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Backpacking in South Africa

When you hear South Africa, you think of two things: Table Mountain and crime. But South Africa, a country with about 3,700 hours of sunshine, about 3,000 kilometres of coastline, 11 official languages and nine provinces, is a country where there is so much more to discover than just Cape Town.

With a population of just 55 million, most of whom live in the megametropolises of Johannesburg and Cape Town, travellers to South Africa still find untouched nature and unbelievable diversity ranging from savannahs and deserts to tropical vegetation. In the Cape region around Cape Town alone there are about 9,000 different plant species. Hardly any other place in the world is so diverse.

Backpacking Südafrika

Backpacking South Africa – Road Trip

Not only the flora and fauna, but also the rest of the country lives up to the name Rainbow Nation: Zulu, Xhosa, Basotho, Venda, Tswana, Tsonga, Swazi and Ndebele live in South Africa beside the descendants of French, Dutch and British immigrants, many Asians of Indian origin and of course the Koi San, the original inhabitants of South Africa.

The country is still struggling with the late consequences of apartheid, townships and an obvious segregation of ethnic groups are still part of the cityscape and can seem strange to foreign tourists. Just like the electric fences that surround and secure many blocks of flats. Yes, South Africa is a country full of contrasts.

If you want, you can travel to the southernmost country of the African continent, simply enjoy nature and deliberately ignore politics – this may also be legitimate. But if you also want to learn more about the past of the country and its inhabitants, you can combine an adventure holiday with culture and learn a lot more.

However, the country has a big advantage as a travel destination for all those who are afraid of foreign languages: As English is one of the 10 official languages, everyone speaks the world language. More or less well, of course. With a few lumps of English and in an emergency once hand and foot it really goes everywhere, however. Whoever speaks Dutch, will probably get away with it quite well, because it is not so unlike Afrikaans. The click languages Zulu and Xhosa certainly can’t be learnt that fast.

South Africa is surprisingly easy to travel by rental car or bus. The infrastructure over country and also in the cities is well developed, the roads (except for some dirt roads) generally in a good to passable condition. Fuel is incomparably cheap and therefore South Africa is also ideal for an extensive road trip. Cheap airlines make also domestic flights affordable, because the distances in South Africa have it in itself. Between Cape Town and Johannesburg alone there are 2 flight hours or 2,000 kilometres.

Since tourism accounts for over seven percent of South Africa’s gross domestic product, the country tries to offer tourists as much as possible. Accommodation is available for every budget and price range. The backpackers are usually very beautiful and try to outdo each other with special features. Outdoor shower, sleeping in a real train or free surf lessons? Can you have everything!

And the annoying topic of safety? First and foremost: listen to common sense. That means avoiding dark corners at night and generally not being alone on the road. In larger cities, Uber brings you home cheaply at any time. Also, never leave anything unattended or lying around in a rental car or hostel. Backpacks that are easy to reach into are not necessarily suitable as luggage. It’s better to take a shoulder bag that you have under control on the side.

You should only withdraw money at ATMs in malls or gas stations. Otherwise, it may happen that someone simply grabs the card from the back of your hand or that the machine is prepared and you still have to fight credit card fraud months later. But there are secure ATMs everywhere. Sometimes, however, they only accept foreign cards after some bitching.

Backpacking Südafrika

Backpacking South Africa

Culture in South Africa

Well, what is typical of South Africa? This is difficult to say in a country that is a true melting pot of cultures.

But all South Africans have one thing in common: a friendly, open manner. Nothing in South Africa is easier than talking to locals and internationals. People are very curious about strangers. “Where do you come from? will often be the first question you hear. In general, however, South Africans have a good opinion of Europeans and Germans. Of course, depending on your income class, it can also happen that you are asked for money. Here it has proved to be good to give food, but no money. What that is used for, you can’t know after all.

