Backpacking in Southern Africa

Lake Kariba

Lake Kariba, Zimbabwe

A strange little world, the backpacking community in Southern Africa. In no other industry have I seen such dedicated efforts to work together for the benefit of the customer. Of course, the gossip grapevine borders on ridiculous, but it’s mostly friendly! All this means to you is that travelling in Southern Africa is easier and safer than ever before.

The Lonely Planet is not a bible

Though a surprising amount of people seem to treat is as such. Not that I’m trashing the holy grail, oh no. Just remember that guide books are just that: a guide – and some not particularly accurate, often out of date or somewhat biased. The best place to find info on accommodation, tours and transport will always be found locally: from the free backpacker publications, the travel centers, your hostel staff, other travelers (see column).

Travel Information

As a general rule, I’ve always found the tourism association to be a waste of space. Check out the travel centers listed in the column or those mentioned in Coast to Coast/Jungle. The hostels all have access to the same info, and some have excellent travel centers on site. Some however, have no idea what they are talking about – but its pretty obvious, so just ask elsewhere.

Tours, Overlanding and Safaris

Tours and Safaris

Tours are available to just about everywhere you can imagine. Whether you want to go sandboarding in Namibia, safari in Botswana or winetasting in the Cape – some of the tours are exceptional value, others a complete rip off and best done yourself.

Safaris in particular are best worth doing with an organised tour, as with all costs included they often work out far cheaper – plus you get the invaluable knowledge and experience of the guide.

Overland tours

Victoria Falls

Victoria Falls

Fantastic idea, overlanding. A group of like-minded people experiencing the very best of Africa without any of the hassle that independent travel brings. Overland safaris can be excellent value, not to mention a lot more fun – who wants to see the world alone anyway?

There are several excellent local companies, who offer the same tours as the major overseas operators, but a lot cheaper. Basically the cheaper the trip, the fewer the luxuries – but then the odd bit of washing up and cooking is definately worth the difference in price.

All trips can be easily be booked locally, but if you want to organise in advance – especially if you are travelling peak season – then check out the pages listed in the column.

Commission is not a four letter word

If you decide to book a trip, know that there is no difference in price whether you book the trip through an agent or directly through the company. The only difference is that whoever books the trip gets a small commission from the company. So, if your hostel manager has kindly spent two hours talking to you about a trip to Namibia, let them book it for you. These guys get paid badly – you could just make someone’s day a whole lot better.


The transport network is on the whole very good: safe, reliable and frequent – your choices are basically:

Minibus Taxis – Local and long distance minibus taxis are arguably the best way to get around Southern Africa. They are fast and cheap – but for a reason! Fast because the drivers all want to be race-car drivers, and cheap because they cram people into the bus like tins of sardines – weird analogy as you only get about five slimy fish in a tin of tomato-oily muck, but I digress……….The general rule for travelling long distance this way is that you will be sat between the two biggest and smelliest people on the bus.

Local Buses – slower and less frequent than the minibus, but infinitely less scary.

Interstate buses – the more upmarket buses are more comfortable than those above, but far more expensive. For prices etc, ask Ashanti (apologies to Ashanti for the increase in email).

Trains – A definate favourite with travellers – trains may be far slower than buses, but it’s worth the extra time to have the comfort of being able to walk around and have a bed for the night.

Specialized Backpacker Transport

Route 49 – Direct shuttle service linking key towns in South Africa, Zimbabwe and Botswana. Comfortable and very reasonably priced –

Sousselsvei sand dunes, Namibia

highly recommended for those on a time scale. For more details, mail Route 49.

Baz Bus – Now what can I say about the notorious Baz Bus? The Baz is a hop-on, hop-off service running from Cape Town to Vic Falls, along the coastline through South Africa. It is a fantastic service if used as intended – best reserved for those who have the time to see the country properly. Otherwise it’s just a pain in the arse.

Car Hire – If you have the time and a group of friends, then getting a car is definately worth considering. There are some fantastic deals around, depending on what type of car, how long you want a car for, how far you will be travelling, etc. Check any of the travel centers mentioned for more info.


OK, so Southern Africa has a bad reputation for crime. According to the press (America in particular) you’ll be mugged/raped/shot the moment you step off the plane. Yes, the crime statistics are staggering but then there are lies, damn lies and statistics. Most crime here is centres around the cities, with a good majority confined to the townships – basically places you don’t need to be.

