One country, three weeks, and over 3400 kilometres. Our trip to South Africa was ambitious to say the least!
Over the course of three weeks, Sam and I managed to get ourselves from Johannesburg to Cape Town, and we still found time to do things like go on safari, hike the Drakensberg Mountains, go vineyard hopping in Stellenbosch, and much much more.
I’ve already written a few individual posts about some of the destinations we visited, and now this post is going to recap our 3 weeks in the country and show you some of the highlights along the way. This trip was all about backpacking South Africa on a budget, so I’ve included links to the hostels, tour operators, and the bus company I travelled with while I was there. I hope this will help you plan a trip of your own!
Backpacking South Africa Itinerary
My stay in Johannesburg revolved around the Maboneng Precinct. Maboneng means ‘Place of Light’ and the name is perfectly fitting because there really is a lot of life and creativity here. The streets are covered in colourful pieces of street art, and a lot of the warehouses in the area have been repurposed into cool coffee shops, galleries, and hostels. I may not have seen much of the city, but at the same time, I don’t think I could have picked a better place for my brief stay.
Things to do in Johannesburg:
Like I mentioned, even though I had 2 nights in Johannesburg (one when I flew in and another when I returned from safari), it was simply not enough time to explore beyond my neighbourhood. Of course, that doesn’t mean you should skip over the city. If you don’t know where to begin, you can always take a bus tour with Red Bus or join a Main Street Walks tour to explore Jozi on foot. You can also have a picnic atop the Carlton Centre (South Africa’s tallest building), enjoy the shops and cafes on 4th Avenue in Parkhurst, or do the museum and gallery circuit with visits to the Apartheid Museum, MuseuMAfricA, and the Cradle of Human Kind. You also have nearby SoWeTo, which is well known for the Orlando Towers, where you can go bungy-jumping.
Where I stayed:
While in Johannesburg I stayed at CurioCity Backpackers, which happens to hold quite a bit of historical significance. As it turns out, the building that today houses the hostel was once the setting of the Pacific Press, which printed the magazine “The Black Sash” during the apartheid regime. It is rumoured that Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu hid out here on more than one occasion.
The hostel had a fun, urban, welcoming vibe. The bar was a pretty popular spot at night (they had great deals!), but there were also quieter areas to hang out like the balcony or the little patio just behind the bar. Also, CurioCity Backpackers is located on Fox Street which is lined with restaurants, bars, and cool hang out spots. It’s really easy to go out at night to grab dinner and drinks in the area, plus there are security guards posted 24 on every street corner so I felt safe walking back at night. Some cool places to eat in Maboneng include Little Addis Cafe for some great Ethiopian food, and Pata Pata for curries or a unique biltong salad.
Kruger National Park
We couldn’t come to South Africa and not experience its wildlife, so after a quick stopover in Johannesburg we kicked things of with a safari in Kruger National Park. We joined Selous Safaris for this 4 day excursion and ended up being blown away by the experience! I’ve already written about some of the highlights of going on safari in great detail so I won’t ramble again, except to say that it left me in awe of the life that exists on our little planet. You can look here for a better look at what to pack for a safari.
Where I stayed:
I booked my tour with Selous Safaris so they took care of accommodations. There was the option of camping out in tents or upgrading to a private cabin with electricity and running water, so I took the latter.
Our stay in Drakensberg revolved around hiking and being outdoors. For starters, Drakensberg (the Dragon’s Mountain) is one of the most majestic mountain ranges I have ever seen. Sam and I signed up to do a full day trek and we were ooh-ing and ahh-ing at every turn. The weather is quite unpredictable atop the mountain so there were stretches where we were hiking under the cover of fog, and then there were stretches where the clouds cleared and we had blue skies – those moments made for some pretty spectacular photos.
Things to do in Drakensberg:
Drakensberg is all about hiking, so you’ll want to bring a good pair of sneakers or some solid boots depending on how active you plan to be. You have numerous hikes that range in length and level of difficulty, like the Amphitheatre Heritage Trail, Cathedral Peak Hike, Sentinel Peak Trail, and Gray’s Pass just to name a few. You could seriously spend weeks on end hiking here and still not cover all the trails. And that’s not all, you can also go horse riding, hot air ballooning, biking, skydiving, abseiling, quad biking, and zip lining.
