The Ultimate South Africa Road Trip

“I never knew of a morning in Africa when I woke up that I was not happy.”

~Ernest Hemingway

South Africa offers an array of ecosystems to explore from savannahs, sandy beaches, rocky coastlines, mountain ranges, as well as the city of Cape Town. This beautiful country has much to offer and yet has suffered through an incomprehensible period of injustice.  Even though the Apartheid ended in 1994 the country still has an air of unrest floating about. The unemployment rate is high and equal access to education is lacking. This said, South Africa is absolutely still worth visiting and can be done so safely. In fact through visiting and supporting local businesses who give back to surrounding communities you will be helping. Do your research on what areas to avoid while planning and what precautions to take.

After our 5-day hike along the Giant’s Cup Trail in the Maloti-Drakensberg Mountains (see 5 Days in the Drakensberg) my partner and I reached the city of Durban and spent a week there while I attended the International Association of Aquatic Animal Medicine(IAAAM) Conference to learn from many heroes of marine conservation. I’ll leave intricate Durban travel to local experts while providing a few highlights of our visit.  

Outside of the amazing conference, hospitality of Ushaka Marine World, and the comfort of our Airbnb our experience in Durban was a bit rough. The city had recently experienced flooding and was still working on cleaning up the beachfront. The streets did not feel exactly safe and in fact my partner had ventured a bit too far off the main promenade and had his phone taken off his body by a group of men. Needless to say we were quite relieved when it was time to pick up our bakkie (pick-up truck with a covered bed) complete with food storage drawers and a mini fridge from a company called Britz and head to the coast. We first traveled towards Port Shepstone and spent the next 2 weeks exploring the gorgeous coastline and hidden forests between here and the west coast. I will focus this post on the many great spots we stopped at and the incredible backpackers scene we fell upon!

Our Britz “Bakkie” in Action. Namaqua National Park, South Africa. 2019. By Alex Cortellesi.

Helpful Tips:

Wine: Vino is cheap in SA. I am talking a good bottle starting at 3USD! So, take advantage of this or perhaps invite me on your trip and I will!

Safety: The backpackers we stayed at all felt very safe, this includes the excursions we went on organized by said backpackers. If you want to venture out (as we did) and you are unsure about the safety of the area just ask the locals at the backpackers where you are staying.

Driving: Major routes between Durban and Cape Town are in excellent condition and can be managed with any type of hired car. Avoid driving at night if possible. Cattle among other animals are very difficult to see and often cross the road.

Coast to Coast: This is a comprehensive book and website of all of the trendy backpackers listed by region throughout SA. We also used this guide to find backpackers in Namibia!

Backpackers

While I will go into more detail about each of the places we stayed in the following pages, I have provided a summary below of the backpackers we stayed at, the common amenities offered, and activities nearby for those who have yet to consume that essential 4th cup of coffee.

Most Backpackers in SA Have:

  • Dorms, private rooms, private cabins, and places to pitch a tent (average price to pitch a tent is 120 rand/pp)
  • Bars
  • Ultra cool hangout spaces
  • Offer meals
  • Offer free tea and coffee
  • *Some include a simple free breakfast
  • Have a basic kitchen with cookware to prepare and cook your own meals (which saves $$) and sinks to do the washing up. Most have stove tops or electric burners. Some have ovens!
  • Very nice ablutions (toilets/showers/washrooms) with hot water
  • Wicked cool other travelers to swap stories with and learn stuff from
  • Friendly and very helpful staff
  • Offer awesome excursions like surf lessons, horseback rides, hikes to sweet spots, & more
AreaBackpackersActivities & Restaurants
Port ShepstoneThe Spot BackpackersUmtentweni Beach
Oribi Gorge Nature Reserve
Leisure BayLeisure Bay Caravan ParkLeisure Bay Beach
Peter Pan Beach
The Dolphin Bar & Grill
Coffee BayCoffee Shack Backpackers
Hole in The Wall– hike
Surf lessons
Papazela’s Pizza
Coffee Shack- cafe
Red Blanket Roots– shop
Friends Wild Coast Backpackers nearby offers drum circles/lessons
The HogsbackTerra Khaya Eco Backpackers*Various hiking trails
Amatola Hiking Trail
Horseback riding
Small town with restaurants and shops
Jeffrey’s BayAfrican Ubuntu*Catch of The Day- seafood
Jeffrey’s Bay beach
Storms River Dijembe BackpackersBloukrans Bridge
Face Adrenalin– bungee jump
Horseback riding
Otter Trail starting point
Tsitrus Cafe
Nature’s Valley Reference Coast to CoastNature’s Valley Lagoon & beach
WildernessFairy Knowe BackpackersWilderness National Park
Kayaking on the Touws River
Cocomo Restaurant
HermanusReference Coast to Coastbeach
Gordon’s BayReference Coast to Coastbeach
StellenboschReference Coast to CoastWinery tours
Cape TownReference Coast to CoastOlympia Cafe & Deli in Muizenberg
Boulders Beach penguin colony 
Whitsand beach
Hout BayHoutbay BackpackersSeal Island boat tour to see fur seal colony
Lambert’s BayMalkoppan Caravan ParkMuisbosskerm Open-Air Restaurant
Lambert’s Bay beach
Eland’s Bay beach
Namaqua National ParkCoastal Campsites

