Backpacking South Africa

By Stef Terblanche


It’s probably not exactly what Shakespeare had in mind in The Merry Wives of Windsor when he wrote that, “the world is your oyster”. But young people – and many not so young – the world over have given literal meaning to that phrase. The world is theirs to enjoy. And what better way to do so than by backpacking.


Thousands of people daily join the global flow of travelling backpackers: casual travellers who pack the minimum of belongings into a rucksack, travel to exotic destinations on the cheapest available transport, and stay in rustic lodges or camp in beautiful locations not often seen by conventional tourists. Not only do they get to see and experience the places and meet the people ‘normal tourists’ don’t, but they also get to meet new, lifelong friends in a wonderful travelling spirit of camaraderie. All of this on a carefree shoestring budget.


Since the humble beginnings of backpacking in the 1950s, backpacking has exploded into a global phenomenon and a distinct travel sub-culture of its own.

Wanderlust and adventure


Backpackers are the modern world’s pioneering explorers, travelling into the unknown with the minimum of resources, delighting in their many new discoveries as they move from one country to another. They belong to a curious fun-seeking community that transcends national boundaries, language barriers and cultural exclusions and who share a common wanderlust and sense of adventure. They are a travelling nation without borders who speak all the languages of the world.


And for this kind of travelling, filled with the vibrant energy of discovery and new experiences, South Africa ranks as an undisputable paradise. For many it is also the gateway to the rest of Africa.


South Africa has all the ingredients that makes it the highlight of any backpacker’s travels: beautiful scenery, vibrant cities with pulsating nightlife, truly delightful off-the-beaten-track places, unforgettable wildlife experiences, history and culture, thousands of kilometres of unspoilt coast, amazing mountain and wilderness hikes, some of the best surfing spots in the world, a variety of cheap travel options, friendly people, and an abundance of backpackers’ accommodation to meet every kind of purse, from inner cities to some of the most exotic and remote locations on earth.


But it’s not only travellers from abroad who follow the backpackers’ trail in South Africa. Many local youngsters regularly pack their rucksacks and set off to a variety of wonderful locations around the country and neighbouring states…usually on a shoestring budget. For many backpackers their travelling has become their lifestyle, whether permanent or intermittent. For them it’s often much more than just ordinary travel or a holiday, and can go on for years.


Backpackers coming to South Africa also often find temporary work to help pay for their travels, or join in various social or educational programmes – like working among children and young people in underprivileged areas. Some come here as exchange students and use the opportunity to see the country or more of Africa. Others do so while taking a gap year after school. And for many South Africa is just one stopover on their extended travels around the world, but certainly a much prized one.


Ana Pereira, a young writer, photographer and traveller from California, USA who ditched a Silicon Valley job for travelling, says she was bowled over by South Africa. In her blog, The Broke Backpacker, she wrote this: “I just spent over a month backpacking South Africa and had an absolute blast road tripping through South Africa’s diverse regions. In a month I surfed, scuba-dived, hiked, kayaked, and rock climbed my way through South Africa’s dramatic topography and endless coastline. I found South Africans to be extremely welcoming and outgoing and truly fell in love with this country.”


Among her many other experiences, Ana found that “South Africa’s cheapest surf rentals are at Coffee Shack in Coffee Bay!” For the uninitiated, Coffee Shack is a renowned backpackers’ establishment at Coffee Bay on the Eastern Cape Wild Coast, 200km north of East London. It is also a good surfing spot.


In Mossel Bay, coming out of the water after an impressive surfing display at Outer Pool near The Point, Fernando Nogueira, who hails from Salvador on the Brazilian coast, had a similar story. He told me: “I love this country. It reminds me of home in many ways, but just better. There are just so many wonderful places to go. And beautiful people. Tomorrow I am taking a bus to the Wild Coast – I have heard so many good things about it and can’t wait to get there. I am not sure how long I am staying in South Africa, but I still want to go to Mozambique, and maybe Madagascar, and then I am probably heading for India. Who knows where I’ll end up going next!”


Fernando says he temporarily put his studies for a business degree on hold to first travel the world for a few years. He occasionally receives a small allowance from home which he tries to augment on his travels whenever he can as a bartender or waiter, or any other temporary jobs he can find without having to go through official visa processes. On one occasion he joined eight veteran fishermen in their small fishing vessel who worked the banks 40km off the coast for a week at a time, but a terrible storm and severe seasickness put a quick end to that.


Hilma, who finished school in Denmark last year, was staying with other young school-leavers from Europe and Scandinavia at a backpackers’ lodge on the Table View beachfront in Cape Town when I met her. She told me when she was not busy taking in the sights around the Peninsula or learning to kitesurf, she and her friends were engaged in voluntary social work programmes in the nearby Dunoon township. They often took groups of underprivileged children from the township to the beach to teach them to swim and surf.


