May 30, 2016

Top Five Scary Things About Living in South Africa

I know what you're now thinking after reading this blog post title. Smash-n-grab, carjacking, hacked off limbs... The list of scary things you're led to believe will happen to you in South Africa is long and grisly.

But I'm here to tell you that danger lurks in more unexpected quarters.

And I'm going to do this in the style of David Letterman - God bless his retired (and unrecognizable because bearded) soul - via a countdown.

5. THE 5th SCARIEST THING that can happen to you in South Africa is....
................being asked to put animal feces into your mouth when your safari group is conducting an Impala Poop Spitting Contest. It's a close relative to the much-loved cherry pit spitting contest you find in other regions of the world, except, you know, the part about the poop. Which does, in all fairness, resemble cherry pits. As long as you make sure it truly is dried.

4. THE 4th SCARIEST THING that can happen to you in South Africa is....
...............being yanked out of your dreams abruptly at 4:30 am when a pig is being slaughtered right outside your bedroom. Or something that sounds exactly like a pig being slaughtered right outside your bedroom but turns out to be a bird called hadeda that, so the rumor goes, is deathly afraid of flying and therefore erupts in unearthly shrieks every time it takes to flight. Preferably at 4:30 in the morning.

3. THE 3rd SCARIEST THING that can happen to you in South Africa is....
...............being told by the clerk at the clothing store that he will "give you a tinkle when the new beanies arrive." No thank you, I'll just check back in a week, is what you say with a shudder before fleeing, only later learning from a friend that giving a tinkle, for a South African, involves a telephone, not a toilet.

2. THE 2nd SCARIEST THING that can happen to you in South Africa is....
................when you're driving along the countryside minding your own business and this happens:

(Full disclosure: You might also be eaten by a lion or rammed by a hippo
without ever having received an indemnity form to sign.)

1. THE NUMBER 1 SCARIEST THING that can happen to you in South Africa.... drumroll.... coming across this creature:

It's called a Parktown Prawn and it is beyond scary - hairy legs and all. The only good news is that scary thing number 4 apparently eats scary thing number 1.

There you have it, it's what you've always been told - the bad guys all murder each other in South Africa. You might actually be quite safe. Just beware of tinkling store clerks, pooping gazelles, and squatting elephants.

May 23, 2016

Everything You Need to Know About South African Schools

Which school to pick for their children in South Africa, and how to get into the one they've picked, is by far the most discussed topic among prospective expats on my blog and Facebook page. Second to that are questions about bureaucracy, especially the dreaded Traffic Register Number and vehicle license disk renewal, and the always-pressing quest to find the perfect house in the right suburb.

Which just goes to show that at the end of the day, fear of crime - the one thing South Africa is infamous for - is not at the top of people's minds. Day-to-day practical considerations and our children's education take precedence.

At any rate, I spend quite a bit of time every day fielding questions about schools, having evolved as somewhat of an authority on the topic - not so much by virtue of my own knowledge, but because of the vast network of friends and acquaintances I've built, and my ability to ask any of them to chime in on a particular school. Still, quite often I will go hunt on my own blog to dig up the appropriate blog post on a given school-related topic so I can forward it in response to an inquiry, and that can be quite time-consuming. 

In order to make my readers' life - and mine! - a little bit easier, I thought I'd gather all my blog posts discussing South African schools in any way, shape, or form, into one tidy list to hand out henceforth. Bear in mind that I wrote these over the course of 4-5 years, and that my knowledge of the topic evolved over that time period, so it's a good idea to read the more recent posts in addition to the older ones. (Even though I've grouped them by topic, you can see the date under the heading of each.)

Without further ado, voila!

Joburg Expat's Recommended Reading
on South African Schools

School Listings

St. John's College, one of the oldest and most prestigious schools in Johannesburg

South African Schools: An International Comparison

Dainfern College

Language Education in South African Schools

Sports at South African Schools

8th Grade South African rugby players

Other Extracurriculars at South African Schools

Grade 0 ("nought"), the incoming pupils, together with Grade 7, the outgoing Senior Prep
class, Dainfern College, South Africa

Transitioning from a South African School Back to the United States

May 16, 2016

What is the Best Month to Travel to South Africa?

Over the years of authoring Joburg Expat, I've answered many questions about expat life in South Africa. And often it's not just future expats asking away, but friends and acquaintances who are intrigued by my love for a country they haven't given much thought to in the past.

"I want to come visit; what is the best time of year?" is the most frequently asked question by these prospective travelers.

I'm always tempted to say, it doesn't matter. There really isn't a bad time to visit South Africa.

