With everyone telling me how dangerous South Africa is and how extremely cautious I should be there I didn’t really know what to expect from my travels there (safety in South Africa is a topic for another post). I also didn’t know anyone who has done South Africa backpacking so there was no one to ask for the advice.
I’m a very organized person, especially when it comes to travelling. Of course there’s some space for a little adventure here and there but I like to know I that at the end of the day I will have a place to sleep. I slowly started to freak out and doubting my decision to go but as soon as I started doing some researches on South Africa backpacking I was calm everything will be just fine.
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South Africa backpacking: Transportation
The most popular way of moving around South Africa, at least among backpackers, is by the hop-on-hop-off bus. I was in love with their concept right away! At the scheduled time the bus comes to pick you from the hostel you stay at and after the journey they drop you off at the next hostel chosen by you.
It’s a typical hop on hop off service but with this (excellent) feature that it really is door to door. In the country with such a bad safety reputation travelers can’t ask for anything better!
The buses were not too big, around 20 places in each, and they never got full, each time it was a pretty comfortable journey (my personal favorite were seats just behind the driver *hint*). They were mostly used by young backpackers – majority of which came from Germany and the Netherlands. Only once we had an retired German couple travelling in bus but they got along just fine.
Since there are all the people travelling in the same direction we kept stumbling upon each other and eventually became a friendly gang – each person was welcomed after few days as an old friend and had to tell about his or her whereabouts in that time! It was like a roadtrip with friends!
During the journey the bus stops every 2-3 hours on the petrol station or other restaurant/shop places. I was really surprised how well equipped these were! There were all kind of drinks, snacks and just about everything else in a very fair prices!
Usually there was also a fast food chain to get some warm food. Some places even had special offers on lower prices for bus passangers. The restrooms were really cleaned and well maintained too. All of these made travelling around not too bad.
The hop-on hop-off bus covers the most popular places in South Africa. There’re three routes: Johannesburg – Durban (via Drakensberg Mountains), Durban – Port Elisabeth and Port Elisabeth – Cape Town (hence compulsory sleepovers in Durban and Port Elisabeth). Driving each of them takes more or less the whole day – I somehow didn’t imagine South Africa as such a huge country but it is enormous!
It depends only on you where you want to stop on the way and how much time you plan to spend in one place. You can be also flexible with your plans (something I didn’t do and kind of regretted I didn’t have more time in my South Africa itinerary) – you’re recommended to book your seat 72 hours in advance and I guess in the peak season it’s a must, however when you travel off season there’s not much to worry about.
There are also a lot of various tickets options for you to choose from. Since I was pretty limited with time (as it turned out 2 weeks in South Africa is extremely little!) I picked a 7 day travel pass and used it extensively. In that time I did Johannesburg – Drakensberg – Durban – Port Elisabeth – Knysna – Cape Town; around 2250 kms! I was considering 14 days pass and stopping in more places on the way but I simply didn’t have time for that.
During my week-long travels on hop-off hop-on bus we had problems only once and with my luck it of course had to happen on the day of my longest journey, Durban to Port Elisabeth (the whole leg at once). The bus was supposed to pick us up at 6:45 in the morning but it was more and more delayed. We were siting in our Polish-German-Dutch company, some of us still slightly hangovered after the previous night, and the whole situation was pretty hillarious for us.
Eventually the bus arrived 1,5 hour later but there were some people we knew inside, also the driver was from the day before so everyone was really fine with the delay. We learnt that there were some issues with the bus and we had to replace it, it took us another two hours in the morning traffic but finally around 10am we were on the way out of Durban.
Less than 2 hours later the bus broke down again… And this time it wasn’t possible to repair it, we had to wait for the new bus arriving all the way from Durban to pick us up! But we were pretty lucky in this whole situation as it happened next to the big shopping center and just few steps away from the wonderful beach at the Indian Ocean! We were told we have free time and should be back around 2pm – of course everyone just went to the beach!
