The basics

Money

The Rand (R) has been the official currency since 1961. It is divided into 100 cents, the dollars and cents separated by a comma. Shops often round off to the nearest 5 cents in favor of the customer. Coins include 1-rand, 2-rand, 5-rand and smaller change. Bank notes come in 10, 20, 100 and 200 denominations. In 2012, bank notes with Nelson Mandela's picture went into circulation.

Languages

Of the 11 official languages, Zulu is the most commonly spoken followed by Xhosa, Afrikaans, Sepedi, Setswana and English. Many South Africans are bilingual in Afrikaans and English, the languages most used in official and commercial life.

Geography & Culture

Much of South Africa is plateau, the highveld of rolling grasslands and the bushveld of tree-dotted plains. To the northwest, it shares the Kalahari Desert with Namibia and and Botswana. The landscape grows more rugged as the plateau is replaced by the Great Escarpment of mountains with some of the snow-covered peaks of the Drakensberg range to the east towering more than 11,400 feet (3,475 m). The landlocked kingdom of Lesotho - rich in diamonds, water and dinosaur footprints - is deep within the Drankesberg or Dragon's Mouth. South Africa itself is a treasure chest of minerals - gold, diamonds, chromite ore, vanadium and the world's reserves of manganese and platinum group metals.

Known as the Rainbow Nation because of its cultural diversity, it excels in music, art, dance, theater, extreme sports and athletic excellence. It has produced world-class athletes in rugby cricket, golf and football (soccer) and sports celebrities like Gary Player and Cliff Drysdale. It was the first African nation to host the World Cup. Its people are generally outgoing, straightforward and friendly although more reserved in traditional rural areas. Food is equally diverse and includes a number of local ethic cuisines. Barbecues (braais in Afrikaans) are popular everywhere. Mealie meal or porridge in various disguises is also ubiquitous.

Transportation

South Africa offers several attractive rail options for getting around the country from budget to super-lux. The Shosholoza Meyl long-distance trains travel between Johannesburg, Cape Town, Durban, Port Elizabeth and East London. They cover the 956 miles (about 1,500 km) between Johannesburg and Cape Town in 26 hours for around $50 or R700. The Premier Classe trains, described as "luxury on a budget," make the same trip for $235 or R3,120, including an elegant restaurant car for meals and afternoon tea. There's also premier service from Johannesburg to Durban. If you want the ultimate in luxury, take the legendary Blue Train between Cape Town and Pretoria (the capital). service once or twice a week with high and low season fares. A shared luxury suit for two is from $1,300 (R13,015) each . Sole occupancy is from $1,900 (R19,520), fares covering all meals, wine and cigars.

The road system in South Africa is extensive and excellent with international and local car rental agencies in the main airports and most cities. All valid photo-ID driver's licenses are accepted although rental agencies may have additional requirements. Be advised that cars are right-hand drive, traveling on the left side of the road. Distances are measured in kilometers and fuel gauges in liters. Seat belts are required, and speed and alcohol limits are strictly enforced. Speed on major roads is 120 km/h (75 mph) and 100 km/h (60 mph) on secondary roads. If you're ticketed, the rental agency will pay the fine, adding an administration fee.

Several private bus companies provide service on national inter-city and cross-border routes, including some luxury coaches and sleepers. Greyhound, Autopax and Intercape are the main providers. Most tickets can be purchased online or at branches of Shoprite and Checkers supermarket chains. The hop-on, hop-off Baz Bus, which can accommodate surfboards and bicycles, is a backpacker option along the coastline between Cape Town and Sodwana.

South Africa is the hub for many flights on the continent. Most international travel passes through Cape Town International and/or Tambo International Airport in Johannesburg. Each airport is about 12 miles (20 km)east of its city with a choice of public transportation into the center. The new electric Gautrain suburban service links Johannesburg, Pretoria and the international airport. Domestic air service throughout the country is also available. Low-cost airlines are Kulul of the British Airways affiliate Comair and Mango whose parent is South African Airways, the national flag carrier.