Backpacking in South Africa
If you've got more time than money, there's no better way to see South Africa than to backpack your way around its many offerings: spectacular beauty, a mosaic of cultures, incredible value for money, massive adventure potential – and an undeniable penchant for partying!
Interested? Then take a few minutes to run through our quick guide ...
Get a kikoi
First off, go out and buy a couple of kikois. Whether you're a boy or a girl, macho or not, this sarong-like piece of clothing will be your life-saver when the sun's blasting down, when the travel gear is rolling around in the washer, when you've got some downtime and you don't need to dress up.
The kikoi, which comes from Kenya, has been adopted by African overlanders and backpackers as the preferred chill-outfit from Cape Town to Cairo.
Do your homework
Next, go out and buy a travel book on South Africa. If you're a surfer, you don't want to find out about the perfect point-break B&B at the end of your trip. If you're a birder, you'd like to know where to find the elusive blue swallow long before you hit these shores. And if you like to drink a lager at sunset with the best bathing in the southern hemisphere at your feet, it's nice to know about Lookout Beach in advance, right?
You'll want something like the Insight Guide to South Africa or The Rough Guide to South Africa to get you started. And when you pass the Africa shelf at your local bookstore, you might want to flip through the array of coffee table publications on the country. Then check out South African Tourism's website, www.southafrica.net.
Once you're in South Africa, all the major centres have well-run provincial tourist offices. Nose around there, and you'll find the set of pamphlets you need to tailor-make your trip.
If you've got a fantasy about riding around SA on the end of your thumb, lose it. This is not hitch-hiker country. South Africa is the kind of place where, if you know what to do and where to go, you'll never experience a finer trip. But it's not advisable to enter into the unknown anywhere in the world these days, and South Africa is no exception.
So when you're in the cities, like Johannesburg, Cape Town or Durban, use the public transport system, get a cab or hire a car. If you're staying for a spell, you could do worse than buy a car – and sell it at journey's end. Each city has a vibrant tourism centre which can advise you on day tours, bus routes to and from your hostel, and discounts where available.
The bus services between cities are excellent, and so are the roads. And the backpackers' delight, Baz Bus, is a convenient, value-for-money, hop-on hop-off door-to-door bus service to just about every backpacker's lodge in southern Africa.
If it's in your budget, then the classic road trip through South Africa (hire or buy a car, share the cost with travelling friends) will offer up more delights than anything Route 66 ever dreamt of.
Your foreign licence (as long as it's printed in English) is valid for six months. If yours is in another language, then get an International Driving Permit before you depart for South Africa.
Where to stay
The good news is, there are backpackers' lodges galore in South Africa – see our backpackers' accommodation box above – and you can book ahead by contacting Backpacking South Africa. The other good news is that backpacker bed rates are astoundingly cheap in this country.
And once you're staying at a backpacker's, you can plug in to the local travelling network and find out all kinds of great things, like where to eat for next to nothing, or party until dawn, or find a long-lost friend. You're in a well-run overlanding subculture here, so enjoy it.
Your choice of where to stay depends on what you want out of the trip. South Africa is, to pound a clichè, a great smorgasbord of tourism opportunities for you to feast on!
Within hours of your arrival, you're going to discover that South Africa is a great, heaving melting pot of cultures, colours, languages and traditions. And South Africans are very proud of our diversity.
Your pocketbook guides will tell you about us, and how to behave around us. But, like most places, if you're friendly and polite with the people you meet, chances are you'll be met with twice the warmth.
So prepare to spend time with a Zulu warrior around the fire at night, wake up at dawn and go on a game drive with a ranger who speaks Afrikaans, be served some exotic local dish by a beautiful Malay girl, share a bus with a bunch of transplanted Scots, and learn to say things like "Howzit?" (How is it/ are you?), "Hey, my bra, that's lekka!" (Hey, my brother, that's wonderful!), and "Sharp!" (cool!).
Democracy arrived in South Africa in 1994 only, so the teeming townships of South Africa are, like the favelas of Brazil, poverty-ridden places where sensitivities are high.
But there's nothing to beat a township shebeen (tavern) pumping after midnight, full of laughter and jazz, or a township marketplace on a Saturday morning. There's a sense of vibrancy in SA's townships that cannot be met in the traditionally quieter urban suburbs. This is where you meet the soul of South Africa.
