South Africa is a travel destination that doesn’t let itself be pigeonholed easily. It’s a vast country with widely varying landscapes and an equally diverse culture.
The variety can well nearly give you a whiplash: one moment you’re casually sipping fine wines at the vineyards of Stellenbosch, the next moment you’re in a jeep hot on the trail of some wild lions.
Adventure travellers will surely love hiking through the epic Drakensberg mountains, seeing the Big Five of African wildlife, or spotting big marine animals including sharks and whales — but let’s not forget South Africa’s beach- and surf life, its wine country, as well as bustling cities and towns that can be decidedly Western or African in character.
With seasons opposite to Europe or North America, it makes for a great winter destination. And with an excellent network of backpacker hostels as well as affordable (for a developed country) hotels and guesthouses, it represents good value for budget travellers looking for high standards but without the higher costs of Australia, Europe, Japan or the USA.
5 quick tips for traveling South Africa
If you’re planning to travel in South Africa, I have a couple of high-level tips for you to start with:
- Go to the wild coast. Seriously… go to the wild coast! (This was my favorite region — it’s very beautiful and rustic.)
- Public transportation is very lacking, which is why most travelers either self-drive or take the Baz Bus, a hop-on hop-off backpacker bus service. This bus does have some frustrating limitations though. I strongly recommend renting a car if you can.
- You can do a point-to-point route without any backtracking by flying in to Cape Town and flying out of Johannesburg (or the other way around). I booked this via the same airline. It cost the same as a normal return, while avoiding the need for an extra internal flight.
- Due to the weak South African rand, basic expenses (things like lodging, food, drinks, etc.) will be very cheap if you’re coming from a strong currency. But keep in mind that activities and adventure sports are often priced at European or North American levels.
- South Africa can feel completely European or completely African depending on where you go. I didn’t expect the differences to be so big! I often liked the more ‘African’ parts a lot. More on this later.
Places to go (at a glance)
I’ll focus here on the typical South Africa tourist trail running more or less along the coast between Cape Town and Johannesburg. I followed this route starting in Cape Town, though many people also do it in reverse by starting in Johannesburg. (I think doing it that way might actually be a bit better.)
The map below shows some of the places I’ve been, plus a few other places you’ll probably want to know about if you’re planning a South Africa backpacking trip.
Why are there so few inland highlights on this map? Well, it’s in no way complete and it only shows a few of the highlights! Though another way to answer that is to say that the northwest provinces are very sparsely populated with mostly vast plains and deserts. Most travellers go to coastal South Africa, as this is simply where most things are.
Nevertheless, South Africa is a huge country and I feel like I barely scratched the surface. The more time you have on your trip, the better!
I travelled from Cape Town to Johannesburg in 3 weeks, which I’d say is just about enough time for this route. If you also want to go on a safari in the Kruger National Park (which I didn’t do) it’s much better to have 4 weeks, as such a safari usually takes at least 4 days.
If you want the freedom to take many stops and detours, or maybe to add an excursion into neighboring Lesotho, then having at least 6 or 8 weeks would be far more ideal. Though while it was tight, I still managed to cover some good ground in South Africa in the 3 weeks I had available.
Just a heads-up: I will be pretty honest about the places I visited, and it’ll be obvious which ones were my favorites! Of course, this is just my opinion and you may end up having different favorites yourself.
The Western Cape province is where you’ll find Cape Town and the Garden Route, the country’s main tourist destinations. Many people who are on a shorter holiday visit only these places, which makes sense as together they lend themselves well to manageable 7 or 10-day itineraries.
Cape Town has the reputation of being the country’s most inviting big city. There is a lot to do in the city as well as around it; you can take your time exploring the Cape peninsula, hike up Table Mountain, or hit up the wine country around Stellenbosch.
You’ll notice much contrast between rich and poor in Cape Town and around. On my way from the airport I passed both lush green luxury golf courses and long stretches of corrugated metal roofs in outer-lying shantytowns. But broadly speaking, the Western Cape is more white, affluent and European or North American in style than other regions.
I stayed in 33 South backpackers, a boutique hostel in Observatory, an up-and-coming neighborhood with funky coffee shops, art galleries, and some nice affordable restaurants. Although it takes a 10-15 min ride to get to downtown, I thought this was a very nice area to be based.
