I’ve spoken with a handful of people lately who are heading to South Africa who wanted travel advice… two different groups I met are going for World Cup games, and the adventuring Dougli are going to visit friends. These conversations inspired me to put some of my own trip notes into a more organized (and hopefully useful) format. I spent a week in Joburg in July 2006 and then returned to South Africa for almost a month in January-February 2007 to explore more of the country. Read on in this post for logistics info and sights visited. Remember that prices listed were from my time there in 2006/2007, and may have changed since then. For more stories of our personal adventures, use the South Africa tags or categories on the right column to find posts and pictures from our adventure. Enjoy! Love, Cat
I. Before you go
A. Recommended viewing:
“Tsotsi” won the 2005 Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film of the Year
B. Recommended reading:
- Nelson Mandela’s “Long Walk to Freedom.”
- Disgrace, by JR Cotzee. Only read it if you’re ready for a “willfully painful” book. Working-out of personal and political shame and responsibility. Also concerned with his country’s history, brutalities, and betrayals. Also intent on what measure of soul and rights we allow animals.
- Barbara Trapido’s Frankie and Stankie, a girlish ‘memoir’ of apartheid South Africa. Not the most powerful book, but good intro to SA.
C. Transport Options
- Rental Cars – We used Budget Rent A Car. Driving from place to place gave us the flexibility to move when we want to which was an incredible gift. It also puts us closer to life on the road, which includes dodging all matter of obstacles on the road – cattle, goats, sheep, people, the occasional pig and even a monkey here and there. We came out mostly unscathed with the exception of one incident with kamikaze sheep. Note: if you hit anything, it’s the farmer/shepherd’s fault since they should pay better attention to the animals.
- Baz bus (tourist bus) – delivers to the major hostels in each spot along the coast between Joburg and Cape Town
- Local buses – small, cheap, crowded, used primarily by locals
- Tourist buses – super nice with hot cocoa service, sleeper seats, movies, etc. www.intercape.co.za
- Internal flights on airlines like Mango – www.flymango.com
1. Biltong – beef jerky – the South African equivalent (but it’s WAY better)
2. Braii (BBQ)
3. Ostrich – As a former vegetarian, I had to re-learning everything about meat after avoiding it for 10-15 years. Ostrich meat is way leaner than beef and is way better for you. Happily, it actually tastes better than cow meat too. So if you haven’t tried an ostrich fillet lately, I highly recommend it.
Coast to Coast http://www.coastingafrica.com
There’s a free 300 page book called Coast to Coast that lists a full page on each (that is willing to pay) and it’s got more detail than Lonely Planet ever will. It’s also now online!
I’ll admit my ignorance and be honest with you: I wasn’t expecting to arrive from the village in Kenya and find Johannesburg quite so developed. Make no mistakes… South Africa is definitely a first world/developed country and Joburg is a world class city. In Joburg you can eat Thai, sushi, or Greek food all on one city block, and follow those with happy hours anywhere you like. There are coffee shops, pastry shops, dance clubs, hip bars, cute boutiques, art galleries, and street vendors selling crafts.
We stayed with friends in a beautiful part of town called Melville.
A. City Living
I came to SA straight from the Kenyan village and all of the little “city living” things we took for granted in the US were pretty outstanding for me.
1. Book reading by a best selling South Africa author
2. Amazing jazz concert – Free concert series at University of Witwatersrand – Johannesburg campus
3. Art opening of a new photo exhibit at a downtown gallery in Standard Bank
4. Wandered a Sunday market near the local mall… so many homemade crafts and homemade clothes
5. Indie record stores like Canned Applause in Melville – For all your import and indie needs! We walked inside and I was absolutely stunned to see Shins t-shirts, Sub-pop posters, Postal Service CDs, ACL Fest DVDs, and more. Want to check out some South African indie bands? Try the Dirty Skirts or Eyes Wide Open.
B. Apartheid Museum
Can horrify you. Some of the photos, especially the ones by Peter Magubane, made me cry. The propaganda films pissed me off. And the whole of it made me ashamed to be white, even if I wasn’t in on the British or Dutch oppression of the black African people.
C. Hector Pieterson Museum and Memorial
Named for the 13 year old boy who was among the first killed by police in the 1976 student uprising in Soweto. The museum shares first hand accounts of brutality and uprising from students, parents, politicians, and journalists who were there. Incredibly moving personal stories, films, and photos of the revolution.
