If anybody reading this has visited this remarkable
country and can tell me of any other place in the world that is
more tourist friendly, has more diverse things to do, has nicer
people, or has a more "colourful" history, I will not believe you.
As a total package, it is probably the best place we have been to.
I have heard it called, "All of Africa in one country" and after
spending five weeks there, both on and off the tourist
do believe we have experienced Africa.
We have met many South
Africans in the different places we have lived and traveled and
have always found them to be friendly, open and fun to be
around. The South Africans in South Africa are no
different - extremely nice people. We weren't sure what the
racial mix of the populations would be, but after our first day
we realised that walking around Capetown was just like walking
around Toronto - people of all shades and sizes, obviously from
much immigration and racial mixing. I might have expected
to see a more definite line between black and white, due to the
years of apartheid, but we noticed no such thing, shows what we
knew about South Africa. As we worked our way up the coast
there did tend to be more of a noticable split between the
various races, but everybody seemed to get along quite fine.
It's hard to
really get to know a country and its people without
living there, but our impression was nothing but positive in all
aspects. As a tourist, we only needed to stand around
looking lost for thirty seconds before someone off the street
came to offer help. This must have happened a dozen times,
and we really appreciated it. It seems as if the South
Africans are happy to have foreigners visiting their country and
very proud to show it off.
Things to Know
We had no problems
with theft but judging by local advice, don't even consider leaving valuables in view
or unguarded. And if you rent a car, don't bother getting
a radio or leaving anything of value in sight as this will only
encourage a break in. Remember that this is indeed Africa
- there are snakes, lions, hippos, spiders and sharks and they won't
hesitate to bite you if they feel threatened so keep your
distance!! A little less dramatic
advise is, like any other place in the world, there
are thieves, so be careful and be very alert. There are
serious problems with crime in Capetown, Durban and especially in Jo'burg, so take precautions and don't
We stayed in nicer areas of Capetown and Johannesburg and felt reasonably safe, but
we've been advised that if going for any extended distance at
night, take a cab.
There is always a tendency when
arriving in a new city to head downtown to where the action
is. The only action you'll get in the large cities downtown at
night is being relieved of your valuables. Long Street in Capetown is where many of the
hostels are, but many people
have told us that it is NOT a good place to walk at night.
This goes for the entire downtown area of Jo'burg at night as
well as during the day. We didn't spend much time in
Durban but judging from what we saw I wouldn't do much walking
around the centre there at night either.
Now that the crime
part is out of the way, how about some of the good things?
The roads in South Africa are GREAT! The highways are
posted at 120 kph which is good as it is a very big country and
takes a while to get from place to place. We put 4600
kilometres on our little rental car and I can't remember a
single instance driving when I felt as if the speed limit was
too low. So if you enjoy driving you will love it!
Just make sure to keep your eyes on the road and don't let the
beautiful scenery distract you off the cliff.
We found prices to
be very low for pretty much everything. As a country South
Africa is extremely self reliant and the seem to produce pretty
much everything they need, which is surely due to the many years
of economic sanctions and embargoes. The South African
currency is called the rand and is has been steadily decreasing
in values for years now so if you are traveling on a strong
currency like US dollars or British pounds you will be
pleasantly shocked by the low prices. We survived on
around US $35/day and that included a rental car, dinners out
almost every night, double rooms in backpacker hostels, many
tours and lots of delicious wine! A bottle of good red
wine will cost less than three bucks and beers are six bucks for
24 in the liquor stores. The best deal we found was in Hermanus, where there was a film festival at one of the local
cinemas. For six bucks we got two movie tickets, a bottle
of red wine (which we were allowed to take into the cinema!),
and a huge plate of food that was dinner for both of us!
We left there smiling.
