A Travellerspoint blog

Money matters. Except it doesn't, easily, in South Africa

On the grand scheme of things, I am a reasonably laid back traveler. I don't tend to get angry or wound up over that much and I am rarely in a really serious hurry. I'm a firm believer in the 'sh1t happens' school of thinking.

But one thing which has really got on my nerves slightly is the South African banking system.

I have used banks, ATMs and changed money all over the world, including some serious backwaters and dodgy-as-hell places, and can honestly say that I have never come across a more useless, inefficient and user unfriendly system as the South Africans have managed to contrive.

Take ATM's. In much of the less developed part of the world, many ATMs are only connected to either the Visa or Mastercard network. Visa in Africa, Mastercard in much of Asia. Then there are exceptions: Rwanda, for example is by African standards a very advanced country with a network of ATMs, but which are strangely not connected to the international system. But you learn that quickly, and get money inside the bank or change it at Bureaus. And in Malawi, because their largest note is the 500kwacha, the most you can ever takeout is 20000, or 40notes (roughly 100euro). Which is obviously plenty for most local needs, but if you are paying for activities or excursions, going off the beaten track, or trying to minimise withdrawals due to their cost, it can be frutrating. Any or all of these quirks can be annoying, but with a bit of forward planning and quickly learning, you accept it and it is all fine.

South Africa, then, should be a breeze. It has an extensive network of ATM's, generally linked to Visa, Mastercard and Maestro networks and has some decent sized notes. But some cards randomly don't work in all ATMs, or don't work all of the time. And, worse, the ATMs don't like giving you information. The amounts listed when you try and withdraw are normally very small (500rand max), so you end up pushing 'other amount'. Here you can input how much you want, BUT no ATM that i came across would tell you it's maximum withdrawal limit. It would either say declined, and let you try and again, or spit out your card with a big failure sign. Neither of these helps the nerves of travelers, especially newly arrived ones who suddenly think their card has been canceled and they are up sh1t creek. I would not be surprised if the banks probably share profits with the phone companies for panic calls to overseas banks.

Normally, my cards work everywhere - I have never in my life been anywhere before where I have had any regular problem (unless the whole system was down, or in one case, the magnetic strip on my card died). In South Africa, I would say that 75% of my ATM transactions were unsuccessful for whatever reason, none of them due to lack of funds or card problems on my side.

For the record, I think the highest withdrawal allowed from a South African ATM is 3000 Rand (Nedbank and Standard), but i'm not sure. Some might be higher. Many are definitely lower, with a 2000 or 1500 limit – one hostel I stayed in had an ATM with only a 500limit - and some banks seem to vary depending on time, day, phase of the moon and location of the ATM. Most give you a stack of 100bills, but occasionally they will give you solely 200s, or, as in one transaction, only 50s which gives you a wad which then gets stuck in the machine unless you yank them hard and repeatedly.

Then there are scams. Robberies at ATMs used to be commonplace. Even now using ATMs only in major locations and shopping centres (and not ones which are often left unused for many minutes) is highly recommended, and stand alone ones should be avoided. Even this is no guarantee. There is an FNB (First National Bank) ATM – at the bank, not a stand alone - on Long Street. This is Cape Town's biggest tourist and going out street, yet if you put in your card - any card – it will give you money but also automatically withdraw everything else in your account and move it to an unknown location. Complain all you want, but you are unlikely to ever see your money again. Both the bank and the police have been told many times, but neither cares or wants to do anything about it in the slightest.

And then there is changing money. This is easy and painless in pretty much every other country in the world. Changing money from hard cash to local currency – assuming the rate is good - is always better value than using ATMs. Except in South Africa. To allegedly prevent money laundering, no bank/bureau will change money (or even tell you what you will receive) until after they have taken your passport, and filled out lots of boxes on a computer. It is only then, 10minutes later, that you discover that despite the rate in the window saying you will receive 11.45 Rand for a Euro, that you are actually getting something closer to 9.8. What?!!! you say in horror (if you actually realise, anyway)?

