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South Africa - Before You Go

South Africa - Before You Go

Published: 27. April 2020
By: Erin Skahan

Whether you’ve already decided that South Africa is your next travel destination, or you’re still in the “shopping around” phase, I’m here to help you seal the deal. South Africa is a dream destination that you can’t afford to miss. Here are just a few reasons to get planning:

  • Incredible Wildlife
  • World Renowned Wine
  • Stunning Beaches
  • Affordability
  • Extreme Sports
  • Unique History
  • Road Tripper’s Paradise

That’s a lot of eggs in one basket, and certainly doesn’t read like the resume of a place you’d think “that sounds affordable!”. But I’m here to tell you, it’s all that and so much more! Now that I’ve got you convinced (you’ve got a few flight searches going in the background, don’t you?) let’s run through some of the basics. We’ll cover everything you need to know, from currency to safety, and I’ll even throw in some local slang so you sound like you know your stuff from the moment you arrive in this beautiful country.

Currency

In South Africa, the local currency is the Rand. The abbreviation for the currency is ZAR, so use that if you want to check the exchange rate against your home currency. As mentioned in my top reasons for visiting the country, the exchange value makes South Africa an affordable destination. At the time of this writing, the rand to euro exchange rate is €0.049, and the rand to USD is $0.054. It’s highly favourable for tourists visiting, and you’ll get a lot of bang for your buck.

Credit cards are widely accepted in shops and restaurants, but it’s always a good idea to carry some cash on you. The best place to get cash is in the airport at one of the ATM’s there, since they’ll offer the best exchange rate.

Major Airports

There are 3 major airports in South Africa, located in the busiest major cities. The top tourist destination city is Cape Town, and the local airport is Cape Town International. This is a top class airport, offering all of the amenities you’d expect from a facility that caters to welcoming tourists from all over the world. The airport shuttle is called “MyCiti” and easily connects the city and the airport. It’s located in the very southern Western Cape province, so depending on where you’re coming from, it may or may not be the first airport you arrive at in the country. Often the first spot for international arrivals is Oliver Tambo International, located in the commercial capital of Johannesburg in the northern province of Gauteng. There are plenty of shops and restaurants to keep you busy here if you’re waiting on a connection. Both the Johannesburg and Cape Town airports are consistently ranked among the top 100 airports in the world. Additionally, there is the regional airport in Durban, King Shaka, sometimes called La Mercy. This sits on the east coast in the KwaZulu-Natal province, in between Johannesburg and Cape Town.

Getting Around

Now that you’ve got the lay of the land, how should you get around? Well, remember when I mentioned that South Africa is a road tripper’s paradise? Renting a car or campervan allows you a lot of flexibility, and you’ll be able to access coutless off the beaten path destinations. The joy of searching for the perfect spot to set up your lunch spread can’t be overstated. Visualize parking your vehicle, setting up your cooker, planting a few road-side chairs and taking in the colourful views. Like I said, paradise.

If you’re in the city and mostly traveling from A to B, by far the best way to get around is Uber. The ride share service is popular in cities throughout the country, it’s convenient, and less expensive than taxis.

Language

There are 11 official languages in South Africa, and you have to learn them all before you go. Ok, not really. Actually if you speak English, you’ll be more than fine. If any of you polyglots out there want to give it a go anyway, check out this short video that goes into a bit more linguistic detail. For those who want to stick to the basics, there are 4 major languages you’ll encounter, depending on which part of the country you’re in.

The most common is Zulu, spoken by about 23% of the population. Xhosa comes in next at 16%, followed by Afrikaans at 13%, and finally English at 9.6%. Afrikaans is a language that shares over 90% of it’s vocabulary with Dutch, an influence from the Dutch settlers who arrived back in the 17th century. Along with the fluctuation between Dutch and colonial English rule, the language blended with Cape Dutch and eventually became Afrikaans.

Even though English comes at the bottom of the “top 4” list, it’s the language used by the government and business community throughout the country. So wherever you go, you’ll find that English, despite how little it’s spoken as a primary language, is spoken by most residents of South Africa, and used commercially on signs and in restaurants.

Local Slang

Let’s pose a hypothetical situation. Your new friend you met at the bar last night calls and says “Aita brah, howzit? Some chow after I pick up my lightie, or we braai?”

Say what??

Time to learn some slang my friends! Here’s a list of commonly used terms and their definitions to help you get by.

