Expedition South Africa
The members of the expedition consisted of my new wife and myself (this trip is not what most women would consider normal for a honeymoon but I am quite lucky, however, concessions did have to be made to satisfy the 'honeymoon' aspect!).
We had been married a few months previously at the beginning of September and had decided to postpone the trip to the beginning of November, this was for work reasons as well as the fact that November/December is the beginning of the summer high season in SA, effectively their spring, this has a couple of benefits: The campsites are much quieter, the weather is milder and not quite so hot in the middle of the day, there is young animals in abundance and you can see those animals because the summer rainy season hasn't kick started the grass and tree growth (It also meant that we would miss a chunk of rubbish UK winter weather!).
Because of all this we decided to depart the UK on the 10th November for a 3 week trip, the aim of the expedition was to see as much of South Africa as possible in the time available by completing a rough clockwise loop starting and finishing in Johannesburg and taking in Blyde Canyon, Kruger NP, Swaziland, the World Heritage reserves of the East Coast, the Drakensburg Mountains, the Mountain Kingdom of Lesotho and the Highveld to the South of Johannesburg.
We knew we wanted to be self-driven, something we had done on a previous month long expedition around New Zealand, we really enjoy the freedom you get over your itinerary with your own car, as well as the tranquility of not using shared or public transport, it also allows you to visit areas that are off the well-trodden tourist trail and see the real country that dwells behind the stage curtain. Due to the honeymoon aspect of the expedition only 17 days of the trip would be spent on the road, the remaining time was to be spent in more befitting accommodation!
With a schedule set we started researching, planning and booking the different aspects of the trip and formulating a route based on things we wanted to do and see, this was all compiled into an itinerary document that allowed us to plan exact routes, rough drive times, running costs and other useful information to have to hand, a copy of this document was left with parents in the UK so they knew where we should be in case of an emergency.
Flights were booked using a price comparison website to get the best rate and because of journey consisted of some flight transfers, the most competitive rates were flying direct from London Heathrow to Jo'burg and then transferring on from there for the second part of our trip.
As in New Zealand we knew we were looking for a camper to transport us on our loop, but suspecting roads to be in a poorer condition and anticipating doing more off-road self-safari we were really looking for a 4x4 camper.
There are a number of companies in SA offering self-safari equipped 4x4's for hire, but after a personal recommendation from a friend we started looking seriously at a company called Bushlore, they had a number of benefits in that they are a large company with hundreds of cars, nationwide backup and recovery, you can take their vehicles across the SA borders to a number of other countries including Botswana and Namibia, they have no problem with you using the vehicle as intended to explore the remotest corners, they will collect and drop you off directly to the airport (increasing personal security) and they are a very professional outfit who were a pleasure to deal with (they were also very understanding when we had a little oopsie with the car!)
After looking at the different vehicle options on offer we settled on the Toyota Land Cruiser 'Bushcamper' (I would have loved a 110 Land Rover for the trip but no-one seems to be hiring them out anymore due to parts availability and reliability, go figure!!).
The Bushcamper is very capable and well thought out, and as the highest spec’d vehicle in the range and would probably be more at home on a month long trip in the wild bush of Botswana where you have to cut your own trail and fight off rogue man-eating lions on a nightly basis, but we figured that the added features of the car would enhance our trip and allow us to spend time in the most remote campsites that don't have everything you need to hand. There is no reason you couldn't do this trip in a 4x4 with roof tent or even just a bog standard rental car with ground tent but there are some places you just won’t reach in a car, plus the least amount of set-up/de-rig effort was important to us (remember, honeymoon!)
At a glance the spec includes: pop top roof (easier and quicker to set up compared to roof tents), fox wing awning for shade and rain protection, 2 long range fuel tanks, water tank, 2 fridge/freezers (one for meat and cider and one for veg and cider), Hot Geyser shower that runs off gas or electric, gas hob, 2 spare tyres, winch, plus everything else you need for a trip as in cutlery, bedding, towels, cooking utensils, table and chairs, masses of internal storage for clothes, etc, tyre compressor, tow strap, sand mats, tyre repair kit, high lift jack, tool kit and a spade.
