BACKPACKERS' GUIDE TO THE EASTERN CAPE
Monday, 21st October 2019
When it comes to travelling some might dream of luxurious stays, big suites and bubbly, but there is a group of entrepid explorers who knows their way around a shoestring budget.
They are the backpackers. Whether they prefer bargain-hunting or enjoy the social vibe of a comfortable hostel, these independent – and often solo – travellers are always searching for something different.
With diverse landscapes, a pleasant year-round climate and a myriad of adventures in the Eastern Cape, it comes as no surprise that the province is a highly sought-after destination for backpackers.
The main roads are well-maintained and easy to navigate for those on self-drive backpacking trips (with a fair share of off-road paths), local buses can connect travellers to the majority of towns, and the BazBus, which is a door-to-door hop-on hop-off backpacker bus, stops at all the not-to-miss overnight stops in the Eastern Cape. The coastal route stretching from the Wild Coast all the way to Tsitsikamma is wildly popular. Many hostels offer a variety of accommodation options: dormitory-style, private rooms – some budget-friendly and others a bit more upmarket. You are spoiled for choice when choosing your home away from home. There are also plenty of camp sites available in national parks, caravan parks and, often, camping is an affordable option at your chosen hostel.
TOP SPOTS TO VISIT WHEN BACKPACKING THROUGH THE EASTERN CAPE
Are you wondering where to go backpacking in the Eastern Cape? Here are a few of the top spots and towns to visit, so throw your pack on your back and get ready to mingle with locals, become friends with strangers and have the adventure of a lifetime.
It is a backpacking error to miss out on the Tsitsikamma region. As the gateway to the Garden Route, the area with its dramatic and stormy coastline, lush indigenous forest and thrill-inducing activities, can keep you busy for days on end.
When backpacking through Tsitsikamma, visit the ‘Instafamous’ Storms River suspension bridge situated in Garden Route National Park (the Tsitsikamma section). At Storms River Mouth, you can also snorkel, tackle a few hiking trails including the world-famous 5-day Otter Trail (booking in advance is required, but you might get lucky and score a spot on a cancellation), scuba dive and kayak and paddle into the ancient Storms River Gorge. Relax in the village of Storms River (16km from the mouth) and sample some of the local brewery’s golden liquid with fellow travellers, zipline from treetop to treetop, explore the indigenous forest and plunge from the world’s highest bungy at Bloukrans Bridge.
The Tsitsikamma region has an average climate, with July being the coldest month and rainfall throughout the year. If you are in a rush, base yourself in Storms River Village and spend at least two full days in the area to experience the activities, longer if at all possible.
DISTANCE FROM NELSON MANDELA BAY: 170km
DISTANCE FROM CAPE TOWN: 579km
Image: Tsitsikamma Canopy Tours
Head to Jeffreys Bay where the surf is always up. The small town, often referred to as JBay, is world-renowned for its perfect right-hand point break which can be ridden for over a kilometre if conditions allow. In JBay, it’s all about the waves, the sand and fun in the sun.
If you ever wanted to learn how to surf, this is your chance. You can attend a week-long surf camp or crunch in two-hour sessions at a time. And, of course, a town that is known for its surf is also a town known for its factory shops of well-known surfing brands. More activities await a stone’s throw from Jeffreys Bay in all directions. Go horse-riding along the beach at Kabeljouws, visit the quirky Cape St. Francis with its monthly Saturday market, go on boat cruises or deep-sea fishing. Adrenaline junkies can go tandem skydiving or on a sandboarding excursion.
The town receives most of its rain in spring and with a not-too-cold winter and a pleasant, you can visit Jeffreys Bay all year around. Although, be aware that the months of December and January see the annual influx of South African holidaymakers. If you really want to give surfing your undivided attention and become a wax-on, wax-off pro, consider spending a week in JBay for some wetsui- tan bragging rights.
DISTANCE FROM NELSON MANDELA BAY: 78km
DISTANCE FROM CAPE TOWN: 681km
For something off-beat and off the coastal backpacker trail, venture inland into the Karoo Heartland, specifically Nieu-Bethesda, which is just 55 km north of Graaff-Reinet. In this little hamlet, with its laid-back dusty streets, you can tune into the silence, tranquillity, creativity and hospitality of the Karoo.
The Owl House is the major attraction of Nieu-Bethesda and you can get a glimpse in the life of Helen Martins, South Africa’s renowned outsider artist, whose life is also honoured in the Helen Martins Museum. Forget about driving and explore on foot; a variety of art, sculpture and pottery studios await as does a fascinating ancient history of the area’s earliest inhabitants from a time before the dinosaurs. There is a fossil centre in town or visit Ganora Guest Farm for a tour of their private collection. End your day with a local brew at the pub or book a walking tour of the Compassberg Mountain.
In the Karoo, expect extreme temperatures in summer and winter with snowfall from time to time. The best time to visit is between March and May, and September and December. Don’t hit all the spots at once, give yourself a few days in Nieu-Bethesda to fully relax and ease into the laidback atmosphere. This is a place like no other.
