Country Guide: South Africa

South Africa is not a small country, not only is it large in size but it also has a tremendous variety of things to do and see. The expected game viewing and safaris, the relaxing Indian coastline, beautiful forests, tasty food, a unique history of gemstones and apartheid all combine to make any trip to South Africa an unforgettable one.



You can think of South Africa like any other western destination in this regard. Plentiful ATMs provide you with cash which you’ll spend as if you were at home in Australia, Europe, or the USA. South Africa is not a budget destination but with a little work it can be visited relatively inexpensively.


If you are visiting only one or two places (such as Cape Town followed by a safari) then you’re probably fine flying between those destinations. If you want to spend several weeks taking in as much of the country as possible you’ll be best served by renting a car.  Independent travelers accustomed to using public transportation or the Baz Bus should be warned that neither represents good value and can be quite a bit more expensive than you’d expect. The only way the Baz Bus really makes sense is if you plan to spend a tremendous amount of time on the Garden route.


Take a look at the below list of places and activities and take a peak at what suits you best. If you are going to be driving the country it is probably best to make a loop of some kind. If Cape Town and the Garden Route are your thing then maybe stretch your trip from Cape Town through Addo Elephant Park. If you prefer to see the different indigenous cultures you might enjoy a loop from Johannesburg to Swaziland, Lesotho, and the Wild Coast. Of course, you can do it all. If you have the time, go for it all, but be sure to seek out free copies of the “Coast to Coast” and the “Alternative Guide”, local accommodation guidebooks published for backpackers and independent travelers. Both can be a tremendous help when you find yourself in a small “dorp”. Although shorter than “Coast to Coast”, we preferred the accommodation and other listings in Alternative guide.

The Safari:

If you’re going to South Africa for a safari, you should probably consider doing it yourself, in your own rental car. Be sure to read our Safari Guide which has some valuable tips on making the most of your DIY safari. Whatever you do though, be sure to relax and enjoy it and not spend every waking moment driving for animals.


Cape Town: A wonderful city to pass a week. Hike up and over Table Mountain (about 8 hours round trip depending on your route) from the beautiful gardens of Kristenbasch. Take a multiday wine tour through Stellenbosch and top that off with a nice Cape Malay meal at the waterfront so long as you don’t forget to make a visit to the the Cape Point.

Johannesburg: There are a ton of people here and so there is a ton to do. In town we highly recommend the World of Beer as a relaxing afternoon. The Apartheid Museum is another can’t miss if you’re planning to do anything in South Africa beyond game viewing. Do be sure to take in some sports while in town (or in Durban or Cape Town) such as Cricket or Rugby!

The Garden Route:  South Africans rave about the Garden Route as one of the must see’s of their country. The entire route, stretching along the Indian coast from Port Elizabeth to Cape Town IS stunning, but it is just that. If you’re interested in spending some time relaxing on the coast this is the place to do it, but don’t feel a need to push yourself to visit each and every place along the route…that’s not the point of the Garden Route. Some quick notes as you head east from Cape Town.:

If flying in, you’ll probably start at Cape Town, Port Elizabeth, or George, but you should plan to drive it yourself, do not visit the route as part of a tour.

If you’re into checking places off your life list then be sure to go to where the two oceans actually meet, Cape Agulhas, the southernmost tip of Africa.

A can’t miss day will taking a ride on an ostrich and then the adventure tour at the Cangoo Caves, both easily reached from George

Activies abound, souch as paragliding and bunjee jumping as well as enjoying the crash of the waves and the hiking trails of the Tsitsikamma National Park.

If you want to tack some game viewing onto a tour of the Garden Route, then Addo Elephant National Park is probably your best bet.

Lesotho:  If you’re looking for a more traditional African experience, Lesotho is a must on your list. You’ll need a good roadmap. Drive into the Malealea Lodge, park your car, and just stay there. The lodge has camping and nicer rooms available. You will have a good experience.  Go for a hike and enjoy.

IMGP9736Swaziland: The curios are cheaper, the rapids are bigger, and you can get closer to the animals if you choose. Best to just base yourself one place, the Milwane Nature Reserve is probably best as they have a range of accommodation and nearby attractions. You can do your main game viewing here as well but it will be a bit more expensive than doing it on your on in South Africa.

The Drakensburg Mountains: Plenty of hiking available here but only if you can drive in on your own, the campsites in the central district of the park, near the amphitheater, are quite nice. If you are sticking to the Baz Bus route than the Sani Lodge will be your best bet. Unless you’re going during a holiday season you shouldn’t need a reservation.

The Wild Coast: Difficult to get to but if you’re willing to spend the time here, probably worth it. Don’t go just for the sake of saying you’ve been there, go if you’re willing to spend a week soaking up the wilderness of it all.