D. African Footprint
Musical in a fancy theatre that tells South Africa’s history through two hours of singing and dance, from native dance to 1950s jazz. Was fun, but could’ve skipped if we wanted to save money.
E. Constitution Hill
One of the closed down prisons where Nelson Mandela was kept as a political prisoner is now open as a museum where horror stories abound. The site also hosts the new building for South Africa’s highest court of law and has exhibits about Mandela. Free tours of both.
F. Maropeng – the Cradle of Humanity
Maropeng is outside Joburg by a few hours and very worth the car rental/drive. Perhaps the best/most progressive museum I’ve ever visited. Hidden behind a big hill is a new, gorgeous museum with the history of mankind, much of which is based off of fossilized apes and humans found in the area, pretty much the oldest in the world.
Museum had lots of great historical info, original fossils, and hands on displays for kids and adults both. Beyond the normal stuff, they went a step further to discuss sustainability, present socially relevant facts, and ask what we can do to preserve our world. Super progressive minded museum! One of the many scary facts I learned: 25% of the earth’s mammals are predicted to be extinct in 30 years! Another scary idea that I knew but really sinks in more here… we’re likely on our way to the sixth great extinction, and ours will be the first caused by us instead of being caused by nature (no more volcano problems, none of this ‘earth hit by asteroid wiping out the dinosaurs’ type of extinctions that have happened in the past).
G. Soweto – Africa’s largest black city, site of 1976 student protests that began the fall of apartheid, home to the only street in the world to have housed two Nobel Peace Prize winners, ex-president Nelson Mandela and Archbishop Desmond Tutu.
Soweto is South Africa’s largest black township with a population of about 3.5 million. (Ie. The British government kicked the Africans off their land and sent them to small, restricted bits of lands… just like the Americans did to the Native Indians who were the original inhabitants of North America). These black townships were low income housing at best, slums at worse. Moving people to Soweto didn’t silenced the black Africans. Soweto was home to many activists who helped bring an end to apartheid, is famous for the student uprisings in 1976, and one Soweto street holds claim to the title “only street in the world to have two Nobel Peace Prize winners, ex-president Nelson Mandela and Archbishop Desmond Tutu.”
Soweto today is home to 3 million people who speak 13 languages as well as s’camto, a street language. It houses Chris Hani Baragwanath Hospital, the largest hospital in the southern hemisphere with 6,000 beds and some of the most sophisticated medical facilities in the world. Opposite the hospital is Africa’s largest taxi rank from which 10,000 vehicles depart daily. Despite an unemployment rate estimated at 45% there are many informal businesses such as roadside garages, butcheries, exhaust repairs, barber shops, spaza shops (basic groceries), shebeens (unlicensed taverns), payphones and roadside kitchens, amongst others.
Soweto came to the world’s attention on June 16, 1976 with the Soweto Riots, when student protests erupted over the government’s policy to enforce education in Afrikaans rather than English. Police opened fire on 10,000 students in a peaceful march and among the first to die was 13 year old Hector Pieterson. 566 people died, and there are many chilling videos and photos documenting the struggle at the Hector Pieterson museum and the Apartheid Museum. The impact of the Soweto protests reverberated through the country and across the world. In their aftermath, economic and cultural sanctions were introduced from abroad. Political activists left the country to train for guerrilla resistance. Soweto and other townships became the stage for violent state repression. These events, spurred on in large part by the first student protests, helped bring the eventual end to apartheid in the 1990s.
Translux bus from Joburg to Durban – 100R ($15), left at 8:30am arrived at 4pm. We’ve moved around a bit while here to experience different parts of town… city centre, north beach, and south beach.
A. Banana Backpackers, city centre
Near wide selection of massage parlors and escort agencies. Not classy, but totally acceptable. 100R per person per night to share a double bed. Kitchen, TV, laundry, courtyard, 10 minute walk to the beach, free local calls
B. Umdholti Resort, in Umdholti, a beach town about 15km north of Durban
Cost for us: free (gift of a stranger!). Usually $100+.
Upscale resort town, mostly time shares and condos
Time share unit was on the beach, has private kitchen, bath, 4 beds, tv, seafront balcony, pool, bbq pits, etc. Wow! Is near Umhlanga (an upscale town with Thai food, sushi, Italian, etc) and Ballito.
