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Everything You Need To Know Before Your First Time To South Africa

Everything You Need To Know Before Your First Time To South Africa

keenan-constance-359742-unsplash johannesburg south africa

From climbing iconic Table Mountain and diving with great white sharks to exploring Nelson Mandela’s hometown and living the safari life at Kruger National Park, South Africa is a bucket list destination for good reason. But it’s also an incredibly unique, culturally complex, and at times intimidating, travel destination.


This right here is a rundown of everything you need to know before packing your bags and booking your flights to one of the world’s wildest places:

“Lekker” is a good thing

It’s important to always pick up a little local slang when you’re travelling, and there is perhaps no better, more useful, South African word to add to your vocabulary than “lekker“. One time I asked the reception dude at a Capetonian hostel what was for dinner and he said “lekker lasagna”.

Basically, “lekker” is an Afrikaans word, derived from Dutch, that can be used interchangeably with delicious, sexy, good, fine. Any word that implies hella satisfaction, really. 

Traffic lights are merely suggestions

Ghandi Square, Johannesburg. Image: Paul Saad / Flickr

In South Africa, you’ll often hear drivers referring to “robots”. Heads up – they’re talking about the traffic lights. They’ll also use the green and red lights as mere roadway suggestions. This is not necessarily common practice across all of SA but you’ll definitely experience it in Joburg.

Word on the street is that it started as a way of avoiding carjackings at intersections and the habit has stuck.


Biltong is the food of the gods

Can we just take a moment to appreciate biltong? There is no tastier road trip / safari ride / lunchtime replacement than South Africa’s take on jerky. These salted and dried meat strips come in every carnivorous flavour, from your standard beef and chicken to the more obscure ostrich, kudu, impala and wildebeest. Maybe it’s not the most attractive food, but when it tastes like this, just chow down.

Don’t avoid Jo’burg

Johannesburg has long come with a set of traveller warnings as a city that has been defined by its crime rate. But while crime is an undeniable concern, it definitely isn’t what will leave a lasting travel impression. Make sure you hit up Joburg for a big dose of art, culture and history. You’ve got contemporary street art, the hometown of Nelson Mandela and a thriving food and drink scene.

The wine is world class

The South African cellar started way back in the 1600s with an incredibly sweet dessert wine named Constantia. It’s since grown to include your everyday varietals like pinot noir and chardonnay, as well as the more alternative wines such as pinotage and cinsault.

If you’re craving a drop, head down to the Western Cape and taste your way along the wine route. The wine is first class, the vistas beautiful and, best of all, the bottles are cheap.


Braai means BBQ

Whether it’s ribs drenched in sticky sauce in America’s deep south or crispy lechon (pork) in the Philippines, it seems every country in the world has their take on the classic barbie. And it’s no different in South Africa. From Joburg to Cape Town, you can eat your way through barbecue delicacies at any local braai joint. Be prepared to get your hands dirty though, you’ve got to go all in to get the best cuts.

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You can find everything you need in the big cities 

Cape Town. Image: Marcelo Novais / Unsplash

Don’t sweat the small stuff when you’re packing for South Africa because anything and everything you need can be found in the bigger cities. Including all of the big brands. Forgot shampoo and conditioner? No stress. Need a new pair of swimmers? No worries. Would like to get your phone screen fixed because you dropped it on the floor at Dubai airport? Walk this way, mate.

Townships are not slums 

 south africa
The former township of Bo Kaap in Cape Town. Image: Ken Treloar / Unsplash

Townships in South Africa were established during apartheid as forced places of housing for non-white peoples (eg black, Indian, coloured). Most towns and cities have at least one township associated with them and while these are generally lower socioeconomic communities, this does not mean that everyone who lives in a township also lives in a slum.

Some townships, like Soweto and Chatsworth, have seen rapid development and now host some wealthy and middle-income neighbourhoods. You’re likely to find a range of people, from all walks of life.


It is important to remember that these areas are people’s homes – be respectful, take a tour guided by someone from that area, and don’t take advantage of the

You need your yellow fever certificate

table mountain south africa
Image: Joshua Earle / Unsplash

Please, please, please don’t forget to get your yellow fever certificate. While many Western countries are able to get their South Africa visas upon arrival, you will still be required to show proof of yellow fever vaccination at immigration. If you’ve not travelled before – hit up your local doctor. If you’ve travelled before but lost your certificate – just email a travel doctor and they should sort you out with email proof. Happy (and vaccinated) travels!

Read more about the top places in South Africa to add to your bucket list now.

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(Lead image: Keenan Contstance / Unsplash)

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