south african flag

Twelve Things That Surprised Me About South Africa

Whenever you travel you always find things different from what you expected, sometimes in a good way and sometimes not. For better or for worse, our expectations of what to expect when we travel is formed by what we read and hear in books, media and word of mouth.

I found these twelve things an unexpected surprise in South Africa (in no particular order!):

1. That Cape Town wind is strong! The Southeastern wind nicknamed The Doctor whips through the area in the afternoon. At lower levels it’s refreshing on a hot day but at higher levels, you can hear the ringing in your ears! We read at the museum of the Castle of Good Hope that Lloyds of London for a while refused to insure ships going to Cape Town because the wind was so unpredictable.

Cape Town harbour

2. The divide between the richer and the poorer areas are very visible. The wealthier houses have concrete fences with electric wires and on-call security services protecting them. Each house is effectively a little fortress. The wealthier areas and the townships sometimes exist right next to each other too.

electric fence sign

3. Even in the townships, you can tell there are some nicer areas than others. Lots of the small houses in the townships seem to have satellite receivers. As one of our guides explained to us, people remain in townships because they still can’t afford the non-township areas. Even if people do move out of the township, they always return to see their families in the townships.

Barber shop in a township
Image: Julie Laurent

4. South Africa is an interesting amalgam of first world country and developing country. For example, the water is fine to use, and driving on the roads is very easy. Locals have an excellent command of English. We had no problems feeding the children with non-ethnic food which was widely available. Taxis were plentiful, efficient and cheap to use. We had no issues either with vendors trying to hassle us to buy things.

On the other hand though, the WiFi was very patchy. Ironically, the Cape Town service was called Always On but from what I can tell, it should be called Intermittently On.

5. The transportation infrastructure outside of central Cape Town seemed poor. We barely saw any buses or trains. People were either walking, cycling or hitchhiking on the motor ways in order to get around. In fact, we saw people dodging cars on the motorway to get from one side to the other.

South African bus
Image: Pieter van Marion

6. The country does seem to run on Africa time (always a bit later than advertised!).  For example, the New Year’s carnival in 2015 was several weeks after its originally advertised date of January 1st.  There were transportation issues with getting the revellers to the parades (see point 5 above!).

7. I don’t know about the rest of the country but Cape Town and its environs is very lush. We were told that the Europeans had imported trees to plant.

South African vineyards

8. South Africa is a huge country! I mean huge!! If you look on the map, it occupies the tip of the African continent. It isn’t until you start driving around though that I realised the country is massive and has a lot of different types of terrain. Driving along the Garden Route we came across forests, mountains, beaches and farmland all within hours of each other.

South African countryside

9. South African culture is very diverse. We found influences from the Dutch, the English, the Portuguese, other African countries, the Indians, and the Cape Malay everywhere.

south african flag

For example, I frankly didn’t even know that the Portuguese had made much of a cultural impact on South Africa because their explorers hadn’t really stuck around as settlers. Yet, we kept coming across Portuguese-influenced cuisine such as peri-peri and trinchado. The rainbow nation moniker really is very apt and not just a marketing tool.

10. I know South Africa is very popular but we were surprised by just how popular it was. We couldn’t visit Robben Island because the tickets to visit it were sold out until March 2015. People book tickets very far in advance! We thought we were organised booking hotels in September but we really had a tough time getting reservations for December.

Robben Island
Image: Mads Bodker

11. Tourism in South Africa is clearly booming. Service, however, is not the greatest. For example, even Parisians who are notoriously snooty great you with a polite “bonjour” when you enter a store. South Africans don’t seem to greet you as a matter of course when you enter their establishment or pass them on the street.

Cape Town tour bus
Image: Danie van der Merwe

I wondered to myself if I’d been in England too long when people we let pass us on the roads didn’t acknowledge our courtesy. How rude!!

12. I erroneously assumed that everyone spoke Afrikaans as well as English. I was told, however, that Afrikaans was only spoken by white South Africans. There are actually 11 official languages in South Africa – English, Afrikaans and 9 of the African languages. At school, everyone studies English and their local language.

Afrikaans flag

Have you been to a country that surprised you in some way?  Do tell.

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I am an American expat based in London with my travel-loving family. I write at Just Go Places Blog about luxury, cultural and family travel.

2 thoughts on “Twelve Things That Surprised Me About South Africa”

  1. This is some great info. Hoping to see SA soon and this post gives me some idea. I have been told that in SA when you go to a shop you have to make some small talk before you buy want you need as the people in SA would consider it rude otherwise. What was your experience?

    1. I can’t quite say because we had the children with us. They ask questions and we never actually go into a store without a conversation happening. Perhaps that is why I noticed it so much – I don’t have shy kids! The white South Africans we met seemed less comfortable with small talk because we felt they were more reserved. The black South Africans are naturally smiley and chatty I think. Just different cultural backgrounds I expect – not that one group is friendlier than the other.

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