The Ultimate South Africa Guide for Female Solo Travelers: Part III - Sunshine Coast & Wild Coast
The Ultimate South Africa Guide for Female Solo Travelers: Part III- Eastern Cape & Wild Coast
So many people either stop their trip in Port Elizabeth or fly the distance to Durban. But why? This part of South Africa has so much to offer: from student towns to traditional villages, a fairy forest, beautiful bays, a rough and very unique coastline or the tropical place Durban itself. If you got the time and bravery, I highly encourage you to take your car and start the next part of an epic adventure!
Sunshine Coast & Wild Coast
Most people will do this part as part of their road trip from Cape Town to either Durban or JoBurg. But if you got a limited time period but want a bit more of the real Africa you can also fly into PE and skip the Garden Route. Even though that would be a shame, I know how it is if you don't have forever. And I always think it’s better to really experience a place instead of rushing through as much as possible.
The backpacker community is equally strong here than in the other areas, but with some very unique places whose owners are the soul of the place and held a very special place in my heart. There is less tourism, everything is a bit slower, simpler but even more honest. Wi-Fi is hard to find in many areas after Port Elizabeth, so make sure you top up with data before you leave, as you definitely don't want to be lost without navigation in the middle of nowhere. Accommodation is a bit simpler around here. Don't expect luxury, even though you may will find it if you really don't want to dive into the adventure.
How to travel
Theoretically you got the same options as on the Garden Route, either by Bay Bus or by car. The bus does run a bit less frequent in this area, so you may have to stay at places a bit longer and are less flexible. There are also some incredibly beautiful places where the bus just doesn't go to or you have to change to a Baz Shuttle, for example for Coffee Bay. If you rented a car or join someone who has one, just make sure that you're aware of the potholes, to always close the doors and ask the locals about security in some regions before you drive off. All roads are manageable with a normal, small car but you may have to drive over gravel and some tarmac ones are in miserable condition. Animals and people on the highway are normal here, but that's part of the adventure - just drive carefully!
History / Nature / Culture
The Eastern Cape is a special place. It’s so rich with history and tradition, with an incredibly diverse landscape that, I can just say it once again, is a shame to skip. It’s the place where Nelson Mandela and Steve Biko are from, it’s where the Xhosa and Zulu tribes still live a very simple life, where dry, desert-like mountain ranges are next-door to middle earth and a coastline that deserves the name ´wild`. If you want to experience the real Africa, this is where you have to go, and you won't be disappointed. I highly encourage you to confront yourself with South Africa’s history as you travel through this part, as you can feel the pain and hope these people had, or still have, in the brave men that set them free 30 years ago. Instead of a hoped-for quick change, this region still suffers immensely from Apartheids aftermath and there are cities with a unemployment quote of 91%. This all leads to the crime statistics they publish in Europe, and this is due to the resulting Gang problem. It isn't a place to close your eyes and relax in a nice villa, but to feel the soul of community with all its consequences. For me, this is one of the main reasons why I travel and raises this part of the trip high up in my favourites list.
I already mentioned some things above, mainly the reason for the safety issues. It’s a different kind of a feeling, but I personally feel like if you started in Cape Town, you should have trained your senses a bit by now. Mainly, don't walk in the dark, avoid small alleys, never leave something in the car ( not even trash!), lock your doors as soon as you enter the car, be aware of your environment and listen to the locals when they tell you to avoid a certain area. They mostly will give you routes that are safe, and sometimes you will get the advice to not stop at red lights or keep a distance to the car in front of you, as car hijacking happens quite often and that's how you get away. Again, it’s not the same in all of the Eastern Cape: it’s a completely different story if you're in a tiny village with locals, in Umtata, in Coffee Bay with a big group or below Durban in a much more touristic area.
I listed all the different stops along the way and marked them on the maps down below:
- Port Elizabeth
- Addo Nationalpark
- East London
- Coffee Bay
- Port Edward
The end point of the Garden Route and the start of the Sunshine Coast. A city that honestly doesn`t have a lot to offer if you don`t have a guide. But if you do or can take part in a walking tour, you will get the first glimpse of all the history and pain this region brings with it. I personally wouldn't advice to walk around the city centre on your own -the beach area should be fine but be careful anywhere else. It’s the place where Steve Biko got captured and tortured, where people are so deeply thankful for the men who freed them and maybe seeking for someone else to help them now. If you want to visit Addo, this is also a great starting point for a tour or to stay overnight.
