10 Things to Know Before Travelling to South Africa

By Jemima Chesterfield

Should you find yourself reading this blog I’d say it’s safe to assume you have just booked / you’re planning your first trip to South Africa. That in itself deserves congratulations! Trust me you’ve made a brilliant decision and you’re going to thank yourself. 

South Africa, as well as the entire African continent, often gets a bad rep in the media. However, if you talk to anyone from there or who has visited chances are they are going to tell you how fantastic their experience was! 

A beautiful, diverse and exciting country is what you’re about to encounter, with a lot of different cultures and wonderful friendly faces. This blog is going to cover 10 of some of the more common misconceptions about South Africa and also some helpful tips & insights so you can feel as prepared as possible before embarking on this new adventure… 

Let’s get into it!  


1. Don’t Flash your Cash 

This really goes without saying for any time you travel abroad or to a big city. There is nothing to be overly concerned with, so long as you:

  • Don’t wear your fanciest jewellery
  • Avoid playing on your phone or flaunting your camera equipment in public
  • Don’t leave your bag or phone on an empty table at restaurants
  • Don’t walk around alone late at night

As a rule, if it’s not essential to bring then leave your valuables locked up in your hotel safe. Otherwise, there are pickpockets everywhere in the world so it’s really just a good habit to get into when travelling abroad.

– If you’re curious about what to pack in terms of valuables and other essential items on your FIRST trip to SA, comment down below!


2. Fail to Plan / Plan to Fail 

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Depending on what your trip is going to involve, this might be the most important thing to know. South Africa is HUGE! It’s the 24th largest country in the world, so you’re going to want to plan your route carefully. 

However if you haven’t reached that stage yet, a couple of key things to know in terms of geography and planning: 

  • South Africa has three capitals: Pretoria, Cape Town, Bloemfontein. SO Johannesburg IS NOT one of them (essential to know if you want to blend in). 
  • The three capitals, as well as other bigger cities such as Jo-burg or Durban, are very westernised. Also there is plenty of opportunity to buy things you may have forgotten or re-stock road trip supplies, you’ll be able to buy any food or other essentials at supermarkets such as: Woolworths or Pick n Pay
  • It’s always important to budget a trip, but thankfully SA is all-round pretty affordable (even alcohol and accommodation). 

3. South Africa in ONE WORD = Diversity 

For one country, it sure does have a lot to offer. Whether you’re looking for wildlife, adventure, history & culture, food, South Africa has it all. 

For adventure activities, heading to the Western Cape is going to be your best bet. You’re going to have the greatest range of options from skydiving to shark cage diving, paragliding, and whale watching. For surfing, head to Durban. For hiking and camping, go to the Drakensberg mountains. For safari…keep reading:) 

South Africa has a diverse flora as well, being home to 9 different biomes! A road trip to cover all of them…now that’s an idea (comment below if you agree). 

As well as diversity in options, their people and heritage is varied and unique – with a total of 11 official languages consisting of anything from integrated clicks, a Dutch descendant language (Afrikaans), and also English. As cool as it would be to speak Xhosa (and very impressive if you learn), you’ll get by fine with just speaking English! 


4. Did someone say Safari? 

Quite honestly, if you’re taking a trip to South Africa, then safari is a MUST. 

It will probably end up being the most expensive part of your trip, with most reputable sports starting around $400 in the off season, so keep your budget on the larger side. 

However, keep in mind that with that money you’re not just paying for accommodation but also: 

  • Meals (there will be A LOT of food) 
  • Service 
  • Animal sightings 
  • An informed ranger 

Lodges I would recommend: 

1. Safari Lodge, Amakhala Game Reserve

Four star rated  Safari Lodge in a valley of indigenous bush at the northern boundary of Amakhala Game Reserve, offers the three-day Tuskers Package which, along with activities on Amakhala offers a game drive into Addo Elephant National Park. 

2. Rhino River Lodge, Manyoni Game Reserve. 

This family-owned Big 5 safari lodge is beautifully situated in the heart of Zululand. A rich cultural heritage as well as a diverse animal population and WWF black rhino sanctuary. 

Self-drive safari option 

There are pros and cons to this as it will be cheaper but chances are you will see / understand less of the wildlife than if you’re with a guide. However, here are some fantastic places to self-drive: 

  1. Addo Elephant Park : The 3rd largest national park in SA, close to Port Elizabeth. You’ll be able to find lions, herds of elephants, as well as the newly introduced spotted hyena. 
  1. Kruger National Park : famous for its sheer size and guaranteed sightings. The roads are well maintained and you can even drive it in a small car. Go for a day or a week, it doesn’t matter. A lot of camping spots and lodges are available also. 
  1. Mopane Bush Lodge : You can self-drive in the nearby Mapungubwe National Park, or take advantage of the safaris run in this privately owned safari park.                       

5. Safety & Rules of the Road-Trip

It’s no doubt that there’s a misconception that travelling in Africa is only for volunteering and safaris – well that just ain’t true. Designing your own leisure-based road-trip experience could be one of there BEST ways to see the country. The whole country is so full of amazing drives, scenery and nature you would be silly not to! 

There is some functional public transport in SA, but for the most part, it’s pretty unreliable and crowded. SO hiring your own vehicle for only £20-30/day is by far the superior option. 

Top Tip: Use Uber rather than taxis in the big cities, they are a much safer & more reliable choice. 