We fell a little bit in love with our home on wheels, we could be fully packed up and on the move in under 5 minutes and it got us out of some pretty sticky situations at times (as you will see), on the road the non-turbocharged straight 6 engine is a bit sluggish and one local South African we spent the evening drinking with said "it couldn't pull a wet stick out of a slippery shit" but it did us proud, and on a trip where you are there to see the sights, going quickly everywhere is not a priority.
Travel and route planning
I can provide no insight into what public transport is like in SA beyond the fact that there appears to be no public 'bus' service, but otherwise a series of minibuses that zoom around and pick up anyone standing on the side of the road waving their arm, it also seems that hitchhiking is a major form of transport and most locals we saw would stop if they had an extra seat or two, all very friendly!
Self driving in SA is an experience in itself, the roads range from superb to potholed, gravel to non-existent, just because there is a road marked on a map it doesn't mean that road is any good. The standard of local driving varies like the roads, undertaking, overtaking on bends, jumping red lights, jumping zebra crossings and clapped out old bangers are all normal, the best we saw was on the N3 motorway with a pick-up truck 4 metres high with bales with one guy sitting on the top to hold it down and another standing on each side of the pickup bed to stop it toppling sideways, the overtaking policeman didn't seem to mind!
My best advice for driving in SA is to watch your speed, maintain your lane and course heading, watch mirrors constantly and have eyes in the back of your head, if someone wants to overtake you it seems normal to cross over the yellow line at the side of the road into what is effectively the hard shoulder to make space for the overtake, beware of people/obstacles and only cross the line if safe to do so, those overtaking will always be very courteous and thank you with the hazards.
The South Africans love a speed bump, the bigger the better, and you will find them on all approaches and exits from villages, towns and cities, sometimes on slip roads onto the motorway! On some the paint has warn away so the first indication you have of the hump, if you’re not paying full attention, is when your spine snaps in half and you find yourself Dukes of Hazarding through the air, beware!
The South Africans are also very fond of making use of every scrap of available land and grazing of cattle and sheep/goats on the side of the road is common, this also goes for the motorway! Having a cow decide to turn out into the road, or better a herd of cows, when you are travelling at 100km/ph can be interesting to say the least, remain vigilant at all times, collisions don’t seem to be uncommon, there was at least one 4x4 in the Bushlore depot that had the rather evident markings of a cow interaction.
Because the research into campsites had been done before leaving the UK the route planning was also able to be done beforehand as well, Google maps actually turned out to be particularly useful for showing the quickest route and giving an indication of distances and travel times, one word of warning though is to take googles travel times with a pinch of salt, it is worth adding at least an hour and sometimes two onto longer hops to account for roadworks, poor surfaces, diversions, cows, etc, this is especially critical if you are travelling late in the day and need to reach camp before nightfall.
Maps and Sat Nav
As a backup, it is important to buy a paper map of the area of the country you intend to travel and mark your intended route with highlighter, this may change slightly but it makes it easier and quicker to orientate yourself on the map. One mistake we made was getting a map at 1: 1 500 000, it showed the whole route but not all the smaller roads, we would have been better getting that as well as a number of more detailed maps at 1: 50 000 to show more road, campsite, hospital and attraction features so that we had better backup options if the main route plan or SatNav failed.
We hired a Sat Nav with the car and it was at times our best friend as well as our worst enemy, it navigated us through some shortcut tracks that shaved hours off a journey as well as diversions that deviated from the planned route, but it also lead us at times onto roads that didn’t go anywhere and at other times it was unable to calculate a route, this was especially the case in Lesotho where a Sat Nav error combined with a signpost error almost proved to be a disastrous end to our trip (full story later). In that instance we would have been much better off with a detailed up to date map, Sat Nav's have a time and place, but sometimes map reading, route planning and having a visualisation of the journey can be part of the adventure of the trip and actually add to the experience, don’t rely on Sat Nav's!!
