Planet   Backpacker
  "From flying monkey gods and amorous donkeys to tales of a bus caravan speeding through a terrorist-infested desert, Downes puts you right there with him."-- Ben Gohs, Charlevoix Courier
  "From flying monkey gods and amorous donkeys to tales of a bus caravan speeding through a terrorist-infested desert, Downes puts you right there with him."-- Ben Gohs, Charlevoix Courier
South Africa, Addo, Planet Backpacker
One of 30 elephants on parade at Addo Elephant Reserve.

Camping Across South Africa

  You're not likely to find much written about the Xhosa tribal homelands in any guidebook, but this rolling hill country populated by millions of rural blacks is one of the most remarkable regions of South Africa.

   This is the Transkei, a vast farming and forestry area bordered by arid mountains and the beautiful but remote beaches of the Indian Ocean. Those who pass through this former apartheid republic will find it's definitely not a "tourist experience" in the traditional sense, but that's what makes it so interesting.

   Here in the Xhosa homelands -- the place where Nelson Mandela was born -- live millions of dirt-poor agricultural workers, miners and jobless dependents.  These are the descendants of the Xhosa-speaking tribes which once fought the Zulus, British and Boers for the fate of southern Africa.

Travels With My Wife


Signed copies of the expanded second edition, featuring more than 40 routes and 1,400 miles of cycling.


   It takes nearly 9 hours to make the drive across this quasi-reservation between Durban and East London on the so-called Wild Coast. As in much of the rest of South Africa, the overwhelmingly black population lives in cinder block huts with corrugated metal roofs, each about the size of a one-car garage -- sometimes with a Zulu-style roundhut as an outbuilding.  Hundreds of thousands of huts connected by footpaths sprinkle the hills for miles out of sight to the horizon in every direction. Check it out on Google Earth for a mindblowing bird's eye view.


     Water is scarce in the Transkei, trickling from brooks or springs that may be miles from home.  Women collect it in plastic buckets and make the long march uphill with the precious liquid or their laundry balanced on turbans atop their heads. 

   At the cultural village of Ngxingxolo, 90-year-old Moma Tofu demonstrates how to speak the odd "clicking" language of the Xhosa people, and tells of tribal traditions that are still practiced far back in the hills.  Traditions such as the "love hut," in which elderly matrons educate young men on courtly behavior and how to treat a lady, while their brides-to-be listen (and no doubt, giggle) from behind a thatched screen.

   Bonus: you ride to Mama Tofu's place on a mountain bike, down a rocky path outside of a beachside retreat at Cintsa, where a lively party scene rocks after dinner each night at a backpacker retreat of cabin tents and cottages overlooking  a gorgeous sweep of the Indian Ocean.


   That's the beauty of South Africa -- an unexpected land where grinding poverty lives alongside some of the finest outdoor adventures in the world.

   It's said that you can find "every country in the world" represented in South Africa.  Here is a microcosm of Africa itself, with all of its deserts, prairies and jungles. But you'll also find the culture of Europe, Asia and India living alongside the traditions of black Africa. Wake up in a wine country village and you'll swear you're in Bavaria.

   South Africa is also the "America" of the African continent in that it is a beacon of jobs and hope for millions of immigrants -- many of whom are illegal refugees from neighboring countries. And you can even find a touch of Antarctica here in the penguins frolicking on the southern shores. 

  Take a trip through the game reserves of South Africa and you'll see more wild animals than you might dream possible.  On our visit in September, 2009, I doubted we'd see much more than an antelope or two; but on our second day there we saw so many giraffes, zebra, rhinos and elephants that our necks grew weary from straining at the windows of our safari van. South Africa's careful management of its wildlife -- often behind tall fences and guarded by anti-poaching patrols -- has made this beautiful country one of the premier tourist destinations in the world.


   South Africa plays host to millions of tourists each year, but the recession-strapped country hopes to outdo itself in 2010 when it hosts the Soccer World Cup from June 10-July 11 at 10 stadiums spread across its nine provinces.  Ironically, S.A.'s own soccer team didn't qualify for the games this year; recall that the action you saw in the film "Invictus" involved the country's (italics) rugby (italics) team.

   During our visit in September 2009, we saw road construction underway everywhere across the country as evidence of South Africa's effort to improve its infrastructure in time for the World Cup. New stadiums designed to hold crowds of 60,000 or so have been built or retrofitted to accommodate the upcoming games.

