Tips for first-time solo backpackers to South Africa
January 1, 1970
This probably can be listed as one of the craziest things I have done in my early 20s. Waking up in one morning, I suddenly came up with a conclusion that I HAVE TO GO TO SOUTH AFRICA. Again, another impulsive decision. I make short trips regularly but none are longer than a 4-hour flight. And due to my impulsive decision which came from nowhere, I did my first solo trip, first backpacking travel and first camping in South Africa. Along with a 50L backpack, a sleeping bag and a camera, TAHHH-DAHHHHH, South Africa here I come!
Living in a cosmopolitan, people mistakenly link Africa with a bad impression that it is a poverty-stricken country with loads of crazily armed people who shoot people randomly on streets every day (sorry, signs of ignorance and racist). As a female solo traveller, I was overwhelmed with worries too. I spent nights on googling to scare myself.
For those solo travellers who are planning to visit South Africa, here is some advice to save your time from reading series of the Lonely Planet.
Research is essential.
Yea You are doing it right if you are reading my article. At least you are making some efforts to get some ideas about South Africa.
A universal formula for travellers: Safe trip = Happy trip.
There are some important details you have to know before setting off to ensure you are safe and sound. You will find that South Africa is waaaaaaay too amazing with a bunch of awesome and friendly locals if you have a safe trip there.
Avoid Specific Locations
There are potential dangers everywhere even in your homeland. To play safe, we should simply avoid places which are notoriously known. So, do your research. Otherwise, you may risk yourselves into unnecessary danger simply by walking into some not pedestrian-friendly streets. Apart from googling, you can ask the locals (tour guides, hotel staff etc) as they know the town best. After doing some researches, I eventually decided to skip Johannesburg and start off my journey in Cape Town. As a tourist, I don’t see the need to ‘sight-see’ business district. Robbery often takes place in business districts in South Africa, so just skip the central business district unless necessary. Always avoid going to outskirts alone, bring a local guide with you if you want to explore the area.
Why not Johannesburg when travelling alone?
Though I always do crazy stuff, I am rather a lily-livered person. The crime rate in Johannesburg is incredibly high, especially for violent crimes, that I don’t dare to travel alone.During my journey, I heard a lot about how dangerous it is in Jo’burg from both locals and tourists. A local college student told me that that robbery was common throughout South Africa yet violent crimes were often seen in Jo’burg. And the French family whom I met during camping safari trip told me that the father got his necklace snatched off from his neck violently when the family was walking on a busy street during daytime. Maybe I would visit Jo’burg if I had two or more travel buddies, but alone? It is a definite ‘no’.
Be Aware of time
I don’t have a habit of partying and drinking so I usually start my day early and return to the hotel early at night. You may say I will miss the chance to experience local nightlife but safety is my first priority as I am travelling alone. Strolling down the city streets at night in South Africa is not a good idea, so go back early.
I am pretty sure that I have 0 sense of direction, that’s why I never thought of (mind you, it is a past tense ‘THOUGHT’) getting a driving license. I travel on foot for locations that are in short distance (max. 40mins walk), and I join day tours or take cabs to visit places that are relatively far. If you are confident enough in your driving skill, then you can definitely drive your own car.
Always lock windows and door of your car
Carjacking is very common in South Africa so ensure all the windows and doors are locked when you are using your car.
Don’t take random cabs on streets
Basically, I don’t take random cabs on streets no matter which country I go. Apart from safety reason, cab drivers might trick you out of your money by driving you farther or somewhere you are not planning to go. I normally book airport transfer before arrival and ask hotel staff for arranging cabs.
South Africa is such a big place, if you are a first-time backpacker like me who lack capability in driving, you can consider joining different types of tours.
If you have read my previous section, you would know that I joined day tours for visiting far places which are unreachable/ take time if travel on foot. In Cape Town, I joined the Cape Peninsula tour via Viator. After visiting places which scattered around the city centre, I picked the Cape Peninsula tour to visit the Hout Bay, the Cape of Good Hope and the Boulder’s Beach for meeting the cute penguins. If you have time, you can also join hiking day tour to the Table Mountain.
As a greedy newbie to go solo travelling on a shoestring budget, I joined an overland tour to cross the border into Namibia from Cape Town.
I joined a 12-day overland camping tour offered by Nomad Africa Adventurous Tours. The trip costs around €1034, including 3 meals, campsite (there are few days you will be living in a lodge!), transportation and activities package for wine-tasting, Himba tribe visit and desert guided walking. There are some optional activities at your own expense such as skydiving and quad biking in Swakopmund, but you are free to join. One best thing about joining an overland tour is that you can save the cost of flights, accommodation and meals for the majority part of your trip. If you are not on a budget, you can choose the accommodated option for the same tour, which costs €300 more. But I highly recommend the camping option. What can be even better than spending nights under the African starry sky?
15-day South Africa Overland Trip Itinerary
So below is a rough itinerary of my 15-day South Africa trip.
- Cape Town (own expense)
- Cape Town (own expense: one day Cape Peninsula tour booked via Viator)
- Western Cape (12-Day overland tour starts)
- Gariep River- Namibia
- Namib-Naukluft National Park
- Sossusvlei Dunes
- Etosha National Park
- Etosha National Park
- Windhoek (Overland Tour ends)
- Windhoek (own expense)
What to bring?
I am always referred to the petite girl with the light backpack when travelling. People, if you are interested in joining the overland camping tour, remember that you can only bring your backpack! You are not allowed to bring luggage to the truck.I like to keep my belongings light when travelling. I had my 50L backpack half-filled, along with my sleeping bag. As we moved from place to place every day, I only brought NECESSARY clothing that can be dried easily- 2 sets of clothes (gym leggings, sports bra, vest) and a set of pyjamas. Remember to bring your laundry string so you can hang your washed clothes outside your tent at night. As I travelled in winter which is very cold at night and very hot in the afternoon, I had a waterproof jacket with me (which I ended up not wearing it at all…). Other than that, I had a Ziploc bag for my facial cream, sunblock, and insect repellent. Maybe you can bring a pair of flipflops as well if you plan to get wet at the Gariep River!
Vaccination and Medication?
Ask your doctor about that. Basically, I have done BOTH since the hospital suggested but my Korean buddy told me that his doc said it wasn’t necessary and some of my buddies from Singapore said so as well!
This solo trip is my first ever trip that I have spent so much time on doing research. It is challenging yet fun. The coming articles will give you guys more details on my ACTUAL trip in Cape Town and Namibia.