A First Hand Account of Travel in South Africa, Swaziland & Lesotho

South Africa is an awesome travel destination. The backpacker trail is well established and thoroughly worn, but there are plenty of opportunities to get off the beaten track too, making this a great country for those embarking on their first big trip as well as others seeking a more independent adventure.

You’ve probably heard that South Africa is diverse. You heard right. It’s a place where soaring grey-green mountains and lush emerald coastline are a bus journey from scorching arid deserts and dense sub-tropical forest, where first-world urban infrastructure mixes with third-world rural dwellings and where human cityscapes go hand-in-hand with natural landscapes ruled by the animal kingdom.

It’s a place of light and darkness, of nature equally contained and uncontrollable, of a society both united and divided. It’s a place where resignation, crime and the threat of HIV mix equally with hope, warmth and progress.

It’s a bustling contradiction, and one taste will compel you to explore its complexity.

Contents

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South Africa has some stunning scenery

Introduction

Whether we’re talking people, language, culture, wildlife, climate or landscape, South Africa is a backpacking chest of mixed treasures. A few weeks or months moving around this country will tick so many travelling boxes it will make your head spin.  

But there’s something more. This is a country with more to offer than a collection of backpacking tick boxes. When you arrive in Africa, you sense the specialness of the place. There’s magic in the air. It hangs in the ether, warm and exotic, hugging the mountainous ranges and covering the arid plains. It smells of dry dust and pulses like a frantic heartbeat. It hints of age and wonder, of excitement, chaos, and, yes, even a little danger. This is why I've written this guide, and why I'd encourage anyone to visit South Africa.

This is my guide to South Africa. It's not any kind of definitive guide, and I am not the foremost authority on the nation. I'm not trying to re-write the Lonely Planet, here. This is my experience of the country edited into reflection and advice. Not an in-depth guidebook crammed with stats and maps, but a personal compliment to the existing factual information on gapyear.com’s profile of South Africa, which has all the important info on details on visas, vaccinations and climate stuff. In some places I am overlapping with Gapyear’s content, but only when I have something different to bring to the table, and always approaching it independently from the backpacker’s perspective.  

Where am I coming from with this guide? Well, I spent my gap year in the country; six months in Limpopo Province working in a school and travelling during weekends and holidays. I then returned to the country several years later on a straight backpacking trip, revisiting some places and exploring new ones.

Of course, you may have different experiences to me and disagree with the advice I give, but I’m optimistic that for the main part this guide will be useful, interesting, fun and – who knows – perhaps even inspiring.

There has been a bit of a drop-off in numbers of backpackers visiting South Africa in recent times due to perceived risk of crime and weaker exchange rates. Despite these issues, it’s still an awesome, and relatively safe, country to visit. It’s a fantastic place. Maybe the best place you’ll ever go. So I hope you enjoy reading, and have an amazing time planning your trip!

South Africans have a positive outlook

History and Politics

The Rainbow Nation is still fairly young. Proper democracy has only existed since the mid-nineties, and modern ‘civilisation’ goes back only a few centuries. But some of the earliest evidence of human existence has been found molded into the vast plains and painted on the caved rocks across the country, and it’s even claimed that the oldest recorded footprint of humankind was discovered here. If Africa is the cradle of civilisation, South Africa was the birthplace. To some extent, then, you could argue every visitor to South Africa is returning home.

The background of how this country and society arrived at its current state is both intricately complex and well documented elsewhere. It’s frankly beyond the scope of this guide to give you South Africa’s full backstory, and if you want to get properly schooled up, a quick Google search will provide all the history you can possibly digest.

But there is a general level of political and historical awareness that you should have as a backpacker visiting the country. Most of the cultural divisions within South Africa date back to colonialism and apartheid. White European settlers arrived in the 17th Century and tried to dominate the indigenous tribal communities, leading to centuries of tension and conflict. British involvement peaked at the turn of the 20th Century with the Anglo-Boer War, a bitter and bloody confrontation that still leaves a bad taste in the mouth of some Afrikaners to this day.  If you are British, it is not unusual to experience some mild hostility from the odd Afrikaner or two.

Apartheid era

The word most people would associate with South Africa is apartheid. From very early in the 20th Century to near the end of it, the country was oppressively governed by a white minority population who viewed themselves as the logical political rulers. Effectively, black South Africans – be they Zulu, Sotho, Xhosa or any of the other varied cultural ethnicities that existed – were treated as second-class citizens.

Eventually a combination of international sanctions and political pressure together with the domestic will to move towards a more united and equal society resulted in the end of this racist system. The end of Apartheid was symbolised by the release from prison and subsequent election as President of Nelson Mandela. Mandela – or Madiba, as he was affectionately known by many in South Africa – was one of the genuine icons of the last century, a political heavyweight whose counsel and endorsement was sought well after he retired from politics. He represented the commitment to a unified future, a ‘rainbow nation’ of all colours and creeds. It is no stretch to say he defined a moment in modern history, and to learn more about the struggle for equality in South Africa a read of his book The Long Walk to Freedom - a mix of history, politics and autobiography - is highly recommended.         

Sadly, South Africa has not developed into the multicultural utopia some Mandela-acolytes had hoped for. The country has experienced an economic boom, seen the growth of a black middle-class and built towards a more equal, tolerant society, for sure. But with the undeniable positives has come worrying negatives. The gap between rich and poor has widened, not narrowed. Crime and HIV are endemic, and corruption has been suggested by credible voices to be a concern of similar proportion.

Out of Apartheid come the election and political domination of the African National Congress (ANC), spearheaded by the likes of Mandela and Oliver Tambo. The office of ANC leader and president has since passed from Mandela to Thabo Mbeki, Kgalema Motlanthe, and is currently held by Jacob Zuma. Having previously faced charges of rape, racketeering and corruption, Zuma is a controversial figure and continues to divide opinion as to whether he is a leader capable of tackling the country’s problems. Desmond Tutu, another of South Africa’s icons and a Nobel Peace Prize winner, has bluntly voiced his concerns over the integrity of the current president. Nevertheless Zuma was reelected in 2014.

Subjective context

It might sound like I’m coming down a little negative here. That’s not my intention. All I’m trying to convey is that this is a fantastic country, but one with problems. South Africa is not an ITV World Cup montage or a Kuoni brochure. It’s a living, breathing embodiment of a state that offers so much, yet has deep-rooted issues.    

This is a broadly subjective and absurdly abridged version of the South African story. As I said earlier, this is the basic level of understanding you should have when you arrive in the country, but I’d strongly recommend studying up on South Africa’s history before you go. Unlike many countries, where you’d need an accomplished grasp of the local language to talk politics, English is widely spoken by pretty much everybody in South Africa, and you’ll usually find strangers openly willing to chat about the merits of Zuma or whether enough is being done about crime.   