There is a thriving
backpackers route and culture in South Africa so don't feel like
you have to do a great deal of research before you arrive and
book any hostels, tours, etc. Once you arrive, just ask
around in the airport for a good backpackers, go there and start
talking to fellow travelers, they are always happy to pass on
information. As well, all the hostels we went to had piles
of brochures, tour information, contacts, and ideas to help you
along the way. So don't worry, just turn up!
Lastly, you can buy
anything you need in South Africa so don't fill your bag with
Pantene, cotton swabs, three cans of deodorant, or a gallon of
mouthwash. Anything larger than a small village will have
stores that sell all that stuff.
Whoops, one more
thing. If you're a typical Anglophone with no language
abilities whatsoever, don't worry. Practically everybody
you meet will speak English, as well as Africaans (Dutch-based)
and possibly some of the other 9 or so official languages of
South Africa. As usual, makes you embarrassed to be North
Where to Stay
spent most of our nights in backpacker hostels and are happy to
report that the standard of South African
hostels is way above
what you will find in most other countries. The most we
paid for a double room was $15/night and the cheapest was $12 so
the prices are quite consistent. We stayed in a B&B one
night to treat ourselves, but we found that it was hardly any
better than the backpacker places....for three times the prices.
Of course, the best place to stay is always a friend's house
(that's Martin and Marianne Olsen's favourite line!) and we were
fortunate enough to have our friends Trudy and Philippe
currently living in Jo'burg but also with a house in Wilderness.
It is such a great treat during a trip when you can catch up
with old friends. So if you don't know a Trudy and
Philippe in South Africa, I guess a backpacker hostel is your
next best option, here are some of the places we stayed in on
our way through the country:
Big Blue Backpackers - Green Point, Capetown - Tel:
(021) 439 0807
Great location, close to bars, restaurants,
laundry, beach and seafront. Craig the owner is extremely
helpful and seems to know everything you will ever want or need
to know about S. Africa. He is straight up and will tell
you both the good and the bad, which we were very thankful for.
We stayed in a double with bathroom which was clean and big.
The hostel is big and there is a communal kitchen, TV room
(movies every night), and a bar. Nice friendly staff.
We highly recommend this place. $15 US per
room/night for double w/bath
Betty's Bay Backpackers - Betty's Bay, Tel: (028)
This is basically a bed and breakfast, with out the
breakfast. Morney and Debbie have a nice house with a
breathtaking view of the mountains in Betty's Bay. The
house and room is clean and they allow use of the kitchen and TV
area. Morney is an artist, so the house is full of his
work on the walls. Very nice people. Great place to
stay for a night or two. $15 US per room/night, shared
Hermanus Backpackers - Hermanus, Tel: (028) 312 4293
This place is a backpacker's dream. It is located in a
residential neighborhood in the small and quaint town of
Hermanus. The town is very tourist oriented and the hostel
provides a tour company which have everything from Great White
Shark Diving to sandboarding to kayaking with the whales.
You could spend several weeks and several thousand Rand becoming
a true adrenaline junkie in this town. The room we stayed
in is nicer than many hotel rooms I've been in. New and
nicely decorated, this hostel has a lot to offer with a bar, 2
kitchens, laundry service, TV rooms, reading lounge and pool
(that's right, not a pool table, a real pool). Great spot.
$15 US per room/night, w/bath. Note: There's a pool
- Coffee Bay
You can go on some nice trips here without even leaving the
confines of the hostel garden as every 8 year old village kid on
the street is selling marijuana and mushrooms. If that's
your thing, you'll love it. If that's not your thing,
there are still plenty of things to do such as hiking, village
tours, beaching, surfing, snorkeling, or just sitting on the
hammock reading a book. There is only a single tiny shop
in town so bring your own food. They serve okay food at
the bar and the staff are very friendly. It's hard to
believe, but the hostel employs 18 local people as staff!
Don't miss out on the
Xhosa village tour with Silas, you'll taste some lovely corn
beer and learn some new dance moves. Note: Be
careful of the "extras" which may get tacked onto your bill (ie.
pickups from hikes, yoga - if in doubt, ask!).