If you’d like to go whale watching or shark cave diving, the one place to look into is Hermanus, which is about a 1,5 hour’s drive outside of Cape Town. This is where all such water activities depart from, and you might simply end up there via a day tour starting in Cape Town.
About four hours east of Cape Town is the so-called Garden Route. No, there aren’t really any gardens here; it’s just the name of a coastal region with many forests, beaches and lagoons. The landscape feels quite Mediterranean or Californian, and it’s a popular holiday destination especially for many Germans and Dutch who come here during the northern winter.
I stayed mainly in the town of Wilderness, which I liked a lot. It’s a lovely place where you can kayak up the rivers or hike along an abandoned railway line. You can read more about what to do and where to stay in Wilderness in my separate post.
I liked the Garden Route, though coming from Europe, I thought it felt maybe a bit too… familiar. It’s a pleasant holiday retreat in a wealthy part of South Africa, with many self-catering holiday cottages, trails with designated picnic areas, and camper van spots. While it’s very nice, it can also taste a bit vanilla at times.
Then again, surfers will surely love the breaks around here, and thrill seekers won’t want to miss the town of Stormsriver. Apart from sounding like a place in Game of Thrones, it’s also the adventure travel capital of South Africa—and it’s home to the world’s tallest bungee jump.
Most independent travelers seem to rate Wilderness and The Crags as their top spots along the Garden Route. Don’t bother with Mossel Bay though; it’s quite ugly and it’s a mystery why people stop there!
The Garden Route is clearly South Africa’s most marketable tourist destination, though I think the regions further east are often more adventurous or culturally interesting.
While the Garden Route was just OK, the Eastern Cape tickled my travel bones much more. I would credit this mostly to the great time I had on the Wild Coast. I highly recommend this part of South Africa, especially if you’re a backpacker or independent traveller type.
First though, I ended up in Jeffery’s Bay (better known as J-Bay). I hadn’t planned on going there, but hitched a ride with another traveller who was heading this way. J-Bay doesn’t need any introduction among surfers, as it has some of the world’s most famous surf breaks. The town is full of surf schools and surf apparel outlet stores, so if you want to stock up on anything by O’Neills, Billabong or RVCA at discounted prices, this is the place to do it. But if you’re not a surfer then it’s not an obligatory stop; there are other beach towns that are more rustic or have more nature nearby. J-Bay seems mostly a surfing and party place; it’s not that special, though many will surely find it a lot of fun anyway.
More exciting to me was Addo Elephant Park. Despite being the third largest national park in South Africa, it’s very easily accessible. You can either take guided tours into the park or you can self-drive and try to spot zebras, buffalo, elephants and lions on your own. This may not be a true safari like you’ll get at Kruger, but it’s an easy and fun way to see some wildlife on a day-trip.
At one point I saw a herd of at least 200 elephants at one of the watering holes which was truly an awesome sight. Getting that first view of a verdant valley filled with elephants, it felt like that moment in Jurassic Park where Dr. Grant’s jaw drops and he says “they do move in herds!”. While such a breathtaking view isn’t guaranteed, most people do seem to easily spot many animals here even on a short drive around the southern end of the park.
Moving east, Port Elizabeth (a.k.a. PE) is honestly quite an ugly industrial and commercial hub that’s not worth lingering, but it is a convenient base from which to visit Addo.
Once you pass Port Elizabeth, it’s almost like you cross an invisible border into another country. The vegetation turns more tropical and modern buildings make way for Xhosa villages with traditional roundhouses painted in bright pastel colors. Seeing this transition happen through the window, I was excited to have arrived in such a different place.
First of all, consider staying in Cintsa, a place with a laid back atmosphere and unspoilt white sand beaches. Buccaneer’s Backpackers is a bit of an institution here, set on a hillside in the wild coastal forest and with amazing views of Cintsa’s coastal lagoon.
Another key stop is Coffee Bay, a quiet Xhosa town on the rural coast. The Coffee Shack hostel is the main traveller’s hub here. It used to take 6 hours via a horribly potholed road to get here, but thanks to a new road this is now a more accessible 2 hours. Still, it remains a remote place where goats and sheep roam freely and where life is basic. It’s a beautiful place.
