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.
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.
Swaziland: 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.