Sani Pass Lodge -
Could be almost decent but the manager Nico is very strange and
the rooms and toilets are very ordinary. We wouldn't have
stayed longer than a single night, but there happened to be an
absolutely great group of people there at the time so we had a
lot of fun. Goes to show that it's rarely the place...it's
the people that make a trip. They do have a lovely outdoor
shower where you can watch the sunrise over the Drakensburg
mountains as you scrub your bum. $14 US per double
room/night shared bath.
Beach Bums - Near Ballito, 15 km north of Durban.
Run by a raging homosexual, this is a very cool little hostel on
the beach. The manager Jonathan is very entertaining, to
say the least, just don't try to move any of his candles around
or he gets mad. It was full the night we stayed so we
ended up in a dorm which had decent beds and a spectacular view
and balcony over the ocean. The small cozy bar has a sound
system that will blow the wax out of your ears. As we were
enjoying a drink on the comfy couches in the bar before dinner,
Jonathan was playing some hypnotic dance song about a lady
calling her husband who had gone to Mars on a
trip....and he wasn't alone in his hotel room! You get the
picture. $6 US per person in dorm/night.
- St. Lucia
This is the best backpackers hostel we stayed at. The
owners/managers are ultra cool and they really go out of their
way to include everybody in the many free activities offered.
Each day they have a list of free outings that are available to
anyone staying there. These range from early morning game
walks to crocodile feedings to sundowners to watch the hippos
come in from the river. There is also a superb game park
called Umfulozi which is very close with reasonably priced tours
available. They have a great swimming pool and bar area
with a nightly barbeque where you can bring your own food to
cook. The rooms are spacious and have air conditioning.
Plus the kitchen facilities are great and you don't even have to
wash your own dishes! You can tell this is the kind of
place where people expect to spend a day or two then find
themselves two weeks later still enjoying themselves! $15 US per
double room/night with shared bath. For $18 US per night
you can get a double room with attached kitchen, bath, and
balcony. Note: there's a warthog that wanders throughout
town and sleeps under the same stop sign every night.....not to
mention hippos that you may find charging through town at dusk.
Where to Eat
ate anywhere and everywhere. Restaurant meals are
surprising cheap and you will have to look very hard to
more than six bucks on a main course. We also found that
you don't save much money by buying and cooking your own food,
which is not the case in most other countries. The only
trouble you may have is if you are vegetarian. South
Africans love their meat (god bless 'em!) and you will struggle
to find any creative vegetarian cooking. So why not just
give it up and enjoy; after all, if animals weren't meant to be
eaten, then why are they made of meat?
favourite foods along the way were ostrich filet (for once, an
exotic meat that doesn't taste like chicken), biltong
(delicious and extremely chewy dried meat strips - sort of like
beef jerky but much better) and crayfish.
Things to See and Do
The sheer size and diversity of South Africa result in an
variety of things to see and do. If you only have
a week or two in which to visit, you are going to have to make
some tough decisions. We had five weeks in the country and
found that to be a sufficient amount of time to see most of the
main regions of the country. Of course, there were a lot
more places we would have liked to visit if we had more time but
overall we were quite happy with the amount of ground we
covered. We rented a vehicle in Capetown then basically
drove all the way up the coast to Swaziland then cut across to
Johannesburg. Along the way we made plenty of trips off
the major highways to out of the way places, clocking up a total
of 4600 kilometers. Here are some the places and things we
enjoyed the most:
Drive to Cape
One of the best day trips from Capetown
is a trip to Cape Point, which is the southern-most tip of the
Cape peninsula. Much of the trip is along a coastal road
which boasts some heart pounding vistas and some lovely little
towns such as Simon's Bay. The peninsula ends in a nature
reserve where you are sure to see baboons along the road and
also perhaps some antelope in the fields. Near to a town
called Boulders is a huge colony of "Jackass Penguins" which I
believe have now been renamed to South African Penguins.
