One of the best parts of any trip is experiencing a culture with an open mind. By virtue of traveling, one is more open to different experiences and typically not demanding the world to operate the way you are used to in your home country. We could use a little open mindedness in our home country as well, but another topic for another day.

South Africa was not significantly different from the United States’ culture, aside from our not-so-fun run in with the police. Here are the fun quirks and things we learned about South Africa on our three week trip.

No Private Beaches

Can you imagine how angry the wealthy people who own beach houses would be in the US? Beaches are considered public land in South Africa, so technically you would own everything but the shoreline if your property came out to the ocean. We learned this on a cruise boat jetting around the estuary in Knysna as we took a gander at the grand cliff side homes overlooking the water. If someone wants to park their boat on the shore by your home, they have every right to do so! In America we would shoot those people. I said that to my cruise-mates and they all chuckled in agreement.

He is as ridiculous as he appears


So many hitchhikers. To my knowledge (or former knowledge) hitchhiking was a thing of the past before horror stories of murders and the access to communication that we have today. I’m sure every hitchhiker had a phone. It was so prevalent, that we would see folks hold up signs of where they wanted to go, often more 2+ hours away. You would see people holding out rand as well, willing to pay for the ride. It must be incredibly common for people to give rides to others and receive some sort of compensation if the hitchhiking was everywhere.

Driving through Franschhoek

High Touch Gas Station Attendants

Another thing I assumed was from a different era, gas station attendants! People you let pump your gas for you for a charge. The hose and gas set up is a bit different, but would not be difficult to figure out. There is not the opportunity to go to a gas station without attendants pumping your gas. So have your rand ready to tip, even the tiny town gas stations have people waiting outside in vests.

One completely unsupported/unresearched theory is that the government is incentivizing jobs for businesses. We saw this in many different instances, large groups of people employed but nobody doing a whole lot. There were probably more gas station attendants than pumps and more construction crew people than needed to get a job done. It makes sense if the government does support it financially, as the job market in South Africa is not great. They maintain around a 20% unemployment rate and locals told us a large part of unskilled labor is going to immigrants, a common story in any country. That statement is usually politically charged, so it is hard to know the context in which we were being told by casual acquaintances along the way. Either way, South Africa doesn’t have the same broad, diversified industry that the US has, which can be a challenge to any workforce.

Bakery inside my favorite gas station in South Africa, Kranskop!

Small Oysters are the “Better” Oysters

You heard it hear first, people. The massive oysters (re: my obsession in Japan) are not the “best” options. This is not crazy news, so much of our food follows that pattern. Just like little zucchini are sweeter than the massive phallic zucchini you may grow for fun in your garden. When you come from the “Everything’s Bigger in Texas” mentality you assume bigger is better. Knysna was once a large oyster farming town, and during this estuary cruise we enjoyed some fresh caught wild oysters, of the smaller variety.

Knysna cruise

Lattes have a VERY particular glass

Am I the only one that has been doing lattes wrong? Each and every hotel, boutique bed and breakfast, lodge we stayed in served lattes in the same tall glass cup with a handle. How did they all coordinate? Did I miss the memo in coffee crafting? I’ve never seen such a standardized approach to latte making across the entire country. Apparently Americans are lazy and not being consistent in our latte creation and consumption compared to the rest of the world.

On that note, Instant Coffee Runs Supreme

Not just instant coffee, but sugar filled instant coffee. I didn’t realize there was such a thing. Every hotel room had a hot water boiler and tea and instant coffee. Maybe I’m needlessly judgemental on it, however I was craving some French press or drip coffee to be available in the room. One or two of the many places we stayed had a mini French press. When you’re like me and need caffeine to work out in the mornings, you find a way to make it work on instant coffee. We ran into a similar scenario when we did the Everest Base Camp Trek and there we brought our own single serve instant coffee since we were able to control the quality. There are some nicer quality instant you can purchase, and next international trip I may opt to do that so I can ensure my workouts are adequately fueled.

Sparking Water has Sugar

While we are talking about beverages, read your labels! We picked up 6 massive 1.5L bottles of sparkling water at a grocery store assuming they were normal sparkling water. Later in the trip and half a bottle deep, I rolled over the bottle to discover it was quite caloric. Not a big deal while on vacation, but now we had 9 liters of sugar water in the car with us. We like to consume in other places (WINE!) so sadly most of the sugar water went to waste. We found one brand that had no additives and continued to check labels anytime we considered purchasing.

Emergency Lights = Thank You

Part of our South African trip was a road trip from Port Elizabeth down to Hermanus as part of the famous Garden Route. The road is the equivalent of the Pacific Coast Highway, with much of it along the ocean or passing through beautiful green fields or forests. We are new to driving on the left and opposite side of the car, so our pace was much slower than native drivers. The stressful thing about driving is that you must either pass or get passed, there is no in between. If you come within a 15M distance of the car in front of you, they start driving on the shoulder for you to pass. Same thing if someone comes behind you, there is an expectation that you shift into the shoulder to allow passing on single lane roads. In the US, you just get road rage and don’t pass at all or sparingly in a one lane road scenario. You cannot simply drive without making moves.

That said, when a driver passes you, they momentarily put their flashers (emergency lights) on. A quick Blink Blink and that is it. It took us a few times to understand that what they’re saying is “Thanks!” We joked that the longer the emergency lights were on, the more profuse the thank you was. Eventually we started doing it ourselves which made us feel like insiders! Ha.

Community Bathrooms

Along this same Garden Route road trip, we were making stops at gas stations to fill up periodically. What took a while to figure out, is that there were no public bathrooms at these gas stations. There was typically one bathroom shared among a few businesses all next to the gas station. Rather than having a single bathroom in each place, it is as if they pulled their resources to have a community bathroom. That may not be the intention, but is a very common built out and threw us for a loop that we had to walk 30M behind the gas station to get to the eventual bathroom.

High Quality Gas

Everything in South Africa was favorable price-wise compared to the USD. We were very lucky in that sense as tourists. The gasoline was the one very expensive thing we did not expect. After more research we figured out the baseline gas in South Africa is 93 proof (%?), whereas here it is 87 proof. This difference in quality directly impacts the price. We would fill half a tank up with $30USD and in the US that same amount would be 1/2-2/3 of the price. It would be very expensive to maintain a large vehicle in South Africa but the engines sure are happy.

Did you notice any fun differences about South Africa since you went? I would love to hear them!

Posted by:Allie

6 replies on “10 Things You Didn’t Know About South Africa

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