South Africa is said to be the most beautiful country in the world. At the very least, it’s the most beautiful place in Africa, however, the dark cloud of Apartheid meant many people were unwilling to visit the country until the breakdown of the system when Nelson Mandela came into power in 1994. Although it is now integrated, social and economic differences are still rife amongst the ethnic groups.
The most beautiful aspect of South Africa is the ever – changing and breathtaking scenery. There are historic Cape Dutch vineyards where you can take a tour and sample world famous wines. Along the coastline are fantastic beaches where surfing is probably the most popular pastime, track lions in the great velds (grasslands) of Kruger National Park or sample a taste of traditional African life in the Transkei, the homeland of Nelson Mandela where the sky is endless. The awe inspiring Rift Valley that stretches through East Africa starts up in the dramatic Drakensberg Mountains which are well worth a visit for the fabulous scenery.
Lesotho, the ‘Kingdom of the Sky’, is also part of these mountainous ranges, a small country totally surrounded by South Africa. There is good hiking here or pony treks through the region. The unique part of visiting Lesotho is the opportunity to meet and stay with people living traditional lifestyles, or you can indulge in more luxurious accommodation in the capital Maseru. The Lesothan people are far more self – assured as they are not suffering the after effects of Apartheid and are a very open and friendly people. This is the ideal place for those who enjoy spectacular views and challenges such as climbing Thaba – Boisu (Mountain at Night).
Swaziland is similar to Lesotho in that there is little animosity between the races and the people are relaxed about hostility between races. Outside of the capital Mbabane, the country is very rural and walking is still a feasible way of getting around for the visitor. This is also a good place for fans of extreme sports as there are a range of bungee jumps and other activities to thrill the biggest thrill seekers. Swaziland is still a monarchy and this is evident in cultural celebrations such as Incwala and Umhlanga (Reed) dances that are in evidence.
The local currency in South Africa is the Rand.
1 $US = 10 ZAR (South African Rand)
£ 1 = 18 ZAR
1 EURO = 14 ZAR
For up to date currency information, check the Currency Converter.
The local currency in Lesotho is the Maloti (M) and in Swaziland it is the Lilangeni (E). Both are at a fixed rate equal to the South African Rand. Rand is accepted in both countries so there is no need to change your money if you are only paying a short visit.
Although Apartheid has disintegrated, population statistics are still collected by race. The majority of the population are Black (approximately 28 million), mainly made up from members of the Zulu and Xhosa tribes. There are also the northern Sotho people, the biggest tribe being the Tswana. There is a plethora of tribal people in South Africa who are both indigenous or have emigrated from other African countries.
The majority of white South Africans are of British extraction. The rest are Afrikaners who are of Dutch extraction and make up about two million people. The total white population is about 5.6 million people. There are three and a half million mixed race (known as ‘coloured’) people and one million Indians who make up the rest of the population. The majority of coloured people live in the Northern and Western Cape Provinces and the majority of the Indian people live in KwaZulu – Natal.
The two million people of Lesotho are known as the Basotho people. They are Southern Sotho people and most of them speak the dialect seSotho. Lesotho as a nation was the result of King Moshoeshoe who had outstanding victories in the 19th century both in military and diplomatic terms when the kingdom of Lesotho came into being.
Practically all of Swaziland’s 870,000 people are of the Swazi people. The remainder are Tsonga-Shangaan, Zulu and European or Mozambiquan refugees. The ruling clan are the Dlamini, and this is a common surname even though it is the royal name.
There is an extremely varied climate in South Africa, Swaziland and Lesotho. Naturally, being in the Southern Hemisphere, remember that the seasons are opposite to those in Europe and North America. The best time to visit is November – February, the South African summer. In the Great Karoo however it can get extremely hot in these months as it can in the Kalahari, so it is not a good time to visit the desert!
The Eastern Highveld, which includes Gauteng and the Free State, is dry and sunny in winter but cold from October to April. The most impressive sight is the presence of spectacular lightning storms as this is also the rainy season. On the other side in the Western Cape there are it is dry and sunny and temperatures can go as high as 70°F. It is, however, windier on this side and the south easterly ‘cape doctor’ can reach gale force speeds. In the winter it can get very cold however and there is sometimes snow on the peaks in the area. As you travel up the coast from the Cape it gets hotter and rainfall decreases.
The Transkei and KwaZulu-Natal become progressively more tropical, meaning that it can get extremely humid in the summer. The Highlands are sunny but have a summer rainfall. This is a place to witness some breathtaking electrical storms.
