Twelve Things That Surprised Me About South Africa

Twelve Things That Surprised Me About South Africa

Whenever you travel you always find things different from what you expected, sometimes in a good way and sometimes not. For better or for worse, our expectations of what to expect when we travel is formed by what we read and hear in books, media and word of mouth. As a first time visitor, I found these twelve things an unexpected surprise in South Africa. These 12 travel tips for South Africa will help you make the most of your visit to this beautiful country.

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12 Things you should know before you visit South Africa for the first time

Travel Tips for South Africa

We spent 2 weeks in South Africa of which we did what many first time visitors do. After a few days in Cape Town, we hired a car and travelled along the Garden Route. We went as far as Plettenberg Bay before looping back and visiting the vineyards near Cape Town.

In no particular order, here are some of my observations and tips to help you navigate South Africa.

Sometimes You Really Don’t Want To See The Doctor

That Cape Town wind is strong! The Southeastern wind nicknamed The Doctor whips through the area in the afternoon. At lower levels it’s refreshing on a hot day but at higher levels, you can hear the ringing in your ears!

We read at the museum for the Castle of Good Hope that Lloyds of London for a while refused to insure ships going to Cape Town because the wind was so unpredictable.

Cape Town harbour

Where Your Home Can Be Your Fortress

The divide between the richer and the poorer areas are clearly visible. The wealthier houses have concrete fences with electric wires and on-call security services protecting them. Each house is effectively a little fortress. The wealthier areas and the townships sometimes exist right next to each other too.

electric fence sign

Not All Township Homes Are Equal

Even in the townships, you can tell there are some nicer areas than others. Lots of the small houses in the townships seem to have satellite receivers.

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Township in South Africa

As one of our guides explained to us, people remain in townships because they still can’t afford the non-township areas. Even if people do move out of the township, they always return to see their families in the townships. This community aspect of the townships reminded me of the favelas of Brasil.

A Country With Growing Pains

South Africa is an interesting amalgam of first world country and developing country. For example, the water is fine to use, and driving on the roads is very easy. Locals have an excellent command of English. We had no problems feeding the children with non-ethnic food which was widely available. Taxis were plentiful, efficient and cheap to use. We had no issues either with vendors trying to hassle us to buy things.

On the other hand though, the WiFi was very patchy. Ironically, the Cape Town service was called Always On but from what I can tell, it should be called Intermittently On.

Feets Don’t Fail Me Now

The transportation infrastructure outside of central Cape Town seemed poor. We barely saw any buses or trains. People were either walking, cycling or hitchhiking on the motor ways in order to get around. In fact, we saw people dodging cars on the motorway to get from one side to the other.

South African bus

Image: Pieter van Marion

Time Really is Relative

The country does seem to run on Africa time (always a bit later than advertised!).  For example, the New Year’s carnival in 2015 was several weeks after its originally advertised date of January 1st.  There were transportation issues with getting the revellers to the parades (see point 5 above!).

A Lush Landscape

I don’t know about the rest of the country but Cape Town and its environs is very lush. We were told that the Europeans had imported trees to plant.

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Green fields in the South African landscape

You Rediscover What The Word Massive Means

South Africa is a huge country! I mean huge!! If you look on the map, it occupies the tip of the African continent.

It isn’t until you start driving around though that I realised the country is massive and has a lot of different types of terrain. Driving along the Garden Route we came across forests, mountains, beaches and farmland all within hours of each other.

South Africa is a great place to do a road trip if you have the time to spare to cover the vast distances. The most popular South Africa road trip itinerary is from Cape Town to Johannesburg which you can do in 1 month. We did part of that road trip with the Garden Route over the course of a week.

South African countryside

A Celebration of Cultural Diversity

South African culture is very diverse. We found influences from the Dutch, the English, the Portuguese, other African countries, the Indians, and the Cape Malay everywhere. The most colorful part of Cape Town were the Cape Malay homes of Bo Kaap.

south african flag

For example, I frankly didn’t even know that the Portuguese had made much of a cultural impact on South Africa because their explorers hadn’t really stuck around as settlers. Yet, we kept coming across Portuguese-influenced cuisine such as peri-peri and trinchado. The rainbow nation moniker really is very apt and not just a marketing tool.

Popularity Has Its Issues

I know South Africa is very popular but we were surprised by just how popular it was. We couldn’t visit Robben Island because the tickets to visit it were sold out for 4 months in advance. People book tickets very far in advance!

We thought we were organised booking hotels in September but we really had a tough time getting reservations for December.

Robben Island

Image: Mads Bodker

Don’t Expect American-style Service

Tourism in South Africa is clearly booming. Service, however, is not the greatest. For example, even Parisians who are notoriously snooty greet you with a polite “bonjour” when you enter a store.

South Africans don’t seem to greet you as a matter of course when you enter their establishment or pass them on the street.

Cape Town tour bus

Image: Danie van der Merwe

I wondered to myself if I’d been in England too long when people we let pass us on the roads didn’t acknowledge our courtesy. How rude!!