C. Anstey’s Backpackers, 10 minutes south of Durban on the beach
Camping costs 40R per person. Surfboard rentals, pool, internet, TV, great balconies, book exchange, free coffee and tea, nicest kitchen I’ve seen in any hostel anywhere in the world. The staff were super cool, informative, opinionated, and full of personality. Only 30 meters/1 minute from the beach, cafes, pub, etc.
D. The Bat Centre – art galleries and free live music on Fridays and Sundays at
E. Free art museum
F. Free Natural Science Museum (nicer than Kenya’s and you save $10!)
G. relaxed at the pool
H. swam in the ocean,
I. cheap internet (6R per hour is way better than Melville’s 35R for 45 minutes).
J. Monkey memories
We stayed at a condo in Durban on the very first week of our South African adventure and there were “Beware of monkeys” signs posted about, with warnings to leave doors and windows closed when you were away. The monkeys weren’t opposed to getting in your room and stealing from you. We didn’t have any force their way into our room, but definitely had to guard our stuff down at the pool where the monkeys were running all over and grabbing drinks and snacks sitting next to sun bathers or under lawn chairs.
IV. The Wild Coast
South Africa has a lot of coastline, so each section gets its own name. We drove through the Hibiscus Coast, the South Coast, the Wild Coast, the Garden Route, etc. To say the scenery is stunning is a huge understatement – we have seen a huge range of landscape here – from dunes meeting rivers meeting the ocean, wide swaths of low bushes, old deciduous forests, to unbelievable rocky coastlines.
A. Hiking at the Oribi Gorge (10R).
We left the N2 Highway and had to head down dirt roads littered with lots of small huts, cows, sheep, goats, horses, and dogs roaming free. It felt like we were driving through Smurf villages. I was excited to get into the Xhosa land of mud huts with thatched roofs, but wasn’t expecting them to be painted such great blues, greens, and pinks. How delightful!
View from our tent at the Coffee Shack
B. Coffee Shack Backpackers (40R camp)
happening place! Waterfront lot, hammocks, board games, fire pits, gorgeous bathrooms, etc. The hostel seemed to be the main attraction.
Day hike through villages near Hole in the Wall
C. Hole In The Wall Backpackers (40R camp)
Connected to a hotel, so can accommodate any price range or privacy comfort levels.
Hiking – The hostel was lovely, but the main attraction was nature. We did lovely day hikes around the coast, swimming, saw a beautiful ‘hole in the wall’ rock formation. Great memories from those hikes.
V. The hamlet of Hogsback
We traveled inland to Hogsback, an area that claims to be an inspirational place where Tolkein got his ideas to write Lord of the Rings. The forests are lush and deep, full of butterflies, giant trees, waterfalls, and plenty of ornate spider webs.
A. Away With The Fairies Backpackers (45R camp)
Lovely, laid back space, nice communal dinners prepared for you. Hostel had lots of common rooms, a crazy pool, and even a giant tree you could climb to get to the very high up tree house! Recommended!
The hostel has free maps for hiking… we did a 8 km hike through the mountains that supposedly inspired J.R.R. Tolkien to write Lord of the Rings. Great waterfalls, big trees, nice folks, and lots of local legends.
C. Visit The Edge
A nearby labyrinth overlooking the valley below. Free, beautiful, zen.
VI. The Sunshine Coast
A. Addo Elephant National Park (20R)
Cheapest, self guided safari you could imagine, and you get SUPER close to the animals. Honestly, we had elephants come within one foot of the car. Amazing!
The original Elephant section of the park was proclaimed in 1931, when only eleven elephants remained in the area – today this finely tuned ecosystem is sanctuary to over 450 elephants, Cape buffalo, black rhino, a variety of antelope species, as well as the unique flightless dung beetle, found almost exclusively in Addo. The Big 7 (Elephant, rhino, lion, buffalo, leopard, whales and great white sharks) in their natural habitat.
B. Stayed at Orange Elephant Backpackers (30R camp)
A rather odd backpackers with no common room, but the kitchen was well stocked and the bathrooms were nice. Oh, and instead of a pool, they had a trampoline. Restaurant/bar maybe functioned as common room – meals were fine and they had books/games. The hostel wasn’t anything to write home about, but the proximity to the park was perfect.
VII. The Garden Route/Plettenburg Bay
A. Monkeyland (90R student price)
“Monkeyland is the worlds first free roaming multi-specie primate sanctuary. Monkeyland has as one of its aims, to create awareness about the plight of primates and to show that with a greater understanding of our primate cousins, that we can all live in harmony.” So fun!
