As a solo traveller in any country, there will likely be many questions that enter your mind: It’s a big country, is it easy to get around in? Is it going to be possible to get around? Is it going to be costly?
And the problem is that often, depending on which country, online resources can be somewhat vague, or perhaps even nonexistent.
Nevertheless, you opt to get going, and after a month or two, you find out that there are variable alternatives that are very affordable in terms of traversing the landscape.
Well, in the case of South Africa, we’re going to fill in some of the potential gaps and answer a number of the questions that you may be asking.
Getting around South Africa:
There are a handful of bus companies that service South Africa, including Greyhound, Baz Bus, and Intercape. Each of these cater with some specificity to the requirements of backpackers.
Baz Bus service a route that journeys from Johannesburg over to Cape Town and vice versa. There are several stops made along the way, and you may choose to hop on or off as you see fit. You can set out on your trip from any one of these serviced stops, but, given that these cities have major airports, the airports act as the main port of call in terms of the starting point for a bus journey. Either the airports or Durban.
There is absolutely no limitation on the duration of your trip, and they do function as a great way to meet up with other travellers.
A one-way Baz Bus fare begins at about 500 rand, which is around £22 UK, and that’s for a two-hour journey, which represents the shortest. For those who prefer to avoid spending much cash, and wish to utilize the bus to get across the country, you are advised to choose the 21-day hop-on-hop-off bus pass. That costs about 4,200 rand (£185).
But do note that Baz Bus does not represent much of a money-saver, given that the fares are higher than the cost of taking the train and they are also higher than those of the other bus companies. Nevertheless, it’s a convenient means for travelling the popular routes and also for meeting like-minded peoples.
The routes take in the larger South African cities, and include the Drakensburg mountain range, a variety of popular locales along the coast, in addition to the famed Western Cape Garden Route.
What about the drawbacks?
Key among these is the fact that there tends to be a lacking of transportation once you get to your destination, though there are various shuttles to local attractions.
Plus, you do have to maintain some flexibility in terms of your schedule as the shuttles do not run every day of the week. It’s a fact that the bus services travel along a set route and they only ever visit the most popular of tourist destinations, while they also do drop-offs at quite a number of backpacker accommodations.
That said, for those with a penchant for getting off the hard-beaten track, Baz Bus does not represent a particularly good option.
With respect to one-off excursions, Greyhound and Intercape are better alternatives as they service miscellaneous bus stations around the country. Do bring your own snacks, since the buses run tight schedules, and the majority of stops are particularly brief.
For journeys that are shorter than a couple of hours with Greyhound and Intercape, prices run a little higher than they are for Baz Bus. Though, for lengthier journeys like Durban to Cape Town for example – a 15-hour journey – the price is around 600 rand or £26.
Throughout the high season months – namely December and June to August inclusive – it’s good policy to book in advance as the demand for bus services rises steeply.
Getting around by airplane in South Africa is relatively affordable, and represents a particularly worthy alternative for those who wish to travel a distance in any one go.
Budget airlines such as kulula.com and Mango service all major and most minor airports throughout the country and they cater several flights daily. They’re also easy to book online when using major credit cards such as Visa or MasterCard.
As a cost example, a one-way from Johannesburg to Durban, which takes 1.5 hours, will set you back around 670 rand (£29).
Even for last-minute flights, on the provision there are still a number of seats available, they rarely see a rise in price over the major routes. For less popular routes, or for smaller airports on the other hand, prices do tend to rise.
Not surprisingly, times that are seen to be inconvenient for the majority of travellers as well as early morning flights are frequently the cheapest. As is the case with the majority of no-frills airlines the world over, on-flight meals and checked baggage carry an extra cost.
If you as a traveller in South Africa were to mention to friends and family that you were intent on hiring a car to get around the country, it’s likely you’ll be on the receiving end of plenty of negative feedback – “it’s dangerous!”
Nevertheless, in truth, South Africa road-tripping is not problematic. The roads are busy enough, so, should your auto suffer from a breakdown, there’s always help available. Bearing in mind that South African peoples are generally particularly friendly and helpful.
However, it’s not to say that driving the South African roads is without any risk. From time to time there are car-jackings, and break-ins are commonplace. All the same, keeping a healthy level of awareness and taking necessary precautions is key to success, as it is in almost any other country. Would you leave your laptop in a car in Birmingham? Likely you would do no such thing.
Regardless, you can, if you prefer, search for a car-sharing buddy. Post up on travel forums like Africa Backpacking Facebook group, Thorn Tree, or Couchsurfing.org.
Then there are hostels or Gumtree that serve as good alternatives to finding ridesharing buddies.
Car rental represents the most convenient way for travel, given that you can reach almost all of the out-of-the-way destinations. And, if you split the cost of petrol and the rental fees with your passengers/ co-drivers, you’ll certainly easily beat any prices that Baz Bus have to offer.
For the majority of not so off the beaten track locales in the country, a small manual car is ideal. Of course, a 4×4 is a better choice for some of those lesser-frequented places. But, whichever you opt for, compare this to the likes of Baz Bus, where you would invest a lot more on an individual basis, and you’d also miss out on a lot of the gems that you’d never be able to reach via a bus service.
Though South Africa offers numerous train lines, many are no longer in use, given that the populace increasingly relies on the extensive highway system. Notwithstanding, the major cities are of course well serviced by the major train companies, ranging from cheap to luxurious.
Long-distance trains by Shosholoza Meyl provide services for Cape Town, Bloemfontein, Port Elizabeth, Johannesburg, Durban, East London, and Queenstown. The service is safe and comfortable.
The main benefit here is that the fares are among the cheapest available with respect to any form of transport within the confines of South Africa. As an example of the low price, a Shosholoza Meyl train journey between Johannesburg and Cape town (785 miles) costs a mere 690 rand (£30).
For those with a preference for more luxury, the famed Blue Train, which journeys between Pretoria and Cape Town, is the way to travel. Albeit, it does cost a pretty penny to partake in the fun. It’s a pricey and luxurious experience, and comes with classy wines, terrific food, Montecristo cigars, and very comfortable compartments, all as part of that single fee.
One last mention about safety. It’s true that South Africa comes with a rather substantially lower level of danger for the solo traveller than the likes of a typical city in the US. That said, though, muggings are still relatively common, more so among tourists and with particular emphasis on Johannesburg and Cape Town.
There’s a comparatively high level of theft and rape in South Africa, and as such, it’s inadvisable to partake in such activities as hitchhiking.
Further, you shouldn’t be tempted to walk the streets alone during the nighttime. Don’t get flashy with your gadgetry, and don’t leave any fancy stuff on display in a rental car for example. Again, these rules apply to most major cities around the globe.
The Final Say:
There are, as you’re now aware, a handful of ways to travel around South Africa. The best of which, at least in our opinion, has to be car rental. There’s nothing else that provides nearly the same level of flexibility, of convenience, and also, if you car-share, the pricing can be extremely reasonable.
If car rental is not your thing, and you have a preference for solo, the next best bet is Baz Bus.
Irrespective of which transportation method you opt for, South Africa is simple and affordable to get around, no matter you’re going solo, duo, or you’re part of a larger group.