Key Points: 

  • Avoid driving after dark 
  •  Have a good GPS (don’t necessarily rely on the any that are built into the car) 
  • Don’t pick up hitchhikers 
  •  Keep small change on you for tolls, garages that don’t accept card, or the infamous road blocks (police blockades in the road where they might ask to check your licence or any other excuse to get a tip…my advice = be polite, don’t resist, tip if necessary, get past smoothly and hassle free) 
  • Drive on the LEFT
  •  Always have enough gas (if in doubt, fill up. There are long road stretches with no garages) 
  • Speaking of garages – they are NOT self-service. Drive onto the forecourt, an attendant will fill the vehicle. It is polite and customary to tip about 15-20 Rand.
  • SOLO FEMALE TRAVELLERS? I have personally, as a woman, driven solo around SA and if this is something you want more information / tips about drop us a comment down below or DM us on Instagram @theexpeditionproject 

6. Talk Like A Local 

As previously mentioned, South Africa has 11 official languages. As far as dialect is concerned, it spans a whole spectrum and can be a bit of a head-spin. So here’s a quick starter-guide on your most useful sayings and common words to you can quickly fool some locals…or at least try;) 

  •  Howzit? : Literally ‘How is it going?’ but contracted. The standard South African greeting. 
  •  Lekker : Awesome! Cool! Really any positive emotion – this word covers it. 
  •  Braai : Barbecue / grill. If invited, say YES (and a word of advice, never insult a Saffa man’s braai  skills) 
  •  Bru : Bro / mate 
  •  Shame! : means ‘That’s a shame’. Don’t take offence thinking that someone is literally wishing ‘shame on you’ – common mistake haha. 
  •  Is it? : This is more of an affirmative exclamation than a question. It’s used in the same context as ‘oh really?’ or ‘ah okay’, but A LOT more frequently. 
  •  Robot : Definitely an important one when asking for directions, a robot is a traffic light. 

…worst comes to worst you try your best accent and make a fool of yourself. But learning the lingo it’s a great opportunity to bond with some true South Africans, all of whom I have found to be very relaxed and humorous once you break through that outer layer. TIA [This Is Africa]- they’re sometimes hard nuts to crack! 

Want to test yourself? Try out the Sporcle quiz! 


7. Putting the Fun in Fundamentals (or trying to at least) 

Here’s a checklist of things you’ll need to be on top of before your trip, make sure you’ve hit all the points: 

  • Travel Insurance. This is fundamental for whatever kind of trip you’re planning.
  • Visa. The South African Department of Home Affairs website provides detailed information on which nationalities need visas to travel to South Africa, as well as how to obtain it. Luckily for Europeans, Canadians, Australians, New Zealanders and Americans, they can visit the country for 90 days without the hassle.
  • Have 2 free passport pages to show immigration.
  • Plug adapters. SA plugs are three pinned with a thick top pin, and are 15 amp 3-prong, with round plugs.
  • Currency. South Africa’s main currency is Rand (ZAR). Use a bank or foreign exchange service for the best exchange rates, don’t fall for street vendors it’s usually a scam. Tipping is also big (usually 10%) so make sure not just to rely on paying by card. 
  • Call Coverage. Signal is pretty good country-wide. But if you get a local SIM then you have to top it up and data plans and minutes are often capped. 
  • Malaria pills. Check the areas you’re going and prepare accordingly. 

8. ‘Africa’ Time 

If you’ve been to the Caribbean or Southeast Asia, you are aware of how the concept of time can shift. This laid-back, slow pace is also found in South Africa. Instead of stressing yourself out, learn to embrace the slow pace -you’ll be back home and rushing around before you know it! 

Africans, however, although bad at rigorous time-keeping have come up with supposed ‘time markers’ that the rest of the world must just agree really confuses the issue: 

just now  – You might think this means right now, but it actually means an undetermined amount of time. That being said, if someone tells you they will pick you up just now, don’t rush. 

now now  – This repetitive phrase can either mean right now or as soon as possible. 

Conclusion: it’s more vague than saying nothing, but if you want a more in depth understanding check out this explanation


9. Stay Ethical 

Several parts of South Africa aren’t regulated. So, before you sign up for that township tour, animal experience, or volunteer program, do your research. 

Make sure you pick tour operators who give back to the local economy or specific causes. Be sure that your animal experience isn’t contributing to canned hunting or cruelty, check that your volunteer program isn’t exploiting people or wildlife, and know which larger companies, including local wineries, are supportive of its workers and labor laws. 

If you want to be sure your trip is ethical and sustainable, check out the projects on our website here (all personally verified by The Expedition Project here).

Also read our ethical travel blog here and our ethical volunteering blog here.


10. Be Open Minded

I hope this blog helped clear some misconceptions & generalisations and already encourage you to be open minded to all the new information and experiences you’re about to engage with on your upcoming adventure!

A famous South African, Desmond Tutu, described South Africa by saying, “We of many cultures, languages, and races become one nation. We are the Rainbow People of God.” In such a diverse country, it’s important to remain alert, in order to stay safe and respect the culture.

However, it’s now up to you to make your own decisions and craft your own opinion – lucky you. Venture off the beaten track and find the beauty of South Africa in its varied  landscapes, warm and friendly people and natural rhythm. You’re about to be part of a story of what I consider, somewhat unbiasedly, as the best country on earth. 

Good Luck and Happy Travels! 


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