Advice For Backpackers Visiting South Africa
We're guessing that if you're reading this, you're probably between 18 and 24 years old and are planning a 2-4 week tour of South Africa, perhaps as part of a Gap Year. This advice is designed to help you get the most out of your trip. If you're older than that and are looking for a low-budget way to see as much of South Africa as possible (and have fun while doing it), don't worry, this advice will suit you too!
South Africa has a fairly well-organised network of around 200 backpackers lodges. The industry was established in the heady days of post-apartheid South Africa, when the country emerged from decades of isolation and suddenly became THE place that everyone wanted to travel to. Most of the hostels were opened by young South Africans who'd traveled abroad, with little or no experience in business and even less startup capital, but the industry has managed to muddle its way through to some sort of standard of professionalism.
Almost 25 years later, South Africa retains much of its allure as a backpackers' destination. The accent (as with youth travel destinations around the world) is on fun, with a wide variety of tours and activities, and an even wider variety of landscapes in which to do them. It's a fairly developed country in many ways, and can be seen as a place that's in-between the sophistication of Europe and less developed places in Asia. As such, it's not as cheap a destination as Thailand, which will cost you around US$30-35 per day, but is still fairly inexpensive at around US$40-50 per day, compared to a daily budget of US$70-100 for backpacking around Western Europe. This includes transport and tours, but the daily budget also depends on the local currency's (the Rand) exchange rate at the time (and on how much you party!).
Where To Go
South Africa is a big country, 5 times the size of the UK, 3 times the area of Germany and 1.75 times the size of Texas. There is a lot to see and a lot to do - this is a country with a lot of mindboggling contrasts.
The normal route that backpackers take is to start off in either Johnannesburg or Cape Town, and travel in a wide semi-circle between the two cities, following the coast and with side excursions to specific areas of interest such as the Kruger National Park, Zululand and the West Coast. The distance from Johannesburg to Cape Town along this route is just over 2200km (1375mi).
The main routes followed by backpackers.
What to bring
After many years of traveling and having gone through many different types of bag, including 120-litre, 75-litre and 35-litre backpacks (as well as various sizes of duffel-type expedition bags), we are now of the opinion that the best solution is to get yourself a 30-litre daypack and a foldup 60-litre overflow bag that can be stuffed into your pack when not in use, without taking up much space. Bear in mind that you will not be doing any actual overnight hiking - you will seldom have to walk more than a few hundred metres carrying your bag. Still, it's best to keep things as light and hassle-free as possible. If you're traveling by mainline bus, it's good to be able to take all your main possessions into the cabin with you, with everything else going into the bus's luggage compartment in an overflow bag. If you're planning on traveling by taxi, you need a smaller bag that you can perch on your lap, because taxis are almost always full. If you're traveling by car or Baz Bus, size doesn't matter.
You'll need a good camera. Currency converter and language translation apps (particularly for Zulu, Xhosa, Sesotho and Afrikaans) are very useful. Info about using mobile phones in South Africa can be found here.
You need a safe place to store your passport, cash and cards. A neck pouch is more accessible than a money belt - no having to undo your trousers in public if you suddenly need to get your credit card out! It's also a good place to keep a pen, something you should always have on you. Sea To Summit makes an ideal neck wallet.
Taking a water bottle along will save you some money on bottled water and soft drinks. Water from South African taps is generally safe to drink. If you're traveling further through Africa and want to bring a water filter along, we recommend the Sawyer Mini - small, effective and inexpensive.
Your smartphone will probably have a flashlight, but the battery may not last that long. A small headlamp is a useful thing to have when stumbling back to your room or campsite after a night of partying. Petzl is the most popular brand.
You'll be glad you've got a poncho if you get caught in a downpour - it'll keep both you and your backpack dry.
A cotton kikoi, or sarong, is better than a towel because it'll dry much quicker, takes up less space and can also be worn as a piece of clothing. The best ones are the original kikois from Kenya - strong enough to hold a baby.
