12 Essential Insights for Your Vacation in South Africa
12 Essential Insights for Your Vacation in South Africa

12 Essential Insights for Your Vacation in South Africa

South Africa
South Africa

When Is the Best Time

Safety is a primary concern for many travellers to South Africa. Having visited Cape Town and the Johannesburg area over ten times, our latest journey in July 2023 took us from Cape Town to Knysna. The cost of living here is quite affordable compared to Europe, allowing frequent dining out and shopping.

Seafood Lunch and sweet potato chips.
One of many excellent meals along the Garden Route.

Yet, first-timers to this stunning country should consider several important factors to ensure a delightful stay amidst the brightest and most beautiful landscapes.

1 How about safety in South Africa? Safety Precautions

Elephants gathering
Addo Elephant National Park

While Cape Town and the Garden Route feel safer than Johannesburg or Joburg, following safety rules is key. Be cautious and watch your surroundings. We never experienced any danger in South Africa. National Parks and Nature Reserves, where an entrance fee has to be paid, are pretty safe. However, most people are lovely always with a smile on their face.

Two armed rangers and Markus and I in front of the jeep
Our fantastic guides from the Nyalaland 3-day Wilderness Trail in Kruger.
  • Avoid driving at night, keep your vehicle locked, and don't leave valuables inside.
  • Choose accommodations away from townships.
  • Do not carry your valuables or expensive cameras visibly on you. Tourist hot spots like the Waterfront in Cape Town or souvenir markets can be targeted for pickpocketing.
  • Withdraw money at an ATM inside the airport after your arrival.
  • We always keep our doors locked and windows closed at traffic lights and urban areas.
  • Local emergency numbers: 10111 is for the police, and 10177 is for an ambulance.

2 What is Load Shedding?

A wooden boardwalk above a dune
Robberg Nature Reserve is close to Plettenberg Bay.

South Africa's energy crisis has led to scheduled power outages known as load shedding. It's crucial to know the daily timings, which can vary across eight stages, causing 2-4 hour cuts multiple times daily. Many tourist accommodations, however, have backup power solutions.

Load Shedding: To manage during outages, we use the Eskom app for updates. Plan your battery charges and avoid parking in garages with electric doors, as we learned before a whale-watching trip in Hermanus. The power was turned off at a time other than mentioned, and we couldn't open the garage where our rental car was parked. It was a real hassle to get to our whale tour on time.

A young hiker looking from the Lions Head Hike to Table Mountain.
Table Mountain 

Carry a headlamp (my Petzl by Amazon) and know the location of your torch for evenings during the winter months when it gets dark early.

Stay informed about power outages by downloading the Eskom app for Android or Apple.

3 Is it Safe to Drink Tap Water in South Africa? Water Quality

A swimmer in a tarnine coloured pool and at a waterfall.
Crystal Pools in the Steenbras Nature Reserve.

Chlorinated tap water is reportedly safe in urban areas, but for peace of mind and to avoid gastrointestinal issues, we recommend bottled water, which is readily available.

When taking a shower, you smell the chlorine. It is reported that it is safe to drink chlorinated tap water in urban areas, but I do not recommend drinking this water and do not use it in the kettle to prepare coffee or tea. Instead, you can get 5 litres of bottled water in the supermarkets. Another reason you should buy bottled water is bacteria, which can cause gastrointestinal issues. However, some accommodations have their own borehole water, but even this, I always boil first before I consume it. Don't spoil your vacation – always buy water bottles.

4 Is South Africa Left-Hand Traffic?

The busy N2 close to Swellendam

Retaining left-hand traffic, South Africa, a former member of the British Empire until 1961, shares this characteristic with many other nations once under British colonization. Most rental cars are automatic, which eases the transition, but extra caution is needed, especially when turning right or navigating roundabouts, which is clockwise. Turning right is a little tricky and requires more attention.

5 Potholes and Road Conditions

A car next to a tire big pothole

The N2 highway and Garden Route have improved and are much better than a decade ago. Driving with extra caution is crucial when travelling to villages and more remote areas. Potholes are frequent, even on tarred roads, and often not indicated by signs. This advice is based on a personal incident we experienced while driving from Johannesburg to the Ithala Game Reserve in the Eastern Cape. In a long right-hand curve, we failed to notice two potholes, resulting in both rims on the right side of our car getting damaged. Luckily, no more happened to us, and we were forced to wait for hours for a replacement rental car to arrive from Johannesburg airport. It's not unusual to see drivers navigating in a zigzag pattern to avoid potholes, especially in remote areas or regions like the Drakensberg.