But take a guide, go with an accredited tour, don't just blunder off into a strange settlement. And with the right introductions, and a few simple safeguards, you'll have the time of your life.
Culture's fine, you say. But where's the rush? Welcome to Adrenalin Central.
South Africa is where you can toss yourself over the highest bungee jump in the world, where you can hit the white waters of our river systems in rubber ducks (inflatable boats), where you climb the peaks of our mighty Drakensberg mountains, where you can microlight through the hills of Mpumalanga, and where you can dive –in a cage, thankfully – in the middle of Great White Shark territory.
There's also another level of outdoor activities that includes horseback trail-riding, cattle mustering, hiking for days through mind-blowing landscapes, quietly fishing for the noble trout in our Highlands, or tracking the rare black rhino for hours in the safe hands of a trained guide.
South Africa was built for the outdoors spirit, and we celebrate this in a hundred different ways.
Food and drink
Prepare yourself for World Grub, a global gastronomic trip that could begin with chicken sosaties (kebabs) and end with mopani worms fried over an open fire. We have Chinese, we have Italian, we have American, we have good old British stodge – but we also have Cape Malay, KwaZulu-Natal Indian, boerekos (farm fare), and the finest lamb chops from the vast Karoo scrublands.
The South African service industry is on a fast track, and you'll have no problems eating out or self-catering.
When it comes to beer and wine, you'll find either of both of these to be plentiful, excellent and very cheap. South African beer, because of the hot weather, is a special favourite. And a tour of the Cape winelands will have you sending cases of Cabernet home.
Our cities all have their clublands, catering to the various youth tribes in the country. Raves, folk clubs and jazz clubs are everywhere. And listen out for kwaito, our home-grown, township R&B rap style.
Cafe society has finally caught on in South Africa. For decades, no one did anything but walk on the sidewalks, and now you literally can't move for all the coffee bars and late night restaurants that have sprung up.
Again, Durban, Johannesburg and Cape Town are night-life favourites, but prepare for after-hours surprises in places like East London, Port Elizabeth and Bloemfontein.
The big cities have all got their set of daily newspapers, and there's a lively magazine industry that supports tourism. Travel tips, lifestyle information and facts you can use can be found in all our bookshops and news agents. If you want to catch up on national news from home, most leading newsgents also carry offshore publications.
Internet cafes have blossomed all over South Africa, and you'll find them not only in the large centres but also in many of the small rural towns you'll be passing through. Take time off to keep in touch with the family. Encourage them to come over and join you!
The same rules apply as for anywhere else in the world. Be careful. Don't wander off alone down dark alleys at night. Try not to display all your electronic possessions. Pack cash, credit cards and traveller's cheques in separate places. Let your lodge or hotel know where you are. Leave your expensive jewellery at home. Keep a look out for muggers, and store your wallet where it can't be pickpocketed. Take care around automatic cash machines.
These and many other safety rules are what you should be following back home and while travelling anywhere abroad. Crime is not endemic to South Africa.
Dust is the enemy – always remember that if you're carrying cameras in South Africa. One of the reasons our sunsets are so spectacular is because of mid-air dust, which also tends to foul up camera equipment if care is not taken.
In the winter, you'll find your soft light from about 3pm to 5pm, and in the summer it all starts and ends a little later. But, if you can make it, the African dawns are equally superb for photography. Try to time your photo-excursions for the "book-ends of the day", leaving the harsh light of the lunch-hour for the poolside siesta.
If you're packing more than a little pocket camera, then consider dropping in a 300mm zoom lens for the long shots, especially when you're out in the wilderness and you can't get closer to those lions. For normal street-work and portraits, a smaller 28-80mm zoom lens is best.
Last-minute check list
- Health/travel insurance?
- Malaria pills for the summer months (November through March) for certain parts of the country?
- Relevant contact numbers?
- Luggage locks?
- Sunglasses and hats?
- An unbridled sense of fun and adventure?
Check out some useful facts for tourists – and have a blast!
This article was first published on South African Tourism. Republished on SouthAfrica.info with kind permission of the author.