What a shame. Anyway, they are cute little buggers.
From this same coastal road it is possible to see whales quite
close to shore, if you are
at the right time of year (August to November).
Cage Diving with
Great White Sharks
Sounds scary? This was probably my favourite day trip in
South Africa. To get a good idea of what to expect, have a
look at the little
I wrote about the day Ana and I spent with the great whites.
There is a range of mountains called the Drakensburg and a visit
there is definitely worthwhile. We went to the southern
part of the range and did a great day trip to the Sani Pass,
which is a high altitude border crossing between South Africa
and Lesotho, which is a small country completely surrounded by
South Africa). At this pass you will be able to drink a
beer in the highest pub in Africa! You could have a Coke
instead if you liked, but that's hardly the same now is it?
Region (The Wild Coast)
Located right in the middle of Xhosa territory, the Transkei
region is one of the best places to see a very traditional
African way of life. It was only recently that this region
became a part of South Africa and it is evident that it has not
shared in the economic development and management of resources
present in other parts of the country. Here you will see
unbelievable soil erosion and land so overgrazed that barely a
blade of grass grows. Nevertheless, for these reasons it
is a very dramatic and rewarding place to visit. I wrote a
short story about our entertaining trip to a small Xhosa
Steam Train from George to Knysna
That's right, an old fashioned coal powered steam train in
perfect operating order! An absolute must for train
fanatics. The route takes you through some stunning
scenery and as you pass through the farms and villages,
everybody you see drops what they are doing and waves at you on
the train as you pass! Once you get to Knysna, there is a
two hour stopover before the train does the return journey which
is enough time to have a wander through the harbour and even
visit the Knysna Oyster Company for a tour and oyster tasting.
There are too many game parks in South Africa to mention, but
suffice to say that a visit is incomplete without spending some
time in one or more of them. We planned on visiting Kruger
park, which is the largest in the country and most popular, but
once we had visited Umfulozi (check the spelling on that one!)
near St. Lucia and seen so many animals we decided not to go the
extra distance to Kruger. One morning we saw 37 black and
white rhinos! One thing you may not realise about South
Africa is that you are not going to see too many wild animals
outside of the game reserves. The parks are huge pieces of
land enclosed by electric fences and the animal populations
inside the parks are known and individual animals are monitored.
In fact, the various game parks in the country by law must
rotate animals between them so as to prevent inbreeding.
So you are not going to see a pride of lions chasing a herd of
wildebeast across the highway therefore don't worry about taking
advantage of the 120 kph speed limit!
Hike up Table Mountain in Capetown
actually cheated and took the cable car! The hike takes
approximately two hours and there are a variety of different
pathways to reach the top. The views from the top of Table
Mountain are incredible, especially if you get a clear day.
Take some food along and enjoy an unforgettable picnic.
The Incredible Dung Beetle
St. Lucia we saw a number of dung beetles and they are the most
incredible little creatures! The males collect pieces of
dung and roll in into perfectly round, hard balls, often along
the paved roads. The bigger the ball of poop, the more
impressed are the females, who then allow the male to push the
ball into their "underground lair" where they lay their eggs
inside. When the young beetles hatch they have the
exciting prospect of being on a 100% protein rich diet of pure
shyte for the first weeks of their life. Once they eat
their way out of the brown ball I suppose they go on to roll
balls of their own.
Self Guided Day Hikes
You can do self guided day hikes pretty much anywhere. All
you need to do is the following:
Wake up early and plan out your route
2. Prepare a nice picnic lunch
3. Realise that by 8:30 am it is already blazing hot outside
4. Find a nice spot in the shade and some interesting people to
5. Sit around all morning talking with your new buddies, making
sure to reposition oneself as required to avoid direct sunlight.
6. When hungry, open packed lunch and enjoy your sandwiches
knowing that you have not done a single minute of exercise all
morning! Well, this is supposed to be a vacation, so