How you choose to get around depends largely on the length of your vacation. Visitors with limited days at their disposal usually hop by plane between two or three key destinations, but in many ways, this is underutilizing a holiday in South Africa. With a well-maintained and well-organized road system traversing arresting landscapes, a good range of car-rental companies, relatively low fuel costs, and -- outside the cities -- roads that are virtually empty of traffic, a combination of flight and road travel is the way to go if you are here for 2 weeks or longer. The Western and Eastern Cape region, in particular, is a wonderful area to explore by car, with charming B&Bs, wine farms, and guest lodges wherever you choose to rest your head. There is a choice of malaria-free game reserves in the Eastern Cape, and as such, it makes logistical sense to go on safari here. If you can afford the time, though, I'd recommend you fly north, either to the Kruger area or the Delta. Or, if you've experienced these destinations on a prior trip, head east to the majestic mountains and lush subtropical game and coastal reserves of KwaZulu-Natal.
Of course, nothing beats the romance of rail, and South Africa is blessed with two trains regularly included in the top 10 train trips in the world. There can be no better way to recover from jet lag than to fly to Johannesburg on an SAA flight (arrive in the morning), arrange for a transfer to Pretoria, board your Rovos Rail carriage , and spend the next 2 nights being rocked south to Cape Town. At the other end of the scale, those with a tight budget (and time to burn) can opt to travel by bus: The major intercity bus companies are reliable for long-distance hauls, and some are fairly flexible; for this, the Baz Bus, which offers a hop-on, hop-off service on interesting routes throughout the country, is unbeatable. Traveling in Zimbabwe, Zambia, and Botswana is not as straightforward -- public transport is unreliable, roads can be bad (or virtually nonexistent), fuel in Zimbabwe can be scarce, and help can take a long time coming in the event of a road emergency. The safest thing to do in these countries, particularly with limited time, is to fly directly to your intended destination, with all air transfers prearranged.
If you have limited time to cover Africa's large distances, flying is your best bet. Thankfully, as a result of pressure created by the budget airlines Kulula.com and 1Time , South African Airways launched its own budget airline, Mango, which usually offers the lowest fares on the best fleet of planes (though the corporate colors may have you grabbing a sick bag, though being assaulted by neon is marginally more comfortable than the endless puns and wisecracks that Kulula force on their passengers). If you wait for last-minute deals, SAA is also more prone to slashing its own fares for passengers booking through the Web.
Details for the domestic airlines servicing all the major cities in South Africa are as follows: SA Express and SA Airlink (both domestic subsidiaries of SAA; tel. 27/11/978-1111; www.flysaa.com), BAComair (tel. 27/11/921-0222; www.ba.com), Kulula.com (tel. 086/158-5852; www.kulula.com), Mango (www.flymango.com), and 1Time (tel. 086/134-5345; www.1time.co.za). All the lodges recommended in this guide will arrange to charter a flight into the reserve (usually at a surcharged rate) if time is of the essence.
Given enough time, this is by far the best way to enjoy rural South Africa. In urban centers, drivers comfortable traveling on the left side are also better off hiring a car to get around, because public transport in the cities is generally not geared toward tourists and can be unsafe (though Cape Town rail is slowly getting its act together). Alternatively, utilize taxis while you are in the city and hire a car once you're ready to head out to the hills. All the major car-rental companies have agencies here, as do a host of local companies. All offer much the same deals, but cars are in big demand during the busiest period (Dec-Jan), so book well in advance.
Car-Rental Insurance -- Before you drive off in a rental car, be sure you're adequately insured, covering such things as whether your policy extends to all persons who will be driving the rental car, how much liability is covered in case an outside party is injured in an accident, and whether the type of vehicle you are renting is included under your contract.
Gasoline -- Fuel is referred to as "petrol" in South Africa and is available 24 hours a day in major centers. At press time, 1 liter cost just under R7 (4 liters is approximately 1 gal.). Gas stations are full-service, and you are expected to tip the attendant R2 to R5. Note: Credit cards are not accepted as payment.
Road Rules -- Again, South Africa has an excellent network of tarred and dirt roads, with emergency services available along the major highways; you cannot rely on this sort of backup on road conditions in Zimbabwe, Zambia, or Botswana. Driving in all three countries is on the left side of the road -- repeat the mantra "drive left, look right," and wear your seat belt at all times; it's mandatory, and, in any case, driving skills on the road vary considerably. Generally, the speed limit on national highways is 120kmph (74 mph), 100kmph (62 mph) on secondary rural roads, and 60kmph (37 mph) in urban areas. The Automobile Association of South Africa (AA) extends privileges to members of AAA in the United States and the Automobile Association in Britain. South African road condition information, route planning, toll information, distances, and directions are available in English via telephone, fax, or e-mail from the Travel Information Centre (tel. 27/11/799-14-00; fax 27/11/799-1254; Mon-Fri 8am-5pm). For breakdowns, contact the local emergency number (tel. 083-843-22); however, if an international member has rented a vehicle, it is recommended that they confirm with the relevant car rental company the procedures for dealing with an emergency or vehicle breakdown, and then use the emergency number provided by the car-rental company.
