5 Things I Wish I Knew Before Going to South Africa

From beachfront destinations and under-water shark diving to world-class wild safaris and awe-inspiring geologic formations, South Africa is an exciting place to visit, but it's certainly not the place to lose your head.

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5 things I wish I knew about South Africa

Culturally, the country is a unique blend of African and Colonial cultures, which have seen some of the most engaging and inspiring political reformations of modern times. From the legacy of Nelson Mandela to the harmonies of Ladysmith Black Mambazo, South Africa is a great place to learn about the past and for cultural immersion.

If South Africa is anything, it's a place to heed the advice of those in the know.

1. Pay Attention to Your Location

"If you see a big, loud, angry-sounding demonstration or mob, turn the other way and keep away, no matter how curious you may be." – Kent Redding, Preident, Africa Adventure Consultants

"Know where you're going – don't wander around aimlessly. In many parts of the town (in both Cape Town and Johannesburg), the good and bad neighborhoods are often one block away from each other." – Dana Hsiao, SoSauce

2. Don‘t be Flashy

"Keep jewelry and expensive clothes to a minimum. Don‘t flash cash when dealing with street vendors or frankly anytime. (For example) trade your big fancy camera and lenses for a point and shoot pocket model." – Dan Austin, Director, Austin Lehman Adventures

Pay attention and don't be flashy – especially in these neighbourhoods with a bad reputation.

3. Mobile Phone Coverage is Extensive, and Easy to Access

"Phones can be hired, or a good 3G-enabled phone and SIM card can be bought at any airport. If you are social-media savvy, you can enhance your holiday experience with real-time updating of all your networks." – Eleanor Muller, Transfrontier Parks Destinations (TFPD)

4. If You Want to Rent a Car, South Africa Isn‘t the Place to Get That Hot Red Convertible You‘ve Always Wanted

Poverty is still a harsh reality in South Africa, so hire a normal car instead of inviting trouble by being flashy (as well as offensive). If you rent a car, try to avoid driving after dark. In recent years, there's been a lot more highway robbery after sunset.

Also, if you're going to self-drive, be aware that South Africans drive on the left-hand side of the road. Fuel stations (called garages) are not self-service. When you drive onto the forecourt an attendant will fill the vehicle. It is customary to tip the attendant about $1 for the service.

Driving yourself is relatively safe, but you might want to brush up on the local laws and ways before getting behind the wheel.

"If you are planning to volunteer in South Africa make sure you are going with a reputable organization. A popular scam has popped up where travelers are approached to help at a needy orphanage, the problem is these kids are made to look extremely poor just to get big donations out of sappy travelers. If you want to volunteer go through an organization that has been doing this for years and has past travelers you can speak to." – Alexia Nestora, VoluntourismGal

5. Be Open-minded

"It's natural that all guidebooks and travel websites will need to resort to generalization when offering broad-spectrum advice. You should still be fully prepared to venture off the usual beaten track and really get into all the nooks and crannies of South Africa, feel the rhythm of the people and ‘go local‘ whenever possible. You will find them to be warm and delighted to share their corner of Africa with you (as a general rule of course!)

Also, South Africa has a staggering 11 official languages, most of them indigenous to the country. Around 40% of the population speak either isiZulu or isiXhosathough almost everywhere you go you will be able to get by with English which is commonly spoken in all major towns and cities, hotels, banks, and government departments. Another major language is Afrikaans, a derivative of Dutch, which northern Europeans will find surprisingly easy to follow.

Check out this cool site for picking up some of the local language nuances here." – Sarah Graham, African Impact

Most importantly, understand that South Africa is like nowhere you‘ve ever been. The famous South African Desmond Tutu described South Africa by saying “We of many cultures, languages and races are become one nation. We are the Rainbow People of God." In such a diverse country it‘s important to remain alert and understand the nuances of the lifestyles, but be sure to keep your head up don‘t miss a moment of soaking in a most unique worldly experience.

Want to know more about South Africa? Check out our podcast. We talk shark culling to conservation, the photographer who survived a deadly snake bite, plus how World Nomads swings into action when something goes wrong.

Have you been to South Africa? What did you learn what you wish you had known before you went?

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14 Comments

  • joshua iria said

    I will love to be in south Africa,because i have head of there good good thinks and for me i love the country very well..

  • Elizabeth Cress-Sweet said

    I am looking forward to a trip to Africa - BUT only when all the terrorism stops! I am wondering about oxygen renewals.
    Africa seems to be a wonderful country!

  • Elizabeth Cress-Sweet said

    I am looking forward to a trip to Africa - BUT only when all the terrorism stops! I am wondering about oxygen renewals.
    Africa seems to be a wonderful country!

  • rick baldwin said

    I recently returned from Jo-Burg & had an opportunity to be downtown for coffee.We may have been the only White faces but everyone was helpful & friendly.But as I was about to leave my place in the evening,a young man came in who had just been robbed in a nearby township. I have no business being in any unfamiliar city after dark-so I gave him the taxi I ordered & stayed in.

