Want to backpack South Africa but tight on time?
Although I had seven weeks in Southern Africa, only two of those were spent in South Africa. When most people think of backpacking, they think of a six week jaunt around Thailand or a six month journey of self-exploration in South America. This itinerary is a perfect way to fit a South Africa backpacking experience around your busy work or family commitments.
What we found:
Backpacking South Africa is surprisingly easy and affordable. It might not have the backpacker friendly reputation of South America or South-East Asia. However, transport options like the Baz Bus (read my Baz Bus guide here) and laid back, quirky hostels, means that it’s the perfect short term backpacking destination. Two weeks is just enough time to get a feel for the country. A month would have been perfect and longer is the dream. Although the rand is gaining in strength, it is still pretty weak against the euro and prices in general were cheaper than in Europe. A decent hostel was around €10 per night for a dorm bed. A meal at a hostel was around 80 Rand (€5).
Cape Town: 3 Days
Cape Town is the obvious place to begin your trip to South Africa. Most international flights land either here or Johannesburg so this itinerary can also be done in reverse! We could have spent two weeks in Cape Town alone but in three days, here are the highlights:
- Visit Robben Island
- Take an Open Top Bus Tour
- Visit Cape Point and the Cape of Good Hope
- Visit Boulders Beach to see the penguins
- Wander around the V&A Waterfront
- Visit Kirtenbosch Botanical Gardens
Mossel Bay: 2 Days
Mossel Bay is the reason I call this itinerary almost perfect. It was recommended to us by countless people but for so many reasons, I just wasn’t a fan. There were only two others staying in our hostel. The weather was terrible. We had planned to go whale watching but it was cancelled because of the terrible weather. We tried to hike but turned back (again because of the terrible weather!) Maybe we would have liked it if the weather hadn’t been terrible. But there are so many beautiful places in South Africa that spending two days in this industrial town felt like a crime!
It’s only saving grace was a lovely little spa where I got my very first manicure so I suppose it wasn’t a total waste 😉
Knysna: 1 day
We arrived in Knysna at night without much of a plan, then luckily found some people who had a plan and ended up watching the sunset at Knysna Heads. After experiencing the Knysna nightlife (or lack thereof) we dragged ourselves out the next morning for some canoeing on Goukamma River, a nature and marine reserve. We had a private canoeing tour where Reneé, our guide from Southern Cape Tours, educated us on everything from birds and plants to politics in South Africa.
Afterwards we visited the Rasta Village in Knysna Township. The village began when a couple of Rasta families decided to create a small settlement of like minded people. Now home to over twenty families, Judah Square has a school, creche and small temple. The tour was short and probably only worth a visit as an add on or if you have a particular interest in religion or the Rasta faith. For me, it’s always interesting to talk to people about how they live!
Nature’s Valley: 2 Days
When I stay we stayed in Nature’s Valley, I’m going to be honest and say we didn’t venture far outside Wild Spirit Lodge. This place was like something out of a dream. We had heard so many things about this place so when we got a last minute booking, we jumped on it and found ourselves in spacious little safari tent with proper beds!
Fairies and gnomes are scattered throughout the common area. There are horses, drum circles and a meditation treehouse! An amazing communal dinner is served by the Wild Spirit “Angels” before everyone retires to the campfire for some drumming, songs and stories. We didn’t really do much at Wild Spirit. But sometimes it’s not about the journey but the destination (or something like that!)
Storm’s River: 2 Days
Storm’s River was our South Africa backpacking home away from home. Our arrival at Dijembe Backpackers began with a welcome shot and introduction to Baz the goat. As usual we had no plan besides a vague notion of ziplining in Tsitsikamma. This was knocked on the head by James, the guy who runs Dijembe who told us “it’s good but…not the best thing you could do here!” We asked him what the best thing was. “The bungy of course!” I told him there was no way I was jumping off the highest bungy bridge in the world. Fast forward two days later….
If that sounds too crazy, Tsitsikamma National Park is a short drive away (shuttle available from Dijembe.) Tsitsikamma was the reason I came to Storm’s River. The suspension bridges offer spectacular views of the river mouth. Tsitsikamma is also home to the famous Otter Trail. While the full hike takes 5 days and requires a permit, the beginning hike to the waterfall is beautiful and not too challenging for the reasonably fit.
Port Elizabeth: compulsory stopover
Taking the Baz Bus has its advantages, but one potentially annoying aspect is the compulsory overnight in Port Elizabeth. The bus arrives at 10 p.m and leaves at 6.45 the next morning. Instead of catching up on sleep we went out for drinks and a catch up with friends (ok, we met them a week ago in Knysna but I had done a bungy jump- I was a changed person by the time we met again in P.E!) As a result all I can recommend in Port Elizabeth is the Beer Shack. Great little place for food and drinks, just don’t stay there so long that you arrive back at your hostel just as the Baz Bus is pulling out…not that I’d know anything about that!
Hogsback: 1.5 Days
Said to be J.R.R Tolkien’s inspiration for Lord of the Rings, it’s not difficult to imagine hobbits and elves bounding around the hills off Hogsback. It was getting dark when we arrived to our Lord of the Rings themed room at Away with the Fairies Backpackers (our room was called Boromir), but we arrived just in time to see the sun set over the glowing, orange mountains.
We spent our one day in Hogsback hiking among Yellowoods and waterfalls in the Aukland Nature Reserve. While we hiked, Knysna Lourie monkeys played in the trees above us, wild cattle grazed beside us and the constant gush of the three nearby waterfalls made us feel completely at one with nature.
It’s quite remote, which is part of the charm, but it does mean you should stock up on food before you get there. Away with the Fairies hostel provide a meal every night and breakfast in the morning (additional charge applies) but you will probably want some snacks to bring when hiking. Hogsback isn’t on the Baz Bus route. It requires a special shuttle booked through Away with the Fairies hostel. The shuttle goes from East London and can take up to 2 hours. For this reason, we needed two nights here just to have one full day.
Johannesburg: 3 days
Don’t leave Johannesburg without visiting Soweto. Once home to Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu, this huge city within a city is an inspiring reminder of the power of protest, but also the great amount of work that is still required to bridge the gap of inequality in South Africa.
If I visited South Africa again I would skip Mossel Bay and stop at Wilderness and Coffee Bay. Have I missed anywhere spectacular? Or what would you do differently?