I was terrified of coming into this scene, admits Phil Davies, 39, who estimates that the average age of his fellow backpacking fraternity falls in the below-30 range.
I thought every hostel would be open-plan dorms but it's fantastic. There have been en-suite rooms at every place. Backpacking is brilliant. It keeps the budget low when you are traveling for a long time. You get to meeting difference cultures, ages and nationalities. You can gather so much info from talking to people going in the opposite direction.
We meet Phil at 8am on a sunny Monday in Pellsrus, a suburb of Jeffery's Bay. My family and I are waiting for a pickup at the Island Vibe backpackers courtesy of the Baz Bus. The Baz Bus is a hop-on-hop-off minibus which makes it way around South Africa . The service was started in 1995 with two buses traveling between Johannesburg and Cape Town . They now operate a fleet of ten 19-seater semi-luxury Mercedes-Benz Sprinters buses equipped with TV, videos, and trailers to carry surfboards and bicycles. They offer a door-to-door service between 180 backpacker hostels and lodges around South Africa and Swaziland . The bus is late but now one seems fazed. Backpacking is not about speed but about the experience. We'll make up the time, chirps on bystander: They always do. Back to Phil's story: Phil and his girlfriend Jo Lindsay-Jones, 33, hail from Hereford in the UK . Tired of rat-race and nine-to-five jobs, they liquidated most of their assets and set out to explore the world. They have no children: That's why we can do this. When we meet them at Island Vibes, they are only three weeks into the first leg of their round the-world trip. They have budgeted for the trip to take anything between 18 months and three years. This couple in their thirties have not backpacked before.
When I begin talking to Phil, Jo is downstairs in their digs. Phil take me to meet her in their beautifully appointed room in the Beach House section of Island Vibe ( 10 Dageraad Street , 042 293 1625, www.islandvibe.co.za ). The room has slate floors, quality finishes and luxurious en-suite loos and showers. Patios open on to sea views.
This does not look like any youth hostels. For R200 a night, it is top notch, the couple tells me. They also like the services on offers. They are free shuttles into town to watch the Billabong PRO surf competition in Jeffrey's Bay, a fully licensed bar, laundry facilities and so on.
On the other side of 30, why did they not take the B&B routed of travel, I ask? After all, there are plenty of mom and pop B&Bs advertising low rates for en-suite rooms with perhaps more luxuries. Phil and Jo and other we meet counter that it is not simply a matter of price but the culture on the road; the people you meet. Operators are sussed and have their fingers on the pulse of things to do; places to see. They arrange trips and ferry you around make things happen.
We discover that, as at Island Vibe, most of the backpacking destinations have several tiers of accommodation from no-frills budget dorms to shared rooms with bathrooms and en-suite set ups with tea/coffee facilities and hairdryers and creature comforts. From what we can gather the dorms start at about R50pp with R70 being about average and en-suites from about R200 a room.
Phil and Jo are delighted with the rates and standards of accommodation in the en-suite rooms they had stayed in and the reliability of the Baz Bus. Only three weeks into their trip, they have already been bungee jumping at Storms River (apparently the highest commercial jump in the world at 216 meters). Been on a zip line canopy tour through the Tsisikamma and been shark cage diving.
Any surfing? Phil chuckles that he is about to go and have his first surf lesson. Jo will go for her horse-riding lesson on the beach. Enjoying their time so much in J-Bay, they have extended their trip for a few nights.
It (Island Breeze) is absolutely marvelous. But the town ( Jeffreys Bay ) has let us down a bit I was expecting a more upmarket resort but it looks too commercial', sighs Phil
They're on a budget of 70 a day (food, accommodation, land arrangements0 but admit that they are going over their limit. There are just too many fabulous things to do in South Africa . They cannot resist.
Phil praises the local backpackers' bible Coast to Coast as a superb guide to what's on offer in hostels around the country. The booklet is free and as parting gesture, he points me in the direction of the counter where I retrieve my own copy. As if on cue, the Baz Bus arrives an hour off schedule but no-on grumbles.
Before we have even pulled away, as if on silent command, everyone pulls out his or her little book and begins to read. So we follow suit. It is great fun, with brainteasers and a fabulous glossary of South African terms. They compilers of this little gem have a wacky sense of humour and provide useful tips on where to stay and pithy observations. They also have a helpful website ( www.coastingafrica.com ). Here they offer these missives on safety: Most white South Africans are going to tell you how dangerous South Africa is. But most white South Africa Live in fear of everything except TV which is probably the only thing they should fear!
At the back of the bus, there is a gaggle of youngsters concentrating on their iPods' further up are two Dutch girls studying Coast to Coast intently and in from of us two 21-year old girls Nicky & Emily - from Ipswitch in the UK. Nicky is studying psychology. They saved money working in a pub back home and have 500 each (accommodation and spending), which they hope will last five weeks. Part of their stay in Johannesburg will not entail paying for accommodation.
My dad knows someone, so it is free', says Emily.
They started in Johannesburg , have done Durban and are going to head to the Kruger Park . If they need extra funds. They can phone home.
Unlike Phil and Jo, they are doing this dorm style. What is their favorite hostel? Coffee Shack in Coffee Bay (they had bonfires at night Outings to see the whales'); Angle rock in Warner Bay . And they there was the Island Backpackers in Port St Johns Really relaxed and friendly. They even did our washing up. We were very pleased.
Do Emily and Nicky, who looked the picture of innocence, feel safe sleeping in dorms and sharing communal facilities with absolute strangers?
Absolutely, they answer, praising backpacking proprietors for their professionalism. One owner acted as taxi-driver, ferrying them around. Did he charge? Yes, but he took us where we wanted to go.
Don't think that budget accommodation means low returns. We strongly suspect that the backpacker spends more on tourism than the tourist sightseeing on a bus. They spend the least on accommodation but most on excursions. We make on the transport (taking them where they want to go), booze, commissions (booking tours) and food.
Nathando is small fry (with 28 beds) in comparison with other hostels. Some of the hostels have 120 beds such as Ashanti and Aardvark in Cape Town , says Charles.
I estimate we (backpacking industry) are taking at least 10% of the tourism market. It might be higher.
For information on the Baz Bus, phone 021 439 2323 or see www.bazbus.com . Copies of Coast to Coast are free from hostels or telephone 021 786 1742 or see www.coastingafrica.com