Ten to fifteen percent of the tab is the normal tip at restaurants and for taxis – but don’t feel obliged to tip if service has been shoddy. Keep in mind that many of the people who’ll be serving you rely on tips to supplement a meagre wage on which they support huge extended families. Porters at hotels normally get about R5 per bag. At South African garages and filling stations, someone will always be on hand to fill your vehicle and clean your windscreen, for which you should tip around R5. It is also usual at hotels to leave some money for the person who services your room. Many establishments, especially private game lodges, take (voluntary) communal tips when you check out – by far the fairest system, which ensures that all the low-profile staff behind the scenes get their share.
South Africa’s currency is the rand (R), often called the “buck”, divided into 100 cents. Notes come in R10, R20, R50, R100 and R200 denominations and there are coins of 5, 10, 20 and 50 cents, as well as R1, R2 and R5. At the time of writing, the exchange rate was hovering at around R11 to the pound sterling, R7 to the US dollar, R10 to the euro and R7 to the Australian dollar.
All but the tiniest settlement will have a bank where you can change money swiftly and easily. Banking hours are Monday to Friday 9 am to 3.30 pm, and Saturday 9am to 11am; the banks in smaller towns usually close for lunch. In major cities, some banks operate bureaux de change that stay open until 7 pm. Outside banking hours, some hotels will change money, although this entails a fairly hefty commission. You can also change money at branches of American Express and Rennies Travel.
Credit and debit cards are the most convenient way to access your funds in South Africa. Most international cards can be used to withdraw money at ATMs. Plastic can come in very handy for hotel bookings and for paying for more mainstream and upmarket tourist facilities, and is essential for car rental. Visa and Mastercard are the cards most widely accepted in major cities.
Gay and lesbian travellers
South Africa has the world’s first gay- and lesbian-friendly constitution, and Africa’s most developed and diverse gay and lesbian scene. Not only is homosexuality legal for consenting adults of 18 or over, but the constitution outlaws any discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation. This means that, for once, you have the law on your side. Outside the big cities, however, South Africa is a pretty conservative place, where open displays of public affection by gays and lesbians are unlikely to go down well; many whites will find it un-Christian, while blacks will think it un-African.
Travel, Transport and Getting Around
Buses: South Africa’s three established intercity bus companies are Greyhound (083 915 9000, http://www.greyhound.co.za), Intercape (086 128 7287, http://www.intercape.co.za) and Translux (086 158 9282, http://www.translux.co.za); between them, they reach most towns in the country. Travel on these buses is safe, good value and comfortable, and the vehicles are usually equipped with air conditioning and toilets.
Trains: Travelling by train is just about the slowest way of getting around South Africa: the journey from Johannesburg to Cape Town, for example, takes 29 hours – compared with 19 hours by bus. Overnighting on the train, though, is more comfortable than the bus and does at least save you the cost of accommodation en route. Families with children get their own private compartment on the train, and under-5s travel free.
Flying: Flying between destinations in South Africa is an attractive option if time is short. It also compares favourably with the cost of covering long distances in a rental car, stopping over at places en route, and, with several competing budget airlines, you can sometimes pick up good deals.
By far the biggest airline offering domestic flights is South African Airways (SAA), with its two associates SA Airlink and SA Express (reservations for the three go through SAA). SAA’s main direct competitor is British Airways Comair, but there are also the no-frills budget airlines: Kulula, Velvet Sky and Mango, which have more limited networks than the big airlines, but generally offer better deals on the major routes.
Driving: Short of joining a tour, the only way to get to national parks and the more remote coastal areas is by car. Likewise, some of the most interesting places off the beaten track are only accessible in your own vehicle, as buses tend to ply just the major routes.
South Africa is ideal for driving, with a generally well-maintained network of highways and a high proportion of secondary and tertiary roads that are tarred and can be driven at speed. Renting a vehicle is not prohibitively expensive and, for a small group, it can work out to be a cheap option.
Food, Drink and Cuisine Advice
There is no great tradition of street food and people on the move tend to pick up a pie or chicken and chips from one of the fast-food chains. Drinking is dominated by South Africa’s often superb wines and by a handful of unmemorable lagers. In the cities, and to a far lesser extent beyond them, there are numerous excellent restaurants where you can taste a spectrum of international styles.
Restaurants in South Africa offer good value compared with Britain or North America. In every city you’ll find places where you can eat a decent main course for under R100, while for R200 you can splurge on the best. All the cities and larger towns boast some restaurants with imaginative menus.
Tap water is considered safe to drink, although outside main cities and towns, visitors are advised to check first and sterilise water if in any doubt.
Bottled water is available in most tourist centres. Filtered water is available at most camps and shops offer bottled water – it is advised to be well stocked with bottled water if you are travelling off the beaten track. Milk is pasteurised, and dairy products, local meat, poultry, seafood, fruit and vegetables are generally
Finding somewhere to access the internet will seldom be a problem in South Africa: cybercafés are found even in relatively small towns, and most backpacker hostels and hotels have internet and email facilities. Expect to pay R25–40 an hour for online access. If you are carrying your own computer or palm-top device you’ll also be able to take advantage of the wireless hotspots at a small (but growing) number of cafés and accommodations.
For unlimited Wi-Fi on the go whilst travelling South Africa, buy a Skyroam Solis, which works in 130+ countries at one flat daily rate, paid for on a pay-as-you-go basis. You can connect up to five devices at once. Prices start from as little as €5 a day.