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South Africa: The Backpacker’s Land of Plenty

Posted by Ellie B. on 6/25/2021
South Africa: The Backpacker’s Land of Plenty
Ah, backpacking!  You wake up in the morning to a chill in the air.  You can see in the first gathering sunlight, the dew collecting on your tent.  Outside, you watch the elephants graze while you make your first cup of coffee and stoke the fire for a little  . . . .  Back up a sec.  Did you say elephants?  Yes, I did.

The southern tip of Africa has a rich backpacking scene that offers an amazing diversity not only of animal life, but also of landscape.  From the wooded savanna of South Africa’s Wild Coast to Namibia’s highest peak, Brandberg Mountain, from wild game tours in Botswana’s Chobe National Park to shark cave diving in South Africa’s Hermans, there’s a place and activity to meet almost every need.

A Little Effort for a Lot of Gain

If you’re willing to put in a little work, the riches of southern Africa’s backpacking scene will reward you beyond measure.  The first thing you need to know is that reaching your destinations in this region is not an easy task.  Unlike European hiking, for example, where public transportation is ubiquitous and reliable, you are likely to need a rental car in Africa.  While South Africa offers the Baz Bus (a designated hiker bus) for the rental reluctant, it doesn’t travel every day of the week, its destinations are limited, and timings aren’t always convenient.  In addition, if you want to go on safari in Namibia or Botswana you will need a four-wheel drive vehicle to get to many destinations.

Second, you will need to come prepared for all weather.  Some destinations, such as the coastal areas of South Africa, will be rainy at times.  Other areas like Namibia’s Swakopmund, where you’ll see the highest dune in the Namib Desert, will be hot and dry.  In fact, much of your travel will be in desert areas where daytime temperatures soar but where nights can fall to near freezing.  You’ll, therefore, need to pack both light arable clothing, but also warm gear, including hat and gloves.  Furthermore, you’ll want a heavy duty sleeping bag, an additional liner, and a ground pad.  The other thing you should be prepared for is dust. It is an inevitable fact of life, particularly on safari, that you will get dusty, and because laundry facilities are rare to nonexistent in camp areas, you’ll need a clothesline and pins to hand wash and then dry clothing.  

Finally, you’ll want to plan an itinerary and research specific needs and rules of your destinations.  Most destinations in southern Africa are not as buggy as you think, but because of the mosquito-borne threat of malaria, you will need a vaccination, and you should check with your GP for other required shots before departing.  You should be prepared for unfenced campsites in some regions where lions, hyenas, and elephants sometimes wander into camp areas.  Pay attention to recommendations such as driving to the bathroom at night rather than walking.  And, in some places, you’ll find plenty of safe drinking water (Namibia) but in others you’ll want filtration devices.  There’s just no way to plan for all contingencies, but a basic list of needs might be:

  • A roll of toilet paper or wet wipes
  • Clothes line and pins
  • Clothes that are easy to wash and quick dry
  • Flask—for warm coffee in the morning
  • Gloves
  • Hand lotion
  • Hand sanitizer
  • Headlight or flashlight
  • Heavy duty sleeping bag
  • Hot water bottle
  • Insect repellent (heavy duty--with DEET)
  • Large water bottles (you may need 2 litres or more per day for drinking)
  • Plug adaptor
  • Rain jacket (preferably layerable with liner) or rain poncho
  • Sleeping bag liner
  • Sleeping mat
  • Sunblock
  • Sunglasses
  • Thermal underwear
  • Warm hat
  • Water filter

What to Do, What to Do

During your travels in southern Africa, you’ll find hostels available at fairly low cost, particularly in South Africa, but in some areas they will be sparse.  Never worry though as camping can be as glamorous as some upscale hotels.  Hired tents on safaris are often large enough to accommodate a king-sized bed and come complete with bookcases, tables, and chairs.
The most important thing is to enjoy all the area has to offer, and while there is just too much to cover in such a short post, here are some favorite recommendations:

South Africa

  • Cape Town Area:  Hike up Table Mountain or visit the wine region of Stellenbosch.
  • Wild Coast:  Take a walk to the Hole in the Wall along seaside cliffs.  Spend some time in Xhosa country among pastel roundhouses, and be sure to try the umqombothi, a maize-based beer that comes in a milk carton.
  • Clarens, Free State:  Spend time in the boutiques and galleries of the foothills or take a drive to Golden Gate Highlands National Park.

Botswana

  • Take a trip to the Okavango Delta to see lions lap the water and elephants bathe in the heat.
  • Visit Chobe National Park where you can stay in luxury among the zebras, giraffes, warthogs, and more.

Namibia

  • Climb Brandberg Mountain to see the world’s oldest rock carvings and be sure to note the famous Welwitschia mirabilis plant.
  • Spend time in Zambezi among the very friendly locals and catch a boat ride where you’ll see crocodiles and hippos up close.
  • Go dune surfing in Swakopmund.

Let It All Go

There just aren’t too many places in the world where you might find yourself, at the end of the long day, sitting by a campfire, sipping a glass of wine, and watching zebras graze in the distance.  So forget any preconceptions, forget that you’re a continent away.  The southern climes of Africa await you, and all you need is the pack on your back.

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