What to do
There is a beach with a few restaurants and a more western kinda feeling. I would highly suggest a walking tour. You will learn so much about this place and are in a safe group being able to go to places you wouldn't have visited on your own. As I mentioned, Addo Elephant Park is a 40-minute drive away, if you don't want to stay in Addo itself.
Very close to the city centre, offering safe parking and a gorgeous view over PE, you'll find Island Vibe’s beautiful Harbour Masters House. It’s a special kind of a backpackers, offering great breakfast, a small communal area (for all DNS out there: that's where the WiFi is strongest!) and beautiful, big and light rooms. The house itself belonged to the Harbour Master and is an old Victorian building. They tried to keep it as much in its original state as possible and you will even find pictures of it in its glorious days in the hallway! The staff is incredible and will make everything possible, no matter if you want to go on an Addo Safari, join Sam on the free walking tour where she will show you the best spots and tells you everything about the history of her hometown, or go to the beach for a bit of relaxation in the city.
Dorms are 200 Rand and private rooms start at 350 Rand.
Addo Elephant National Park
There are two ways to visit Addo Elephant park: either with your own car as a self-drive safari or with a tour. If you're staying at Island Vibe, they will love to help you organising a pickup as they’re working with multiple companies. I got invited to take part in a game drive through Addo by Island Vibe and as I was planning to do a self-drive in Krüger afterwards, it was a really good preparation. That’s why I would suggest to anyone to first go on a guided drive to learn a bit about the how-to-dos in successfully spotting animals. Our driver wasn't hunting the animals down or getting to close. Instead when he spotted rhinos from afar, he told us. Additionally, he made us aware that we are not allowed to share the location and won`t go any closer due to the rhino poaching problem they are facing at the moment. Research your tour provider though before you go, as not all are that animal friendly! As it’s a group tour, it is also a great way to meet new people, they will provide you with lunch and if you tell them that you're vegan, there are loads of options.
Grahamstown lies in the middle between Port Elizabeth and Hogsback, the perfect spot in between to rest for a night. The town itself is mostly a student’s town, but they also have various festivals throughout the year and many historic houses. It’s the perfect place to stroll around on a sunny day and look at all the beautiful Victorian houses that gives this place its charm. It’s a quiet and chill place, filled with students and only awakes on weekends or at night when they roam the bars.
Blue Skies Backpackers
To reach this place, you will need a car as its not on the Baz Bus route and on the outskirts of town. How to describe it? An experience! Honestly, when I first arrived I was seriously questioning if I'm in the right place: The Blue Skies Backpackers is at the end of an airfield with wrecked cars in front of the buildings and it looks a bit like a museum with stuff collected over the years everywhere on the property. Sometimes, a place doesn't need to be perfect to be worth visiting - no adventure was ever memorable because it was flawless! And what makes this place so special is its owner Sean. I talked about it before, but what really stands out in the eastern cape are the people that give the places their very own vibe. Yes, the bar is smokey, the walls in the dorm moldy, but the cabins are nice and simple while you could probably walk around for hours discovering something new around every corner. Talk to Sean, listen to his life stories, share yours and you will know why you came here. If you're looking for a flawless accommodation this may not be the right place for you, probably the whole Easter Cape won't be, but if you're looking for real stories, experiences and moments that make you realise why you travel - please make this a stop and visit.
Dorms are 150 Rand, Camping is 100 Rand and cabins start at 400 Rand.
Where to eat
You can basically find vegan food anywhere, and Grahamstown isn't an exception. The Red Cafe in the city centre offers a wide vegetarian menu, and if you're a bit creative many dishes can be made vegan or already are. Just make sure to ask for no cheese and for example these spinach wraps are incredible (despite me not being a fan of leafy greens). The staff is very nice and helpful, they will try their best to help you. And if the weather is nice, make sure to use the terrace as it’s a beautiful view over the Victorian houses.
