South Africa: Traveller's survival kit

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When to go

When to go

Climatically, the best time to visit South Africa depends on where you plan to go and what you plan to do. Because the country is south of the Equator, the seasons are broadly the reverse of those in Britain.

In many parts of South Africa you can expect warm, bright days even in July and August (corresponding to January and February in the northern hemisphere), though temperatures may drop sharply at night. Precipitation is low in winter; this makes May and September the best time for game viewing, when animals are obliged to congregate at supplies of water.

The rainy season is generally from late November to February; you can expect short showers in the late afternoon, with some evening thunderstorms. The further east you travel, the damper the climate gets; close to the Mozambique border, it can get tropically hot and humid.

For a beach holiday based around the Cape (see page 14) or a trip along the Garden Route (see opposite), spring or the early southern summer (October-December) is certainly best; the moderating influence of the Atlantic and Indian Oceans keep temperatures reasonable. Inland, however, the heat can soar during high summer.

Financially, local costs - particularly for hotels - are highest during South African school holidays. These vary from one province to another, but the long summer break can stretch from early December to late January, with additional holidays in late March/early April, late June to late July and late September/early October.

International air fares to South Africa are at their highest for travel outbound shortly before Christmas and returning early in January, with another peak between July and September. To secure reasonable fares at these times, you need to book well in advance.

How to get there

The main gateway is South Africa's largest city, Johannesburg (see page 10). You can fly there non-stop from London Heathrow on British Airways (0870 850 9850; www.ba.com), South African Airways (0870 747 1111; www.flysaa.com) or Virgin Atlantic (0870 380 2007; www.virgin-atlantic.com); or from Gatwick on Nationwide Airlines (0870 300 0767; www.flynationwide.co.za). Fares are very competitive, with non-stop services as low as £550 return and good deals on European airlines via their Continental hubs; these usually offer a range of UK departure airports.

The other destination with non-stop links from the UK is Cape Town, served by the same three airlines non-stop from Heathrow. Fares are significantly higher; for travel in April, for example, it is difficult to find even connecting flights for much under £700. The best deal may be on a so-called "IT" fare (one that's bought in conjunction with a few nights at a hotel).

Package deals

Plenty of UK tour operators offer holidays in South Africa, whether beach holidays, safari trips or combinations of the nation's highlights. The prices may be higher than a do-it-yourself holiday that you assemble with the help of the internet, but you will get a substantial degree of financial protection if anything should go awry - and you benefit from the tour operator's experience. This is particularly true if you are planning going off-the-beaten track.

Red tape

Visas are not required for British visitors on trips of less than three months - but check that your passport has two pages spare for the South African entry stamp.

Money

After a rocky decade, the South African Rand has stabilised at around R11 to £1. Note that you are not allowed to import or export more than R1,000 (£90) in cash. ATMs are widely available.

How to get around

Air

The main domestic routes connect Johannesburg, Cape Town and Durban. The low-cost airlines Kulula (00 27 11 921 0111; www.kulula.com) and Nationwide (0870 300 0767; www.flynationwide.co.za) offer competitive fares.

Train

The prestigious Blue Train (00 27 12 334 8459; www.bluetrain.co.za) links Pretoria and Johannesburg with Bloemfontein and Cape Town, taking 27 hours to cover the 1,000 miles/1,600km. This is one of the world's great luxury train rides, with suites and staterooms as well as a comfortable lounge and tremendous restaurant. The same rolling stock is used on occasional special trips from Cape Town along the Garden Route to George and Port Elizabeth; journeys are scheduled for 20 March, 4 September and 4 December this year, returning two days later.

Most of the rest of the railway system is run by Spoornet (00 27 11 774 4555; www.spoornet.co.za), which runs long-distance trains between the main South African cities and also operates suburban services.

Bus

A network of long-distance coaches competes with, and augments, the rail network. They are run by a variety of operators, notably Greyhound Citiliner (00 27 83 915 9000; www.greyhound.co.za) and Baz Bus (00 27 21 439 2323; www.bazbus.com).

Car

Before you undertake any long-distance travel by road, bear in mind the Foreign Office warning that, "The standard of driving in South Africa is extremely variable. There are many fatal road accidents each year. Drivers should avoid unfamiliar rural areas at night."

Always plan your route in advance. Renting a car is cheap and easy in South Africa, and the roads are excellent. Driving is on the same side of the road as in the UK, and a UK photo ID drivers licence can be used in South Africa. You'll need cash to pay for fuel, as credit cards are not accepted.

Health

South Africa has high standards of sanitation and medical treatment, and there are few of the health threats to travellers that exist in other parts of Africa. But malaria exists in parts of Mpumalanga, Limpopo province and KwaZulu-Natal (particularly the Wetlands area around St Lucia). The high incidence of HIV/AIDS means that casual sex is ill-advised.

Safety

The Foreign Office travel advice points out that "more than 400,000 Britons visit South Africa annually; most visits are trouble-free." The FO highlights specific dangers, such as muggings at bus terminals in central business districts. "Be vigilant at all times in Durban's city centre and beachfront area," it says. "Keep to main roads and avoid driving at night when visiting Northern KwaZulu-Natal and Zululand, as there have been incidents of hijacking and robbery, particularly on lonely secondary roads. There have been muggings of hikers on Table Mountain. The local authorities recommend that hikers should walk in groups and take appropriate precautions."

Wild animals can always be a risk on safari: always abide by the rules, and consult with your ranger or guide on safety issues. There have also been shark attacks in the False Bay area of the Cape; in December, a woman was killed by a shark at Fish Hoek beach.

The nationwide emergency number for the police is 10111 (or 112 from mobile phones).

More information

South African Tourism (0870 155 0044; www.southafrica.net)

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