And all South Africans have one thing in common: they are “proudly South African”. South African flags can be found everywhere in front of gardens and official buildings. The favourite activity of barbecuing (braai in South African) connects all classes and nationalities. Just like the understanding of time. Because the South African clocks tick completely differently than the German ones. At a party, which begins from 19 o’clock, no South African is to be found before 20 o’clock. Anyone who comes earlier is definitely an expat.

Even own terms of time are used. If a South African says to you: “I’ll do it now”, then you can be sure that it won’t happen in the next minutes, hours or even days. Relaxed and laid-back, that’s the attitude of the country. That’s certainly quite pleasant when you’re on a leisurely holiday, bureaucracy becomes even more of a nerve-racking all-day task. But hopefully you won’t notice much with your backpack.

Backpacking Südafrika - Entspannung

Backpacking South Africa – relax

More Backpacker Information about South Africa

In general, South Africa is not an expensive travel destination. But also here it depends of course on the period. Especially in the popular period from November to February, when it is winter in Europe, the overnight prices are already much more expensive. Restaurants get their “tourist menus” out and the prices for food and drinks rise. Since the rand as a currency is generally rather weak, however, you can still get away cheaply with Euros in South Africa.

For food and drinks you don’t have to calculate more than 15-20 Euro per day. If you add museums or transport, it will probably be 25-40 euros, which you can calculate per day. Often there are also discounts for students in the various museums – however, for South African students predominate. You can try it anyway, sometimes nice words work wonders!

If you are planning a backpacking trip, which is mainly focused on nature and nature parks and if you are in South Africa for a longer period (the tourist visa is valid for 90 days from the date of entry), then a wildcard might pay off. With this card you get free entry to more than 80 parks and also for sights like Table Mountain or at least a substantial discount.

But a wildcard has to be bought for a whole year, so it’s really only worth it for a long stay and if you plan to hike or camp a lot in national parks. For one person, the wildcard costs 515 Rand, thus around 36 Euro. For two persons it is 852 Rand, thus approximately 80 Euro. Thus, it can be worthwhile to do here together with the travel partner.

To book a trip in such a far away country in advance can be complicated. Fortunately, the offer of hostels and backpackers in South Africa is so big that it is often enough to call one or two days before the actual overnight stay and book a room or dorm. With a certain flexibility, one can always find a bed and a roof over one’s head. The best and most beautifully located hostels are all collected in the “Coast to Coast”, a little booklet that is available in almost every hostel or backpackers.

The best way to travel to South Africa is by long-distance bus, with the Baz Bus, an organized bus that goes from hostel to hostel or by rental car. Which option is best for you depends on your budget and your desire for flexibility.

Backpacker Routen in Südafrika

South Africa has something for every backpacker. Whether adventure, nature or culture – everything is possible. You can move from national park to national park. You can explore the metropolises Johannesburg and Cape Town or hold your feet in the bathtub warm Indian Ocean. This is entirely up to you.

Route 1: The Garden Route (approx. 14 days)

  • 2-5 days exploring Cape Town and surroundings
  • Spend 1-2 days in Hermanus by the sea (and watch whales from July-November)
  • Spend 1-2 days in Mossel Bay
  • 2-3 days in Wilderness enjoying the tropical nature and afterwards one day sightseeing in the picturesque Knysna
  • 1 day stopover in Plettenberg Bay, from there make a detour to Victoria Bay
  • 1-2 days in Storms River to explore Tsitsikama National Park and cross Suspension Bridge
  • Try 1-2 days surfing in Jeffreys Bay
  • 1 day in Port Elizabeth to end the trip

Route 2: Once through South Africa (about 1 month)

