What to pack for a South African vacation

Packing for South Africa can be harder than you think. It has taken me a long time to get it right. No matter how many times I visited, I always seemed to forget that it is a Sub-Tropical, not Tropical country. In other words, while some parts of the country are indeed warm all year round; other areas can get downright cold. As I anxiously waited to get out of cold, rainy Canada, something in my mind took me back to previous trips I have done in tropical Africa: Kenya, Mali or Sudan. I packed expecting blazing hot days and pleasantly warm nights. I now have a collection of sweaters I have purchased in various shops throughout South Africa, because I always ended up without enough warm clothes.

So the key to packing for South Africa is to be prepared for a range of temperatures, depending on when and where you will be going. If you are like me and come from the norther hemisphere, remember that South Africa’s seasons are opposite ours. So when you are experiencing long, warm summer evenings in Toronto, Seattle, London or Berlin, South Africa is in the middle of winter. Buildings do not usually have central heating. So it can be cold even indoors. Ideally, you want to bring clothes you can layer. 

Johannesburg is often the starting and ending point of a trip to South Africa. There are some really interesting things to do and see in and around the city, so it is worth spending some time there. But it can get cool in the winter months, so be prepared.

The high veld region, where Johannesburg is situated, gets most of its rainfall in the summer months (December- February). The area is know for spectacular thunderstorms. Rains often occur in late afternoon and evenings, leaving the early part of the day warm and dry.

Winter in the high veld can get down right freezing. Many buildings in South Africa do not have central heating, so remember to bring warm clothes.

Cape Town has a more moderate temperature, though it can still be cool at night in their winters. It can also get very windy, especially in the northern suburbs.

Unlike most of the rest of the country, which receive most of their rain in the summer, Cape Town has a dry summer season and receives most of its rain in the winter time (May- August). These months can see storms, with high winds and rain.

Winters in Cape Town are not as cool as those in Johannesburg.

The low veld region includes the areas in and around Kruger National Park. These areas are generally warmer than both the Cape Town and Johannesburg regions. In the summer months, it can be very hot, with rains, often by thunderstorm occurring in the later part of the day. Winters are cooler and dry, but rarely reach the cool temperatures seen in the high veld. Hoedspruit, in the heart of the wildlife region of South Africa, has a typical low veld climate. That is one of the many reasons that I love it there.

Let’s start with clothing. I’ll go from head to toe.

You will want to bring a hat, particularly if you are going to be spending a lot of time outside. I usually bring two; a cap I can use for jogging or walking around town with and a wide-brimmed sun hat I wear when I am hiking or on game drives. Even if you are planning on doing game drives from a car, you will want a wide-brimmed hat to keep the hot sun off your face and neck.

On the same note, don’t forget your sunglasses! It is hard for me to remember sunglasses when you are packing in rainy Vancouver in February, but the sun is always shining somewhere in South Africa. They will also help to keep the dust out of your eyes if you are doing game drives in an open vehicle.

I always bring a selection of loose fitting short-sleeved cotton shirts and tank-tops. Those synthetic dry-weave fabrics are also an option, but I find they don’t breathe well-enough, especially in the hotter areas. They also tend to hold onto body odors- yuk!

I bring at least two long-sleeved shirts with collars. There are great for layering over other shirts. The collar is very helpful if you are out in the sun.

You will want a light-weight cardigan-type sweater or jacket. In the Highveld area (around Johannesburg) it can really get chilly at night, even in their summer.

Those who like to wear dresses may want to bring a casual summer dress, if you are visiting in summer. Loose-fitting dresses are great for hot days and nice to have if you plan on dining out in the cities or wine region. Find something that will not get wrinkled when you pack it. Or try something like this- a cotton dress I found in Thailand, which is wrinkled anyhow.

If you are traveling in the South African winter, you will want a light-weight coat. I like the synthetic fleece types, as they are light weight, yet very warm.

Pack a pair of shorts-if you are planning on game-drives or hiking in hot climates. They are not really needed if you are only spending time in the wine routes and cities.

Capri-pants or light-weight, loose cotton trousers. This is my standard South African uniform. You can purchase some which have zippers that allow you to convert them from full-length trousers to shorts. This cuts down on packing.

Walking shoes or hiking boots, if you are going to be spending time in the bush. Also consider a pair of walking sandals and a pair of dressier sandals, depending on your itinerary.

Don’t forget a swim suite. Even if you are not planning on going to the beach, most hotels and lodges will have a pool. If you are traveling in the South African summer, you will love being able to take a dip in the pool after a long game drive.

Non-clothing items

Here are some other things that you may want to consider for your trip:

  1. Sunscreen- this is easily available in the country, but I find that the selection is more limited and can be expensive. If you have a favorite brand, then I would bring it with you.
  2. A decent camera, with a zoom lens and extra batteries. If you are going to do any game drives, this is a must.
  3. A lightweight flashlight/ torch if you are spending time in the game parks. I have a bit of a snake phobia. I want to see where I am walking at night.
  4. A good book. I’m going to do another post on great books to read about Africa.
  5. A good birding watching book. If you are into bird watching, this is also a must. You can buy these in South Africa, but it may be worth checking out the prices online before you go.
  6. Binoculars. If you really want to get a good look at those birds, or that leopard in the tree in the distance, consider bringing a pair.
  7. A small medical kit. Like typical healthcare professionals, my husband and I hardly carry an aspirin between the two of us when we travel. You may want to be a little more prepared. There are good pharmacies and medical facilities in South Africa, so you really don’t need to bring much- just a few bandaids (plasters), something for headaches and anti-malaria medication, if you are traveling to a malaria area.
  8. Insect repellant- again, you can easily purchase this in the country, but if you have a favorite brand, you will want to pack it.

An electrical plug adaptor. South Africa uses 230 V power and the plugs are different from those used in the UK or Australia. You may be able to find one before you leave that works for South African plugs, but the easiest thing is probably to pick on up at whichever airport you land in.

Things that you will likely NOT need:

  1. A towel- unless you are going on a very low budget, you should not need a towel. Even the rented tents in the Kruger Park supply you with linens and towels.
  2. A sleeping bag- for the same reasons as #1
  3. A huge medical kit- bring your prescription medications, a few bandaids (plasters) and maybe some acetaminophen, but everything else you can buy in the country if you need it.
  4. Toilet paper- after many trips to other parts of Africa, it took me a long time to give up the roll of TP that I was used to packing at all times. While it never hurts to keep a few tissues on hand, South African toilets are almost always well-equipped.

Most of all, bring a sense for adventure, an openness to learn about other cultures and a kind and generous spirit.

Happy travels!

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