Thursday, September 18, 2008

Flights to South Africa

South Africa is a large, diverse and incredibly beautiful country. The size of France and Spain combined, it varies from the picturesque Garden Route towns of the Western Cape to the raw stretch of subtropical coast in northern KwaZulu-Natal. It's also one of the great cultural meeting points of the African continent, a fact obscured by years of enforced racial segregation, but now manifest in the big cities. Yet South Africa is also something of an enigma; it has the best travel facilities on the African continent, but also the most difficult surface to scratch. After so long as an international pariah, the "rainbow nation" is still struggling to find its identity.

Many visitors are pleasantly surprised by South Africa's excellent infrastructure , which draws favourable comparison with countries such as Australia or the United States. Good air links and bus networks, excellent roads and a growing number of first-class B&Bs and guesthouses make South Africa a perfect touring country and - with the dramatic slide of the rand in 2001 - a cheap one too for visitors. For those on a budget, rapidly mushrooming backpacker hostels and backpacker buses provide an efficient means of exploring.

However, as a visitor, you'll have to make an effort to meet members of the country's African majority on equal terms. Apartheid may be dead, but its heritage continues to shape South Africa in a very physical way. The country was organized for the benefit of whites, so it's easy to get a very white-orientated experience of Africa. Nowhere is this more in evidence than in the layout of towns and cities, where African areas - often desperately poor - are usually tucked out of sight.

Some visitors are surprised to discover that South Africa's population doesn't reduce simply to black and white. The country's majority group are Africans (77 percent of the population); whites make up 11 percent, followed by coloureds (9 percent) - the descendants of white settlers, slaves and Africans, who speak English and Afrikaans and comprise the majority in the Western Cape. Indians (3 percent), most of whom live in KwaZulu-Natal, came to South Africa at the beginning of the twentieth century as indentured labourers.

Crime isn't the indiscriminate phenomenon that press reports suggest, but it is an issue. Really, it's a question of perspective - taking care but not becoming paranoid. Statistically, the odds of becoming a victim are highest in downtown Johannesburg, where violent crime is a daily reality. Other cities present a reduced risk - similar to, say, some parts of the United States; many country areas are safe by any standards.