5 Dos and Don’ts of South Africa

South Africa is a beautiful country with many activities to delight any traveler. It’s a country that can satisfy the thrill-seeker and the “room with a view” traveler all on the same trip. The people are wonderful, helpful and friendly. Despite what you hear on the news, as long as you stay smart, you will feel completely safe on your trip.

The country had a major political change in 1994 when the oppressive apartheid government was replaced with the African National Congress. Unfortunately, due to a lack of education available to black and colored people before 1994, many of today’s post-Mandela political leaders in South Africa are corrupt, which has caused a great deal of political unrest and turmoil. Because of this, there are some places to avoid, and you’ll have to keep your head on a swivel as a traveler. I’ll let someone with a political science degree elaborate on that. I want tell you all about how much I love South Africa.

I lived in South Africa from 2013 to 2014 and try to stay up do date on conditions there through friends and news coverage. Living in South Africa was the most enlightening experiences of my life. South Africa will always have a piece of my heart. I know not everyone has a year and a half to enjoy such an amazing country. You may have only a week. I hope these 5 do’s and do not’s of South Africa will help you plan to get the most out of your trip.

Do #1: TRY ALL THE FOOD.

South Africa was influenced heavily by African, European and Indian flavors. This leads to a flavor explosion. They also use some meats you’ve never tried. Because they have such a vast array of wild antelope, their meat is often healthier and more sustainable, so don’t feel bad for trying something new. My favorites were Oryx and Kudu. Zebra was too chewy for me. There are a few South African delicacies you should not miss. Bobotie is the national dish of South Africa. It’s a sort of meatloaf which includes Cape Malay spices, raisins, dried apricots and is topped with egg and cheese. I also recommend bacon, banana and cheese sandwiches and the same ingredients on pizza. You’ll have a whole new appreciation for banana after this sweet and savory delight. Bunny chow — NO BUNNIES WERE HARMED IN THE MAKING — is a loaf of bread hollowed out and filled with a yummy curry. Hint: In South Africa they use the word spicy to mean flavorful. The word “hot” means spicy to an American. If you order bunny chow, the server will ask if you want it hot or hot-hot. Unless you have a gallon of milk and taste buds of steel, don’t try your luck with the hot-hot. Finally, if you find yourself in the Eastern Cape near Port Elizabeth make sure you take a trip to the Nanaja Farm Stall to try a Roosterkoek bread with butter, apricot jam and cheddar cheese. Try a few of their meat pies to go, they are to die for!

Don’t #1: DON’T DRIVE THROUGH THE TRANSKEI OR GAUTENG PROVINCES ALONE.

Most of South Africa is safe. But these areas have a lot of poverty and long stretches of road that are not policed well. Transkei, which has a troubled history, is part of the Eastern Cape. Gauteng is densely populated and contains Johannesburg. Most of the horror stories I heard of people being attacked on the road happened in these areas. Be sure to travel in pairs, at least just to be on the safe side. But when you do take precautions, Johannesburg, especially, can be a rewarding visit.

Do #2: SHOP THE STREET MARKETS.

You can get great deals, and some of the products are actually made in Africa. These people are just trying to make a living too, and the street markets are 50% cheaper than the stores at the airports or in the malls. These markets are daily in some cities or on the weekends in others. 

Don’t #2: DO NOT GO TO A TOWNSHIP.

Western travelers seem to want to see how the poor live in any country we travel to. Townships are underdeveloped urban areas on the outskirts of cities. In the era of apartheid, the government reserved these poverty-stricken areas to non-whites. With a history of poverty and violence, townships can be dangerous even today. While the people are generally friendly and well-meaning, please do not visit one unless invited by a South African. It’s also offensive to gawk at people’s poverty. If you really want to do some good, then donate to groups like IMBEWUThey work hard to empower township kids through after-school programs. Visiting places like Gugulethu in Cape Town or Soweto or Orlando in Johannesburg is popular, but think about it. Would you want people coming into your town to gawk because it was known for poverty and violence?

Do #3: TIP.

Every country is different. In South Africa generally people say just tip up to the next dollar. If you think wages for waiters in America are unfair then you will want to leave at least 10% – 15%. They appreciate when westerners leave a little extra than they are used to. 

Don’t #3: DON’T LEAVE YOUR GARBAGE AROUND.

You’ll see garbage lying around. Just because South Africans do it doesn’t mean you should. Remember, you are a guest. Treat their country better than they do. They may appear as a First World country with tall skyscrapers in cities like Cape Town, Port Elizabeth and Johannesburg, but they are still Third World in some ways, and many people haven’t been educated on the dangers of leaving garbage around.

(BONUS DO: PICK UP THE TRASH YOU SEE AROUND THE BEACHES. The abundance of marine life will appreciate it!)

Do #4: DO TAKE THE TAXIS.

