South Africa

By Heather Cleland / Photo by Celso Flores

Backpacking at the Foot of a Continent

I touched down on African soil for the first time in my life with nervous excitement buzzing through me, completely eliminating any traces of fatigue after a 12-hour flight from London. I was in Cape Town, South Africa, a continent that I’d never touched before but has long held an exotic allure in my mind.

Other than a booking for a few nights at a hostel, I had no plans for my time in Africa—three weeks in South Africa and four weeks in Zambia, Malawi, Tanzania and Kenya. I had no idea what to expect. South Africa is one of the most backpacked countries in Africa, but Africa itself is one of the least backpacked continents. What I didn’t expect, but what I got, was a network of high-standard hostels, a small and friendly population of backpackers, solid transportation and a beautiful country with an unsettled history. My first stop was Cape Town’s The Backpack—an HI-affiliated hostel housed in a series of old houses near downtown. The dorms are spacious, the kitchen well equipped and there’s a restaurant and bar with a courtyard patio featuring views of Table Mountain. Not bad for $10 a night.

From the hostel’s travel desk, I booked a full day of activities covering some of Cape Town’s historical highlights. I visited the District Six Museum, filled with stories about the height of apartheid in the city. Onwards to a township tour where we visited the different types of housing—starting with a hostel where seven people (three men and a family of four) share a tiny room for $3 a month each. We visited the local healer, a community centre and a shebeen—the local bar—to get a sense of the kind of life township residents live, backed by the knowledge that this all came about thanks to backward government policies.

In the afternoon, I visited Robben Island—home to political prisoners in the second half of the 20th century, including Nelson Mandela. Individuals who dared stand up to apartheid rule often ended up here, making it more often a meeting point of future leaders than a lock-up for wayward criminals.

From Cape Town I hopped aboard the Baz Bus, South Africa’s backpacker bus running along the coast up to Johannesburg via Swaziland or the Drakensberg Mountains. My first stop was a town called Wilderness where I stayed at another HI-affiliated hostel, Fairy Knowe Backpackers, set in a 19th-century farmhouse with a river view. It’s a quiet spot for a half-hour walk from the small town centre that links up easily to a fantastic stretch of beach.

Onwards to Jeffreys Bay and the ever-popular Island Vibe Backpackers, famous for its bar and prime location on one of South Africa’s best surf beaches. Pro competitions are hosted here and the hostel’s surf memorabilia makes that clear. The beach house has private rooms with unobstructed ocean views.

From Jeffreys Bay, it was on to Port Elizabeth, a mandatory stop on the Baz Bus circuit. I was still unsure about how to spend my time in Africa so here I decided I’d hop off the Baz Bus and take the train up to Johannesburg so I could fit in a trip to Kruger National Park. While in P.E., I visited the South End Museum, a lot like the District Six Museum in Cape Town, showing just how nationwide the effects of apartheid were. It also includes an exhibit on Molly Blackburn, a P.E. resident and human rights fighter who committed her life to justice for the black South African community until she died tragically in a car accident in 1985.

After 20 hours on a train, I arrived in Johannesburg, a South African city that has an inescapable reputation for crime, evidence of which I only saw through its security. It’s a city where barbed wire and 10-foot concrete walls have become a standard part of landscaping.

I stayed at a hostel in a residential area and booked a safari to Kruger with Livingstone Safaris. Our driver Sam was full of life, even during my 5:30 a.m. pick-up. Once inside the park our game driver took us past four of ‘the big five’—elephant, rhino, lion and buffalo leaving only the leopard on my checklist. Giraffes were everywhere, along with wildebeest, zebra, warthogs and impala. At our campsite inside the park at night, I made dinner with a hyena as an audience and fell asleep to the sound of lions grumbling.

After four days of animal spotting, it was back to Johannesburg to say so long to South Africa before flying to Zambia. South Africa was an ideal introduction to Africa with hostels galore, plenty of comforts, a bit of risk and incredible people, animals and scenery to fill in the gaps.

Backpacking in South Africa

You can use your HI card at some hostels around South Africa. While there’s no national association, some independent hostels are affiliated and offer discounts to members. It doesn’t hurt to ask if they’ll accept your card since some hostels don’t make it obvious that they’re an affiliate. Visit to see the current affiliates.

Hostels in South Africa are on par with those in Europe, North America and Australia, usually offering dorms and private rooms, free linen, fully equipped kitchens, travel advice, common areas and knowledgeable English-speaking staff.

Pick up a copy of the Coast to Coast booklet available at almost every hostel. It’s updated annually and includes listings of hostels across the country, as well as Mozambique, Swaziland, Zambia, Namibia and Botswana. Visit them online at

Use the Baz Bus for flexible transport passes, including unlimited hop-on, hop-off passes, limited travel passes and point-to-point tickets. It’s slightly more expensive than standard bus companies, like Intercape or Greyhound, but you get the added advantage of door-to-door service to most hostels in the country as well as the company of fellow backpackers.

Where to Go

South Africa consists of beautifuL and varied terrain. We’ve summed up some of the more popular regions to help you plan your travels

The Wine Region

The Cape Winelands lie to the north and east of Cape Town, on either side of the Hottentot Holland Mountains and are said to be some of the most scenic winelands in the world. With a Mediterranean climate, wines flourish here—try South African’s “own” red Pinotage while you’re there.

The Garden Route

Stretching along the southern coast from Heidelberg to the Tsitsikamma Forest and Storms River, the Garden Route is 200 kilometres of paradise with an abundance of intriguing birdlife, brightly coloured flowers, mountains, lush indigenous forest, sparkling lakes, rivers, stretches of golden beaches, charming towns and outdoor adventure activities.

The Sunshine Coast

The coastal route between St. Francis Bay and East London in the Eastern Cape, the Sunshine Coast offers more hours of sunlight per year than anywhere else in South Africa.

The Wild Coast

An untouched piece of coastline, the West Coast is thought of as the “real” Africa. With hillside huts, dowries, rite of passages and a part of the Transkei, home to the Xhosa (pronounced with a “click”), it’s a great place for an adventure traveller, from surfing or hiking to cliff-jumping.

The Drakensberg

The highest mountain range in South Africa, this area falls into four valleys: the Champagne Valley in the Central Berg, through the Cathedral Peak and Didima Valley, then the Royal Natal National Park and Amphitheatre Valley, and finally the Middledale Pass Valley in the Northern Berg. An area rich in history and aweinspiring landscapes, Drakensberg National Park, also reffered to as the Ukhahlamba, is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.


Gateway to the world-renowned Kruger National Park, Limpopo is known as an eco-tourist destination with untouched land for game reserves as well as beautiful natural locations with forest and waterfalls. Locally grown fruit and vegetables also make this a cheap area to travel in.


One of Africa’s last remaining monarchies, the Kingdom of Swaziland (Umbuso weSwatini), sometimes called Ngwane, is one of the smallest countries in Africa. Bordered to the north, south and west by South Africa, and to the east by Mozambique, Swaziland is a beautiful country to explore.

When to Go

South Africa has a generally temperate climate. Summer (November to March) is the wet season while winter can get pretty cold down south, making spring and autumn ideal times for travel. December and January can also be busy with school holidays in South Africa and prices tend to be at their highest.

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