Backpacking South Africa alone is a thought that never crossed my mind.
I was forever dreaming about exploring far-flung countries in Asia or the lost civilisations of South America. However, after spending six months in Thailand, it hit me how much I had seen there and how little I had explored my country. So in December of 2016, I decided to remedy this by setting off on my first solo backpacking trip in South Africa.
It was an incredible month. I saw landscapes I never knew existed and got to see how international tourists experience my country. As corny as it sounds, it was eye opening, and I recommend it to anyone - whether you are a local like myself or a tourist who wants to sink their teeth into this amazing country.
Here is my complete one-month backpacking South Africa itinerary for solo travellers!
- Johannesburg: 2 days -
Affectionately nicknamed Jozi, or the City of Gold - South Africa's biggest city has it all. From a thriving live music scene to delicious food and a rich cultural history, this bustling city has a unique character that has a vibe unlike any other city in the country.
While it does have a reputation for being one of the most unsafe areas in the country, if you keep your wits about you like you would anywhere else in the world, you will be okay.
Top Things to See and Do in Johannesburg:
- Start your day at Greenside Cafe with one of their delicious vegan breakfasts.
- If you are looking to understand South Africa's tumultuous history, make a stop at the Apartheid Museum.
- Explore The Cradle of Mankind, a World Heritage site and discover what life was like for our ancestors more than 3 million years ago.
- Unleash your inner art freak and explore the creative melting pot that is Maboneng District.
Where to stay in Johannesburg:
Once in Joburg is one the top-rated backpackers in South Africa and is located in CBD within walking distance of restaurants, galleries, Kitchener's and the monthly cultural event First Thursdays.
- Drakensberg: 3 days -
The Drakensberg is one of the most beautiful parts of South Africa. Its amphitheatre is regarded as one of the most impressive cliffs faces on Earth, and it is the perfect stop for backpackers in South Africa who love the outdoors.
How to get to the Drakensberg:
- Mainline buses like Intercape stop in a town called Harrismith. Amphitheatre Backpackers then offers a shuttle bus from Harrismith right to their door.
- The most expensive option is BazBus that goes straight from Johannesburg to one of their listed Drakensberg backpackers.
Top Things Things to see and Do in the Drakensburg
- Hike Tugela Falls in the Royal Natal National Park
- Visit Cathedral Peak Nature Reserve. It is home to the largest indigenous forest in the Drakensburg and 3, 900 rock art paintings.
- Sign up for rock climbing day trips to the Swinburne area or the high berg for more advanced climbers.
- Border hop over to Lesotho for a day trip.
Where to stay in The Drakensburg
I stayed at Amphitheatre Backpackers and could not recommend it enough. The backpackers has hiking trails on the property, incredible views of the Drakensberg mountains in the distance, pool, restaurant, beautiful accommodation and a tour desk to organise all the above. The only thing that I did not like was the poor WiFi connection and the fact that it wasn't free.
- Durban: 1 Day -
I'll be honest with you. I did not like this city at all. Besides having shit weather the entire time I was there, the only thing that left an impression on me was my couch surfing host. We had the best time, and I'd recommend ditching the hostel route and meeting up with a host if you can. How this place got featured as 7th out of 52 places to visit in 2015 by The New York Times, I'll never know.
How to get to Durban
- Take the BazBus from Amphitheatre Backpackers straight to Durban.
- Take the backpacker shuttle back into Harrismith and catch a mainline bus to Durban.
Top Things To See and Do In Durban
- Explore the city on foot with one of Curiocity Backpackers walking tours.
- Get wet with the Durban's variety of water sports.
- Visit The Chairman, a sophisticated jazz bar and one of the best-kept secrets of the city.
- Head to Cool Runnings on a Thursday and take part or watch their epic drum circle event.
Where to stay in Durban
I spent one night at Curiocity Backpackers in Durban. I loved the decor, the dorm rooms were huge, and my windows opened up onto the busy streets of the CBD. The hostel also organises different communal events daily such as a braai night and plenty of comfortable couches. I miss those couches. However, I did have the same issue I had with Amphitheatre. The WiFi situation is lacking; I am not for this system of limiting me to x amount of data each day.
