Getting around South Africa
Several airlines operate domestic routes with regular links between Johannesburg, Cape Town, Durban, George, Nelspruit and Port Elizabeth and relatively frequent flights to several smaller towns and cities too. Main operators are South Africa Airways (SAA) (www.flysaa.com); Comair, a division of British Airways (BA) (www.ba.com); Mango (JE) (www.flymango.com); Kulula (MN) (www.kulula.com); and Airlink (4Z) (www.flyairlink.com).
Internal air fares are not particularly cheap, and price wars have taken several airlines that attempted to introduce more affordable flights out of business. But since South Africa is a big country with long distances between its major tourist centres, it generally makes sense to fly.
Public transport at the airports is mostly inadequate, but the long-awaited sparkly new Gautrain (http://join.gautrain.co.za) from O.R. Tambo airport in Johannesburg is a quick and efficient way to reach the city centre, some useful points in the northern suburbs and Pretoria.
Cape Town airport has a cheap shuttle service called MyCiTi (http://www.capetown.gov.za/en/MyCiti) that runs into the city centre 0510-2200.
Flights from Johannesburg to Cape Town take 2 hours 15 minutes and from Johannesburg to Durban take 1 hour 10 minutes.
Roads between the major centres are generally well maintained and well signposted, so getting around by road isn’t a problem, except for some of the daunting distances. The Fifa 2010 World Cup saw a major investment in improving the road system, particularly around Johannesburg and Cape Town. One blot on the horizon for Jo’burgers is the threat of an electronic tolling system on motorways surrounding the city, with legal challenges under way in a bid to have the whole thing scrapped. That will have only a minor effect on visitors, however, who may find themselves paying a small surcharge to car hire companies.
One welcome change was a belated move by the petrol stations to accept credit cards, ending the hassle of having to carry cash to pay for your fuel. Car theft and hijacking is a problem, so it is advisable to keep doors locked and avoid picking up hitchhikers.
Roads and national highways link all the major areas and the only untarred roads are in rural areas and in some game reserves. Heavy rains and sometimes dodgy workmanship have left many urban roads riddled with serious potholes, however. Road signs are in English.
Dozens of car hire firms are operating, including the major international players, and even the smaller airports have a rank of car hire desks. At peak periods it’s worth booking in advance. Drivers must be at least 18 years old, and most car hire companies will only accept an unendorsed license that has been valid for a minimum of 1 year.
Available in all towns, hotels and airports, generally with meters fitted, although some still operate without or prefer not to use them. They are not particularly cheap, and it’s often cheaper to haggle over the price in advance. Taxis do not cruise and must be ordered by phone or at a taxi rank.
Let’s be honest, South African motorists can be pretty careless, and many drive without a licence or insurance. That makes hiring a bike in the cities a dangerous idea. But it’s a great country for mountain biking, with plenty of guided tours available. A couple of companies including Cape Bike Rentals (www.capebikerentals.com) rent out motorbikes in Cape Town and Cape Town Cycle Hire (www.capetowncyclehire.co.za) rents out bikes and mountain bikes.
Coaches criss-cross the country between all major towns and cities and a web of tiny off-the-beaten-track towns too. Operators include Intercape (tel: 0861 287 287; www.intercape.co.za), Greyhound (tel: 083 915 9000; www.greyhound.co.za), and Translux (tel: 0861 589 282; www.translux.co.za). The Baz Bus (tel: 0861 229 287; www.bazbus.com) operates as a hop-on hop-off, door-to-door bus service between 180 backpacking hostels, running along the coast between Cape Town and Durban, then up to Johannesburg. Coach tickets can also be bought through Computicket (tel: 011 340 8000; www.computicket.co.za), which has online booking and kiosks in some shopping malls.
The legal driving age is 18 and driving licences must be carried at all times. The speed limit on highways is 120kph (75mph), 80-100kph (50-62mph) on national roads and 60kph (37mph) in urban areas. Driving is on the left, seatbelts must be worn, and it is illegal to use a mobile phone without a hands-free kit.
The AA (tel: 083 84322; www.aa.co.za). Yellow SOS telephones are available on major routes, but very sporadically.
Foreign licences are valid if they are in English with a photograph of the holder, but the AA recommends an International Driving Permit to prevent potential complications.
Public transport is generally dreadful. Although there are bus networks in all main towns reliability is dubious. Routes for the minibus taxis used by local commuters are too confusing to even try to explain to a short-term visitor.
Cape Town buses are run by Golden Arrow and in Johannesburg by Metrobus. Metrorail trains in larger cities used by commuters are generally not recommended to visitors due to the crime risk. The one bright spot is the new MyCiTi bus (www.capetown.gov.za/en/MyCiti). in Cape Town. The service is aimed at commuters and routes are still being tested for demand, but it has the potential to be a cheap way to get around for tourists too.
Intercity services are run byShosholoza Meyl (tel: 086 000 8888; www.shosholozameyl.co.za), with trains between Johannesburg, Durban, East London, Port Elizabeth and Cape Town. Trains are frustratingly slow and the facilities including the dining car and trolley service are very basic by European standards. Sleeper cars are available in tourist class, with shared showers. Economy class just buys you a reclining seat. Children under four travel free. Children aged four to 12 pay half fare.
Cape Town’s Metrorail (tel: 0800 656 463 www.capemetrorail.co.za) runs a pleasant coastal route from Cape Town to Simon’s Town that passes through quaint Kalk Bay.
Luxury trains: Premier Classe (tel: 011 773 9247; www.premierclasse.co.za) runs between Johannesburg and Cape Town twice a week, and is more comfortable than the regular train. The Blue Train (tel: 021 449 2672; www.bluetrain.co.za) and Rovos Rail (tel: 012 315 8242; www.rovos.com) offer luxurious cabins and gourmet food in elaborate dining cars and run between Pretoria, Cape Town and Durban.
The recently-constructed Gautrain (tel: 0800 428 87246; http://join.gautrain.co.za) runs overground and underground connecting Johannesburg, Pretoria and O.R. Tambo International Airport.