When We Were There: March 18–26, March 29-April 14, May 3-6, 2009
Places We Visited: Johannesburg, Blyde River Canyon, Kruger National Park, Sodwana Bay, Hluhluwe iMfolozi National Park, St. Lucia, Durban, the Drakenbergs, Cintsa (Wild Coast), Graaf-Reinet, Mountain Zebra National Park, Karoo, Addo Elephant National Park, Garden Coast (Jeffrey’s Bay, Tsitsikamma National Park, Wilderness National Park, George), Route 62, Franschhoek & Wine Region, Cape Town & Cape Peninsula
View all of our posts about South Africa here.
WHAT WE DID
The starting point and ending point of our road trip, Johannesburg was mainly a staging station for us. The only true sight we visited was the Apartheid Museum (40 Rand each), which is a must-see. It’s extremely well done with lots of media, photos, first-person accounts, and artifacts tracing the rise and fall of apartheid.
Blyde River Canyon
The third largest canyon in the world (after the Grand Canyon and Fish River Canyon), Blyde River Canyon (55 Rand for 2 people and a car) is very scenic. We snaked up alongside it, stopping at the many viewpoints, such as God’s Window, Bourke’s Luck Potholes and Three Rondavels, and making a detour to Lisbon Falls (10 Rand per car).
Kruger National Park
Our first safari experience, and it was a grand one. We spent four days on a self-drive safari. We worked our way south from Shingwedzi Camp all the way to the Crocodile Bridge Gate, spotting tons of animals, including lions, elephants, buffalo, hyenas, rhinos, giraffes, zebra, and much more. The park was spectacular.
Our guidebook made this Indian Ocean escape sound like a quiet little paradise, but showing up on a weekend, we found it to be a bit of a madhouse. It’s a hotspot for diving, but as we were not yet certified, we just relaxed on the beach and explored the tide pools, which housed an interesting array of sealife.
Hluhluwe-iMfolozi National Park
Though you could certainly stay longer, we covered the length of this reserve in one day, spotting a good amount of wildlife. Rhinos were the big highlight here, as we saw a lot of them, two of which were close enough to touch (though, don’t worry, we didn’t).
St. Lucia Estuary
We were a bit disappointed with this beach area along the northwest coast of South Africa. We proceeded through the Eastern Shores Reserve to Cape Vidal, stopping at Mission Rocks, where there were some nice tide pools and rugged ocean scenery. Cape Vidal had a nice beach but the snorkeling, which was rumored to be excellent, was so-so at best.
we didn’t really plan to visit Durban, but when we ended up overnighting here, we decided to take a day and explore. The city was interesting, a mix of African and Indian influence. We walked around downtown, visited the very touristy Indian Market, checked out the port, and enjoyed some Indian food. There wasn’t much there to keep me longer–though some claim the nearby beaches are nice–but I’m glad we spent one day in the city.
We visited two regions of the Drakenberg Mountains. We first went to Royal Natal National Park, which lies to the northwest of Lesotho, where we enjoyed some splendid hiking around the Amphiteatre, a magnificent canyon and cliff area. We then went south to the Sani Pass area, where we also enjoyed hiking in this spectacular mountain range. We also spent a day driving up the treacherous Sani Pass road for a short visit to Lesotho.
The Wild Coast
The Wild Coast proved to be a bit disappointing to us, though we were very much looking forward to it. We had hoped to visit the village of Bulungulu, where a much-raved-about community-run backpackers is located, but when we tried to make reservations we found that they were booked solid for weeks (camping included). So we instead headed to Cintsa, where we enjoyed a walk down a very pretty beach but didn’t do much else.
Though we’d been told not to bother with the Karoo unless we liked a whole lot of nothing, we went anyway and loved it. We based ourselves in the town of Graaff-Reinet, which is a very lovely, walkable, Cape Dutch town with a nice church and a very tasty farmer’s collective store. We did a half-day tour of the township with Xollie at Irhafu Tours, which was a highlight of our trip. We also visited Mountain Zebra National Park, where we saw this rare species of zebra as well as some other wildlife, and we went to the Valley of Desolation, where we enjoyed a short hike in the stunning scenery.
Addo Elephant National Park
We spent a day in this wildlife reserve and saw elephants, elephants, and more elephants, as well as some other animals. It’s an easy self-drive park. They have a cool program called “hop-in rangers” where you can get a guide to ride along with you in your car, but since we were there during the Easter holidays all guides were spoken for. They also offer horseback and elephant-back safaris (also all booked up), which make me strongly consider a return visit.