Drakensberg is also known to host some pretty epic music festivals, so if you time your visit right you’ll be able to enjoy those. You have the Adrenaline Festival which is all about adrenaline sports by day and cool bands hitting the stage at night, and then there’s the Smoking Dragon New Year’s Festival where you get to ring the New Year with fresh South African talent.
Where I stayed:
In Northern Drakensberg I stayed at Amphitheatre Backpackers, which is hands down one of the funkiest hostels I’ve ever set foot in! It was so artsy that my eyes almost didn’t know where to look – the rainbow coloured bar made with old glass bottles, the food packaging labels that had been used as wallpaper, the jacuzzi that sat smack dab in the middle of the bar, or the rock climbing wall that was also just adjacent to the bar. I have a feeling this is quite the party hostel during the high season… Then again, the rooms were located a short walk from the main building, which meant you could call it an early night and not be disturbed by the festivities back at the bar.
I only passed through Durban in transit, so unfortunately I didn’t get to see a whole lot of the city. That being said, the driver who drove me to Durban had plenty of praise for his home city and he convinced me to give it a chance next time I come to South Africa. I can’t give you too many tips firsthand, but here’s a little peek at what you can expect from Durban.
Things to do in Durban:
Some of Durban’s highlights include the Big Rush in Moses Mabhida Stadium, which is a giant stadium swing perfect for thrill seekers; uShaka Marine World, which is one of the world’s largest aquariums; the Golden Mile, a sandy stretch of beaches; and the Indian Quarter, where you can visit the markets or join a historic walking tour.
And we can’t forget the food. Durban has one of the largest Indian populations outside of Indian, and that means delicious Indian food! One dish you simply must try is “bunny chow”; it’s a curry served in a hollowed out bread which acts as a bowl, and there is no bunny in the recipe!
If you do run out of things to do in Durban, there are also lots of easy day trip you can take. Some nearby destinations worth considering are The Valley of A Thousand Hills, the Sani Pass and Lesotho Tour, and Zululand where you can learn about Zulu traditions.
Where I stayed:
While in Durban I stayed at Happy Hippo. The hostel was set in a former warehouse, so it had high ceilings and large open spaces where you could hang out with other travellers or quietly catch up on emails. There was a communal kitchen where you could prepare your own meals, and they also had a really nice rooftop bar.
I nearly didn’t stop along the Wild Coast because getting there seemed a bit tricky, but the long and bumpy journey down dirt roads brought us to a place like this! Rolling hills, sheer cliffs, and long stretches of beach with hardly another soul in sight. It felt like we had found our own little slice of paradise and no one else knew about it.
Things to do in the Wild Coast:
The Wild Coast is the kind of place where you come to unwind and enjoy the tranquillity of the place. You don’t come here for an action-packed schedule. Instead, you can hike out to the Hole in the Wall, enjoy the beaches, or walk to some of the local villages where kids will try to practice English with you.
Where I stayed:
Wild Lubanzi was a super relaxed hostel with a come-as-you-are feel. I really think the couple who run this place have one of the best pieces of real estate on the Wild Coast! There’s nothing quite like falling asleep to the sound of the crashing waves, and then waking up to a sunrise right outside your window. I also enjoyed that they had lots of pets to play with; the cats and dogs were always eager for head scratches and belly rubs. Lastly, dinners were enjoyed in a communal setting with fellow travellers and they always had something delicious cooking.
With glorious sunrises and endless beaches, Cintsa proved to be another great destination to relax. We only planned one activity during our stay here and the rest of the time we just enjoyed the view from the balcony, went for short walks, and enjoyed the home cooking at Buccaneers.
Things to do in Cintsa:
While I was perfectly content to just relax in Cintsa, there are plenty of ways to stay active – horse rides on the beach, game drives to spot wildlife, yoga classes, and even local brewery tours. Another thing I loved about Buccaneers is that they are very involved in the local community. They have spearheaded numerous projects to help empower people in the surrounding villages. This includes everything from helping locals start a community vegetable garden so that they can grow their own produce to sell, to building day care centres so women can go to work knowing their children have a safe place to stay. They also run volunteer programs for any travellers who can’t seem to pull away from Cintsa and want to stay and get involved. You can find more about those opportunities at African Heartland Journeys.