What crime there is against tourists is mainly in the form of non-violent petty robbery. Please just follow the same rules you would in any major city – you know, don’t go up to gangs of kids, camera round your neck asking wear the the nearest ATM is. And you do look like a tourist – not the least because you wear hiking boots in a nightclub on a Friday night. And on that note, ditch the bum bag – they are a magnet to muggers, not to mention a serious fashion faux pas.

Listen to what the locals have to say about your safety and don’t go wandering off into the townships alone with the mission of experiencing ‘real Africa’. Some things are just not worth experiencing.

And one last thing

However you choose to travel, be it by overland tour, the baz bus, hitch, walk or on the back of a donkey – please remember, each to his own. There’s nothing more irritating than those people who call themselves ‘real travellers’, as opposed to everyone else just cos they did it a different way. Sorry to moan, but its really annoying!

We hope you have just the best time! And please do look us up in Jo’burg or Cape Town if you want to join us for a beer and a party! xxxxx

Love, thanks and gratuitous free advertising to: My Darling Peter at Explorers Club, Jo’burg. Daryl at Zebra Crossing, Cape Town and Roland at Sondzela, Swaziland (arguably the best backpacker’s in the continent). To Jim – thanks for the fish…..

General Info

Just a few thoughts on this rainy day, to hopefully make planning your trip to Southern Africa that little bit easier.

It’s an amazing region of the world full of contradictions and vast diversity: both the people and the land show such a fascinating and beautiful diversity. I love it and I think maybe I’ll stay forever.

The Southern African region includes Namibia, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Mozambique and South Africa, Swaziland, Lesotho.

Guide Books

For the most up to date info on accommodation, tours and activities, pick up a copy of Coast to Coast and Jungle, available free from hostels and travel centers across the region.

Travel Information

Adventure Village


A great alternative site is Overlanding.


Check Coast to Coast or Just Backpacking for listings or mail the hostels mentioned at the bottom of this column. If you are going to be in Vic Falls or Cape Town for Millennium, book now!!


Not the cheapest place to travel in the world, but certainly great value. Working by the Rand (approx 1US$:6R): a dorm will cost R40, a double about R70 pp. A good meal from R25-40 and a beer R5. What more do you need to know?!

South Africa, Namibia and Swaziland all work out pretty much the same – the countries to the North are notably cheaper.


Very diverse. From the cosmopolitan cafes of Cape Town offering the full range of global cuisine, to the somewhat more limited options up north – meat, lots of it.

If you’re an adventurous eater you’ll find all manner of bizarre and often very good foods, particularly the range of meat. If you’re a finicky eater, well at least you’ll return from your holidays slim.


Times are a-changing and with the new generation of travellers, internet access is right up there with cell phones and video cameras for vital necessities. And yes, there is email access even in third world countries.

Outside South Africa however, it’s usually pretty bad. Most hostels now offer email for the guests at a cheaper rate than the internet cafes, but then the computers are a lot slower. Your choice.

Good Accommodation

There are just so many hostels here – the market is way beyond saturated. This is good for you though, as it keeps standards high and your choice wide.

I’m a little apprehensive about recommending hostels, but here are a few at the main entry points anyway:


  • Explorers Club (Obs, GREAT place),

  • Backpackers Ritz (Dunkfeld West, in the north – snooze, but if you don’t really want to go to Jo’burg and are just passing through…)

    Cape Town:

  • Ashanti (crazy party place),

  • Carnaby (kind of like Ashanti, only with better parties),

  • Oak Lodge (the best lodge ever).

  • If you’re looking for something more sedate, try the Zebra Crossing (nice, quiet and respectable!)

    So, if it was me…..

    I’d be trying to do some of the following:

  • Mokoro safari in the Okavango Delta in Botswana.

  • Sandboarding the worlds highest sand-dunes at Sousselsvei in Namibia.

  • Go to Vic Falls, its the most awe-inspiring, beautiful place ever.
  • Just simply spending time in Swaziland – it’s beautiful.

  • Indulging in the tropical paradise cliche of laying on deserted beaches of Mozambique and learn to dive on the coral reefs of the Indian Ocean – as I am doing this week…tra la la!

  • And lastly in South Africa – go to Zululand and the Transkei as they are beautiful and full of fascinating people and then head to Jo’burg or Cape Town for one huge party!

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