South africa travel advice needed.
March 12, 2009 3:26 AM   Subscribe

South Africa filter: Any advice and recommendations for Cape Town and the garden route would be much appreciated.

My girlfriend and I (both 22) are headed to South Africa at the end of the month, and I have a number of questions:

Cape Town: We will be in Cape Town for at least 4 days, 3 of which I will be on my own:
- How safe will I be wandering around Cape Town on my own, and what should I look out for to stay out of danger?
- With the above in mind - any suggestions for what I should do/not do with three days alone in Cape Town?
- Anything else that we must not miss seeing/doing when we are together?

Car Hire: we are hoping to hire a car to head along the garden route:
- Has anybody any experience of doing this as an under-23 year old?
- I have seen that allows young drivers. Has anybody used this company, or have recommendations for any alternatives?
- How safe will getting out of Cape Town in a car be?

Garden Route: Any recommendations for things to do/places to stay on the garden route? We would love to see lots of animals, as well as beach/adventurous things. Our budget isn't huge (<$100 a night ideally) but we could splash out a little more if it was worth it.

Thanks in advance!
posted by latentflip to Travel & Transportation (11 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
I'm sure you'll get better advice from other MeFites, but to give some answers to your questions about Cape Town from my own experience there:

It's one of the safest parts of South Africa, feels much more relaxed than the rest of the country. Even the drivers are more chilled out. That being said, it will pay to keep your wits about you (don't flash the cash or expensive clothes/cameras, etc, try not to look lost -- the usual).

The city centre (City Bowl) seemed safe enough to me during the day (late morning/early afternoon), though there isn't so much to see that you couldn't see all you wanted in day. The Waterfront is a bit of a tourist trap, but it's also nearly devoid of 'danger' - and the aquarium is awesome. If you can drive, all the better as there's more interesting spots further afield.

Remember that it's getting into winter down there now; it'll get dark around 6pm, if not earlier (AFAIR) and it'll likely be cold and windy.

Also, where will you be staying? Some areas of the city are gentrifying, which is great, but you could be in a 'safe' area one moment and suddenly cross the street into scary-ville.
posted by macdara at 5:51 AM on March 12, 2009

Whilst I am on my own I will be at the Victoria and Alfred hotel on the waterfront as my girlfriend will be at a nearby conference.

Thanks for your advice.
posted by latentflip at 6:10 AM on March 12, 2009

Stay at Knysna on the garden route. My wife and I stopped there for a few days and had a really chilled time (back in 2001). There were some great restaurants on the small waterfront and in town, and there was a waterfront bar with restaurant above that was great to hang out at during the day. We stayed at the log cabin hotel, which was quite nice. You can do boat trips out the harbour (maybe not in winter), and if I remember, a bar near the rocky harbour entrance (Knysna Heads) that was a nice sport to have a beer and watch the sun go down. You could also go on a steam railway trip, game reserve, wildlife reserve...
posted by dowcrag at 6:40 AM on March 12, 2009

There are lots of cool things to do close to Cape Town. I would put Cape Point, Table Mountain, Clifton beach and a visit to a vineyard or two on the must-do list. If you don't have your own transport for your few days in Cape Town I'm sure you can find day tours that visit all these places.
posted by Gomez_in_the_South at 8:01 AM on March 12, 2009

Rent a car and drive down to Cape Point, the bottom of Africa. On the way, wind through Chapman's Peak Drive, one of the best drives on the planet (unless you have a thing about cliffs, mountains, water, and such.)

And enjoy. It's a great city with great people.
posted by justcorbly at 8:06 AM on March 12, 2009

If you don't have your own transport, I'd highly recommend a guided day trip around the Cape. There's lots of companies and any of the ones recommended by the tourist office will be great (and they'll book you up, too). It's not worth doing a half day trip as there's too much to see, but a full day trip will take in the major points (Camps Bay, the penguins, cape point, Hout Bay, Kirstenboch, etc).

Even if you do have your own transport, I'd recommend this either for both of you, or whilst on your own as it will be a small group (I think they try and keep them under 10) so you have full access the the tour guides. They're a wealth of information! We did one last summer and it was just lots of fun.