International plug adapter
South Africa runs on 230 volts, 50 Hz; with 5 amp round 2-prong and 15 amp round 3-prong plugs and sockets. As well as an adapter, if you're coming from the USA, you'll need to bring a transformer too.
Swiss Army knife
Many of the backpackers hostels you visit will have atrocious kitchen equipment, so it's a good idea to have a small knife with a sharp blade, a can opener and perhaps a corkscrew. If you get one with scissors, it'll save you having to carry nail scissors which will poke a hole in your bag. If you're worried about carrying such an item through customs checks, you can buy one locally. Cape Union Mart is a camping gear retailer with outlets in many towns and cities.
First Aid kit
It's a good idea to bring along a small first aid kit containing painkillers, plasters, eyedrops, anti-diarrhea pills, sunscreen and mosquito repellent.
South Africa has a high crime rate. While crimes are generally perpetrated on South Africans and not tourists, we nevertheless suggest taking an extra precaution by getting a small can of pepper spray when you arrive in South Africa. It'll be inoffensive and invisible - you can keep it in your pocket - but who knows, it might come in handy.
All the normal stuff, plus don't forget to get a soap box.
Up to you, but we suggest a warm, stowable jacket, 2 pairs of jeans, 2 pairs of shorts, 4 tee-shirts, tracksuit pants, underwear, a pair of hiking boots / walking shoes with 2 pairs of socks, and a pair of flip-flops.
Tent, sleeping bag and inflatable sleeping mat
Many backpackers offer camping space for 2-man tents. The rates are much cheaper, but it's not really that economical because decent tents and sleeping bags are so expensive to buy. The smaller and lighter the tent, the more expensive it is. The main advantage of taking a tent along is that there may be nothing but camping space available at popular backpackers, especially during peak holiday season; also you might prefer the privacy of a tent to staying in a dorm. If you're not going to take a tent, don't bother with taking a sleeping bag - most backpackers don't like guests using them because there have been cases of begbugs being spread from one hostel to the next in sleeping bags.
There are 4 options as regards long-distance transport:
Hiring a car
The pros are obvious - you have more freedom and see more of the country; as are the cons - it's the most expensive option. If you do hire a car, drive defensively and be especially vigilant as South Africans tend to drive aggressively. Avoid driving at night, as drunk driving laws are not well-enforced in South Africa and any time after 8pm, there are likely to be drunk drivers on the roads. Driving advice for tourists, including info on license requirements, can be found on the Arrive Alive website. If you want to share car rental costs with other backpackers, try Rideshare Africa.
Here are some of the car hire companies:
The pros are that in terms of road safety, this is the safest option as accidents involving these big coaches happen very rarely, and that these bus services are relatively inexpensive. It is also also generally the most comfortable way to travel - these are luxury coaches with plenty of room, movies etc. The cons are that arrival and departure times are often inconvenient - you may find yourself arriving in Cape Town at 2 o'clock in the morning or departing Johannesburg at 7am. The drop-off points may also be inconvenient - although they're generally at relatively safe locations such as train stations - and you may have to catch a metered taxi to your hostel, or phone for a pickup or walk. Recommended lines are Greyhound and Translux, as well as City To City - the least expensive (although also the least comfortable) option. Avoid Intercape unless you don't mind having charismatic Christian music and movies forced upon you. Bus tickets can be booked at www.busticket.co.za.
The Baz Bus.
This is a hop-on, hop-off bus service catering especially to backpackers, which uses 12-seater minibuses / passenger vans. You buy a ticket from, for example, Johannesburg to Cape Town and can jump off at any hostel in between and jump on the bus again when you want to go to your next destination. The pros are that it's relatively safe and it's very convenient - they'll pick you up and drop you off at many hostels' doorsteps, so you won't find yourself stranded in some strange and perhaps dangerous place. The cons are that it's fairly expensive and will only take you along the beaten track, because it follows only the most popular backpacking route - the route that is economically viable for the company. For more info, visit the Baz Bus website.
