Ultimate Backpacking guide for South Africa

The trip through South Africa started on the plane watching Clint Eastwood’s “Invictus” 25 years after the fact, I didn’t expect the social differences between black and white to be so exaggerated. Although apartheid ended long ago, it is seen in practically all places that whites are the ones who have the money and power, while 80% of the black population of the country is mainly dedicated to the service sector. They are also the ones who live poorly in the slums.

The country is also very different from what I could have imagined both in development and geographically. The landscapes change completely every 15 minutes as you drive through the country, mountainous and green landscapes, eternal vineyards that disappear on the horizon, kilometer-long sandy beaches and aggressive rocky outcrops that plunge violently into the ocean.

Everything you need to know for your trip to South Africa:

  1. Best time of the year to visit South Africa
  2. Best tips to visit South Africa
  3. 14 Day itinerary in South Africa
    1. Days 1 to 3: Cape Town
    2. Day 4: Cape of Good Hope
    3. Day 5: Hermanus and Mossel Bay
    4. Days 6 to 7: Knysna, Wilderness and Nature’s Valley
    5. Day 8: Addo National Park
    6. Days 9 to 12: Jeffrey’s Bay
    7. Days 13 and 14: Johannesbourg
  4. Daily budget for backpacking South Africa
  5. Where to stay in South Africa
  6. What to do in South Africa if you have more time

Tipo de cambio oficial 1EUR = 17rand (ZAR)

Best time of the year to visit South Africa

South Africa is located in the southern hemisphere, which means that the seasons are reversed with respect to Europe. When there is winter here (Europe) it is summer and vice versa.

The climate is very similar to that of the Mediterranean countries, mild winters and hot summers. Normally the temperatures tend to improve and increase from west to east, that is to say in Cape Town the weather will always be somewhat cooler than in Durban and Johannesbourg.

There are two regions that, on the other hand, have a different behavior than the coastal regions and those of Jo’burg and Pretoria. The interior of the country is more extreme, much drier and with little vegetation with daily oscillations of about 20ºC of minimum and maximum near 35ºC of maximum in summer and 20ºC in winter. The west coast north of Cape Town, with little rainfall, has a constant spring weather throughout the year.

Although it is true that I did not expect it, November is a typically rainy month. If you have to choose a time of year to visit the country, I recommend that you go from December to February.

Best tips to visit South Africa

  • Transportation: If you want to see something more than Cape Town, you will need to rent a car, yes or yes. You have no alternative, I have traveled to much less developed countries with more public transport and safer than the one you will find in South Africa. The distances between cities are enormous, there are no trains and the buses between Cape Town and Jo’burg run a couple of times a day and the schedules are terrible. They drive on the left as in the UK, but after two hours you will have gotten used to it and the South Africans circulate better than they say, ignore them and dare.
  • Gasoline: Gas stations between cities are scarce and you can be perfectly 100km without finding any, so do not gamble with an empty tank.
  • Baz Bus: It’s a backpackers bus running from Cape Town to Jo’burg. I understand it stops all the way down the south coast towards Durban and then up towards Jo’burg. This bus is ideal for meeting other travelers and stops on demand at all hostels to drop off its passengers.
  • Uber / Bolt: The most efficient and safe method of transport in big cities, very cheap and from Cape Town you can get anywhere using it. Be careful with taxis, I made the wrong taxi in Port Elizabeth and I had a run-in with the taxi driver and he almost robbed me (I was to naive).
  • Safety: Referring to the previous point. Yes, it is a dangerous country in the big cities Cape Town and Johannesbourg you should try to move with more people or with Uber if you move at night, by day you shouldn’t have any problem and there are a lot of police.
  • Water: Water is drinkable! The first time I find drinking water from the tap in Africa, it is nice to know, since I did not discover it until the third day.

14 Day itinerary in South Africa

Perhaps the most atypical trip that I have faced and is that due to an injury in Cape Town on the second day, a cut in the foot while surfing and the Omicron variant two days after leaving the country, I had to adapt my itinerary.

In my initial plan, my intention was not to stay in JBay (Jeffrey’s Bay) but to continue to KwaZulu-Natal to discover the hidden beaches of the east of the country, visit some tribes that still maintain their culture and do a trekking of a couple of days through Drakensberg.