Blyde River Canyon: A nice, peaceful, and scenic area just west of Kruger National Park. After a few days in the safari vehicle this is a nice place to come and go for a hike or a bike ride. Plenty of B&B’s in the neighborhood, just choose one and relax.

Foodie Friday: Dining in Lesotho

While staying at Malealea Lodge in Lesotho we were rather well equipped to provide for ourselves, or ‘self-cater’ as its referred to here, each night. We had just enough food between the four of us (ourselves and two others we managed to squeeze into our little car) to last us our entire stay with the exception of dinner one night. Dinner at the lodge didn’t look too bad actually, but something else appealed to us a bit more. A traditional Basotho meal served at the home of one of the villagers.

On account of the rains our host Teboho arrived to pick us up at the lodge early. We wrapped up what we were doing and scurried with him out of the lodge and to his father’s home. The house was a one room, 10′ x 20′ block consisting of a few chairs, a cabinet/closet that looked like something from Ikea, some other shelves, and a double bed. We each took a seat as Teboho ran out of the house to the kitchen to bring us our meals.

While he was gone, his 74 year old father joined us and began to tell us about his life. He was proud of his only son (who was lucky enough to have 4 sisters) who started this business and that they often hosted people 2-3 times a week. His people didn’t use cow skin as blankets any more because the first white men who came (French missionaries) brought blankets that were so warm and so soft and so fuzzy that his people decided to use those instead. He taught me that when the beer or wine (we’d brought a bottle of red) was running low it was tradition in Lesotho to pour the elderly first and congratulated me on learning the tradition so quickly.

The meal itself was simple; a small piece of chicken, an unknown green vegetable, and mealy pap. Pap is basically a brick of corn meal that, well, tastes like a brick of corn meal. Although pap figures on the favorite food list of no one I’ve ever met, the vegetable and chicken were both seasoned rather nicely and left us all quite pleased. When our friend asked what the vegetable was, and we had a hard time understanding the word ‘spinach’ through the thick accents, we understood the word ‘popeye’ once Nicopane put his arm up and flexed his bicep for us.

Signing the guest book by weak lamp-light we knew we’d been apart of something special. Sure, this was a business venture by the young Basotho but it was unique. It was a venture that started with the help of a a Peace Corps volunteer over a year ago whose time in the Corps ended the day after Teboho hosted his first dinner guest. It is little bits of gold like this that make us most proud to be Americans.

Hiking in Lesotho

As we set off to find the bushman paintings, the village men surrounding the gate were severely disappointed we didn’t want a guide. Sure the paintings would have been easier to find with a guide, but what’s the fun in that. Hearing the owners warning not to go into the gorge for fear of disrupting a boy’s coming of age ceremony, we took what we were sure was the right path. Breathtaking scenery, it wasn’t too long before local children started to shout lumela, hello, lumela, at us. Grabbing our hands, the children smiled, asked us to take their picture and got up the courage to ask for sweets. Without sweets, the children were disappointed, but enthralled by our friend’s camera which recorded video. Playing back their dancing and singing, he excited the children so much they didn’t want to let us go. Eventually we made our way into the gorge, our presence being the excitement of the day for children in every village. With only a few words of Sesotho between the four of us, happily navigated our way downstream avoiding every would-be guide along the way.

Seemingly scratching their heads at us, the villages smiled, said “Lodge”, asking if we were coming from Malealea Lodge, and smiled again when we said yes. “Bushman paintings?” we said and thanked whomever pointed the way. Eventually the hands started pointing up the gorge toward the rim. Confused, we let a local sheep hearder, with the same level of English as our Sesotho show us the way. Hoofing it up the hill, he explained in charades that there were 3 paintings and he would take us to all of them. Nodding our heads in agreement, I decided it was time to learn a little Sesotho. Pointing at animals, rocks, huts and trees, I asked our guide their Sesotho names and repeated them in English. We pointed at our chests, the international symbol for “I am” and said our names.

The first two sites were incredible, and we all agreed without our guide we never would have found them. Colored in red, yellow and black, the paintings represented hunting, spiritual life, and even what we thought was an erotic scene or two. We took tons of photographs, tried to determine the faded figures and marveled at the site. We’ve seen petroglyphs before, but there was just something magical about the bushman paintings. Although their style is thousands and thousands of years old, experts put these drawings at less than a thousand years old. The third site, an overhang above the valley, proved the most memorable. Picking up a stick our friend approached the cave painting as though he was going to touch it. Jumping out our guide said what we can only assume was no, don’t touch it! Without touching the painting, our friend had lined up the stick as though he was painting the image. Snapping away, we each took our turns “painting” the bushman designs. Showing our guide the pictures, he laughed and jumped up to take his turn. We could say no more than hello, sheep, donkey and our names in each others language, but we all had a good laugh over our artistry. Waving good bye, we headed back to the lodge still laughing at the thought of the modern Basotho pretending to paint the designs of his ancestors.