However, that's not what they pay me the big blogger bucks for (ha! Who knew, right?), so I'll try to be more specific. Meaning, it depends.

It depends on where you go

What time of year you should visit depends on where in South Africa you plan on going. If your most important destination is Cape Town and all you want to do in South Africa is stand at the Cape of Good Hope, have some wonderful wine in Stellenbosch, and scale the slopes of Table Mountain, I'd say go either in spring or fall. Bearing in mind that spring is in October/November and fall (or autumn) is in March/April.

Franschhoek near Cape Town, the heart of the South African wine region, in October

Cape Town, and also Kruger Park, tend to get very crowded during the South African school holidays from beginning of December until mid-January when everybody floods to the beaches. Incidentally, this is the most quiet time in Johannesburg and therefore a good time to visit and have less traffic to contend with.

I personally prefer South African summers (which really are one long stretch from October all the way to May), just because I love the heat, and you will be nice and warm on morning game drives. December and January are the hottest (but also rainiest) months. We've been on safaris year round and always enjoyed them and always saw plenty of animals. Winters (June through early August), on the other hand, can get very cold in Southern Africa, particularly on the Highveld around Johannesburg, and especially at night, so if you do go in winter, you have to bring enough layers of warm clothing.

Winters are great for safari holidays

Winter is a good time for a South African safari (photo taken in Pilanesberg National Park in June)

However, there is something to be said for going in winter as well: First off, it is the dry season, giving you several advantages. Because it's dry, the animals tend to congregate around water holes, so it's a tad easier to find them. Also, the bush is less dense as there is less foliage, so again, it's easier to see the animals. If you are planning to go to Kruger Park, winter is also a better option because there won't be any threat of malaria (it's not a very high-risk malaria area, but you do have to reckon with it in summer). Also, it might be cheaper to travel than during the Christmas holidays, which is high season and also school holiday break for South African schools.

If you're interested in any other locations besides South Africa, also consider this: The great migration in Tanzania (Serengeti) occurs in June and July. Those are also the best months for the Okavango Delta as it is at its highest flooding then, stretching from June and July all the way to October.

Flooding of the Okavango Delta (this picture taken in April before the peak of the flooding)

Some other factors to consider

There are other months that have a lot going for them in terms of visiting South Africa: March is the best month to view the Cosmos flowering in Mpumalanga province, September is great for Kruger Park (not too hot, no malaria, no crowds) as well as the Namaqualand wildflower bloom, October marks the beginning of jacaranda season in Johannesburg and Pretoria (once you've see the purple explosion of jacaranda season, you'll be pining for your very own jacaranda tree, trust me) as well as prime time for whale watching in Hermanus.

Jacarandas in Rosebank, a Johannesburg suburb, in October/November

As you can see, any time of year has its attractions for South Africa-bound visitors.  Your best bet is probably to go look for some good deals on flights. December/January is high season and therefore the most expensive. I think March is generally a very cheap month to fly, as is November before the start of summer break.

I can promise you this: You will fall in love with Africa, no matter when you come to visit, and your first time most likely won't be the last.

A more in-depth version of this article, including a handy chart listing pros and cons for every month of the year, can be found on SA People.

May 8, 2016

Happy Mother's Day!

Aaaah, Mother's Day. It's such a great idea, but it always has the potential to break your heart.

In theory, this is the day of paying tribute to all that we've done for our offspring over the course of an entire year. Like held back their hair when they vomited into the toilet, driven to school to drop off their calculator for an important exam (which we've reminded them the night before they should pack their calculator for RIGHT NOW), or - the ultimate sacrifice - helped them with their science cell project made from a styrofoam ball that had to be purchased at Michaels.

In truth, we should all know not to expect all that much from Mother's Day.

The nicest thing that can be said for Mother's Day is that it's the one day we're not in charge. We're not supposed to be planning anything. The bliss!

But that's exactly it. Leave the planning to other people, and it's bound to go wrong. Planning anything is usually the realm of the mother, and when she isn't doing it, no one is.

I can't tell you how many years, come 5 pm on Mother's Day, we have all looked at each other expectantly, wanting to know what our dinner plans are. There never are any. No one has thought to cook a meal, and no one has thought to make a reservation at a restaurant.

In all fairness, it typically starts out with much more promise. In years past, I was the recipient of many breakfast trays laden with lukewarm tea and toast and jam, carried to my bed by eager little hands. Nowadays, this doesn't happen anymore. Mainly because years of motherhood have resulted in a wake-up time for me that is closer to the time my kids go to bed than when they wake up in the early afternoon. I've had people ask me at 4 p.m., in all earnestness, if they could have breakfast now.