  • 2-5 days exploring Cape Town and surroundings
  • Spend 1-2 days in Hermanus by the sea (and watch whales from July-November)
  • Spend 1-2 days in Mossel Bay
  • 2-3 days in Wilderness enjoying the tropical nature and afterwards one day sightseeing in the picturesque Knysna
  • 1 day stopover in Plettenberg Bay, from there make a detour to Victoria Bay
  • 1-2 days in Storms River to explore Tsitsikama National Park and cross Suspension Bridge
  • Try 1-2 days surfing in Jeffreys Bay
  • Spend 1 day in Port Elizabeth and gather new strength
  • Spend 1-2 days in the hinterland of the Eastern Cape in Hogsback and experience Africa in a different way.
  • 2-3 days in Coffee Bay to let the soul dangle and switch off
  • 1-2 days in Durban
  • 3-4 days exploring and hiking the Drakensberg Mountains
  • 3-4 days in Johannesburg to soak up culture and visit Soweto
  • Afterwards an alternative trip to the Kruger National Park Alternatively a trip to the Kruger National Park (another 4-5 days).
Backpacking Südafrika - Strand

Backpacking South Arica – Beach

Travel times in South Africa

The ideal travel time for South Africa does not really exist. The country can be travelled at any time of the year. South Africa is a very large country that can be divided into three climate zones.

The west coast around Cape Town has mainly dry, hot summers and cool, humid winters. The rain starts in May/June and lasts until August or September. For the Western Cape this is therefore not the ideal travel time. Also, because the temperatures fall to about 15 degrees. In summer it has a pleasant 26-28 degrees, but it is very windy. In general, the Cape often suffers from drought in summer, bush fires are the order of the day.

The east coast already benefits from the warmth of the Indian Ocean. The weather is humid (especially in summer) and warm, in the Drakensbergen it can rain. Even in winter the temperature does not fall far below 20 degrees.

The interior of South Africa is dry, the rainy season is between October and April. In the summer it is very hot with over 30 degrees, in the winter even snow can fall in the mountains.

Whales can be seen in Cape Town from July to October. From July to October is also a good time for safaris, as the animals can be seen at the waterholes because of the dryness. But the nights are cold in the South African winter.

Also good to know: Also the South Africans like to spend their holidays in their own country. Johannesburger it pulls over Christmas to Cape Town and also to Easter are the South Africans in the own homeland on the way. Easter, December and January are therefore expensive months, if you do not book in advance, as long as it is still favorable.

Backpacker Budget in Südafrika

As far as your budget is concerned, South Africa can be a cheaper or more expensive destination. This depends on your preferences.

For the entrance into a national park you can count about 150 Rand (approx. 10 Euro). Activities like Shark Cage Diving or the highest Bungee Jump in the world are of course more expensive. You can pay 50-60 Euro for this.

Also with the choice of your means of transportation it depends completely on whether you would like to drive bus or car. If you’re heading over your head, you can expect to spend about 15 euros a day on transportation. Accommodation is also available from 150 Rand (approx. 10 Euro).

Food and drink is very cheap in South Africa. Already for 80 Rand, about 6 Euro, you can eat and drink in a restaurant. Your expenses for food and drink will not amount to much more than 10-15 Euro per day.

The BazBus for backpackers

The BazBus is the ideal option for you if you are travelling alone, if you don’t feel comfortable on your own or if you don’t want to spend so much time organising your trip. He drives to more than 180 hostels in 40 cities – and drives you comfortably from door to door. Of course you are not so flexible because only certain hostels are served – there are shuttles to other locations, but not everywhere. Also the BazBus only runs once a day – after that the planning has to be done.

There are various options on the BazBus website, such as a travel pass for one, two or three weeks or combined packages that also include safaris or adventure tours. The classic BazBus ticket is probably the Hop-on-hop-off ticket. For a trip from Cape Town to Johannesburg this costs 4,400 Rand (approx. 313 Euro). With that your route is fixed, but you don’t have a time limit you have to stick to.

For trips to Durban or Port Elizabeth it is accordingly cheaper. A 3-week pass costs 299 Euro. So the BazBus is of course not the cheapest option, but it takes a lot of organizational planning off your hands – and you don’t have to drive a car either.