As a final note on history and politics, I’m just going to sneak in here is that South Africa has three capitals, none of which – surprisingly – are Johannesburg. The executive capital is Pretoria, the judicial is Bloemfontein and the legislative is Cape Town. This is a confusing, but grade-A, pub quiz knowledge.  As is the fact that there are 11 official languages – and you will genuinely find some people who can speak half of them fluently. English is basically spoken by everyone, so if you can follow this guide you’ll have no problems. But as with anywhere in the world, it’s good form to learn some useful phrases in the local language.

South Africa has a colourful, diverse culture

Attitudes, Culture and Lifestyle

Like most of Africa, there is a fundamentally profound sense of warmth and friendliness to South Africans, but it’s hard to describe such a diverse country as having a national psyche or identity. Personally, I feel the country is divided into numerous sub-cultures, with each naturally comprising their own belief systems and way of life. These sub-cultures can vaguely be generally grouped by ethnic backgrounds.

Depending on who you’re hanging out with, you could feel like you’re in a completely different country. Having a Braai (BBQ) with a white family or bunch of friends typically involves burgers and sausages, European-style clothes, radio-friendly rock/guitar music, rugby and cricket on the TV, and chats about Western movies. It’s a pretty familiar experience for most UK visitors.

Spending time with some black locals in, say, a busy shebeen (a bar of fuzzy legality), is usually a completely different proposition. Typically talk will be of the fortunes of the local soccer team, politics and the plotlines of popular soap operas, all soundtracked to relentlessly rhythmic Afro-pop. When hunger strikes, a trip out to the nearby street vendor beckons, for a tasty meal of pap (maize meal) and chicken.    

Both these examples are broad, and arguably a little lazy and misleading – of course there is cross-over – but I think the point that from one home to the next can feel like a diametrically opposed culture is valid. I’ve had amazing experiences in both white and black ‘environments’, from shots, bands and pool in mainly white bars to eye-opening experiences at black African weddings, complete with house music, traditional dancing and yeasty-tasting locally brewed beer.    

Best experience

I think it’s a good idea to get as much experience as possible of the differing sub-cultures South Africa has to offer, to make sure you have a ‘rounded’ trip and view of the country. While awesome, it’s good to not become dependent on the backpacker lifestyle. If you travel the typical backpacker circuit it’s easy to have a brilliant, albeit predictable and generic, experience of the country. Ideally, get a job or find a volunteer project.

This will give you a totally different perspective on life in South Africa. You’ll get backstage, so to speak, and see how the whole show is put together. When I worked in a school during my gap year, I stayed with five other gappers on the school grounds. We lived and socialised with the teachers and students, which just gives you a completely different insight into the lifestyle of a place than if you were just passing through seeing some sights. 

If you’re not up for getting a job or volunteering, just try and get off the beaten track and away from the standard haunts once in a while. I love meeting and hanging out with other backpackers, and I have no problem seeking out a bar or restaurant straight out of a guidebook, but when you feel brave, just engage the locals. Ask about the local hangouts. Get the local taxis. You might even be invited home for a beer and a bite to eat. Obviously, be sensible with all this and don’t be naive and put yourself in danger and stuff, but just be sure you put yourself out there. It’ll be worth it. Remember, the difference between a tourist and traveller is the amount of time you do or don’t spend interacting with people who are paid to serve you.

Class wars

After talking quite a bit about racially divided sub-cultures, it’s worth pointing out that you should be aware South Africa is a country frequently divided more by class than race, with unemployment and growing poverty major concerns for both blacks and whites. Whereas perhaps 20 years ago you would have only seen black families living below the bread line, it is a increasingly common sight to see a new class of poor white families shopping in dirt-cheap areas and hawking their wares by the side of the road.  It would be wise to be sensitive to this, and to arrive in SA with an open mind free of prejudice and presumptions (as much as possible).

Although many of the values and beliefs held in the Western world can be found in South Africa, some parts of society can have more, er, ‘closed-minded’ attitudes on certain issues. Homosexuality is largely unacceptable in both white and black society, so LGBT travellers should avoid being too forthcoming about their sexual preferences.

Finally, the spread of HIV/AIDS has been partly exacerbated by ignorance over preventative measures. Many do not trust medical advice about using condoms to prevent pregnancy and sexual infections, something that’s not helped by comments from president Jacob Zuma alleging that taking a shower after sex can prevent you catching HIV.

South Africans love a braai and a beer

Food and Drink

Something pretty much all South Africans are united on is their love of a good feed and something nice to wash it down.

Having a Braai (BBQ) transcends colour and class, and it’s a favourite national pastime to fire up the coals and grill an overwhelming and quite unhealthy assortment of meat. The king of the Braai is the Boereworse, which is a huge circular sausage that can be shared, or, if you’re feeling greedy, eaten wholly by yourself.

A foodstuff that is slightly less transcendent is pap. This is a thick, fluffy mixture of maize flour and water. It’s cheap and widely available, and so is the staple for much of the country. It looks like mashed potato, but sadly never tastes like it. It doesn’t taste bad, it’s just pretty bland. I’ve eaten it a lot, however, and if you get a chance to have a plate of it with some chicken from a street vendor I strongly recommend you give it a try. It can be made pretty delicious by constructing it like a lasagne, building up layers of bacon, onions and vegetables between the stodge and pouring cream over the top. Healthier? No. Tastier? Yes.

South Africa is pretty big on seafood, and in Cape Town, Durban and nice places along the south-eastern coast you’ll be able to find posh restaurants, small eateries and big chains – such as the Ocean Basket, a big favourite of mine – that serve up really delicious stuff.

Eating out

Dining out in South Africa is a popular and pretty laid-back affair. It has top-end, expensive restaurants like almost any other country in the world, but to sample the national flavours you don’t have to break the bank. The concept behind South African restaurant cooking seems to be simple cooking, done well. Usually revolving around big bloody steaks, curries and seafood. 

In terms of casual eating and drinking, South Africa has a surprisingly decent cafe culture, especially in malls and small coastal towns. Top of the pile is the Mugg & Bean coffee shop chain. Imagine Starbucks, but immeasurably better. I just can’t praise these guys high enough. Unlike most cafes, they do really, really nice food and their milkshakes are out of this world. I love them so much I demanded to buy one of their mugs to take home. I can see it on my mug tree in the kitchen even now. 

Regarding snackage, top nibbles in South Africa are biltong and rusks. Biltong comes in packets a little like the ones you get jelly sweets in, and consist of long, dry cured strips of spiced and flavoured beef. I like it, but it’s not for everyone. Buy a bag and give it a chance. Rusks are basically just hard rocks of dried bread; filling and tasteless, and for use in hunger emergencies only. Like most places, there are a whole host of food variations, derivatives and delicacies, but we haven’t got space to go into them all here.