  • Shannon Kircher said

    Thanks for the info and tips! We're heading to South Africa next month - the tip about the rental car is useful. We were tempted to go for the convertible but it sounds like a more modest option is a better bet. :)

  • R said

    5 safety tips to know for traveling to South Africa and one is "be open-minded" and another is "avoid mobs." Thanks for the super helpful tips. A couple more: people expect to be tipped ~2 Rand to "watch" your car when you park. Outside of poorer urban areas, the country is safe (anecdotally).

  • Bonny said

    @Elizabeth Cress-Sweet. Africa is not a country, but a continent. Your statement equals saying 'Europe sounds like a great country'

    Yes be prepared to tip the car guard and petrol pump attendant five Rand or so in cash.

    Do not walk around Joburg or any large city alone at night. Do not flash/ wear expensive jewellery. Wear your handbag strap across your body rather than over your shoulder. Do not stop at traffic lights and stop signs after 10pm, pause and drive through when safe. Use a good GPS. If you are followed by a car with blue lights or a roof light - even by police - do not stop but drive straight to the nearest police station using your GPS. Do not leave the GPS or any valuables in sight your car. Drive with your handbag in the trunk, never ever on the passenger seat. Keep windows 1cm open when driving as this prevents them shattering in a smash and grab situation. Close the windows when you leave the vehicle. Drive with doors locked. You would be insane to rent an open top vehicle.

    Never give your bank card to a waitress or petrol attendant, the rule is that you sign or pin in their presence. They will bring a bank card machine to your table or car window. They do not take the card out of your sight.

    Ignore beggars at traffic lights or you will be paying them two or five Rand, 20 times a day.

  • alan papert said

    Dont ever visit South Africa Today I was mugged at gun point by a man who was dressed as a policeman although he may have been one He apprehended me for driving on an Australian drivers licence and said only a one year international permit was allowed When I challenged him he tried to arrest me and then was happy to empty out my wallet

    This place is finished

    Keep away

  • Penny said

    I wish I'd known that you need to have a full birth certificate when travelling with children under the age of 18! You also need a legal attestation from your partner if you are travelling alone with a child. My lack of knowlege cost us 24 hours of our holiday and 2 extra air fares. Still had a wonderful time there, though.

  • Shaw Roberts said

    South Africa is a beautiful place,
    Yes like all countries we have our problems but half of the stuff on the news I have NEVER experienced and I have been living here my entire life and in the more dangerous area of the country. Just know to be careful with your possessions and always be on the look out x

  • Abigail said

    I am a proud south african black child and i am proud to say we are blessed , if there is one thing i hate its tourists coming into our country with a negative and disrespectful mindset . I believe crime is everywhere and still it doesn't make a country the service counts .For those that enjoyed your stay in this beautiful yet crazy weathered country i say we are trying our best to grow south africa and we are happy you enjoyed your stay with us .I am lucky to be working in One of SA's most visited destination "cradle of humankind "which is a must see when you are in Gauteng

  • Paul Hollow said

    You are probably more at risk going to Paris, or London, than visiting some of the cities in South Africa. Obviously in any city, one needs to be aware of your surroundings and just use your common sense.

    In South African cities, there is probably a much higher level of poverty than in other cities around the world, which perpetuates the level of crime, so it's very important not to be flashy (as mentioned in this post) and just keep your expensive belongings out of sight.

    South Africa is such a beautiful country and one which should absolutely be on your bucket list to visit, so don't let the media scare you from going - A lot of it is hype and if you stick to the tourist destinations and keep your awareness up, you will be absolutely fine. There is also so much more to see than the cities - Book a safari, go and play golf on some the world's best courses, enjoy world renowned wines and stand on the wings of eagles in some of the most beautiful mountain landscapes on the planet!

    You can make your visit even better if you arrange a guided trip with a reputable company. They will know the country backwards, so you'll stress less (if you're a nervous person), enjoy a much fuller experience and learn so much more. I would be happy to discuss your requirements - contact me here: http://www.sunsetafricansafaris.co.uk/435062207

  • Nobby Clark said

    White Genocide in SA is on the increase. Just go to Facebook and have a look. If you go, you have a chance of not coming back. Crime is rife. Laws are no longer applicable if you are a white victim. I've seen terrible videos ......Be warned. No surprises ....

  • MissAfrica said

    There is no "white genocide" in South Africa, @NobbyClark, there is no impartial evidence that white South Africans are murdered more than other South Africans, which is why Canada and Australia denied applications from white South Africans to migrate as refugees. South Africa is a beautiful country, the advice in this article is really useful. Please see the links:

    https://www.splcenter.org/hatewatch/2018/08/23/dangerous-myth-white-genocide-south-africa

    https://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/africa/donald-trump-white-farmers-south-africa-genocide-ethnic-cleansing-land-seizures-racism-violence-a8504156.html

    https://www.theguardian.com/australia-news/2018/apr/14/peter-duttons-department-blocked-white-south-african-farmers-asylum-bid

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