Phones and WIFI
My advice is to plan a bit ahead with this one, I order a new phone with a new contract that offer phone and internet usage in SA at the standard UK rate, unfortunately i did it too late in the day and the new phone didnt arrive in time. This lead to phone usage costing £6 a day if required, on the two days i came off airplane mode phone signal was good, but i picked up no mobile data coverage, this left us a bit out of touch with the outside world (not a bad thing really).
Wifi coverage at campsites was hit and miss and if we found a camp that offered wifi it was normally incredibly slow and only good for an all safe message home. The only time we were really desperate for the internet was to top up the travel money card, in this instance we stopped at a McDonalds and logged into the restaurant coverage, beware though that they offer unsecured open access networks so using them for moving money around or accessing sensitive data is a bit of a risk.
Surprisingly, everywhere (except the remotest campsites) had card payment facilities, this was good for us as we had opted to use a post office travel money card for the trip, as we had done in New Zealand. You pre-load the card with whatever amount you want at the exchange rate of the day, you then know how much you have on the card in the local currency at any one time and there is no transaction fee to use the card in country, you can also load multiple currencies onto the card for a multi country trip or future use, or you can convert back and spend the remaining money in the UK. It really is a very good system that takes your UK bank account details out of the equation and only leaves you open to a minor loss if the details are stolen. You can top the card up anywhere in the world where you have internet using the secure app on your phone.
We only ever carried about R2000 (£120) in small denominations on our person at any one time, this is adequate for any purchases or tips you need to make where card payment isn't available, it is also not the worst amount to lose in a theft incident.
It is also worth considering carrying a 'dummy' wallet with some expired cards, receipts and a couple of hundred Rand in, especially if you are travelling on foot in built up areas. In a mugging you can hand over the dummy wallet in the knowledge that the thief will most likely take a quick glance to see cash and cards before doing a runner, this will give you time to get to a safe place before your deception is discovered.
As we visited SA in the spring the weather was a bit changeable, the hot days were very hot and we only had a couple of overcast/rainy days, so very lucky really.
On a clear sunny day at low altitude it get unbearable hot by about 11am and remains so until about 3pm. Sunrise in November is 4.30/5am and sunset is 6.30pm, so you have to get up early to make the most of the day before it gets too hot, lunchtime shade siestas then become the order of the day before a stint of activity before sundown and early to bed (there is a reason game drives happen at 5.30am and 4pm!).
The sun can be ferocious so pack plenty of sun cream and if you are out hiking for the day remember that the weather can be extremely changeable (especially at altitude) so pack for all eventualities.
Campsites and activities
I would say that locating and planning campsites for each day is vital, it is not good enough to hope to find something along the way as provision is a bit few and far between, there are many more lodges/b&b's then there are campsites, which can be used as backups, but this would get pricey quickly.
All the campsites we stayed at were very clean and tidy, facilities varied depending on remoteness and cost of the campsite, but this was to be expected, full details of all the campsites we stayed at can be found in the diary.
The best campsites we stayed at were operated by the National Parks, for these sites you also have to pay a fairly hefty conservation levy in comparison to other private parks and reserves. Cost wise though it was very reasonable with the most expensive costing £40 a night for 2 people with electric and the cheapest costing £15 a night for two with no electric. All the campsites we stayed at had water for washing, although you wouldn't drink it without treatment, and all had cooking facilities in the form of 'braai's' or BBQ's to be used with wood or charcoal, many had electric hob facilities as well. On the whole we were very impressed with the standard of camping facilities throughout SA.
One thing to note is that the standard of a campsites website is not necessarily an indication of the quality of the campsite itself, we were pleasantly surprised by some and a bit deflated with others. Also, if a website says the camp offers some activities such as canoeing, walking trails, swimming pool, etc, it may be the case that those things are either to be completed, or would like to be offered in the future, they may not actually exist yet!
