Thinking about a trip to South Africa but not sure if it’s safe, easy to get around, or if the stories about the lights going out are true. These questions and more are ones I’ve been asked since I got back from my South African adventure, so before I dive into posts about the amazing experiences I had in South Africa, here are a few tips and tricks that I learned on my trip to help you plan yours.
1. It’s safe if you stay sensible
Like many cities, Cape Town has its dark side and there are plenty of scary stories. But in my experience, if you take sensible precautions you can enjoy a trouble-free visit.
- Keep car doors locked while driving and bags out of sight.
- Don’t walk far after dark – Uber is reliable and cheap.
- Visit a township on a tour with a local.
2. It’s easier with a car
There used to be a train service to get around South Africa but we were told it ground to a halt during Covid and hasn’t come back. Not least because many homeless families built homes on the tracks. So a car is easier and if you’re from the UK it’s super easy as South Africans drive on the same side of the road as we do. My friend and I didn’t bother with a car in Cape Town as it’s easy to get around by Uber. But we picked one up in the city on our last day to drive down the Cape Peninsula and then head out to the Winelands and beyond the following day.
We used Around About Cars for car hire and insured our excess through Insurance4carhire. If you’re likely to be hiring another car abroad within 12 months it’s worth considering an annual policy. It just needs to be the same lead driver on each rental.
3. The power does go off but it’s manageable with an app
We hadn’t heard about the power outages until we arrived at our Cape Town hotel and were told we couldn’t use anything in our room due to loadshedding. We learned that’s when the power goes off in an area for 2-2.5 hours at a time and it can happen two or three times a day. We were told there is enough power being generated in South Africa but it’s being sold to other countries by the Government. It was one of many examples of corruption we heard about during our stay.
Loadshedding was a bit of an inconvenience at times, but we downloaded the ESP app which meant we could check the times the power would be off in every area we stayed. And the bigger hotels, restaurants and shops had generators to keep going. It was the small businesses I felt sorry for, hard to sell much when your shop is in darkness.
It’s also worth mentioning that the South Africa power adapter is different to any I’ve used elsewhere. I’d read that my round-pin European ones would work and that we might find some sockets compatible with UK three-pin plugs. That was rare so we quickly bought a double adaptor in a Cape Town shopping centre.
4. Cash is helpful but cards are completely fine
We took some cash but it was pretty rare that we couldn’t pay by card, including in the cab from Cape Town airport. On that note, we tried to pre-book a cab from the airport but couldn’t find a taxi firm website that worked. There are definitely issues with websites in South Africa! So we went to what looked like the official taxi cab counter in arrivals, but they sounded like they were trying it on with the price. So we walked away and got a much better price from the Centurion Tours counter.
I’d also recommend getting a credit card that doesn’t charge transaction fees. I’ve got a Barclaycard Rewards card that I use when I’m abroad. You can even use it to get cash out without a charge if you pay it back on your next statement.
5. The Garden Route is shorter than you might think
This was a bit of a surprise to us as we’d assumed South Africa’s famous Garden Route ran all the way from Cape Town to Port Elizabeth. In reality, it starts almost 240 miles from Cape Town at Mossel Bay and finishes just 125m along the coast at Storms River. So you could easily drive it in a day stopping off at a few places on route. Or you can do some short hops to stay at different points along the route. We chose to just make two overnight stops with the latter being five days of R&R in Plettenberg Bay. Our itinerary from Cape Town to Plett looked like this:
- Cape Town – four nights at the Dysart Boutique Hotel in Greenpoint. This was plenty of time to see the sights in and around the city and spend a day driving down the Cape Peninsula. Don’t miss the penguin colony at Boulders Beach near Simon’s Town.
- Franschhoek – two nights at the Corner House Residence. Stellenbosch is the other famous Winelands town that we could have stayed in, but we decided to just call in there for lunch and a meander around and then drive on to Franschhoek. That’s because it’s known as the culinary capital of the Western Cape and it has a wine tram to visit the vineyards. It lived up to all expectations and the mountain scenery is stunning. But if you’re short on time, Stellenbosch looked like a lovely place to stay too.
- Mossel Bay – one night at the Protea Hotel. We drove out over the Franschhoek mountains and then down for a lunch stop in pretty Swellendam. Mossel Bay looks pretty industrial as you drive in, but the historic centre is nice and our hotel room had a balcony overlooking the harbour. That’s where you’ll find the Mossel Bay Oyster Bar where we enjoyed very nice late afternoon cocktails and sushi after our day of driving.
- Plettenberg Bay – five nights at Milkwood Manor. On route from Mossel Bay, we didn’t have the best weather but we stopped off at Wilderness, a stunning beach. Then at Belvedere to see the beautiful Norman-style church, before lunch at Ille de Pain in Knysna. After lunch, we stopped by Knysna Heads, the sandstone cliffs that flank the Knysna Lagoon. At Plett, our small hotel was right on Lookout Beach. So the perfect spot for some rest and relaxation.
6. You don’t need to go to Kruger to see amazing animals
After our stay in Plett came one of the highlights of the trip (though in fairness there were many), we went on safari in the Eastern Cape. People generally just think of Kruger National Park when considering a South African safari and it’s undoubtedly spectacular. But it would have meant a flight to Johannesburg and then a drive into the park from there.
So instead we opted for a three-hour drive from Plett to Schotia Safaris Private Game Reserve which borders Addo Elephant Park. Schotia offers a range of affordable packages including an afternoon/early evening safari and dinner. We did that but also stayed overnight to do a night safari after dinner and then a 7am safari the next morning. It was truly amazing. We saw so many animals including lions, giraffes, zebras, elephants, a hippo, buffalo, wildebeest and a host of different antelope species. We also did a safari in the vast Addo national park after breakfast and while we saw some animals there too they were definitely harder to find.
7. Port Elizabeth is a bit sketchy but ok for a night
Our last night was in Port Elizabeth so we could fly back to Cape Town the following afternoon and pick up our overnight flight back to London. We booked to stay at 23 on Glen in Richmond Hill, a nice area of the city and the guest house was lovely, but they advised us to not even walk three minutes to the restaurant we’d booked. In truth, I think we’d have been fine but being our last night we took the advice and got an Uber. And yes an Uber will take you on a one-minute drive and it cost £1.31!
The following morning we’d planned to explore the city centre but were put off doing that too. So we went for a nice safe drive along coastal Marine Drive to a cafe called Sacramento, just before the start of the Sacramento Trail. On route, we passed through Summerstrand, a beach area which looked pretty tourist friendly so might be a good place to stay if you find yourself in PE. We did also meet people on the safari trip who had stayed further along the coast in Jeffreys Bay, a popular surf spot about an hour from PE airport, so that could be another option.
That’s all the tips I can think of for now, but if others occur to me while I’m writing my posts about the different places I visited I’ll add them. So look out for those posts coming soon as I think they’ll persuade you that while South Africa isn’t without its issues, it’s a country that’s well worth exploring.