Port Shepstone- The Spot Backpackers

This is the perfect spot to unwind after a long week. We fell upon it by chance looking for a spot on the coast to pitch our tent. Not only is it right on the beach, this spot is where we were introduced to the whole backpacking scene in South Africa.

The plot is sandy with cozy unassuming dorms and cabins. Plenty of shade trees with bendy trunks adorn the garden accompanied by assorted inviting places to sit and lounge along with a happy sleeping pups. The bar/reception is outside on the covered patio. There is a communal lounge just inside before reaching the fully equipped kitchen. Two small hallways offer rooms on either side and ablutions. A couple of one room cabins sit peacefully on the grounds with another small dorm building and more ablutions behind them.

The Umtentweni beach is long and perfect for running, playing in the waves, or watching the sun greet the day. Our trip began at the end of May/beginning of June and we found the water temperature suitable for swimming from here until about Coffee Bay. In the evenings the friendly locals gather at The Spot along with the owner and some of her friends. She is wonderful and so full of life. It was great to hear of the way her and her husband explored the world on their motorcycles. 

The Oribi Gorge Nature Reserve is nearby and is worth a visit. We hiked the Hoopoe Falls trail which is 7 km and takes approximately 4 hours.

Leisure Bay- Leisure Bay Caravan Park

We were not planning on staying at a caravan park. However, we had arrived at our next planned backpackers spot just as the sun was going down and were told that the whole town had experienced a water main break and could not offer running water. Even though we could have stayed at what was likely a very chill and cool place we decided to try our luck in the next town. I called around and unfortunately many businesses were struggling without running water. Finally, I called Leisure Bay Caravan Park. Luckily, they had running hot and cold water and as it was their slow season plenty of spaces for us to pitch up. One of the owners, George, made us feel so welcome just speaking with him over the phone.

We arrived after dark and were greeted by George and his wife, Kathy. They gave us their favorite spot as it had a great view of the sunrise. We set up our home with help from one of their friendly cats. They gladly gave us directions to a nearby restaurant, the Dolphin Bar & Grill, where we could grab some food and a beer since neither of us were up for cooking. The next day we relaxed at both Leisure Bay and Peter Pan beaches nearby. When we returned to the caravan park George and Kathy’s son was pulling up with a couple friends and we were warmly invited into their home to have some coffee and sweets. We ended up in great conversation for hours and were fed generously until we sleepily stumbled back to our tent with our bellies and hearts full of love.

Coffee Bay- Coffee Shack Backpackers  

Think surfer/hippie vibe. Very chill and relaxed with hammocks to nap or read in, a fire pit, communal dining tables, and right on the beach. We were taken to the bar upon check-in and given a free beverage of our choosing!

The kitchen has everything needed to prepare meals. The ablutions are very unique and clean. There are several cool dogs hanging about the place. There are bulletin boards to sign up for dinner, surf lessons, and/or the activity planned for the following day. Two hour surf lessons are equivalent to 7 USD!