Further up north are Port St. Johns and Mpande. I didn’t make it up here, though a travel buddy of mine (who was in South Africa for the third time) highly recommended them. Both are idyllic little towns along the coast set among sub-tropical jungle.
It’s possible to go on multi-day coastal hikes between Coffee Bay, Mpande and Port St. John. You’ll sleep in rural homestays while your luggage is transported by road. Inquire locally in any of these places and you’ll be introduced to guides who walk this route regularly.
While the Western Cape felt to me vaguely like traveling in Australia or California (speaking in a very generalized way), the Eastern Cape felt faintly like my adventures in Latin America or Asia. It’s a very interesting part of the typical South Africa backpacking trail and one you definitely shouldn’t miss.
As you leave the Eastern Cape and head towards Durban, the country again assumes a whole other identity. I made just a few stops in KwaZulu Natal, though it had several great highlights for me.
First off, I stayed in Umtentweni, which is a short drive from Shelly Beach. While maybe not so noteworthy in general, it’s definitely worth stopping here if you’re a scuba diver. That’s because it’s right by Protea Banks, one of the world’s best dive sites for encountering sharks.
It lived up to the hype; on a single dive I saw many black-tips and even some bull sharks lurking in the deep. Other divers were lucky enough to see a tiger shark, and during certain times of the year it’s even possible to witness hundreds of migrating hammerheads.
You need at least Advanced scuba diving certification to dive the reefs at Protea Banks, though you can do the baited shark dives with just a standard Open Water certification.
Durban has a bad rep for safety and it may not be the prettiest city at first glance; its beach promenade feels like it’s stuck in the 70ies, and while my hostel (Curiocity) was amazing it’s based in a commercial area with a lot of warehouses and garages. But these were just first impressions. There is more to Durban than meets the eye, and in the end I was very glad to have visited.
I highly recommend taking a walking tour, as this will give you a different perspective. You’ll learn about the city’s multi-cultural history and discover some of the cool street art and urban renewal initiatives hiding in the concrete jungle. A walking tour is a great way to explore the chaotic local markets, which are said to be sketchy at night but fine during the day. One market is particularly interesting as it’s set on top of an unused elevated highway off ramp (seriously), and sells all kinds of herbs and artifacts used in traditional rituals.
Durban has a large Indian population, originally brought here by the British in colonial times. Mahatma Gandhi used to live here, and there’s a museum dedicated to his work in helping minorities in South Africa gain more rights and recognition.
Situated roughly between Durban and Johannesburg, the Drakensberg Mountains are a spectacular sight. Most famous is the amphitheater, a circular range of flat mountain tops around a central valley. The one-day hike up to Tugela Falls, the largest waterfall in South Africa, is a favorite here. Another one-day hike will take you all the way up to Cathedral Peak, while multi-day hikes are also possible. The Amphitheatre Backpackers Lodge also organises short trips into Lesotho, which lies behind the mountains.
I got very unlucky with the weather during my trip (we were getting the overflow from a tropical storm in Mozambique) which sadly meant no mountain-top selfies for me at Drakensberg. Instead of mountains all I saw were rain clouds, and a couple of wild baboons moving through the thick mist. You may be luckier and get the epic views the region is known for! Atop Tugela Falls is even a natural pool that you can swim in, with its steep drop right behind you.
What’s the vibe?
The travel scene is a bit different in South Africa than elsewhere—in ways that I liked a lot.
On the one hand, it’s a logical starter country, so there are many younger travellers on a gap year or on a first-ever trip far from home. In that sense it’s not so different from places like Australia or Thailand, just without the excesses (and huge visitor numbers) that these destinations are known for.
On the other hand, the independent travel scene feels more diverse and all-ages, perhaps because what’s known as a “backpackers” in South Africa is subtly different from hostels elsewhere around the world. Besides the usual dorm and basic private rooms, the backpackers often also double as a campsite or offer self-catering chalets. Many of them attract a broad range of ages (even some retirees) and a fun mix of both local and international travellers.
Cost of travel
The value of the rand has fluctuated over the years, though it’s historically been weak against other major currencies. This is bad for South Africans but gives great value for many international visitors.