These are 16-seat minibus passenger vans, and are the main means of transport for the majority of South Africans. The pros of traveling by taxi are that you'll experience an authentic slice of South African life, and that they are the least expensive way of getting around. The cons are that taxi drivers have a well-earned reputation for reckless driving, and that taxi ranks are often in dangerous areas. So be warned. Another con is that taxis do not operate to a schedule: you have to wait until the taxi fills up before it leaves for its destination, which can take hours and sometimes the whole day. That being said, we've backpacked all over Africa in taxis for the last 15 years and have never been involved in an accident, and have experienced only one case of attempted robbery - although that was in Hillbrow, the most dangerous part of Johannesburg. For the most part what you will find is a lot of friendliness and sociability - people will be curious about you and where you come from. They'll engage you in conversation and you'll soon be laughing away like the oldest of friends. They'll be helpful. If this is what you want to experience, then try it. You'll soon learn to close your eyes whenever the driver overtakes on a solid white line, and you'll arrive at your destination with more money in your pocket than if you'd used any other form of transport.
Other important info
Other Useful Maps
Cape Town: - Things to see & do
The KwaZulu-Natal Midlands: - Things to see & do
The Wild Coast - Things to see, places to stay, directions
The Garden Route - Things to see & do
Swaziland - Things to see & do
A Backpacking Itinerary
This is a recommended itinerary for a 30-day tour of South Africa. The idea is to get as complete a view of the country as possible in a relatively short time, having as much fun as possible while doing it, and spending not too much money. The activities suggested are based on what most people like to do, and the hostel recommendations are based either on places we've stayed at or other backpackers that have a good reputation. The total distance of this route is just over 4000km (around 2500 miles). About 8 days are spent traveling, and 22 days staying at backpackers and doing things.
Day 1: Arrival in Johannesburg
A big, sprawling city, terrifying to most, Johannesburg is the most usual point of entry into the country. We recommend not spending too much time there. There are several backpackers fairly close to OR Tambo International airport - we suggest staying at one of these rather than in the northern parts of the city when you arrive. Terrilyn Backpackers has the best reputation. You'll be tired from your flight and will be experiencing culture shock, so we suggest you stay in the hostel, get your bearings, meet fellow-backpackers and have a bit of a party.
Day 2: Bicycle Tour of Soweto
Soweto is an enormous township to the south of central Johannesburg, which was once a hotbed of anti-apartheid activity. Lebo's Soweto Backpackers runs bicycle tours through this historic township. We suggest staying the night at Lebo's before continuing your journey the next day - they have fantastic TripAdvisor reviews.
Day 3: Travel to the Drakensberg
This is about a 3 hour journey. The main attraction of the Drakensberg is the Sentinel Peak hike to the top of Tugela Falls. We recommend staying at Karma Backpackers in Kestell because it is the closest backpackers to the start of the hike, it has a good reputation for hospitality and not being too pushy in selling tours, and it's close to the added attractions of the Golden Gate Highlands National Park and the town of Clarens.
Day 4: Hike to the top of Tugela Falls
At 950 metres, this is Africa's highest waterfall and the second-highest in the world, although there's some dispute as to whether Angel Falls in Venezuela is actually higher, making this a must-do on your tour (weather permitting - sometimes the mountain is shrouded in mist). It's a 6-kilometre walk to the top, round the back of the escarpment known as the Amphitheatre, with a rather terrifying (or thrilling, if you prefer) climb up a series of iron chain ladders near the end. The views from the top are breathtaking. If the weather makes the hike undoable, we suggest doing a quick day trip to the mountain kingdom of Lesotho, taking in a slice of rural African life, or wandering around the town of Clarens, a playground for South African tourists.
Day 5: Hike Golden Gate, Travel to the Midlands
Take a quick 1-hour hike through wonderfully scenic rock formations at Golden Gate Highlands National Park before continuing your trip to Bumpkins Backpackers in the KwaZulu-Natal Midlands, a 2-3 hour drive.
