- Health requirements for Visitors to South Africa
- South Africa Weather and Climate
- Safety and Security in South Africa
- Swaziland and Lesotho Border Crossing Requirements
- Travelling by Car in South Africa
- Wildlife & Conservation in South Africa
- Museums in South Africa
- Hiking Clubs in South Africa
- South Africa Sport Stadiums
- South Africa Shopping Centres and Malls
- South Africa Beaches
- South African Organic & Craft Markets
- Blue Flag Beaches of South Africa
- Theatres in South Africa
- Tipping and Gratuity Etiquette in South Africa
- South Africa's Official 11 Languages
- South Africa’s Eight UNESCO World Heritage Sites
- South Africa Emergency Help Lines
- Travelling with children in & out of South Africa - 2019 Update
Portfolio’s team has been travelling Southern Africa for over 35 years, carefully handpicking places offering exceptional accommodation standards and a warm welcome, which will make you feel right at home. South Africa is our base – our offices are in Cape Town – and we’ve expanded into neighbouring Swaziland, Namibia and Mozambique and more recently into East Africa too. Here are some broad tips to help you plan your travels:
South Africa is an astonishingly beautiful country, voted by readers of Conde Nast Traveller as the most scenic country in the world. It’s also very diverse – you can spend a holiday in South Africa and experience coast, mountains and safari. Broadly speaking, the western part of the country has the desert plains and mountains of the Kalahari, the central Karoo, Free State and up to Joburg are high-lying and quite flat, and mountains run parallel to the coast all the way from Cape Town to Mozambique, comprising various ranges of exceptional beauty.
The southern Cape area has a separate climate and unique plant biome , the central areas range from desert succulents to temperate grasslands, and the eastern and northern areas are subtropical, getting hotter the further north you travel, with the open landscapes of acacia trees many associate with Africa. There are pockets of forest along the southern and eastern coast. But these are generalisations – the diversity is astonishing - there are more plant species endemic to the small region around Cape Town than the whole of North America.
Other African countries are less developed than SA, which means less modern stuff interrupting wild landscapes and safari areas. If Namibia’s desertscapes, the Okavango Delta of Botswana, Victoria Falls between Zambia and Zimbabwe, the Maasai Mara of Kenya and Ngorongoro Crater of Tanzania aren’t on your bucket list, they should be.
South Africa isn’t a tropical beach destination, but it does have 3000km of magnificent and largely sandy coastline. On the western side, the Atlantic waters are chilly and the beaches long and sparsely populated (it’s very dry there, starkly beautiful). The southern coast along the famous Garden Route is green and lush, with a combination of dramatic cliffs plunging into the sea and sheltered crescent-shaped sandy bays. As you travel east, the sea gets warmer, and the Eastern Cape combines temperate water with endless, unspoilt beaches. KwaZulu-Natal faces the Indian Ocean and the sea is warm, with good surfing and diving too.
Mozambique, Kenya, Tanzania and the Indian Ocean Islands are all further north in the tropics and so offer tropical coastlines – expect coconut palms and azure waters. Zanzibar is a highlight, surrounded by reefs for snorkelling.
In an overdeveloped world, it is a great privilege to step into unspoilt nature – just to feel the wildness around you is good for the soul, and to see animals out in the wild is thrilling. Visitors often go in seek of the "Big Five”, a name chosen by hunters of old because lion, leopard, elephant, rhino and buffalo were the most dangerous to hunt on foot. But don’t let that old name limit you – there are so many species of animal and birds which are equally captivating to see, and endemic to different regions.
Safari areas vary in landscape, climate, wildlife sightings, cost and risk of malaria – it’s important to make your choice well. Read our safari guides to learn more about the area which best suits your needs and the time of year you’ll be travelling. An important decision is also whether to self-drive in a national park (where you have to do all the spotting) versus a private safari, where experienced rangers will take you in open 4x4s to the animals (and you’ll be gobsmacked by the levels of luxury out in the bush these days).
