First Published on Free B&B, October 2017
At over one million square kilometres and with 11 official languages, South Africa has long proved an alluring destination for travellers from all walks of life. Bustling urban cities meet dramatic coastlines; Sweeping game reserves meet vast vineyards – and the distances in-between can be truly staggering. For Europeans who are used to hopping from one country to another in as little as an hour, the thought of driving over 19 hours between two major cities in the same country (as would be the case from Cape Town to Durban), can be baffling. So, with such an exciting country spread over such a vast area, how exactly does one get from A to B in South Africa? Here’s our take on getting the most of your time in this fascinating country…
With thousands upon thousands of kilometres of tarmac weaving across the country, South Africa has become one of the most popular destinations for that once-in-a-lifetime road-trip. Almost all big-brand hire car companies have a presence in the major cities, and with special offers starting from as little as $15 per day, this can be an attractive option for travellers of all budgets. Small, budget cars are fine for shorter trips but if you’re planning on driving great distances it’s well worth paying the extra for something a little more comfortable. Sports cars or off-road vehicles are also readily available if you’re looking for something different! Another option would be to buy a car, with the intention of selling it again at the end of your trip, although the paperwork involved can be prohibitive for many, particularly if time is a factor!
Whilst driving in the large cities will be similar to anywhere in the world, it’s the endless remote highways that hold the true appeal to any budding petrol-head. With the majority of main roads in excellent condition and fuel stations every 200-300 kilometres, getting around by yourself is easily achievable. Maps and SatNav devices are generally perfectly reliable, too, making it easy to find your way around, even away from the large cities. Hitchhiking is also theoretically possible in the more developed parts of the country, although is – for good reason – considered unsafe and is best avoided.
Whilst the security situation in South Africa has improved significantly in recent years, it is still worth remaining aware of your surroundings, particularly at night in larger cities. Simple techniques such as leaving enough space between yourself and the car in front at traffic lights will help you to make a fast getaway should you at any time feel unsafe. Realistically, the most common annoyance on the roads are the numerous police speed check cameras which, unlike in many western countries, are usually not accompanied by warning signs in advance. Providing you’re not doing anything crazy, the police are generally polite and honest and of minimal concern to tourists. If, however, you should find yourself in the increasingly rare position of being asked for a bribe, politely refuse and insist on taking the officer’s details with the intention of reporting them!
If driving your own car doesn’t suit your taste or wallet, then fear not – you can still experience the pure joy of cruising South Africa’s highways! Well known operators such as Greyhound and Interscape Mainliner operate high quality, regular bus services between all major points on interest within South Africa. With online booking available for all major companies, this can be a convenient and cost-effective way of covering large distances, and is a great chance to meet both locals and other travellers. For a more back-packer friendly vibe, Baz Bus offers a hop-on/hop-off bus service between a range of hostels across the country.
Beware, however, of the numerous minibus taxis that also ply the most popular routes for bargain-bucket prices. Whilst cheap, vehicle and driving standards are notoriously low and it’s not unheard of for busses to be stopped by the police and being prevented from travelling any further due to poor safety standards!
Despite what many middle-class South Africans may tell you, the nation’s train network is a perfectly safe and feasible way to explore this vast land. With several different classes of trains plying the rails between major destinations, there is an option to suit all tastes and budgets. For those who seek a luxury travel experience, the world famous Blue Train makes the journey from Cape Town to Pretoria at least once per week, with sleeper fares starting from $1300 one way including all meals, wine and even cigars!
However, don’t for one moment think that train travel in South Africa is exclusively for those on high-end budgets. Considered by many to be one of the country’s best kept secrets, the Shosholoza Meyl long distance trains run along the same tracks as their luxury counterparts, but at a fraction of the price. For example, Jo’Burg to cape Town can cost as little as $50 when booked in advance, including a bed in a 2 or 4 berth sleeper carriage. If availability is an issue, the Premiere Classe also run on a slightly more limited selection of routes, but offer a luxury experience at budget-friendly prices.
Having travelled a large proportion of the world by train, it would always be my first choice when planning a trip to South Africa. The experience of cruising serenely across the vast plateaus in the comfort of a train’s restaurant car, sipping a beer, is truly an experience to be savoured and far superior to any long-distance bus. Sometimes, it’s the journey that teaches you the most about your destination.
Whilst many would argue that crossing the nation at 30,000 feet, you are not experiencing even half of what the country has to offer, air travel offers a practical way of covering large distances fast. With a well-established and competitively priced domestic airline network, it is possible to criss-cross South Africa in a relatively short period of time, allowing you to pack more of this great country into your time. With numerous regional and national airlines operating on most routes, fares can be competitive, particularly when booked in advance. And with small propeller powered planes operating on less-busy routes and to smaller airfields, flying domestically in South Africa does come with its own sense of adventure! Fear not, though, as all major airlines meet the strict safety requirements set by the government, and accidents are thankfully a rarity.