South Africa: a solo traveller's guide

by Kiwi Fi and Mike the Jock

Travelling alone in South Africa could not be easier. Using the Baz Bus route for backpackers, I visited Johannesburg, Kruger National Park, Swaziland, Durban, Lesotho and the Drakensburg Mountains

Travelling around South Africa? Traveling alone? What's the best way to do it, especially if you have only a few weeks to spare? I chose to break with convention and ignore the Garden Route from Cape Town along the coast. Call me a romantic, but I wanted to do that with someone significant later in life. Instead I decided to see what the east and north of South Africa had to offer.

Having just finished working in Zimbabwe, I was at first a little bit nervous about heading out on my own. As it turns out, South Africa is great for solo travellers – due largely to a well-oiled tourist industry that makes backpacking seem unusually straightforward.

I took the easy option and bought a ticket on the “Baz bus”, operated by a company with a nationwide network of jump-on, jump-off bus routes for backpackers. I designed a three-week itinerary from Johannesburg to Kruger National Park, to Swaziland, St Lucia, Durban, Lesotho and then a final stop off in Drakensburg. This was primarily based on the Baz Bus routes.

Kruger National Park

South Africa has lots to offer – and, after a couple of days, I found myself in the depths of Kruger National Park with the Funky Safaris company. I’d highly recommend both the safari and the Funky Monkey Backpackers' Hostel. We had a full three days in Kruger, including dawn and night drives around the park. The drivers were well connected with other safari companies in the park, so as soon as one of the "Big Five" was spotted we were speeding our way there. The camp they set up in Kruger was comfortable and cheap compared to other tours I looked at. The hostel was full of other solo backpackers and many of the local animal conservation workers popped into the bar in the evening.

Swaziland was a big shock to the system after such peace and quiet for days on end. As soon as I crossed the border, the image of a perfect world that had taken shape in my head quickly gave way to reality. Swaziland, however, is a beautiful country with stunning scenery. Its royal family owns the largest private fleet of BMWs in the world, yet Swaziland has one of the highest HIV/Aids rates in the world and is one of the poorest countries. As I walked across the border, many locals joked that maybe I’d like to marry their king. He is renowned for having many many wives.

St Lucia National Park

St Lucia was an unexpected highlight of my trip, offering a wetlands park, a beach and a safari park all within walking distance. It was the only place, during my time in South Africa, where it was deemed safe to walk alone at night – welcome news to a solo female traveller, until a local mentioned the hippos that also roam the streets after dark. Strangely, it was at St Lucia that I spotted the Big Five, not at Kruger. Within two days, I had seen cheetah, rhino and elephant at very close proximity.

Northern Drakensberg

The Northern Drakensberg was by far the best thing about this trip. The Amphitheatre Backpackers' Hostel is, as its name suggests, set in the middle of a natural amphitheatre. A five-minute walk from the hostel is a massive water pool – perfect for a morning dip, and reached via a lovely jogging path through fields.

The staff treat you like friends from the moment you walk in the door, and the windmill-shaped sleeping towers make the experience all the more quaint. The hostel provides walking, climbing and tourist trips into the Drakensberg mountains (see photograph No3 in my gallery) and also has a hot tub, a swimming pool, a bar and a restaurant inside the hostel grounds. I spent four days here, but could easily have spent a couple of weeks if I’d taken full advantage of the tours the hostel had to offer.

From Amphitheatre, it was time to head back to Johannesburg. Having lived there for six weeks before starting my trip, I had got to know it quite well – especially Rosebank, the area where my flat was. To understand the contrasts and contradictions of South Africa, Johannesburg must be seen and experienced by the traveller. It’s true that crime rates are high – and this can limit what you do – but no trip to South Africa would be complete without visiting Soweto and seeing where Mandela began his campaigning near the site of the first anti-apartheid riots. Constitution Hill is another must, if you want to begin to grasp what anti-apartheid campaigners went through for their cause. The two prisons, Number Four and The Old Fort drive home the reality.

I lived and travelled alone in Johannesburg and experienced no problems with crime. However, I would advise a high degree of awareness – and, as always, take on board the advice of locals when deciding which areas to travel to.