Big drinkers

Drinking is huge in South Africa. Black or white, everyone loves a beer. They make several, with Castle and Carling Black Label being two of the biggest brands. My favourite beer when I was travelling, however, was a lager called Windhoek. It’s actually made in Namibia rather than South Africa, but it is readily available and, in my opinion, a better brew. Also, I probably went off Castle after way too many hangovers. Windhoek is an export and slightly pricier, so easier to not drink as much of. 

The country is pretty famous for its wines, particularly Chenin Blanc and Pinotage – a blend of pinot noir and cinsault grapes that was ‘invented’ in South Africa. Pretty much all of the nation’s wine is made from vineyards in the temperate, mild lands surrounding Cape Town.  I’m a huge wine fan, so I’ve done the cape wine tour thing twice. Stellenbosch is the most well known wine-making region, and trips will take you to some top vineyards both here as well as other notable appellations like Franshoek, Paarl and Robertson. It’s a really fun experience, whether you know anything about wine or not. Trips are good value, and you can get picked up from hostels in Stellenbosch. Tip: Do not buy bottles of posh wine as presents and try and carry them in your backpack for the next three weeks.

One last word on booze: the most well-known spirit of choice in South Africa is Stroh Rum. It’s 80% alcohol and tastes a little bit like butterscotch on fire. Be careful with this stuff. First time I tried it I threw it down and threw it back up pretty much straight away. You have been warned...

South Africa has an impressive variety of wildlife

Nature and Wildlife

The mix of nature and animals to see and experience in South Africa is eclectic. Like cool, mountainous heights? Try the Drakensberg mountains. Like warm, sandy beaches? Check out, like, the entire coast. Like lush forests and waterfalls? Well, you get the idea.

With no disrespect to the environment, the wildlife of South Africa are the country’s headliners. Its home to the ‘Big Five’: lion, elephant, rhino, buffalo and leopard. Yeah, I thought giraffe or hippo should have been in there, too. The buffalo is totally punching above its weight, in my opinion.

South Africa is home to some top national parks teeming with wildlife and people trying to take photos of it. The two best ones – or rather, the two main ones I’ve been to – are Kruger and Addo. Kruger is your best bet if you want to try a bit of everything, as it’s home to the Big Five and a ton of other animals. Addo is a specialist elephant park, with over 300 of the big guys, plus some buffalos and other smaller critters. I would highly recommend visiting at least one park to check out some wildlife in a natural environment. I hate calling something ‘unmissable’, but it would be a shame to have not done it if you come all the way here.

The South African Rand has grown in strength

Visas and Money

The good news is that if you’re from the UK or anywhere else in Europe, Canada, Australia or New Zealand, you can get a free 90-day visa. Which is cool. You don’t even have to apply anywhere in advance, you can literally just turn up at Border Control and you’re good to go.

The bad news is that if you’re from Poland, South Korea, Thailand, Turkey or one of a few South American countries, you don’t get a 90-day visa. Which is harsh, but true.

However, most other countries are entitled to a free 30-day visa, which is something at least.

To enter into South Africa you'll need the following: A valid passport, valid visa (if required), sufficient funds, a return or onward ticket. Please note, yellow fever certificates are required if the journey starts or entails passing through the yellow fever belt of Africa or South America.

As for money, the currency in South Africa is the Rand. The rate of exchange with the pound, dollar and euro fluctuates, but over the last decade it has gradually been gaining strength, which unfortunately means your hard earned cash isn’t going to get you quite as far as it used to. Despite this, South Africa is reasonably good value for backpackers – not as cheap as South East Asia, but not as expensive as Australia.

Getting around can be a challenge...

Transport and Accommodation

Air fares are always going to vary, and nothing dates a guide like putting down dollars and pound signs in print. In fact, as a rule of thumb you should generally try and avoid as much time-sensitive information as possible when writing any guide. 

Anyhow, I digress. For a return plane ticket to South Africa from the UK, you should be looking at around £400 - £500 for decent value. If you find anything a lot cheaper than that let me know. And check the plane has wings on. In the age of Google, who offers flights, what they cost and where they fly from can be found in about 30 seconds, depending on your bandwidth, so I won’t spend any more time getting into plane fares.

The Baz Bus

The most popular method for backpackers to get around South Africa is to use the Baz Bus. The Baz Bus started out in 1995, when it essentially became okay to travel in South Africa again. These guys have a fleet of semi-luxury mini-buses, complete with air-con, TV and trailer for luggage, surfboards and bikes.

The Baz Bus is cool, fun, a great way to meet other backpackers and a safe way to get around. They take you door-to-door between hostels, so there’re no scary drop-offs at midnight at the dodgy city-centre bus stop to worry about.

They do a range of tickets and deals. The most expensive ticket you can buy is a return from Joburg to Cape Town, which will set you back R4,400 (approx. £374). Obviously, there are various fixed tickets covering shorter distances that cost less, and you can also buy seven, 14 and 21-day Travel Passes from between R1,400 (approx. £119) to R2,900 (approx. £246) which allow you to use the Baz Bus as much as you like within that time period. You can check out their website for full ticket information and prices.  

The Baz Bus offer a great service, and if you are an inexperienced or just not a super confident backpacker and want to stick to slightly safer, reasonably hassle-free transport, then it may be a good idea to just work with the Baz Bus. I don’t mean this in a disparaging way. We all have a limit to how far we want to leave our comfort zone. I know people that just head out into the Amazon on their own to ‘see what happens’. When I went to Brazil, I was not confident enough to do that. And I was pretty much fine with that. If you don’t want the hassle of looking into other transport in South Africa, you’ll have an awesome time on the Baz Bus. If you’ve been around the backpacking block a little or are generally a very confident, independent and/or adventurous traveller then it may not be for you.

In fact, there are a few reasons why I think it’s a good idea not to solely use the Baz Bus in South Africa. The first, which will crop up again later in ‘Popular and Suggested Routes’, is that if you stick to their route, you’re limiting where you can travel. I’m not talking about necessarily getting off the beaten track here, just cutting yourself off from very cool places to visit. If you commit to an expensive ticket, you’ll find it hard to part with more money to go ‘off-route’ to see awesome stuff people will recommend on the road.

The second reason is that on the South Africa backpacking trail you can spend a lot of time with other backpackers. Which is great – remember you can meet lots of interesting people of different nationalities this way – but I think you have to be careful you don’t end up in some kind of isolated backpacker vacuum. Travelling on public buses can help you mix with South Africans and get a richer experience of travelling in their country.

The third reason is cost. While the Baz Bus might argue that they provide great value for money, there are cheaper ways to get around, which also happen to involve more interaction with actual African people as well.

So what would my transport recommendation be? I would suggest using a mixture of lower-day Baz Bus Travel Pass with public bus services and mini-bus taxis to get around South Africa.

Buses

By public bus I mean companies like Greyhound or Intercape. There are others. I’d use them for the longest non-Baz Bus stretches, and the mini-bus taxis – or combis – for the shorter trips. When you just want to comfortably hop from one hostel to another 30 miles down the road, the Baz Bus really cannot be beaten. I think this is a good balance.