Bus driving in South Africa

Bus driving in South Africa will surely give you the true backpacker feeling. You are travelling over land and with locals. And of course you’re completely flexible, because the buses don’t go to certain hostels like the BazBus does. You can drive wherever you want. Disadvantage: The bus stations are often outside the city, you don’t arrive directly at the door of your hostel.

However, driving a bus in South Africa is almost as luxurious as in Europe with WLAN (okay, that rarely works), air conditioning and snacks on board. It is also much cheaper than the BazBus. The two big providers are Greyhound and Intercape.

  • Cape Town-Durban: from 600 Rand (approx. 40 Euro)
  • Cape Town-Port Elizabeth: from 320 Rand (approx. 23 Euro)
  • Durban – Johannesburg: from 290 Rand (approx. 20 Euro)
  • George-Knysna: from 216 Rand (approx. 15 Euro).

Driving in South Africa

Of course, your own car offers the highest degree of flexibility. However, you must also be able to drive yourself. For this you need an international driving licence. But every driver’s license office issues it within a very short time. And don’t forget: In South Africa, left-hand traffic applies. That’s a change during the first few days, but you’ll get used to it quickly!

The speed limits are also somewhat different: 60 km/h in urban areas, 80 km/h on country roads and 100 or 120 km/h on motorways. But they’re not the same as you know from German motorways. It can also happen that a country road crosses and then there is a traffic light in the middle of the motorway. Or people and animals just walk across the road everywhere and at any time. Keep your eyes open! Otherwise, however, the main roads in South Africa are generally in good condition. Only in the hinterland you can come across a dirt road, or in the mountains.

The blood alcohol limit in South Africa is 0.5 per mil. You better stick to that, because whoever gets caught spends a night in jail! And I’m sure you wouldn’t want that in South Africa on your holiday.

It makes sense to book the rental car already from Germany. Prices and ABGs are more transparent there and all major car rental providers are also available in South Africa. In addition you should choose a rental car without mileage limit, so that there is no expensive surprise at the end of the journey. Also invest in insurance, as break-ins in cars are not uncommon.

You shouldn’t leave any valuables in the car, but it’s also best not to leave any objects there. If possible, the car should be parked overnight in a courtyard or on a guarded parking lot. There are insurance policies that also cover theft.

If you do not fly directly in the high season, you can already fly for around 20 Euro.

Backpacking Südafrika - Tafelberg

Backpacking South Africa – Table Mountain

Domestic fares in South Africa

Domestic flights are cheap in South Africa. The most profitable domestic airlines are Kulula, FlySafair and Mango. But also with South African Airways there are sometimes cheap domestic flights in South Africa.

  • Cape Town-Durban: from 80 Euro
  • Cape Town-Johannesburg: from 60 Euro
  • Durban-Johannesburg: from 40 Euro
  • Port Elizabeth-Durban: from 50 Euro

But of course you miss a lot of flying experiences that you can make “on the road”. For someone who doesn’t have that much time, it’s of course a possibility to only fly a shorter distance and then cover a long distance with a flight, for example from Port Elizabeth after a road trip on the Garden Route to Johannesburg to spend a few more days there.

Backpacker Unterkünfte in Südafrika

The choice of accommodation in South Africa is wide. In larger cities everything is available from hostels to good boutique hotels. Airbnb apartments or couchsurfing are also a good option. Airbnb can be a cheaper choice than a hotel or even hostel, especially in very popular tourist resorts like Hermanus during the whale season. Couchsurfing is a good way to get cheap accommodation in Cape Town, Durban or Johannesburg, for example.

All in all, the prices of the hostels depend very much on the location and are not necessarily super cheap. Especially Cape Town and Johannesburg are sometimes close to European overnight prices. But on the Garden Route and along the Wild Coast the overnight stays become a bit cheaper again. And in general it can be said: The hostels in South Africa really offer something to their visitors! Beautiful views, cool events and the opportunity to work as a volunteer, for example.

