South Africa Backpacking and Budget Travel

South Africa is a favorite destination for backpackers from around the globe. This exciting country offers a wide range of attractions and adventures for the traveler, as well as an established network of backpackers lodges and hostels, budget tours and transport options for the backpacker or budget traveler.

South Africa is a destination that doesn’t let itself get pigeonholed easily. It’s such a huge country with widely varying landscapes and an equally diverse culture that you could spend many trips here without even scratching the surface.

I followed a coastal route from Cape Town and Johannesburg, on which my tips here are based. This popular backpacker route lets you cover a lot of ground while getting a lot of different experiences. Adventure travelers 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 totally Western or African in character.

With seasons opposite to Europe or North America, South Africa 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 travelers looking for high standards but without the higher costs of Australia, Europe, Japan or the USA.

While some aspects of traveling South Africa proved a bit challenging to me (more on this later), I had a great trip in South Africa overall.

5 tips for backpacking South Africa

If you’re planning to travel in South Africa, I have a couple of high-level tips for you to start with:

1. Go to the wild coast

Seriously… go to the wild coast! (This was my favorite region — it’s very beautiful and rustic, and feels a bit more adventurous.)

2. Rent a car

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.

3. Fly out from a different city

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.

4. Budget well

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.

5. Travel far and wide!

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 visit in South Africa

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 trip.

south_Africa_tourist_map.

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 the northwest provinces are also very sparsely populated with mostly vast plains and deserts. Most travelers 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 traveled 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, plus some time in Johannesburg.

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 — but I know that not everyone has that luxury, and on this trip, neither did I. 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.

Western Cape

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 major 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.

Destinations

Top Things To Do In Cape Town

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.

photo credit to surfhostel.com

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.

Green forest around a quiet creek in Wilderness National Park
Touwsrivier, Wilderness National Park

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.

Eastern Cape

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 traveler type.

The beach in Jeffrey's Bay at sunset
Jeffrey’s Bay

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 traveler 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 can be a lot of fun but also isn’t that special.

African elephants spotted in Addo Elephant Park
Addo Elephant Park

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.

Bathing elephants and a zebra in Addo Elephant Park

Moving further 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 unspoiled 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.

Horses resting on the beach in Coffee Bay, South Africa
Coffee Bay

Another key stop is Coffee Bay, a quiet Xhosa town on the rural coast. The Coffee Shack hostel is the main traveler 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.

Destinations

The Wild Coast: My Favorite Place In South Africa

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 home-stays 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.

Woman in traditional clothes walking along the coast near Coffee Bay in South Africa
Coffee Bay

MUIZENBERG BEACH CAPE TOWN

Muizenberg beach with its shallow, warm water is ideal for family fun. Wade, walk, jump, splash or ride a wave. Dont know how? Any one of the surf schools will help to get you up and riding: Learn to Surf by signing up for lessons with Gary’s Surf School (the oldest on the strip) or Learn 2 Surf and surfhostel.com– if it’s SUP or Kite Surfing, Surf-store will teach you. Rent a bike from Adventure Rentals for the day – you will find them at the Shop-rite Center on Main Road or simply walk, the choices are many.

Take the walk along the seashore from Muizenberg to St James – and do your return walk along Main Road to enjoy the architecture – marvel at the homes that housed the rich and famous back in the day. If its low tide, the kiddies can splash in the rockside pools. Join a Moonlight Meander with the locals – it takes place every Saturday at full moon (or closest to it), from Surfers Corner to the Vlei mouth – 7 March, 4 April, 2 May, 6 June, 4 July, 1 August, 5 September, 3 October, 31 October, 28 November, 26 December.

Hook up with every man and his dog on Zandvlei, walking from the Caravan Park along the water”s edge or get the adrenalin pumping with a hike up the mountain – there are great, well marked paths from Boyes Drive but a map from the Slingsby stable is your best option if new to our Muizenberg mountain.