Our first stop along the Garden coast was an afternoon visit to Jeffrey’s Bay to watch top surfers test their skills on the Supertubes. We then proceeded on to Tsitsikamma National Park, where we marveled at the amazing coastline while hiking the first 3.5 km of the famed Otter Trail. (Perhaps the most popular trail in Southern Africa, it requires 3 days to traverse the full length and demands advance reservations.) We also stopped at Wilderness National Park, where we enjoyed a quiet canoe ride (120 rand), before proceeding on to George, where we overnighted.
From George to Cape Town, we opted to get off the highway and take the backroad, Route 62. Our first stop was Outsdhoorn, arriving in the midst of their annual arts and music festival. We wandered through that, which seemed very popular but since absolutely everything was in Afrikaans was a bit incomprehensible to us. We also learned from experience that riding ostriches is not easy (30 rand per person). From there, we traveled down the route, enjoying the scenery of small farms, and stopping in Barrydale at a very cute cafe called the Blue Cow, where we ended up chatting with the farmer/owner for quite some time as his daughter is currently an au pair in the DC area. Before cruising into the wine region, we overnighted in Robertson, where we enjoyed the small town atmosphere and the local farmer’s market.
The towns of Stellenbosch, Paarl, and Franshoek make up the heart of South African wine country. We found Franschoek to be the most pleasant, with a nice farmer’s market and a main street lined with cafes and art galleries, so we spent most of our time there. We stopped at two vineyards for tastings, including the famous Boschendal, which has a very lovely setting. We also made a pitstop at Hillcrest Berry Farm for some more tasty treats.
A lively and livable city, Cape Town could occupy weeks. We only had a few days so we wandered around Green Point and the Waterfront, made a pilgrimage out to Robben Island (180 rand per person), visited the District Six Museum (15 rand per person), which takes a look at how the system of apartheid affected one specific neighborhood, and took the cableway to the top of Table Mountain. we also spent a day driving around the Cape Peninsula, stopping to check out the beaches, the penguins, and the Cape of Good Hope. There are a million things we missed, most sadly the Kirstenbosch Gardens, but I think we’ll be back one day.
WHERE WE STAYED
If you’re planning on backpacking around South Africa, pick up a copy of Coast to Coast and a copy of Alternative Route, little guidebooks with listings from all over the country. You can find Coast to Coast at almost every backpackers and Alternative Route at many of them. These completely free publications come in really handy, especially if you’re driving around and dark is approaching and you want to know what your nearby options are.
Mbizi Backpackers (Johannesburg): Fairly close to the airport, Mbizi is a convenient place to crash upon arrival. The double ensuite is nice and comfortable, but the bed in the double room with shared bath is terribly uncomfortable. The kitchen is large and well-stocked, there’s a nice yard with pool and bar, and DSTV in the common area. Patrick, the owner, was helpful is helping us arrange a car rental and sketch out a route for our road trip. The Internet was insanely slow and quite limited, however, and at 40 rand per hour not much of a deal. A Checkers Hypermarket is within walking distance, but there’s not much else accessible without a car or paying for a transfer. Double with private bathroom and breakfast for 290 rand; double with shared bathroom for 250 rand.
Mufasa Backpackers (Johannesburg): On our return to Jo’burg, we opted for this backpackers, thanks to their wireless Internet access. Though a good bit out of town, it’s not really any more inconvenient than any other Jo’burg backpackers. It’s close enough to the airport and right off one of the national highways so easy enough to get to and from. The room was nice and comfortable, the shared bathroom big and clean, and the kitchen fully stocked. There was also a nice self-serve breakfast with cereal and toast. Best of all, as we both were working on proposals for future jobs, the owners worked out a deal with us, allowing us unlimited wi-fi access for only 75 rand. Considering we were paying more than that for two hours on a shit computer at most places, this was amazing. The common room was comfortable with DSTV (including ESPN, which made Jeff very, very happy). The owners were very friendly, helpful, and chatty. Double with shared bathroom and breakfast for 220 rand.
Blue Swallow Chalets (Graskop): When the backpackers was full, we ended up at this self-catering place. With two bedrooms, a bathroom, a living area with DSTV, and a kitchen, it would be a great place for groups. The sheets were fantastic, and it was really hard to get out of bed in the morning. Chalet, which could sleep four or possibly more, for 350 rand.
Blyde River Backpackers (Blyde River Canyon Area; East of Hoedspruit): When our plans for camping fell through after we found no actual tent in the box of the tent we bought, we ended up in one of the cabins at Blyde River Backpackers. The cabins were simple, containing not much more than a bed, but the hostess was very friendly, and the shared facilities (bathroom, kitchen, lounge area) nice and clean. Double cabin with shared bathroom for 250 rand.