Days 1 to 3: Cape Town

To some it may seem that 3 days in Cape Town are insufficient and it is true that a city of these characteristics lasts for many days and its surroundings also have a lot to offer. Two areas to stay in Cape Town are the CBD near the Loop and Long Street and the V&A Waterfront area, they are very safe during the day and are close to all the main tourist attractions.

Day 1

After about 20 hours of flight and arriving somewhat late, the important thing was to take the day calmly so as not to wear out too much. Also, I was lucky enough to meet a group of people who would become my friends for the 4 days I was in Cape Town.

So after arriving at the hostel we went to spend the afternoon on Muizenberg beach. A typically local beach, with impressive waves for surfing (perhaps the main one in Cape Town), you will also find everything from typical huts of very picturesque colors. How do you think the water is in South Africa? Frost!!! The water is quite cold whatever they put it, the part of the Indian Ocean is less cold than the beaches on the Atlantic coast.

Back in downtown, before arriving at the hostel, we spent a while in the Bo-Kapp neighborhood. This was one of the first settlements of the freed slaves in Cape Town, they began to live in this neighborhood which little by little they were filling with life by painting its facades in colors.

Day 2

Ascent to the popular Table Mountain, if you go short on time you have two trekking options in Cape Town. You can climb Table Mountain or Lion’s Head. The advantage of Lion’s head is the views of Table Mountain and its main disadvantage is that logically you do not go up Table Mountain. If you have time I recommend that you do both.

How to climb to the top? You can get to its top with the Cableway for about 400R y / v or you can walk up it (my recommendation), going up there are several options, easy and difficult. The easy option is about 4 hours of walking to its top and the difficult one, although it is not technical at all, are steps for 2.5 hours through a gorge that will leave you exhausted, this last option is called Platteklip Gorge. The views once up are brutal, on a clear day you can see the city at 360ºC.

Vistas desde Table Mountain

After a small injury (very silly) at the top we went to Hout Bay to eat and rest on the beach with a friend to regain strength, it is about 30 minutes by Uber from the CBD. To end the day, walk along the V&A Waterfront, one of the main commercial and social arteries of the city. Located in the port where you take the ferry to Robben Island, you will find a photograph of the typical American docks, full of shops, offices and shopping centers, it is good to go to eat, but it is not the place where I like to spend a lot of time.

Day 3

Although for personal reasons I could not visit the city. On this third day I can give you a couple of recommendations to do.

For wine lovers: You should not miss visiting the famous South African wineries, if you do not have private transport and even if you do, if you want to drink, I recommend that you use either a tram that goes to the main wineries in the region, the City Sightseeing bus It goes out 3 or 4 times a week (Monday is one of those days).

For history lovers: Robben Island is undoubtedly a place that will not leave you indifferent, Nelson Mandela former president of South Africa spent 18 of his 27 years in prison in that jail that you can currently visit. To top off the day with a wonderful sunset at Camp’s Bay.

Finally, for gastronomy lovers I leave you some places to eat in Cape Town. La Matta Pizzeria on long street, spectacular and delicious wood-fired pizzas. Beach Bar Hout Bay very good restaurant where you can eat fish, squid are delicious. Sushi in Willoughby at the V&A Waterfront and streetfood at the Eastern Food Bazaar in the CBD.

Day 4: Cape of Good Hope

The best way to visit this peninsula is by private car or one of the daily tours that depart from Cape Town. After picking up the car that I would use for the next five days at the airport, we headed for the first stop.

Boulder’s Beach, maybe the name doesn’t tell you anything, but if I say Penguin Beach, you know what I’m talking about. This is the name of the African penguin colony at the Cape of Good Hope. It is an endangered species, throughout the 20th century its population decreased by 90%, for this reason the government launched this mechanism of national parks and reserved areas to protect them from fishermen.

After eating at British Restaurant in Simon’s Town, we headed for the Cape of Good Hope National Park, just a 30-minute drive away. We made the mistake of being a bit late and were a bit limited by time. I recommend that you head towards the southernmost point where the lighthouse is located, from there you can contemplate the force of the Atlantic and Indian Oceans attacking the cliffs. If you have about 90 minutes and / or I recommend that you do the trekking towards the southernmost part. Within the national park you can find macaques, ostriches, gazelles and other animals in freedom that you can observe from inside your vehicle.