  • Aita: a greeting
  • Babbelas: hangover
  • Braai: a BBQ, expect lots of meat
  • Brah: equivalent to dude
  • Biscuit: term of endearment
  • Chow: food
  • Haiybo: definitely not
  • Howzit: hey, how’s it going/ how are you?
  • Lightie: little brother
  • Sosatie: kebab
  • Spaza: convenience store

Now you can tell your new friend Haiybo biscuit, can’t think about food. Terrible babbelas from last night. Might grab a sosatie or something from the spaza later.”

Well done! It’s like you’ve been here for years.

Cultural Customs

Familiarizing yourself with local customs and etiquette can prove to be one the most interesting, embarrassing, and entertaining aspects of travel. I’ve definitely rocked into a new country wearing something I thought was fashionable, only to be giggled at and politely questioned about my wardrobe choices. Ooops! Widening your horizons through travel is one of the best ways you can learn not to take yourself too seriously. However, it’s not fashion advice I’m going to impart upon you today, it’s just a few basics to get you by.

Various cultures have their own traditional greetings, but if you’re traveling through, a handshake is the norm. Eye contact is important when greeting someone, so offer your hand and look the person in the eye with a smile. Wait for the local to offer you a handshake, in respecting another cultural variant, as some women won’t shake, giving a polite nod and smile instead. Following the local’s lead is a good rule of thumb, since customs vary widely, and can be particularly important in the more rural areas.

Tipping is common practice, and around 10% is sufficient. This goes for restaurants, Uber drivers, hotel service staff, etc. A bit of change is fine for bartenders.

Safety

If you’ve done any research, no doubt you’ve come across the occasional safely warning about South Africa. The truth is that it really depends on where you go. The country welcomes over 3.5 million tourists each year, so that should tell you that there is some degree of safety permitting such high levels of tourism to exist. That being said, it’s also considered a third world country. So economic disparity will be noticable. You’ll go from perfectly paved highways to dirt roads, sprawling cities to poor rural villages. If you’re a seasoned traveller, you know what “city precautions” to take while you’re in tourist areas. Petty crime such as pickpocketing, to car break-ins, they can be avoided if you’re being smart and paying attention. Keep your bag on your person, use something that has a thick strap and goes across your shoulder. Don’t flash your cash, and don’t excitedly proclaim how much your professional camera costs while waving it around for all to see. As for violent crime and home invasions, these are generally relegated to areas where tourists don’t go. So ask around and get familiar with where those areas are.

If you’re renting a car or campervan, don’t leave expensive equipment (cameras, laptops, etc) in the vehicle, or certainly not visible. Always lock up. In the cities, you might come across the car guards. These are people you can pay to keep an eye on your vehicle while you run errands or go to a restaurant. Definitely worth a few rands for the peace of mind.

It’s generally not recommended to walk around in the evening, especially if you’re alone. Always opt for an Uber, even if it’s just for a few blocks. The bottom line is if you don’t make for a good victim, you’re less likely to be one.

Drinking Water

Climate change, persistent drought and growing urban populations have increased pressure on the existing water supply. But extreme measures and awareness of the shortage have been successful in curbing any emergency scenarios. So you can count on water being available, and the filtration systems in South African cities result in high quality clean water, safe to drink straight from the tap. Bring your reusable water bottle and fill er’ up!

Solo Travel

Solo travel in South Africa is fairly common, and safe if you’re a seasoned traveler accustomed to knowing the risks to watch out for. For a first time solo traveler, it’s probably not the best place to start. If you’ve got a few trips under your belt, then you’re likely well versed in the unique circumstances that traveling alone brings about. For females traveling solo, there’s some great information here from someone who’s done it. Solo or not, it’s a good idea to buy a SIM card at the airport, which gives you a local number to stay connected in case of emergency. Again, be sure to ask locals which parts of town are safe and where you should avoid, and don’t walk alone at night. Use Uber since it’s trackable and background checks are done on drivers. It’s always recommended to double check your Uber when it pulls up for a plate match. If you go on any hiking excursions, it’s safer to be part of a group. There are plenty of tours you can join up with, and it’s a great way to meet fellow travelers!

Erin Skahan
Erin Skahan travels, cooks and writes her way around seemingly random places. You can usually find her in rainy countries exploring moss covered forest trails, or in pubs with fireplaces. She's addicted to podcasts, vintage clothing and almond butter. Read more of her musings at www.therouxx.com

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