Backpacking is loaded with connotations – and not all of them good. But staying in backpacker hostels is a great option if you can’t afford the Four Seasons. Besides, gone are the days of dropping a fortune on hotels. Today, with the stratospheric uptake of apps like Airbnb.com (where you can search for home-based lodgings in over 33 000 cities), sharing is the new thing. Still, this doesn’t mean you shouldn’t do your research, or you may well risk staying in a dud, and nothing screams ‘dud’ like drunken carousers galumphing past your bedroom at 3am in the morning or a bad case of athlete’s foot picked up in the communal showers. Never fear, OnRoute has done all the homework for you by seeking out South Africa’s best backpackers.
Best for Curious Urbanites
There’s a travel trend afoot, and thankfully you won’t have to re-bond the house to get in on it. The trick is to choose wisely.
Sprawled across a few blocks in the eastern borough of Joburg’s CBD, Maboneng is an oasis in the concrete jungle. It’s got restaurants, art galleries, an indie cinema, clubs and a well-supported weekly food market. And now, it has its own backpackers too! Curiocity’s facilities include a games room, a swimming pool, its own bar and communal chill-out zone. And if public art is something you appreciate, you must sign up for the weekly guided walk through the area, as there are over 30 artworks to eyeball. Or rent a bicycle and go for a spin.
Who should go? City lovers. If skyscrapers, a bit of litter and a cosmopolitan crowd make you rankle, then this is not the stay for you.
The digs: Dorm and private rooms as well as female-only dorms.
Unique selling points: It is located within walking distance of a glut of restaurants, quirky retailers and entertainment hotspots; you’ll never be short of things to do. There’s even an inner-city pub crawl you can sign up for.
Damage: From R150 per person per night.
Contacts: 011 592 0515
Best for the Middle-of-Nowhere
Ambitiously, they call themselves a “lodge”, but it’s more like a sprinkling of huts perched atop a Transkei hill. Lonely Planet superlatively describes the location as: “Overlooking one of the most spectacular and remote beaches on the Wild Coast [Bulungula] is something very special, and should be on your must-do list”. The sky is so clear and unpolluted out there, you’re guaranteed a spectacle of shooting stars. In fact, Bulungula owners promise if you gaze at the night’s sky for half an hour without spotting one, you stay that night free! There are canoe trips up the beautiful Xhora River where kamikaze fish leap into your boat. You will also see the ancient cycad trees, relics from the dinosaur era. All this with a cooler box of beers. And if canoeing isn’t your thing, you could explore the village on foot or gallop along the beach on horseback. Bring your own food to prepare at the communal kitchen, or get the restaurant to whip up your meals.
Who should go? The eco-conscious. The place is run entirely on solar power. And toilets are compostable (but completely odourless). This lot are big on sustainability.
The digs: 10 huts, each positioned for great sea and forest views. And safari tents on wooden platforms.
Connectivity: Zero. Zilch. Nadda. Even cellphone reception is sketchy. Post a message on your Facebook page saying you’ll be out of touch, or your friends and family might assemble a search party.
Unique selling points: The local community of Ngqeleni village owns 40 percent of the lodge. So don’t be surprised if while out on a walk, you get invited into a mud hut for a swig of umqombothi and a chat.
Damage: From R140 per person per night.
Contacts: 047 577 8900
Best for Boutique Stay
The B.I.G. Backpackers
Boasting a sparkly swimming pool and just five minute’s walk from Cape Town’s V&A Waterfront, The B.I.G. in Green Point is big on comfort and ease. Don’t fancy blowing the budget on restaurant meals? Then stay in and braai in the roomy gardens. Or make use of the two stylish, well-equipped kitchens. A free continental breakfast is served every morning, which means you can splurge your money on more interesting things like checking out the sights. Just pay a visit to this backpackers’ in-house travel desk to find out about the best tours, adventures and activities around.
Who should go? Families looking for a budget stay. The TV in the communal games room will keep the kids entertained when you get some time out.
The digs: Selection of single, double, triple, dorm and family rooms. There are dedicated girl’s dorm rooms too.
Unique selling points: The décor – it’s magazine-worthy! Think clean lines, a neutral palate (with pops of yellow), mirrored mosaics and up-cycled wooden pallet furniture. If you thought backpackers were all manky showers, rising damp and grubby linen, think again.
Damage: From R150 per person per night.
Contacts: 021 434 0688
Best for Mountain Scrambles
One of the few places where you can find a healthy ratio of fun for grown-ups and fun for kids, Amphitheatre Backpackers offers a safe space for party-lovin’ people to let their hair down and mingle. And with a backdrop as magnificent as the Drakensberg mountain range (it’s the highest hostel in the country), there’s plenty on offer for activity lovers too. There’s a funky bar with a wonderful range of music and cocktails, exotic hookah pipes and even a Jacuzzi. They’re also famous for their Smoking Dragon New Year’s Eve parties. And if you really want to park off, then eschew the communal kitchen and invest in the restaurant – when breakfast options start at just R7, you couldn’t make it any cheaper if you were cooking yourself!
Who should go? Hikers. There are at least 30 hikes in the immediate area, the most spectacular being the Tugela Falls walk with its famous chain ladder climb. Get the restaurant to pack you a lunch, and off you go!
The digs: Spans the gamut, from dorms to en-suite deluxe rooms.
Connectivity: Wi-Fi in designated areas.
Unique selling points: This is an all-in-one jol spot, but located slap bang in a pastoral scene where water is slurped straight from the streams. So pull in, park off and don’t worry about drinking and driving.
Damage: From R125 per person per night. Reduced prices are offered to backpackers staying closer to the noisier entertainment area.
Contacts: 082 855 9767
MORE BEST-OF-THE-BEST BACKPACKERS:
Want to venture across the pond?
Then become friends with technology. Tripadvisor is a great place to browse reviews and scan pics not ‘doctored’ by Photoshop. Hostelworld.com is a super resource which lists over 35 000 backpackers (with accompanying reviews) and you can drill down your search by category. The WeHostels app allows users to find backpackers nearly anywhere in the world from your smartphone. So if you arrive in a city with nowhere to sleep, do a quick search and WeHostels will guide you to the nearest backpackers using GPS navigation.