A Home on Wheels -- Britz Africa (tel. 27/11/396-1860; fax 27/11/3961937; www.britz.co.za) offers fully equipped camper vans and four-wheel-drive vehicles, with a full listing of places to park it; they'll also pick you up in your vehicle from the airport. Britz currently charges R1,400 a day for a motor home sleeping two, R1,650 for a motor home sleeping five; minimum rental period 5 days (and the per-day rate goes down after 20 days).
You'll need your driver's license to rent a car -- your home driving license is good for 6 months -- and most companies in South Africa stipulate that drivers should be a minimum of 21 years old (in Botswana, you must be 25 or older). Armed with a letter of authority from the rental agency, vehicles rented in South Africa may be taken into Botswana and Zimbabwe, though this requires 72 hours' notice, and additional insurance charges are applicable. You can leave the vehicle in these countries for a fee; in South Africa, you can hire a one-way rental car to any of the major cities. All the major companies have branches in South Africa, including Avis (www.avis.com), Hertz (www.hertz.com), and Budget (www.budget.com). Also check out Europcar, voted the best rental agency in Africa in the 2007 and 2008 World Travel Awards. Tempest Car Hire (www.tempestcarhire.co.za) is my personal choice, offering a combination of professional service, branches throughout the country (as well as Namibia), and great rates (from R149 per day, at press time). Note that it's best to prebook your vehicle, particularly if you're traveling during the peak season (Dec-Feb).
If the journey is as important as the destination, splurge on a Deluxe Suite in the world-famous Rovos Rail (tel. 27/12/315-8242; www.rovos.co.za) or the longer-running Blue Train (tel. 27/12/334-8459; www.bluetrain.co.za). Both are billed as luxury hotels on wheels and predominantly run between Pretoria (the capital, near Johannesburg) and Cape Town. I can't think of a better way to get to Cape Town if you must arrive in Jo'burg. Of the two, Rovos Rail has the edge: It has the largest suites on wheels, the best en-suite bathrooms, beautiful dining rooms, great butler service, and an incredible wine list (included in the price, and a great introduction to South Africa's top wines). The Pretoria-Cape Town journey is a leisurely 3-day trip. (Tip: I'd skip the Kimberley tour, a scheduled stop and tour on Day 2, and stay cocooned in my suite.) Aside from the Pretoria-Cape Town run, there are a number of exciting routes, such as the 13-day journey to Tanzania or the 9-day journey to the Kruger, Durban, Garden Route, and Cape Town. It's expensive (from R22,000 double for 3-day one-way trip between Pretoria and Cape Town, all-inclusive) but relative to the other great train journeys of the world, rather good value. For a full listing of departure days for this year and the following two, as well as times, schedules, and up-to-date rates, visit the website.
Shosholoza Meyl, South Africa's long-haul rail transporter, has eight primary routes linking South Africa's cities with smaller towns along each route; ticket prices for a first-class carriage are comparable to a bus ticket to the same destination, but invariably take longer and are less comfortable. Second class is inadvisable, lacking comfort and safety.
The one option worth investigating is the Premier Classe, a kind of budget Blue Train, which travels between Johannesburg and Cape Town, Johannesburg and Durban, and Cape Town and Port Elizabeth (tel. 086/000-8888; www.premierclasse.co.za). The latter could be a nice way to return to Cape Town after a self-drive exploration of the Garden Route and Eastern Cape game reserves. The most popular route remains the leg between Cape Town and Johannesburg: The Premier Classe train departs for Cape Town from Johannesburg every Thursday and Sunday, and arrives in Johannesburg from Cape Town every Tuesday and Saturday. It costs between R3,000 and R4,900 double one-way (all-inclusive); Johannesburg to Durban is R1,500 to R2,200 double one-way; Cape Town to Port Elizabeth is R2,200 to 3,500 double one-way.
The three established intercity bus companies are Greyhound, Intercape, and Translux; all offer unbeatable value when it comes to getting around the country. My preference is for Intercape, the largest privately owned intercity passenger transport service in Southern Africa, and the most luxurious in Africa. Book a ticket on their Sleeperline so you can recline and book your seat (try for the top front for the best view). Johannesburg to Cape Town takes approximately 19 hours, which is about 8 hours less than the same trip by train.
An alternative to these is the 22-seater Baz Bus, which offers a flexible hop-on, hop-off scheme aimed at backpackers and covers almost the entire coastline, including some really off-the-beaten-track destinations, such as Port St Johns and Sodwana. It's a great way for budget travelers to explore the coast, areas around the Mpumalanga game reserves, Drakensberg, Swaziland, and Maputo, capital of neighboring Mozambique. You can purchase direct routes or 7-day, 14-day, and 21-day passes, which allow you to get on and hop off anywhere you wish for a fixed price.
- Baz Bus National (tel. 27/21/439-2323; www.bazbus.com; central reservations)
- Greyhound (tel. 27/83/915-9500; www.greyhound.co.za)
- Intercape (tel. 08/61/287-287, or 27/21/380-4400 international; www.intercape.co.za)
- Translux (tel. 08/61/589-282 or 27/11/774-3333; www.translux.co.za)
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.