And here is the thing: You can spend - as i did one afternoon – several hours traipsing around town looking at all the different rates offered, before finding the best one and going in, and it doesn't matter one jot. Nobody - NOBODY - displays the rate that you receive. What they display are the banks/bureaus rates. On top of that there is a bank fee to change the money, and then a commission rate that they take, neither of which is mentioned anywhere at all, either that it exists or what the rate is. Nobody will even tell you their commission rate until after they have played with your passport and a computer for 10minutes, which means that everybody ends up wasting lots of time.

Even if you accept this and decide to change anyway, there are potential pitfalls. I always carry a chunk of foreign currency for emergencies, and on my last day as I was low on Rand, I decided that as a bit of a safety buffer I would change a bit. I didn't want to use an ATM again (due to the fees) and figured that changing a small note would workout better, even after the commission is included. So I went to change 20USD. The official rate from xe.com would get me 150Rand, whilst most advertised rates would give me roughly 140-142. I figured that with commission and fees, i would get maybe 125-130in cash. Not a great deal, but enough to tide me over.

Not so. The minimum commission charge that I found was a whopping 80 Rand (roughly 11USD): and in one place it was 135Rand. I could have changed 20USD and got 6 Rand back – SIX RAND!!!!! - which is less than 1USD. Luckily, I ended up changing with somebody in the hostel at the rate of 150, which both of us were very happy with.

It really is very sneaky, and should not be legal. But South Africa is, I have sadly realised, not somewhere you go for fairness or morality, and really, I should not be surprised that it's banking facilities and system are significantly more backward than those of Congo, Iraq or Afghanistan. You even got a better – and fairer - deal in Zimbabwe at the height of their financial collapse.

Basically, unless you are changing very large amounts of money (and in which case they would probably report you for suspected money laundering and not allow you change money anyway) it's just not worth it, and so to all travelers to South Africa, i would say DO NOT take cash to exchange: It is the only country in the world that is guaranteed to screw you over and give you less.

If you do need money and don't want to use a card, sell heroin. Or a kidney. It is cheaper, easier, safer. And you'll get a much better rate for less paperwork.

Posted by Gelli 03:53 Archived in South Africa Tagged round_the_world Comments (0)


I should write some stuff about the stunning North Drakensberg mountains. But I won't.

Cathedral Peak

Doreen Falls, near Cathedral Peak



Devils Hoek, in Northern Natal National Park


Posted by Gelli 20:48 Archived in South Africa Tagged round_the_world Comments (0)


Most of you have never seen it before, and you will almost certainly never see it again. It was not by choice at all, and I argued long and hard to prevent it, but In the end I had to give in. And I have been told that I have to show it here. So, to much incredulity and no doubt laughter, here is a picture of me wearing real trousers. And a shirt. And, stunningly, a tie. No shoes though. That would have been pushing it just a bit, especially as I had had to buy all the rest of the stuff.


The occasion was the happy wedding of Brendon and Michaela, neither of whom, naturally, I had ever met beforehand. I'm not always a big fan of weddings, partly because people seem to expect that you dress up, and partly because many of the ones I have been to have degenerated into fights, arrests or family feuds of one sort or another. And thus to go to a wedding in a foreign country having never met the bride or groom before just seemed wrong. But Michaela is one of Maaret's best friends (the wedding was the reason she had come back to Africa), I had been included on the invitation, and as I had to drive her there anyway, I figured I may as well make an effort to go.


Brendon is a kiwi and Michaela grew up in South Africa, though they have been living in London for years. The most striking thing to me was that there were actually more Kiwi's at the wedding than locals/South Africans, and also despite the fact that they are London based, Maaret was the only guest who had made the effort to come from Europe, which was a bit surprising to me.