   The country has also embarked on an epic subsidized housing project to clean up some of its appalling squatter slums: For a little more than $500, one can purchase a new brick hut, with the only stipulation being that new tenants must pay for their own water and electricity.

   All of this sprucing up is calculated to generate even greater levels of tourism at a time when some of the country's largest mines are being shut down due to lack of global demand for minerals.


   On our overland safari, our party of 12 travelers from Europe, Australia and the U.S. made a roundabout 2,500-mile trek from Johannesburg to Cape Town.  Overland camping safaris are the most popular way to see Africa, and ours included a beach stay in Mozambique and a pass through the landlocked Kingdom of Swaziland.

   Camping is one of the most popular pastimes in South Africa for well-to-do residents.  The country is filled with some of the finest campgrounds in the world, often complete with laundry facilities, cook houses and swimming pools.  Our Intrepid Travel group stayed in 4-person dome tents, with the entire party putting up their own tents and taking turns doing the dishes at our cookouts.

   "Camping is the best way to experience Africa," said Lynn, one of our group leaders.  "You feel the soul of Africa when you're camping.  You breathe it in and feel close to the earth."

   Camping is often also the only way to spend the night inside the very best wildlife destinations such as Kruger National Park, or Hlane Royal National Park in Swaziland, where we watched hippos and elephants gather by a pond at dusk and heard lions roaring outside our fenced-in campsite at night.


   Beyond gawking at the animals and scenery, South Africa offers a stark lesson in the lives of the haves and have-nots.  Some 79% of this country of 49 million are black Africans still bound by tribal heritages, with 9% white and the rest made up of "coloreds" of Indian and Asian descent.  Although there is a growing black middle class, it's clearly the whites who have a lock on the country's rich farming and mineral resources, and the time to enjoy game-spotting trips or diving expeditions.

   South Africa also has the misfortune to rank as one of the most dangerous countries on earth for its largely black-on-black crime.  There is also strife directed at illegal immigrants from neighboring Zimbabwe or Mozambique, and an AIDS/HIV rate estimated as high as 28%.

   During our visit, reports in the media offered the news that murders had decreased to around 18,000 per year (or about 27 per day), but that home and business invasions were up.

   Ken, one of our other tour guides, noted that his brother-in-law had been killed at an ATM machine for the equivalent of $40 U.S. dollars. There's no way to put a pretty face on it: violent crime, carjackings, rape, gang encounters and armed robberies are a fact of life in South Africa, and visitors are advised not to venture into the inner city sections of Johannesburg or Durban without guides. 

   One British guidebook warns rather ominously to avoid taking the suburban trains to Johannesburg's black townships unless you have at least a party of 10 along for protection.

  For details on safety issues, check the U.S. State Department's travel advisory page on the country:


   But don't freak out on the scary statistics, because here again, South Africa offers the unexpected. Much of outer Johannesburg, for instance, looks as benign as the more prosperous parts of southern California, with million dollar homes, shopping malls and chic restaurant districts, albeit going hand-in-hand with a fortress mentality of gated homes and rent-a-cops.

  In advance of the World Cup games, South Africa's federal government has vowed to take tough measures to crack down on crime and protect visitors.  And the vast majority of travelers are unlikely to find any evidence of violent crime in the country's game reserves, campgrounds or tourist attractions.  Many tourists travel in escorted parties, and those who exercise the same sort of common sense as traveling in America are unlikely to encounter any problems.  

   For our part, our band of experienced travelers had nothing but 'thumbs up' for South Africa; it promised stunning vistas, amazing wildlife, and unparalleled outdoor adventures, and it delivered.

Wild Coast, Cintsa, South Africa, Planet Backpacker
Mountain biking the Wild Coast at Cintsa in South Africa.
South Africa, townships, Planet Backpacker
 Tourists get a lesson in economics from an ostrich egg craftsman during a tour of a black township.
South Africa, Mozambique, Planet Backpacker
Camping is the best way to experience Africa -- on the beach in Mozambique.
rhinos, Swaziland, Planet Backpacker
Too close for comfort with the rhinos of Swaziland.
Mama Tofu, Xhosa, South Africa, Planet Backpacker
Mama Tofu offers advice on manners for the young men & women of the Xhosa tribe.
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