Day 6: Explore the Midlands Meander
The Midlands Meander started out as an arts and crafts route in the 1980's, and has since grown into one of South Africa's tourist playgrounds. You could spend a week here and still not see and do everything, but for this tour we recommend a day's drive around the Meander. Included is a visit to the Mandela Capture Site Museum, with its iconic sculpture. Sample localy-produced beers and wines, visit art and pottery studios, have a beer at a shebeen in one of the local townships, see San rock paintings in the foothills of the Drakensberg, take part in a horse-whispering experience and picnic at Midmar Dam before heading back to the backpackers for a well-deserved party.
Day 7: Umgeni Valley Nature Reserve
Umgeni Valley Nature Reserve is a 900 ha private reserve and educational centre run by the Wildlife and Environment Society of South Africa (WESSA). It contains species of less-dangerous African wildlife such as zebra, giraffe, wildebeest and nyala, as well as many species of birds, and as such you can walk around in it without being eaten by a lion or trampled by an elephant - a rare experience in South African game parks. The 2-hour hike down into the Umgeni Valley wIll give you a real "out of Africa" feeling as you walk about amongst the game through typical African bush and grassland dotted with huge rocks, some of which you can climb by ladder.
Day 8: Karkloof Canopy Tour
Take a 2-hour treetop canopy tour on a series of zip lines around the Karkloof Nature Reserve, Southern Africa's second-biggest expanse of indigenous African forest.
Day 9: Travel to Durban
Say goodbye to the Midlands and take an hour-and-a-half drive down to Durban. This is a large city, South Africa's most important port, with a spectacular beachfront called the Golden Mile and Ushaka Marine World (a marine theme park) which you can spend the afternoon exploring. If you want to go to the beach and swim in the sea in South Africa, Durban is the best place to do it. The ocean is warm (in Cape Town it's freezing), the beachfront is great and there are shark nets. We recommend staying at Tekweni Backpackers, a party spot in Florida Road, known for its restaurants, pubs and clubs. If you'd rather avoid staying in the city, we recommend either Monkey Bay Backpackers, situated in Ballito, 30km north of the city, or Mantis and Moon Backpackers, an hour-and-a-half or so south of Durban - super-cool people at both places.
Day 10: Travel to the Wild Coast
Travel down the South Coast while recovering from your hangover, on your way to the exciting Wild Coast. We recommend going to Coffee Bay and staying at Sugarloaf Backpackers, another backpackers with an excellent reputation. It'll take you most of the day to get there - get ready for some laid-back partying in the wilds of Africa when you do.
Day 11: Learn to surf and experience traditional African culture
Coffee Bay is a surfer's hangout and a great place to have a short surf lesson - enough to get you standing up on a board in the shore breakers. It's also situated in the Transkei, a deeply rural and isolated area where the people follow perhaps the most intact traditional African way of life in the country.
Day 12: Walk to Hole In The Wall
Take a 7km hike along the coast to Hole In The Wall, one of the Wild Coast's most iconic natural features. Take in the Wild Coast's stunning cliff-lined landscape and experience what life is like in rural Afica along the way.
Day 13: Travel to Port Elizabeth
Set out for your next stop, Addo Elephant Park near Port Elizabeth. It's a 500km journey which will take half a day. We suggest booking into Orange Elephant Backpackers on the outskirts of the park.
Day 14: Addo Elephant Park
Addo Elephant Park is the third-largest game park in South Africa, with the most diverse range of species, and is probably more productive in terms of the game you will see than any other park in South Africa. It contains the Big 5 (so named because they are the most dangerous species to hunt) - Lion, Elephant, Leopard, Cape Buffalo and White Rhino - as well as a wide variety of birds, insects and plant species. Marine safari experiences, including whale-watching, are also on offer.
Day 15: Travel to Storms River
Make your way to Storms River, a distance of 200km, to begin your experience of the Garden Route. There are a number of backpackers to choose from, including the top-rated Dijembe Backpackers and Tube 'n Axe Backpackers.
Day 16: Garden Route activities
Aside from its beautiful indigenous forests, the Garden route has adventure activities aplenty, the most famous being the bungy jump from Bloukrans Bridge. This is the world's highest bungy jump at 216 m. You can also choose river tubing and horse riding, or a canopy tour if you missed the one in the KwaZulu-Natal Midlands.
