Guest Post: 14 Things to be aware of when backpacking and hitch-hiking in South Africa

South Africa - The Nomadic Diaries (9)

Visas

1) Generally hassle free

South Africa is a pretty easy-going country. Visa entries are free for most of the world and are granted for 3 months at any border control – land, sea or air. You’ll need to prove sufficient funds for staying (although I wasn’t asked. Then again, I came by boat) and a proof of leaving (airline ticket. Again, I wasn’t asked) and yellow fever certificate of vaccination (I wasn’t asked but in Zambia I was).

No visa90 days

Citizens of the following countries do not requite a visa to enter for up to 90 days:

Andorra, Argentina. Australia, Austria, Belgium, Botswana, Brazil, Canada, Chile, Czech Republic, Denmark, Ecuador, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Iceland, Ireland, Israel, Italy, Jamaica, Japan, Liechtenstein, Luxembourg, Malta, Monaco, Namibia, Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Panama, Paraguay, Portugal, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, San Marino, Singapore, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, Tanzania, Trinidad and Tobago, United Kingdom, United States. Uruguay, Venezuela, Zambia, Zimbabwe

No visa 30 days

Citizens of the following countries do not requite a visa to enter for up to 30 days:

Antigua and Barbuda, Bahamas, Barbados, Belize, Benin, Bolivia, Cape Verde, Costa Rica, Cyprus, Gabon, Guyana, Hong Kong, Hungary, Jordan, Lesotho, Macau, Malawi, Malaysia, Maldives, Mauritius, Mozambique, Peru, Poland, Seychelles, Slovakia, South Korea, Swaziland, Thailand, Turkey

South Africa
Visa-free access to South Africa for 90 days
Visa-free access to South Africa for 30 days
Visa-free access to South Africa for diplomatic, official and service passports
Visa required to enter South Africa and for land/air transit

All other countries

Citizens of all other countries have to apply for and obtain a visa in advance before entering the country. A list of South African embassies can be found here and the application form here.

Food & Drink

2) What food to expect

As with any travels, always carry water. You’ll never know where you’ll end up. Most tap water in southern Africa is safe to drink but always ask the locals. Food-wise, I’d carry biltong (smoked meat, like jerky) or fruit – mainly carrots because they don’t squash like bananas.

I’ve found most drivers, if you spend enough time with them, will stop for a break and buy you something to snack on.

SA is pretty westernised in the bigger cities and touristy towns so the cuisine is inter-continental. With local food, there’s pap (which is maize) and bobuti (a rice, mincemeat dish with raisins and nuts. so good), boerewors (one of the best sausages I’ve ever had) and of course, the braai – BBQ.

South Africa - The Nomadic Diaries (3)

3) When and where to eat?

Eating times are as standard for Europeans: breakfast 07:00-10:00, lunch between 12:00-14:00 and dinner 18:00-20:00. The locals will just it pap three times a day. The Afrikaans will eat like westerners. I really struggled to find street food in every port I was in. Maybe further into the bush it can be found. Cape Town is pretty diverse and multi cultural. On Long st you can find Cuban cafés, Italian pizzerias, an awesome Ethiopian restaurant, junk food, and the usual burgers and steaks.

4) Short on cash?

I found that the burgers were pretty cheap. Usually averaging about R55 ($5.50 AUD) – some including a draught of beer. Pizzas ranged R48-80 and can be bought in bars or pubs. Most pub food averaged R40-120 depending on whether you ordered seafood or steak. The more pricier eateries tended to be from R50 for a starter to almost R220 for a main (again, depending on what you order).

5) What to drink?

Water. A lot are into their health drinks – smoothies and natural juices. Again, depends where you are. Brandy and coke is a popular alcoholic drink as well as Stroh Rum – 80%. One shot and I remember nothing the next day. (I was told I was tipsy within 10 minutes of consuming it. It tastes horrible with a kick that comes about 10 seconds after you’ve swallowed it. Must be tried but only once). The Western Cape region is world-famed for its wineries. Hillcrest wines have very good shiraz and Stellenbosch has a few wineries around the town. The local beer is Black Label (my preferred) or Castle (better from the tap).

Accommodation

6) Where to sleep?