- Umzumbe: 3 days -
Umzumbe wasn't on my radar until my couch surfing host told me all about Mantis and Moon backpackers. It quickly became one of my favourite spots on this trip and is an ideal stop for backpackers in South Africa looking to chill and take things slowly for the next couple of days.
How to get to Umzumbe
- Southern Shuttle buses have pick up points around Durban CBD and can drop you right outside Mantis and Moon on request.
- Take a mainline bus into Umzumbe but will have to either walk to your accommodation or organise a lift.
- BazBus will take you straight to a backpackers on their list.
Top Things To See and Do in Umzumbe
- Take part in one of the daily yoga classes at Mantis and Moon's on-site studio, surrounded by the forest.
- Learn how to surf with a professional instructor at Mantis and Moon.
- Explore the Umzumbe blue flag beach and keep a look out for dolphins, whales, crabs and plenty of other sea life.
- Take a day trip to Lake Eland and choose from a self-drive safari, gorge swinging, abseiling and a zip line that reaches speeds of 160 km/h.
Where to stay in Umzumbe
I stayed at Mantis and Moon Backpackers in Umzumbe. My first night was spent in one of their treehouse dorm rooms before I moved into a glass treehouse for the next three days. The location and the property itself is a private jungle that feels like something out of a fairy paradise. At night you can hear the waves crashing, and the hostel has a lively bar area for those looking to party the night away.
- Coffee Bay: 3 days -
Located on the Wild Coast of the Eastern Cape, this small town is a must for travellers backpacking in South Africa solo or with friends. The landscapes are incredible, the town has a rustic feel to it, and for those looking to trip balls, it is the only place in all of South Africa that drug dealers have ever tried to sell me drugs.
How to get to Coffee Bay
- The roads to Coffee Bay are not in good condition. So if you are driving make sure your car can handle dirt roads as you dodge cows, sheep, horses and pot holes.
- While the BazBus website claims Coffee Bay is on their list, it is not. Baz will drop you off at a small town called Umtata and then you will need to organise and pay for another shuttle with Coffee Shack Backpackers to get into town.
- Backpackers can also take a mainline bus to Umtata, but will once again need to contact the backpackers to get a lift into Coffee Bay.
Top Things to see and do in coffee bay
- Learn to surf, hire out gear or go on a day trip to some of the best local surf spots.
- Hike or drive to the area's most famous landmark - The Hole in the Wall.
- Explore the Mpuzi Cliffs, check out the Bat Cave and bring your GoPro along for some awesome cliff jump shots.
Where to stay in Coffe Bay
Coffee Shack Backpackers is right by the beach and a gorgeous cliff face that drops off into the ocean. This hostel does have a reputation for legendary parties, so I decided to skip staying in their dorms and spend three nights at one of their authentic Xhosa rondavels. The WiFi situation here is pretty bleak, and Coffee Shack only gives you 50 MB per day.
- Hogsback: 4 days -
Hogsback is hands down one of the most magical places in South Africa. Surrounded by the beautiful centuries old Amathole mountains, staying here is a must for nature lovers and those of us that still believe in fairies.
How to get to Hogsback
- The easiest way to get to Hogsback without a car is to catch a mainline bus into East London or Chintsa. Away With The Fairies Backpackers has a daily shuttle bus that runs between East London, Chinsa and Hogsback.
- Once again, BazBus does say Hogsback is on their list, but you'll be fetched from Umtata and dropped off in East London or Chinta. And you will still need to pay for the shuttle into Hogsback.
Top Things To See and Do in Hogsback
- Hike a subsection of one of the best hiking trails in South Africa - The Amatola Trails.
- Choose from 1- 8-hour hiking trails starting from the bottom of Away With The Fairies garden.
- Rock climb one of the 60 bolted routes in the area and abseil down the beautiful 35m Madonna and Child waterfall.
- Visit the Crystal Corner and enjoy a stunning photo gallery, stone circle and labyrinth.
Where to stay in Hogsback
I spent an entire week at Away With The Fairies Backpackers in Hogsback, and it was not long enough. This rustic hostel has a hot water outdoor bath that overlooks the valley below, delicious pizzas and is in walking distance to all the restaurants and amenities in town. I stayed in their dorms as well as The Dragon's Lair. The WiFi situation is fast and free, but the backpackers does turn it off after 6 pm to encourage socialisation.
