We decided to spontaneously travel to South Africa this January to get out of the Berlin grey. Instead of having my normal leisurely time to prep for travelling with allergies I did it in two weeks, here’s how it went.
This was my second time to South Africa, the difference being the last time I travelled with my grandparents. My dad was born in South Africa. So my first trip was mainly meeting one set of family members after another. Everyone we visited knew about my allergies and were ready for me. (Note they are all Chinese,because of my soy & sesame allergies, it took a little work but was less stressful to cook than going out)
This time around I was travelling with my husband, and we were going to be visiting a couple of cities. We decided to stay in a mix of hotels, serviced apartment, Airbnb, and with family.
General Awareness of Allergies in South Africa
Some of the research I did for travelling to South Africa with food allergies was to contact the Allergy Foundation South Africa, I contacted them about labelling and general awareness. They let me know that the allergens labelled in SA are milk, egg, wheat, soy, fish, peanuts, tree nuts, shellfish, and sulphites, however no sesame. They also said, “awareness is pretty low, especially at restaurants and stores with deli counters”.
Hearing that awareness was low sounded some panic alarms, but if there is a will, there is a way. Which meant we looked for accommodations with kitchens just in case. I also contacted a bunch of places beforehand to feel them out on their allergy awareness.
So how was travelling to South Africa with food allergies?
Honestly, it was a little hit and miss, each city we visited had some great places, but I also quite got quite a few rejections. This made me consider if the wording on my allergy card is too harsh, but after a lot of thought, I think it is perfect because it weans out the kitchens that could be problematic.
I am sharing my eating experiences in South Africa by city, as this is the best way to showcase how awareness varies from place to place.
Stellenbosch with Food Allergies
We decided to stay at a bed and breakfast the first two nights outside of Stellenbosch. I was in contact with them beforehand and only booked once I was confident they would be able to cater to me. The hotel did a great job of serving up a safe breakfast every morning, which was a perfect way to start the day!
I was able to go out for dinner both nights without a problem. The first night we explored the city of Stellenbosch, and after being refused the first time, we found a safe restaurant/bar. The reason I was refused at the first restaurant was actually that the manager is celiac and knew that the kitchen staff would not understand the seriousness of cross-contact. Disappointing yes, but very much appreciated. Where I could eat, the manager actually cooked for me because he had an ex-girlfriend who had allergies, so he got it. He also insisted on preparing my meal for the very same reason I was given a ‘no’ at the first place.
The conclusion after the first night of eating in South Africa with food allergies was that the kitchen staff don’t have a good awareness of allergies and won’t be careful about cross-contact. Make sure to talk to the manager – don’t rely on the waiter.
The second night we ate at a vineyard that had a hotel attached, which is also more comfortable because the staff have a higher level of training. They were able to make something off menu for me, and I got to enjoy a glass of wine with a view! (first picture)
Port Elizabeth with Food Allergies
Our second stop was my dad’s hometown Port Elizabeth, where we stayed with family. Port Elizabeth was the most difficulty city when looking for a safe place to eat. Many restaurants said no, honestly they had never catered to such allergies, and were too nervous about doing so and about ensuring it would definitely be safe.
I only ate out once and felt a little defeated at so many rejections, so I was more comfortable cooking for myself. But the tides changed when we got to Cape Town!
Cape Town with Food Allergies
Cape Town was a whole different story! I ate really well and felt many places were open to accommodating allergies. After my Port Elizabeth experience, I contacted a lot more restaurants ahead of time to avoid any letdown. Cape Town is much more touristy than Port Elizabeth, which I think contributes to the greater awareness of allergies.
Takeaways for travelling to South Africa with food allergies
• Find accommodations with a kitchen – having the thought that I could prepare a safe meal took off a lot of pressure.
• Pack lots of snacks and always have them on you. Even if a restaurant says yes initially, they may change their mind when you arrive (this happened to me – what was communicated in an email was not the same at the restaurant).
• If you are going on a safari or day trip make sure to pack your own food. Hospitals are not close, and roads are not great, so getting to a hospital will take long.
• If you eat out make sure to contact the restaurant ahead of time, ask for the manager and order with them, bring an allergy card that clearly explains cross-contact and your needs.
• Shop at a major chain and buy big brands. I learnt that South Africa can be a sketchy place and that people don’t trust much, labels included. I shopped at major grocery stores and bought from major brands.
Kortney is your typical atopic triad! She manages asthma, eczema, environmental and food allergies. Kortney is a co-creator of the online community Allergy Travels and co-host of The Itch Podcast. She wants to spread joy in a community that can easily see the hard side of life with atopic disease and believes that you can have a full life with food allergies, it may just be lived a little differently!