South Africa travel guide: Everything you need to know before you go

Wildlife, winelands and winsome beaches – South Africa is a holiday favourite for a reason

Melissa Twigg
Thursday 21 July 2022 16:40 BST
Comments

With its supermodel-like coastlines, extraordinary game reserves and long hot summers that begin just as the UK is plunged into darkness, it’s no surprise South Africa is consistently voted one of the top destinations for British holidaymakers. Come for ridiculously photogenic views, delicious (and very affordable) wine, long lazy lunches under the oak trees and the chance to spot the Big Five from your bedroom window.

Current travel restrictions and entry requirements

South Africa lifted its remaining travel restrictions on 23 June, so you no longer need to provide proof of vaccination or a PCR test to visit. The rules are the same for vaccinated and unvaccinated travellers. Masks are also no longer a requirement in public places.

You may be asked to fill in South Africa’s health form before. You can print it out and complete it before travel, or your airline may provide you with a copy. Details to have to hand include your hotel’s address, countries you’ve visited in the past 14 days and your flight and seat number.

Best time to go

Cape Town and the Garden Route have a Mediterranean climate with hot, dry summers (December to March) and cool, wet winters (June to September), while the rest of the country is relatively warm year round. February to April is unbeatable and made for lazy days on the beach: the Indian Ocean is wallow-ready after a summer of sun and Cape Town is gloriously wind-free. Up in the Kruger Park, you’ll hit rutting season – big cats in particular are thrillingly easy to spot when they’re playing the mating game.

Top regions and cities

Cape Town

Get your bearings by heading up Table Mountain early in the morning when the ubiquitous summer wind is least likely to blow you off your feet. If you’re feeling sporty, climb Platteklip Gorge, the oldest and fastest route, which will take you straight up in about three hours. Afterwards, bypass the crowded beaches of Camps Bay for pint-sized Bakhoeven, and half-pint-sized Beta, which boast wonderful views of Lion’s Head.

If you’ve ever received a postcard from Cape Town, chances are it will have been emblazoned with the jewel-coloured houses of Bo-Kaap – head there for lunch in one of the Cape Malay restaurants. Get up early one morning and wend your way along Chapmans Peak Drive to penguin-packed Boulders Beach, and don’t miss a wander down the Treetops Walkway in Kirstenbosch, which – with 10-foot plants reaching over the rails and baboons chattering in the distance – feels closer to the Rwandan rainforests than your typical botanical garden.

The winelands

Knock back more wine, this time in the shade of a historic Cape Dutch House. The exceptionally pretty, charm-heavy town of Franschhoek is set right in the heart of the winelands, an hour from Cape Town. One of its most spectacular wine farms is Boschendal – stay in their enchanting Orchard Cottages and have a boozy picnic in the shady, flower-filled grounds. Explore the famously lovely, cactus and herb-filled gardens at Babylonstoren and lurch from one wine-drenched meal to the next.

Plettenberg Bay

Cape Town’s beaches are gorgeous, but dip one toe in the icy water and you might cry. If you fantasise about floating in the Indian Ocean, then hightail it down the Garden Route – five hours by car, or fly to George in 40 minutes. Set amid lagoons and sea is Plettenberg Bay, where the water is a delicious 24C and days are spent snoozing on buttermilk-yellow sand. Gulp down oysters at one of the many beachfront restaurants and choose from a range of pretty hotels to spend the night in.

The Kruger Park

The sight and smell of thousands of wild animals is extraordinary, but costs can skyrocket, so mix it up with self-drive days and swanky stays. Check into Lower Sabie, a comfortable state-run lodge set on a crocodile-crammed river that costs under £80 a night, and explore the bushveld with your own car – you’ll be safe if you avoid bull elephants or mothers with their calves. If you’re finding the game somewhat elusive on your own, splash out on one of the many dreamy private camps in either Kruger or the neighbouring Sabi Sands - most boast their own concessions as well as wonderfully romantic bedrooms, shady pools and expert guides to track down the Big Five.

Best under-the-radar destinations

The Hemel en Aarde Valley

In the folds of the blue mountains behind the Cape seafront village of Hermanus, you will find the Hemel en Aarde Valley (it fittingly means heaven and earth in Afrikaans). This exceptionally pretty part of the world has also become something of an oenophile’s paradise, with a number of South Africa’s most acclaimed wine farms now clustered along one dirt road on the fynbos-enriched soil.

The Wilderness

Drag yourself out of the powerful undertow of the Wilderness sea and you’ll face a never-ending stretch of treacle-coloured beach to the east and an impenetrable forest to the west. Stay for a night or two in this Garden Route village, and if you’re tired of battling the tempestuous sea, retreat to the nearby forests, where there are placid lagoons and even a shady waterfall to swim under. Once you’re beached out, take an hour-long drive inland to the hushed, cool beauty of the Cango Caves and admire the extraordinary limestone formations and prehistoric cave paintings, and to Oudtshoorn, which is home to Africa’s biggest colony of farmed ostrich.

The Swartland

While Franschhoek may be home to the most beautiful Cape Dutch wine farms, it is in the Swartland and along the West Coast where pioneering wine-makers are producing some of the most exciting new vintages in the country. If you visit in September, you’re in for an extra special treat because the entire area is briefly carpeted with millions of ice-cream coloured spring flowers. If you’re looking for somewhere to stay, try the nearby coastal town of Paternoster: a cluster of little white houses perched behind a vast deserted beach.