But I don't mind. In fact, I relish the quiet morning with the paper and my cup of tea, even if I have to make it myself. Eventually, people wake up and come up to me and bring me the cards they labored over for days. Or, in some cases, just minutes. It's the thought that counts.

This one is the kind labored over for days, I could tell.

All I ask, really, is that I don't have to do a lot of cooking or dishwasher unloading on Mother's Day.

An a hot shower would be nice too.

But alas, it wasn't to be, not this year. Our hot water heater is a bit finicky, you see. Every once in a while it just goes off, poof. This leaves a whole bunch of hot water in it for those who have the good fortune of tapping into it first. Not me, since one of my Sunday perks is reading the paper and staying in my pajamas all morning.

So everybody took their shower and also took note that it was mostly a cold one, by the end of it. My husband's shower, so he reported later, was entirely cold. But did anybody think to go to the basement and relight the flame? Nope. Because, you see, that's what Mom usually does.

I went to my Mother's Day dinner unshowered, my unwashed hair in a bun.

But other than that it was a fabulous day.

Happy Mother's Day to all you lovely moms out there!

May 2, 2016

Ordering From Amazon in South Africa, Take Two

Amazon Prime Video sign-up
My 2012 blog post Ordering from Amazon in South Africa is in 4th place among most read stories on Joburg Expat. Because so many people seem to rely on it, and because it's already four years old, it needs a makeover to reflect changes since then.
The thing that's not changed, just to get that out of the way: There is still no

However, ordering from (or, for that matter, but for reasons of simplicity I will stick to Amazon USA) is now easier than ever before, even in such far-flung and postal-service-challenged places as South Africa.

How to order from Amazon in South Africa

The way it works is through a service called AmazonGlobal, and here is what Amazon says about it on its own website: " ships products internationally with AmazonGlobal. Available product lines, shipping rates and fees vary depending on the delivery address for your order."

To see a listing of countries under the AmazonGlobal umbrella, click here. As stated, not all items are eligible, but many of them are.

To place your Amazon order from South Africa, simply go to and add the desired items to your shopping cart, then go to checkout and enter your address. At this point you should see if any items in your cart don't qualify. Once you proceed, Amazon adds in all your fees and import duties up front and delivers your package via courier (Aramex), bypassing the slow and wildly unreliable South African Postal Service (SAPO).

How long will it take for my Amazon order to be shipped to South Africa?

I've interviewed several South African readers and they've all confirmed that the average delivery time with AmazonGlobal is 8 days.

8 days, people! This is mind-boggling to anyone who's ever used SAPO for any mail going to South Africa. The standards are so low that you'd be happy to know it arrived there AT ALL. Some of you might remember my experiment with Christmas cards - nothing valuable in them - which confirmed that South Africa is dead last when it comes to international mail delivery.

The fast delivery time is possible because sending the goods via courier and paying the fees and duties upfront ensures that your package will not be held up in customs. Neither will it be held up in one of SAPO's holding centers. I've seen pictures of one of those and it's not a pretty sight, especially at Christmastime. It reminded me of our school's lost-and-found bins, only a few thousand times as big (although, I'll grant them that, perhaps a bit less smelly).

How much does it cost to ship Amazon orders to South Africa?

Given that there was a time when Amazon refused to deliver any packages to South Africa at all, due to the fact that a large number just disappeared, this is a HUGE betterment for South African Amazon customers. The only downside is that of course it isn't free*. If you've been spoiled by years of Amazon Prime will living in the U.S. or Europe and are now moving to South Africa and expecting the same, you better undergo a reality check. It won't be cheap. However, it will be vastly better than having no Amazon at all and having to source all your hard-to-find items from Johannesburg street vendors. And AmazonGlobal prices are actually lower than what I would be willing to pay, given the alternative. For instance, an acquaintance recently ordered a household good for $25 and paid shipping of $14 on it. That's a pretty good bargain for secure and fast delivery.

The other piece of good news about ordering from Amazon in South Africa is that you can use your South African credit card for payment, which wasn't possible in the past. Even if you choose to have your goods delivered to a U.S. address with a friend bringing it over when they visit, you can still use your SA-based credit card instead of having to use dollar-based funds.

All in all, placing your Amazon orders from South Africa is as easy and convenient as it's never been before. If you're moving to South Africa, this is one item not to worry about.

*AmazonGlobal actually does offer free delivery to a few select countries; currently, those are Singapore (orders over $125) and Mexico (orders over $65). South Africa, as of the writing of this article, isn't one of them.


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