DISTANCE FROM NELSON MANDELA BAY: 314km
DISTANCE FROM CAPE TOWN: 718km
Image: Janet Middleton
Get in touch with South Africa’s wild side and meet the Big Five (actually the Big Seven) in Addo Elephant National Park, the country’s third largest national park that conserves both land animals and sea creatures.
The park is best known for its large herds of African elephants, however there is a huge variety of game to be sighted. Overnight either in the park or near the entrance to the park. To explore the park, you can book a safari experience or self-drive – you never know what you might spot! The park features a restaurant and picnic facilities, an underground hide, short walks and an interpretive centre. For thrill, go sandboarding or at Sundays River or buddy up on Africa’s longest double zipline.
Every day is a good day in Addo for wildlife viewing, and May to September are usually the drier months (the elephants are well-versed in the game of hide and seek during a rainy day). If you’re in a rush, do at least a half day game drive However, a longer stay will enable you to explore the coastal and mountainous sections of the park, take a river safari and enjoy the citrus orchards.
DISTANCE FROM NELSON MANDELA BAY: 69km
DISTANCE FROM CAPE TOWN: 715km
Image: Bellevue Forest Reserve
If fairy tales and mystical creatures tickle your fancy, you’ll want to point your compass in the direction of the Amathola Mountain Escape and discover Hogsback. Think Lord of the Rings, think waterfalls, think dense forests, think warm hospitality and creative souls, and then sprinkle some magical dust on top of it all!
Get on your hiking boots and spend your days meandering through the forest on one of the many hiking trails ranging from short easy strolls to more challenging hikes. Clear your mind as you walk one of the largest labyrinths in the world, get the ultimate Instagram photo at the world-famous bath perched on the cliff, go horseback riding or mountain biking and have a cultural experience in the Xhosa village of Elundini.
Temperatures are very enjoyable throughout the year and, during winter and early spring, there is a good possibility of experiencing a snow-covered winter wonderland. Head there in spring if you want to see how the gardens put on their prettiest colours. Hogsback is an invitation to relax around a fire, with a book and a glass of wine; it’s also a place that many who visit never want to leave!
DISTANCE FROM NELSON MANDELA BAY: 265km
DISTANCE FROM CAPE TOWN: 958km
Image: Away with the Fairies Backpackers
Say goodbye to the main roads and venture into the remote regions of the Wild Coast and is well-known for local Xhosa experiences and homestays, a pristine coastline with towering cliffs and rolling, green hills. Coffee Bay is a popular destination for backpackers, and travellers often base themselves here as they explore different sections of the 250km stretch of wilderness.
Stroll along goat-made paths on the 7km hike to Hole in the Wall from White Clay or take an exploratory hike to Mapuzi Caves. If you are a surfer, or you yearn to learn how to surf, take some surfing lessons in Coffee Bay (psst, the water is much warmer this far up the coast). If you’re looking for an authentic rural experience, stay in one of the traditional thatched-roof huts in a Xhosa village and immerse yourself in the culture and food. Look out for the cows on the beach, a trip to the Wild Coast is not complete without snapping a picture of the sunbathing Nguni cows!
Due to its sub-tropical location, the Wild Coast has a more humid climate than the rest of the Eastern Cape, and you’ll easily enjoy beach days during winter. The region has a comparatively high average rainfall, and December to February are the hottest, wettest and busiest. If you are self-driving give yourself a few days to explore the Wild Coast, the bumpy roads can add some hours to your day.
DISTANCE FROM NELSON MANDELA BAY: 623km
DISTANCE FROM CAPE TOWN: 1255km
Image: Wild Coast, South Africa
Go where the sun is always shining and explore the Sunshine Coast along Route 72. The small coastal town of Kenton-on-Sea – between the Bushmans and Kariega Rivers – is a sought-after choice for backpackers due to all the outdoor adventure activities on offer and its proximity to other towns in the region, such as Port Alfred.
The Sunshine Coast has the most recorded hours of sunshine in South Africa and a visit to the beaches’ sandy stretches should not be missed; Shelly Bay is one of the top ten secret beaches in the world and the secluded coves and tidal pools will awake the mermaid within. If adventure is your top choice, try sandboarding down the dunes, horse-riding on the beach, go on a fatbike tour or mountain biking, and do the Castaway Hike which is a combination of walking and paddling that can be experienced over two to five days. The area is also a paradise for birdwatchers, there are private game reserves offering day safaris and you can navigate the rivers with a kayak, SUP or join a sundowner cruise.
Kenton-on-Sea is one of the most perfect holiday destinations in South Africa and it is all in the name: Sunshine Coast. While the area receives the highest rainfall in October, you can’t go wrong visiting this coastal town as its boasts 320 days of sunshine a year. Allow yourself to soak up the sun and stay at least for two days, or more if you want to do the multi-day hiking trail.
DISTANCE FROM NELSON MANDELA BAY: 130km
DISTANCE FROM CAPE TOWN: 875km
Image: Woodlands Cottages