An Intercape bus ride from Cape Town to Bloemfontein would cost in the region of R420 (approx. £35).This is the longest and most expensive ticket you’d get. These buses are usually pretty comfortable and safe, but you do need to brave urban bus stations.

Minibus taxis

Minibus taxis, or combis, are an experience all of their own. Sometimes dismissively referred to by some (whites) as ‘black taxis’, they are literally old white mini-buses packed with as many people as possible. They congregate in market square-type areas and basically go when they fill up. Which can take ages, sometimes hours.

Combis are cheap, frequently fun and are a great way of experiencing how ‘ordinary’ people live and travel. But they are not the backpacking equivalent of a Disneyworld ride. They are uncomfortable, and a carry a higher risk than the other methods of transport mentioned. The areas they leave from can often be intimidating, the vehicles are usually poorly maintained and the drivers usually drink at the wheel. Many a combi has crashed or disappeared over a cliff edge due to a tired or drunken driver.

Having said that, they’re not that unsafe. And once you’re on the move you won’t feel intimidated at all – unless you’re bothered by being the only white person on board. The atmosphere is usually pretty lively, with loud music and loud chat between passengers, who are squeezed in so tight they can’t really ignore each other. You might even end up, as I did once, with someone’s child balanced on your knee. That journey was actually a really nice experience, and a trip highlight. Tip: don’t sit directly behind the driver – everyone will pass their money to you to count, which can be stressful.

Car

Driving is certainly an option in South Africa, and with fairly well maintained main roads and light traffic it’s pretty easy too. Of course, the same issues above about being ‘in a vacuum’ come into play, and obviously you have to, you know, bother with the hassle of reading maps and actually finding places. And the roads off the main roads can be, er, slightly less well maintained. And barriered. I wouldn’t recommend hiring a car, personally, but if you want to properly get off the beaten track this is the best method. Compared to, say, countries like India, driving mentally in South Africa is relatively calm and logical, with the slight exception that drink-driving is pretty much acceptable. Although, to be fair, they do have less traffic and all the cities have straightforward grid systems.

Flying

Internal flying is also an option, but that’s probably more of a tourist or business thing, or if you’re some kind of Big Time Charlie. The opposite of a Big Time Charlie is a hitch-hiker. Which is free, but not recommended owing to the high likelihood of an encounter with crime. 

I hope this is useful advice and doesn’t come off as elitist backpacking lecturing. I hate the competitiveness between some backpackers as to who can have the most ‘authentic’ or worthy cultural experience. That’s bullshit. I’m just trying to help you get the best value – both financially and culturally – out of travelling around South Africa.  

Hostels

Accommodation in South Africa varies from the luxury five-star hotels and safari reserves to budget hostel dorms. The great thing about Africa is that unless you want to see mountain gorillas in Rwanda or go on the best safari in the world in Kenya, it’s a continent that not only you can do on a budget, but one that’s probably best seen on a budget.

The hostels in South Africa are mostly of a pretty reasonable standard. You’ll stay in the odd draughty, dingy and empty place, but by and large they’re comfortable, fun and, depending on the current exchange rate, decent value. The major cities will usually have a choice of good places, and some of the hostels that line the coast are probably amongst the coolest in the world.

As I go through my suggested route template, I’ll pick out a few favourites and generally well-recommended places. But remember that hostels change owners, and they bring new ideas and varying levels of enthusiasm. Time can see hostels thrive or die, so always check the most recent recommendations before/as you travel.

Booking ahead

Finally, some people don’t bother booking hostels ahead as a general rule. With South Africa, there really are some beautiful and cool places that are worth stopping by solely to stay at a particular hostel. In fact, at some Baz Bus drop offs, all that’s there is a hostel, so it’s often nice to know you’ve got a bed with your name on it.

But while I wouldn’t suggest always booking ahead, I’d at least suggest looking ahead, as a little research and consideration can make the difference between staying somewhere properly funky and cool, and somewhere boring and drab.  The long-running publication Coast to Coast is usually available in all hostels, and is a great guide to some of the best places to stay.

There are plenty of routes to take around South Africa

Popular and Suggested Routes

So, once you get to South Africa, where do you go? What do you see? What route do you take?

Over time, the most popular route that has emerged is flying into Johannesburg – or Joburg, as I shall refer to it here – travelling south through Kwazulu-Natal to Durban, and down along the coast to the south-west and home via Cape Town. The other popular route is simply to go the opposite direction.

Without doubt, taking either of these two routes you’re going to see much of what is awesome about South Africa. It’s what the backpacker trail, hostels, tours and guidebooks have been built on. It’s also in part due to the route of the Baz Bus – South Africa’s leading backpacker transport company.

I’m a big fan of the Baz Bus, and there’s more about their pros and cons above in ‘Transport and Accommodation’, but here we’re talking routes and stuff to see, and I would suggest a slightly expanded and more circular route, which means you have to venture beyond the reach of the Baz Bus.

My suggestion

My recommendation, which, of course, you don’t have to follow either fully or at all, is the example route through which I’ll talk about my suggested ideas of cool stuff to do and places to see.

The route I’ve picked is to fly into Cape Town, explore the wine region, travel up the coast along the Garden Route, Sunshine Coast And Wild Coast of Kwazulu-Natal. From then you travel up through Swaziland and Mpumalanga, head north-west to pop into Limpopo, then south to Gauteng checking out Pretoria and Johannesburg. Then head south to Bloemfontein, cross into Lesotho and back, then finish up in Cape Town again. Three countries. One trip. Winning.

So it’s a return ticket to Cape Town, basically. I’m going to use this route to structure talking about places in a little more depth. Of course, this is not an exhaustive journey and even if you follow it you might find tons more places to go and things to see. That’s cool. That’s what independent travel is about.

But this is my route of highlights and suggestions based on my experience, and I think it’s a solid template to work around and add your own diversions to. I’d recommend taking between three to six weeks to cover it, depending on how many places you want to stop at and what percentage of your time you want to be on a bus.

Ideally, you’d take months savouring every moment of every place, but even if you’re on a shorter timescale you can still do some properly cool backpacking and cover some serious miles in just a few weeks. So if you’re working full-time, you might want to have a word with the HR people about that holiday you’ve been saving up...

Right. So. My highlights of South Africa:

The view from Table Mountain, Cape Town

Western Cape

Home to the Garden Route, Cape Town and the prestigious wine region, the Western Cape is definitely the jewel in South Africa’s crown.

Cape Town

Cape Town is a great place for a Westerner to acclimatise to Africa. While obviously in South Africa, there’s a real European flavour and tempo to much of the city – at least, the stuff you’ll see as a tourist or traveller. Basically, this is not somewhere you’re going to suffer from culture shock.