Daan & Zena’s (Phalaborwa): Just outside of Kruger, this was a convenient place to overnight before entering the park. They have various options from backpacker dorms to self-catering units. We opted for a self-catering unit with bedroom with TV, bathroom, and kitchen. It was clean and comfortable. Internet access, though slow, was free. Self-catering double bed unit for 320 rand.
Shingwedzi Campsite (Kruger National Park): A quiet campground in the northern section of Kruger, Shingwedzi offers everything from expensive chalets to a piece of ground to pitch you tent. We went for the piece of ground. The facilities for campers are great with very clean bathrooms with flush toilets and hot showers, cooking facilities with electric burners, sinks, and a hot water dispenser, and a pool. There was also a small store and restaurant with set menu. 130 rand for a campsite.
Satara Campsite (Kruger National Park): At the top of the southern third of the park, Satara is a more popular and bigger camp than Shingwedzi. It offered the same wonderful amenities to campers, as well as a set-menu restaurant, a cafe with multiple food options, and a well-stocked store with souvenirs and snacks. 130 rand for a campsite.
Kruger View Backpackers (Komatipoort): Just outside the Crocodile Bridge Gate at the south of Kruger, this backpackers was a convenient place to stay after a full day of safari. We opted for the double ensuite which was comfortable, though the bathroom wasn’t full enclosed. Friendly and talkative owner. Internet access for 40 rand per hour, but it was quite slow. 335 rand for a double ensuite.
Hluhluwe Bush Camp (Hluhluwe): It was dark and all other options were full, so we ended up in a cabin here. Very small cabin, not much bigger than the bed itself, and with shared facilities, it wasn’t worth the price. The pool was nice, and there was a small self-cook area, but not worth a return visit. 360 rand for a double cabin with shared bathroom.
Hluhluwe Backpackers (Hluhluwe): We moved here after one night. The owner was a bit of a strange guy, but the room was clean and comfortable, the kitchen large and well-stocked, and the shared bathrooms fine. Internet was spotty, but we were allowed to use it for free. 330 for a double room with shared bathroom and breakfast.
Bib’s Backpackers (St. Lucia): Though very popular and rather busy, Bib’s failed to impress us. We opted for a double room with private bath and AC, but we weren’t allowed to turn on the AC because it blew the fuse and no water came out of our shower so we had to use the communal ones anyone. Yet we didn’t get a discount. The crowd there was also rather young. The only plus was that they did have a nice Internet cafe with a good connection. 270 for a double with private bathroom.
Hippo Hide (Durban): Tucked away on a small street outside the city center, Hippo Hide is a nice, quiet place. The double room was comfortable, and there was a nice kitchen, common area, and bathroom. (Oddly enough, the double ensuite was not as nice, so we, being pretty much the only guests, opted for the shared bathroom option). There was a small Internet cafe with a decent connection and rates. 240 for a double with shared bath.
Amphitheatre Backpackers (Royal Natal): We opted to camp here, as there was a nice large field with gorgeous views. We didn’t see the rooms, so I’m not sure what they were like. The owner was a bit arrogant. There’s a pool, hot tub, and bar, that was always bustling, as well as a dining area that served breakfast, lunch, and dinner. we self-cooked, and the area for that was sufficient but basic. 110 rand per night for two people camping.
Sani Lodge (Sani Pass): We had planned to get a room here, but found them to be a bit worn and not worth the price, so instead we pitched our tent. The campsite was small but sufficient, and the bathrooms fine. There’s a nice little lodge area for hanging out and cooking. The facilities themselves don’t have a whole lot to recommend them, but the staff is great, and we met a lot of wonderful people here, so the atmosphere makes up for it. 120 rand per night for two people camping.
Buccaneer Backpackers (Cintsa): This might be the most popular backpackers in South Africa and with good reason. It’s right on a lovely beach, the accomodations are nice, free kayaks are available for use, and the staff is friendly and knowledgeable. There are dorm rooms and then small buildings with a variety of rooms. We stayed in a cabin with two double rooms and a dorm. The double was cozy and comfortable, and there was a kitchen in the cabin along with shared bathrooms and a nice balcony. Unfortunately, the weather wasn’t so great while we were there, and it’s a major beach bum place, so we just stayed one night. 220 for a double with shared bathroom.