Where I stayed:
In Cintsa we stayed at Buccaneers Backpackers, which came highly recommended by many of our friends who had previously travelled to South Africa. First, let me say that the family that runs this place is lovely. They made us feel at home right from the start and they ensured that each of their guests were well looked after. Sam and I ended up staying in one of the suites, which was a private cabin with views of the lagoon and the beach below. The cool thing about Buccaneers is that the accommodations were very varied and they had something for every budget – cottages, dorms, sturdy safari tents, or you could even pitch your own tent.
Things to do in Port Elizabeth
I regrettably only spent the night in Port Elizabeth as I had a bus to catch, so I didn’t get to see what the city has to offer. That being said, I met a few travellers along the way who had stayed there and they mentioned things like SUP-ing (Stand Up Paddleboarding), checking out the beaches, walking the Donkin Heritage Trail, and visiting Addo Elephant National Park. Sports buffs can also catch a game of rugby at the Nelson Mandela Bay Stadium.
Where I stayed:
During my one night in Port Elizabeth, I stayed at Lungile Lodge. They had a really cool common area with a big fireplace, comfy couches, and a pool table. Unfortunately, I was so tired by the time we arrived at 11:00 p.m. that I couldn’t even think of socializing, but I can see why it’s a popular spot with backpackers. They also cater to different budgets; I stayed in a private room, but they had spots where you could just pitch your own tent.
I ended up in Sedgefield by chance after I struck up a conversation with a hostel owner while riding the Baz Bus. Since this was a long day of travel and Sedgefield was one of the stops along the way, my new friend Lyle ended up inviting everyone to enjoy a drink as his hostel AfroVibes while we stretched our legs.
I ended up learning that the town of Sedgefield has been granted cittaslow status, which is a movement that started out in Italy but has spread worldwide. Basically, it seeks to get people to slow down, live a healthy lifestyle, preserve local traditions, promote community decision making, care for the environment and support local businesses. To be a cittaslow town you also need to have a population of less than 50,000 people. This was my first time hearing about this movement so I found it fascinating and it made me curious to come back to Sedgefield and experience it for myself.
Things to do in Sedgefield
Sedgefield is in a pretty cool location right between Knysna and Wilderness, so you can enjoy a lot of different activities in and around the area. The most popular activity is bungy jumping off the Bloukrans Bridge, but even if you’re not a thrill seeker you can try things like surfing, wakeboarding, stand up paddle boarding, paragliding, mountain biking, horse riding, canoeing, and more.
Where to stay
Even though I didn’t personally get to stay at AfroVibes Adventure Lodge, I really liked what I saw during my quick stopover, so I thought I’d mention it for anyone considering Sedgefield as a destination. The hostel is located on Myoli Beach and I’m not exaggerating when I say that it’s right on the beach! It’s a great spot for all you surfers, kite-boarders, and wake-boarders out there; all you have to do is roll out of bed and you’re right on the water.
The name says it all – Wilderness was about enjoying the unspoiled beauty of nature and spending all day outdoors.
Things to do in Wilderness
Some of the highlights in Wilderness included canoeing the Touw River, hiking along the Giant Kingfisher Trail, going in search of waterfalls, and following the train tracks out to Kaaiman’s Grotto. There’s a magic in this place that pulls you in and makes it very difficult for you to ever want to leave.
Where I stayed:
During my visit to Wilderness, I stayed at Wild Farm. This old dairy farm turned hostel was located on a hilltop and it boasted some incredible views of the beach below. Sam and I got a rustic log cabin complete with an en-suite bathroom and a piping hot shower – who says you have to rough it in Wilderness? My favourite thing about staying in this hotels were the nightly communal dinners. If you happen to be there when they have a braai, you’re in for a real treat!
Cape Town was our final destination and I have to say, our 3 days there went by in a blink! We ended up taking 2-day trips from Cape Town, so we didn’t have enough time to do the city justice, but it was enough to get a little taste of what the area is about.
