Travelling in South Africa allows you to see many wonderful sights. From the plains and savannahs to deserts, glorious national parks and some of the best wildlife anywhere in the world. But what about travelling between places? What’s the best way to get from point A to point B when travelling around South Africa? Here to help you are some tips for travelling South Africa, including the three main options when exploring this amazingly beautiful and diverse country.
The backpackers’ favourite and preferred by many of those travelling solo. Baz Bus run a hop-on hop-off service between Cape Town and Johannesburg, with scheduled stops in 40 different towns on the way. The route is split into three sections:
- Cape Town to Port Elizabeth
- Port Elizabeth to Durban
- Durban to Johannesburg
It’s important to plan ahead as buses don’t run every day, so you could end up stuck in a town for longer than you planned, especially during busier times of the year when seats may fill up quicker. The Cape Town to Port Elizabeth bus runs every Monday, Tuesday, Thursday, Friday and Saturday, with one bus on each of those day. If heading in the opposite direction the buses are every day except Monday and Thursday.
The buses between Port Elizabeth and Durban, as well as on the Durban to Johannesburg stretch, occur much less often. Some of the stops on these sections can be small (such as Chintsa or Coffee Bay) and others more expensive due to their isolated setting (like Drakensberg). Make sure you know when the next bus is while planning which places you want to see and how long you intend to spend in one location. Buses run on these sections as follows:
- Port Elizabeth to Durban – Wednesday, Friday, Sunday
- Durban to Port Elizabeth – Tuesday, Thursday, Saturday
- Durban to Johannesburg – Monday, Wednesday, Saturday
- Johannesburg to Durban – Tuesday, Thursday, Sunday
Baz Bus tickets
You have two main options when it comes to buying tickets for Baz Bus (which you can purchase through their website). Either hop-on hop-off, where your ticket allows you to travel as often as you like between your start and end destination, or the travel pass that grants you travel for a set number of days. Both ticket options have their advantages and whether it’s worth the price depends largely on the number of days you want to spend in each town. The cheapest hop-on hop-off ticket is between Cape Town and Port Elizabeth (which includes the beautiful Garden Route) for around £130, while the cheapest travel pass is the 8-day ticket which costs just under £140.
Whilst the ticket prices are much higher than it would be using public transport, the buses drop you directly at your accommodation and pick-up from there when you leave. This negates the problem of walking through town with all your bags or trying to find a taxi late at night. You also avoid finding yourself in a dodgy part of town, unwilling to get your phone out to check where you are.
Making friends on the road
Due to the price you won’t find many locals using Baz Bus. As I mentioned lots of backpackers choose to use Baz Bus. It’s an easy way to make friends and you’ll often see someone you recognise when you travel to your next destination. The minibuses have seats for up to 19 passengers and Wi-Fi (just in case you don’t feel like being sociable en route). On the day of departure buses leave around 6:45am to 7:30am and arrive at the final stop on that section no later than 10:30pm (6pm between Durban and Johannesburg). Baz Bus also run tours to places such as Kruger National Park or Cape Peninsula and other activities like a guided hike up Table Mountain. These are similarly priced to many other tours, although with Baz Bus you’ll have more of an idea of the type of crowd you’ll be travelling with.
Public transport is generally the cheapest option when travelling through a country, however it’s not as common for visitors to South Africa. Especially those travelling alone. This is primarily due to safety reasons, particularly when it comes to arriving in a new town late at night in an unfamiliar and possibly unsafe area. In many towns around the world the bus and train stations are usually in the worst neighbourhood.
That’s not to say you shouldn’t use public transport. Many people do and encounter no problems whatsoever. In fact, they usually enjoy the experience and feel they have seen more of the country than many other travellers. I met a lone female traveller from France who used public transport her whole way through South Africa and had been to some extremely off the beaten path countries on her way.
Travelling between towns you have three options: coaches, trains or shared taxis.
There are several companies that run between the major towns and cities of South Africa, all providing a good quality of service with affordable rates. Greyhound are well-known throughout the world and are one of the most popular. Their buses have spacious seats, plenty of legroom and Wi-Fi available. Perfect for those long journeys. Other companies include Intercape, Eldo Coaches and Translux, among others. All companies have reclining seats, aircon and other amenities you’d normally find on long distance coaches.
As an example for price comparison, a seat between Johannesburg and Durban costs around £10-13. Prices depend on the company, flexibility of dates and times, and whether you want a basic seat or the luxury package. Journey time is around seven to eight hours and most of the time you will arrive before 7pm. You’ll find in general that buses are faster than trains to most destinations around the country.
Many travellers have recommended train travel in South Africa. The major cities are all well-connected and you pass through some of the country’s most amazing scenery. You can choose between either tourist or economy class when buying your tickets, with economy the cheaper, no-frills version. Tourist class however is a more comfortable and safer experience without losing any of the authenticity or incredibly scenic views. Tourist class also has sleeping compartments, showers and a dining car. Depending on what’s available when purchasing your ticket you may be assigned to a shared compartment. Or you can pay double and get your own private two-person booth.