There’s plenty to see and do in Cape Town, whatever you’re into. There are first-rate shops, restaurants, museums, bars, sights and festivals all around, so pick a few things you really want to do and don’t worry about doing everything.

Top stuff to do

Robben Island – home to Nelson Mandela and other political prisoners for decades, this former prison colony off the coast of Cape Town is a humbling place to visit. Often there are former prisoners that will take you on a tour.

Table Mountain – iconic and beautiful, this famous landmark is most commonly reached by cable car. Try and time it for a clear day to get the best panoramic views, and avoid the most popular tourist coach times if you can.

District Six Museum – a moving tribute to black residents of this former suburb that were oppressively moved and forced to see their homes demolished by the Apartheid government. If you wanted, you could make a jokey comparison to District 9 from the film of the same name, but it would probably be inappropriate.  

National Gallery – the premier art gallery in South Africa. Home to all the good stuff. I haven’t actually been.

Victoria and Albert Waterfront – a great stretch of shopping, restaurants and culture, this is a magnet for tourists and a nice way to spend an indulgent day.

Cape of Good Hope – take a trip to the peninsula for some great views and wildlife spotting.

Recommended Hostel

Anzac Backpackers

Cool and comfortable, this is a highly recommended place to spend a few nights whilst in Cape Town. It’s very central, nestled in the shadow of Table Mountain, and the whole set up feels very safe. It’s perfectly proportioned, feeling bustling but not too crazy-busy, and there’s a lively bar and a small swimming pool.

Cost: £11 for a dorm bed, £14 for a private room

The wine region is lush and pretty

Stellenbosch

After Cape Town, it’s worth exploring the lovely wine regions of Stellenbosch, Robertson, Franshoek and Paarl. You can get picked up for a day trip tour from a hostel in Stellenbosch. Most tours visit between three and five wine estates, from fair trade vineyards to premium estates. Experience and knowledge of wine is not expected and by the end of the day everyone is in the same boat – drunk.

You’ll take in some spectacular scenery of green valleys and sky scraping mountains on a wine tour, but the little town of Stellenbosch is worth a visit as well. It’s cosy, compact and clean, with a handful of very nice cafes, shops, bars and restaurants.

Recommended Hostel

Stumble Inn

It’s not the most luxurious hostel in the world, but the Stumble Inn is relaxed and friendly. It’s great base for taking a wine tour or heading into town. When I visited there was cloth and balls missing from the pool table, but the place may have seen some development since then.

Cost: £9 for a dorm bed, £13 for a private room

The Garden Route

After the fun and games of Cape Town and its surrounding wine regions it’s on to the Garden Route. This is a stretch of bays, beaches, towns and coves along a beautiful, temperate and lush shoreline. I’ve picked a few little places below of where to stay to appreciate the area, whether you want to be active or lazy.

Mossel Bay

It’s a cool, lush, bohemian spot on the coast, and great if you want to get into some activities or if you just want to kick back.

Top stuff to do

Bungee jumping – the world’s highest is not far from here. I chickened out, but I’m sure you won’t. If you don’t bungee you can do some abseiling nearby. I didn’t do that either.

Recommended Hostel

Mossel Bay Backpackers

This is one of those cool places that’s great if you want to surf, swim and do active-type stuff, but also perfectly fine to be lazy in a hammock and shoot the breeze with fellow travellers. I met an American here who tried to convince me that if you froze some juicy fruit chewing gum inside a banana, eventually it would become hallucinogenic. To this day, I regret that I have never tested this theory.

Cost: £9.50 for a dorm bed, £16 for a private room

You can swim and surf in South Africa. Or just pose for photos

Knysna

A really peaceful, civilised town near to rivers, mountains and forests. Plenty to explore.

Top stuff to do

Oysters – try some of the tasty, tasty local seafood delicacies.

Recommended Hostel

Knysna Backpackers

Set in an old Victorian house, this is fine place to hang out, if not necessarily the most rock’n’roll.

Cost: £10 for a dorm bed. £14 for a private room

Plettenberg Bay

This is a quaint, friendly, green little town-and-beachfront combo.

Top stuff to do

Take a stroll down to the beach – grab a bite and a cocktail by the surf

Recommended Hostel

Albergo for Backpackers

Situated near the beach, shops, restaurants, with lovely views and a great sociable braai area, Albergo is a very cool and easy-going stop-off destination on the Garden Route. I met a Swedish guy here who had been staying at the hostel for months. People were taking bets on when he would actually leave. I don’t think they were charging him anymore.

Cost: £10.50 for a dorm bed, £14.50 for a private room

The South African Coast is endlessly beautiful

Eastern Cape

Not as glamorous as its provincial neighbours, the Eastern Cape still has lots of cool stuff to offer. This is the home of the Xhosa people. If you try and learn a few words of Xhosa you will have tons of fun (the ‘x’ is pronounced with a click of the tongue).

It’s generally a very rural area, and it’s interesting to see how the European-feelings towns and cities and of the Western Cape give way to simple shack-like housing and project-built towns. There is a lot of poverty here, and yet it feels a lot safer and friendlier on the whole than more built up areas.

Jeffrey’s Bay

Unlike Richard’s Bay (see Kwazulu-Natal), this one is a bay totally worth stopping in. It’s an almost legendary surfing location, and is regularly home to international level competitions. If you want to shop around for surfing brand-type clothing, there are scores of such stores in town.

Top stuff to do

Surfing!

Recommended Hostel

Island Vibe Backpackers

A really respected hostel amongst travellers, Island Vibe offers surfing, horse-riding, drumming, kite-flying and is just a really cool place to eat, drink and hang out. It’s set above a dune overlooking the ocean and is essentially the best hostel in town.

Cost: £8 for a dorm bed, £16 for a private double

Port Elizabeth

Port Elizabeth doesn’t have a tremendous amount to attract backpackers, but it’s a good stop-off point to break up a journey or base yourself for a trip to Addo Elephant Park.

Recommended Hostel

Jikeleza Lodge Backpackers

Simple, clean, friendly and helpful; this is a perfectly decent, if not particularly exciting, hostel to stop over when you’re in ‘PE’.

Cost: £7.50 for a dorm bed. £12 for a private room.

Addo is one of southern Africa's best National Parks

Addo Elephant Park

You can arrange tours to Addo from Port Elizabeth. It’s a day trip, and a brilliant way to see loads of Elephants in one place. The park is home to hundreds of these lovely giants, and in an almost completely natural environment – park staff interfere as little as possible.

Coffee Bay

Sitting right on the Wild Coast, Coffee Bay is rugged and rural. Earthy. There’s plenty of homely beachfront to walk and surf. Even though this is a popular backpacker spot, Coffee Bay kind of feels like a cosy, tucked away secret. This is one of the places I felt compelled to revisit when I returned to South Africa, and it’s a highly recommended spot to check out.

