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South Africa – the Backpacker Experience

SOUTH AFRICA | Saturday, 23 December 2006 | Views [6204] | Comments [2]

For most of 2006 I have been traveling in South America as a backpacker and had enjoyed how easy it was to travel there. The quality of budget hotels was good and transport was affordable and mainly comfortable. In most cities I went around by cab as these were plentiful and cheap. Living there on a budget was easy. From South America I was traveling onto South Africa.

I had been to South Africa in 2000 so I knew that traveling there would be more of a challenge compared to South America. My first visit was a two week holiday and I hired a car and drove around KwaZulu Natal, this time I was staying a month and traveling as a backpacker on a budget. What was interesting was that South Africa is perceived as being very backpacker friendly and a must on many travelers’ counties to visit, yet the reality is quite different.

The social situation in South Africa where the whites have most of the money while the blacks do not, throws up a host of problems for the traveler, not least with transport. Firstly, white people don’t walk – anywhere; they go everywhere by car and only the very poorest use public transport. When I arrived in Pretoria, the hostel manager had no idea of how I could get to the center on public transport; she had only ever been there by car. So as a white backpacker you have to use the transport the blacks’ use, which are shared mini vans which you hail on the street; or the rare regular city buses. The problem with the mini buses is that they don’t run regular routes and don’t have destination signs, so you may have to take a couple to get near where you want to go, and there is an element of risk, not only of crime but also of accidents. Suburban trains (with a few exceptions) are regarded as too dangerous for whites to use even in daytime. Taxis are rare and expensive, whites don’t use them, and blacks can’t afford them. Some sights, particularly the ones which may be on the outskirts of a town are pretty much out of bounds to backpackers as there are no convenient or cheap way to get to them. To get to some places, the only way is to pay out for a tour.

Some of these gaps are filled in big tourist towns like Cape Town by companies like Riki taxis, which cater to tourists but only go to certain areas. If you want to go to Kirsentbosch Botanical Gardens (the third most visited sight in Cape Town) you will have to get a group together and hire a Riki taxi, or go on a tour. There are a couple of public buses a day, early in the morning and late in the afternoon for the convenience of domestic workers, not tourists. If you want to go to somewhere unusual, like the Rhodes memorial, forget it. I ended up walking there.

Traveling long distance is easier; there are some good quality long distance bus companies that travel between the main cities. However if you want to go somewhere off the beaten track, you will either have to hire a car or go on the ‘Baz Bus’. The Baz Bus travels on a couple of routes and drives between backpacker hostels, many of which are outside of towns and so difficult to get too affordably. Most of Baz Bus’s marketing empathizes how safe and fun it is, what they should be pointing out is the obvious truth – you haven’t got a rats chance of getting to half these places, unless you go on the Baz Bus. Of course there are some downsides to this, the fares are not cheap (almost double what you would pay for the same distance on a regular bus), you have to stay on the fixed route and you have no flexibility, you have to travel when the Baz Bus leaves.

I carried a couple of guide books and I was interested in seeing the main sights in each city. What I quickly discovered in Pretoria is that I was almost the only white person walking around in the centre of the town. This was quite unnerving and I got some hostile looks. I was almost mugged walking out of the central station in Cape Town at six in the evening, as again I was the only white face around. At most of the tourist sights I went to like the Union Buildings or Paul Kruger’s house, the only other tourists I saw had arrived on a tour. Whites don’t walk, particularly in the Central Business Districts, where many of the sights are, yet none of the guide books mention this.

Another aspect of the divide in society is that internet facilities and international phones are difficult to find. Whites have PC’s and phones at home, blacks can’t afford them and don’t make international calls, so there is not much provision. Compared to South America, using the internet was very expensive, which is not likely to help the South Africa’s development. In tourist areas of Cape Town it is easier to find internet cafes but they’re still not cheap. As a general rule of thumb, the richer the country the more difficult and expensive it is to use the internet. It was only when I got up to Tanzania that it really became affordable again.

Unlike South America, most budget travelers in South Africa can’t afford to stay in regular hotels, so ‘Backpacker’ hostels have been developed to cater for them. Most of them offer a bed, usually in a dorm and basic facilities, some of them very basic indeed. As they cater for backpackers you would assume that they offer a good deal but this is not always the case. One or two I stayed in were little better than slums. If you only stay in Backpackers you will only ever meet other backpackers and the same goes for traveling on Baz Bus. South Africa has a good network of guesthouses and B and B’s, usually a room in someone’s home, but often of a very high quality. If you are traveling as a couple it is worth checking these out, as they often have some good deals. Even traveling alone I stayed in some great guest houses for little more than I would have paid in a backpackers. The word ‘Backpacker’ in the name of a hostel or anything else, does not always mean that you are getting a good deal, yet many travelers accept them at face value and wouldn’t consider staying anywhere else.

South Africa is a wonderful country and would like to go back and see more of it but as a budget traveler it is not an easy country to travel in, hence the irony that it has become a great backpacker destination. It reminds me of Australia, another backpacker favourite and another country where traveling is hard work and expensive. The quality of the travel experience in other parts of the world like South America and South East Asia is much higher than in South Africa or Australia. If you are considering where to go in the world, bare this in mind.

Tags: Travel Tips



Very good points! Couldn't agree more. South Africa is definitely much better seen with your own transport, and isn't exactly the best place for backpacking. In terms of transport I would say that Australia is much easier to get around- if only because you can safely use all the transport that exist and if you are willing to walk somewhere youcan do so safely.

  Kobus Dec 29, 2006 12:13 AM


Thanks man, good advices!

  Filippo Nov 22, 2013 4:42 AM



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