Karoopark (Graaf-Reinet): When the backpackers was pitch black, we opted for this hotel, which turned out to be a nice choice, as the bed was very comfortable and the bathroom up to hotel standards. There was a hot water heater in the room, as well as tea bags and coffee, which was a nice touch. Also a restaurant and nice pool. There is one computer with Internet, available for a fee. 340 rand for a standard double hotel room.
Dijembe Backpackers (Tsitsikamma): with everything in the area all booked up, we opted to pitch our tent at this backpackers. The camping was fine, but the place doesn’t have much to recommend it. The kitchen is the size of a closet and ill-equipped, and though they claimed to have wireless Internet, no one knew the password, rendering it useless. They also only had three bathrooms (shower and toilet in same room), which was too few when the place was full. 120 rand for two people camping.
Afrovibe Lodge (George): A lovely place with comfortable rooms, a great grill/pool area, a large, well-stocked kitchen, and best of all, free wi-fi! Fairly new, Afrovibe is aiming for the flashpacker market, and they’re a rarity in South Africa. The owner is very helpful and interesting. Got a free upgrade to the double ensuite, which was very comfortable. 320 rand for a double with breakfast and wi-fi.
Robertson Backpackers (Robertson): Though fully booked up as was most everything along Route 62, we were able to pitch our tent in the backyard and use the facilities. The family that ran the place was very friendly and helpful, and there was a nice kitchen, common area, and bathrooms. 100 for two people camping.
Big Blue Backpackers (Cape Town): The place to stay (at least for our-types) in Cape Town, but unfortunately it was all booked up except for one night. The room was large with bed and couch, and the bathroom nice. It was also quiet. There was a kitchen that was a bit hit-or-miss but sufficient and a bar area. But best of all there was free wi-fi and no restrictions on using it. Also conveniently located near the waterfront. We were sad to have to leave after one night. 400 rand for a double with private bathroom.
Ashanti Backpackers (Cape Town): A popular place but not exactly our cup of tea. Actually, it was fine but just couldn’t compare to Big Blue. The room was small and the bathrooms shared but all was clean and comfortable. The self-catering kitchen was sufficient. Wi-fi available but at a price. 380 rand for a double with shared bathroom.
Fawlty Towers (Cape Town): What a dump is all I can say. The room was dirty and worn, the bathroom lacked toilet paper, and the clientele was sketchy. We tried to leave (despite the fact that they wouldn’t refund our money), but couldn’t find anywhere else as it was Easter weekend. The staff was also terrible, either completely unavailable (the office all locked up) or fall-down drunk. We couldn’t get out of here fast enough. 300 for a double with kitchen and bathroom.
Garies Guesthouse (Garies): We happened to be in Garies when it got dark on our way up to Namibia and we chanced across this guesthouse, which offered very comfortable self-catering cottages. Ours was a two-bedroom chalet with all amenities, including bathroom, TV, and kitchen. There’s no reason to go to Garies, but if you’re passing through, it’s a good place to stay. 400 for a self-catering chalet.
PLACES WE ATE
South Africa has excellent supermarkets with about anything you could want at reasonable prices, and most backpackers have good kitchen facilities, so we cooked often. The barbecue (brai) is an institution in South Africa and almost every backpackers and campground has a big one, so we often grilled up steaks or sausages and once even had beer can chicken and s’mores. Also, having a car we’d often be on the road when lunchtime rolled around, so we’d stop at a local fastfood place (Wimpy’s, Steers, and the like). We did eat out some, though, and found a whole range of food, especially in the cities.
Lion & Leopard Pub (Koomatiport): After a lot of nights of self-catering, we decided to splurge on a nice meal after exiting Kruger. Jeff had a steak, and I had short ribs. Both entrees came with baked potatoes and two vegetables, which seemed a real treat, since in all the months in South America, finding anything other than fries as a side was practically mission impossible. 200 rand for dinner for two.
Street Food in Durban: We took advantage of the Asian influence in Durban and enjoyed some shwarmas as well as a bunny chow (curry served inside a loaf of bread). 15 rand for a quarter loaf bunny chow.
Buccaneer’s Backpackers (Cintsa): Though they have self-catering kitchens, most people at Buccaneer’s opt for the daily dinner special, and it’s a fun opportunity to eat with and get to know other travelers. They served up spaghetti bolognese, garlic bread, and a great salad while we were there. Portions were huge, and the food was tasty. 90 rand for dinner for two.
Coldstream (Graaf-Reinet): A very nice, small restaurant with white table cloths, a wine list, and well-trained waiters. Jeff went for the meat trio, trying out ostrich, springbok, and beef, while I had the Karoo lamp chops. Very good. 260 for dinner for two with wine.