Top stuff to do

Explore – Have a few drinks, then go for a wander and take in the feel of the Wild Coast

Recommended Hostel

The Coffee Shack

Situated right on the beach, the Coffee Shack is properly popular with backpackers. They do surf lessons, shuttle services into town, good food, there’s a lively bar and there are dusk trips up to the headland to soak up the sunset. I met a girl here whose tent caught fire and she lost literally everything she was travelling with. But I’m sure that wouldn’t happen to you.

Cost: £9.50 for a dorm bed. £12 for a double.

Kwazulu Natal

Even if you know nothing else about South Africa, you’ll have probably heard of Zulus. Or seen them in the Michael Caine classic. Sadly, there are fewer Zulu warriors and Michael Caines in Zululand these days, but the province is full of reasons to check it out: beautiful beaches, amazing wildlife, great surfing, delicious seafood and loads of heritage.

Banana Beach

There’s plenty of diving, fishing and surfing to be had at Banana Beach. As well as the eponymous bananas.

Top stuff to do

Chilling – kick back and relax in one of the most laid back spots on the coast.

Recommended Hostel

The Beach

This is another amazingly cool hostel. Snooze in a hammock, watch some TV, chat over a cold beer or get to know people around a fire on the beach; this is a place where you can take life slowly. I once decided to take a ‘cultural village’ tour to really get in touch with some people. The ‘tour’ consisted of sitting in a hut whilst people drank beer and passed around weed wrapped in old newspaper. It was one of the best hostel tours I’ve been on.  

Cost: £12 for a dorm bed

Umzumbe

Lying so close to Durban, travellers often overlook Umzumbe. There’s not really anything happening in the town, but the area has some of the best surfing around. Unfortunately that means that it’s not a swimming spot, but if you’re into waves then make sure you stop here. Even if you’re not into surfing, it may still be worth a look.

Top stuff to do

Surfing – get stuck into some of South Africa’s best surfing beaches

Any hostel with treehouses is winning

Recommended Hostel

The Mantis & Moon Backpackers

This is one of my all-time favourite hostels. It’s one of those few places where it’s worth stopping just to stay at the hostel. Mantis & Moon is set within a jungle-in-the-suburbs and is home to a tropical Jacuzzi, open-air bath, outdoor bar and it’s all just two minutes walk from the beach. The real draw, however, are the treehouses. This is a quirky and pretty unusual feature of any hostel – there’re not many places you’re woken up by monkeys bouncing on the roof in the morning. Awesome.

Cost: £10 for a dorm bed, £20 for a double, £35 for a treehouse.

Durban

It’s a pretty decent, developed metropolis, but Durban has some wear and tear and plenty of areas that feel a little intimidating. It’s not on Joburg’s level, but it’s a place where you should take extra care with all your stuff.

There’s an exciting night-time feel to Durban, so make sure you take advantage of the coolest spots to hang out.

Top stuff to do

Beachfront – check out the ‘Golden Mile’. See if you like it.

Knowledge – there are lots of museums and galleries. Culture yourself up.

Party – There are some cool bars and clubs in this city. Find out from those ‘in the know’ which places are hottest right now.

Recommended Hostel

Tekweni Backpackers

Tekweni has been around forever (1992). It’s located in the Morningside suburb – right in the centre of Durban’s hippest entertainment area: pubs, clubs, restaurants and markets are on the doorstep. It’s got a bit of a party reputation, and the staff are pretty helpful with suggestions of where to go to have a good time.

Cost: £10 for a dorm bed, £12 - £16 for a private room

St. Lucia

This is a nice place to finish your trip up the Zulu coastline. North of Durban, it’s a chilled out area with plenty of animal and sea type stuff to get stuck into.

Top stuff to do

Game walks – Look out for buffalo, antelope, birds and leopards

Deep-sea fishing – There are loads of operators to go on wild rides or sunset river cruises

Recommended Hostel

Stokkiesdraai

Set on St. Lucia’s main street, this is a decent place to indulge in some sun, fun, unspoilt nature, great fishing and awesome sunsets.

Cost: £12 for a dorm bed, £14.50 for a private triple room, £16.50 for a private double ensuite

Richard’s Bay

Someone told me to check this town out as a joke. It’s like a slightly sunnier version of Middlesbrough. Do. Not. Go.

Top stuff to do

Nothing

Recommended Hostel

Why are you still here?

Swaziland is colourful, exciting and properly fascinating

Swaziland

Swaziland is a proper country, not a province of South Africa. It is completely independent and autonomous. As such, it has a whole history all of its own that we don’t need to go into here.

A fun fact is that it is one of the world’s few surviving absolute monarchies. King Mswati III rules, barring the occasional distraction by any one of his 14 wives or 24 children. There are rumblings of support for reform, but don’t expect changes any time soon.

A less fun fact is that Swaziland has one of the highest, if not the highest rate of HIV infection on the planet. It is a desperately sad situation, with a frightening number of families raised by the orphaned children of adults killed by Aids.

Despite this deep and devastating problem, I have a lot of affection for Swaziland. I think it’s worth emphasising that where and how you spend your money can make a huge difference to the survival and prosperity of families and businesses in countries like this. Don’t be oblivious of the problems, but don’t feel bad about travelling there either. I didn’t stay for long, but I found it to be a beautiful, friendly and properly memorable experience.

Mbabane is the capital, though in truth it feels more like an ordinary regional town. Due to the size of the country, there isn’t a great need to actually stay in the Mbabane, as most places you’ll want to visit are within a reasonable drive of whatever hostel you choose.

Swati is the main language in Swaziland, but English is spoken by almost everyone.

Top stuff to do

Mililane Wildlife Sanctuary – A great place to stay and visit. There’re zebras, giraffes, warthogs, crocodiles, hippos and loads of birds all around. There’s lots of ways to get around; you can walk, take in a safari, or do some horse or a cycle riding. I did the cycle ride one hot morning, but I passed out because I hadn’t had anything to eat or drink. So, you know, have breakfast beforehand.

Swazi Trails – One of the top adventure companies. Try your hand at white-water rafting at the  Usutu River. They mostly specialise in the two-man crafts, or ‘divorce boats’, as they’re better known. When I did some rafting I unintentionally, but completely, wound my rafting buddy up as we kept a really slow pace and kept falling out – of the boat and with each other. Then I jumped off a rock and lost a contact lense, so spent the rest of the day squinting. Enjoyed it, though.

Ezulwini Valley – Meaning ‘Valley of Heaven’, this is the home to the Royal Family residences and is totally gorgeous. Take in the beauty and browse some of the craft shops.

Mkhaya Game Reserve – Try and catch sight of one of the very rare black rhinos.

Recommended Hostel

Sondzela Backpackers

Located in the Mililane Wildlife Sanctuary, this is a great place to either base yourself to do fun activities or just to take in one of the nicest hostel locations around. There’s a pretty lively bar and a chilled out area around the fire.

