10 Travel Essentials When Volunteering in South Africa

Top Articles on Studying Abroad from Students and Experts

story by Trixie Cordova

The backwardness of stereotypes is a hard habit to break and Africa knows all about it. The African continent, a melting pot of diverse people, cultures, and heritages, is struggling to go against the dramatic media portrayals. But the truth remains that all of Africa is a beautiful place and it is hard not to fall in love with it.

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South Africa is a bucket list favorite for any traveler. Travelers looking for cutting-edge adventure surely do not want to miss an opportunity to go on a safari getaway and indulge in world-famous cuisine. Cape Town, the country’s capital, has been consistently listed among the world’s top 10 cities. If you want a real nature trip, waking up on the beach or in the wild, South Africa is really the place to be.

Leading the fight of defying stereotypes are volunteers who call South Africa their temporary home. They come home with pictures and stories and show the world just how fascinating the country is. Volunteering in South Africa is truly a great way to learn, grow, and give back. If you are thinking of joining volunteer programs abroad, think of South Africa, its people, and its history. Volunteers who have been there guarantee that once you experience the country, you will never think of the world and see the world the same way again.

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There is a volunteer program for everyone, no matter the skills, age or interest. There are endless opportunities for you to learn from the community and experts.Are you pumped yet? Let’s get that momentum going with the list of travel essentials for volunteering in South Africa.

Travel documents


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“Don’t forget your passport,” almost seems like a reminder from a nagging parent. Call it whatever you want but we will say it again: Don’t forget your passport. Whenever you travel abroad, it is best to make at least two copies of your important travel documents, such as passport, visas, hotel reservations, plane tickets, government IDs, itinerary, and emergency contacts. Pack the original copies in one bag, leave another copy in your hotel room, and leave copies at home too. It is also best to memorize important information such as your passport and credit card numbers.

Weather-appropriate clothing


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South Africa generally has moderate climate, and Cape Town specifically is situated both along the beach and in the shadow of looming mountains. If you are volunteering in the summer, cotton shirts and lightweight clothes will make you comfortable. If you are planning to visit during winter months, pack a jacket, hoodie, or even a fleece as it could get chilly in the morning and at night. A versatile wrap when you go around the country is also recommended. Remember that South Africans do not generally use central heating, which may shock visitors like you. Summer or winter, don’t forget to pack good walking shoes.

Skin protection

Contrary to stereotypes, South Africa is safe, probably even safer than our own neighborhoods. There is no use obsessing over fears such as being held at gunpoint, being caught in the middle of a war or catching a rare disease. Of course, anyone who intends to volunteer abroad need to do his research and be aware. Working with a reputable organization would greatly help you prepare. But on the onset, it is enough to bring travel essentials such as sunblock, some regular meds for travel, and protective eyewear and headgear that guard against UV rays. Getting anti-malaria shots may be recommended, though you should confirm through the CDC or with your volunteer program providers if they are even necessary where you’ll be spending most of your time.. If you are on special medication, make sure to take a certificate with you in case airport authorities inquire about them.

Communication devices


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Yes, they have cell signal there. Bring your mobile phones (locally referred to as cellphones) to help you keep in touch with your family back home and with community leaders you work with. South Africa’s GSM network is really neat and sophisticated and most types of phones will work. You can buy SIM cards at airports, supermarkets, and other commercial establishments. If you’d like, consider download free apps such as Skype or WhatsApp to stay in touch with friends and family back home at no extra cost.

Travel insurance

Again, this may be boring stuff for adventure-seekers but it is completely necessary. Have a copy of your travel insurance with you unless you want to risk medical emergencies ruin your trip. Get covered before you enroll in volunteer programs abroad to ensure a hassle-free time volunteering.

Personal hygiene


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Wet wipes, tissue, and toothbrush would always come in handy, but keep in mind that there are many traditionally western goods available for you to purchase in case you forget to pack things like toothpaste or deodrate.  All you need is something to keep you feeling comfortable, clean, and fresh. Just be mindful of any prescriptions you might need refills for during your time there.


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Photo courtesy of Joel Mann via Flickr

Before you panic, there are ATMs in South Africa. Credit cards are also accepted in commercial establishments. But cash is always a travel essential wherever you go. Should you want ice cream from a store in the community or soda from a vending machine, you’ll need cash. No need to bring a stash of money when you volunteer, just enough to get you through the day.

Reusable water bottle


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Bring a reusable water bottle with you when you travel abroad. You have no idea how much you’ll save. Volunteering in South Africa means being hands-on and really immersing yourself in the community. Water will help you preserve energy, and you will surely need a lot of that. Plus, you will do the environment a favor.

A journal of memories

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Forgive the cheesiness, but documenting your volunteer work is something that you would definitely want to do. Write about the people you meet and the work you do. You owe it to yourself to record this incredible journey. It would be nice to read about your experience years from now and see how things have changed.

Pack a camera


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You should never leave South Africa without a few photographs. The country is fascinating, and the memories you make there are surely ones that you would want to remember. Take photos with the people in the community where you volunteered and always carry the privilege of knowing them with you.

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If you ever forget anything, you can definitely get it there. Just pack these travel essentials and you’re good to go. Do not obsess about the things you will bring on the trip. Focus on the things that you will bring home with you—memories, lessons, experiences, and adventures.

Trixie Cordova


Trixie is the Student Outreach Coordinator at Diversity Abroad. She studied abroad in Italy as an undergraduate at UC Berkeley, then went on to be an Assistant Language Teacher on the Japan Exchange and Teaching (JET) Program for 2 years. She has her MA in International Education from Teachers College, Columbia University.

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