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Getting around South Africa

Sam Botes

Contributing writer

Getting around South Africa can be an adventure in and of itself. Although the country offers a multitude of transit options, most visitors opt for the freedom and flexibility of hiring a car.

Driving in South Africa provides the unique advantage of designing your own travel itinerary while experiencing the country's spectacular landscapes up close.

However, if you’d rather not drive or if you’d prefer to keep your driving distances to a minimum, there are alternative ways to get around the country, including domestic flights, intercity buses and luxury trains.

South Africa by plane

South Africa is a relatively large country - it’s about the size of France and Spain combined. So if you want to travel from one end to the other, the best, safest, and fastest way to go is by plane.

There are two major airports used for the majority of international flights into and out of the country, with a small number of international flights leaving from Durban:

  • Johannesburg: OR Tambo International Airport (airport code: JNB)

  • Cape Town: Cape Town International Airport (airport code: CPT)

  • Durban: King Shaka International Airport (airport code: DUR).

It is also good to know that Johannesburg does have a secondary smaller airport called Lanseria that some of the low-cost carriers fly to. This is an hour’s drive from OR Tambo International Airport.

Airlines

Prior to Covid-19 there were many domestic airlines to choose from, however that has been reduced to a handful. Currently there are five local airlines:

  • Airlink

  • Lyft

  • Hahn Air

  • FlySafAir

  • South African Airways

Three are low-cost carriers while Airlink and South African Airways are not.

Flying times

Flying times are relatively short making it easy to move about from one region of the country to another.

  • Cape Town to Durban or Johannesburg: 2 hours

  • Durban to Johannesburg: 1 hour

You can book your flights through an agent, or you can simply hop online and do it yourself.

When you fly, double check the terms & conditions to find out if luggage and meals are included in the price, or if you are required to pay extra.

Driving in South Africa

If you’re looking for more independence, then hiring a car is a great option. The rates are reasonable but as in any country, be safe and check the driver’s name and the vehicle model and licence plate number before you hop in.

Car Hire

South Africa has excellent car rental companies across the country, so it’s easy to pick a car up in one city, and drop it off in another. All airports have car rental agencies or they can be delivered to your hotel. 

Automatic vehicles are available from car rental companies. There is usually a specific rental category that needs to be booked for an automatic car. Additionally, it is advisable to make an additional note in the booking that you specifically request an automatic vehicle. 

If you are nervous to driving on the left-hand side of the road, it is recommended to book an automatic car, but make the reservation in advance as the number available are limited.

EV Cars

Within the entire country of almost 60 million people, there are less than 10,000 electric vehicles. In addition to low numbers of EV cars, the continuous load-shedding and electricity interruption would hinder any EV travel and for the foreseeable future it is not something that will be started on a large scale.

Parking

Hotels and other accommodation you book should have secure parking for you. However, this isn’t always the case. If you do have to park in the street, make sure that you have taken over comprehensive insurance with your rental, and do not leave anything in the car. Thieves and opportunists are quick to smash a window and grab what they can.

The uncovered parking lots at shopping malls are usually free of charge however you will find car guards in place, directing you to empty spaces or telling you how to enter and exit a parking spot. It is customary to tip them at least R5.00 minimum, but tipping is not essential. They are simply trying to do something to earn some money to live, and are not dangerous.

In addition, car guards are also found in bustling areas especially over weekends - think of markets, restaurants, beach areas and the like. 

Covered parking or underground parking is charged for at an average of R15.00 per hour, sometimes more depending where you are. Often, your first hour is free or if you purchase your shopping at particular shops within the mall, your parking will be validated and free. When you enter the parking area and take your ticket, there will be a sign advising you on any free parking.

Tips for driving in South Africa

  • In South Africa, people drive on the left-hand side.

  • To rent a car you do need a valid driver’s licence but you do don’t need an international drivers licence.

  • The legal driving age is 18, and many car rental companies require that you have your licence for a minimum of 12 months in order to rent a car.

  • The blood alcohol limit is 0.05%. South Africa has a no tolerance policy so if you are caught driving and you are over the limit, you will be arrested. Rather book an Uber if you’re going to enjoy a night out!

  • Roadblocks are randomly set up - the police are either checking for people driving under the influence of alcohol, or they are checking that your car licence is valid.

  • The national roads, or highways, are tarred and generally in good condition, especially between the main cities of Cape Town, Johannesburg, Durban, and Port Elizabeth.

  • Potholes can be common in provinces other than the Western Cape, so when you are heading off a mani highway or main road, drive with caution.

  • Don’t drive around late at night on your own, but if you have to, be alert and keep your doors locked.

  • Make sure you have a spare wheel and a jack incase you have a puncture, but rather call the emergency car assistance teams if you need help and stay in your vehicle.

  • Minibus taxis drive recklessly and follow their own rules. Keep your distance from them and know that when they put their hazard lights on, it means they are actually going to stop to either pick up passengers or drop off people.