- Port Elizabeth: 2 days -
Port Elizabeth is one of the major cities in South Africa and is an award-winning wildlife destination. It is known as the only place in the world home to the Big 7 and has a 40km stretch of protected beaches.
How to get to Port Elizabeth
- From Hogsback, you'll want to take the Away With Fairies shuttle back into East London and then hop onto a mainline bus to Port Elizabeth.
Top Things To See and Do in Port Elizabeth
- Addo Elephant National Park is the only place in the world where you can see the Big 7 and is home to over 500 elephants.
- Adrenaline Addo boasts South Africa's longest zip line.
- Go on a three-hour sandboarding adventure and ride some of the biggest dunes in the Eastern Cape.
- Hit the water and surf, snorkel and dive in one of South Africa's highest rated cold water dive locations.
Where to stay in Port Elizabeth
I couch surfed for the three days I spent in Port Elizabeth, but I have heard great things about Hippo Backpackers and Lungile Backpackers from fellow travellers.
- Tsitsikamma: 3 Days -
Tsitsikamma is one of the beautiful spots along South Africa's famous Garden Route. This coastal reserve is known for its lush indigenous forests, dramatic coastline and one of the most popular hiking trails in South Africa - The Otter Trail.
How to get to Tsitsikamma
- The easiest way to get to Tsitsikamma is to catch a mainline bus to Storms River. Dijeme Backpackers can then organise a shuttle to fetch you from the Engen petrol station and take you into town.
- Alternatively, you can use the BazBus to go from your backpackers in PE to Storms River.
Top Things To See and Do in Tsitsikamma
- Hike the first 3km of the famous Otter Trail or explore the suspension bridges inside Tsitsikamma National Park.
- The Tsitsikamma Canopy Tour takes you through the indigenous forest canopy on an exhilarating two-hour tour.
- Jump off a 126 m high bridge - the World's Highest Commerical Bungy Jump.
- Scuba dive, snorkel or go on an eco-marine safari inside the national park.
- Experience an exhilarating rush by River Tubing down Storms River.
Where to stay in Tsitsikamma
I chose to stay with Dijembe Backpackers in Storms River after hearing backpacker after backpacker tell me I had to stay there. I was not disappointed. The hostel provides free pancakes for breakfast, unique accommodation, a decent free WiFi connection and goes out of its way to create a social and communal vibe.
- Nature's Valley & Wilderness: 2 days each -
I, unfortunately, injured my knee in Tsitsikamma and had to cut my backpacking itinerary short by two destinations. Nature's Valley and the Wilderness were the final to spots I wanted to visit on my month long backpacking trip. If you plan to follow my route or a similar one, don't give them a miss. Both locations are exceptionally beautiful and ideal for backpackers who love hiking and getting outdoors.
- Cape Town: 4 days -
Before ending your backpacking trip around South Africa, make sure you leave enough time to explore Cape Town! The Mother City is a bustling metropolis that needs at least four days with its epic hiking trails, delicious wines, a thriving live music scene and a social schedule that will not leave you feeling bored.
Top Things to do and see in Cape Town
- Hike up Lions Head or Table Mountain to watch the sunset.
- Explore Cape Point National Park and drive through the Southern Peninsula.
- Go to one of the many summer trance parties or Kirstenbosch summer concerts.
- Try some award-winning cup of joe at Truth Coffee.
- Go on an inner city walking wine tour with Tuning the Vine.
Where to Stay in Cape Town
Once in Cape Town is the only backpackers I have stayed at in the city. Located on Kloof street, it is right in the epicentre of Cape Town's nightlife. The Backpackers boasts a bar and a DJ with numerous day trip and nightlife ideas posted on notice board every day.
After backpacking South Africa for a month, it made me realise how big this place is and how much more I still have to see. I hope you found this itinerary helpful and use either use some or all of it to create your own amazing backpacking experience in South Africa!
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ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Hey, I'm Lauren! I'm passionate about inspiring young South Africans to travel for less and sharing my experiences and how to navigate the endless visa paperwork along the way. When I'm not busy preparing for the inevitable zombie apocalypse, I'm having a travel fail somewhere and geeking out in countries all over the world. Connect with me on Twitter, Instagram and Pinterest!