Surfing, or learning to surf, seems to be one of the big common denominators among young backpacking visitors to South Africa. That is why you will find so many of them along our coastal areas, from Langebaan on the West Coast, to Hole in the Wall on the Eastern Cape coast or St Lucia and beyond.


Overland truck travelling


But many also opt for the wilderness experience, boarding overland trucks that take them up the coast, into the mountains and national parks, crossing the Great Karoo, visiting remote villages and settlements, before the trucks take them on to Zimbabwe or Tanzania and other African destinations. The Mozambican coast, the beaches and islands of Lake Malawi and the river lodges of Uganda are also favourite destinations.  Some do the full adventure, from Cape Town to the Sahara. These are organised tours with seasoned guides in which young people rough it in converted trucks to get personal and up close with the real Africa. Food is prepared in a tiny on-board kitchen or over open fires, and the travellers sleep in tents in camping sites along the way. Tours can last from a week to several months and traverse the entire continent – truly an adventure of a lifetime.


The global backpacking community is huge in numbers, but a small one in terms of meeting up frequently with the same people or people from home. This is because of their shared interests, or seeking out similar off-the-track destinations, and of course because of the technological revolution. While on a visit to California I spent two nights in a backpacker’s establishment on Minna Street in downtown San Francisco. To my surprise the two Moroccan owners had for many years run a similar establishment in Johannesburg. And that evening, getting coffee in the kitchen, I bumped into two young travellers – one from Soweto, Johannesburg and the other from Beaufort West in the Karoo. Small world indeed.


The Urban Dictionary defines the word ‘backpacker’ in several ways related to hip-hop music. But it also carries another lengthy definition, the first part of which reads: “Backpackers are a very loose subculture of travellers who carry all their stuff with them in a backpack. Typically they are driven by a sense of adventure, and as such are always trying to find somewhere beautiful, completely off the beaten track. They often travel as cheaply as they can to maximise the time they can spend on the road, accepting squalid accommodation or sharing rooms if it will save them any money. Most are in their twenties or early thirties, and almost all are between 18 and 40 though older and younger people aren’t unheard-of. People go backpacking for all sorts of reasons but will almost always take offense if it is implied that they are ‘on holiday’; backpackers typically consider travel a separate, more serious engagement, all about broadening the mind, experiencing other cultures and trying to satisfy what is often a deep-seated and more often than not insatiable wanderlust”.

Favoured SA destinations


Just about every person embarking on a backpacking adventure, has a sojourn in South Africa on their bucket list. The country offers the best of different worlds. On the one hand it has good infrastructure: modern highways for easy travel, good and cheap public transport systems, excellent lodges and camping sites in most cities and towns, good internet and digital connectivity, plenty of banks and ATMs, and modern vibrant cities with pulsating nightlife. On the other hand it offers many opportunities of ‘going bush’, going off-road as it were and experiencing the true African wilderness with all its beautiful scenery and plenty of wildlife, and also the opportunity to engage with a variety of local ethnic and cultural communities, often in remote and beautiful locations.


In addition the country offers backpackers all the adventures and delights of a 2,800km long coastline. And the country has awesome weather with sunshine almost all-year long. On top of it all, at any given time the country is full of backpackers passing through, which allows new arrivals to tap into the experience of those already in-county for a while in terms of tips, advice, best destinations, best places to stay, best means of travel, the ins-and-outs of local red tape and laws, and often allows new arrivals to hook up with those already here as travel companions.


“South Africa appeals to every kind of traveller and this is a great country for backpackers,” says Ana.


“Travellers who seek adventure can trek through the Drakensberg Mountains, surf some of the world’s best breaks, or bungee jump from the world’s highest commercial bridge. Travellers who crave a holiday retreat can lounge on one of South Africa’s many beaches, or go wine tasting throughout the Western Cape. There are countless parks and reserves to view wildlife and spot Africa’s Big 5 (lions, leopards, elephants, rhinos, and buffalo). South Africa even boasts the “Big 7” because it’s possible to see great white sharks and southern white whales. There is so much to do and see in South Africa, so I highly recommend allocating at least a month to a backpacking trip in South Africa,” she says.


In South Africa some of the favourite – and famous – backpackers’ routes and destinations follow the entire coastline, with cheap lodges and good camping sites found in almost every coastal town. On the West Coast the area around the Langebaan Lagoon is a favourite, especially for those who are into kite surfing, while many also enjoy time in the nearby Cederberg Mountains and wilderness area, or the Groot Winterhoek Wilderness Area. Apart from all the beach and water sports activities, Langebaan has a national park, plenty of pubs and restaurants, lodges and camping facilities. The Cederberg Mountains has great camping and wilderness cottages next to the Algeria Forest Station, as well as awesome mountain pools for swimming, wonderful hiking trails, bouldering and rock climbing. The Winterhoek is home to a stunning hiking trail with overnight cottages, with a legendary mountain pool at the end, and some of the toughest bouldering below the pool down the Vier en Twintig Riviere (Twenty Four Rivers) for the brave hearted.


