South Africa is probably one of the greatest places to visit. If you enjoy sports such as climbing, surfing, mountain biking or hiking then it is a great place to go. If not there is still plenty to do for the backpacker who isn't keen on their outdoors activities. It also allows for easy access into other countries such as Namibia or Mozambique.
I went there as a surf instructor for 8 weeks out of the 12 I had planned to be there. I didn't get paid but had my food and board covered for the 8 weeks.
- Where I went, and for how long
I was in South Africa for three months in total from November to January. I was supervising a surf club in Muizenberg for three weeks. Muizenberg is a small coastal suburb of Cape Town, about a 40 minute train ride out of the city centre. So this was pretty great, it was a fairly quite area (in comparison to the main city) on weekdays so we pretty much had the beach to ourselves (me, two other instructors and about ten kids from the township). We would hike the mountains that overlooked the beach when the waves were flat. On weekends we would head into the city to party, Long St. was the obvious choice for the hostel and night-life. However we fell in with a guy who lived in Green Point so stayed there a couple of times instead of Long Street, getting a taxi was rather annoying though and the one guy we knew who walked back got mugged, so yeah...best to pay the taxi or stay on Long Street if you plan on partying there.
We had to move to another surf club as the one in Muizenberg was closed for the busy summer season. The plan was to drive the 3 hour journey up the west coast to a deserted beach in the middle of nowhere and to stay there for five weeks.
At the end of the 8 weeks, some of us from the surf club plus a couple of others we picked up on the way went up north to Kruger NP and into Mozambique.
- What was great?
After leaving Muizenberg there was a fall out with the surf club and the company that had organised the trip. Long story short, there was 8 of us in total by this stage and we found ourselves in a beach front house, with surf boards and wetsuits in the middle of the South African summer (poor us). We made the best of a 'bad' situation and turned a failed project into five weeks of living a typical 'beach bum' lifestyle. We would get up at dawn and surf to the sunrise then after a couple of hours on the beach head back inside to grab something to eat and then hit the beach again where we would usually sleep, play football or surf if the sea didn't resemble a lake. By the afternoon we would venture up to the bottle store and buy beers for the night. Either a sunset surf, jumping off the pier or climbing the mountain near by was how we spend the evenings. Most of the time we would go to the pier to watch the sunset and buy fish from the fishermen who would just be finishing work for the day.
The trip to Kruger NP was another great highlight. We boarded a flight and left Cape Town for the rains of Mpumalanga which was in the wet season. We had probably spent too long living on the beach haggling down prices for fish but the first thing we did when we landed in Johannesburg was haggle with the rental car companies. It actually worked but the only problem was the seat to passenger ratio of our car was 6:6 and therefore not much room for everyone's bags. This sounds like a bad thing however some great memories were made tying our bags to the roof of the car and laughing at how stupid the car looked afterwords.
Kruger was a great experience, we spent 3 days in the park, staying in the camp-sites inside the park. However after leaving the park we spent a night on a game reserve, probably the only time I'll ever have a drink in a bar while an elderly warthog is on the floor next to me.
Another memorable night was spent in an outdoor swimming pool in a camp-site by a river. There was seven of us sitting in the pool drinking and smoking when a thunder and lightening storm comes over our heads. Being the the pool during a lightening storm wasn't the smartest thing to do, but it seem far enough away and was pretty amazing watching the lightening, plus we were too drunk to care by that stage.
- What was a letdown?
The let down was probably investing too much time into the surf instructing. We got lucky that after about half the time the project broke down and we spent the remaining time like it was a normal trip. But even though it was good living beside the beach, two-three weeks of that lifestyle would have been enough and the time and money could have been spent elsewhere such as Mozambique or Tanzania if not elsewhere in South Africa. I feel sorry for some of the people I met in Cape Town who paid loads of money to volunteer for several months and then find the project isn't up to much at all. So I think you should probably limit volunteering to about two weeks, if you really enjoy it, it wouldn't be a problem to extend your time with them.
I debated putting this in to the letdown list or making a new list under 'potentially saved 6 idiots lives' list. While in Mpumalanga we ended up getting taken into the middle of nowhere by a local who wanted to take us to the waterfall to jump off it. Keep in mind this was the rainy season, so the water was gushing down the river "faster and higher than he [the local] had ever seen it". So we tried crossing the river in order to get to the path on the other side that would take us to the top of the waterfall. It was too fast and deep to cross however. We had to walk up the banks of the river to get to the crossing point, and if you got swept down the river you would be dead for certain as it wasn't the friendliest looking passage down stream to say the least. So after failing to cross the river we called it a day, but I always wondered if we did jump the water fall if it would have been possible to get to the 'safe zone' before getting ripped down river and beat off every rock like a rag doll. After all, the local guy said he had never jumped it in the wet season...
- What does it cost to do it bare bones/live comfortably/live like a king?
One thing you'll notice about South Africa is that on one part of town you'll have people living in tin sheds and on another you'll see a Lamborghini pulling out of a driveway to a mansion. Plus everything in-between of course. So the country will cater for most people's needs.
Based on the time I was there in 2011, to do it:
Bare Bones - 100-200 Rand
Comfortably - 200-400 Rand
Like a King - 400+ Rand
Book early enough and you'll get flights for around the £500-600 mark, expect closer to £800-1000 for peak times.
Kruger Park, which I highly recommend will set you back an entry fee of about 180 Rand, plus whatever price you get a rental car for and then accommodation prices vary, but are generally around the 200 Rand mark a night.
- Tips on being prepared
Cape Town is warm and sunny in the summer, but can get very windy (particularly in the late afternoon/evening). Hoodies are handy to have here.
Bring water proofs for the wet season in the north, just make sure it is good quality as it is still quite warm, you don't want to be soaked from the inside because your rain coat is traps the heat in.
Don't be put off by the crime rates. Just don't be an idiot and travel around late a night by yourself, don't carry large sums on cash with you and try to travel with others when you can.
Volunteer projects are all over the country, they seem to be great for making friends to travel around with, so it might be a good way to spend your first couple of weeks. Failing finding any travel buddies after that, either extend your stay at the volunteer site or book into a backpackers with a good atmosphere and try to find people there.
Try and avoid the touring companies thay charge extortionate prices for trips to Victoria Falls, Kruger Park etc. Generally you will have a better time renting a car with friends and doing it yourself, if you have enough fellow travellers to split the cost it will be much cheaper.
When I was there it was possible to get your Yellow Fever jab at the Mozambquie border, and it was much cheaper than the prices in the UK, though I cannot remember how much. So if you haven't got any jabs etc, it is still possible to travel into other countries. Malaria pills are also readily available in pharmacies in SA for low prices.
If money is an issue, include cheap days where you spend basically nothing. South Africa is great for these, minus food and transport, hiking Lion's Head/Table Mountain or going to the beach will cost nothing.