It was my first ever encounter with the Indian Ocean and I loved it! The water was warm, the waves were huge, the beach was sandy. We played like kids, everyone was in a wonderful, joyful, holiday mood and no one really minded the delay. The day was beautiful and sunny and we were actually glad we had this compulsory stop as it made the long journey bearable.
When we got back to the bus the new one was already waiting for us and from now on the journey went on smoothly. We just had a 6 hours delay so instead of 10pm we got to Port Elisabeth at 4am, at dawn. As soon as we got to the hostel we learnt that the driver already arranged everything with the headquarters and the company paid for everyone’s accomodation for that night! (well, they paid the amount for the dorm room so we still had to pay a little bit for our double room). It was such a nice surprise and I wish more companies would behave in the same fair way in similar situations!
I did the last leg of my journey, Cape Town to Johannesburg, in the regular long-distance bus. There are couple of companies serving that line and the price may vary a lot. I went for Greyhound and the only reason was that it had the best time of arrival to Johannesburg, early on the morning, it was also the most expensive option.
The journey was supposed to take 18 hours (it’s over 1000kms) but we were one hour delayed. The bus was the most comfortable ever, we don’t have this kind of fancy buses in Europe! There was free coffee, for the big part of the journey movies were screened. We also stoped every 3 hours on the petrol stations to stretch legs, use the restrooms and get some food. It was a pretty good journey and the changing landscape was pretty spectacular.
I was really surprised how many hostels are in South Africa! And all of them seemed to be really cool so I had a pretty hard time choosing one to stay at. Every single place I slept in was unique and had some cool features that made it special. Almost everywhere was a pool, not with the cleanest water ever but still it was good to have an option.
Hostels were really well equipped, had a big social areas to hang out and every single of them had a really cool vibe that made me want to stay there longer. Sometimes I feel weird in the hostels, like I’m an unwelcoe guest – it never was a case in South Africa! When I was stoping in all the hostels when travelling with hop-on hop-off bus I just wanted to stay in every second one!
In many hostels there was also an eating option available. Some had free basic breakfast, others didn’t. Some also had a dinner available, at a pretty fair rate and always with a vegetarian option. I always went for it and it was so good!
It was also a really good way to socialize with people – once you sat a table with someone you just shared experience from the day, talked about itinerary in South Africa and eventually became friends.
In every single hostel there was no problem with alcohol – it was either available at the hostel bar (and not too overpriced, a glass of fine South African wine for 10ZAR or a bottle of beer for 15-20ZAR) or you could easily drink the one you brought with you.
The prices of accomodation in the hostels were really good! For a double room (sometimes ensuite) we paid on average 200 ZAR per night (18,50 USD / 13,60 EUR / 56,50 PLN), the dorms were of course cheaper (more or less 120 ZAR for bed). Every single room was really good, nothing was missing! They are really good at hostelling there!
What I found a little bit weird was that many hostels kept emailing me to confirm and then re-confirm my reservation, even if they’ve had all my credit card details and already charged me 10%. But seeing how easy-going and flexible all the fellow tourists of South Africa backpacking trip were I could understand that. I bet there are lots of people who book the bed and never show up because they just liked some place and prefered to stay there longer.
Click below to find the accommodation in following places:
South Africa is an amazing country but sometimes getting to the great attractions can be tricky. However the hostel staff is always extremely helpful and will organize you just about everything. I didn’t really plan much for my stay in Drakensberg (not to mention going to Lesotho where I officially need a visa) yet the hostel had some tours available and shortly after arriving I found myself trying to decide if I’d rather go hiking to the second highest waterfall in the world or maybe visiting illegally the remote country would be a better option (well, of course I went to Lesotho;)).
The rates they offer to backpackers are also really good! In Port Elisabeth I had a tour to Addo National Park arranged but didn’t really talk over the details with the company before and the internet was non exisiting all over the way. Once I finally got to Port Elisabeth at 4am all I could think about was going to sleep.
