South Africa may be perceived as Africa for beginners, but this does not mean that the rich and varied landscape of this most southerly country in Africa is tame. It is simply that South Africa has the most diverse and sophisticated tourist industry on the continent. From the tropical wilds of Maputaland to the dusty Big Five country of Limpopo, and from the metropolitan heartland of Gauteng to the elegant sophistication and beauty of the Cape Winelands, there is no single country in Africa with as much to offer the discerning traveler.
South Africa continues to attract a wide variety of visitors: tourists on short-term visits are drawn to well established highlights such as the Kruger Park with its "Big Five" safari animals, and Cape Town's Table Mountain, one of the most beautiful vistas anywhere in the world. Sports lovers come to play golf, try rock climbing, mountain biking, bungee jumping and hike the numerous pristine nature reserves, while backpackers fall in love with the Garden Route's beauty and effortless bohemia. And of course everyone loves the golden beaches, welcoming wine farms and the great food.
This broad and wonderfully complex country is brimming with contradictions and surprising contrasts. Living side by side you'll find poverty and wealth; desert and rainforests; secluded beach and mist-shrouded mountain; and it's all populated by over thirty different cultures that are still learning to talk to one another.
The tourist infrastructure is outstanding, comparing well with European standards of comfort and efficiency. And the weakness of the Rand against major international currencies makes for a hard to beat value for money holiday. In short, South Africa has it all - a combination of everything a visitor could want, in a territory that is a true paradise on earth.
Demographics and Stats
It is hard to speak of one South African culture because the population is so diverse and there are widely differing experiences of life in the country. Few countries in the world have such extremes in terms of wealth, culture and language.
There are 11 official languages, and some 15 different ethnic groups. People are generally receptive to visitors and are uniformly proud of their country. Ultimately, you will experience many different cultures yet should encounter each person as an individual. This is the only way to avoid stereotyping, and see the country's people with fresh eyes.
The most popular souvenirs are African masks or stone carvings, most of which comes from other African countries like Malawi or Zimbabwe. As you might expect with a country so rich in diamonds, gold and platinum, South Africa is an excellent place to buy jewellery or have custom pieces designed and made.
Wine is another good bet, particularly since case lots are tax exempt for export and most wine estates will deliver purchases to your home.
Currency: South African Rand (ZAR). ZAR1 = 100 cents.
Notes: ZAR10, 20, 50, 100 and 200
Coins: ZAR1, 5, 10 and 1, 2, 5, 10, 20, 50 cents
Credit cards: All major credit cards are accepted in most shops, hotels and restaurants.
While regular flights and coaches will get you between cities, public transport within cities is sparse and inconvenient. Filling this gap are the so-called minibuses, which operate in swarms of unregulated activity. This apart, you will soon discover that South Africa is very much a car culture and public transport is generally the default option for those without wheels.
By Rail: Spoornet is the national railway company, running intercity passenger services under its Shosholoza Meyl banner. Routes run between all major cities in the country. Pay attention to the class ticket you buy.
The celebrated Blue Train elevates the ordinary train journey into an epic of luxury and mobile indulgence. The full route covers two legs: Cape Town - Pretoria, and Pretoria - Victoria Falls (in Zimbabwe to the north). You can also take shorter journeys from Pretoria to Hoedspruit through the Valley of the Elephants, or Cape Town to Port Elizabeth, which passes through part of the Garden Route.
Rovos Rail offers a sumptuous journey from Cape Town to Pretoria and beyond, or you can do The Garden Route in luxury period style aboard The Union Limited's authentic steam train.
By Bus: South Africa's major coach companies Greyhound, Intercape and Translux offer reliable and affordable intercity transport. Note that South Africa's size makes for long journeys - e.g. 20hrs between Cape Town and Johannesburg.
By Car: Driving is a good option given the long distances between major cities. The road conditions in South Africa are generally very good. Be aware that many rural roads are not fenced off so animals can stray freely run into the road. Car rental companies operate in all major cities, airports and at the Kruger National Park.
Visitors to Kruger Park and game farms in the Northern Province and Mpumalanga should use anti-malarials and mosquito repellent to minimise the risk of contracting the disease.
Tap water is generally safe to drink throughout South Africa. In rural areas, however, you are advised not to drink tap water and wash fresh fruit before eating.
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South Africa is a year-round destination with an ideal climate: summers are hot and the winters, for the most part, very mild. The size of the country and the substantial variations in altitude mean that climatic conditions vary throughout.
In the Johannesburg area, 2000m above sea level, summers are hot with showers, and the winters dry and chilly. Along the subtropical Kwa-Zulu Natal coast, summers are hot and humid with mild winters.
Cape Town has a Mediterranean climate with rainfall during the winter and long, mellow summer days.