After returning to drop off my friends in Cape Town, I headed for Hermanus (a couple of hours by car).

Day 5: Hermanus and Mossel Bay

The Garden Route begins here, if you want more detail about everything you can do on the Garden Route and what places to visit, click on this link to discover the ultimate guide to plan your Garden Route roadtrip.

Although the Garden Route officially begins in Mossel Bay, most people usually stop at Hermanus because it is halfway there and because it is honestly one of the most beautiful towns that you will find on your route, the detour is worth it.

Hermanus is a very residential city and from what I could see (the big beachfront villas) with money. Personally, I think that with one morning you have enough, but each one is the owner and lord of his time. You have a couple of very nice walks in front of the ocean of about 2:30 am and / or each going east to the Dutchies restaurant and another west towards the marina. It is worth stopping to observe the views, as the rock formations along the coast will not leave you indifferent (although Knysna, plays in another league) and if you are a bit lucky and do not go in summer you can get to see whales. from the coast. If you are not that lucky you can always join a whale watching tour / boat.

When you head towards Mossel Bay I recommend that you use the R320 road and join the N2 in Caledon it is the one with the best views. Its winding road cuts right and left through vineyards as you leave the ocean behind and head towards the green hills of the Garden Route. Once you get to Mossel Bay where there is not much to do you can eat some delicious oysters at Oyster Bar or for those who want to walk head to the lighthouse and do the St Blaize walk that runs along the cliffs of the coast. The wind and rain that day were terrible so I opted for the first option.

Don’t miss out on the most authentic hotel I’ve stayed in in a long time, the Santos Express!

Days 6 and 7: Knysna, Wilderness and Nature’s Valley

Day 1

The charm of Garden Route is to stop your vehicle in the place that seems most interesting to you, on the most beautiful beach, in the national park that catches your attention or to eat some oysters in that seafood restaurant that you have been recommended .

Knysna, however, plays a very different role, you will rarely see an entrance to a port like Knysna. Named by the British Royal Navy as the most dangerous port access in the world, you will understand why when you climb the Knysna Heads viewpoints. You will admire the ocean slamming into the cliffs, rocks and reefs everywhere and a narrow channel that leads to the bay of the quiet town of Knysna.

When you have tired of watching you can have some squid or a hake at the East Heads Cafe Knysna restaurant. Very reasonable prices and local beer overlooking Knysna bay.

Day 2

This is a day that is not easily forgotten, a day that if you dare will remain etched in your memory and heart forever. If you still don’t know what I’m talking about, google  Bloukrans Bridge Bungee or look at the next picture.

It is the highest bungee jumping in the world, 5 seconds of fall from 216 meters of height, of adrenaline, high, joy, screams and happiness that I will remember all my life and that you must also record in your memory. The guys who work there are lovely, the safety and professionalism is maximum and the prices are very competitive (€ 65) per jump and zipline between the bridge piers and the jump point.

The moment you get to the end of the jump point they count to three and even if you are afraid of heights (as I am) the adrenaline takes over and makes you jump into the abyss without hesitation. After the jump you will spend three days with a smile painted on your face. I recommend that you buy the video for about 400R you will have professional photos and a video for posterity showing how daring you are.

The afternoon plan was a little more relaxed, Tsitsikamma National Park, a short hike of a couple of hours and a swim in the icy waters of the national park to finish heading to JBay.

Day 8: Addo National Park

Although I have already done a 4D3N safari in Tanzania this year and Kruger National Park is perhaps the quintessential place in South Africa to see wild animals, there is always time to stop to see animals and even more so when you can circulate freely with your vehicle.

Located just 30 minutes from Port Elizabeth and an hour and a half from Jeffrey’s Bay is Addo Elephant National Park, one of the only national parks in the world where you can go on safari and see the sea at the same time.

You can go around it in about 5-6 hours depending on what you are seeing and how lively the animal fauna is that day. Regarding animals, especially you will see elephants, many and up close. Speaking from memory I think we saw about 60 in total throughout the day in small groups or in herds always eating or rolling in the mud to cool off and protect themselves from the sun. Other animals that you can find are zebras, gazelles, bushbucks, buffaloes, dung beetles (if you read it correctly, there are many and they are sooo big) and although with less presence and difficulty of sighting, there are also lions and leopards although we were not lucky. to be able to see them.

