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Date: 15 June, 2004

South Africa

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'I simply have to have a guidebook, whether begged, borrowed or bought to ensure I know as much as I can about the brave new world I am about to visit.'

As a regular visitor to South Africa, Charlotte Haines Lyon knows the country well. But how good are the travel guides to the country?

If you're like me, then the build up to your holiday is almost as exciting as the experience itself. Visiting new places and meeting different people, not to mention sounding like an expert on the said country to my husband, is sheer joy.

To enable all this to happen, I simply have to have a guidebook, whether begged, borrowed or bought to ensure I know as much as I can about the brave new world I am about to visit. And no it doesn't matter if it is Scarborough or Paris I still want to know everything!

The world of travel guides is nearly as vast as that of actual travelling so Surefish thought it might be helpful to look at some of the less well-known guides and compare them to one of the favourites; the Rough Guide. Using South Africa as a sample destination, the reviews should help you choose the best guide for your needs.

Bradt Budget Travel Guide Click to buy

Bradt provide a succinct history of the country before explaining the key holidays and events that might attract you at particular times of the year.

You are then helpfully introduced to the types of holiday most common in that country. The South Africa guide includes wildlife, beaches and adventure for example.

Unusually it also includes a section called "Giving Something Back", explaining how you can best holiday in South Africa at the same time as benefiting local communities and the environment.

Rather than suggesting expensive tours, as the title implies various budget itineraries are recommended. This is really helpful if you are a first timer to a country as vast as South Africa.

Good cheap accommodation is suggested - mainly backpackers' hostels in this case, whilst most of the book is devoted to decent information on places, sights and museums.

There are excellent safety tips including a page on climbing Table Mountain. Notably it also explains the difference between taxis that you might order from your hotel and the minibus type, which are overcrowded and subject to severe accidents on a far too regular basis.

It doesn't cover every nook and cranny and nor does it provide glorious pictures but what it does it does well.

Insight Guides Click to buy

Insight provides beautifully illustrated guides that give you generous background information on your destination.

Almost half the book is dedicated to information on the country's history, key people and main features of the culture such as sports, food and arts.

This particular guide on South Africa has superb pictures and narration evoking the nervousness and excitement during the build up to the first elections after Apartheid.

It also gives a fair and balanced view of the new South Africa, including it's successes and long term problems.

In addition this section includes a decent explanation of the flora, fauna and conservation issues for the country.

What I particularly like is how it doesn't simply focus on the biggies but also pays attention to the myriad wee beasties belonging to the nation.

The second half of the book provides a good overview of the must sees, alongside the lesser-known sights. The accommodation section is compact and focuses on the big chains, rather than backpackers' lodges and hostels.

The travel tips are useful in that they provide advice on where the best shopping is, or what events are occurring during your visit and suit the package traveller well.

Having sat there gazing at the stunning half and full-page photos of Table Mountain and other such places I have visited, I have to say this makes this a gorgeous souvenir guide.

DK Eyewitness Travel GuidesClick to buy

If you have children then why not give them an Eyewitness Guide and let them take charge.

In the inimitable style of Dorling Kindersley we are treated to full a colour, easy to follow guide to our destination.

There are no long pages of text, but plenty of short snappy paragraphs and pictures explaining the world in front of you.

This approach is use throughout whether to highlight the different cultures of the country, recommend a good museum or familiarise you with the currency. It makes it very easy to spot where you are.

Particularly useful in this guide is the climate map, clearly depicting the differences in temperature of the different regions.

It would have been nice to have this on my first trip to South Africa - I would have known to take shorts for my few days in balmy Zululand despite the fact I was visiting during winter.

The travel tips section at the back is excellent - it even explains the complicated parking meters and the different types of phone boxes.

Most importantly for South Africa, it warns you that you must carry your licence with you whenever driving - a fact that often catches out tourists at roadblocks.

A superb catch all book that will be great for kids to tick off as they go along.

The Rough Guide Click to buy

The Rough Guide looked after me as I travelled alone around South Africa this year.

It always came up trumps with recommendations for cheap accommodation, good food and something different wherever I happened to be.

Consequently I met a host of people that I may have otherwise missed.

Rough Guides tend to assume you want a bit more than a beach holiday and point you to new experiences wherever you go. This can be rather exhausting for those in search of a quiet life.

Its 24 things not to miss, whilst including the ubiquitous Table Mountain, highlights rafting, pony trekking in Lesotho, Robben Island and Whale watching to name but a few. Alongside these pictorial suggestions are photos of some of the animals you might see.

Whilst there is a good context section at the back, the general travel guide always explains the politics and history behind the various places.

Often there will be separate text boxes to highlight important facts.

It also seems to have an inverted snobbery against chains and big brands, often recommending smaller more interesting accommodation or tours.

When looking for township tours, I wanted to avoid the zoo visit mentality. I was pleased to discover that the Rough Guide recommend tours, which interact with and benefit the community. culture index