A tourist class ticket from Johannesburg to Cape Town would cost around £30, although the journey is around a day and a half. However, when combining the costs of a nights’ accommodation and transport it’s definitely worth the expense. Especially when factoring in the ability to move freely about the train and the passing scenery.
The most popular routes (between Cape Town and Johannesburg, for example) are more expensive and seats could fill up faster. Shosholoza Meyl run the passenger rail service and tickets can be purchased at the train station or alternatively through the African Sun Travel website.
For a more detailed overview of South Africa’s train services check out The Man in Seat 61.
As you’ll also find in Namibia, shared minibuses are used to shuttle people between towns and around cities. Most of them have space for around 16 passengers, although some are slightly bigger while others are not much more than a large car. The prices for shared taxis vary depending on location and the time of day or week, and in some areas it might be your only option if there is a lack of buses or trains. There’s no schedule with shared taxis and they go only when they’re full. Meaning you could be waiting 20 minutes or three hours before you leave.
TaxiMap is a good resource for checking routes, fares and other useful information. It’s important to be aware that driving standards are not always good and the quality of the vehicle could also be questionable.
How to stay safe on public transport in South Africa
- Avoid travelling at night. Always try to make sure you arrive at your accommodation before nightfall and give yourself plenty of time in case anything goes wrong, such as getting lost, cancellations, delays or traffic.
- Travel with a friend. By staying in a group it reduces the chances of something happening to you. You’ll meet many other travellers on your way around South Africa and will often be heading in the same direction. Ask if they want to join you and travel together. However, make sure you’re comfortable travelling with that person. Just because they’re another traveller doesn’t mean they’re safe.
- Tell someone where you’re going. Make sure someone knows where you’ll be when possible. This is especially important for lone female travellers who may be seen as an easier target or suffer sexual harassment. Maybe even contact your host in the next town and inform them of your intended arrival time.
- Keep your belongings close. This is something you should always do wherever you’re travelling. Always make sure you know exactly where your bags are, ideally somewhere you can keep an eye on them. It may not be possible in a shared taxi as they often use trailers towed behind for the luggage. In this case ensure your valuable items are with you and away from anyone who might try to steal them.
- Look for reviews. Try to find reputable reviews from anyone who’s used the service before. Whether it’s online or people you’ve met. It’s good to know what to expect beforehand and how reliable or legitimate the company is.
Renting a car
For the most freedom when travelling around South Africa renting a car is the way to go. As in most countries around the world you have many options regarding companies, each with their own special offers and terms. It’s best to rent through a third-party as they usually offer things like unlimited kilometres. Giving you more freedom to explore this beautiful country without having to worry about a daily quota.
While no one company is much better than any other I would avoid Hertz. I rented a car between Durban and Johannesburg and upon return of the car I received an invoice for extra charges that were either made up or greatly exaggerated. They also sent more invoices months later requesting further payments that were never in the rental agreement. Whoever you rent from make sure to read their terms thoroughly and record evidence (such as initial and final mileage or the amount of fuel in the vehicle) in the event of any claims made later.
Choosing the right type of car
It’s best to have an idea of where you want to go before you rent a car. If you’re just planning to use it on highways between cities then a simple two wheel drive car will be sufficient (not to mention cheaper). However, if you want to tackle national parks or anything a little more cross-country, then you’ll need something sturdier. If you head to Sossusvlei sand dunes in Namibia then you’ll need to be prepared. It’s well-known for causing punctures even on vehicles designed for that type of terrain.
I drove two rental cars during my time in South Africa and both were small, compact models. The cars struggled the moment we went even remotely off-road. One of the most popular rental vehicles in this part of Africa is a Toyota Hilux. It’s extremely robust, spacious and most come with a roof tent, making it much more secure for camping. It’s obviously more expensive than a VW Polo, but split between a few people it’s worth the extra cost.
Tips for driving in South Africa
- Drive on the right side of the road. By which I mean left. For anyone visiting Africa from countries such as the United States or most European countries you may not be accustomed to driving on the left-hand side. It doesn’t take long to get used to, but make sure you’re on the correct side before setting off.
- Look for the yellow lines. Out on the highway you may notice a yellow line at the side of the road. This is to allow slower traffic to ease over, straddling the yellow line, and give extra space to passing cars. It’s a simple alternative in places where two or more lanes aren’t possible without anyone getting held up.
- Turn left at the robot. If you ask for directions and someone tells you to turn at the robot, don’t worry. You haven’t suddenly been transported into some futuristic city. It’s simply the nickname given to traffic lights and you might hear it many times in South Africa as well as Namibia, Botswana or other countries around this part of the world.
- Stop at the crossroads. When approaching a four-way junction you are required to stop. Rules like this vary from country to country, so it’s important to be aware of it. Priority is given to the car that has been waiting the longest. So just because the car in front of you is moving doesn’t mean you can go too.
- Crossing borders. Check your rental agreement for any extra fees you may have to pay for crossing into another country. Sometimes there is a limit on how many borders you can cross or a charge each time you enter a new country. Information like this is recorded as you pass through passport control and you have to provide all the relevant paperwork.