Top events in South Africa

April
27

Celebrating South Africa’s first democratic elections which took place on 27 April 1994, Freedom Day is marked with cultural events and...

May
01

Attracting snorkellers, divers and wildlife enthusiasts, the sardine run is considered to be one of the greatest wildlife spectacles on earth. It...

June
01

This is the world's largest and oldest ultra marathon (it started in 1921), involving a 90km (56 miles) endurance race between Durban and...

Zebra in Mokala National Park, South Africa
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Zebra in Mokala National Park, South Africa

© 123rf.com / Nico Smit

South Africa Travel Guide

Key Facts
Area

1,219,912 sq km (471,011 sq miles).

Population

48.6 million (2013).

Population density

39.9 per sq km.

Capital

Cape Town (legislative); Pretoria (executive); Bloemfontein (judicial).

Government

Republic. Gained partial independence from the UK in 1910 and was declared a republic in 1961. After the downfall of apartheid the first one-man-one vote elections were held in 1994.

Head of state

President Jacob Zuma since 2009.

Head of government

President Jacob Zuma since 2009.

Electricity

220/230 volts AC, 50Hz. Plugs have three fat round pins.

A land of golden beaches, jagged mountains, rich safari plains and barren deserts; South Africa encompasses all these things. The teeming wildlife is as diverse and spectacular as the scenery, with everything from elusive leopards and plodding elephants to playful penguins.

South Africa's cities are also enormously varied, with hustling Johannesburg at its heart, and cosmopolitan Cape Town an enclave of European chic at the edge of the Atlantic Ocean. In between you can lose yourself for days on safari in the bush or explore quaint isolated towns breaking up the arid Karoo wilderness. The hot and humid seaside fun of Durban with its even hotter curries is another sharp contrast to the scattering of sedate resorts lining the pretty south coast Garden Route.

Abundant wildlife is South Africa's major attraction, with the world-famous Kruger National Park delivering uniquely African sights, sounds, smells and memories. At the top end of the scale are luxurious world-class lodges with private butlers and game rangers who practically deliver the animals to your door. Travellers with more normal salaries can stay in the numerous ‘tented villages’ with tents permanently pitched on a raised wooden platform near communal facilities.

If the landscape sounds diverse, wait until you meet the people. South Africa boasts 11 official languages, mostly drawn from its indigenous population, while the colonialist legacy stirred Afrikaners, English and Indians into the mix. That blend has created a wonderful array of food, music and culture that offers something for everyone.

It’s affectionately known as the Rainbow Nation, although the bright racially harmonious future it once represented has been tarnished by yet another form of diversity – the vast and increasing economic gap between rich and poor. On the drive in from most airports the roads are flanked by shanty towns, often with communal toilets and electricity pilfered from the overhead power lines. The legacy of Apartheid, or racial segregation, is still hugely evident, and a visit to Johannesburg’s moving Apartheid museum and a tour of a vibrant township like Soweto are cultural highlights.

In stark contrast, the city centres are glowingly modern with bold new architecture interspersed between colonial buildings of the past. Cape Town has been chosen as the World Design Capital for 2014, heralding a year-long programme of design-focused events, while iconic Table Mountain has been named one of the New Seven Wonders of Nature, despite being extremely old.

On the political and economic side, the country has lost its way since the glory days presided over by near-saint Nelson Mandela. Yet there’s an underlying spirit of optimism and a can-do attitude that will save South Africa from sliding too far down the rainbow. The 2010 World Cup proved what the country can achieve when everybody pulls together, and left a legacy of improved transport, accommodation and sports facilities that benefit visitors and locals alike.  As for the image of crime, it’s an urban legend that a car has been invented that shoots out flames to toast approaching hijackers but visitors should follow the usual precautions about safety. Just don’t let paranoia sap your enjoyment. A streetwise sense of humour  keeps South African hearts beating faster and instils a delightfully warped sense of achievement from living on the edge.

Travel Advice

Last updated: 23 April 2014

The travel advice summary below is provided by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office in the UK. 'We' refers to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. For their full travel advice, visit www.gov.uk/foreign-travel-advice.

There has been an increase in strike action in South Africa and some demonstrations have turned violent. This could continue in the run-up to elections in 2014. Follow developments in the local media and avoid all demonstrations, rallies and large public gatherings.

There is a very high level of crime, but the most violent crimes occur in townships and isolated areas away from the normal tourist destinations.

There have been incidents involving foreigners being followed from OR Tambo International Airport in Johannesburg to their destinations by car and then robbed, often at gunpoint. Be vigilant in and around the airport and when driving away.

The standard of driving is variable and there are many fatal accidents.

Most visits to South Africa are trouble-free.

There is an underlying threat from terrorism. See  Terrorism

The Overseas Business Risk service offers information and advice for British companies operating overseas on how to manage political, economic, and business security-related risks.

Make sure you have at least 2 blank pages in your passport on arrival.

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