Taxis are different from cabs in South Africa. Cabs are the yellow cars you must call for. They are also a great public transportation. Taxis are white vans you flag down on the side of the road. Get help from a local to know where you catch one. They generally drive along a single road and head toward the city centers. Take a map, extra change, and a big smile with you. The nicer you are to the taxi workers, the nicer they are to you. It shouldn’t be more than 10 rand (less than a dollar) to ride. Check the cost with a local resident. Knowing what it should cost is important because some drivers will try to take advantage of white riders. To ride, you just flag a taxi down. When it stops for you, get inside and tell the driver where you want to go. The driver will tell you how far the taxi can take you. You may have to make a transfer. This gets tricky. In most cities though, there are one or two main roads. Any local will help you. They may suggest you not use the taxi system, but I have never had anything but good stories. I even shared the taxi with a goat once. Remember, keep your wits about you!

Don’t #4: DO NOT RUSH THE GARDEN ROUTE. The garden route extends from Port Elizabeth to Cape Town and runs along the coast. Take plenty of time and make many stops along the way. Jefferys Bay, Knysna, Oudtshoorn, Arniston and Simons Town are all amazing stops —  to name a few.

 Do #5: DO GO TO PORT ELIZABETH.

It’s an often over-looked city, but for those looking to spend a little less and have a great time, P.E., as the locals call it, has an abundance to share. P.E. is located in the Eastern Cape. Two game parks to visit nearby are Addo Elephant Park and Kragga Kamma Game Reserve. Both are located within day-trip distance. Addo Elephant Park has amazing views, and you can take a little or as long as you want to drive through the park. Kragga Kamma Game Reserve is perfect for those with limited time. P.S.: Nanaja Farm Stall is on the way to Addo Elephant Park.

Don’t #5: UNDER NO CIRCUMSTANCE SHOULD YOU START A FIGHT WITH ANYONE.

When you visit a foreign country, you are a guest. In South Africa natives would much prefer you drink and enjoy yourself without getting “agro” to borrow another local term. Take it from my experience, South African jail is not somewhere you want to be. Do not try to judge their political system. It’s complicated, and South Africa has been through some troubled history. Listen and learn, but it’s not somewhere that westerners can pretend they can fix with a single conversation with a stranger. Make some friends first. Then you can have a good conversation.

My favorite things to do in South Africa: 

Bayworld Oceanarium and Snake Park:

What a great place to see some seals, penguins and snakes! This Port Elizabeth attraction is, first and foremost, an animal rescue facility. The animals that cannot be released are given a home here. There are daily seal shows, penguin talks and snake interactions to take part in. The staff are hardworking and want you to learn something while there. The aquarium is small but a cool place to check out. At less than $5 a visit, it’s a great way to spend a day up-close-and-personal with some of South Africa’s best! If you go, be sure to check out one crazy little seal named Mika. She’s my favorite.

World’s Highest Bungee Jump:

This is for the thrill-seeker, of course. Visit this one-of-a-kind experience as it is the highest bungee jump from a bridge

Addo Elephant Park:

This is a park you can drive yourself through in your own rental car. South Africa rental car options are often very cheap. See lions, elephants, zebras and more!

Jefferys Bay:

This is a great town for the surfer bums, beach bums and shoppers to enjoy. It offers great views, fabulous food and great shopping deals at many of the surfing top brand outlet stores.

Cango Caves:

This is a must-do for a thrill-seeker or casual traveler, with many different options for tours ranging from walking tours to squeezing through small holes and sliding on your belly.

Cango Ostrich Farm:

Come learn about South Africa’s rich heritage in ostrich farming. Try a delicious meal, buy a long-lasting ostrich leather product or even ride an ostrich (75 kg weight limit!)

Simons Town Penguins:

Check out the penguins in their natural habitat. Simons Town hosts the only colony of penguins that lives on the mainland of South Africa. Otherwise, you’ll have to go a few miles out to sea.

SANCCOB Penguin Rescue:

A charming small penguin rescue facility. Learn about the most charismatic South African beast and support an organization doing real good for the country.

Tsitsikamma National Park:

Views on views on views await you in this stunning national park that offers jungle and beach.

Victoria & Alfred Waterfront:

If shopping, great views, and fancy eats are your things, look no further than this Cape Town district.

Table Mountain:

Beautiful views await you atop this amazing one-day mountain hike in Cape Town. Not into hiking? Don’t worry, there is a funicular.

Apartheid Museum:

Learn about South Africa’s very complex and interesting political history and how it led to Nelson Mandela being freed from prison and becoming president at this Johannesburg museum.

Fairview Wine and Cheese:

Go wine tasting in the most beautiful area of South Africa. Just outside of Cape Town and Stellenbosch is this charming winery and cheese farm. Go wine and cheese tasting in one spot? YES, PLEASE.

Shark Lady Adventures:

Okay thrill-seekers, this is the ultimate South African adventure: Shark-cage diving. No need to say more, but Shark Lady Adventures is where you want to do it!

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