Day 17: Travel to Knysna
Knysna is 100km from Storms River and is the biggest town on the Garden Route - a favourite among tourists and a great place to visit. It's situated on the banks of a huge lagoon, and apart from the many adventure activities you can do there, it has a vibrant pub and restaurant scene as well as lots of shopping. We recommend that you stay at Island Vibe Backpackers, a fun hostel centrally located and with a good reputation.
Day 18: Activities in Knysna
There are many things to do in Knysna, from strolling around town and cruising on the lagoon to adventure activities such as sky diving, kloofing and abseiling. We recommend whale watching - an ocean safari in one of SA's marine wonderlands.
Day 19: Travel to Cape Town
Cape Town, the place everyone wants to be! It's about a 500km journey from Knysna, which will take up most of your day. Coming over Sir Lowry's Pass and seeing the Cape Town area spread out before you, with Table Mountain in the distance, is like having a fleeting glimpse of another planet. We suggest Cape Town as your longest stop-over on your tour, and we recommend staying in Long Street while you're there. It's the most vibey area of Cape Town, full of pubs, clubs and restaurants. There are lots of backpackers in Long Street, including Cat and Moose, Carnival Court and Long Street Backpackers. It's kind of rowdy though, with parties going on until all hours of the morning - if you prefer a slightly quieter area, try The Backpack or Backpackers In Greenpoint.
Day 20: Explore Cape Town
Get your bearings in this mindboggling city, totally unlike the rest of South Africa. We suggest spending your first full day here strolling around Long Street and visiting the V&A Waterfront, just looking around and eating at a few restaurants to get an idea of what the city's all about, and meeting other backpackers back at the hostel to swop travel stories and have a party.
Day 21: Cable Car to the top of Table Mountain
A must-do on your visit. Get a great view of the city from the top of Table Mountain.
Day 22: Wine Tour
The Cape is famous for its wines, and while you're there we suggest doing a tipsy wine tour of the regions vineyards.
Day 23: Great White Shark Cage Diving
Another day in Cape Town, and if you're adventurous we suggest cage diving in Gansbaai.
Day 24: Chilling in Cape Town
Your last day in Cape Town, and we suggest another must-do, a tour out to Robben Island, the scene of Nelson Mandela's incarceration during the apartheid years.
Day 25: Overnight bus to Johannesburg
Bye-bye Cape Town. Time for a long, long bus trip back to Johannesburg, a distance of 1,400km through the Karoo (a semi-desert region of South Africa and the Free State Province. Tickets can be booked at busticket.co.za.
Day 26: Chilling in Joburg
This time, we suggest that you stay in the Maboneng Precinct, a tourism area near the centre of Johannesburg. Curiocity Backpackers has an excellent reputation. You'll be tired from your bus journey, but If you're feeling up to a tour we suggest a trip to The Cradle Of Humankind, a World Heritage Site north of the city.
Day 27: Travel to Kruger
For the last leg of your tour, we suggest you visit the famous Kruger National Park. It's a distance of about 450km from Johannesburg, traveling there will take up half your day. Suggested places to stay are Kruger Inn Backpackers, Funky Monkey Backpackers and Kruger View Backpackers.
Day 28: Tour of Kruger
The Kruger National Park is one of Africa's biggest game parks, roughly the size of Israel, Wales or the US state of New Jersey. It was founded in the early 20th Century in an effort to preserve the wildlife of the region, which had been decimated by hunting. Today it is home to many African species, including the Big 5 (African elephant, rhino, Cape Buffalo, leopard and lion), cheetah, giraffe, hippo and many species of antelope, birds and insects. We suggest spending the day exploring the park - the backpackers you stay at will run tours.
Day 29: Travel to Johannesburg
Back to Jozi for a final party. We suggest staying at one of the backpackers near the airport again.
Day 30: Depart SA
Au revoir South Africa - off to your next destination! We hope you enjoyed your Great South African road trip!