The more we travel, the more we realize how much we're drawn toward unique experiences and places. Less than two weeks ago, Matt and I boarded a plane headed for South Africa with a full itinerary, mixed expectations and a bit of nervousness for what was to come. South Africa is a land of many contradictions and, coming from America, I (rather embarrassingly) must admit that I knew very little about the country as a whole. However, after 10 days exploring everything we could and speaking with everyone we met, this place's resilience and heart have both surprised and inspired us more than we could have ever imagined. Please read on for a few tips when planning your own South African adventure!
THINGS TO KNOW
1. You probably need a car. South Africa is a vast country and if you want to see more than just Capetown or Jo'burg, there's really no other way around this one. Choose something as comfortable as it is reliable. The terrain throughout South Africa changes quickly, so make sure to plan for everything from beach sand to rocky dirt roads. (Experience suggests you might want a Subaru, Jeep or Land Rover if you're going to be hitting up any off-the-beaten-track locations.)
2. Prepare for the worst. The weather in South Africa changes on a dime; one minute it's blue skies and 80 degrees F and the next you're drenched and chilled to the bone by hurricane force winds. Always pack a rain jacket (and/ or rain pants) even if there's not a cloud in the sky when you leave that morning. And always pack provisions.
3. Know where your gas stations are. Especially if you've come to South Africa for an adventure, it's important to refuel every chance you get. Without expecting it, our three-hour drive to the Cederberg Wilderness turned into seven and we could count the number of people we saw along the way on one hand. I can't stress this enough. Know where your gas stations are!
4. Everyone speaks English. This took some getting used to for me - I've never traveled to a country where English is considered an official language. Throughout my journey, residents told me that most white South Africans speak at least two languages, while black South Africans are fluent in about five. Still, it's worthwhile to learn or know a few words in Afrikaans to help better understand and assimilate to your new surroundings.
5. Make your reservations in advance. Summer or winter, restaurants, safaris, cable cars and tours book up quickly. We really lucked out with our trip, but especially if you're heading to a tourist location like Robben Island or Table Mountain, make sure to book your tickets, at very least, 24 hours in advance.
6. Don't feel the need to carry cash. But keep an eye on your credit cards. Though there wasn't a moment when I felt unsafe during my time in South Africa, there are some cities and times of day that are known for criminal activity. Keep your wits about you and you will be fine. Most places accept major credit cards, so there's no reason to have more than a few hundred South African rand on you while exploring.
7. Leave your stereotypes at the door. I can't tell you how many warnings and cautionary tales I heard before I boarded the plane for South Africa. Everything from "you'll catch Ebola" to safety concerns kept friends and even some family members anxiously awaiting our nightly check-ins. And even though you should certainly be aware of your surroundings no matter where you travel (even in your own towns and cities), it's important not to let preconceived notions and assumptions paint whole countries. The South Africans I met couldn't have been kinder, more generous people. I drank the water. I walked around with hundreds of dollars worth of camera equipment on my back at night. I spoke to strangers. And you know what? I'm still alive.