Hogsback is real life middle earth. And even though it’s considered a myth these days, some still say that this was the place that inspired Tolkien to write The Hobbit. You'll drive through dry land for hours and suddenly find yourself in the lushest green forest in the mountains, in a small village with colourful signs and signs advertising shrooms. If you got enough time, try to stay in town as there are many hikes in the area that are worth checking out. And some epic waterfalls where you can even go swimming!
What to do
Like I already mentioned above, there are several hikes you can do or just explore the area and enjoy this oasis in a place that looks like wasteland.
If you drive to East London, make sure to stop in King William`s Town and visit the Steve Biko Museum: it’s close to the main road so you will drive pass it anyway and it’s definitely worth a stop if you're interested in history.
Around 20 minutes from Hogsback lies this very special backpackers, one of those extraordinary places you can only access with your own vehicle but that you can't miss. It`s run by a Belgium/Xhosa couple in a small, traditional village in the middle of nowhere and is the perfect place to experience the real, rural South Africa. With a lot of love they built traditional rondavels as rooms for guests and have a huge communal area where everyone who wants to join can eat dinner together, play pool or sit around the fire in front of the house. They offer many different activities that they organise with the locals: you can make Xhosa bread, learn the language, listen to a medicine women or do a village tour; all of that with the people who really live there and don't have any training in tourism. It’s an amazing way to support the community and experience life in this part of the world first-hand. You won't find something like this again, they truly built something extraordinary here and it’s a total must for every open-minded traveller. They also do everything as sustainable as possible, can provide vegan food upon request and educate the local people about environmentally friendly alternatives.
Dorms are 180 Rand and private rooms start at 200 Rand per person.
Where to eat
Who would've thought that you can find a full vegan, English breakfast in this sleepy little village up in the mountains? The Butterfly's Bistro is a colourful, magical little restaurant in Hogsback, offering several vegan dishes and some seriously impressive ice teas. You can either sit inside and look at all the little things that show how much love was put into this place, that feels like a hippy’s paradise, or sit in front of the house under a big tree. No matter what you choose, I`ll promise you this place won't disappoint.
Where to eat
There are vegan restaurants, and then there is the Earth Forest. These guys are living the superlative of conscious and sustainable: all their ingredients are locally sourced or self-grown and they have an amazing zero waste concept where even the takeaway-packaging can be brought back for a deposit. If there are leftovers, they will be given to the community and they got a jar you can put money in, which pays for a meal for someone who can't afford it and comes into the store hungry. On top of all of that, the food is mind-blowingly amazing, with extraordinary burgers, filling shakes and new on the menu: colourful bowls. Don't let me start with the interior: a local artist painted the wall in-store, there is a tree in the kitchen, and everything is green, lush and just absolutely perfect.
As you may can see this place truly blew my mind, even if you're not planning to stay in EL it is worth to stop just for this vegan heaven. It’s a true inspiration and you can feel the love as soon as you enter!
They got two branches, both are equally gorgeous and very easy to reach with parking in front.
There are so many places along the Wild Coast that are worth visiting and it would take ages which I sadly didn't have. Cintsa is the very first destination and only a short drive from East London. It is divided into east and west by the river and offers an unspoilt long sandy beach just in front. It’s a small place with many artists and free minds living here, has a laid-back vibe and feels different than the rest of the way rougher Wild Coast. A soft start if you want!
Everyone I met who stayed here said the same thing: Wow, what a high-class place for a budget price in an area you wouldn't suspect it at all! Buccaneers is a huge property with a pool area, restaurant, rooftop, bar, private pathway to the beach and offers many different kinds of accommodation. While the rooms are very white, clean and western, you can see the African influence in the rooftop restaurant or the bar. Everyone is so friendly and helpful, it’s the place where backpackers, families and private guests are coming together which creates a very unique vibe - perfect for us solo travellers. They offer all kind of activities, so no matter if you want a surf lesson, a trip to the local community or a cooking class, here you can do it. The breakfast is big and great, with a gorgeous view over the bay and the ocean. There is always a veggie option and if you ask nicely, they can make you something vegan upon request.
Dorms start at 170 Rand and rooms at 420 Rand.