In terms of activities we tried where possible to pre-book in advance, this was not always possible due to weather or group numbers. I would say that with the areas we visited which were off the main in places, tourism is still an up and coming enterprise, things were not particularly well signposted, if at all, and some things that we had planned to do were so remote and off the main road it would have been unfeasible to do them in our time frame. I am sure that given time and investment the offering for tourist entertainment will improve, until then you will just have to make do with the scenery.
Food, Drink, Fuel and Tips
Overall, food and drink is the same price or cheaper than the UK, we had intended on shopping in Woolworths, which is the equivalent of Waitrose, but they were not to be found outside of major cities. We did our major re-supplies at Pick n' Pay, where the quality was fantastic, we used a Spar (SuperSpar) in a small town and the quality wasn't as good.
You will find everything you would expect to find in the UK (including Heinz and Hellmann's), we took the precaution of avoiding processed meats as well as fruit and veg that you dont peel (unless we could wash it first), remember that although it looks the same as in the UK, the food handling and safety protocols are very different. For this same reason we only drank bottled water which we purchased in 5L bottles, or tap water that we had boiled ourselves for 3 minutes on a rolling boil.
SA does the most amazing beef and you can get 3 massive T-bone steaks for the equivalent of a fiver, lamb was also very good in country, we were a bit sparing of the chicken unless it seemed to be from a good source and aside from bacon we had no pork, meat was very well priced.
Alcohol cannot be purchased in supermarkets but is available from separate liquor stores (normally attached to the supermarket), i was pleasantly surprised to find that SA produces its own cider called Savannah, and its good (happy Somerset lad!).
There are fuel stations everywhere in SA and at the time of writing diesel is sitting at £1/L, which is a pleasant change! In fuel stations expect an attendant to come and fill your car for you, unless you have to unlock your fuel cap just tell them how much to put in and you can stay and pay in your car. I was tipping the attendants till a local told me not to bother as they were paid well already, regardless, R20 (about £1.10) is appreciated and doesn't hit the budget too hard. If you tell an attendant to fill it up they will do so until they cant get another drop in (it can take a while) its better to give them an amount of Rand that will approximately fill the tank.
On the subject of tips we were burning through quite a few R20's tipping every man and his dog, it seems to be an expectation that if you hold out your hand to a tourist you should expect a tip for doing the slightest task, locals however will only tip where we expect to tip in the UK, i.e. restaurants and hotels (or where a good service is rendered), the whole tipping for the sake of tipping started to annoy me a bit and it was especially the case in tourist hotspots. One example was upon leaving a private game reserves the man on the gate who signs cars in and out had his cone out in the roadway, we pulled up to the gatehouse and after some chat it became increasingly apparent that he wasn't going to move his cone without a tip, after an awkward silence he said 'so are you going to give me a tip of what?', i know what tip i wanted to give him but R10 persuaded his cone to move and us be on our way.
The only place we tipped against my better judgement was in some public car parks, these are best avoided but if you must then there will inevitably be someone floating around to 'protect' your car, better to pay the devil you know a little bit of cash than have his mates take your wheels off whilst your grabbing a lettuce.
Clothing and equipment
This is very much dependant on where you intend visiting but in Kruger it was very hot so shorts and light baggy shirts/ t-shirts were in order, it is prone to thunder storms late in the day so having a lightweight waterproof to hand in your day pack is a good idea. If you intend on visiting more mountainous regions such as the Drakensburg or Lesotho (most of which is above 2500m) then you will cold weather/heavy rain gear as the nights often drop below freezing.
If you intend on completing longer day hikes or summiting a few mountain peaks then i would suggest carrying a comfortable supported backpack (approx 35L is ideal), in this i carry everything you would need if you got caught on the trail because of weather or injury and needed to wait for rescue, i include: comprehensive first aid kit, waterproof tarp/basha (big enough for group size), as much drinking water as possible, a cutting tool (normally knife and saw), two means of filtering/purifying water (billy can, millbank bag, sterilisation tablets), at least 3 means of lighting fire (lighter, matches, fire steel, flint and steel with charcloth), waterproofs, spare socks, spare gloves and hat, compass, headtorch as well as tactical flashlight. Regardless of whether you plan on hiking, these things are all essential items to have in your kit for for camping, if not only as a backup in emergencies.