Cost: £8 for a dorm bed

Mpumalanga

An eclectic mix of waterfalls, old mining towns, adventure hotspots and sitting alongside the famous Kruger Park, Mpumalanga province is an intriguing and varied area to visit.

Kruger is one of the most famous National Parks in the world

Kruger National Park

Kruger is one of the most famous safari parks in the world. It’s full of diverse wildlife, such as lions, elephants, buffalos, rhinos, giraffes, hippos and loads of smaller species. There’re leopards and cheetahs too, but you’d need to be very lucky to see them.

Kruger has a bit of a mixed reputation. Some love it and feel it deserves its safari rock star status, whereas others point to tarmac roads and loath it. I’ve been once and I have to say I enjoyed it. There are also 4X4 dirt tracks and private game reserves for those who either want to get more off the beaten (or, rather, tarmac) track or have a bit more cash and want a more personally tailored experience.

Top stuff to do

Safari! – sit literally on the edge of your seat as you intensely scan the bush for glimpses of the Big Five)

Water hole – Park up and soak up the mise-en-scene. Not literally this time – you’ll be eaten by a famished lion. Best to enjoy in dry season when there are fewer watering spots attracting more wildlife.

Night driving – It’s the same Park, but a safari at night somehow feels and sounds completely different.

Camp – Stay in a tucked away bushveld camp. Tip: The camps are basically just there in the Park. Expect any animals – including lions – to wander past your door.

Nelspruit

The capital of Mpumalanga, Nelspruit is a cool, easy going town and a fun place to spend a few days. I went to a nightclub here one night and shared a lift back in a car that was carrying six people in the back. And the driver was drunk. Fun, but irresponsible, times.

Top stuff to do

Party – This is what I remember doing in Nelspruit. There seemed to be a good rock band scene.

Recommended Hostel

Funky Monkeys Backpackers

This is a ridiculously easy place to lose track of time. Arty, colourful and relaxed, Funky Monkeys was one of my favourite hostels from my time in South Africa.

Cost: £13 for a dorm bed. £16 for a private room

Pilgrims Rest

This was once a gold-mining town. When the gold ran out it was sold to the government as a ready-made historical monument town. It’s a bit touristy, with tours seemingly arriving throughout the day, but it’s a pleasant day out. Translation: If you live life on the edge you might find this a bit boring.

Top stuff to do

Atmosphere – Soak up the charming vibe of the town.

Graskop

It’s not as homely, woody or popular as nearby Pilgrim’s Rest, but Graskop is a cool place to stop by and a good jump-off point to check out Blyde River Canyon. Unfortunately I have bad memories of this area after being involved in a car crash when visiting nearby Lisbon Falls. However, there’s some good stuff to do here, so it’s worth mentioning.

Top stuff to do

Pancakes – the town is famous for them. Stuff yourselves. Use syrup.

God’s View – A spectacular look-out over Blyde River Canyon and the surrounding vista

Recommended Hostel

Koka Moya

A very backpackery-vibed hostel that can organise tours and safaris to Kruger. Friendly, atmospheric and there’s the option to camp if you really want to save money.

Cost: £8 to camp. £12 for a dorm bed. £16 for a private room.

South Africa offers plenty of chilled down time

Limpopo

This province of South Africa will always be special to me as I spent my gap year there, working as a volunteer in a school called St. Marks College in the tiny, dusty town of Jane Furse.

In truth, there isn’t a whole lot going on in this region of the country. If you were going to cross out any provinces from your itinerary of South Africa, I would admittedly put this pretty high up on the list. However, as well as me having a soft spot for it, there is at least one very decent reason for suggesting you check it out: it’s very much ‘real’ Africa, off the backpacker circuit and practically non-existent on the tourist trail.

Travelling around this part of the country is very much an authentic experience. Nothing is for show. People are not expecting a coach load of Germans to turn up. This is the lowveld; wide open semi-arid plains and windy frontier towns. If you rock up here, people will be surprised and confused to see you, but welcoming all the same.

If you do decide to venture up to Limpopo, bear in mind the transport links outside Pretoria to Polokwane aren’t good if you’re after comfortable coaches, so unless you have a car the best way to get around is the adventure that is the Combi taxi. Which makes sense if you’re after a more rustic, ‘properly African’ experience. 

Tip: It gets properly hot in this part of the world. When I arrived in Joburg the Border Control guy asked me where I was headed. When I told him, he said: “It is too hot there. You will not survive.” I did survive, but I guess just be prepared for the sun.

Top stuff to do

Mapungubwe National Park – A Unesco World Heritage Site and home to all the Big Five. Definitely worth a look.

Tzaneen – Properly recommended. A lush town full of monkeys, trees and fruit-growing. I once visited some friends here who were doing volunteer work. Whilst drunk in the middle of the night I persuaded everyone I could drive them to a shebeen in the jungle. I had no license. We hit a tree. There was no shebeen.

Venda Region – Check out the history and sacred sites of the Venda people

Jane Furse – Revisit my old stomping ground and dine at Seb’s Chicken, one of the best street-style vending food outlets I’ve ever eaten at. Find out what Seb puts in his mysterious ‘special’ sauce.

Zimbabwe – If you venture too far up the N1, hey, give it a go.

Recommended Hostel

Satvik Backpackers

Located on a farm setting in Tzaneen, this place is earthy, and it has beds in old cottages. On site you can camp, hike, fish, bathe in streams and shower outside. A wholesome, rustic experience, fitting considering why you would venture to Limpopo in the first place.

Cost: £7 to camp, £12 for a dorm bed. £20 for a private room.

Gauteng

Gauteng is a small, central province of South Africa. Its home to Johannesburg, Pretoria, Soweto and is the economic engine room of the country.

Pretoria

Pretoria is a laid-back, safe-feeling city and one of SA’s Capitals. Although very close to Joburg, it feels like a different world, with a lots of old, attractive government buildings and a completely different social dynamic.

Top stuff to do

Hatfield – The awesome bar, restaurant and party centre of the city. Go.

Freedom Park – Visit the memorial to those has sacrificed their lives in the name of liberty.

Voortrekker Museum – A testament to the pioneering Vortrekkers. Much revered by many Afrikaners.

Pretoria Art Museum – An eclectic variety of styles and disciplines throughout the country’s history.

Union Buildings – The government buildings are a lovely place to hang out.

Recommended hostel

1322 Backpackers

This is a cool, calm hostel near the Hatfield area, with all the comforts you’d want and expect.

Cost: £11 for a dorm bed. No private rooms.

Sometimes after some intense sight-seeing you just need to relax...

Johannesburg

You may have heard that Johannesburg is dangerous. That’s because it is. In fact, it’s one of the most dangerous cities in the whole world. The city centre is pretty much a no-go area night or day, with more boarded up shops, abandoned offices and fired-up metal drums than a scene from Robocop. The murder rate is high, the carjacking rate is higher, and the inner city streets are awash with drugs, violence and prostitution. Even taxi drivers don’t stop at red lights.