Here are a few very rough indicators of cost from 2017. As you can see, basic costs of living are very reasonable (like accommodation and food), though guided tours and adventure sports aren’t that cheaper than in other ‘Western’ countries.
Basic breakfast — 40 rand ($3 or €3)
A non-fancy dinner meal — 80 rand ($6 or €5)
Dorm bed — 160 to 200 rand (from $12 or €11)
Basic double room — around 500 rand ($37 or €34)
Local lager in a bar — 20 rand ($1 or €1)
Craft beer in a bar — 50 rand ($4 or €3)
3kg of laundry in a hostel — 40 rand ($3 or €3)
Table Mountain cable car — 225 return, 135 one way ($17 or €15 for return)
Entry to Addo elephant park — 250 rand ($19 or €17)
Guided tour of Addo elephant park — 1000 rand ($75 or €69)
Scuba diving — 650 rand per dive ($49 or €45)
Shark cage diving — 1750 rand ($131 or €120)
Currency converted automatically based on current rates.
Safety in South Africa
South Africa is known for its high levels of crime. As anywhere, exercise reasonable caution. It’s best to take taxis at night in the cities instead of walking the streets. Don’t be flashy and listen to local advice; sometimes you’ll be told that one side of the city is fine while the other is not, or that the northern beaches are ok but the southern ones are sketchy. Keep yourself reasonably informed and you should easily avoid any such trouble spots.
Unless you’re doing some unusual stuff, you’ll probably end up spending 95% of your time in very safe places. Most of violent crime occurs in townships or in isolated locations and doesn’t involve tourists. The main thing to look out for is petty crime. Johannesburg seems to have the worst reputation for crime, so it’s worth being extra vigilant here.
One important tip: never let anyone assist you at ATMs. This is a known scam involving a very small card reader and someone gleaning your PIN. If anyone ‘helped’ you, check your bank statements for any unauthorized withdrawals and report them to your bank straight away.
Be sure to take out travel insurance so you’re covered for theft, medical expenses, and other eventualities.
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If I would do my trip again…
South Africa is awesome, but I must admit I had a poor experience at times. In hindsight, I’d do several things differently.
First, the reality is that South Africa is not well set up for independent travel using public transportation. Sometimes there’s just one bus daily service between places, or none at all. It’s a country built for cars, so the only way to have true freedom is to rent a car.
This can actually be surprisingly affordable; renting a mini might cost as little as 12 euro / dollars a day.
I travelled using the Baz Bus hop-on-hop-off backpacker bus service instead, but ended up loathing it with a passion. If you’re used to backpacking in (for example) Europe, Southeast Asia, or Latin America, then the Baz Bus experience will feel horribly restrictive and inefficient. Because of the Baz Bus I had to create a very strict travel schedule, broken down exactly day by day, and stick to it — which robbed my trip of any flexibility or improvisation. It turns out these are pretty important elements for me!
In Cape Town, I would have relied more on tours. I tried to do things independently but lost much time wrestling with slow public transportation and expensive taxis. I explained this a bit more in my 3 days in Cape Town post.
Finally, I would focus on the more adventurous places. I’d love to do some multi-day hikes in the Wild Coast, spend more time around the Drakensberg mountains, or head into more remote places in KwaZulu Natal or neighboring Lesotho. If you’re a bit of a veteran traveller, I think these places may also be of particular interest to you.
You can probably tell from my reports that I was excited about South Africa, but I would be amiss if I didn’t tell you the logistics sometimes got in the way of enjoying it fully. If you’re thinking at all of taking the Baz Bus be sure to read my take on this bus service, as at the very least you should know exactly what to expect.
Around the web
I’m not the only blogger to have written about South Africa! Here are some other stories and resources that I’ve enjoyed:
- Adventurous Kate’s Offbeat Guide to Cape Town – Adventurous Kate
- Johannesburg to Cape Town: 3 Week Itinerary for South Africa – That Backpacker
- Coast to Coast – great resource (and also publishes a printed guide you can pick up for free in South Africa)
- How to Cheaply and Safely Travel Around South Africa – Nomadic Matt
- Budget Backpacking Guide To South Africa – Goats On The Road
- Backpacking South Africa: Ultimate Travel Guide – Journalist on the Run
Header Image: the twelve apostles mountains in Cape Town (CC – photo credit)
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