Modern Lesotho quickly came into view although I doubt the view is that different than 100 years ago, there was one striking difference. Along the road the school children, in their maroon and gold uniforms danced, sang and ran their way home. Seeing tourists, the children mobbed us, demanding we take their picture and show it to them. Laughing we snapped away as the children acted like they were models in a photo shoot. Recording video of them singing and playing, our friend shared the video with the children, who immediately huddled around him for a better view. Instantly his head disappeared among the sea of children. Giggling, the kids would have been perfectly happy to spend the entire afternoon at the “photo shoot”. We were treated to a lesson on the planets by one girl, and a recital of the numbers one through ten in English by another.

Running into so many villagers on our hike to the paintings made it a real cultural experience not just a hike through a beautiful gorge. For us, after so many negative experiences with children in Latin America aggressively asking and begging for money, playing with these children was a wonderfully different experience.

A different kind of tourism

The end of traditional tourism is here, say good-bye to huge resources draining all-inclusive resorts. World-wide lodges, hostels and hotels are turning more eco-friendly, and some even go beyond not changing the used towels you hang up. Worldwide new trends in tourism are developing, from eco-tourism to poverty tourism to agro-tourism, but one of the most promising is perhaps the increasingly popularity of sustainable tourism. Sustainable tourism, developing the tourism industry in a way that it enhances the traditional culture and environment instead of tearing it down. We’ve been lucky enough to see true sustainable tourism twice on our trip- once in Nicaragua and once in Lesotho.

The Malealea Lodge in Malealea, Lesotho is written up in all the guidebooks as a must-do. Although they give a vague description on the lodge, its activities and the associated Malealea Development Trust, no guidebook can express the atmosphere of a place like the Malealea Lodge. Seven kilometers of dirt road through a pass known as the “gates of paradise” takes you a world away from the paved road you left. Immediately life looks more pastoral over the pass and it doesn’t take long to encounter a local on the road. Greetings take on an importance in Lesotho that they have lost in the West, and every single person we met on the road greeted us with a genuine smile and lumela (hello).

Like other parts of the world, tourism means money, and so generally the locals are happy to see you, and then again just as happy to see you go. Malealea Lodge and its Development Trust ensure that when you go, that core feeling you have that your life has changed is also the same feeling the surrounding community has. Through trial and error, the owners of Malealea have developed sustainable tourism programs to benefit the entire community. Through financial, professional and volunteer donations, the Lodge and Trust have made themselves they keystone of a thriving Basotho community where traditional customs are maintained and will continue to be preserved.

As we hiked through the surrounding countryside we saw small subtle hints of Malealea’s impact. Clean water taps to outlying villages, a reclaimed donga, a traditional handi-craft center giving local woman a fair income for their work, and even tables made from tin cans, the examples of the positive impact of tourists in the community are never too far. The hands of tourists have built the community a pre-school, a primary school, and set up a fund to subsidize school fees and uniforms. Short-term tourists turn into long-term visitors, teaching English, computer skills, moderating HIV/AIDS awareness projects, eventually passing these jobs on to locals. Tourism dollars support small business loans that help entrepreneurs build their first mill, buy their first shoe leather and set up a successful shop. The repayment of these loans helps goes back in the pool to be loaned to others. Perhaps the most positive impact of a place like Malealea is that it teaches both tourists and locals how to interact with each other in a way that isn’t disruptive but rather inter-dependent.

It’s easy to say I want to help those around me, especially in Africa where there are so many people living in sub-standard conditions, but like all aid, we struggle to balance a hand out with a hand up. The extra pocket change you give as a tip to your hiking guide or pony guide can translate to jealousy in a local community, and may not reach its intended purpose. Aid can sometimes be like a chess game, what impact does this small seemingly insignificant gesture or project have on the local community? That’s why projects like those at Malealea are so important. As a tourist we paid the same money, perhaps even less, than we would have at a traditional lodge, and not only got an authentic cultural experience, but also supported the community in such a way that in 20 years it will still remain intact.

Malealea had a very deep and profound impact on me, one that deepens every day. The owners set out just to have a small lodge, not a community supporting development project, but through their work and that of their clients they’ve positively impacted the lives of everyone in that valley. It’s leadership like theirs, which inspires us to have an impact and to think about our travel decisions which will help change the world, not just the little sign reminding us to hang up our used towels to be used again tomorrow.