I woke up 4 hours later to see what’s up with the tour I planed but then I learnt the hostel offers more or less the same tour yet for 200ZAR less (700 instead of 900) so of course I went for that one. It was an amazing tour, there was only me, my friend Magda and our awesome guide Kevin who was so much fun!
Somewhen along the day we learnt that it’s all one company organizing tours to Addo and the difference in price comes only from the different profile of backpackers and regular tourists. Over lunch we even met the owner of the company, the one with whom I was emailing before, and he was super nice and sincerely happy that we didn’t get lost and got to see incredible wildlife of Addo :)
The hop-on hop-off bus company also offers a tour to Cape Peninsula, if you book with the driver you get the discount (I think it was 10%). I went for that one (it deserve a seperate post, as well as the tour to Addo) and it was a really good one!
If you need to get to the hostel (and public transport is pretty much non existing in South Africa) the hostel will gladly arrange a pick up for you, sometimes even for free (that’s what happened to us when we arrived to Johannesburg, we only needed to call the hostel – and tourist information was very helpful with that – and 20 minutes later we were already on the way to our accomodation).
If you prefer to book the tours beforehand click on the city below to see the best options there. I recommend doing that especially in the high season:
Besides the usual guidebooks you travel with there are two publications you will be able to find everywhere, are free of charge and are a great use to backpackers. They are “Coast to Coast” and “Alternative Route”. They cover all the places that are of any interest and that the hostels are located in. You will find a short description of the attractions, what’s interesting, what shouldn’t be missed etc. But they are mostly created to show the overview of all the hostels, pointing their best features, some discounts and hip description. It can give you a great impression of the place and of backpacking in South Africa!
Other than that you should have Lonely Planet guide to South Africa. Get your copy here!
Sadly internet in South Africa was one of the worst ever! Not only the connection was very slow but also few hostels charged extra for using internet! Usually wifi was cheaper than surfing on their computers but it was still around 20ZAR for one hour… I also couldn’t find wifi in many public places, cafes, restaurants etc… Hopefully since my trip it has changed…
Just like with accommodation, eating out doesn’t need to be very expensive in South Africa. Of course there are fancy restaurants that would cost you a fortune but even when you’re on a budget during your South Africa backpacking trip you will find many great options around! Just ask in the hostel and they will definitely tell you where to eat good and cheap!
In Cape Town just opposite my hostel (in Observatory, the coolest area of the city!) was a really amazing restaurant, serving food from Africa and India. It was incredibly good and more than enough for me yet I never paid more than 60 ZAR for a dinner (5,50 USD / 4,10 EUR / 17 PLN). That’s actually the average I paid for lunch / dinner everywhere in SA. You can always order wine with your food as South Africa is known for its wine and it’s a really good one!
Grocery shopping is even cheaper if you feel like cooking for yourself! I would assume that if you buy all your food you would spend ~40 ZAR The 0.5l bottle of coke bought at the petrol station is between 10 and 12 ZAR (1USD / 0,70 EUR / 3 PLN).
Well, you can see some example prices above. As for everything else – it depends on you! Some entrance fees are pretty expensive but South Africa is (most likely in my case) once in a lifetime adventure and I didn’t mind spending a little bit for a cable car to the Table Mountain in Cape Town or the boat to see seals’ island (even if I’ve never been as scared as then!!)
My opinion on South Africa backpacking
I’ve never expected South Africa to be so easy for travelling, and so affordable! In many places I didn’t have to worry about some simple things like getting around or the hostel did that for me! I seriously find South Africa best for backpacking. There are so many options, so many unforgettable adventures waiting for you on every step! And travelling around is just the pleasure! Since I’ve returned I keep recommending South Africa backpacking to everyone and I don’t think I’m gonna stop that anytime soon! Such a wonderful place to visit!!
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