If you’ve got something lined up like Couch Surfing or manage to barter for a bed somewhere (play music for a bed and a few drinks like I did in Bitterfontein, Northern Cape) then you’re sorted. Most of the time, if you’re friendly and outgoing and can hold a friendly conversation with your driver, they’ll more than likely invite you to crash at theirs. Even if they don’t, don’t be shy to ask (if you have a tent, ask if you can pitch in their yard. Most of the time they’ll invite you in). Just make it worth their while. Offer to cook for them or clean or whatever skills you have that you can use to your advantage.

There’s heaps of choices when it comes to budget accommodation across SA. Tourism is a big industry there. There’s even a bus service called The Baz Bus which takes you to the door of the affiliated backpackers from Cape Town all the way to Pretoria. Price-wise, I’m not to sure as I bartered and couchsurfed. Camping is common. Just make sure you have permission if where you pitch a tent appears to be under ownership of someone. I don’t know about other places in SA but there’s a large community of couchsurfers in Cape Town.

Wild camping is, I assume, safe to do as I’ve heardof people just camping in fields and on the beach. I’ve heard of farms where you can work for food and bed. You can always work for a backpacker’s hostel if you hit them up at the right time of the year (just before the high season Dec-Apr).

South Africa - The Nomadic Diaries (5)

7) Where to stay in specific towns

Cape Town: Ashanti Lodge in The Gardens. Just off the top of Long St where all the bars and restaurants are. There are plenty of couchsurfers as well.

Mossel Bay: I can’t recommend the Mossel Bay Backpackers enough. A very lekker place to stay with open mic nights and just a 5 minute walk from the surf spots.

Wilderness (an hour east of Mossel Bay on the Garden Route): Faires Backpackers.

Just outside of Plettenberg Bay is a backpacker’s hostel called, Wild Spirit. It’s set deep in the mountains surrounded by trees, horses, streams with hikes to waterfalls, treehouses for sunset views, a thousand year old tree you must hug. It’s magic.

Weather

8) Varied climate that is colder than one expects

Obviously, it depends on the time of year you travel. April to September is cold. And I mean COLD. At night it feels like you’re in Siberia. I was lucky it didn’t rain during the 4 days it took me to get from Cape Town to Aus in Namibia. But it was winter and there was snow on the mountain tops. The days had a slight chill to them that did force me to have to wear a hoodie.

South Africa experiences lower average temperatures that other countries on the same latitude due to the mountainous nature of the country. The coldest months are June – August where temperatures can drop below freezing. The warmest areas during the winter months are the coastal regions especially in the east. The Highveld plateau area (which includes Johannesburg) is usually fairly mild with average temperatures of 26 °C in January, dropping to 16 °C in June. The Western Cape province experiences something similar to a Mediterranean climate with hot, dry summers an mild rainy winters.

Language

9) What languages will you need?

There are eleven official languages of South Africa: Afrikaans, English, Ndebele, Northern Sotho, Sotho, Swazi, Tswana, Tsonga, Venda, Xhosa and Zulu. As a first language Zulu is the most commonly and spoken by 22% of the population followed by Xhosa (16%), Afrikaans (13.5%) and then English (9.6%).

English is, however, understood in most urban areas and is the dominant language in government and the media. Afrikaans, a language derived from Dutch, is the most spoken language in the west of the country. In the east of the country, languages have evolved from the Sotho–Tswana & Nguni branches of the larger Bantu language group. Those languages within the same group are somewhat mutually intelligible to each other.

Money & Costs

10) What are the costs?

The currency of South Africa is the South African Rand (ZAR) and notes comes in denominations of 10,20,50,100,200. I found it pretty cheap. A taxi-bus from Cape Town to Table Camp Bay (bottom of Table Mountain) cost 9 ZAR and the public train was about 8 ZAR in third class to False Bay (about an hour’s trip from the main station). Interestingly, neighbouring Namibia also accepts the Rand so prices between the two countries are comparable. I hear Botswana is expensive and Zimbabwe uses the US dollar (USD) which also makes it pricey. Compared to the Western world South Africa is very cheap.

backpacking and hitch-hiking in South Africa: money & costs table South Africa

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Current exchange rate
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Health & Safety

11) Travelling in Africa

People look at me like I’m insane when I casually tell them that I’m hitch-hiking my way to the Middle East.

“But it’s so dangerous! How brave of you!”