Blue Cow (Barrydale): A tiny cafe along Route 62 with a nice porch situated above a pond. We shared a lovely slice of cheesecake here. 50 rand for cheesecake and milkshakes.
Essence (Franschoek): There really were too many options in Franschoek, and we’d already been feasting on farmer’s market goods, so we chose this small cafe, where Jeff enjoyed an Asian beef salad while I had a chicken schnitzel sandwich. We kept it light because afterwards we went down the street and filled up on gelatto and waffles. Mmmm. 150 rand for lunch for two.
Simply Asian (Cape Town): In a rush to get to Robben Island, we stopped at the mall on the waterfront and ordered some quick Asian food at this to-go place. Jeff had pad thai, while I can’t remember exactly what I ordered, but both dishes were tasty and fairly authentic. 122 rand for lunch for two.
Tokyo (Cape Town): Tired and hungry and frustrated after not finding the place we had been looking for, we just went to this Japanese place nearby to our hostel. It turned out to be pretty good. I enjoyed a big bowl of udon, while Jeff had salmon teriyaki. 150 for dinner for two.
Kalky’s (Kalk Bay): A fish and chips place on the Cape Peninsula that lived up to the line out the door. The fish was lightly battered; nice and crispy on the outside, hot and moist on the inside. The portions were big too. And right in the harbor, you had no doubt that it was all fresh. 75 rand for lunch for two.
Kuaia (Cape Town): Serving up a wide array or wraps and smoothies, Kuaia is straight off the west coast of the U.S. We found it to be a nice change of pace, healthy and delicious. 105 for dinner for two.
Noon Gun (Cape Town): We tried to eat at this restaurant multiple times before we actually succeeded. First we couldn’t find it and no one had heard of it (though it had been specifically recommended to us by a Cape Towner we met on Route 62), then when we did find it, it was closed. Third time’s a charm I guess, because it was open when we returned for lunch on our last day in town, and we were able to taste some Cape Malay specialties, including a curry and bobotie. It was pretty good, although all Cape Malay food seems to be a bit sweet. 210 for lunch for two.
Mugg & Bean (Jo’Burg): This San Francisco chain has found its way to Jo’burg, and we enjoyed lunch here twice. The wraps, open-faced sandwiches, quesadillas, and potato skins were all delicious, and we appreciated the endless refills on the lemonade (also true for the coffee, but we don’t drink that). They also offer 10 min. of free wi-fi if you want to check your email quickly. 150 for lunch for two.
Bread Basket (Pretoria): While waiting for our Mozambique visas, we had lunch at this mall restaurant. I had a very nice chicken salad sandwich, while Jeff went for the lasagna. 110 for lunch for two.
*If you are more than one person, I highly recommend renting a car for getting around South Africa. Rentals are very affordable (about 200 rand per day for a basic Kia or VW), and gas is not too expensive. The road system is excellent, and it’s easy to get around. Though the bus system in South Africa is generally good, it won’t get you everywhere and isn’t particularly inexpensive. The Baz Bus is popular with backpackers, but it’s nearly impossible to stray from the very beaten track if you use it, and for two or more people, there’s little if any savings over a car.
*Aside from Cape Town, South Africa pretty much shuts down when it gets dark. Life happens from sun up to sun down. Then it’s time to go inside. You also don’t want to drive after dark if you can avoid it. The problem, in most cases, isn’t crime; it’s simply that there are lots of people and animals on the road and you just can’t see them once it gets dark.
*Though Johannesburg has a bad reputation, and though it’s not completely undeserved, don’t let the stories scare you too much. Sure, you don’t want to go into the city center, you should keep your doors locked, and you’re probably best off not wandering around after dark, but chances are nothing will happen to you. Most of the backpackers are in the suburbs, which are safe enclaves. If you’re flying into Jo’burg, make a booking in advance and then quit worrying about it. You’ll be fine.
*Internet access in South Africa is not good. The problem is that Internet customers are charged by the amount of bandwidth they use rather than paying a flat rate. Therefore, although most places are indeed wired, the sites you’re able to access are often strictly controlled by the computer owner. Don’t expect to be able to upload, download, or use a flash drive. Expect to pay about $4 an hour on average, and for the connection to be rather slow. And if you find wireless, celebrate. It doesn’t happen often.
*If you want to save some money, bring or buy camping gear. The National Park System has amazing campgrounds with great facilities and even better scenery. And almost every single backpackers has space for tents. It usually costs only about 50 rand per person, and you’re allowed to access all the amenities–kitchen, bathrooms, common areas, Internet, etc.