Unconventional Guide to the Western Cape of South Africa
Travel tips for Stellenbosch, SA and beyond
Though I have never been an avid reader of “20 things about this place” articles since everyone should experience their time differently, I do believe it is helpful to know a few random facts about your study abroad location before arriving. Spending time in South Africa could very well be full of culture shock for most, but here’s a few hints for getting the most out of your time in the Western Cape of this beautiful country:
1) Enjoy the wine and climb a few mountains, maybe even at the same time. Though it may seem a bit treacherous, and with good reason, it’s a common activity to take a hike to the top of one of the many mountains around Stellenbosch and Cape Town to watch the sunset while enjoying some wine. With Stellenbosch being the wine country of South Africa, you have to try at least a few before returning home. However, if you’re anything like my roommate and I, you’ll have every vineyard around the town memorized by the time you leave. Wine or not, hike as much as possible. The views are incredible and the sunsets are magical!
2) Learn a new language. South Africa has 11 official languages, plenty to choose from! Try to take an intro course at your host university in one of them and practice your skills with the locals. The most common language spoken tends to vary with the area you’re in, so do a little research before arrival and see which one might be the most beneficial to learn.
3) Road trip! This is a great option for exploring the country. If you feel comfortable enough, rent a car with a few friends and plan out a weekend (or longer) trip. There’s also plenty of bus route options, even some that are only for student travel, if you don’t want to drive yourself. A majority of the university students either went home or took a road trip with friends over spring break, and I ended up meeting people from my host university half way across the coast of the country. With all of South Africa’s beautiful coastlines and scenic roads, a road trip is the perfect way to see the country at your own pace. Remember to drive on the opposite side of the road though!
4) Go to a rugby game. Maybe you don’t like sports and maybe you’ll have no idea what’s going on, but attend at least one of these games at your host university. The energy from the students is spectacular, and someone will probably be willing to explain the basics of the game to you.
5) Move a little slower. One of my favorite things about the lifestyle in this country was its slower pace. As someone who always needs to be occupied, this took a little getting used to for me. Once I finally adapted to the speed there though I reached a whole new level of relaxation. Any stress or anxiety I regularly experienced was erased by the end of my semester there. You’ll learn to take things one day at a time and enjoy each moment in front of you. You might also hear people refer to ‘Africa time.’ Time is relative and not everyone is extremely punctual. To put it simply, this means don’t plan on being on time to anything especially when relying on public transportation.
6) Leave your comfort zone. Embrace your spontaneity while abroad. There is so much adventure to be had in this country, but you must be willing to take chances and try new things. Some of my favorite memories began from spur of the moment decisions. Plan as little as possible, and instead figure things out as you go. Don’t be afraid to try something you might not otherwise do, like bungee jumping off world’s highest commercial bridge jump (but wait until after to mention this to your parents).
7) Eat all of the food. Much to my surprise, the Western Cape turned out to be foodie heaven. Stellenbosch is full of restaurants and cafes down each of its little streets. Try not to eat at the same place twice (but if you do, Schoon de Companje is my favorite), you probably won’t run out of options! Farm tables were a popular set up in a lot of cafes: big tables full of fresh fruit and veggies and other healthy options to load up on your plate. You then pay depending on the weight of your plate. Grocery stores are also in walking distance so it’s also easy to prepare food in your own kitchen if you have one. Finally, try to make it to one of the many markets on the weekends. There were plenty of options between Stellenbosch and Cape Town. The best way to describe them is a combination of an art festival, farmers market and pop up food vendors. No matter how you experience it, try all the foods that you can!
8) Do not take safety advice lightly. Though it may come as a surprise, we are not the all-knowing, invincible individuals we believe ourselves to be. If someone tells you that you should avoid taking the train at night, you should listen to them! While others might tell you to avoid the train all together, this is not necessarily true. It’s an easy, cheap option to travel between cities or to the beach on the weekend. However, always stay vigilant and travel smart. Always keep an eye on your bag, and try not to carry anything valuable in your pockets. You need to be more aware of your surroundings, and you might not be able to travel alone as much as you would like to. Stay smart and listen to the advice from those around you and you’ll be just fine.
9) Make friends!! I can only speak for the Stellenbosch University, but there were always activities and events around campus and town. I usually don’t find myself at these types of things at home, but they are incredibly popular among students in Stellenbosch. The school year begins with Vensters, an evening where each student house puts on a performance for the community members and other students. It’s an incredibly fun evening, and it’s nearly impossible to make it to every house’s performance before the night is over. This is just one of many festivals hosted on campus; a great way to meet plenty of new friends from your host university. And never be afraid to walk down the hall if you’re living on campus or in student apartments; studying abroad is a perfect excuse to introduce yourself to everyone you see! Local friends can open you up to even more travel experiences.
Beyond these simple tips and ideas, you’ll have to travel to this wonderful country to experience it yourself!