Here an overview of the average prices in the different cities of Hostelworld:

  • Cape Town: 225 Rand (approx. 16 Euro)
  • Durban: 187 Rand (ca. 13 Euro)
  • Jeffreys Bay: 180 Rand (approx. 12,50 Euro)
  • Mossel Bay: 80 Rand (approx. 6 Euro)
  • Johannesburg: 194 Rand (approx. 14 Euro)
  • Port Elizabeth: 151 Rand (approx. 11 Euro)
  • Stellenbosch: 165 Rand (approx. 12 Euro)
  • Knysna: 170 Rand (approx. 12 Euro)
  • Oudtshoorn: 180 Rand (ca. 12,50 Euro)

In general, it is worth comparing prices. Smaller Bed & Breakfast pensions are sometimes with 15-20 Euro per night hardly more expensive than a hostel, but offer more comfort. Airbnb can sometimes be more expensive than planned. So it’s worth comparing different providers.

It is rather to be advised against private accommodations or Facebook advertisements, it can be a Scam, thus a fraud, act and you arrive locally, your money is away however no vacation home or no Hostel is present. So you’d better book through the official sites.

Backpacker Trips, Tipps & Highlights in Südafrika

Backpacking through South Africa allows you to focus more on nature and hiking, on surfing and beach holidays or on culture and art. This is entirely up to you. Of course you can also combine both directly with each other.

Among the absolute highlights are the cities of Cape Town, Durban and Johannesburg. Also the Garden Route, the Spice Route in Stellenbosch, where one wine farm follows the other, the Wild Coast and the Drakensberg Mountains. Of course you can also concentrate more on one area, because South Africa is a huge country.

You can explore the Wild Coast from Port Elizabeth up to Durban and also travel a little inland on the East Coast to explore the city of Hogsback with its hippie flair. You can also travel from Cape Town up the Garden Route to Port Elizabeth, stop for a few days in Stellenbosch for wine tasting or in Hermanus for whale watching and visit Addo Elephant Park.

From Johannesburg it’s not far to Kruger or Botswana, Mozambique and Zambia if you want to expand your backpacking tour through all of South Africa.

There are beautiful beaches around Cape Town, along the Garden Route to the surfer’s paradise of Jeffreys Bay and on the Hibiscus Coast around Port Shepstone. This coastal strip is a real insider tip – South Africans tend to spend their holidays here. It is not so crowded with tourists and you can be lucky to be all alone on a kilometre long beach.

Backpacking Südafrika - Safari

Backpacking South Africa – Safari

Backpacker Highlights in South Africa

If you’re in Cape Town, watch the sunset from Signal Hill or hike up Table Mountain from the Kirstenbosch Botanical Garden. Let yourself drift in the colorful Bo-Kaap and enjoy Cape Malay Bobotie and if the opportunity arises, then definitely visit a South African Braai – a very meaty, but sociable affair.

The cities of Cape Town and Johannesburg are of course also full of culture, the traces of apartheid can still be seen everywhere. In Cape Town you can visit Robben Island, the island where Nelson Mandela spent over 20 years in prison. In Johannesburg you can take a tour of the world-famous Soweto township, where two Nobel laureates – Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu – lived, or visit the Apartheid Museum.

You can experience the more “traditional” South Africa on the Wild Coast and in the interior of the East Coast. But the East Coast has no coast, only the province is called that. The Garden Route is scenically and for hiking fans the best place to go. Here you can hike through dense forests and along wild rivers in the Tstistikamma National Park.

Backpacker insider tips in South Africa

South Africa lives from tourism, so there are hardly any insider tips left. The most beautiful corners are well developed, both in terms of accommodation and infrastructure. In the interior the roads are often not well developed, accommodations are rare and travelling is also less safe.

Most likely the Hibiscus Coast is still an insider tip, as it is not part of the famous Garden Route, which most tourists travel. However, South Africa is popular for its beautiful nature, beaches and mountains – and where it is most beautiful, you will inevitably meet other travellers.