6 Driving Rules and Overtaking Etiquette

The slower car drove on the shoulder.

You'll find highways in major cities like Cape Town and Johannesburg. Typically, these roads have one lane in each direction and occasionally a passing lane. A common driving practice facilitates overtaking: slower drivers often move to the far left, onto the shoulder, allowing faster vehicles to pass.

An overtaking car uses the hazard light to thank the other car.
The car to the right thanked us for the overtaking opportunity.

What's remarkable is the courtesy involved in this process. The driver who overtakes uses their hazard lights to say 'thank you,' and the overtaken driver responds with their high beams to say 'you're welcome.' This polite behaviour is crucial for smooth traffic flow.

However, it's essential to be cautious, especially since the road shoulders are often shared with pedestrians, especially near towns and villages, making overtaking more risky.

A yellow speed trap in a town.
A yellow speed trap in Hermanus.

Speed is frequently monitored, with yellow speed traps and mobile checkpoints, especially in and around cities and major routes like the N2 on the Garden Route from Cape Town to Knysna.

Traffic control is prevalent, and my husband's driver's license was checked last time. Carry an international driver's license if your native language isn't English and your license isn't issued locally. Traffic checks are frequent, and respect for speed limits is essential.

The international drivers license controlled by an officer.
Markus' international driver's license in English.

Road construction areas often use flaggers instead of traffic lights to direct traffic. Four-way stops with stop signs are also common. At these intersections, the rule is 'first come, first served,' meaning the first vehicle to stop at the intersection has the right of way. This system can be particularly advantageous during load-shedding periods when traffic lights are out of power.

7 Summer and Winter Season

Surfer and swimmer with the mountain range in the back.
Muizenberg is a famous surfer spot.
  • African Winter
    For vacationers from the northern hemisphere, the seasons are vice versa. The African winter from June to August is the coldest time, and snow can occur on Table Mountain.
  • African Summer
    Therefore, South Africa in our winter from November to mid-March (I am from Europe) is an excellent destination to experience warm summer temperatures and a blue sky if you travel to Cape Town and the Western Cape. 

8 Best Time to Travel to South Africa

Proteas blooming
Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens

To experience Cape Town at its finest, consider planning your visit during the summer months. This time, from November to mid-March, is renowned for its dry weather and pleasant temperatures. However, be mindful that December brings stronger winds. The optimal weather conditions are typically found in January and February, making these months ideal for exploring Cape Town and the broader Western Cape.

The Western Cape experiences most of its annual rainfall from July to September, and flowers bloom in August and September. Nevertheless, September is my favourite month along the Garden Route to spot migrating southern right whales.

Southern Right Whales female and newborn.
A mom and her young calf were spotted from the cliffs in De Hoop Nature Reserve.

In Johannesburg and the Eastern Cape, the climate is different. The summer months in areas like the Kruger National Park are marked by heat, heavy rains, and potential floods. To enjoy these regions, spring through fall, from April-May and September-October, are my preferred months to avoid the peak rainy season and the colder winter.

Hyenas laying on a gravel path at sunset.
Hyenas in Kruger National Park. photo by Marc and Andrea

The winter in Limpopo and Mpumalanga is dry and cold, especially from June to August, due to their location on high elevations. Johannesburg has an elevation of about 1,700 m/ 5,700 ft. While heating is not standard in all accommodations, some more upscale game reserves might offer fireplaces, and a few places might equip their beds with heated blankets or hotties.

9 Is the Sun Stronger in South Africa?

Gericke's Point at low tide with a tide pool.
Gericke's Point is a hidden gem at the Garden Route.

In South Africa, the sun's intensity is profound, often reaching a UV index of 12, the maximum on the scale, during clear days. By contrast, the peak UV index in Northern Europe typically only goes up to 6 during the summer months. Without adequate protection, such as high-SPF sunscreen, a wide-brimmed hat, and clothing that covers the arms, you could suffer sunburn in as little as 10 minutes when the sun is at its zenith. I highly recommend investing in protective clothing.

We on a sunny day at the sea
Markus and I are in Walker Bay in the winter.

The sunscreen that has become essential to me on these journeys is my special SPF 50+ sunscreen for exposed areas like my arms and face. I have never gotten sunburnt since I started using this cream.

Thanks for ordering your sunscreen at Amazon via my website. With your support, I can run this travel website for free.

10 Is there Malaria in South Africa?

Markus crossing a creek in the rainforest.
Markus at Jubilee Creek, another hidden gem in the Knysna forest.