South African driving lingo (vs US terms)

  • Robots (traffic lights)

  • Circle (roundabouts)

  • Car hood (bonnet)

  • Petrol (gasoline)

  • Boot (car trunk)

Gautrain

Local trains are often not recommended due to their frequent delays and lack of safety. The only exception would be the Gautrain in Johannesburg. The Gautrain is a super speed train running from OR Tambo International Airport to various destinations in Gauteng, including Sandton, Pretoria, and Park Station. 

The train is known for its speed, safety, and convenience, and is equipped with modern amenities, including free Wi-Fi, air conditioning, and comfortable seating.

If you are using The Gautrain to travel to the OR Tambo International Airport, you can have your bags wrapped for free at Sandton Station which helps prevent theft. There is space on the train for your luggage.

Frequency

The Gautrain runs every 20 minutes and is a reliable source of transport in Johannesburg. It is essentially for travelers moving to and from the airport, as well as business people traveling between the major centres in Johannesburg.

Gautrain App

Simply download the app to your mobile, register your Gautrain account if you’re a new user and link it to your Gautrain card, or even better, link your contactless bank card. This can be used to pay for the train, bus and parking and you can manage your entire Gautrain account effortlessly.

Travelling into Johannesburg

If you are arriving in Johannesburg, there are hotels near each station that will  arrange transport for you (at an additional cost).

Other ways to get around cities

Private Transfers

Another way to move around a city is to book a transfer.

Any hotel, guesthouse, or backpacker that you stay at will be able to assist you with the arrangements. These transfers are safe but generally more expensive than an Uber or perhaps car rental, where costs are being shared.

This is because these transfers are private. In other words, there won’t be strangers traveling in the car with you. The plus side is that the transfer company is generally reputable and has the necessary licences and permits in place.

Avoid traveling in minibus taxis completely. While they might be cheap, they are not safe and are often not even roadworthy.

Ubers in South Africa

Ubers are popular and used often in the cities. Fares are well priced and the app works well. Check the driver against his photo, and check the car make, model, color and registration before hopping inside.

There are currently no other reputable rideshare systems in place in the country.

Hop-on, hop-off buses in South Africa

Hop-on, hop-off buses are aimed at tourists and are easy ways for visitors to navigate major cities. City Sightseeing buses are available in Johannesburg and Cape Town while MyCiti Bus is only found in Cape Town but offers more comprehensive routes. In Durban, the Ricksha Bus offers a hop-on, hop-off tour route twice a day.

Intercity buses in South Africa

If you're looking to travel long distances, then booking a seat on a luxury coach is a great option. Intercape and Greyhound are two of the most reputable coach services in South Africa, offering comfortable seats and air conditioning to make your journey more enjoyable.

For a one way ride from Cape Town to Johannesburg, your ticket will cost between R500 and R800, depending on the level of service you want included, and the number of restrictions you have on your ticket.

Baz Bus

For those looking for a more flexible travel option, Baz Bus offers a hop-on, hop-off service catering specifically to backpackers and independent travellers. With its frequent departures between Cape Town and Port Elizabeth, the Baz Bus is a convenient way to explore South Africa at your own pace.

Buses pass each stop every single day and you can hop on and off at every stop if you like! There is no time limit on this ticket which makes this a great option for budget conscious travellers.

One-way tickets are $199 and return tickets are $259 per person.

Luxury trains in South Africa

If you're looking for a train-style vacation and want to travel in comfort and style, South Africa has three luxury train options.

Rovos Rail

Rovos Rail offers a range of journeys that vary in length from a few days to over three weeks, with routes that take passengers from Cape Town to Dar es Salaam in Tanzania, Pretoria to Victoria Falls in Zimbabwe, and many other destinations in between. 

The cost of these journeys varies depending on the route, the length of the trip, and the level of accommodation selected, but they typically range from several thousand to tens of thousands of dollars per person.

Despite the high cost, Rovos Rail is a popular option for those who want to experience South Africa's beauty and history in comfort and style.

The Blue Train

The second option is The Blue Train that offers passengers a unique and lavish way to travel between Pretoria and Cape Town. The train's interior is decorated with luxurious finishes and furnishings, creating an elegant and comfortable environment for travelers. 

While on board, passengers can enjoy gourmet meals, high tea, and a range of other amenities, such as a lounge car, a bar, and even a smoking lounge. The observation car is popular with people who want to sit back with a book or simply watch the country pass by. 

The cost of a journey on The Blue Train is relatively high, but many travellers consider it a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

Shongololo Express

The Shongololo Express is not as formal as the other two options. This train takes passengers on various journeys that can last between 12 and 15 days, with routes that cover multiple countries, including South Africa, Namibia, Zimbabwe, Mozambique, and Swaziland. 

The train's interior is decorated with a safari theme and offers passengers comfortable accommodation, excellent cuisine, and various amenities, such as a bar, lounge, and observation car.

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Sam Botes

Author - Sam Botes

Sam is a freelance writer, social media manager and mother of three, who loves to travel. Safaris are her ultimate adventure and next on the list is Antarctica.

Last Updated 12 September 2023

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