B. Albergo for Backpackers (50R camp)
Nice space. Has a pool table, free coffee and tea, tv and dvd, a bbq/braai pit, decent kitchen, clean bathrooms, internet, breakfast lounge, and outdoor tables. Not bad for $6, eh?
C. Tsitsikamma National Park
We took a gorgeous drive through/around Tsitsikamma National Park, but it was raining pretty hard so we didn’t do the hiking and adventuring we were hoping to do.
D. Monkey Memories
Monkey hijinks hit an all time high at MonkeyLand in Pletts. I guess it shouldn’t be a surprise that a sanctuary for monkeys would hold lots of trouble makers. They had staff with water bottles to squirt the meddling monkeys and they carried big sticks (not to whack the monkeys, but to make scary noise). The monkeys weren’t deterred. They were stealing from the cafe (I thwarted the attempted of Tarzan by scaring him in the cafe), stealing from us at our picnic table (one monkey got Susie’s Sprite, but didn’t fare well attempting to use her straw), and we heard the fabulous tale of a monkey in the gift shop who showed up with a stick of his own to show the security folks he knew their game.
The capital of ostrich breeding business since the 1800s – highly recommended!
A. “Backpackers Paradise”
My vote hands down for the best hostel in all of South Africa. Well appointed place with great open space, multiple well stocked kitchens, multiple TV rooms, multiple sitting rooms with couches and chairs, free coffee and tea, internet café, prepared meals, braai nightly (aka BBQ), swimming pool, bar and pool table, amazing staff, book exchange, and even visitors books for offering advice to other travelers. Amazing!
I’d once read a passage in a book about “how to ride an ostrich” and decided seeing an ostrich farm would be one of the sillier “can’t miss” opportunities in life.
Take a tour of the Safari Ostrich Farm. We learned the history (still active since the 1800s!), saw the farm, got a 75% discount from our hostel (only 24R!), and even got to see jockeys doing ostrich racing! Not only that, but they let 3-4 lucky participants each tour get a FREE OSTRICH RIDE! I highly recommend $3.50 for an ostrich tour and free ride. Quite worth the trip!
C. Meerkat Magic!
I fell in love with meerkats after National Geographic published an amazing photo essay a few years back and have been a big fan ever since. As you know, meerkats are only found in one place in the world – sub Saharan Africa. And as I found out this week, there’s only one program in the world that lets you go out into their natural habitat with a conservation program – Meerkat Magic. It has to be a sunny day, and you have to put up with the somewhat crazy man who leads the tours, but I was more than happy to fork over hundreds of rand for the experience. I wanted to see them in person and wanted to learn more too. While Grant the guide was a bit of a crazy man, you’ve got to respect his ideals and the program he works with. They’re the only meerkat conservation program worldwide that leaves the meerkats in their natural habitat and doesn’t domesticate them by handling them or feeding them.
We got up and drove to the meeting place at 4:45am, made it out to the conservation site by 5:15am, and then hiked out to one of the 60+ boroughs by 5:45am. Then our lessons began. Did you know the meerkat is a tiny rodent, just larger than a rat, and their closest relative is the mongoose? Did you know they dig with sharp claws into the ground to hunt for insects?
Grant shares pictures. (Guests are forbidden from taking pictures as the organization needs the film revenue to help fund their conservation work and rely on BBC, National Geographic, etc.
IX. Route 62 through wine country
We decided to skip the rest of the garden route and stay in-land. It was totally the right decision for us. R62 is the “longest wine route in the world.” The drive was hot in January (37C is about 106F) but we slathered on more sunscreen and enjoyed the stunning mountain views.
A. Swartburg Pass
First stop on route 62 was the winding gravel road of Swartburg Pass – one of the “most spectacular passes in Africa” with views of the Matjies River valley. Scary and impressive.
From there we headed on back roads and more gravel to Ladismith. Not much there except a fabulous stop at a cheese and ice cream factory (yum!), but both of us were big Paul Simon fans and Ladysmith Black Mambazo fans, and that was enough to make excited about driving through the town of Ladysmith.