The Western Cape is renowned for being malaria-free, while the Eastern Cape presents a marginal risk of malaria, especially during and just after the summer and autumn rainy seasons. Although Addo Elephant National Park is also declared malaria-free, taking mosquito precautions from October to April—when mosquitoes are most active at dusk and dawn—is wise.

In Limpopo and Mpumalanga, where Kruger National Park is located, the malaria risk escalates with the rains and persists into the early dry season. Protective measures, such as wearing long-sleeved shirts and trousers during these times, are strongly advised.

Two armed rangers with us in front of the tour jeep
A guided early morning tour in Kruger National Park.

Health authorities recommend antimalarial drugs during periods of high risk and even outside these times. I personally opt to keep a standby treatment on hand. In the past, I took preventive antimalarials in regions like Kruger National Park, but now I prefer to prevent bites with specialized clothing from Craighoppers and an effective repellent. I try to avoid medications due to their potential side effects. 

11 Tipping in South Africa

The harbour in the Waterfront
The Waterfront in Cape Town with a great view to Table Mountain.

Tipping is significant for the service industry workers in South Africa. Many rely on tips to supplement their often modest wages. Tipping can make a substantial difference in their standard of living. However, it's also generally understood that tips are earned for good service, not just given as a matter of course. Here's an overview of how much you should consider for excellent service.

Seafood lunch and beverages
One of many delicious seafood meals.
  • Restaurants: Tipping waitstaff around 10-15% of the bill for good service is customary. 
  • Taxis and Rideshares: For taxi drivers or rideshare services like Uber, rounding up the fare or tipping up to 10% is standard.
  • Tour Guides and Game Rangers: Tipping is highly appreciated for guided tours or safaris. The recommended amount can vary; it's often suggested to tip between R100 and R200.
  • Hotel Staff: Porters usually receive around R10 to R20 per piece of luggage. For housekeeping staff, a tip of R50 to R100 for a stay is recommended, and it's best left in an envelope marked 'Thank you' on the bed. I prefer to give tips during my stay to ensusre the staff gets my appreciation.
  • Parking Attendants and Petrol Station Workers: In South Africa, it's common to have your petrol pumped for you and your windshield cleaned at petrol stations. This is a highly appreciated service often done by several workers, women, too. You also get assisted by car guards in parking lots, which is sometimes annoying, but it's their only chance for a job. Small tips, usually around R5 to R10, are the norm for these services. 
  • Hairdressers and Beauty Services: A 10-15% tip is also customary in salons and spas for good service.

Top Tip: There are ATMs at the airport where you can withdraw money directly. It's a secure environment, and you can tip those who rely on these gratuities for their livelihood already when you leave the airport..

12 Farmstalls

The wide range of fresh products in the Peregrine Farmstall.
My favourite rusks at Peregrine.

Don't miss out on farmstalls in South Africa, especially along the N2, for homemade treats and local delicacies like rusks—perfect for long trips.

Farmstalls, also known as "padstalls" in Afrikaans, meaning "road stalls", are a beloved feature of the South African roadside, offering travellers a great place to rest and eat well. These charming stalls are often family-run and provide a window into the agricultural and culinary traditions of the region you're passing through. Farmstalls offer an array of homemade foods that include:

Biltong meat - dried meat
Mainly beef biltong
  • Traditional South African biltong (dried meat) and droëwors (dried sausage).
  • Freshly baked delicacies such as pies, bread, pastries, and rusks.
  • Locally harvested fruits and vegetables, depending on the season.
  • Homemade jams and chutneys, often made with local ingredients.
  • Delicious home-cooked meals, from hearty stews to fresh salads, are also available for takeaway and freezing.
  • Some sell handicrafts and souvenirs by local artisans.
  • Natural products like honey, essential oils, and handmade soaps

A cafe with plenty of fresh baked cakes.

Stopping at a farmstall is what we love, and we always do. They are a great place to stretch your legs and have a meal or dessert, coffee, and a way to experience local flavours and hospitality. Additionally, purchasing from these stalls supports the local economy and can give you insight into the community's way of life. It is an authentic experience, a chance to mingle with locals, and a great way to collect unique souvenirs.

Farmstalls are a part of the South African road trip experience.

South African penguins at the beach and their burrows.
Bettys Bay is less crowded than Boulders Beach.

With these insights, your journey through South Africa is hopefully safe, enjoyable, and unforgettable. Have a wonderful time in this fascinating country.