Cape Town is always a compulsory stop on any backpacker’s itinerary. The city has an abundance of backpackers’ lodges and other types of accommodation, as well as a variety of cheap public transport from minibus taxis, to the MyCity bus system or Uber taxis for those with deeper pockets. Many backpackers prefer the inner city around Long Street and Green Point, areas that pulsate with nightlife and never sleep. It’s also close to the V&A Waterfront, the beaches and pubs of Clifton and Camps Bay, and Table Mountain and Signal Hill (for hiking, climbing and hang gliding).


Others prefer the Southern Peninsula where they can surf at Muizenberg, indulge in the endless line-up of eateries and pubs along the seafront between St James and Fish Hoek, swim with the penguins at Boulders, Simon’s Town, do some shark-cage diving, or go on hikes at Cape Point. Most backpackers also go on township tours or stay in B&Bs in the townships, with at least one visit to Mzoli’s in Gugulethu – an open-air shebeen style restaurant – being a must.


Heading southeast from Cape Town, there are many popular destinations like Hermanus (for some whale watching), Gansbaai (shark-cage diving) and Still Bay. After that, the next big favourite is the Garden Route, starting from Mossel Bay to Port Elizabeth, with lodges and camping sites in every town. The variety of activities and attractions are simply too many to list, but they include surfing, kayaking, snorkelling, scuba diving, forest hikes, mountain hikes, and cycling. Some of the most favoured towns along this route are Mossel Bay, Great Brak River, Herold’s Bay, George, Victoria Bay, Wilderness, Sedgefield, Knysna, Buffels Bay, Plettenberg Bay, Keurboomstrand, Nature’s Valley, Storms River village and mouth (in the Garden Route National Park), Cape St Francis and Jeffreys Bay.


Port Elizabeth is also popular, especially the beach front area stretching from the Cape Recife Nature Reserve, past the Nelson Mandela University along Summerstrand, Humewood, The Boardwalk, Hobie Beach, South End and into the downtown city area. On the way to East London, the Sunday’s River valley, Kenton-on-Sea, and Port Alfred are favourite stopovers, as well as the many little coastal hamlets and traditional villages, and inland areas and towns like the university town of Grahamstown.


East London and surrounds too attract many backpackers, with some of the favourite spots being Kaysers Beach, Christmas Rock, Kidd’s Beach, The Quigny and Esplanade along the city beachfront, and on to Nahoon Beach, Bonza Bay, Gonubie and all the many seaside hamlets and resorts all the way up to Kei Mouth.


Legendary Wild Coast


It is here, however, that South Africa’s most popular drawing card for backpackers starts – the legendary Wild Coast. This unspoilt, stunningly beautiful stretch of coast with its many forests, hill-top villages, bays and beaches, rivers and lagoons is a firm favourite, and cheap backpackers’ accommodation is found all along the coast. In many places locals offer their traditional homes in the villages as accommodation for backpacking tourists – a unique way to experience the local Xhosa culture. Popular spots, with lodges that have become legendary among the global backpacking community, are located at Mazeppa Bay, around the Kobb Inn Hotel, at the Mbashe River Mouth, Xhora River Mouth, Bulungula, Wild Lubanzi, Hole in the Wall, Coffee Bay, Mdumbi, Mtakatyi, Hluleka, Mngazi River Mouth, Port St Johns, Ntafufu, Manteko. Mbotyi, Waterfall Bluff, and all the way up to KwaZulu-Natal.


KwaZulu-Natal, with all its many attraction s and activities to be enjoyed, is another popular destination. Backpackers like spending time along the South Coast, in the inland parks and reserves, hiking in the Drakensberg Mountains, visiting the Valley of a Thousand Hills, going into cultural villages and spending time in Durban where the Florida Road nightlife and the city markets big are attractions, as are the beaches from uShaka Marine World up to Umhlanga, and the open-air shebeen restaurants of KwaMashu. Further up the coast lies the magical iSimangaliso Wetland Park and St Lucia.


Again, venturing inland, there are far too many destinations to list. But places like Johannesburg with its many attractions and pulsating nightlife, the Cradle of Humankind, the Kruger National Park and other parks, the Blyde River Canyon area, are among the many popular destinations.


So, there you have it – the world is literally your oyster, especially in South Africa…and it need not cost much. Have fun, be young…whether you are eighteen or eighty!