South Africa is a fantastic destination. In one trip, you can combine a safari with a city trip, hiking with wine tasting at fancy estates, kayaking with dolphins in the morning and enjoying stunning ocean views in the afternoon. That is how we explored the country in winter 2019. In this post, we summarized firsthand information for your vacation in the fascinating African land.

During our trip, we also spent three days in the Kingdom of eSwatini (formerly Swaziland). You’ll find some essential tips on the country in this post as well. 

Accommodation

Book your accommodation in advance. In summer months, from late November to early March, prices go up. There is plenty to choose from for any budget.

Book a room with breakfast. In some remote areas, it might not be easy to get it elsewhere. When renting a car, book accommodation with secured parking.

Are you planning an African safari? Check out our tips for individual bookings.

Food and drinks

A whole post would not be enough to describe the food. From simple steaks in a shack restaurant close to Addo National Park to an elaborate culinary experience in Cape Town, the cuisine of South Africa is extraordinary.

In the North (Johannesburg, Mpumalanga province, as well as in Swaziland), you’ll find mostly meat-based barbeque dishes. Steaks are delicious less expensive than in Europe (around 15 € for a prime rib steak). If you are up for it, common game meat (like antelope and ostrich) is also served in South Africa and Swaziland. On the coast (Eastern and Western Cape), the cuisine represents the mix of different cultures. You can enjoy a variety of fish and seafood dishes.

Of the restaurants we visited, we think, these deserve a special mention: 

  • River Front Restaurant in Addo: Simple homemade food and game meat steaks. (www.facebook.com/rfrestaurant
  • 34 Degrees South in Knysna: Delicious fish and seafood. Definitely try the Knysna Oysters. (www.34south.biz
  • The Codfather in Camps Bay, Cape Town: No menu restaurant offering fresh fish and seafood for you to select an individual platter. (www.codfather.co.za
  • Upper Bloem in Cape Town: High-end dinner menu restaurant transforming the cultural mix of Cape Town into delightful dishes. (upperbloemrestaurant.co.za

Good to know: Tipping about 10% is expected. Always book a table in advance and check how to get to the restaurant. 

Our favorite beer in South Africa was the Castle Lager. In Swaziland, we enjoyed the ice-cold Sibebe. South African wine is exquisite, especially a glass of Pinotage is a delight.

Water quality is supposedly good in South Africa. We didn’t want to challenge our faith and bought large 5l canisters in a supermarket to fill the reusable bottles.

Cash and credit cards

The currency in South Africa is Rand (1 Euro ~ R15.90 | 1 USD ~ R14.30 as of December 2019). The prices for accommodation, in restaurants, and for gas are lower compared to Western Europe or the US. 

The easiest way to get cash is at ATMs. Be sure to check the surroundings when withdrawing money and prefer bank lobbies or malls to street ATMs. Never let anyone help you at an ATM, regardless of how nice and helpful they appear. 

Safety tip: Check whether the card slot was tampered before entering the PIN code into an ATM. To do so, insert the card and immediately press Cancel. If you get the card back, the machine is probably safe to use. 

Credit cards are widely accepted in restaurants and hotels all around the country in South Africa and Swaziland. Apple Pay and contactless payments didn’t work most of the time when we visited.

In the Kingdom of eSwatini (Swaziland), the currency is Lilangeni. It is pegged to Rand, and the conversion rate to Euro/USD is identical. During our stay, we didn’t encounter the local currency as Rand is accepted. We even got our change back in Rand. In towns, credit cards were also accepted. 

Good to know: Rand is accepted in Swaziland, but you cannot use Lilangeni in South Africa.

Driving

Renting a car is probably the best way to explore South Africa. The rental prices are reasonable, and the gas is cheap compared to European prices (around 1 Euro per Liter | 4.3 USD per Gallon as of December 2019). 

Road conditions are usually good. From a total of 2 500 kilometers, we only drove about 200 km on dust roads outside National Parks. Depending on where you are heading to, you don’t necessarily need a 4×4. If you are planning a self-drive safari in a national park, a high clearance vehicle will be more comfortable on unpaved roads. For our trip from Johannesburg to Swaziland and Kruger, we opted for a 4×4 (costing 56 Euro per day, including CDW and fees for taking the car to Swaziland). For Addo National Park and the Garden Route, we rented a 2WD SUV (for 40 Euro per day, including CDW and one-way rental fee). 

In South Africa and Swaziland, you’ll drive on the left. If you are not used to it, rent a car with an automatic gearbox. Driving style is comparable to Southern Europe. However, a lot of people walk along the road and cross highways unpredictably. Obey speed limits and avoid driving after dark.

Carjacking is a real thing in South Africa. We didn’t encounter it during our stay, but we still prepared. There are a few rules you should follow.

  • Know where you are heading and check the route before the drive.
  • Always lock the doors and close the windows when driving.
  • Keep valuables out of sight, even when the car is moving.
  • Never stop for hitchhikers.
  • Ignore the street vendors. If possible, stop further away.
  • At lights, stop further away from the car in front of you. You should be able to see its rear tires.
  • Be aware of the surroundings. If you encounter unusual activity, don’t stop and drive to the next police station to report it.
  • Do not stop along the road for pictures and take breaks only at populated gas stations.
  • Park only in populated areas.
  • Never leave anything in the car. If you have luggage in the boot, do not open it at a public car park.

Google Maps work great for navigation. We recommend downloading offline maps for areas with no cell coverage. In general, add about 15% to the estimated ETA on Google Maps due to traffic and road conditions.