In Lesotho, the high peaks are packed in snow during the winter, sometimes spreading down into the valleys. The rainy season is the same as South Africa, between October and April. The storms here are also just as impressive if not more so, but be warned: quite a few people die each year through being struck by lightning. In the summer it goes to the other extreme and gets very hot and temperatures can go well beyond 80°F. The biggest problem climate wise for travellers is the mist and fog, which hangs and builds around the peaks. It is recommended that if you go into the mountains always take a sleeping bag, tent and enough food for a couple of days as there is a threat of being fogged in.
Swaziland has a very similar climate to the lowveld in South Africa. The temperature is extreme: in summer it can rise to over 100°F, whereas in winter there is frost and it can get bitterly cold. The rainy season is slightly shorter and affects the mountains in the west the most.
Travellers can basically wear anything in South Africa. In the beach areas it is fine to wander around in beachwear. Rules about topless sunbathing also differ but it is not generally advised. When visiting the Transkei or local villages, it’s recommended to cover up a bit more. It is also important to remember appropriate clothes for the activity, such as strong shoes and hardwearing materials when on safari or in the bush.
Travelling around South Africa, Lesotho and Swaziland is a fairly easy process for travellers. If you are crossing the country, flying is a good option. South Africa Airways is the main domestic carrier in the region. Booking within the country a month in advance gives you a whopping 50% discount off your ticket.
All three countries have excellent bus networks that connect all the main towns as well as a selection of periphery locations. In South Africa there are two operators: Translux and Greyhound. There are also minibuses but these are often cramped and pretty dangerous as quite a few of the drivers are not licensed to drive a bus. A much better alternative is the Baz Bus that travellers have used between the three countries. It is designed for backpackers and runs a hop-on, hop-off system, which gives you the freedom to make your way gradually between major destinations. As it covers all three destinations, it is one of the most convenient ways to travel.
Alternatively you can buy or rent a car. The latter is relatively expensive and to buy is a very time consuming process so it is only advisable if you are going to be travelling for some months. Car jacking is a very real problem in South Africa. It is important to consult someone familiar with the routes as it is dangerous to deviate off them.
If you feel like indulging yourself then why not travel part of your route on the famous Blue Train in South Africa? Fares do drop for the low season (the beginning of May until the end of August) and if you can’t afford the whole trip it is possible to do sections. There are also a number of steam trains running in South Africa, which are an equally enjoyable experience.
The three countries are a meat eater’s paradise as there is meat of every description from wonderful beef to impala, ostrich and crocodile. The selection of game is mind-boggling and can be quite overwhelming. One local speciality is Biltong which is dried game meat and as well as being delicious is also the ideal snack for long journeys. Naturally, for vegetarians there is a huge selection of everything you can imagine. The huge vineyards of the Western Cape also produce some of the world’s best wines. A traveller will never need nor want for anything in this area.
Ostriches have become a huge success as a foodstuff along with other game. They are indigenous to the Oudtshoorn area of South Africa and have been farmed since the early 19th Century. Today they are mainly farmed for meat and leather, however when they were first farmed it was their feathers that are in the most demand by the fashionable of Europe. The other amazing thing about these birds are their eggs that can take a weight of up to 400lbs, meaning you can stand on them without them breaking.
Swaziland and Lesotho serve basic and traditional African food that comprises of rice or miele (maize) meal, which is served with stews made of goat and game. This is something that is cheap and found everywhere, such as taxi and bus stands when you are travelling. In Swaziland you can try some more outlandish local delicacies. These include nyiza that are locusts or alternatively mopani worms. These are caterpillars that live on the Mopani tree.
Visas are issued on arrival in South Africa to members of the Commonwealth, most Western European Countries and citizens of Japan and the USA. The visa is valid for a 90 – day period. If you are planning to visit Swaziland or Lesotho it is better to get a multiple re-entry visa to South Africa as it may be difficult to organise another South African visa from Maseru or Mbabane.
Lesotho basically has the same visa policies as South Africa but it is worth checking as they have changed several times in the last few years. The standard issue time is for two weeks so if you want to stay for longer you need to apply for it.
Swaziland has very few visa restrictions for foreign nationals. The usual stay issued is for a period of 60 days.
There are not many serious health risks in these countries and good medical facilities throughout. Malaria and bilharzias is a risk in some remote regions, but there are flying doctors. The suggested vaccinations for the area are Diphtheria & Tetanus, Hepatitis A & B, Typhoid and Yellow Fever.
The only other caution is sexually transmitted diseases (STD’s) as this is one of the most Prolific AIDS areas of the world. The current estimates suggest that although figures suggest that around 25% of the population is infected, the figure may be closer to 40% or even higher. It is vital to carry protection if you want to have safe sex in this region as throughout many parts of Africa.
The water in these countries is safe practically anywhere and travellers are in no danger when drinking from taps. There is a risk when drinking from streams whilst hiking in the region. The easiest way to purify water in this scenario is to boil the water for ten minutes or carry water-purifying tablets with you.
By Electra Gilles
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