You have planned for months and triple-checked your luggage and gear. Now you are ready to board your long flight, arrive in South Africa, and start your adventure. In part 2 of this multi-post theme I will discuss what to expect in the country and the travel to your first photography destination.
Your arrival in South Africa will most likely be in either Johannesburg (north central region) or Cape Town (southwest coastal region) and the two could not be more different. Jo'burg is the heart of the SA business world and is a bustling large city with an unfortunate number of crime ridden areas. My advice is to get your vehicle and move out of the city quickly. Cape Town, on the other hand, is a beautiful destination city with wonderful beaches, restaurants, and diverse attractions. My advice is, if you have the time, spend a few days to adjust to the time change and enjoy the city on foot, by tour bus, or with Uber. I will have more about Cape Town and the south coast in a later post.
The long flight and the seven to ten hour time change from the US will have you a bit groggy for a couple of days so take it easy and start slowly. Take a nap if you need to but try to stay up until a reasonable bedtime and you will soon feel fine. Find a nice book store and pick up a good highway map and any reference books you will need for your trip. Bookstores are uncommon outside of the big cities. When you are ready to leave the city, pick up your rental vehicle and check it carefully for any damage or worn tires. We had the unfortunate experience of leaving without checking the car and found severely worn tires and had a blow-out on one of the national highways. We had to have the rental company replace the car and they later charged us an excessive amount for some "body damage" that we had not noticed. It is a common scam so look carefully before you accept your vehicle.
You will get a right-hand drive vehicle and will be driving on the left side of the road - "keep left" should always be at the top of your mind while driving. The roads in South Africa, for the most part, are excellent and better than US highways. The signage is superb and lanes on most larger roads are marked with arrows on the pavement and have both left and right turn lanes at major intersections. Traffic lights in SA are called "robots" so when someone tells you to turn left at the second robot, don't be surprised.
There are several useful road numbering conventions that help you judge the style and condition of the roads while reading your map. The national (N) highways are like the US interstate system - high speed (usually 120 km/h) and controlled access (at least in the cities.) Some of the N highways are toll roads or have toll segments (especially around Johannesburg and Pretoria and the south coast) so don't be surprised if a toll booth pops up on your drive. In rural areas the N roads can be only two-lane but with turn lanes at intersections. Expect cars to pass you (on the right) at speeds above the posted limits. If you are approached from behind by a faster vehicle, most people pull onto the wide paved shoulders and let the vehicle pass - even on curves with double yellow line (no passing) areas.
A piece of advice about choosing your rental vehicle style is to get a car with a real trunk (or "boot" as the South Africans say.) Most hatch-backs and SUVs have windows exposing all of your luggage and photography gear. A locking trunk keeps prying eyes off off your things and gives less of an impression that you are a tourist. We left most of our luggage in the trunk at our lodging overnight and even at hiking trail heads along the way. We felt safe and had no problems but I wouldn't leave anything in your car or even leave the car on the street in the large cities.
Regional (R) highways are more like US highways. These are paved, high traffic roads between cities. They are usually two lane with wide shoulders but sometimes are 4-lane. There are often passing lanes in the mountains or on the (frequent) long, steep hills. Expect lots of people walking or bike riding along the roads. In the national parks you will find special (H) roads that are tarred (paved) but have more narrow gravel or dirt shoulders for pull-offs. Secondary (S) roads are much more variable and often are shorter roads to specific destinations. They are variable from paved, partially paved, gravel, or dirt. Some of the remote S roads have pot holes and the speed limits are usually significantly reduced to 60 - 80 km/h. In national parks expect the S roads to be dirt and narrow.
Many ask about GPS and I believe it is helpful but not necessary. If you have a smart phone, the map function GPS works very well so long as you load the entire route while you have wifi before your departure. Broadband data service is available along most N highways and cities but our Verizon international plan almost never worked so be careful to check you maps before leaving your lodging.
South Africa is a huge country (almost twice the size of Texas) so distance between destinations may be long. There are many things to stop and see along the way so travel time will be far longer than you will plan. Even when we thought we were driving near the posted speed limits, our time to destinations was often twice what we expected. Plan to slow down to really see and photograph the sights.
I mentioned cash and financial considerations in the first part of this series but here is a reminder to have a no-charge, "travel" credit card for most of your South African financial transactions. The card must be chip-enabled and a credit card is more widely accepted than a debit card. These cards are accepted for even the smallest transactions and allow you to avoid carrying much cash or exchanging dollars for South African Rand (ZAR.) Check with your bank but some large US banks have relationships with SA banks and allow use of ATMs with no US charge (there will be a SA charge.) Most restaurants and gas stations have portable transaction machines that allow you to keep your card in your possession at all times - a good practice. In 2017 about the only charges that will require cash are the national highways toll roads. When we visited the toll booths did not accept international credit cards. You will also want some ZAR for tipping. Gas stations are "full service" and attendants are usually tipped 5 - 10 ZAR (80 cents). Uniformed "watchers" in some public parking lots expect a 5 - 7 ZAR tip (likely a good investment.) Other tipping can be added to your credit card charges.
One thing you will almost certainly want to purchase in SA is an electrical converter plug. South Africa has 240VAC/50Hz power and uses a unique 3-prong plug that is unlike Europe in that the prongs are round. The best adapters will accept both 2 and 3 prong North American plugs and European plugs. Some even have 1 or 2 USB charging points built-in - very convenient since many guest rooms have only 1 or 2 unused outlets. Some places have a European 2=prong outlet so you a use a small adapter to a 2-prong US style plug available on many more standard travel adapters. Almost all modern electronics and chargers work on 240VAC power but if you bring a hair dryer be sure to use the correct voltage setting.
I mentioned before that most lodging in SA, once outside of the large cities, is in small guest houses, lodges, or private home B&Bs. We found these to be a lovely way to obtain some local knowledge and meet other foreign visitors. Most are inexpensive $45 - 80 per night for the nicer spots including a wonderful breakfast. Almost all lodging in small cities and towns will have wifi but check in advance if this is important to you. The national parks have almost no wifi except in the higher end, private lodges. Broadband data services are quite variable in speed and we found Verizon international data to be totally unreliable. Campgrounds (caravan parks) are frequent in most of the tourist areas and most tourist towns have travelers rests (hostels) for those who want to meet more people and really have an adventure.
Finally, going out for dinner is a South African past time and restaurants are common and usually very good. Meals are very affordable and often a very good 2 or 3 course dinner with wine in the city will cost only $35-60 for a couple, less in smaller towns. Breakfasts can be found for about $4-5, and big lunches about $5 each. Most grocery stores are well stocked and carry a variety of delicious SA wines starting at about $4 (good table wines) to about $15 for a truly excellent wine. A cold draught beer in a pub is about $2; an ice cream also about $2.
There is a tremendous amount to see and do in Cape Town and while driving around the country. In the next segment, I will describe the trip along the south coast and later turn to the national parks.