South Africa

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Introduction to South Africa

South Africa is an exhilarating, spectacular and complex country. With its post-apartheid identity still in the process of definition, there is undoubtedly an abundance of energy and sense of progress about the place. Travellers too are returning to a remarkable land that has been off the trail for way too long.

The infrastructure is constantly improving, the climate is kind and there are few better places to see Africa's wildlife. But if you want to understand the country, you'll have to deal with the full spectrum. Poverty, the AIDS pandemic and violence remain a problem.

The influx of foreign visitors in recent years has brought about an explosion of tours and activities: everything from abseiling off Table Mountain to sipping cocktails while watching lions. As a backdrop to all this, South Africa continues to go through huge upheavals as it comes to terms with democracy, and in these terms it is a young country. Democracy has precipitated change both good and bad - the dissolution of physical and psychological barriers around skin colour at one end of the scale, the well-publicised crime problem at the other. It is both an invigorating and challenging time for South Africa, and a great time to visit and observe this metamorphosis first hand.

Full country name: The Republic of South Africa

Area: 1.23 million sq km

Population: 43.8 million

Capital City: Pretoria (official); Bloemfontein (judicial) and Cape Town (legislative).

People: 77% black, 10% white (60% of whites are of Afrikaaner descent, most of the rest are of British descent), 8% mixed race, 2.5% of Indian or Asian descent

Language: Zulu, Xhosa, Afrikaans, English, Tswana

Religion: Christian, Muslim, Hindu, Jewish and traditional religions

Government: republic and independent member of the British Commonwealth

Head of State: President Thabo Mbeki

Head of Government: Prime Minister Jacob Zuma

GDP: US$213 billion

GDP per capita: US$3,480

Annual Growth: 0.9%

Inflation: 7.8%

Major Industries: Mining, finance, insurance, food processing

Major Trading Partners: USA, UK, Germany, Japan, Italy

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Traveler Facts

Visas: Entry permits are issued free on arrival to visitors on holiday from many Commonwealth and most western European countries, as well as Japan and the USA. If you aren't entitled to an entry permit, you'll need to get a visa (also free) before you arrive.

Health risks: malaria (Malaria is mainly confined to the eastern half of South Africa, especially on the lowveld (coastal plain).If you are travelling in endemic areas it is extremely important to avoid mosquito bites and to take tablets to prevent this disease. Symptoms range from fever, chills and sweating, headache, diarrhoea and abdominal pains to a vague feeling of ill-health. Seek medical help immediately if malaria is suspected. Without treatment malaria can rapidly become more serious and can be fatal. If medical care is not available, malaria tablets can be used for treatment. You should seek medical advice, before you travel, on the right medication and dosage for you. If you do contract malaria, be sure to be re-tested for malaria once you return home as you can harbour malaria parasites in your body even if you are symptom free. Travellers are advised to prevent mosquito bites at all times. The main messages are: wear light-coloured clothing; wear long trousers and long-sleeved shirts; use mosquito repellents containing the compound DEET on exposed areas (prolonged overuse of DEET may be harmful, especially to children, but its use is considered preferable to being bitten by disease-transmitting mosquitoes); avoid perfumes and aftershave; use a mosquito net impregnated with mosquito repellent (permethrin) it may be worth taking your own, and impregnating clothes with permethrin effectively deters mosquitoes and other insects), schistosomiasis (bilharzia) (Bilharzia is carried in freshwater by tiny worms that enter through the skin and attach themselves to the intestines or bladder. The first symptom may be tingling and sometimes a light rash around the area where the worm entered. Weeks later, a high fever may develop. A general unwell feeling may be the first symptom, or there may be no symptoms. Once the disease is established, abdominal pain and blood in the urine are other signs. The infection often causes no symptoms until the disease is well established (several months to years after exposure), and damage to internal organs is irreversible. Avoid swimming or bathing in freshwater where bilharzia is present. Even deep water can be infected. If you do get wet, dry off quickly and dry your clothes as well. A blood test is the most reliable test, but it will not show positive until a number of weeks after exposure. Bilharzia is also found mainly in the east but outbreaks do occur in other places, so you should always check with knowledgeable local people before drinking water or swimming in it), HIV/AIDS (HIV (Human Immuno-deficiency Virus) develops into AIDS (Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome), which is a fatal disease. Any exposure to blood, blood products or body fluids may put the individual at risk. The disease is often transmitted through sexual contact or dirty needles - body piercing, acupuncture, tattooing and vaccinations can be potentially as dangerous as intravenous drug use. HIV and AIDS can also be spread via infected blood transfusions, but blood supplies in most reputable hospitals are now screened, so the risk from transfusions is low. If you do need an injection, ask to see the syringe unwrapped in front of you, or take a needle and syringe pack with you. Fear of HIV infection should not preclude treatment for any serious medical conditions. Most countries have organizations and services for HIV-positive folks and people with AIDS. For a list of organizations divided by country, plus descriptions of their services, see www.aidsmap.com)

Time Zone: GMT/UTC +2

Dialling Code: 27

Electricity: 220/230V ,50Hz

Weights & measures: Metric



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Events

Public holidays underwent a dramatic shake-up after the 1994 elections. For example, the Day of the Vow, which celebrated the massacre of Zulus, has become the Day of Reconciliation (16 December). The officially ignored but widely observed Soweto Day, marking the student uprisings that eventually led to liberation, is now celebrated as Youth Day (16 June). Human Rights Day is held on the anniversary of the Sharpeville massacre (21 March).