I hate being called ‘brave’. There’s nothing brave about using your common sense and wits and life experience to know when a situation is dangerous or not. I’m a big believer in Karma and the whole the energy you project is the energy you attract. I’ve been hitching now for 15 months from south-east Asia to and now across Africa. I’ve never been in a situation that has left feeling, ‘Ooh, that was a bit close.’

Use that thing called a brain, follow the news so you know where not to go and you’ll be fine.

If you’re about to embark on a hitch-hiking journey around Africa, do your research. Look up blogs and contact the authors for questions (I did and it’s helped).

South Africa - The Nomadic Diaries (6)

12) Crime issues

Having said that, South Africa isn’t the safest country around, especially in big cities and especially at night. SA is regarded as a high in crime country. Especially in Johannesburg. I’m told don’t go into townships alone – especially at night and in general, avoid being alone on the streets after dark in most places. Be wary in Cape Town (and I assume other major cities) as there are beggars about. Most of them will seize the opportunity to rob you without you knowing it so avoid any interaction with them (sad as it is to say it).

Most cars in South Africa automatically lock after a few feet of driving. This is a safety precaution as there are a lot of highway attacks (stoplights are for show in most areas) and not a kidnapping attempt.

I hope.

Know how to read people and state of cars.

If you’re in the major cities (and even some of the smaller towns) avoid being on your own after dark, especially on the trains.

13) Health issues

And although there aren’t any wild animals roaming the streets, as most people might imagine, baboons tend to be around. Baboons are not cute. They are vicious beasts with some alpha males the size of leopards. DO NOT FEED THEM OR APPROACH THEM!!

We weren’t asked about our health cards upon arrival in Richard’s Bay but it all depends on the situation in Africa (like now with the Ebola pandemic). Usually, Yellow Fever would be a priority and tetanus.

Absolute Musts

14) The essential sights of South Africa

I’m told the Transkei is a must although I never got there. I mainly travelled along the coast from Cape Town as far as Plettenberg Bay. The Garden Route, starting from Mossel Bay going to Jeffery’s Bay along the coast is a beautiful scenic drive as is Clarence Drive just on the southern outskirts of Cape Town.

South Africa - The Nomadic Diaries (9)

In Cape Town, if you have access to a car, go up Gordon’s Bay to see the sunrise from the reservoir.

A definite must is a train ride in Cape Town. Ask for the third class ticket and hopefully you’ll either get an a cappella group, dancers or my favourite – evangelical preachers (but be warned, they can scream loud).

Table Mountain like Lion’s Head, is a must although do be careful as attacks have happened on tourists. Mt Hedleberg is awesome to climb and Stellenbosch is a picturesque university town that’s about 300 years old. If you do your research, the Cape Town area has much to offer in terms of hiking mountain trails.

If you surf, you must go to Koleg Bay (pronounced ‘kalk’. Southern tip of Cape Town. Beware of the baboons) and Muzienberg (north side of Cape Town. Great spot for beginners). If you’re experienced, then you can’t miss out on Mossel Bay’s waves. Most folk go down to Jeffery’s (one of the longest rights in the world) but Mossel Bay pumps year round and can barrel (mostly rights) although it is very rocky (and keep in mind, South Africa has the largest population of Great White Sharks anywhere in the world).

For the adrenaline junkies, about an hour and half from Mossel Bay is the world’s highest commercial bungee jump from a bridge – 216 meters (you can book on your own or, if you stay in Mossel Bay, you can book through the Mossel Bay Adventure Centre).

And one of the most beautiful spots I’ve visited is Scarborough, a seaside town with white sandy beaches just outside of northern Cape Town. Take a surfboard and you won’t regret it.

I’m told the Waterfront in Cape Town is a Tourist Trap which is why I never went there.

My Overall Experience

South Africans are very outgoing and very outdoors. They love a good braai and can party harder than you think. They are big on the trance scene and there are some lekker parties to go to. They host one of the biggest rock festivals in the world, the Okkipipi and Africa Burn – the African Burning Man.

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backpacking and hitch-hiking in South Africa: The Animal - Simon's travel companion

written by: Simon (The Nomadic Diaries)

Tired of society’s rinse ‘n’ repeat lifestyle, Simon has decided to dedicate the rest of his life to hitch-hiking the globe without flying or using money. Instead, he barters for food and board and adventures. Life is one shot. Go live it.

Check out his blog at: thenomadicdiaries.wordpress.com

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