South Africa. I travelled there as a backpacker. Worked there as a volunteer. Lived there as a resident type person.
I’ve experienced a lot in South Africa. I’ve seen racial harmony; I’ve observed racism. I’ve been humbled by dignity in poverty; I’ve been robbed by people in poverty. I’ve experienced human warmth; I’ve witnessed human cruelty.
I’ve seen the good and the bad of country. And the strange. In honour of the latter, here are a few curious, interesting and fun personal observations about South Africa.
1. South Africa is like a fantasy world map
You know the map of Middle-Earth in the Lord of the Rings books? The map in the Game of Thrones novels? South Africa is a bit like that.
I don’t mean it’s full of hobbits and dragons; I mean it embodies that fantasy trait of realms ranging from arid scrubland (Northern Cape) to lush forests (Mpumalanga), and from icy mountains (the Drakensberg range) to vast oceans (shout-out to the Atlantic and Indian).
Large exotic creatures no roam wild on the vast plains of South Africa, but the fantastical Big Five (lion, elephants, buffalo, leopard and rhino) remain ingrained in the nation’s culture.
2. Joburg looks like a city from a futuristic dystopian movie
I won’t start every entry like this, but you know those cities-of-the-future from 80s films where everything has gone wrong?
The ones with high crime, boarded-up shops, people afraid to stop at red lights and fires in metal bins? Like in Blade Runner or Demolition Man? That’s what inner-city Johannesburg is like.
It’s not a place you want to spend a typical evening. Although, if you hang around long enough, perhaps you’ll meet Robocop…
3. There. Are. So. Many. Languages.
A lot of countries have more than one official language. But 11? Are you serious?!
Luckily, many people speak multiple languages, and there’s a lot of overlap. Typically, most will speak English, Afrikaans and their ‘local’ language, e.g. Xhosa, Zulu, Sotho, etc. Obviously, that’s not even going into regional dialect variations, but let’s not go nuts here.
My advice for backpackers? Know English, learn some Afrikaans and pick up a few polite phrases for whichever place you’re in at the time. Especially the tongue-clicky Xhosa. It’s fun.
4. The Afrikaans accent is scary – but hot.
The Afrikaans language is a deep, throat-wrecking and Germanic-sounding drawl. The result of this is that, when animated, Afrikaners can sound aggressive, powerful and… sexy. It’s kind of like they’re giving you orders all the time, even when they’re just asking for a coffee.
It’s totally a preference thing, but while everyone likes to be seduced by French or Italian or another romantic language, sometimes you can’t beat a good hard… Afrikaans accent.
5. Rugby is the national sport, or is it football?
Due to the juxtaposing cultures in the country, you’ll get a very different impression of sporting passion depending on who you’re with.
Whereas football is basically the national sport in England – black or white – in South Africa the number one sport for Afrikaners is rugby. The beloved green-and-gold Springboks are the primary focus of white sport fans. However, among the black population it’s all about soccer. The national team, affectionately known as Bafana Bafana (the boys), are the pride and joy of the country.
Yes, yes, I know; you can’t just literally split sporting affiliation into black and white.
Except you can. Sort of.
6. ‘Black Taxi’ means something very different
I was really confused the first few times (white) people in South Africa referred to the combi van taxis that carry 15 -20 people at a time. In the UK a ‘black taxi’ or ‘black cab’ is a universal mode of transport; they’re used by pretty much everybody.
Black taxis in South Africa are different; it’s considered a poor person’s way of getting around. But, as a traveller, you shouldn’t be afraid of this. Yes, it’s uncomfortable and involves lots of waiting around, but it’s a chance to travel as normal people travel.
I hate to use the phrase, but, like volunteering in Africa, catching a black taxi means you get a very authentic South Africa experience.
7. You can hang out with elephants and sharks in the same day
Because South Africa is like this magical fantasy place when it comes to wildlife, you’re basically incredibly spoiled; you could spend a morning diving with sharks and go on a game drive in the afternoon or evening.
Kruger National Park is the most famous national park, but the country is teeming with them, and you might have a better experience at one of the less popular ones. My recommendation is Addo National Park near Port Elizabeth – it’s awesome for elephants. Lots of elephants.
8. If you can kill it, you can barbecue it
South Africans love barbecuing. Or, as they call it over there, braaing. To braai is a not merely a method of cooking; it’s a lifestyle. A cultural tradition. Modern heritage. It’s universally loved by all. Except vegetarians. But there aren’t many of them in South Africa.
Usually braais will feature standard steaks, ribs and the beloved boerewors sausage made from beef and pork. But be prepared for anything. Impala, boar, springbok, crocodile; they all could make an appearance.
About the author
Andrew Tipp is a writer, blogger and editor. He is an experienced traveller, and has spent more than a year backpacking around the world. Andy has also worked as a full-time travel editor for gapyear.com and written for number of travel blogs. South Africa is one of his favourite places; he’s written an extensive guide to the country, and has spent time teaching English in Limpopo province as a volunteer. He is a passionate advocate of travel and volunteering, and has presented talks at university roadshows and travel trade fairs on the subjects.