If you wish to use any of my pictures contact me, but I take action against picture theft!

Accommodation Tips South Africa

An accommodation and the view out to the sea.
Our fantastic sea view during breakfast - Strandloper cottage in Onrus near Hermanus.

It doesn't matter if you are seeking luxury or budget accommodations; South Africa offers a wide range of all. Self-catering cottages are very popular; however, you will usually dine out because of the lower prices and exceptional quality compared to many other countries in Europe or North America. South Africa is known for its hostility and excellent service. Plenty of lodges and guesthouses are located in stunning locations offering breathtaking coastal views or situated in the beauty of the wild bush. Here are some of our and our friends (Marc and Andrea) favourite accommodations in South Africa:

Watercolours Studios in Simon's Town (penguins)

The deck and pools with spectacular view to the ocean
The breathtaking views from the pools.

Recently, my friends Marc and Andrea visited Boulders Beach, and they showed me pictures from their exceptional studio and the property of the Watercolours Studios. The owners walk an extra mile, and the pool and garden are magnificent.

The kitchen of one of the studios
The well-equipped kitchen

The breakfast is delicious and a great start to your day. The location is perfect for an early or late visit to Boulders Beach, just 3 km south of the penguins.

Villa Lion View in Constantia (wineries)

Villa Lion View and Pool
The exceptional pool area.

Beautiful views, excellent service and only a nine km drive to the Kirstenbosch Botanical Garden. This is the ideal gateway close to wineries and outstanding restaurants in Constantia, Franschhoek and Stellenbosch, outside of Cape Town, with views of Table Mountain. Villa Lion View feels like being in heaven.

Bo La Motte Farm Cottages in Franshoek

A half full wine glass in a beautiful landscape at sunset.
The beautiful surroundings.

It is a superb, quiet location with views of the dam and mountains at sunset. The cottages have fully equipped kitchens, an outdoor seating area with barbecue, and electric blankets in your bed for the cold winter. 

Best Months to Visit


Related Topics

Location and Tips

Cape Town
South Africa
South Africa

I can assure you, that once you visit South Africa, you'll be drawn back. Our first journey there was to Cape Town in January 2005. I met a traveller at the airport on her tenth visit to South Africa. She gave me some tips. Initially, I thought visiting that many times seemed implausible. However, now I find myself having returned to this magnificent country numerous times as well.

Nearby Places
5 Top Hikes at Table Mountain in Cape Town
6 km
5 Top Hikes at Table Mountain in Cape Town
The awe-inspiring Table Mountain, one of the new Seven Wonders of Nature, is…
Best Time and Tips to See 1000 Penguins at Boulders Beach in Cape Town
30 km
Best Time and Tips to See 1000 Penguins at Boulders Beach in Cape Town
We visited Boulders Beach multiple times and always left this place with a big…
Hike to the 3 Granite Boulders in the Paarl Rock Nature Reserve
53 km
Hike to the 3 Granite Boulders in the Paarl Rock Nature Reserve
Paarl Rock is three granite outcrops, the second biggest on earth, more than…
The African Penguins at Betty’s Bay - The Penguin Colony 2 Hours From Boulders Beach
66 km
The African Penguins at Betty’s Bay - The Penguin Colony 2 Hours From Boulders Beach
If you are limited in time and would like to see African Penguins in the wild…
Southern Right Whales from Gansbaai to Klipgat Cave
113 km
Southern Right Whales from Gansbaai to Klipgat Cave
The endangered southern right whales got hunted in the past almost to…
Cape Agulhas Lighhouse
178 km
Cape Agulhas Lighhouse
The picturesque lighthouse was built in 1849. It is mostly combined with the…
Hiking in the Cederberg
178 km
Hiking in the Cederberg
The Cederberg region is a World Heritage Site, located between Pakhuis Pass…
Bontebok National Park in Swellendam
189 km
Bontebok National Park in Swellendam
Bontebok National Park was established in 1931 to protect the remaining 17…
De Hoop - An Important Whale Nursery & the Most Beautiful Reserve on Earth
197 km
De Hoop - An Important Whale Nursery & the Most Beautiful Reserve on Earth
The De Hoop Nature Reserve is located 250 km southeast of Cape Town. It is…
Cape Gannet Colony - Bird Island at Lambert's Bay
204 km
Cape Gannet Colony - Bird Island at Lambert's Bay
The Cape Gannet Colony is one of only six existing colonies in the world. It is…
Created by
Micha Herber-Bleich
Micha Herber-Bleich
I am always open, curious about new…