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Top 7 South African Travel Myths Debunked

Top 7 South African Travel Myths Debunked

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Two university professors I know, who escorted a group to South Africa, told me how hard it was to convince some students and especially some of the parents that conditions would not be too harsh in such a “primitive” land.

Many Americans know very little about South Africa and let a situation like in Darfur cloud their vision of it and the entire continent.

That is a real shame, because in so many ways South Africa, one of the most beautiful, exciting, and worthwhile countries to visit in the world, is as “modern” as the United States.

We take up the 7 “travel myths” one by one. There are concerns about traveling to South Africa, which will be discussed, but a travel decision should be based on facts, not false assumptions.

1. “The food will make me sick”

Festive meal at Moyo in Marble Arch, Johannesburg, South Africa

With the colossal wealth generated by its mineral and other resources, South Africa delivers modern medical care throughout the country by providing free basic health services. Some 11% of the national budget goes towards this.

Unlike in so many countries, the people you interact with do not tend to have untreated illnesses. The persons who farm, prepare, and serve your food are not likely to have serious health conditions that could impact you.

You can dine in an inspected restaurant or fast food place in South Africa with no more concern than doing so in the United States—even salads.

Of course, use common sense. As an example, avoid drinking liquor from a common container in a likely unlicensed “shebeen” (pub) on a “township” tour. This is simply unhygienic.

Above: A festive African-style meal I loved at Moyo in the Melrose Arch area of Johannesburg.

Nutritious diet

Fresh melon in South African dietSouth Africa scores high on the nutritional value of its diet.

Fresh fruits and vegetables are abundant and delicious. Real whole grain breads are available nearly everywhere. Eggs are often from free-range chickens.

Even the orange juice served with breakfast will likely be fresh, not made from frozen.

In contrast to the U.S., South Africans need not dine on bananas and other items picked prematurely and then ripened artificially so that they do not spoil before reaching markets, with a probable reduction in nutriments.

In South Africa, you never encounter persons suffering from noticeable malnutrition.

2. “I won’t be able to drink the water”

In reality, you can use tap water from any city or town system in South Africa with no more concern than doing so in the United States. If you are concerned about chemicals in water at home, then you will probably want to use bottled water in South Africa.

Otherwise, you need not worry about purifying water from public water systems. As in other countries, the exception comes if there is flooding in your area.

3. “I will get some “’African disease’”

As mentioned, South Africans do not tend to have serious untreated illnesses, in contrast to so many countries. You are unlikely to catch anything more serious than the common cold from contact with the people you meet.

However, you may need precautions.


You must protect against malaria if you visit the subtropical eastern and southeastern regions of the country, which do not include Cape Town, Johannesburg, or Pretoria, but do include Kruger National Park.

The range of Malaria has been spreading in the world, including in South Africa. Many maps of South African malaria zones on the Internet have become grossly outdated.

Instead, use the information found on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website to determine whether or not you need protection from malaria or other illnesses in the areas of South Africa you will visit.

Also, note that some of these shots and pills must begin prior to your trip for optimum effectiveness.

Roughing it

Hiking in Drakensburg Mountain Range, South Africa

Hiking off road in Drakensburg Mountains, South Africa

If you plan to hike or camp, consult a physician. Concerns include African tick bite fever.

I do not mean to discourage you from hiking or camping in this remarkable country. I love and have done a lot of both in most areas of the country.

Hikes include everything from scenic ones to waterfalls in the Drakensberg mountain range to stalking rhinos on foot for photos, with rangers.

Above: Hiking in the Drakensberg Mountains, we soon went off road.


Although perhaps declining, South Africa has a high HIV rate among both men and women. The Medical Research Council of South Africa believes the number of deaths caused at least in part by HIV virus may be massively under reported because of misclassifications.

Behave accordingly.

4. “I won’t like using the washrooms”

Washroom near Durban, South Africa

On my most recent 4+-week trip, with one exception, public toilets were spotless throughout the country.

On a typical road trip, how unfavorably the U.S. compares. In the U.S., how little employee time seems devoted to this.

5. “I will have trouble communicating”

With preschool children, Langa Township, Cape Town, South Africa

Most South Africans speak English, an official language, though less than 10% call it their mother tongue. Nearly everyone you meet who provides public or private services speaks English.

6. “I will have trouble getting around”

Freeway driving, Cape Town, South Africa

University of Cape Town, South Africa

Judged by 4-lane and often divided highways in good condition between major cities, South Africa ranks way ahead of New Zealand. In my opinion, its roads are as modern as in Australia and Canada.

Major highways are well patrolled, with adequate places to stop for food and fuel. Nevertheless, I recommend daytime driving.

Going off road near Kruger National Park, South Africa

Above: Worry not. They haven’t paved the entire country. I shot this photo at Kirkman’s Kamp near Kruger National Park.

