How To Travel Around South Africa
On the second Wednesday of the month, Kristin Addis from Be My Travel Muse writes a guest column featuring tips and advice on solo female travel. It’s an important topic I can’t adequately cover, so I brought in an expert to share her advice. This week she talks about her recent trip to South Africa.
When I started planning my South Africa trip, a lot of questions went through my mind: Is a country that big easy to travel around? Is it expensive? What is even possible?
The resources I found online were vague, negative, or simply nonexistent. But after traveling through the country for close to two months, I found a wide variety of reasonably affordable ways to get around. So, to fill the void, here is a breakdown on how to get around South Africa:
There are several companies that run in the country including Greyhound, Intercape, and Baz Bus, which caters specifically to backpackers.
Baz Bus runs a route from Johannesburg to Cape Town (or vice versa) with several stops along the way. You can hop on or off whenever you want and can begin your trip anywhere, but as those two cities have major airports, most people start in one or the other, or sometimes Durban. There’s no limit on how long you can take to go from one end to the other. (Matt says: I’ve taken similar buses in New Zealand and Australia. They can be good for people who want to meet other travelers.)
One-way fares on Baz Bus are available starting at around 500 Rand (about $41) for the shortest journey, which takes about two hours, and increase from there. For those looking to save a bit of cash and use the bus to travel across the country, there is a 21-day, hop-on-hop-off pass, which runs 4,200 Rand ($355). Baz Bus is not a big money saver, as the fares are more than the train and other bus companies, but it is a convenient option for those who are happy to travel along the popular routes and meet other backpackers. The route includes the big cities in South Africa, the famous Drakensberg mountain range, popular spots along the coast, and the famous Garden Route in the Western Cape.
The drawbacks to taking the bus include dealing with a lack of transport once you’re at your destination, though shuttles to various local attractions, such as the bungee jump in Wilderness, are sometimes available at an additional cost. You’ll also need to be flexible with your schedule since the shuttles don’t run every day. The biggest drawback for me was that the buses run along one set route and only go to the most popular tourist destinations, and drop off only at certain backpackers’ accommodations, so for those who like to head off the beaten path, it’s not a great option.
For one-off trips, Greyhound and Intercape serve various bus ports around the country. The buses are large, air-conditioned, comfortable, and filled with locals, not backpackers. Be sure to bring along snacks, as the buses run on a tight schedule and most stops are very brief, if they happen at all.
Prices are more expensive than Baz Bus for shorter journeys of two hours or so ($30-40), but cheaper for longer journeys, such as from Durban to Cape Town, which takes 15 hours ($56). During the high season (December and June through August), you should book ahead as buses fill up quickly.
Flying around South Africa isn’t that expensive. Budget Airlines like Mango and Kululaserve all major — and even minor — airports in the country with several flights per day. They are easily booked online using any major credit card. For example, a one-way ticket from Johannesburg to Durban is $67.
Even last-minute flights, as long as they still have quite a few seats left, tend not to go up in price if it’s a major route. For a last-minute planner like me, that was a real treat! For less common routes or smaller airports, prices go up the closer the date is. Unsurprisingly, inconvenient times and early morning flights tend to be the cheapest. As with most budget airlines the world over, checked baggage and meals onboard cost extra.
When I told my friends I was planning to drive solo through South Africa, they immediately talked me out of it, envisioning dangerous roads and thieves with no help should something go wrong. In truth, road-tripping through South Africa is not much of a problem at all, as other cars are passing by all the time should a breakdown occur, and South Africans are incredibly friendly and helpful.
That’s not to say driving in South Africa is without risk. There are carjackings from time to time, and break-ins are common, but being aware of this and taking precautions to keep valuables hidden and doors locked greatly reduces the risks.
Regardless, if you would rather not travel alone, there are options. You can post on travel forums such as Nomadic Matt’s, Thorn Tree, the Africa Backpacking Facebook group, or Couchsurfing.org. Gumtree and hostels also are good ways to find ridesharing buddies. There are always travelers looking for a ride to some off-the-beaten-path destination. (I found my partner in crime through a friend of mine.)
Renting a car is the most convenient way to get around since you can get to many out-of-the-way parks, cities, and destinations, and, when splitting gas and rental fees with one or more other passengers, it beats the price of Baz Bus.
I rented a Volkswagon Vevo on a car comparison website, which we booked online and picked up in person. The price worked out to be $250 for two weeks, including gas, the fee for dropping off in a different city than we rented in (we picked the car up in Johannesburg and dropped it off in Cape Town), and insurance. Gas runs an average of about $1 per liter at the time of this writing, and, if driving a small car like we had, mileage is pretty good. We also gave rides to other backpackers we met along the way in exchange for a bit of gas money.
While it’s possible to buy a cheap car and sell it later, the paperwork can sometimes take months to go through and thus is not the best for travelers who don’t plan to spend ages in the country.
For most of the popular destinations in South Africa, a small manual car will do, though a 4×4 would have been helpful for a few of the lesser-visited places that we went to during our road trip, such as the amphitheater hike in the Drakensberg mountains. Had we taken Baz Bus, we would have spent an extra $100 per person and missed some of the areas we visited that Baz Bus doesn’t drive to.
South Africa has a lot of train tracks. Most aren’t currently in use, as the population has increasingly come to rely on the extensive highway system. However, major cities in South Africa are still served by a few train companies that range from cheap to high luxury.
Shosholoza Meyl long-distance trains serve Cape Town, Port Elizabeth, Bloemfontein, Durban, East London, Johannesburg, Queenstown, and East London. They’re comfortable and safe and make various stops at smaller towns along the way. The fares are some of the cheapest available for any mode of transport in South Africa, running as low as $28 for a sleeper berth from Johannesburg to Durban. You can visit thecompany’s timetable for more information on fares and stops.
For those who are interested some luxury, the famous Blue Train, which runs form Pretoria to Cape Town, costs $1,300 one-way for a shared berth during low season and goes up from there. It’s an expensive but luxurious experience that includes wine, cigars, great food, and comfortable compartments.
One last issue of safety: South Africa isn’t more dangerous for a solo traveler than your typical big city in the United States. I was surprised to see that the murder rate of Detroit is actually significantly higher than that of South Africa. That said, muggings are still common, especially amongst tourists and particularly in Cape Town and Johannesburg. Given the high level of rape and theft in South Africa, I wouldn’t advise hitchhiking (and this is something I love to do!).
Additionally, one shouldn’t walk around alone at night, be flashy, or leave things showing in the car, but much of that is true around the world.
There are numerous ways to get around South Africa, and after testing several methods, I think the best is a car rental. Nothing else offers the flexibility, convenience, and reasonable price tag. If a car rental isn’t your thing and you’re solo, I’d consider the Baz Bus.
That said, regardless of which of the above transport methods you choose, South Africa is easy and relatively affordable to travel around, whether you’re solo, in a group, or a duo.