C. Warmwaterberg Spa
Hot springs between Barrydale and Ladismith at Warmwaterberg Spa. We went to a cool old resort called Warmwaterberg Spa (established in 1886 with three outdoor “Roman bathing pools” overlooking the gorgeous surrounding mountains and valleys. The 41C hot mineral water was fabulous, the setting amazing, and my head spinning. Germans apparently rate these among the top three hot springs in the world for their heat and mineral content… among other things they’ve got low levels of sulfur and high levels of lithium.
Robertson – a small town in the Breede River Valley with wine, roses, and race horses. It’s nestled into the most gorgeous purple hills imaginable and has about 10% of SA’s vineyards, and amazing hiking opportunities.
We spent a day at a local nature reserve and did a great, easy trail up to the edge of the mountains followed by an hour long rock scramble. Our goal was swimming in the many small rock pools and the bigger waterfall at the end. The water was quite chilly, the dip in the pools was refreshing and the views and rock formations were gorgeous. We heard about the hike courtesy of Robertson’s Backpackers.
2. Robertson’s Backpackers Hostel
Another in a line of very impressive hostels where we camped. Among its unique amenities included local wines, gorgeous bathrooms, eclectic original artwork around the house, and most interestingly a Moroccan lounge and hookah bar. We decided to peruse their video library and opted for a late night showing of the Breakfast Club on VHS.
Stellenbosch, the heart of South Africa’s wine country. Stellenbosch is actually SA’s second oldest city and vineyards were first planted there in the 1600s. With our luck we not only arrived on a Wednesday (the most happening day of the week). it was a college town with lots of bars (lower drinking age + 17,000 college students + wine country = party time in Stellenbosch).
1. Cellar tour at Die Bergkelder
Tunneled into the slopes of the Papegaaiberg mountain. We did all of the tour’s samplings there and both ended up tipsy before 11am. Some of the best wines I’ve ever had: Fleur de Cap.
2. Jordan Winery in Stellenbosch
Very laid back winery, much like you’d find in Washington’s wine country near Seattle or near Walla Walla (it’s sold in the States under the Jardin label).
3. Vrede en Lust Winery in Franschhoek
Vrede en Lust was the classiest winery I’ve ever seen, way fancier than Napa Valley. (They host weddings and cater to a rich foreign clientele). We picked Vrede en Lust because they also hosted a cheese and olive products shop onsite, as well as beautiful grounds and guest cottages. Little did we know the woman behind the counter would be so amazing… from advice on wines and local history to tattoo shops in Cape Town and gourmet dinner recommendations in nearby Paarl town.
4. Dinner at Noop
Most amazing dinner I’d had in recent years. Noop is a tiny artsy gourmet restaurant connected to a coffee shop and florist. The funky feel was very Seattle though the gourmet food quality was decidedly New York or Houston. Our bread, main meal, giant decadent dessert, coffee, and truffles only came to $11 each. Wow!
5. Stumble Inn Hostel
We stayed at the Stumble Inn, a packed, very popular hostel right in the middle of town. All of the beds and rooms were sold out, but we had Susie’s tent and they still had room for us. Young-ish crowd.
X. Cape Town
We returned our rental car in Cape Town to save money and went back to public transit (slow, but it got us door to door). We stayed with friends, but many folks we met recommended Long Street Backpackers. We spent a fair amount of time at the beach, shopping, and eating. My goal was to get there in time for the Cape Town Pride celebrations, a Pride parade, and a rocking Pride street party.
A. Robben Island
Tour of the prison island where Nelson Mandela and other freedom fighters were jailed. All tour groups led by former inmates. Powerful.
B. Long Street and Green Market Square – wander aimlessly
C. Hiked Table Mountain.
Even the “easiest” routes are supposed to be ‘difficult and hair raising’ and the guard at the bottom told us it can be full of bandits who jump out of the bushes and mug you at knife point (they apparently can’t use guns because guns cause rock slides). We had no muggings, no baboon attacks, not even sore muscles. The views were gorgeous and the other people hiking were super fun and social. We even had a new friend Andy join us for the hike, a 60+ year old Brit. The hike was a bit harder than he initially expected, but he did great and bought us drinks at the top to thank us for “taking care of him.”
D. We drove a loop around the Cape
Started in Big Bay, then into town through Table Mountain National Park, then out to a arts and craft market at Hout Bay, lunch on a farm (can’t remember where), back home for a late dinner. Sadly, we didn’t have time to go all the way south to Cape Point.
We were super sad to leave and miss the rest of South Africa, but wanted to get up to Namibia to check out the desert and sand dunes and continue the adventure!