The best option to explore South Africa is without any doubt with a rental car. We did a road trip in South Africa in 2017 starting in Johannesburg and heading down to Cape Town. A search on the internet will give you a massive amount of itineraries to do so that’s not what I want to focus on in this article. Instead I will share some tips that can make your vacation better. After all you better leave well prepared and then we’re here to help.
These things will ensure you get a smooth road trip in South Africa and you can enjoy every moment of this beautiful country!
Google Maps works perfectly fine as a GPS in South Africa. You can download the maps of the areas you will be driving locally on your phone. This will limit the amount of data that you will use. Once you have the maps downloaded locally you would actually be able to use the navigation without a data connection but enabling the data connection will give you some advantages:
- You will be able to search for places by the name instead of the street address
- Google will not propose you the shortest or fastest route which can take you through dangerous areas like townships. Instead the calculated route will be an optimized route based on how other people are driving
- When calculating a route Google Maps will also try to avoid traffic. (Not as important anymore once you’re out of Cape Town or Johannesburg.)
Buy a local SIM card
Using data abroad can be quite expensive so it’s best to buy a local SIM card. South Africa has 4 big telecom operators. The two that offer the best coverage are Vodacom and MTN. Both have stores in major airports and offer various data-only or data+voice packages. You can either buy or rent a SIM.
We rented a data-only SIM in Johannesburg and returned it in Cape Town 21 days later and paid 20 euros.
Use a mobile WIFI device
You can either replace the SIM card in your phone with the new one or you could use a mobile WIFI device as we did. The advantage of using a mobile WIFI device is that you can keep your regular SIM in your phone, the new SIM goes in the device instead . Your contacts will still be able to call you on your phone and another advantage is that the Mobile WIFI device acts as a hotspot and can be used by multiple people or devices simultaneously.
How it works is you just disable data and enable wifi on your phone. Next you connect to the wifi signal that the device broadcasts and you should be ready to go.
As your phone will think it’s connected to a wifi signal it may start downloading huge chunks of data like updates. If you bought a limited data plan it may be best to pay attention to this and manually do the updates once you’re connected to “real” WIFI network.
Don’t drive after dark
I had read this before and I can only confirm that it’s indeed true. The streets are not illuminated. In some areas lot’s of people and animals are walking on and next to the road. I only had to drive once after dark but I found it really stressful certainly after I almost hit a goat that crossed the road right in front of our car.
Make sure to take an electricity adapter
The type of electrical plug used in South Africa is not that common. As we travel a lot we have a power plug adapter that works in most countries but not in South Africa. We stayed in both business hotels and guesthouses. Business hotels usually had at least one international (US-EU) plug in the rooms but in the guest houses it was a hit or miss. Taking an adapter with you is certainly a good idea. Even in the business hotels it came in handy to have an extra adapter as sometimes you need to charge your camera and your phone at the same time.
Use points for hotels
South Africa is a great place to use your hotel points for free award nights. You will get great value for them. By using our Marriott Rewards points we managed to save 700 euros over the 3 weeks. As Marriott Rewards has acquired Protea Hotels, a local chain, you can use your Rewards Points in approximately 70 hotels across South Africa. Other chains don’t have as much hotels in South Africa but you will see that the point redemption levels overall are interesting. If you have enough points this may be the place to use them.
South Africa is known as a violent and dangerous country and whilst that is not completely untrue on average it’s not more unsafe than travelling to New York, Paris or any other big city for that matter. Staying safe would mean following the same safety rules you would be following back home as well as following your intuition. Here are some extra tips:
- Townships are some of the areas with highest crime rates but at the same time they’re the ideal spots to pick up the local flavor. You shouldn’t avoid them all along but when you do visit them make sure it’s during the day and do so with a local guide.
- When tourists are targeted it’s usually for petty theft. Try not to attract attention by not wearing any fancy jewelry. Don’t carry your passport along when it’s not necessary and consider to take a dummy wallet with you with some small money that you can hand over when necessary.
- Try to avoid walking alone on the street after dark. Consider taking public transportation.
In Cape Town and Johannesburg the streets are illuminated so we made all our displacements after dark with our rental car and never really felt unsafe.
Add some adventure to your trip
South Africa is a beautiful country and by just driving through it you will be able to experience a lot of this beauty. But the country has so much more to offer and your vacation can become so much better if you throw in some adventure and experiences. You will find that South Africa offers so much that you will probably don’t have enough time to do all of them. Here’re just a short list of the things you can do. Bungee jumping and shark cage diving is a little bit too much of a thrill for me but unfortunately we couldn’t even do all of the other things on this list:
Township tours are very popular these days. I would opt for an interactive bicycle tour that gives you the opportunity to meet the local residents like the one offered by AWOL tours out of Cape Town. We joined them for a city tour as you can see in the picture below.
Boat tours are offered from Hermanus but did you know you could also go whale watching with a helicopter?
Paragliding (Cape Town)
Images I’ve seen are truly spectacular so I was hoping to do this but unfortunately the weather conditions were not good enough. I do think it’s fantastic tough. You usually leave from either signal hill or lion’s head.
If you’re lucky you might spot some birds or other small wildlife in the forest but mostly zip lining is just about the fun. It can be done in many locations across South Africa. We did ours in the Tsitsikamma National Park. We had a lot of fun, the guides were very entertaining!
Bungee jump or stadium swing
If you’re looking for a thrill you have one of the highest bungee jumps worldwide at the Bloukrans Bridge. Another thrill is the stadium swing in the beautiful Moses Mabhida stadium that has been build for the world championship soccer a few years ago in Durban.
Shark Cage DIving
We continue with one more thrill that can also easily be done from various spots along the South African coast. The best time of the year to get eye in eye with the great white shark is April to October.
All around South Africa there’re numerous spots for quad biking. We took a tour with Wild X adventures in the garden route. It was a challenging tour with narrow passages and lot’s of sharp turns all in very dense vegetation. It was quite a thrill but we had hoped that the tour would have taken us along some more scenic spots.
If you love to ride on a segway these tours offered in the Spier wine estate may be something for you. We had never been on a segway before but as everything really is so self-explanatory you will be surprised how fast you’re gliding through the wine fields…
It’s customary to give a tip for good service in restaurants and bars. This is usually 10% of the bill.
You will also find that all petrol stations have attendants that will not only fill up your car up but will also clean your windshield. If you want you can also ask them to check your oil or tire pressure. Depending on what service you request it’s customary to give 2 rand or more.
Parking attendants are also quite common in parking lots as well as roadside bays. They will watch your car for you and in return will happily accept a small tip of 2 rand or more if you’re gone for a longer period.
Most restaurants accept credit and debit cards. Here you can add your tip to the bill but be sure to keep some change for the attendants in the petrol stations and the parking areas.
The risk of getting malaria in South Africa is rather limited. The disease is restricted to certain districts in the Northern part of South Africa. Popular tourist destinations that fall in these areas are Kruger National Park and St. Lucia. During the cold dry months of June, July and August the risk of getting bitten is also rater small.
More info about Malaria in South Africa can be found here.
Other tips or questions? Let me know I’m more than happy to answer them!
Please share your favorite part of your South African vacation with us. After 2 vacations in South Africa the highlight for me is still the wildlife. Each safari is different again and I keep on taking pictures of each elephant or rhino that I see. Here are my tips for your visit to Kruger!