We ended up staying for a few days and had a very well instructed surf lesson where both of us did rather well. We went on a fun hike with other guests to Hole-in-the-Wall which followed the beautiful coast line. We passed free-grazing cattle, donkeys, and horses on the hills and crossed sandy beaches. All the while the blue waters of the Indian Ocean accompanied us. When we arrived at the site we had tasty grilled cheese sandwiches prepared by the backpackers and had time to relax and watch the waves crash through the giant hole in a rock wall. Though the water was a bit cool for most of us, Alex (my partner) ventured across to the rock wall, climbed up on it, and peered directly into the hole nearly getting washed away in the process. After we had our fill we were given a lift back by Coffee Shack’s open air safari truck.

One early morning a very cool pup enticed me to follow him on a walk up a cliff to share his favorite views of the coast line. A second pup joined us along the way and the three of us took Alex back up once he awoke. Those dogs know their stuff! The view from up on the hill is tremendous. Dogs or no dogs it is definitely worth it.

We met some really cool people at the Coffee Shack and ventured outside of the backpackers to grab a delicious thin crust wood-fired pizza at Papazela’s Pizza with a professional snowboard chick who had recently fallen in love with surfing. We also checked out a very hip store called Red Blanket Roots where I found and bought a hoop (clearly this was a sign that I should not have left mine at home). There was another backpackers down the street, Friends Wild Coast, that had jam sessions/drum lessons as well as a bakery/cafe right across the street. 

Hogsback – Terra Khaya Backpackers

Our new friends from Coffee Shack gave us the DL on places to check out in the Hogsback Mountains and so we decided to stay at Terra Khaya. Normally this eco-friendly backpackers has many horses that roam the grounds spreading positive vibes with guests however the majority of horses were on a 21 day coastal ride off-site while we were there. We did see an older horse who had stayed behind to teach the two yearlings where to go down the road for grazing during the day and how to get back at night.

Everything on-site is constructed with local materials found no further than 12 miles away. The walls of the buildings are constructed of wire mesh filled with stones then covered in hand-thrown clay. This method allows for insane creativity. Everything at Terra Khaya is strategically designed to be ultimately efficient and eco-friendly. The main “house” has a kitchen with a log burning stove and oven, a very large communal hang out room with swings, comfortable couches, dining areas, and a round sunken sitting area with a hanging fire pit in the middle. There is also a deck with awesome views. Outside there is a stage, a fire pit, as well as an outdoor bathtub and showers (indoor ones are available too). 

After our free and yummy porridge breakfast we took the dirt road into town and grabbed a map of some nearby trails. The Amatola Trail runs nearby and we heard it offered many waterfalls and may just be the toughest hike in South Africa. Since we hadn’t planned on a multi-day hike in this section and didn’t have much time we stuck to the smaller paths. They say to watch out for the forest fairies as they like to play tricks on you. Well, we indeed felt their magic as we kept ending up back at the same spot we started completely unintentionally! 

Jeffrey’s Bay – African Ubuntu

We had to check out the famous waves at Jeffrey’s Bay and pitched up at African Ubuntu, a small urban backpackers in close proximity to the beach. They offer a free light breakfast with cereal and bread and had an open bar-b-que the night we were there. The tent sites are small but the place has everything one needs including a fully equipped kitchen, a bar and a lounge with a pool table, an outdoor balcony with a grill upstairs, and a small outdoor lounging area.

After setting up and taking an evening walk on the beach we found a tasty bottle of cheap red table wine and some corn on the cob to grill at the grocery down the street and joined the party. The man cooking was a true grill master and we offered him a piece of our corn in appreciation. We enjoyed conversing with some other travelers and received some tips on places to check out in Southeast Asia where we would eventually be heading. The next day as we left town we stopped at Catch of the Day for some fresh seafood on a recommendation from the night before.