Matjiesfontein

The Karoo is a hot, arid, and hauntingly beautiful part of South Africa that feels a world away from the nearby coast. Outside of midsummer, when temperatures can be debilitating, it’s well worth a visit - stay in the heart of Matjiesfontein at the Lord Milner Hotel, a prettily decorated, traditionally South African spot with a deep, cool pool set under shady pepper trees and two excellent restaurants that specialise in Karoo lamb. Matjiesfontein was a famous stop point for travellers on the Cape-to-Cairo road and an important stronghold in the Boer War, so check underfoot for old bullets and food cans from the 1899 war.

Best things to do

A driving tour of the Garden Route

Drive the Garden Route and lurch from a long, boozy lunch on an award-winning wine farm to a swim in one of black lagoons that drift slowly into the Indian Ocean. Spend your morning watching elephants scratch their backs on the hot gum trees and your afternoon lying on the beach with your toes in the water. It is these wild contrasts that make the Garden Route such a sumptuous place to visit — so take 10 idyllic days to slowly explore the 400 miles between Hermanus and Port Elizabeth.

A walking safari in the Kruger Park

The biggest difference between a walking and game-drive safari is that the Big Five are no longer in the spotlight. If you come across them, it’s heart-stopping – but a walk is about experiencing the bush at a much more intimate pace. When you are on foot, you put down the mental checklist of Lion King characters and focus on 100-year-old tortoises, waddling ground hornbill and chattering vervet monkeys. You also get major Bear Grylls points, and going on a walking safari means you have a talking point at dinner parties for decades to come.

Visit the art galleries of Johannesburg

The major hub of the country can be a difficult place to visit as it’s nor particularly pretty, more dangerous than other parts of the country, and there are few green spaces or public areas to wander around in. Don’t necessarily make a specific trip but, if you’re staying overnight, be sure to visit the Apartheid Museum, the Everard Read gallery and Arts on Main.

Eat some bunny chow in Durban

Bunny chow is a strange-sounding name for a strange-looking concoction: a loaf of white bread hollowed out and filled with curry, chutney and bay leaves. But this quirky dish is also Durban’s most famous export and no trip to the city would be complete without at least one bunny chow dinner. Capsicum Restaurant in the Britannia Hotel is a colonial-style gem in the old town and is famous for serving the best chow in Durban—choose between beef or chicken and wash it down with sweet local tea.

Getting around

Covid wiped out many of South Africa’s low-cost airlines – the cheapest and the best is now FlySafair, otherwise Airlink also does a few routes. The country is bigger than you think it is and driving from Johannesburg down to Cape Town will take about 14 hours, of which only about six are beautiful – so it’s easiest to fly between those cities. For the Garden Route, hire a car and drive, and if you’re going to Kruger you can either fly to Nelspruit (an expensive route) or drive from Johannesburg. The train system is unfortunately unwieldy and not always safe.

How to get there

If you’re going on safari in northern South Africa, then fly into Johannesburg. It’s cheaper than Cape Town, and while internal flights to Nelspruit (the gateway to the bush) are expensive, you can drive there from OR Tambo in five hours. Low-cost airlines such as FlySafair offer cheap internal flights down to Cape Town, George and PE, and South African Airways, British Airways and Virgin Atlantic all fly directly to Joburg from London. If you’re only going to the Cape, then the dream option is to fly direct on British Airways from LHR – but it can be eye-wateringly expensive and luckily there are a number of more affordable indirect carriers like Emirates. Once you’re there, you will need to rent a car unless you want to rely on Uber as public transport is poor.

Money-saving tip

The exchange rate means that outside of hotels, day-to-day life in South Africa is going to feel very cheap – and even the good Cape Town restaurants are unlikely to ever cost more than £35 a head. The only expense is accommodation – although prices in the Cape drop outside of the summer season, and good deals can be found in small bed and breakfasts rather than large hotels.

FAQs

What’s the weather like?

South Africa is made up of multiple climates: the east coast is tropical with warm winters and muggy summers, the Kruger Park has sunny winter days, ice cold winter nights and very hot summers, while Cape Town and the Garden Route have a classic Mediterranean climate.

What time zone is it in?

South African summer time (our winter) is GMT+2 while South African winter is GMT+1 and runs from March to the end of October.

What currency do I need?

Rands.

What language is spoken?

English may be one of 11 national languages but luckily for visitors it is by far the most widely spoken and used throughout the country.

Is it safe?

Central Cape Town is generally safe to walk around in by day, although be sensible: no expensive jewellery or designer handbags, please. At night, it’s dodgier – take an Uber, or if you’re driving, park as close as you can to the restaurant. Driving down the Garden Route is perfectly safe in the day, and the same largely applies to driving from Johannesburg to the Kruger Park if you only stop at petrol stations. You do need to be more careful in Johannesburg – if you’re driving yourself, make sure you’ve planned your route, only use registered taxis or Uber, and try to walk outside as little as possible.

Join our commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies

Comments

Thank you for registering

Please refresh the page or navigate to another page on the site to be automatically logged inPlease refresh your browser to be logged in