If you stay in SA, there is no way you won't hear about this place, as everyone is talking about it. Surprisingly Coffee Bay is rather hard to reach: an 80km drive from the N2 on a road filled with potholes, animals and people all over, before you end up in this little bay right by the ocean where you can take the cheapest surf lesson worldwide! Personally, if you're doing the Wild Coast, definitely pop by but don't travel all the way just for it, as even though I can understand the hype, there are places that touched me more.
What to do
Everything in Coffee Bay goes around that one backpackers: Coffee Shack. There are other places to stay, but everyone will end up at the Shack in the end! It’s the perfect place to surf, take a lesson, hike to the famous Hole in the Wall or learn how to play the drums with the locals! It’s also well known for partying, that's why so many are coming here. Some small bars opened up in several parts of the bay; there is even a place on the opposite side of CS where you`ll get a free splif with every coffee you order. The nature is wild here: lush green meets cliffs and the Indian Ocean crashing against them; the villages along the way still widely undeveloped giving you a glimpse of what the life for the Zulu tribe looks like.
As I already mentioned above, this is the place to stay in Coffee Bay. It’s a backpackers with several types of rooms, direct beach access, a bar and a restaurant where you will never be alone and the chance to make new friends is really high! It is built into the jungle, with locals coming by in the evening to play the drums and daily excursion that are dead cheap. For example hikes to the Hole in the Wall, a surf day with two lessons and food for 70 Rand or cliff jumping nearby. They offer a lot, and to try it all you will need at least 3-4 days here. There is always a veggie option on the menu; for vegan just ask and they should be able to help you out. I absolutely love how much they do for the local community: they support school projects, give them jobs and a place to get creative, educate them and are trying to make an impact with bringing tourism into this very rural region.
Dorms are 170 Rand and private rooms start at 480 Rand.
Umtata / Port Edward / Margate
If you are driving all the way from Coffee Bay to Durban, you have to go through Umtata which isn't exactly considered safe. Listen to the recent tips your host gives you - the situation can change daily! But always have in mind that the reason behind the high criminality here is the fact that nearly 90% are unemployed, which fuels the gang activity. It’s a long drive and I encourage you to stop along the way for a night. I personally wouldn't recommend Port Edward. You can either stop in Margate which is a favourite amongst English tourists, or stay at one of the nicer backpackers before Durban. If you got more time, you can also visit other places along the Wild Coast like Port St.Johns or Mdumbi to shorten the length of your journey.
I`m still a bit sad that I didn't had a night here, but I've driven through twice and what I saw was a unique mixture of concrete meets real jungle next to the ocean. So many people I met along my travels are from Durban or lived there, so I will add more suggestions when I have been back to explore the city a bit more and check out the waves that are breaking right in front of the skyline.
I personally didn't stay here but in the one in Johannesburg, though many of my friends suggested it as the place to stay. It has everything you wish for and is a great place to meet new people in a very clean environment.
Dorms are 253 Rand and private rooms start at 350 Rand.
Where to eat
On a quirky street full of shops, this hidden gem awaits you with the most delicious vegan food you can think of. In front is a small selection of food to either get take-away or enjoy at one of the tables at the entrance. The store itself has everything your vegan (or healthy!) heart can wish for and at the very back you will find the restaurant surrounded by red brick walls. The burgers and fries they offer are straight up amazing, with vegan cheese and so many different things you can try, and all the drinks can be made with a milk alternative. If you live in Durban, want to stock up on some healthy things or just want to have lunch, go to Valeo and you won't be disappointed.
The name and the good reviews already give it away, this is a must for every vegan in Durban. I mean, vegan bacon, chocolate ice cream and waffles?! Oh my soul! The restaurant is decorated with vegan phrases and facts - something new to discover every time you take a look at the wall, if you can spare a second away from starring at the amazing food. I couldn't even decide what I wanted. I went there for breakfast with a friend and next time I'm in SA, I have to try the lunch & dinner menu as it looks absolute boss.
You can find the other parts here:
The Ultimate South Africa Guide for Female Solo Travelers: Part 4 - Drakensberg, St.Lucia, Eswatini & Krüger