One Language to Rule Over Them All

I erroneously assumed that everyone spoke Afrikaans as well as English. I was told, however, that Afrikaans was only spoken by white South Africans. There are actually 11 official languages in South Africa – English, Afrikaans and 9 of the African languages. At school, everyone studies English and their local language.

Afrikaans flag


Practical Considerations


We hired a rental car through Hertz from the airport at Cape Town for the duration of the trip. In Cape Town itself, we hired a car and driver to take us around or used local taxis.


In Cape Town, we stayed at the Twelve Apostles Hotel and Spa  and the Hyde All Suites Hotel in Cape Town. We had to change hotels because we left booking so late that there was no availability for all of our days in one hotel.

On the Garden Route, we stayed at the Schoone Oordt Country House in Swellendam, the Tsala Treetop Lodge near Plettenberg Bay and The Garden Route Game Lodge near Albertinia, all of which were excellent. You can read a review of our stays at Schoone Oordt Country House and Tsala Treetop Lodge .

In Stellenbosh, we stayed at the Spier Hotel in what was ostensibly a family room. We loved the wine tasting and landscaped grounds. My children also loved the grounds and the pool. I was unimpressed with the mattress on the floor which was supposed to be the bed for our children. Needless to say, we crammed in all together on the one actual bed in the room.

Have you been to a country that surprised you in some way?  Do tell.

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Vore Buffalo Jump Into An Archeological Dig

Vore Buffalo Jump Into An Archeological Dig

In the 1970’s the engineers looking to extend interstate 90 West found a giant sinkhole on the Vore family lands.  When they surveyed the sinkhole in order to fill it up with concrete, they found that it was a giant pit of bison remains.  Needless to say, the engineers moved the interstate a little bit south and the archeologists set up camp.

The Vore sinkhole site is massive.  Although only a small percentage of the pit has been excavated so far, archeologists expect to find the remnants of approximately 20,000 bison as well as the tools used to trap and hunt those bison.

Vore buffalo jump bison remains

Image: Scott Jones

On our way to Devils Tower National Monument, we stopped by the Vore Buffalo Jump. This archeological site is well worth a quick stop to learn about how Native Americans lived in this area hundreds of years ago.

How To Hunt Bison Without Horses

The Vore Buffalo Jump was used by several tribes of Native Americans from the Great Plains for approximately 300 years from the 16th to the 18th centuries.  Historically, this area would have had giant herds of bison roaming between the Great Plains and the Black Hills.  The Native American tribes would engage in a communal hunt which would drive a herd of buffalo towards a cliff with the sinkhole.  The buffalo would stampede and then fall to their death into the hole.

site of Vore Buffalo Jump

Keep in mind also that this hunt was done without horses!  Instead, the Native Americans used wolf dogs.

We learned that Native Americans had bred wolves with dogs to create wolf dogs.  Either female dogs were tethered outside of the camp so the wolves could breed with them or the wolves would sneak into the camp and mate with the dogs.  The wolf dogs were used by Native Americans for lots of domestic activities such as hunting, hauling and guarding.

It was only in the late 18th century that Native Americans in the Plains were introduced to horses which had been brought to the New World by the Spanish.  It took all those years for horses to filter their way to the Plains. I had assumed the Native Americans had always had horses because it is so indelibly linked with the image created by Hollywood.

The Vore site is considered sacred to the Native Americans of the area and is still used today for ceremonies.  In fact, shortly before we arrived, tribal leaders had conducted a sacred ceremony for which a teepee had been erected.

teepee at Vore Buffalo Jump

Teepee At Vore Buffalo Jump

What Can You Do With Dead Bison?

The Native Americans used buffalo for a number of uses other than as food or clothing.  In fact, every part of the buffalo was used.  My children were fascinated with all the different uses for the random parts of a buffalo.

learning about buffalo parts

Learning about the uses for different parts of the bison

Some interesting facts on bison hunting:

  • Several hundred members of a tribe worked together to kill, clean and process bison quickly and efficiently.
  • Meat was preserved by curing them in the sun sort of like jerky is today.
  • The Native Americans hunted in the autumn in order to ensure there was enough food and materials to get them through the long, harsh winters.

You can pretty much use the entire bison carcass for something.  For example:

bison parts

For little kids, there is a sandbox where they can sift through sand to find arrowheads. It’s entertaining for kids who’ve probably been stuck in a car for hours.  You either return the arrowheads or pay a $1 for any you keep.

Details for visiting the Vore Buffalo Jump:

The Vore Buffalo Jump is a short detour off I-90 near the Wyoming and South Dakota border. Easy to find with clearly marked signs, it is open daily during the peak summer months.  There is an entrance fee.

Vore Buffalo Jump in Wyoming

There is a visitor’s centre and then the actual pit is a further walk down a ramp.  Make sure you see the pit as it’s really cool!  Also, there are good restrooms which are few and far between in this part of the world.