Lots of Kiwis away from home pretty much means that booze supplies will be well taken care of, and indeed they were. The food was pretty good, the bride and her bridesmaids all stunning, and the whole event – excepting some very strange parts of the loooong sermon by the priest conducting the wedding, and his instance on producing Michaela's name wrong throughout the ceremony – was thoroughly enjoyable. Yes, I looked like i'd been done up like a kipper, and felt like a muppet, but that is neither here nor there. The weather – stunningly for us – held out brilliantly and everybody was happy, full, and drunk. If all weddings were like this, i'd be quite happy.

Posted by Gelli 13:45 Archived in South Africa Tagged round_the_world Comments (0)

Sani and Lesotho

Lesotho is the highest country in the world. By that, I mean that it's lowest point of altitude (EG: height above sea level) is higher than any other country in the world. It is a mostly wild, grassy country, home to nomadic herders and shepherds: Lesothans always do well in the world sheep-shearing tournaments. The population is a bit under 2million, though the majority are in the capital Maseru, and a few smaller towns in the North and West. It has mountains, but mostly the country is just hills and elevations (from the low point of the country): they are mountains only from down below, in South Africa.




I rarely get the opportunity, but any excuse to put in sheep photos is always happily accepted!

And because they are mountains from South Africa, entering Lesotho, especially from the East and South means winding up high mountain passes. For us, this meant the Sani Pass. The Sani Pass is the only border crossing between Lesotho and KwaZulu natal, the only border in the East of the country that can be passed by vehicles: A few other crossings are passable on foot, pony or horse. Even at the Sani Pass, it is 4x4 only.


It doesn't actually look so steep when taken this way!

The road is an old cattle track up the Drakensberg Escarpment which has been widened for vehicles: But wide it is not - A single rough, rocky road that winds its way upwards. The border posts are an hour apart (one at the top, the other the bottom), and the road is not for the faint hearted. Steep hairpin bends and sheer drops are the order of the day, as are marvelous views, and it was for this reason that I had wanted to see it.



Looking down the pass into South Africa from the pub at the top

We had wanted to go the previous day, but it hadn't been possible. Neither had a pony trek. But it worked out brilliantly, because it had been miserable as hell whereas we had the most glorious clear skies and views: For once our weather luck was changing.


There is not much more I can say: the trip up the pass was great, despite one landrover breaking down and needing to be replaced at the border, and the second one having difficulties halfway up meaning we had to push-start it. Not always ideal on a steep road with sheer drops. The scenery was brilliant.

Traditional transport in Lesotho

In Lesotho, we didn't do much: Watched some herders in the distance, marvel at the stark beauty of the place (no trees or bushes, just constant grassy rolling hills and gorse type flowers), look at the highest point in Africa south of Kilimanjaro, get a little look inside a traditional hut, watch some sheep being sheared (WooHoo!) and have a drink in Africa's highest pub.

This type of empty rolling scenery is, we were told, pretty much what 80% of the country looks like

It would transpire that on this trip at least, this would be my only visit to Lesotho. Short, and fleeting, but leaving me in the mood for more.

With Fred in the highest Pub in Africa, at 2874metres

Posted by Gelli 17:34 Archived in South Africa Tagged round_the_world Comments (0)

Of Myths and claims...The Highest in the world??? Bullsh*t

False advertising to con/hook in Backpackers and their [sometimes] hard-earned money.

Travelers across the world are frequently bombarded with information and marketing to do once in a lifetime activities. Some, such as shark cage diving, swimming with whales and the like are indeed special activities, and though often associated with a specific location (especially amongst backpacking/traveling circles) can normally be done in several locations across the globe. Shark cage diving, for example, is a big attraction in Cape Town, although it is not unique to the Cape.

Other attractions, however, though still exciting and worthy are more common place. But because they are common place, the operators try and find ways to sell their experience as more special or unique (more unique? meh...) than anybody else's. Hence you get a preponderance of people offering the biggest, largest, highest, longest, tallest, scariest or fastest: And that just refers to your beer tab in the average hostel bar.

