Backpacking South Africa

Since we’ve been posting about our road trip around southern South Africa, we’ve had so many people asking us what we thought about it as a ‘backpacking’ destination.

Many of our friends and new-found followers have said they’ve been warned off travelling Africa independently because of safety issues, while others had just never considered it as a viable alternative to cheaper trips round South East Asia or South America.

So, we thought we’d sum up our thoughts right here!

Things we loved 

  • The people – we were met with smiley happy faces wherever we went in South Africa, from remote Xhosa villages to the glamorous Garden Route.
  • The variety – South Africa is breathtakingly diverse and really does have something for everyone. It’s a real natural beauty, with everything from wide sandy beaches to dry savannahs.
  • The ease of travel – English is one of the eleven official languages which makes getting around super easy.
  • The quality of backpackers accommodation – We stayed mostly in hostels in South Africa, all of which were surprisingly clean and spacious compared to our experiences in other parts of the world. There’s also a huge variety of accommodation on offer and we stayed in traditional rondavels, safari tents, mountain lodges and surf houses.
  • Activities, activities, activities – From cycling, running, surfing and trekking to bungee jumping, shark-cage diving and safari. There’s just so much to do here for people who love the outdoors!
  • The Food!!! – Food is always an important part of any trip and whilst South Africans are renowned for their steaks and general braai abilities (BBQ’s for the uninitiated), some of our favourite meals came from outside of the butcher’s shop. Cape Malay fish curry is not to be missed and hand-picked oysters and mussel soup from the wild coast were particular favourites.

Things that weren’t so great

  • Inequality – One of the great things about travelling South Africa is that there is so much to learn about its fascinating and complicated history and it’s incredible to see the progress that has been made. But the legacy of this history lives on and the daily struggles that many people face can be hard to see at times.
  • Safety (in some places) – You have to be just that little bit more careful in South Africa than you do in other places. We followed basic commons sense – avoiding travelling after dark, making sure not to leave anything visible in the car, asking for advice before going into new areas etc. – and had nothing particularly bad happen to us, but it’s still something to consider.

Things to think about

  • The weather – People are often surprised when I tell them that South Africa’s not really that hot all year round. It may be Africa, but Cape Town gets its fair share of rain over the winter months. The mild climate makes it the perfect travel destination for a lot of the year but it’s worth thinking about timing your visit carefully Spring is best for whale watching, for instance, but the seas might be too rough and cold for surfing, while Summer is great for beaches but can make safaris unbearably hot.
  • The distances – South Africa is a massive country. It’s hard to get your head around just how big it is until you start trying to drive the length of it. We had to make some tough decisions and cut some of the stops from our itinerary to make sure that we had time to do the others justice and didn’t spend the entire trip in the car. That said, there are good connections available by air that can free up options as both Johannesburg and Cape Town have domestic fights available to numerous destinations.

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  • The cost – The current exchange rate means that South Africa is a great budget destination for European travellers, but that doesn’t mean you’ll be getting the same value for money as you would in other popular backpacking destinations. Eating and drinking out is cheap, but groceries are comparatively expensive. Petrol is cheap, but accommodation can start to add up. A double room in a hostel cost us around R500 a night, a bargain by European standards but almost triple the price of a double room in Vietnam.
  • Self-drive – Car hire can add a serious chunk to your budget and we were spoilt by being able to use a family member’s car for the trip, but if there’s more than one of you I’d still seriously think about paying the extra for your own car. Baz Bus run a hop on/hop off service that stops at the most popular destinations and is how many of the backpackers we met were getting around. It seemed like a great way of meeting other travellers and offered unlimited travel within your chosen period – but it wasn’t particularly cheap and there are so many other places to explore that you really do need your own car for. I’d probably also think about shelling out for a 4X4 if you can afford it, particularly if you are thinking about heading towards Namibia or Botswana. It’s easy enough to get around with a smaller car but there are lots of places we’d have loved to have gone that weren’t suitable for the Granny-mobile.

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