Word of Mouth is an unusual name for a guesthouse, but not so in South Africa, where I also found Bump in the Night, Elephant on Castle, and Down the Lane. Called "Backpackers," they provide inexpensive accommodations and services to travelers, including TV, VCR, video library, E-mail facilities, and a welcome cup of tea or coffee for the weary traveler. Word of Mouth, in Pretoria, the capital city, was my first stop after a long flight from my home in Pakistan. An airport shuttle from Jans Smuts Airport dropped me right at the gate. I chose Pretoria after an extensive Internet search to find a safe area to start my travels in South Africa.
I had heard scary stories and was told that Cape Town was called "Rape Town," Sun City, "Sin City," and that a visit to Johannesburg was not complete without getting mugged. All these apprehensions proved wrong, however, and I returned unscathed after 30 days of travel.
It was July when I was there - winter in South Africa as the country lies below the equator. Though days were sunny, the nights were bitterly chilly for my blood. I stayed around Pretoria a few days to get acclimatized and enjoyed long walks admiring fine Dutch style historical buildings, museums and monuments. At that time of year, the jacaranda trees were in bloom, immersing the city in glorious shades of purple and mauve. There were numerous malls and arcades to browse for souvenirs, and roadside artisans sold colorful hand-spun rugs, fine bead and wood works, and decorated hides and skins.
After four days, I sat down with the lodge manager to discuss my travel plans. I had only $1,000 and a credit card, and a wish to traverse South Africa from one end to the other. I wanted to get a taste of everything the country had to offer: mountain biking, river rafting, para gliding, and above all bungee jumping - not to forget game viewing and safari walking.
A variety of transport was available, air, rail and road links, but for my restricted budget a bus network known as Baz Bus was the best choice.Baz Bus picks up and drops off passengers at lodges and hostels. Passengers simply buy one ticket to their final destination and may "hop-on, hop-off" wherever and as many times as they like with no time limit. I got a Pretoria-Cape Town return ticket (rates, page 3), which would also allow me a stop in Swaziland, a land-locked country surrounded by South Africa and Mozambique.
The next morning, dressed in layers of cotton and woollen clothes, I stood at the guesthouse gate waiting for Baz Bus to Swaziland. It arrived at 7:15am, a Mercedes Sprinter towing a trailer. It had 22 seats and mostly white passengers, ranging from 18 to 35 years. I'm 57, but that was no problem.I was lucky to get a front seat. The entire route heading east to Swaziland was studded with fruit plantations, stunningly lush green sugar cane fields, high grassy plains and majestic mountains. We passed by Nelspruit, the gateway to Kruger, the world famous wildlife park, home to all the "Big Five" - lion, elephant, leopard, buffalo and rhino. After about eight hours we reached the border towns of Oshoek and Ngwenaya. Swazi officials issued me a visa and by 7pm - 12 hours of travel - we arrived at the Royal Swazi Sun Hotel where a van from Sondzela Backpackers lodge was already waiting for me, as the Baz Bus driver had alerted them of my arrival. All drivers had mobile phones.
Sondzela, a quaint thatched lodge, is located inside the Mlilwane Wildlife Sanctuary, and one can be on a self-directed walking safari the moment one gets out of the room. This was the highlight of my trip.
Baz Bus took me south to Zululand and the picturesque village of KwaBonambi, which is situated 20 minutes from South Africa's oldest game reserves, Hluhluwe and Umfolozi. I stayed at a hostel run by a mother and daughter. Here I had the best food in most hygienic conditions. The place was also well decorated. I was told that the daughter had a husband, but he was kicked out as he did not match the overall decor. The mother had reduced her own husband to safari guide, and the two women were firmly in command. Nearby at a Zulu Culture Village, young girls performed the dance to attract a suitable match. The price of a bride, I heard, is eleven cows, and one cow can be bought for about $300. Unfortunately, I hadn't the time to enjoy a blissful marriage.
My next hop-off point was Durban. On the way, I passed through the St Lucia wetlands, a region known as a great eco-tourism destination. The wetlands stretch 80 kilometers from Sodwana Bay in the north to Mapelane in the south and are surrounded by ocean beaches. I liked Durban as there were many Muslims hailing from Pakistan, India and African countries. It's a big, lively city, and I had an opportunity to see Indian films at the local movie houses as well as visit museums, the aquarium, and the planetarium.
After a week in Durban, I moved on to Coffee Bay on what used to be called the Wild Coast of Transkei. Here high cliffs fall to a narrow bay skirted with golden beach and aquamarine surf.
Next was Cintsa, located about 35 kilometers northeast of the city of East London. Here, atop a hill, I found a beautiful hostel called Buccaneers Retreat. As time was running short, I moved on, briefly stopping at the city of Port Elizabeth and then to Knysna and finally to Cape Town.
I thought I would stay a while in Cape Town and unwind, but it was cold and cloudy. There were no outdoor tours, and it looked as if everything had come to a standstill. I got panicky and planned my return without waiting for the sunshine - which came two days later.
I went cross country to Johannesburg where I had a conducted tour of Hillbrow, a once famous entertainment and bohemian district that has become notoriously unsafe in recent years. I saw massive hotels like Holiday Inn closed down and chain stores abandoned. Johannesburg seemed to me a dying city. In 30 days I had only a glimpse of South Africa, and I would love to go again. But there are many other countries I have to see, and I feel age creeping over me, hence, it is all the more urgent to visit unseen places. Next stop, USA . . . by bus of course.
Great Britain, Ireland: RadicalTravel.com
USA: The hop-on, hop-off concept has not become
established in the U S. East Coast Explorer and others have gone out of
business. There are, however, numerous, well-established bus adventure
tour companies that offer onboard sleeping quarters or lodging at hostels