Naturally, at least half of all these claims – and probably much more – are dubious, out of date, requiring several qualifications, or just plain wrong. Within a week, we saw two different places (Table Mountain in Cape Town, and one in Lesotho) advertising the worlds highest abseil. Or, take the bungee jump at Bloukrans Bridge, east of Knysna on the South coast, for example. It proudly claims to be the worlds highest bungee jump, and even has a large certificate from the Guinness Book of World records on one wall to prove it. But what does that mean?

Maaret doing what might – or might not - be the worlds highest abseil, off Table Mountain

A quick glance at the certificate reveals that the wording is 'commercial' bungee jump. And a date of issue is very conspicuous by it's absence. A (very) small amount of research later and you discover that Bloukrans is actually only the 3rd highest commercial bungee in the world (though it is the highest bridge), and soon to get much lower as higher jumps open, though you can bet that they will still claim to be the highest. The highest, as of November 2009 is the Macau tower, which at 223 metres is 17 metres higher. The second highest is the Verzasca Dam in Switzerland, the same dam jumped off by Pierece Brosnan in the opening of the Bond film GoldenEye. A jump off the Royal Gorge Bridge in Colorado is over 100metres higher still, although at present it is only open to commercial jumpers every couple of years and so does not allegedly really count. AJ Hackett, the pioneer of bungee jumping and still one of the major players, has plans to turn it into a fixed commercial jump soon. And then, of course there are special jumps off tall buildings, and from helicopters, airplanes and hot air balloons which are much, much higher but not commercial or fixed, and thus not listed.

I am in no way a bungee expert – I have no desire to ever do one: i enjoy going up things, and normally get little kick from going down – but traveling with Maaret, I have suddenly learned quite a bit about them. Maaret is a bungee enthusiast. The Bloukrans one was her first ever jump, and she has since done many more including 7 of the top 10 highest in the world; once went all the way to Switzerland for a weekend just to do a single jump, and generally knows quite allot about them. One continual bugbear of hers is the misadvertising involved: Many people have jumped off the bridge at Victoria Falls linking Zimbabwe and Zambia, and say they have done the 3rd highest in the world. They say that because Lonely Planet tells them that it is, and LP is always, of course, 100% correct and never, ever has any errors. And the operators are not going to correct people either, as they are a major overland travel route and on to a good thing. In point of fact, at only 111m, it barely features in the top 10 highest commercial jumps. That is not to say that it is not a good jump or a great experience and should not be done. Merely that the advertising and hype is horribly incorrect.

The other thing that I only discovered at Bloukrans, watching a couple of people jump and talking to Maaret (there is no doubt that however many higher ones there are, it is still an impressive bridge and an impressive jump) is how the height is measured. In my naivety, I had assumed that if a jump is 218metres high, then you would be jumping/free falling for 218metres. This is not so. 218metres is actually the distance from the platform to the ground and a messy death below. The actual distance of rope, and thus the jump, is much less. At Bloukrans, for example, it looked as though jumpers got barely halfway down, whilst at Victoria Falls they probably covered ¾ of the distance.

I admit that I was amazed by this discovery.

Bloukrans Bridge, home of a very high bungee jump, and the highest fixed commercial bridge bungee in the world

All these things are at best annoying. Sometimes ignorance is best, but in practical terms, it is basically false advertising (lying) as a way of making money from gullible tourists, and to my mind should not be allowed. Whether most people care is actually a moot point. If something says it is the worlds highest bungee jump, people are going to tell their friends that they have done it, regardless of whether it actually is or not.

But next time you are offered the chance to do the 'biggest', 'highest', 'longest', 'largest', 'fastest' or any other superlative of pretty much anything, and decide to do it solely for that reason, stop for a moment, do a bit of research and take the claim with a pinch of salt.

And at the end of the day, whether it is the highest or not, the chances are you will enjoy it (and/or be scared sh1tless by it) anyway.

Posted by Gelli 15:06 Archived in South Africa Tagged round_the_world Comments (0)

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