South African Airways at Durban Airport

Extensive air and bus networks enhance access, including a backpacker bus line called Baz Bus.

South African Airways even has a budget competitor within the country, AirTran-like Mango, which I enjoyed.

Hotels and guesthouses are as “western” as anywhere and there is an extensive hostel network in the main travel areas.

7. “I won't be able to afford it”

Highvelt Mall on way to Kruger National Park, South Africa

If you can afford to travel to Europe, you can afford South Africa.

While you will likely find less expensive airfares to Europe, once in South Africa costs are significantly less especially if you are a budget or moderate-cost traveler.

Some daily budget to luxury cost comparisons:

South Africa daily travel costs:

  • Bloemfontein $48 – 142
  • Cape Town $60 - 261
  • Durban $35 - 248
  • Johannesburg $44 - 286
  • Kimberly $44 - 110
  • Port Elizabeth $44 - 207

Europe daily travel costs:

  • Amsterdam $120 – 408
  • Athens $107 - 351
  • Berlin $82 – 278
  • Copenhagen $142 - 335
  • Florence $75 – 328
  • Interlaken $109 - 318
  • Lisbon $75 – 328
  • London $109 – 427
  • Nice $100 – 301
  • Venice $128 – 378


Above: Shopping malls pop up even in rural regions of South Africa, including this one in a farming area just off the main highway between Johannesburg and Kruger National Park.

Safety is a true concern

South Africa has the dubious distinction of having higher rates for some types of crime than the United States (although lower in some).

In one world crime comparison report:

  • Assaults per capita: South Africa #1, USA #6.
  • Burglaries per capita: Australia #1, South Africa #10, USA #17
  • Murders with firearms per capita: South Africa #1, USA #8

Using firearms, South Africans murder 0.720 persons per 1,000 each year compared to 0.28 by their U.S. counterparts.

Crime has to be a concern. As in New Orleans, travelers can be targets.

Act accordingly

Just as if you are traveling to New Orleans, Rio, or other places with high crime rates:

  • Avoid streets that have few people in urban areas.
  • Walk with a group at night in cities.
  • Do not display valuables or carry items easy to grab.
  • Use a small pocket camera in urban areas, instead of a large one that cannot be hidden.
  • Carry food and other inexpensive items in transparent plastic bags that clearly show you are not worth bothering.

What about beach safety?

Shark spotter on hillside near Cape Town, South Africa

Few people travel to South Africa without experiencing its fantastic coastline.

Lifeguards patrol popular South African beaches in urban areas, but most of the 1,739 mile coastline remains unprotected. As in places like Southern California and much of Australia, the surf can be rough and unpredictable.

In and near warmer water Durban, shark nets provide protection. The Cape Town area stations shark spotters on hills above.

Calmer pool for children near Cape Town, South Africa

Above: Younger children enjoy calmer water in the foreground thanks to a barrier that protects this area from rougher waters along this False Bay beach near Cape Town.

Go for It

Other than the cautions mentioned here and the common sense you should use for travel anywhere, you need not be concerned.

Not traveling to South Africa because you believe that it will be uncomfortable and primitive would be a sad mistake.


September 5, 2011

My son (21 years) drowned on 18/4 in Port St John. He was together with his brother (29 years). His brother survived a near drowning. The sea was not treacherous at all when they entered it.

We are Belgians. Campaigns warning the public for rip currents and high waves don’t reach us. There were no sign boards on the beach. The resort where they stayed the night before is located at the beach. The resort promotes “the beach as unspoilt, there are life guards in high season, but out of season it is all yours, pure paradise.”

What do you think then as a tourist. It is safe to swim. The owners knew they went for a swim as they got a body board. But the resort owners did not warn them at all. They should know the dangers of the sea and be concerned for their guests. Afterwards we heard that at that moment there was spring tide and change of tide, circumstances in which toing into the sea should be forbidden. The resort owners should know this and warn their guests.

We lost a very precious son. My sons are no reckless young men, not at all. The eldest son is very hurt. He is a doctor and works in Lehurutshe in SA where he attends especially HIV-patients.

Beach safety is a problem in SA. Just google on the internet and you will find a lot of articles on drowning. And don’t forget the near drownings which also cause trauma’s but you will not find them in the news.

Don Nadeau
September 5, 2011

@ caroline

I am so very sorry for your loss.

In the post above, I added a reminder that most of the South African coastline goes unprotected.

When I visited Port St. John years ago, there were no resorts, just a beautiful shoreline and a few small buildings. I remember hiking in a natural area there with friends and finding a lovely white Calla lily, native to South Africa. Never did I believe that such a special place could bring such tragedy.

May God bless your family and speed your eldest son to a complete and rapid recovery.


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