It's time to break away. Break away from your day-to-day grind and head off into the middle distance and break away from your preconceived ideas about travel in South Africa.
First, South Africa may be home but it is also one of the top travel destinations in the world. Second, it need not be as expensive as you think. A sophisticated, low-cost tourist infrastructure has developed over the last few years as a response to the huge influx of foreign backpackers and budget travellers.
One of the most significant of these developments has got to be Baz Bus, a new concept here but quite well known in many other parts of the world. Specifically designed to meet the needs of travellers who don't have their own transport and so find it difficult to get to trains or bus stations, Baz Bus picks them up and drops them off at the backpacker hostels. Also, unlike the more staid Intercity or Greyhound buses, they don't bat an eyelid at luggage that includes mountain bikes, diving gear or surfboards.
The vibe is quite laid-back, too. After a few minutes you are usually chatting happily to fellow passengers and comparing notes about destinations and the music system is excellent. This provides entertainment in more ways than one: on the trip I did, we all got an inkling of the loneliness of the long-distance bus driver.
Doubling as a DJ, the driver would play all his favourite romantic tapes and, when The power of Love came on, would turn the volume up and, all misty-eyed, sing along. We found out he was newly married and desperately missing her. Sympathetic as we were, we could only put up with Jennifer Rush for so long and he was quickly inundated with a selection of tapes from the back of the bus.
The main advantage, though, is the flexibility. You can choose between a short hop or travel the whole way from Cape Town to Johannesburg and back. Whichever you choose, your ticket is valid indefinitely and you can do the trip in stages of whatever distance you like.
For instance, you could buy a Cape Town-Durban ticket but get off at Swellendam; a week later go on to George; then to Knysna and on and on in small hops ... the ticket's fully transferable so you can sell all your remaining legs or just one or two.
I did a long stretch from Cape Town to Port Shepstone, which took two full days. We lost most of the passengers in George they caught the Garden Line bus to Oudtshoorn and we picked up a new group in Knysna. In Plettenberg Bay two Scandinavian cyclists joined us, complete with bikes, and the next morning, after a night in Port Elizabeth, we picked up several Aussie surfers, complete with boards, and a retired British couple. They were at first a little intimidated but eventually got chatting with passengers about half their age.
We swopped our surfers for new passengers in East London, then ditched some of them in Umtata where they carried on to Coffee Bay on a pre-arranged lift.
Until recently, the bus followed a circular route around South Africa, driving from Durban to Johannesburg, via the Drakensberg, then down to Cape Town via Kimberley. Now it turns around in Johannesburg, goes back to Durban and then down the coast.
After some superb diving on the South Coast I headed up to Durban and hopped on board for the coastal return journey, which takes three days and does a detour to Port St Johns and Oudtshoorn. The first night is spent at Cintsa, near East London, and the second at Knysna.
There are four buses a week between Johannesburg and Durban, leaving Johannesburg on Mondays, Wednesdays, Fridays and Sundays and Durban on Mondays, Wednesdays, Fridays and Saturdays.
Four buses a week travel between Cape Town and Durban, leaving Cape Town on Mondays, Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays and from Port Elizabeth to Durban twice a week on Tuesdays and Fridays.
Prices vary for the different legs. A trip between Cape Town and Durban is R495 and between Cape Town and Johannesburg R670 (via Swaziland) single or R1100 return; Johannesburg - Cape Town via the Northern Drakensberg is R595.