You're at the waterfront, which is nice and the restaurants, whilst expensive for SA, are still dirt cheap. I'd also head into town and go to Long Street. The bars and places towards the top there are lots of fun and a great way to meet other travellers. I'd recommend Mama Afrika although I think you have to book.

As far as car hire goes, later on in our trip we hired a car - I'm 22 also and had no trouble renting one, but then I didn't organize the hire so don't know if there was anything extra to pay. I think it was with Avis.

We didn't do the garden route (flew to Joburg and did Drakensburg followed by the Wild Coast) but I have relatives out there so MeFiMail me if you want some more specific info.

Most of all, enjoy it! It's a fantastic country, so diverse and beautiful.
posted by gkhewitt at 8:18 AM on March 12, 2009

I totally second the day trip option. The prices are very reasonable -- I think a half-day was less than R400 a head. They all pick up and return at the Waterfront.

We did a half-day trip to Cape Point when I was there and wished we'd gone for longer -- even saw a whale breach in Simon's Town harbour!
posted by macdara at 8:41 AM on March 12, 2009

If you are into history at all, then

The Museum of District Six is an unusual museum commemorating a "coloured" area of town that was cleared for Whites -- it's the strange archaeology of 1950s apartheid....

Robben Island is worth a visit, not just to see Mandela's cell and the museum out there, but also to see the stunning views of Cape Town from the water. And the penguins. awk awk awk.
posted by Rumple at 8:42 AM on March 12, 2009

A trip up the Garden Route is only worthwhile if you stop in at Wilderness or Kynsna for a little while. I'm also a big fan of the Addo Elephant Park. No cats but lots of elephant, rhino and dung beetles!!

Hermanus is a cute little town just outside of Cape Town where lots of locals go for weekends away etc.

Note that Cape Agulhas (not Cape Point) is the southernmost part of Africa. Cape Point is where the Atlantic and Indian oceans meet. Don't ask anybody to point out exactly where that is though or they might laugh at you.

You can do some mild river rafting at the Breede River.

Tsitsikama has some lovely walks although I think you have to book a year or so in advance to do the long ones.

And Jeffrey's Bay is one of the best surf spots in the world.

And if you get that far up the coast, you might want to consider going to the Grahamstown festival (you're going at the right time of year but I'm not sure if you're there at the exact time). It's South Africa's version of the Edinburgh Fringe thing and there's tons of talent on display in this small university town (which still, I believe, holds the record for the most alcohol in a live human being, or something like that).

Anyway, have a great time.
posted by gwpcasey at 1:02 PM on March 12, 2009

I lived in Cape Town for about 9 months between July 2004 and August 2005, so my I can no longer recommend specific places, but Cape Town is a wonderful city and you'll have a great time.

Definitely go up Table Mountain - it's an absolutely incredible view if its clear. You're getting on towards winter, so it may be cloudy, though. You can go up via the cable car from north of the city bowl if you're pressed for time, though there's also an easy walk up the back end from Constantia from Kirstenbosch Gardens.

Kirstenbosch gardens are lovely and worth a visit on their own - the Cape is one of 8 floral kingdoms in the world, so there's loads of flowers there (proteas) that grow nowhere else. By comparison, most of Europe and North America is in the same floral kingdom.

Long street is where all the bars and clubs are, and is a lot of fun. Observatory (Obs), further out towards False Bay, is where all of the Uni students hang out, and is pretty cheap cab ride from the city center. You'll be pretty much fine during the day, as long as you don't wander off into dodgy looking areas, but definitely take cabs at night, preferably cabs you phone rather than hail on the street. There's a pretty good Belgian beer bar at the V&A waterfront, I forget the name though.

Go eat some Cape Malay food in the district that's right and up the hill towards Lion's Head as facing towards Table Mountain - guidebook should have some recommendations. Very very delicious Cape Muslim food, totally different from the Afrikaaner, English, or Xhosa food. Lion's Head is also a good little hike, less strenuous than Table Mountain, and if there's a monthly full moon night scramble if you're around during that time.

Chapman's drive is breathtaking, and Cape Point is very interesting - but don't try and feed the Baboons.

You might want to stop for half a day or so in the Paarl/Stellenbosch area - it's a beautiful drive up across the Hottentot mountains to the Stellenbosch valley, but very narrow and windy.

