Speak to a few people about your upcoming trip to South Africa and you’ll get a mixed response. From those who have seen the destination for themselves, you’re likely to be inundated with a rush of affection for the vast, wild, urban, beautiful country. From others, you may be subjected to a nervous ‘are you sure it’s safe?’ that comes from a place of genuine concern, fuelled by stories they may have heard over the years.
As a South African born, Australian bred girl with plenty of family still living in my country of birth, I have to admit that before my last visit I was a little torn. For those who have lived in South Africa for all of their lives, who have witnessed political and social turmoil, there has been more unrest and uncertainty than what I was lucky enough to grow up with. But speak to any South African and they’ll tell you to hop on a plane and come over.
They’re incredibly proud of their country, and for very good reason. Of course, once you arrive they’ll have some tips for you to stay safe, but they’re not worried and you shouldn’t be either. As I discovered after I did hop on that plane, South Africa is a wonderful, heart-capturing place that’s full of joy rather than fear, and smiles rather than violence. If you are visiting South Africa for the first time, ignore the fear-mongering you may encounter before you go. There are a few basics you’ll need to be aware of and, as with any new destination, it’s best to be alert and aware of your surroundings, but after you’ve grasped just a few simple dos & don’ts you’ll soon be enjoying the holiday of a lifetime.
To have a truly South African experience, you need to eat a traditional braai. You may think that the only difference between a braai and a barbecue is the name, but I’m afraid to say, you’re wrong. A braai in South Africa is something of a ritual, a tradition so ingrained that it’s part of the nation’s culture. If you’re not lucky enough to be invited to a home braai by a local, find a restaurant that serves a traditional braai. Backyard Grill and Lounge in Cape Town is a worthy substitute for the real deal, as is Flames in the Four Seasons Hotel, Johannesburg. If you’re feeling particularly adventurous, take a tour to Mzoli’s Place, a butchery and braai hangout in Cape Town’s Gugulethu township. With fans such as Jamie Oliver and DJ Fresh, this local hotspot is about as authentic as you can get.
Yes, South Africa has some huge, clean, impressive malls, complete with designer stores and international brands that will make any fashionista’s heart flutter. But do you know what else South Africa has? Talented craftspeople whose wares can be found at roadside stalls, small boutiques and markets across the country. Instead of spending your cash at the malls, check out some local handiwork in the boutiques that line trendy Kloof Street or The Old Biscuit Mill in Cape Town, or browse Joburg’s 44 Stanley Avenue to pick up a souvenir that won’t be forgotten in a shoebox somewhere at home.
Honestly, this is less about South Africa and more a tip for travelling anywhere in the world, no matter how ‘safe’ it seems. Travel insurance is essential, and whether or not you end up using it (and this almost always ends up being a ‘not’) you’ll be glad that you didn’t have to worry about something happening. Also, if you’re renting a car and they ask whether you want tyre and glass insurance, just take it. I ummed and aahhhed for a few seconds before the lady renting a car at the counter next to mine leaned over and said ‘just get it, trust me’. I did as I was told. Of course, I didn’t need it but for the cost, it’s worth the peace of mind.
Get out of the cities
Cape Town, Durban, Johannesburg and Pretoria are all cities with a lot to offer, and they’re all well worth exploring. But head outside of the cities and you’ll find vast expanses of wild, rugged, beautiful landscapes. You’ll discover spectacular wine regions, picturesque seaside villages and game reserves teeming with incredible wildlife. Take a road trip along the coast, spend some time on a safari, but make sure you get out of the cities for a while. Your South African experience won’t be complete until you do.
Make the most of the amazing food & wine
Visiting South Africa with pounds in your pocket is certainly a privilege. The current exchange rate means that local produce seems outrageously affordable when comparing the prices to those at home. Make the most of this favourable rate and dine out as much as you can. The food in South Africa is spectacular, especially the fresh meat and seafood. If you can get a reservation, savour a meal at The Test Kitchen in Cape Town. This trendy eatery was recently voted one of the top fifty restaurants in the world, and it really lives up to its name, with a five course tasting menu costing about the same as an average gastropub dinner.
Drive around with your doors unlocked and windows down
This isn’t meant as some kind of scare tactic, it’s just the way things are. The locals don’t drive with their doors unlocked and windows down, so it’s a good idea to take their lead. Of course, if you’re on the road in the middle of nowhere, feel free to let the fresh air in, but if you’re in a city it’s best to play it safe and keep your car secure. Speaking of car security, always double-check that your car is locked when you’re leaving it unattended, and remove any valuables, even ones that are out of sight.
Think that the wildlife is safe
This may sound obvious, but you’d be surprised how many people think that African wildlife is tame. Just because that lion didn’t flinch when your car rolled up to its nap spot doesn’t mean it won’t reach your window within a fraction of a second if you wiggle your fingers to catch its attention (trust me, I’ve seen it). In the same way, that elephant, although it looks happy and friendly, could crush your car and those baboons aren’t as fun-loving as their appearance may suggest. Bottom line? Respect the wildlife, and know that it is, in fact, wild.
Wander around unknown areas
Once again, this is often sound advice for any new destination, not just South Africa. If you aren’t sure whether an area is considered to be safe or not, don’t risk wandering around. If you’re staying at a hotel, the staff should be able to let you know the areas that are safe and the areas to avoid. South Africa isn’t particularly pedestrian friendly, so don’t assume that because a location looks close on a map that it’s going to be easy or even safe to walk there. If you really aren’t sure about where you can go and where you can’t, opt for a guided tour. You’ll get to see the highlights of the destination you’re in and you’ll probably get to experience things you wouldn’t without a guide.
Cut your trip too short
If you think you can see all of South Africa in a week, you’ll come home disappointed. There’s a reason why it’s sometimes referred to as the world in one country. You could spend months exploring and still barely scratch the surface, so don’t make the mistake of planning a short holiday. South Africa is guaranteed to capture your heart, and even after you’ve left you’ll be daydreaming about the beauty, the flavours and the culture for months to come.