V electric shavers, but for other appliances visitors will need an adaptor.
The wild animals in South Africa are just that – WILD! Do not try and feed them and DO NOT GET OUT OF YOUR CAR, especially in game areas. This is not just a precautionary warning – many visitors do not understand how dangerous wildlife can be. You think there is just a cute small animal, but hidden in the bush is a pride of lion or angry elephant. If you see an elephant standing in the road with its ears flapping, reverse and give it space. Never invade any animal’s space and if you are standing near a river, beware of any hippos that may be out of the water, as they are very scared and will rush you in their attempt to get back to the safety of the water.
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