Our first day trip from Cape Town was to visit the Cape Point Peninsula. We joined Day Trippers for this outing, which included highlights like: cruising to Duiker Island which is home to a huge seal colony, visiting Boulders Beach to see penguins, biking in the Cape Point Nature Reserve, and setting foot in the Cape of Good Hope – the most southwestern point on the African continent. Talk about reaching the ends of the earth!
We also took another fun day tour of Stellenbosch with Wine Flies to visit some of the local vineyards. We drank our way through 5 different wineries, and we must’ve sampled at least 5-6 wines in each place we visited. Let’s just say everyone was feeling very happy by mid-afternoon. (You can read more about my follow-up trip to Stellenbosch two years later here!)
When we weren’t taking day trips, we managed to do some sightseeing around Cape Town. Our first stop was the V&A Waterfront, which boasts some great restaurants along with spectacular views of Table Mountain.
I have to admit, aside from visiting the waterfront, I didn’t feel at ease walking around other parts of Cape Town. I got the impression that most locals drive wherever they need to go even if it’s a short distance, so it often felt quite isolated walking the streets. What was also difficult is that we were followed a lot by people asking for money, and the one time we tried walking to Bo-Kaap we were hassled to the point where we had to turn around and head back to our hostel. So for sightseeing around Cape Town, I’d have to say either hire a taxi to drive you around or join a guided tour.
Things to do in Cape Town
If you’re not busy taking day trips like I was, there really is a lot to see in Cape Town. You have Table Mountain, Lion’s Head and Signal Hill if you enjoy a bit of hiking. Then you have Robben Island for a sobering history lesson, Kirstenbosch National Botanical Gardens for a day surrounded by nature, and colourful Bo-Kaap to discover South Africa’s Malay influence.
Where I stayed:
While in Cape Town I stayed at The B.I.G. Backpackers, which was hands down one of my favourite hostels of the trip. The staff who work at B.I.G. were perfect for their job – helpful, friendly, and welcoming. There was a big sense of camaraderie in the hostel and everyone would have breakfast together (even the staff), swap stories, and plan for the day ahead. Evenings were also a lot of fun – people would normally grab a few drinks in the communal area before heading out to dinner together or cooking a meal in the kitchen. If you ever find yourself in Cape Town, I highly recommend this spot!
Travelling from Johannesburg to Cape Town
When it comes to travelling across South Africa, you have two options: you can either rent a car and set off on your very own road trip, or you can travel by bus like I did. I joined Baz Bus and made use of their hop-on-hop-off service which allows you to travel the full length of the country between Johannesburg and Cape Town.
A few things to keep in mind if you do decide to rent a car are: you should never drive at night, you should keep your belongings out of sight in the trunk, and you should carry a mobile phone to call for help in case you need it. Also, road stops with police officers asking for bribes for some made up infraction are common (we experienced this firsthand travelling by bus, and also heard countless stories from locals experiencing the same). I’m not telling you this to scare you – I met plenty of foreigners travelling by car and they were fine – I’m merely giving you heads up so that you are extra careful out there and know what to expect.
Travel Tips for Backpacking South Africa
- Bring a South African adapter. South African electric outlets are completely different from any I’ve ever seen before and even my handy 4-in-1 world adapter couldn’t do the trick. Get yourself one of these before you go so that you can actually charge your electronics.
- Pick up a Coast to Coast guide at your hostel. You’ll find free copies of these booklets at most hostels and they are super useful when planning the next leg of your trip. I also liked that this guide is written with a bit of humour.
- Pick up a SIM card once you arrive. I don’t normally get a SIM card for my phone when I travel, but in South Africa I made an exception and it came in handy. I mainly used it to coordinate pickups with hostels that were outside of town, and to confirm tour bookings. You may want to consider getting a data plan as well because I found the internet outside of the cities to be incredibly slow.
So that was my 3-week backpacking itinerary for South Africa! I do realize that not everyone has the same amount of time, so you can browse some different South Africa itineraries here, and determine which route works best for you.
Have you been backpacking in South Africa?
Where would you stop between Johannesburg and Cape Town?
For more info on travel in South Africa visit Travel Now Now.