Storms River – Dijembe Backpackers

Possibly my favorite backpackers along our South Africa road trip, Dijembe is an experience in itself! After being warmly greeted by humans, Toast the dog, Cattuccino the cat, and taking in the unique surroundings we set up our tent in the backyard and promptly snuggled in the hammock. As if in a glorious dream 3 horses surrounded us to munch on the lush grass. They had just returned from showing some other guests around the local trails and this was part of their post-ride routine. Of course we booked a ride for the following morning.

Dijembe offers a communal dinner guests can sign up for and though we were preparing our own meals during our stay we were offered the pre-meal beer bread. Not just any ol’ beer bread but the best beer bread ever and it’s made in the cutest round loaves! We sat around the fire with other guests and made a new friend from Switzerland. He was just finishing up his second year of world travel and was in Storms River to start the Otter Trail hike. The three of us went out for pizza at Tsitrus Cafe one night and it was neat to see his perspective as he neared the end of his travels and hear how he would be starting off living out of his renovated van back home.

While we were in the area Alex and I bungee jumped off the 220 meter Bloukrans Bridge. What a rush! We had once went skydiving in Hawaii and this was comparable and perhaps just a bit more invigorating than jumping out of the plane. The company that runs it, Face Adrenalin, does a fantastic job. You first zip line out to the bungee jumping block. Then, they jazz you up with blood pumping jams while hooking you up to everything. They then support you as you walk the plank and count down from 3, 2, 1 … and then you take a beautiful swan dive off a freaking bridge! as your body is being tossed around like a yo-yo your like WTF followed by uncontrollable laughter and an endorphin rush! We would so do it again!

Djembe’s horses took us on a fun ride. Schmiegels was a little spit fire and I could feel his muscles quivering with excitement as we approached the straightaways asking me if we could please take off at full speed again and again. Of course I obliged. After all he was carrying me on his back 🙂 Later on that night one of the staff came trotting into the bar bareback and bridleless on Schmiegels while I was on the floor with Toast helping him work on his crawl behavior. I guess horses really do walk into bars! He of course got loads of carrots and Cattucino had to jump up on the counter to see what was being dished out.

Nature’s Valley

Unfortunately, we did not stay in Nature’s Valley though we wished we had. We were on our way to Wilderness and stopped in to have a picnic. The best way to describe it is to say that it is truly nature’s valley.

The river winds down through the valley and it’s mouth gobbles up the sand to meet the sea. The beach is pristine, long, and beautiful. We explored some rocks at the one end and saw some hikers who were just finishing the Otter Trail. The Otter Trail is another multi-day hike that follows the coast and we hear it is quite scenic, though you must book in advance or keep checking in for cancellations. Our friend from Dijembe would have just been on his second day on the trail. We drove out of town and stopped to restock our rice and beans supply and chatted to the grocer who loved his valley, rightly so.

Wilderness – Fairy Knowe Backpackers

Fairy Know offers spacious campsites with plenty of shade, meals, and activities. We stayed up in the woods away from the reception and bar area and closer to the dorm house which has a Kitchen, bathrooms, and a small upstairs lounge we used to plug in.

On the outside of the reception building there is an artistic map painting indicating interesting sites in the area. We rented kayaks and the owner showed us on the map how to make our way up the Touws River so we could then hike to a waterfall in Wilderness National Park.

Coast to Coast recommended Cocomo Restaurant for a nice wood fired pizza so we ate there instead of cooking one night. The food is tasty and the live music unique. Back at Fairy Knowe that night there was live music in the bar and we shot some pool. The bartenders and locals who gather are quite friendly as is the handsome white cat who hangs out on the bar. Smoking is permitted in the bar however the pool table is just outside and offers a bit of fresh air while still allowing guests to enjoy the performance.

Hermanus

We merely stopped here for a lunch break as we were headed to stay with a friend in Stellenbosch for the night. The beach was very interesting with small dunes dotting the landscape. We perched on top of one of the dunes to have a bite to eat then took a walk down the long beach. There were public restrooms and plenty of parking. I imagine it may be a popular destination during summer.

Gordon’s Bay

This was a slightly larger town/small city compared to the other places we stopped and has a long boardwalk alongside the beach where plenty of people walk and bike. The sun was setting as we entered the town so we parked and walked out onto the beach to watch the show.

