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Hiking the Drakensberg Mountains
Hiking the Drakensberg Mountains | © South African Tourism
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The Ultimate Backpacking Guide to South Africa

Picture of Carina Claassens
Updated: 11 April 2018
One of the most budget-friendly and rewarding ways to explore a country is by traveling light. Backpacking through South Africa guarantees an authentic experience filled with wildlife, loads of adventure, delicious food, and the friendliest people you’ve ever come across. Here’s our ultimate backpacking guide to South Africa.

The backpacker scene

Just about every city and town in South Africa boasts a backpacker hostel and they’re often the best place to stay if you’re after a truly South African experience. They’re so popular, in fact, that even locals flock to them for an interesting night out. South Africans are extremely social and love clueing visitors in on everything they need to know about the country, so get ready to make many new friends while enjoying a cold one around a fire.

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South African nightlife | © South African Tourism

Making the most of it

South Africa is a very large country, so plan properly

South Africa is a large country (approximately five times the size of the UK) so don’t expect to see it all in a few days. Plan your trip in advance and decide what exactly it is you’d like to see. Most tourists opt for the bigger cities, like Cape Town, Johannesburg, and Durban, but there’s much more to see.

Language shouldn’t be an issue if you can speak English

Mind boggling to many, South Africa has eleven official languages, of which English is one. Most South Africans speak English as a second language, so if you know the basics you won’t have any trouble communicating. If you do decide to learn a few terms in local languages, ensure you also research which languages are spoken in which parts of the country, as not everyone speaks all eleven.

Take the road less traveled for a more rewarding experience

Although visiting the top tourist destinations is a must, think outside the box when it comes to planning your holiday. Chat with locals about the places they love most and make a plan to get there. It’s easy to get to one spot and explore, but making the effort to see the more unexplored parts of the country will be extremely rewarding. Check out these charming small towns that are well worth a visit.

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Go dune boarding | © South African Tourism

Safety

Just as when traveling to any other country, it’s wise to store valuables, including passports, in a safe or locked storage box and keep your room or apartment locked, whether you’re inside it or not. Try not to display expensive jewelry, cameras, and other valuables or leave them lying around. When seated at a restaurant or coffee shop take care to keep your valuables close by and not scattered all over the table. The same goes for handbags and backpacks—keep them closed and strapped across your body. This doesn’t mean that you can’t use these items, it’s simply best to be aware of your surroundings.

When going on a safari or having interactions in the wild, bear in mind that animals aren’t tame and shouldn’t be approached. Luckily, your guide will break down all the safety rules and ensure everyone is out of harm’s way.

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Your safari guide will have your safety front of mind | © South African Tourism

Food and accommodation

One thing’s for sure, when visiting South Africa, you won’t go hungry. The country boasts amazing restaurants, from fine dining to casual eateries and markets—South Africa is a foodie’s dream come true. Whether you’d like to try traditional dishes like “smileys” or “walkie talkies,” chow down on a world-class steak, or discover delicious vegetarian cuisine, South Africa has it all and more.

Read more about cheap eats in Johannesburg and where to try traditional food in Cape Town.

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Make sure to visit some of the country’s amazing food markets | © South African Tourism

As far as accommodation is concerned, there’s a whole plethora of options. Backpacker lodges range from top class to more rustic, so whatever you’re looking for, you’re bound to find it here. Hermanus Backpackers offers affordable accommodation in this whale-watching town, Backpacker’s Paradise and Joyrides in Oudtshoorn takes guests on amazing adventures in the Klein Karoo, and Lebo’s in Soweto will allow you to explore this famous township in all its glory.

Making friends

One of South Africa’s main attractions has to be its diverse locals. They’re friendly and always happy to assist travelers in need of directions or tips. For those traveling solo, tour groups are great for meeting like-minded people and picking the brains of knowledgeable guides. When staying in a backpacker lodge, make sure to head to the on-site bar in the evenings, as this is where you’ll get to meet locals as well as visitors, and if you really want to impress them, get to grips with these South African slang words and phrases.