Driving South Africa is the best way to take in the scenery and explore the out-of-the-way gems. The country is well suited to self-driving with a very good road infrastructure, friendly people and plenty of places to re-fuel and refresh en-route. There are numerous gravel roads in country areas, so check your route on a map before departing. Most garages (petrol stations) have ATMs and also accept cash, credit or debit card. Be careful to plan the distances though – travellers often underestimate the size of the country. We always recommend taking it slowly, breaking journeys with a night or two along the way and giving yourself time to enjoy small towns and the scenery.
Neighbouring countries and East Africa vary in their ease of getting around. Swaziland is a small country largely surrounded by SA, with a good road and retail infrastructure (and Rands are accepted). Namibia has excellent infrastructure but vast distances make this a big trip for which you need to plan carefully. The geography of Botswana and Mozambique makes them better suited to driving in a 4x4, or flying into your destination. Zimbabwe’s roads are fine, but retail infrastructure is limited outside the main centres, so pack food and drink for the road!
Airlines, airports and rental cars
Johannesburg, Cape Town and Durban are all served by international airlines and have excellent, modern airports that all benefitted from huge revamps ahead of the 2010 World Cup.
South Africa is the base of good regional airlines, dominated by South African Airways, British Airways, Kulula and Mango to the main centres, and Airlink, FlySafair and SA Express to small regional airports. You can get to most corners of the country on scheduled flights, and pick up a rental car from international brands like Avis at any airport. If you’re combining fly-in with self-drive, you should be able to collect your car at one airport and drop it off at another without a problem, though this sometimes attracts an additional cost.
Airlink offer a particularly good network into the more remote safari and beach areas in SA and neighbouring countries. Charters are available too, and we can help you with these by emailing us.
Southern Africa has a temperate climate and you can find sunshine and warm weather all year round – you really can travel any time in the year. Peak times for visitors are in summer, particularly around Christmas and Easter when prices spike and availability is difficult.
Gauteng, Free State, and Mpumalanga Highveld area – Summer weather is warm with short late-afternoon thunderstorms which cools things down. Winter is clear and sunny, but chilly at night.
KZN, Mpumalanga Lowveld, Limpopo – Warm, dry winters are ideal for going on safari, summer is hot and can be humid and sometimes wet.
Western Cape – Mediterranean climate with hot, dry summer and wet winters – but even in winter, in between cold fronts, you can experience the most beautiful, calm days of all.
The Garden Route and Eastern Cape – Warm and dry in summer, and less wet in winter than the Western Cape. The best land-based whale watching is from June to December.
West Coast – Spring is beautiful here when the wild flower display is in full bloom and temperatures are mild.
Karoo and Northern Cape – These semi-desert areas regions experience hot summers and cold winters; in autumn and spring temperatures are milder.
As befits the “rainbow nation” made up of people of African, European and Asian descent, South African offers a huge variety of cultural experiences. Portfolio has a partnership with Heritage, bringing you the best art galleries, museums, heritage attractions, World Heritage Sites, township tours and more.
Click here for a calendar of events centred around everything from traditional dance to artisanal food, fine wine, craft beer, gay pride parades, endurance sports and contemporary music concerts.
Visitors are often concerned about security as South Africa has received negative publicity in this regard. Be assured that incidents involving tourists are few, and as long as you follow common sense as you would in most countries, you’ll have a wonderful trip. South Africans are a very hospitable bunch, so if you’re ever unsure, just ask.
Smoking is banned in indoor public areas in Southern Africa. Smoking is a sensitive issue and most establishments prefer guests not to smoke anywhere indoors.
In Southern Africa gratuities are not usually included in the final accommodation bill, and acknowledgment for good service is welcome. If you’re on safari, you may wish to tip game rangers and trackers separately. We suggest you check with management to find out the protocol at each establishment. In restaurants, tipping is 10% to 20% depending on service.