So the wind blows! Fly a kite down at Zandvlei or hold out until the annual Cape Town International Kite Festival Oct/Nov for the opportunity for your child to come out and play.

WHERE TO EAT AND MAKE MERRY

Carla’s at Nr 9 York Road – Muizenberg’s Prawn Queen, where your choice is either 6 big fat juicy prawns or 12 big fat juicy prawns! Delectable Portuguese flavors. For stunning views, super décor and good food – Tiger’s Milk at Surfers Corner and great people watching, wholesome, artisanal breads and breakfasts at Knead Bakery, one of the first eateries along the newly energised beach front. And for something hot and happening with a fun vibe, intimate venue and great mezze platters, Oroboros Tapas Bar in York Road – check them out on Facebook.

WHERE TO STAY

Bella Ev is a beautiful villa with an ottoman flair and a soul of her own. This national monument welcomes those with an appreciation for beautiful things. For rooms with stunning sea views in a backpackers that boasts its proximity to the sea, look no further than African Soul Surfer and for self-catering apartments on Beach Road in the re-built art deco styled Empire Building – check out the Surfers Corner offering. For luxury self-catering apartments on Beach Road, Whale Watchers offers a great choice and for a Muizenberg getaway. Nothing beats Admiralty B & B on the tranquil shores of the Marina da Gama – the waterways of Muizenberg.

WHERE TO DRINK IN THE MUIZIES CULTURE

kids skateboarding in Muizenberg

Take it slow and easy with Slow life for food, coffee, music, art, film, philosophy, meditation, combining creativity with conscientious living.

Take a stroll down Palmer Road into the Village to visit Made in Muizenberg, a co-op of local craters and designers, Laugh it Off, Cape Town’s famous iconic, ironic T-shirt brand, Kitsch Kombuis with its flying ducks, MM Galleries for stunning art pieces and sculptures or simply follow the mosaic fish on building walls around the village area while you take in the weird and wonderful architecture. On Main Road, nr 51, visit Sobeit Studio and Enjoy this “mayhem space” where artists work and play and where you can pick up a treasure – a candle, a ring, in a design that will surprise you!

Browse books in York Road at Rattlesnake Books, named after HMS Rattlesnake, a 16-gun sloop which featured in the Battle of Muizenberg in 1795. We know our history too! Buy some surf gear from the Corner Surf Shop, the oldest surf shop in Cape Town – you will find it corner York and Main Road.

Watch a show at the Masque Theater next to False Bay Station on the Main Road – shows vary from dance, to drama, comedy to foyer jazz sessions – a mix of Cape Town’s finest talent.

TAKE A WALKING TOUR

Download the VoiceMap App – Muizenberg like a Local that will take you on a tour round the streets of Muizenberg and help you see it through the eyes of a local.

KwaZulu Natal

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 (Curiosity) 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.

A wall in Durban explaining South Africa's Bill of Rights
Durban

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, 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.

A view of the cathedral peaks of the Drakensberg mountains
Drakensberg Mountains

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 Amphitheater Backpackers Lodge also organizes short trips into Lesotho, which lies behind the mountains.

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 travelers 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 travelers.

A backpacker exiting a hostel in Coffee Bay while a local hails a bus

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 so-called 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 $11 or €10)Basic double room — around 500 rand ($35 or €31)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 ($16 or €14 for return)
Entry to Addo elephant park 250 rand ($18 or €16)
Guided tour of Addo elephant park — 1000 rand ($71 or €63)
Scuba diving — 650 rand per dive ($46 or €41)
Shark cage diving — 1750 rand ($124 or €110)

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.

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 traveled using the Baz Bus hop-on-hop-off backpacker bus service,Uber and local means of commuting 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.

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 traveler, I think these places may also be of particular interest to you. I would have loved to trade some of my time in the Garden Route with more time in these places.

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 enjoyment.

Around the web

Of course, I’m not the only blogger to have written about South Africa. Here are some other stories and resources that I’ve enjoyed.

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