Days 9-12: Jeffrey’s Bay

Jeffrey’s Bay, AKA JBay. It is the capital of surfing in South Africa, great surfers and champions have come out of the shores and waves of this small town. In my case I spent four days surfing at Surf Lodge SA in Paradise Beach in JBay.

It is an ideal place for any type of surfing level, for beginners and intermediates in Kitchen’s window and for more advanced in The Point and other places that I do not know its name because I do not have enough XD level.

The atmosphere and vibe in the city is very relaxed, perfect for morning surf sessions, good restaurants to eat and a city center with all kinds of shops and entertainment to spend the day. If you want to start or refresh your notions of surfing or simply rent material, I recommend that you get in touch with the guys from Salted, one of the best surf schools in the city. The price of the group classes are 320R for almost two hours with material included, apart from this you can rent boards for about 100R if you take their group classes.

Days 13 and 14: Johannesburg

I don’t like to speak ill of places that I don’t know in depth, but I think that in the case of Jo’burg (Johannesbourg) I think it does justice to its fame. The little I was there due to the incident with the Omicron variant, medical tests and long hours at the OR Tambo airport.

My impression of Jo’burg was of a gigantic ghetto, practically all the streets that I traveled both to and from the airport looked misery on the streets and gave a feeling of little security including the CBD where I was staying. Perhaps the Apartheid museum is the main highlight in the most populated city in South Africa.

Daily budget for backpacking South Africa

South Africa is an expensive country to travel, mainly because of transportation. It is a large country and to travel it you will need to travel constantly. So you should rent a car or if you move by public transport keep in mind how inefficient it is.

You should estimate around € 4-5 each way on Uber in Cape Town and big cities. But if you decide to go to do the garden route you will need about € 40-50 a day in expenses related to car rental, gasoline and some tolls.

Food and accommodation are quite affordable, at least once a day with the people I met we would eat out in good places and in tourist areas and for about € 5-7 with tip you can eat in many places. Most hostels range between € 10-15 a day depending on the city. In Cape Town there is more demand and they are cheaper and on the garden route they are somewhat more expensive.

Daily budget for backpacking South Africa

Leisure is another of the great expenses, but, if you have not come to have fun, what have you come? Most National Parks cost between about 150-400R (€ 7-20) and activities such as Bungee or Skydiving about € 70 the first and around € 100 the second, the rest of kayak-style activities, whale watching, vineyards, surf lessons are around 400R each.

Where to stay in South Africa

I stayed in a total of 6 places although I can only recommend half of them, as the rest were either dirty or there were people who were not travelers and were in long term sleep and the atmosphere was a bit strange.

  • 91 Loop Boutique Hostel // Cape Town: Located in the financial center of Cape Town, less than 5 minutes walk from all the nightlife and restaurant area and 10 minutes by Uber from anywhere. Quite social, very clean, safe and recently renovated.
  • Santos Express // Mossel Bay: One of the most interesting hotels I have ever stayed in. It is an old train with rooms that currently works as a hotel. The rooms are small and the bed is not the most comfortable in the world, but it is worth staying for the experience alone.
  • Surf Lodge South Africa // Jeffrey’s Bay: It is a villa in Paradise Beach (JBay) that works as a surf house, most of the people who stay here are for several days and to do surf lessons. The vibe is quite good and a lot of community is created between most of the guests and workers. They offer competitive prices for surf lessons and the lodge facilities are impeccable and everything is always very clean.

What to do in South Africa if you have more time

Due to my injury and time constraints and covid I was not able to visit all the places I wanted. Here are some of them:

  • Drakensberg: On the border with Lesotho, it is one of the most impressive mountains and landscapes in Africa, it is recommended to stay in the area that goes in the direction of Sani Pass (access to Lesotho)
  • Lesotho: The micro country that is located in the heart of South Africa, offers many possibilities in the field of trekking through the mountains and landscapes. Fun fact: it is the country with the highest lowest point in the world.
  • KwaZulu-Natal: The most unspoiled and authentic part of South Africa, in this less developed region east of Durban you will still find some tribes that preserve their traditions and unspoiled beaches without tourists.
  • Kruger National Park: Together with Maasai Mara and Serengeti one of the best national parks for safari in the world. If you have never done a safari you should not miss it. You will have the chance to see the Big 5 and drive on your own through the National Park.

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