Joburg Expat: Things to Pack (and Not to Pack) in Your South-Africa Bound Shipping Container

January 25, 2016

Things to Pack (and Not to Pack) in Your South-Africa Bound Shipping Container

I got a reader question today that I think is worth sharing with the general public in terms of practical advice when moving to South Africa:

Do you have any tips regarding what is worth shipping in terms of furniture? For example, should we ship our outdoor grill that uses a propane tank? What about gardening tools like wheel barrows, push mower and water hoses? I have a 5 and 1 year old and I am thinking of shipping all of their toys, is that wise?

This reader is moving from the United States, so my answers are a bit skewed towards the American expat and might not necessarily be the same if you're moving from Europe or Asia. Please take that into consideration as you continue reading, as I don't want to get any angry rants on my Facebook page telling me "YOU GAVE ME TERRIBLE ADVICE!!! (Yes, I do get people shouting at me in all caps like that:-).

First off, what you ship and don't ship really depends on how much space you have in your container. If this is a corporate relocation, most likely your employer will provide a 40 foot shipping container, which can fit a lot of your household goods, if not all of them.

What it looks like when you ship all your furniture


If you're paying to ship everything yourself, I'd strongly consider renting a furnished place, or buying everything once there. It can be quite liberating to part with all your stuff, if you're bold enough to try it.

The following answers are geared toward the former, i.e. a corporate relocation where shipping space is not much of an issue, but where you still don't want to necessarily bring a bunch of useless or unnecessary items you'll  have to handle and store on arrival.

Q: Should we ship our outdoor grill with propane tank?

A: No. That's the short answer. There are several reasons I advise against it. A) Many South African houses have built-in "braais" already. South Africans love to grill, and chances are you'll end up in a beautiful house with an even more beautiful patio where your grill is already part of the layout. B) you can easily buy one there, you will find a great selection at places like Builder's Warehouse or Patio Warehouse. And most importantly C) the gauge of the gas line is different, a problem we are now having in reverse with our gas heater lamp purchased in South Africa. It doesn't fit onto the gas bottles we can get in the U.S., and to change it is iffy because of the potential for leaks. Better to buy everything there and the bottles will fit. 

Q: Should we ship our gardening stuff like mowers, wheelbarrows, and hoses and such?

A: That's also a good question. The answer is, that depends. Most likely you will use a gardening service in South Africa. That's just the way it is. It provides great employment opportunities for a lot of people and so everyone has gardeners. If you employ an individual guy, you need your tools. If you don't and rather go with a service (I can recommend Mike at Jean's Garden Service!), then don't bring your tools and mower as they will have all those. Personally, I'd bring shovels and hedge clippers, if you enjoy a little gardening like I do. But I'd leave behind the wheelbarrow. Your yard is likely going to be much smaller than in the United States. Also leave behind any electric tools like edge trimmers and such, because of the voltage. With regards to water hoses, I'd also buy those in South Africa, as again the gauge is a little different and it'll be easier for you to get them attached properly if you buy them there. Gardena is a great brand for all those junction pieces, and Builder's Warehouse is the place to shop for all that. 

Q: Should we ship the kids' toys to South Africa?

A: Yes, absolutely. When traveling with small children, it's especially important to create a comfortable environment in your new home. Having familiar toys will do just that. In fact, if your contract allows for an air shipment, I'd try to put as many toys as you can into that versus the ocean container. Our kids were older when me moved, and we actually took the Xbox on the plane with us, which was a great move as it gave them something to do for those long weeks without all our other stuff. You don't want to arrive in South Africa and have to figure out where to buy toys, because trust me, you will have plenty of other things on your mind on that first day in an unfamiliar place! In fact, I'd make a pitch here for not only bringing the toys you currently own, but perhaps buy a few toys ahead while you have the convenience of Amazon.com at your disposal. Splurge a little so that you have some upcoming birthdays and perhaps even Christmas already covered. (For a list of all the things I recommend you buy before moving to South Africa, read 19 Things to Put on your Shopping List for South Africa.)

It's great to have toys at thre ready upon your arrival in a new country
On second thought, being reminded that THIS happens when you ship toys, you might reconsider


Q: Which if any furniture should we bring with us?

A: This goes back to the question of how much space you have. If you have space, why not bring it all? There were a few items that I just couldn't figure out where to buy when we first arrived in Johannesburg, and even though eventually finding a solution made for an interesting boondoggle and a great story on my blog, it would have been easier not to have to worry about it at the time. We brought all of our furniture, except patio furniture (which we only left behind, including the gas grill, because they were covered in snow on the day of packing and we didn't want to mess up the container). It all worked out as we found beautiful pool furniture at Patio Warehouse in Johannesburg. If you end up moving to South Africa without your furniture, the above link has a list of furniture stores in Joburg. Or you could always try Gumtree

Q: Is there anything else we should make sure to pack?

A: I threw that question in there because I sorely missed one thing in South Africa, and that was our warm winter stuff. Most people assume it's going to be warm year-round in a subtropical place, but Joburg's altitude ensures that winter nights are freezing. Your kids are going to need winter coats and hats and mittens on their way to school, and while you can buy all that in Joburg, it's kind of a pain to have to buy winter stuff for just a month worth of cold mornings. So bringing all that makes a lot of sense.

If your shipping company lets you bring booze, bring it! (And if not, bring it anyway!)

Q: Which electric appliances should we pack into the container?

A: Unless you  have some very dear ones, like a favorite cappuccino maker, and have purchased an electric step-down/step-up transformer to run them, don't bring any appliances. Things like hair dryers and vacuum cleaners are definitely a no, even with a transformer. Read my blog post Power Talk to learn about the issue with appliances, and then read Where can I find an Alarm Clock? to find stores for all those items you'll need to buy in South Africa, like appliances, other electronics, converter plugs, stationary, and school uniforms. (Everything except groceries; read Grocery Shopping in Johannesburg to find out where to buy those.)

This is a step-up/step-down transformer. It weighs as much as a small car!

Q: Should we ship our car to South Africa? 

A: This was a question from another reader I received at about the same time. I answered with a resounding NO, because this reader was coming from the United States, and driving an American left-steering car on left-driving roads for several years just sounds like a bad idea to me. But even if you're coming from England or another left-driving road system, I don't think bringing your car with you is the wisest course of action. I have friends who did just that and I seem to remember the associated bureaucratic nightmare (and payment of duties and taxes) was quite substantial. If you know how it's done, it's not that difficult to buy a car in South Africa.

Oh, and I almost forget, make sure you read What Expats SHOULDN'T Let the Packers Put in the Container.

I hope this list has been helpful for anyone moving to South Africa. If you've moved already, please share your experience or comment if I've forgotten anything!