We knew travel in southern Africa was going to be a very different experience. Even so, many of the differences still surprised us. We struggled with a lack of information and found many sources were out of date. In discussion with other travellers, they shared many of the same struggles. To hopefully help out any future travellers, I've decided to put together a series of posts dedicated solely to travel tips. Please note, all these tips are written with the budget traveller in mind.
South Africa was the most friendly backpack country we visited on our trip. It was possible to backpack in the traditional sense - not planning days in advance and finding accommodation the day of arrival. However, some attractions require reservations be made weeks to months in advance. Be sure to know if you need these reservations before arriving.
1. Plan to rent a car
Public transit isn't really a thing, and where it is you'll be explicitly warned not to take it. You can try the Baz Bus, which is a hop on/hop off service for tourists/backpackers operating between the major cities. However, you are restricted to their routes and their schedules. If you want to deviate from their routes, you're on your own. Not to mention, it was cheaper for the two of us to split the cost of a car rental than two Baz Bus tickets from Johannesburg to Cape Town. You'll save even more money making regular trips to the grocery stores (look for Shoprite or Spar) rather than eating out every night.
Just a regular sedan will do, you don't need anything crazy unless you have a specific reason From the people we talked to, it seemed cheaper to arrange the rental before coming to South Africa. You will definitely find better deals online rather than asking for quotes in person. Be sure to read the terms and conditions too.
2. Distances are big
Not just that South Africa is a big country (it is!), but travel on the roads can be quite slow. There's a good network of freeways connecting the major centres, but you'll probably have to venture off of these to get where you want to go. Additionally, many of these are toll roads which can surprisingly add up quickly (especially with the fees from the rental company - did I mention you should read the terms and conditions?). You can avoid these by taking alternative highways. These highways often come along with massive/unmarked speed bumps and semis going 30 km/hr. There's also "Stop n Go" construction zones, where they inexplicably close one lane for kilometres so you have to alternative with traffic coming the other way.
3. Bring your tent
The majority of hostels will let you set up your tent in their secure green space areas for less than the cost of a dorm bed. You get full access to their facilities (bathroom, showers, kitchen, etc.) so you're not exactly roughing it. There was always space for one more tent so we rarely had to worry about reservations or availability. This will also open up your options for bush camps and campgrounds in the game reserves where you can hear the lions roar at night. I much preferred sleeping in a tent than sharing a dorm.
4. You'll want a good sleeping pad too
We bought our sleeping pads from Exped and couldn't have been happier with them. They were durable, lasting the full two months in Africa, and more comfortable than any bed we slept in. As for sleeping bags, I had a 14°C bag and my girlfriend's was 2°C. There were some chilly some nights I was wishing I had a little more. We were there in March-April (Autumn in SA) so plan accordingly. Bringing camping gear also opens up opportunities for backcountry camping in the Drakensberg, one of the highlights from our trip.
5. Get a local SIM card
They're dirt cheap and the minutes are even cheaper (compared to what we pay in Canada). If you like, you can even get data on your phone. Some places may be hesitant to help you with a foreign phone, but they can do it. Internet access was better than we expected though it cannot be relied upon. With a local phone number, you can easily make reservations on the go and call for help if you find yourself in a lousy situation.
6. Self drive safaris
I would be open to argument on this one, however, in South Africa we were very happy doing our own self-drive safaris. It saved us a ton of money and let us operate on our own schedule. As a photographer, I could sit and wait for animals to be themselves. The big advantage with the tour operators is they communicate amongst themselves the location of recent big game sightings. However, we found most other self-drivers would communicate their sightings as well. It's also a lot of fun to feel like you're on your own little mission to find stuff, but maybe that's just me.
7. Bring good binoculars
We spent a week before we left trying to decide how much to spend on binoculars. We were lucky to find a pair of Nikon Prostaff 7 on demo pricing, otherwise we would have gone for cheap, pocket sized ones. It was one of the best decisions we made. We went on safaris where the people beside us were bored because they could hardly see anything off in the distance while we were having the time of our lives. Binoculars also are great at night. If you're going to spend all the money/effort travelling to see the wildlife, make sure you get a good view of it.
8. Get excited about everything
I'm talking about wildlife but that's probably the way it should be about travel in general. Try to identify birds and all the deer-like animals. Watch a dung beetle do it's thing. Keep a check list of everything you've seen throughout your travel. If you're going to rip around the park only caring about the big five, you will end up missing out on some truly awesome stuff (and will end up sorely disappointed if you don't see them).
Have anything to add? Put it in the comments section! Also, feel free to send me a message if that floats your boat.