THOUSANDS of foreign travelers are aware that South Africa is a backpacker's delight, yet many locals remain oblivious to this organized and well-run component of our tourism industry.
As a backpacking destination South Africa has a lot going for it: it's different and diverse, organized, safe (when organized) and, while not as cheap as other destinations such as Thailand , still affordable to young travelers.
The most popular route begins with sometime in and around Cape Town , but many still miss out on the jewel of our coast – the Transkei . It seems to be a black hole on the traveller's map. Yet to explore the Transkei coast is to step back in time, to the era before holiday Inns, beach condos, guest-houses galore and estate developments.
The Transkei is distinctly rural, charming in its simplicity and laid-back in tempo. Lives revolve around livestock and tides, growth seasons, rites of passage and ancestral spirits. Backpackers usually have an interest in gaining a deeper insight into the local people and culture – and for this the Transkei is perfect.
The Transkei , or Wild Coast as it is also known, lies between the Great Kei River in the south and Mtamvuna River in the north, with most of the backpackers' accommodation to be found in the southern section as far up as Port St John's.
There are three transport options. The Baz Bus – a hop-on, hop-off shuttle service – plies the entire coast from Cape Town to northern KwaZulu Natal, and services all the backpackers' lodges along the Wild Coast .
While it does not deviate from the N2, most of the lodges have a shuttle service running from the Baz Bus stops to the respective lodges.
Self-drive is the ideal way to go if possible, but bear in mind that the roads in the area were not designed for your low-slung sports car. While a four-wheel drive is not necessary, something with a bit of clearance such as a Toyota Conquest will suffice. Local taxi services run from the N2 down to all villages along the coast. it must be said that these are used entirely at your own risk. Many such taxis are unroadworthy at best and, with other decrepit vehicles on the roads and people and livestock wandering freely, accidents are a distinct possibility.
Entering the Transkei on your way up the coast, Coffee Bay is definitely worth a visit. It is close to the famous Hole in the Wall rock formation and has two legendary backpackers' lodges on the beach – Bomvu Paradise and the Coffee Shack. Both have dorms, double rooms and camping amenities, lively bars and loads of laid-back hippy atmosphere.
Well-worn paths lead all along the cliffs and hills that rise up from the ocean, providing exciting walking opportunities to rusted wrecks, waterfalls and ever more beaches.
Moving up the coast, the next port of call was the Kraal, an aptly named backpackers' lodge situated at Mpande (which doesn't even appear on the road atlases). The Kraal is different.
For showers, you fill up a bucket with water heated on the fire. Cooking is done on gas and candles or lamps provide lights - but they do have cold beer.
The aspect to the Wild Coast that appeals the most to me is rally evident here – animals. Domesticated animals are everywhere and are an integral part of local life. You can easily round up the Transkei 's “Big Five” – donkey, pig, dog, feral cat and fowl. You can visit a local sangoma – a thrilling nocturnal experience. Before you become eternally stuck at the Kraal you may want to head to Port St John's, a rustic little town with four lodges.
If the Wild Coast is special, it is also threatened. Perhaps it is wise to get there before it changes. Pick up a copy of Coast to Coast , pack a tent, a sleeping bag, a didgeridoo and head to the Transkei . It's way cool, man.