In terms of other useful kit, duct tape has a millions uses and can be a real lifesaver, your mobile phone should be kept charged for emergencies, antiseptic hand wash/ hand sanitiser can stop you picking up something that might see you toilet bound for a few days and a multi plug adapter is not to be forgotten. Finally it is worth considering that camping in a tent or camper can leave you more vulnerable to being targeted during the night whilst you sleep, having some sort of personal alarm and tactical flashlight to hand during the night can both alarm and dazzle a potential intruder whilst alerting others in the area, it might seem overkill but better to have it and not need it then need it and not have it. We had one incident on an unfenced campsite close to the road where Alice woke me at 12.30 because a car had stopped on the road with the engine running and it sounded to her like someone was trying the car door handles, shortly after i woke the car door closed and the car left, it might have been a different situation if they had tried gaining access to the roof tent.
Security and Safety
Unfortunately, South Africa suffers with a high crime rate, and muggings, carjacking, robbery and general theft are commonplace, firearms are also common and you can legally carry handguns for personal protection, this is mirrored by the number of illegal handguns on the street, something i am told is very easy to acquire. These problems however are mainly confined to larger urban areas but can occur anywhere and it is worth being aware of the things you can do to reduce your chances of becoming a target:
• Plan your routes - do this both when on foot and in vehicles to avoid ending up in dodgy areas or stuck down dead ends.
• Try to blend in - tourists are a prime target for thieves, especially in congregation areas such as bus/train stations and airports, nothing screams tourist like someone wearing a floral shirt with multiple cameras hanging off them and holding a map looking lost.
• Politely decline help - people will offer to carry things for you, drive you to your hotel, sell you things, show you something interesting or just beg for money, it can be overwhelming at times but politely say no and remain aware of your surroundings, is there someone quietly blending in behind you whilst some loud distracts you.
• Keep your possessions safe - avoid displaying cash, mobile phones, cameras or other expensive items in busy public places, you are just advertising yourself as a shopfront, Alice decided to leave her engagement and wedding ring in the UK, which is sad, but better than the alternative. Also keep your passports locked away if possible or otherwise concealed on your person, dont leave anything on show in your car when parked.
• Don't travel after dark - this one is important, thieves operate under the cover of darkness and being on the road after dark, especially in a marked rental car, makes you a target for hijacking or kidnapping. We knew this, but after an error of judgement we ended up on the highway long after dark chasing somewhere to stay, shortly after passing through a town a car pulled alongside on a slow uphill drag and asked us to stop and talk to them, luckily in this instance a stern 'no' and a burst of acceleration was enough to get them to stop and turn around, but we appreciate how dangerous this situation could have turned out to be. The bottom line is plan your route so you get to camp in good time and daylight.
• Keep your car well fuelled and maintained - breaking down on the highway can leave you open to the same dangers as outlined above, check your oil and fluids daily as well as a general vehicle health check (tyres, wheel nuts, suspension springs/dampers).
• Have a plan B - locate more campsites or places to stay then you actually need, they may become useful if you get delayed or your route changes.
Personal Health and Emergency Planning
The precautions you need to take will vary depending on where you intent on going in SA as catching malaria from infected mosquitos is confined to certain areas/regions. We spent a while travelling in Kruger close to the border with Mozambique which is currently a medium to high risk area, and then followed this zone of risk all the way down through Swaziland and round to the Elephant Coast. This required us to take antimalarial tablets in the lead up to entering these areas, whilst we were in the risk zone, and for a period of time after we left.
There are other things that can be problematic throughout SA as well, such as Hepatitis A, Rabies, Yellow Fever, Zika Virus and Ebola, as well as there being a large number of the population infected with HIV.