Essen & Trinken in Südafrika

Of course, a big country also offers a great variety of culinary delights! You can feast in South Africa without any problems, but vegetarians may not get their money’s worth, because the South African cuisine is very meaty. In the big cities, however, the vegetarian vegan trend is also on the rise.

What all South Africans have in common is their love of grilling, called Braai. Meat or sausages are grilled, which are called Boerewoers here. Garlic bread or salads are also served. However, barbecuing here is a daily affair and not as effective as in Germany. Wood is used and until the first piece of meat is on the grill, it can take two or three hours. The sociable get-together is in the foreground.

In Cape Town the Cape Malay cuisine is very pronounced. The descendants of former slaves from Malaysia and other South Asian countries live mainly in the district Bo-Kaap. A speciality is Bobotie, a kind of casserole with minced meat and ice, with which yellow rice is served or the Koeksisters, very sweet cakes.

In Durban the Bunny Chow is well known, a curry served in a loaf of bread. Attention, hot! Otherwise there are foodstrucks or streetfood markets on every corner where you can really eat your way through. South Africa is incomparably cheap when it comes to going out to eat.

Food in South Africa

The English influence is still noticeable at breakfast – that can be hearty with bacon, egg and tomatoes. In the bigger cities there are not the well-known Starbucks logos to be found, but very tasty South African coffee roasters, which conjure up at least as good a latte. Muffins and sweet pastries are also popular for breakfast.

Lunch and dinner in South Africa are actually taken at the same time as in Germany, in summer, when it is very hot, a little later. In the cities many restaurants offer lunch specials where you can get two dishes for the price of one or for a much cheaper price. Otherwise there are actually no different menus for lunch and dinner. At noon it is a bit easier with wraps and salads. For dinner it may be gladly the steak.

Those who should not be so impressed by the South African cuisine will also find Italian or Asian restaurants everywhere.

Drinking in South Africa

The West Coast around Cape Town is a wine region. The South African wines are now world famous, especially the Cabernet Sauvignon – affectionately called Cab Sav – and the Pinotage, a grape variety that is only cultivated here in South Africa. A wine may be it gladly to the lunch already.

But the South Africans don’t brew bad beer either. Castle and Black Label are the best known brands, but craft beers are on the rise and there are many small breweries. And of course there is Amarula, a sweet liqueur made from the Amarula fruit.

In general there are many fresh fruits in South Africa, so you can buy great smoothies. And you can also drink the tap water in South Africa without hesitation – it belongs to one of the best in the world.

Backpacking Südafrika - Durban

Backpacking South Afrika – Durban

Backpacker Visa und Impfungen in Südafrika

As a German citizen you will have no problems entering South Africa. You will receive a visa for 90 days upon arrival. However, in case of doubt you have to show a return flight ticket – the customs officers have to ask for it, but they rarely do. However, I do not advise you to take any risks here.

Your passport must be valid until 30 days after the departure date and must also have two blank pages – one for the entry stamp and one for the exit stamp. Important: Since June 2015 the regulation has been in force that underage children may only enter the country with a birth certificate. This is intended to prevent child trafficking.

An extension of the 90-day visa is theoretically possible. However, the application should be made 60 days before the actual departure, a letter to Home Affairs must be presented, explaining why you want to stay longer in the country. The whole process is complex, expensive and requires many documents.

In addition, often no visa extension is issued for another three months, but only for one or two. It is therefore less stressful to simply plan the trip for a maximum of 90 days.

Medical Information & Vaccinations for South Africa

In South Africa there are generally no exceptional epidemics or tropical diseases to be expected. However, every backpacker should still have sufficient vaccination protection. This includes hepatitis A and B, tetanus and possibly rabies.

Malaria prophylaxis is needed in the Kruger National Park and some other parts of South Africa on the border with Mozambique or Botswana. In addition, almost 11% of the population in South Africa is HIV-positive. A certain caution in direct contact with blood and other bodily fluids is therefore appropriate here. For holiday lovers: Protect in any case!