In the town right before you head over the mountains, there's an amazing biltong shop - sorry, I can't remember the name of the town, but I think it's called "Biltong King." It's on the right as you're heading north, as you pass through the small downtown - I think you make a right at the light, and the shop is on the right after the turn.

In Stellenbosch, my favorite vineyard is Fairview - they have cheap, delicious tastings, which include fabulous cheeses! They also have goats who live in Rapunzel towers, and my favourite Viognier ever. Stellenbosch would also be a great place to find some classic Afrikaaner food. There are a lot of vineyards there, and the tourist office is very helpful in recommending some.

In Paarl, there's the Taalmonument, which is actually a monument to the Afrikaans language. It's really interesting - it's the big spire you see on top of a hill near the Paarl hill - which looks like a big black pearl rock on the hill, giving the town of Paarl its name. It was built in the 1980's to symbolize the Afrikaans language, and gives you an interesting insight into the racial mindset of the Afrikaaners - very much about asserting their claim to the land of South Africa.

In Cape Town, you might want to consider taking a township tour - some of them are subject themed, like jazz or handicrafts, and they take you through the townships and slummy areas. It's a bit weird - I did it and feel very odd about it, as you're being a tourist through people's poverty-filled lives. However, it's really the only safe way to see the townships as a lone western foreigner. Cape Town, like South Africa as a whole, has horrible poverty and income inequality - of about 4 million Cape Towners, about 3.5 million live in shacks or cinderbrick houses. For example, Khayelitsha, a black informal township, has about 1 million residents. Though its the largest, its only one of many informal townships stretched out across the highways, industrial areas, and Cape Flats.

Ok, this is a novel, so I'll stop now. Have fun! South Africa is awesome, I love it there.
posted by foodmapper at 5:24 PM on March 12, 2009

There are some rather good musicians that play along the VA waterfront. Many cell CDs.

The Belgian beer bar is Den Anker (The Anchor), and the food is fabulous, as well as the beer. Be brave, try the rabbit. This was my partner's favorite restaurant in South Africa, but he's Belgian.

I'll state more strongly the issue about catching cabs: Do NOT take cabs off the street. Period.

Going down to Cape Point you are likely to get to see a few animals, but not much. Sadly, the game along the Garden Route leaves much to be desired. Addo is supposed to be decent, but I lived 3 hours away, and never got there. But the last I heard, the elephants there had been getting feisty. In contrast, in Kruger Park (opposite end of the country), the elephants didn't mind our being there at all, and went about their business.

Knysna is one of my favorite places in South Africa. But that has a lot to do with Knysna Quays hotel being nice, and being able to go out to dinner on foot. Although it is pretty.

On the Garden Route, as you near Mussel Bay, there is the Gouritz river. Here you have an old bridge and a new one, side-by-side. So they built a bungee-swing. You leap off the old bridge, swing down, then they lower you to the bottom. I never got to try this! It was always too hot for me to even consider the walk back up (STUPID on their part!). This isn't your usual jump.

Further up the coast, by Tsitsikama, is the Blaukrans bridge bungee jump. This is a serious jump! I wouldn't do this thing myself, being upside down is not a pleasure to me. But lots of folks do it. But it is just fun to watch, and you can pay to walk out under the bridge on the catwalk to the jumping spot, or ride a zip line from the edge down to the bridge support.

Near there is a place called Nature's Valley. It's a lovely little spot where we spent Easter weekend a couple years ago. The drive from the main road to the beach is dripping in protea flowers, although I suppose not at that time of year, but who knows? I recall buds on the bushes at Easter. I never went that way when they were in bloom.

Amongst things to eat there is the surprising best peanut butter in the world! "Black Cat" brand. They make one with no added sugar or salt that is fantastic. It is not 'old fashioned' peanut butter that separates. You can easily find it at the grocery store in the VA mall (Pick-and-Pay).

Kirstenbosch Gardens is beautiful, but you have to be very careful. They were having a problem with muggings on the trails going up Table Mountain a year ago. I don't recall details. I was only there in dicey weather, so didn't explore very much.
posted by Goofyy at 1:51 AM on March 13, 2009

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