The Festival of the Arts transforms Grahamstown in the Eastern Cape each July. As well as mainstream art, opera and theatre, there are fringe and student components to the festival, including theatre performed in many of the languages spoken in South Africa. The big Arts Alive Festival is held in Johannesburg in September and October. This is a great time to hear excellent music, on and off the official programme. There are also a lot of workshops exposing South Africans (and visitors) to the continent's rich cultures, so long denigrated during the apartheid years. The immensely popular Pretoria Show is held during the third week of August.

Apartheid-induced cultural boycotts starved South Africa's mad sports fans - and competitors - of competition. Any international cricket or rugby game is therefore a big event.

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Best time to Visit

Summer can be uncomfortably hot, especially in the lowveld. Higher-altitude areas are pleasantly warm over summer, but the mountains are rain- and mist-prone. The north-eastern regions can be annoyingly humid, but swimming on the east coast is a year-round proposition. Spring is the best time for wildflowers in the Northern Cape and Western Cape provinces. Winters are mild everywhere except in the highest country, where there are frosts and occasional snowfalls.

Holiday-makers stream out of the cities from mid-December to late January: resorts and national parks are heavily booked and prices on the coast can more than double. School holidays in April, July and September can clog up beaches and national parks.



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Currency / Costs / Approx. Spending

Currency: Rand

Meals

Budget: R20-50

Mid-range: R50-80

High: R80-120

Deluxe: R120+

Lodging

Budget: R40-150

Mid-range: R150-250

High: R250-300

Deluxe: R300+

Shoestring travellers prepared to camp or stay in hostels and self-cater could just about scrape by on US$10 a day. Travelling, other than hitching, will bump this up considerably as the road is long and public transport can be expensive.

Those who prefer to stay in hotels with private facilities, eat restaurant meals a couple of times a day and travel freely by bus or train are looking at US$40-60 per person.

Most banks change travellers cheques in major currencies, usually at a commission of around 1%. Although the First National Bank has a higher minimum charge, it takes a lower commission so it can work out cheaper if you're changing a few cheques. Keep a few exhange receipts as you'll need them to reconvert your rands when you leave.

Credit cards, especially Visa and Mastercard, are widely accepted. More and more ATMs will give cash advances; if your card belongs to the worldwide Cirrus network you should have no problem using it across the country.

South Africa has introduced new coins and notes, but old coins are still common so it's hard to become familiar with what you're jangling. The R200 note looks a lot like the R20 note, so take care.

Tipping is pretty well mandatory because of the very low wages. Around 10-15% is usual for any service.

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Attractions

Cape Town

In this beautiful city even transient visitors can't help but devote a few million brain cells to storing images of its grandeur: its striking Table Mountain backdrop, its glorious beaches and enchanting vineyards, its rugged landscapes, its strange and wonderful plants and animals.

There are great walks and spectacular views from Tabletop Mountain as well as ocean swimming, boating activities, and plenty of ways to get out into the wilderness areas around Cape Town. Whether you're up for a heart-pumping abseil, sand-boarding or sky-diving, you won't have to look very far for an operator who'll be quick to take your money. Indoors, the city boasts a wealth of interesting museums.

Drakensberg

The awesome Drakensberg (Dragon Mountain) is a basalt escarpment forming the border with eastern Lesotho. Although people have lived here for thousands of years - there are many San rock painting sites - some of the peaks and rocks have only been tackled by Europeans in the last few decades.

Much of the range is taken up by national parks, perhaps the most spectacular of which is Royal Natal National Park. The southern boundary of the park is formed by the Amphitheatre, an 8km (5mi) stretch of cliff that is spectacular from below and even more so from the top.

Durban

Durban is a big subtropical city in the northeastern province of KwaZulu-Natal. It has been a major port since the 1850s and is home to the largest concentration of Indian-descended people in the country. Today the city is better known as a holiday-makers' fun parlour with a happening nightlife.

The weather (and the water) stays warm year-round drawing the crowds to Durban's surf beaches. Apart from the waves, 'Durbs' has much to offer. The city hall houses a gallery with a good collection of contemporary South African art and a natural science museum (check out the cockcroach display).

Garden Route

Heavily promoted and heavily scented, the Garden Route runs along a beautiful bit of coastline in southern Western Cape. The narrow coastal plain is well forested and is mostly bordered by extensive lagoons which run behind a barrier of sand dunes and superb white beaches.

The Garden Route has some of the most significant tracts of indigenous forest in the country - giant yellowwood trees and wildflowers - as well as commercial plantations of eucalypt and pine. The area is a favourite for all water sports and the weather is kind year-round.

Johannesburg

A city of astonishing contrasts, a huge metropolis where opulent wealth and desperate poverty live side by side: Johannesburg is the intriguing, dynamic heart of this turbulent country. If you want to see the real South Africa - and try to understand it - Jo'burg has to be on your itinerary.

A hop-on, hop-off bus will show you both rich and poor suburbs and make seeing Johannesburg that much easier. Although it's one of the most dangerous cities in the world, if you consult with the locals and follow their advice you'll find it a fascinating place.

Kruger National Park

As well as being one of the most famous wildlife parks in the world, Kruger National Park is among the biggest and oldest. You can see the 'big five' here (lions, leopards, elephants, buffaloes and rhinos) as well as cheetahs, giraffes, hippos, all sorts of antelope species and smaller animals.

Although most people will have seen African animals in zoos, it's hard to exaggerate how extraordinary and completely different it is to see these animals in their natural environment. That said, Kruger is not quite a wilderness experience: it's highly developed, organised, accessible and popular.

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Disclaimer: We've tried to make the information on this web site as accurate as possible, but it is provided 'as is' and we accept no responsibility for any loss, injury or inconvenience sustained by anyone resulting from this information. You should verify critical information like (visas, health and safety, customs, and transportation) with the relevant authorities before you travel.

Sources: CIA FactBook, World FactBooks and numerous Travel and Destinations Guides.

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