The best advice is to consult with your GP or a nurse within a private specialist travel agency well in advance of your trip, they will have the most up to date information on what is recommended for every country in the world and whether certain things are essential or just recommended.
We used STA Travel and upon their recommendation we got a Hep A booster and the best anti-malarial tablets available (some people suffer serious side affects from the cheaper anti-malarials, especially mefloquine (brand name Larium) which can cause depression, anxiety and has been linked with suicides, it has been banned by the US FDA for being neurotoxic, in Britain we still prescribe it to soldiers), they also checked our Tetanus was up to date and recommended we had inoculations for rabies, this however wasn't possible as it is a 6 week course of injections (we just opted to avoid getting bitten by dogs or monkeys). Using a private agency is more expensive than using your GP but the upside is you can quickly book an appointment at a time that suits you, and when it comes to antimalarials you have a bit more choice in what you can demand when compared to whats readily available through the NHS. If you want to go down the NHS route then be sure to factor extra time in advance of your trip to book consultations, get prescriptions, etc.
The most common type of infectious illness amongst travellers is diarrhoea, which is mainly caused by food and water borne agents, follow the advice above when it comes to buying food and remember to wash your hands well frequently, especially after visiting the toilet or before eating food, in the absence of soap and water antibacterial gel will kill bugs and nasties but wont wash dirt off.
You should take your own first aid kit and it should be as comprehensive as possible, you should know how to use it, it is also worth taking your own sterile needle incase you need to have a blood test or injection in country, it is not uncommon for more rural or poorer areas to wash and re-use needles.
SA has a private health care system but there are public health clinics available, one local said to me that you can go in but they are likely to make you worse or kill you, if you get seen at all. The bottom line is to make sure that your travel insurance is adequate to cover you in all eventualities, check the small print so that you know you destination and all the activities you intend to do are covered (we had to get a policy that specifically stated SA as the destination), also make sure that there is adequate cover for the value of gadgets, luggage, healthcare, legal cover and repatriation, its better to pay £20 more for a lot more piece of mind.
Emergency planning comes under two different sub-categories, what do you need to know to help yourself in an emergency and what do others need to know to help you in an emergency.
Helping yourself includes:
- Put all the information you collect into a day by day itinerary so you know where you will be staying each day, the route you will take, activities along the way, backup accommodation etc. It sounds totally over the top but it keeps all the information ordered in one place and it makes finding certain information easy (our example at the end)
- emergency numbers (save on phone and have printed on itinerary)
- All emergency services -112
- Ambulance directly - 10177
- National emergency line - 10111
- British Consulate (Cape town) - 021 405 2400
- Phone number of your bank or card provider
- Phone number for your holiday insurance
- Numbers for family members if you haven't memorised then.
- Make a note on your itinerary of other important information such as passport number, national insurance number, holiday insurance number, holiday money card number. It may be wise to disguise these numbers as phone numbers in case you misplace the itinerary.
- Do a quick search of local hospitals on your route and mark them on the map, as a backup our SatNav would have been able to direct us to the nearest.
- Have paper maps of the area for diversion planning
- Make sure your phone is always charged and if possible secure in country mobile data so you can search things online if necessary.
- If you go off for long hikes, especially in the mountains make sure you log it with the campsite or gatepost and let them know where you intend to go and a time you intend to be back by at the latest.
Helping others to help you includes:
- Consider wearing an ICE (In Case of Emergency) bracelet or necklace, even if you don't have any specific medical conditions it can hold emergency contact information for rescuers to get in touch with someone back home if you get in trouble.
- Give your itinerary to a family member back home, if you go missing or there is a natural disaster, terrorist attack, etc, they should be able to look up exactly where you should be and inform the British Consulate for help and aid
- Give your family member or emergency contact the same emergency contact numbers, policy numbers and other information you have collected as above, especially holiday insurance information.
- Check in with home when possible, this will keep people up to date on where you are in your itinerary.