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Feel free to approach the locals | © South African Tourism

Money, Money, Money

Currency

The monetary unit is the South African Rand ($1 USD equals R11.83) and everything from groceries to accommodation is relatively well-priced compared to European countries and the United States. Cards are widely accepted and so are payment apps such as SnapScan. One thing to note is that South Africa is a tipping nation, so it’s wise to have some small change on hand for waiters, car guards (informal parking attendants who help you find a parking spot and expect a small fee in return), and petrol attendants.

Costs

Here’s what you can expect to spend on the basics:

1 meal – R50 ($4) to R200 ($17) depending on the restaurant

1 beer – R25 ($2) for a draught

1 night at a backpacker hostel – Starting at R120 ($10) per person sharing

1 cheap mode of transport for inner-city travel – Starting at R15 ($1.26)

1 bar of soap – R12 ($1)

1 affordable experience – Museum admission fees are approximately R50 ($4) to R100 ($8.40) while a city sightseeing bus tour starts at R280 ($24)

To get an idea of how far your money will take you, here’s how long you’ll last with $500 in Johannesburg, one of the more expensive South African cities.

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The Apartheid Museum in Johannesburg | © South African Tourism

Where to go

Head to the top of Table Mountain in Cape Town

Cape Town is top of the list for most tourists visiting South Africa, and no trip to the Mother City is complete without reaching the top of Table Mountain. Hike one of the many trails to the top or, if you’re not into breaking a sweat, soak in the view from the cableway.

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The view from the top | © South African Tourism

Explore the lush Garden Route

The beautiful Garden Route is one of the country’s most scenic areas. Stretching from Mossel Bay to Storms River, this is where you’ll see landscapes dotted with forests, rivers, pristine beaches, lakes, and mountains, as well as indigenous flora and fauna. Head to the Tsitsikamma National Park for an otherworldly experience, surrounded by breathtaking nature.

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Tubing down the Storms River | © South African Tourism

Get back to your roots at the Cradle of Humankind

Caves and archaeological sites are scattered across thirteen locations that all make up this UNESCO World Heritage Site. The area is often referred to as the birthplace of mankind, where curious visitors can crawl through the fascinating Sterkfontein Caves and visit the Maropeng Visitor Centre.

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Tourists get a glimpse of work that is put into an archaeological excavation | © South African Tourism

Meet the locals of Soweto

Soweto (short for South Western Townships) is overflowing with historic sites and tons of culture- and adrenaline-fueled activities. The traditional eateries and bars are great for meeting locals and getting a sneak peek into their way of life. Tours are also available and your best bet for seeing as much as possible.

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Explore by bicycle | © South African Tourism

See the Big Five in the Kruger National Park

A visit to South Africa won’t be the same without a safari in the massive Kruger National Park. Here you’ll get as close to nature as possible and, if you’re lucky, spot the Big Five (African elephant, lion, leopard, rhino, and buffalo). Book in advance as accommodation fills up fast and remember to pack sunscreen.

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Seeing lions in the wild is an unforgettable experience | © Jonatan Pie / Unsplash

Bucket list experiences

Bungy jump from Bloukrans Bridge

Situated close to the Storms River Mouth Rest Camp, the Bloukrans Bridge is the highest commercial bridge bungy in the world at 216 meters (708 feet) high. It’s a must-do activity if you’re after an adrenaline rush.

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Bungy jumping from Bloukrans Bridge is an unforgettable experience | © Anja / Pixabay

Visit the penguins at Boulder’s Beach

Boulder’s Beach is a popular tourist destination in Cape Town as it’s home to a colony of African penguins. These goofy marine birds aren’t shy of wandering onto the sand and finding a comfortable spot in between sunbathers.

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Boulder’s Beach | © South African Tourism

Learn about the county’s history at Constitution Hill

Constitution Hill, the seat of the South African Constitutional Court, has a tumultuous history as a former prison, incarcerating prominent figures including Nelson Mandela and Mahatma Gandhi. Today, the living museum teaches visitors all about the country’s struggle for freedom.

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Visitors tour the small detention cells of Number Four | © Constitution Hill