Having said that, it can be a fairly safe place to stay and get around in. Just a few minutes drive from some of the most dangerous areas in the country are calm, affluent and attractive suburbs and some of southern Africa’s best shopping malls. It’s in these areas that many of the backpacking hostels are located, and they’ll often pick you up and drop you off at the airport.

In Joburg there’s a striking contrast between the poverty-ridden urban high-rises and the gated, guarded wealthy communities, and if it’s your first time in the country it’s an immediate and symbolic demonstration of the dramatic divisions in this society. But there’s some cool things to do here, so don’t be put off by scare-mongering or be too intimidated to venture beyond the hostel walls.

Top stuff to do

Apartheid Museum – Learn about the conflicted racial past of the country.

Soweto – Take in a vibrant tour of this thriving historical township.

Football – The area is home to arch rivals the Orlando Pirates and the Kaizer Chiefs. Try and catch a game.

Gold Reef City – Have a day out at this strange and dated, but fun, clone of Disneyworld.

Shopping – Buy some new threads, have a bite and see a movie. From my experience, Eastgate and Rosebank are good.


Recommended Hostel

Diamond Diggers Backpackers

Diggers is a little more sophisticated than most hostels, with a Jacuzzi bar, pool and a beautiful view of the city skyline from its location in the Kensington area. It’s friendly, comfortable, and is a great place to relax after a long flight or chill out after a big trip. 

Cost: £10 for a dorm bed, £13-16 for a private room

Free State

The Free State is proper ouback Afrikaaner territory. It's a province of farmers and truckers. Tough people. Most travellers won't pass through this area, let alone stop. Feeling your way around places like this gives you a taste of South Africa that isn't usually in the pages of any glossy brochure.

Bloemfontein

‘Bloem’ is a strange town. At the heart of the Free State, Bloem feels a little like a large outpost city, at the frontier of black and white society. There’s something a little unwelcoming about the place, but maybe that’s just me. I met a guy in a bar who told me he’d like to take me out to “hunt some blacks.” I also met a dude who got in trouble for throwing rocks at black people in his youth, but I’m sure both of these gentlemen are the exception rather than the norm.

I wouldn’t earmark this city as a holiday destination, but it’s a good stop-off point for trips between Cape Town and Joburg, and a great launch pad for excursions into Lesotho.

Recommended Hostel

Naval Hill Backpackers

An odd hostel fashioned from an old water pump station, this is part homely and interesting, and part cold and uninviting. The ‘rooms’ are divided by corrugated iron and everything feels a little too much like it probably did when it was a pump station. There has been little investment. Having said that, it’s perfectly comfortable and reasonable value, and there is a very sociable braai area outside.

The guy who ran the place when I visited was a bit of a boozer and robustly narrow-minded. He claimed he’d thrown people out for things that liberal people like myself might feel were totally acceptable. Plus he wasn’t a stickler for punctuality. He insisted on giving me a lift to the bus station but made us play pool and drink beforehand so I almost missed it. But at least he was entertaining about it – to put me off my shots (I was a much better player than him) he actually used to take his cock out and dangle it over the table pocket. It’s a tactic I’ve never seen anyone employ since.  

Cost: £10 for a dorm bed.

Lesotho is an dramatic kingdom in the sky

Lesotho

From Bloemfontein you can get a minibus taxi into Maseru in Lesotho. You’ll be able to get dropped off at the taxi rank, and then it’s just a question of waiting till it fills up. It’ll probably fill up reasonably quickly, as there a great deal of commuting between South Africa and Lesotho.

Lesotho is a poor country. HIV and AIDS rates are very high and there is high unemployment. Some in the nation have even suggested joining South Africa and giving up Sovereign status – a dramatic but potentially practical way of improving the situation in the country.

Despite its problems, Lesotho is actually a friendly and welcoming place to visit. It’s often called the ‘Kingdom in the sky’ due its mountainous nature, and borders the Drakensberg Mountains of South Africa.

There is a rugged beauty to this country, and a few days here can really help you soak it up. It’s another possible experience of ‘real Africa’, and barring the occasional group of tourists it’s relatively clear of other backpackers.

My suggestion would be to spend a night in the capital of Maseru and then head out into the country using a minibus taxi. I only stopped in an area called Malealea but there is a whole country to discover here, all with its own very interesting history, so read up if you can.

Recommended Hostels

Maseru

Anglican Centre

The cheapest option is town, this is not exactly a place you’d go to for the fun of it, but it’s clean, safe and there’s breakfast. There is an overtly religious feel running through the whole site, and I’d recommend you be at the very least respectful and possibly even outwardly a little bit Christian. It’s not easy to find, but check your map, ask questions and use your feet.

Cost: Price on Arrival

Malealea

Malealea Lodge

This is a good base to explore the wild fields, rivers and waterfalls of the surrounding area. The nearby villages sell arts and crafts and kids will offer to take you on a tour to nearby sights or even just around the village. A kid took me around and a few months after I got home emailed me some photos of his artwork. Which was nice.

Malealea does ok out of the Lodge bringing in tourists, so you won’t really get hassled. The Lodge itself it quite large, sitting somewhere between a hostel and an actual holiday spot. Often it’s used to accommodate guests on coach trips for a night or two. Even the cheap beds are quiet and comfortable, and the more expensive rooms are a little bit fancy (compared to an average hostel).

They do food here, but there are self-catering options too. At night the local community choir seem to pop in and sing a few numbers, which is all very nice.

Cost: £12 for a forest hut, £25 for a rondavel

Conclusion

After Lesotho, I recommend heading back to Bloemfontein and getting a bus back to Cape Town to fly home.

You might have noticed that I haven’t mentioned the Northern Cape or North-West Province. That’s because, with the possible exception of maybe Sun City, there’s not a whole lot of stuff to see and do here for travellers, and it’ll take you too much off a logical route.

If you really want to get off the track that’s off the beaten track, you might want to independently scope this area out. You’ll probably find some gems, but it’s unlikely that anyone in South Africa would heavily recommend lots to do here on your first trip to the country.  Sorry Northern Cape and North-West Provinces.

So that’s basically it. My guide to South Africa. It really only scratched the surface. It is, after all, just my guide to some of the places I would recommend visiting. There is loads of cool stuff to do that I have not tried to cover. As I’ve said before, this is intended to be my personal, anecdotal guide to a few highlights I’ve experienced, so always consult a full guidebook for more details and check official websites for up-to-date information and prices.

I hope you’ve enjoyed this guide. Maybe it gave you some good suggestions? Good advice? A little inspiration? That’s the idea, anyway. If you have some constructive feedback, send me a message and let me know how this guide could be improved. Until then enjoy reading more about South Africa, more about travelling on gapyear.com generally, and good luck planning your trips!


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