Stellenbosch

Stellenbosch is in the heart of wine country. I would have loved to spend a couple of days here and take one of the wine tours that pick you up at your accomodation and shuttle you around to the various wineries dropping you back off when you’ve had your fill. Alas we were short on time and were just dropping in on a new friend I had made at the IAAAM Conference who had opened up her home to us for a night on our way to Cape Town. Luckily for us she had some friends over and the wine and food were flowing anyhow! Though we were pretty comfortable in our tent it was wonderful to have a real bed to sleep in not to mention impecable hospitality.

Cape Town

Cape Town offers an abundance of activities such as hiking up to catch the view from Table Mountain, Devil’s Peak, or Lion’s Head, traveling down to the Cape Point, and spending a day or two in the city. However, we had one day and at least hit the things we really wanted to do.

We had a recommendation to stop in Muizenburg on our way in and grab breakfast at Olympia Cafe & Deli. The food was amazing at this buzzing joint along the coast. Alex and I both had omelettes and couldn’t help but to indulge in a cinnamon churro after eyeing the pastries during our meal. We sat just above the kitchen and enjoyed watching our delicious food being prepared below.

After a wonderful breakfast we headed down to Boulder’s Beach where a Penguin Colony had decided to settle in 1982. Penguin nesting grounds were devastated by the harvesting of guano that began in the mid 19th century greatly effecting African Penguin populations along with egg harvesting and now the species is listed as endangered on the IUCN’s(International Union for Conservation of Nature) Red List with 50,000 mature adults remaining in the wild. Penguins typically build their nests in the guano which provides protection for and helps incubate their eggs. Boulder’s Beach is protected and conservationists provide plastic dens for nesting pairs to use. It was both amazing and heartbreaking to get to see these birds in the wild knowing how dire their situation is. Boardwalks weave through their nesting grounds allowing a steady flow of visitors to observe their behaviors which felt a bit invasive.

We decided to drive around the South side of the city and up the West Coast bypassing Cape Point as we were not prepared to pay an entrance fee. Instead we stopped at Whitsand Beach and enjoyed watching kite surfers play in the waves before heading Northward to find a spot to sleep.

Hout Bay

There was a really interesting coastal road that went up to Hout Bay however it was closed due to landslides. We entered the fishing village in the evening and found Hout Bay Backpackers. Though a bit pricier than all of the other backpackers we stayed at as they did not offer camping we were ready to settle in. We met a lovely German girl who had also traveled for a few weeks in Namibia where we were headed next so we exchanged information and received some great tips. In the morning we went on a boat tour to Seal Island to see a colony of fur seals that call it home. The swell was huge but luckily neither of us tend to get sea sick. Due to the conditions our boat could not linger though we were able to observe the colony for an adequate amount of time before heading back.

Lambert’s Bay

At this point we we had 2 more nights in South Africa before crossing the border into Namibia and making it to Ai Ais where we would be camping the night before starting the Fish River Canyon hike. I had read rave reviews on the Muisbosskerm Open-Air Restaurant in Lambert’s Bay so our plan was to treat ourselves to a nice dinner and crash nearby. We made reservations just across the street from the restaurant at the Malkoppan Caravan Park. Unfortunately, we were not privy to the restaurants winter hours and it was closed at the time of our visit. Regardless we enjoyed an amazing sunset and nearly had the entire caravan park to ourselves.

Namaqua National Park

I had read on a 4×4 forum that the coastal campsites in Namaqua were stunning and right on the beach. As it was winter there were no other campers and we had our pick of wonderful sites. The pitches have built up stones in a horseshoe figure that block the wind. The lovely lady who checked us in recommended her favorite site and indeed it ended up being the site we chose. The location was wonderfully remote. We scoured the beach, climbed up on the dunes, and watched the sunset before building a fire and cooking our classic beans and rice accompanied by a large beer.

In the Spring time the park is alive with wild flowers and I would love to return one day and spend a week moving through the park camping at various coastal sites and hiking around during the days

Thanks for reading! If you have any questions or comments please share!

If you are looking for travel medical insurance for your trip I recommend checking out SafetyWing for great coverage!

References

iucnredlist.org. 2018

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