Gas is available across the country. Before a long distance drive, plan the stops ahead. The gas stations are well marked along the route and searchable with Google Maps. All gas stations we encountered were full service. In most cases, you don’t even need to get out of the car. Remember to tip R10 to the attendant after you paid for the gas.

Good to know: We paid the gas in South Africa in cash. We saw some gas stations accepting cards, but we didn’t try to use ours, thus we do not know whether foreign cards work.

When you park the car at a mall or at a restaurant, there will likely be a parking attendant in visibility jacked. He will keep an eye on your vehicle while you are away. Tip him R5 when leaving the car park.

Driving to eSwatini

Visiting national parks in Swaziland was a highlight of our trip. The best way to get to the Kingdom of eSwatini is to drive from Johannesburg. The distance between OR Tambo Airport and the Oshoek border is approximately 340 kilometers. Depending on traffic, the drive to the border will take around 4 hours. It is another hour to the capital Mbabane. 

From the airport in Johannesburg, we took the route along the N4 via Emalahleni, turned to R33 in direction to Carolina, and continued for 78 km until we switched to N17 and drove for another 65 km to the Oshoek border.

Tip: There is a nice rest stop, Total Petroport N4 Alzu, along the route, 190 km from Johannesburg. It has a good restaurant for breakfast or lunch. They also have a waterhole where you can watch buffalos, ostriches, and even rhinos. 

Once in Oshoek, it took us around half an hour to cross the border post without waiting times. Don’t forget a gate pass before entering the Swaziland part of the border and get it stamped at the passport control and at customs. You’ll need a fully stamped pass to exit the border area. 

When driving a rental car into Swaziland, you’ll need a letter of authorization from the rental company. Also, you’ll need to pay the eSwatini Road toll of R100 at the customs. A ZA sticker is supposedly required to enter Swaziland. Our rental didn’t have one, so we bought a label at the gas station. But we didn’t have to put it on the car.

Good to know: The border posts between South Africa and Swaziland close in the evening. Check the times when you can cross before driving to the border here.

Driving in Swaziland is very similar to South Africa. Road conditions are a little bit worse, but there is less traffic. 

Tip: If you are not keen on driving to Swaziland yourself, contact Mbombela Experience. We spend a day with them in Kruger National Park. Besides safaris, they organize transfers between Johannesburg and destinations in Swaziland.

Traveling long distance

South Africa is a big country (about 2x times the size of Texas). The distances between the destinations can be long. For example, it will take about 9 hours driving from Port Elizabeth to Cape Town or 15 hours from Cape Town to Johannesburg.

To cover long distances, we recommend taking a domestic flight and rent a car at the destination. There are plenty of flights all around South Africa for reasonable prices. We paid 80 € p.p. for an 8am flight from Johannesburg to Port Elizabeth.

Safety tip: We didn’t have any issues ourselves, however, there have been reports of luggage being tampered at the airports, especially in Johannesburg. The best way is to keep the valuables in the carry-on. At OR Tambo, we also wrapped our suitcases (for R70 as of November 2019). At the baggage claim in Port Elizabeth, we noticed, that around 50% of the luggage had been wrapped.

Staying connected

In our experience, staying connected is vital in South Africa. You’ll need the internet to order an Uber, to use Google Maps, or to top up your prepaid credit card. The easiest way to get an internet connection in South Africa is a prepaid SIM card. We opted for the MTN and paid 29 Euro for a SIM card with 3 GB of data and a few hundred Rands for data roaming in Swaziland.

Good to know: There is an MTN shop directly at the arrival hall at OR Tambo Airport in Johannesburg. The SIM cards are sold with a little markup. But you’ll save time looking for a shop in town.

The cellular coverage in South Africa was excellent. However, in Swaziland, the reception was very poor, thus downloading maps beforehand is crucial.

Staying safe

You’ve probably heard of South Africa’s bad crime reputation. And statistically, it is true. However, most crime is not targeted against tourists. Besides, South Africa keeps crime statistics. Many other African countries don’t, so they appear safer on paper. We didn’t have any issues when we visited.

Nonetheless, don’t belittle potential risks. As everywhere, follow the usual rules for safe travels. Besides, consider the specific precautions when traveling in South Africa.

  • Know where you are going. Always ask a local whether it is safe to go to a specific area during the day and especially after sunset.
  • Get around safely. Ask at the accommodation, whether it is safe to walk. But newer walk after dark. Not even for a block. Do not hail taxis from the street and take an Uber instead.
  • Be aware of scams. Read about the usual tricks before your travels. Never let anyone help you at the ATM or with the luggage.
  • Be aware of the surrounding. Don’t walk staring at your phone. If something doesn’t feel right, trust your instinct and getaway.
  • Keep valuables close to you. Don’t flash expensive camera or a phone. Have a bag with you where you can stove it. 

But don’t get discouraged by the news. Use your common sense, follow the safety tips, and you’ll be just fine.

Packing

South Africa is perfect for city, outdoor, water, and safari adventures. What to pack depends on what your plans are. Bring comfortable, neutral clothes and closed shoes for hiking. Pack some layers as the coast might get very windy and cold even in the summer months. Dress code in towns is more casual, and shorts are acceptable. On walking safaris, you’ll need bush colored clothes.

Ideally, bring a bag that you can use as a day pack. Don’t forget adapter plugs for electricity and power banks for lodges without electricity. 

If you are planning a safari, also check out our first-timer tips.

Sharing is caring. If you have any other tips, please leave a comment below.

3 Replies to “South Africa tips for first-timers”

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