Written by James Bainbridge
From the colourful houses of Cape Town’s Bo-Kaap neighbourhood to the woodcarvers chiselling away in Limpopo’s artistic Venda region, South Africa’s culture is an inspiring reflection of its diverse society, and a passport to unforgettable travel experiences.
A major highlight of most South African holidays is Cape Town, the Mother City where 350 years of history began with the arrival of the Dutch East India Company. Already famous for its stunning location at the foot of Table Mountain, the city has culturally come into its own in recent years. These days, you can shop for high art with a price tag in the galleries and boutiques of Church Street and the V&A Waterfront; pick up cool African craft and hip homeware in Woodstock; and enjoy cultural activities from jazz- or cuisine-themed township tours to evenings in piano bars and pub theatres. The city’s stint as World Design Capital 2014 sparked design- and art-orientated community projects, while the Maboneng Township Arts Experience is coming to Gugulethu in November, and monthly First Thursdays showcase inner-city galleries.
The city’s backpacker hostels have led the way in championing local culture and community initiatives – for example The Backpack. The Backpack encapsulates Cape Town cool with its Afro-funk décor of Xhosa beadwork and shweshwe fabric; its craft shop selling Zulu necklaces, Xhosa dolls and Nelson Mandela bags; rooms named after cultural luminaries such as the late Nadine Gordimer; and the travel desk dispatching guests on tours and volunteer placements.
Accommodation options throughout the Cape Town area are great bases for exploring the Western Cape’s cultural riches, offering day trips far and wide. A popular tour is Stellenbosch and the Cape Winelands, where historic wine estates offer tastings with a refined backdrop of Cape Dutch architecture. The area is also popular for volunteering placements, allowing participants to spend longer enjoying Cape Town’s vibrant nightlife, culture and stunning scenery.
Ama Africa Experiences offers numerous volunteering programmes in the Western Cape, ranging from community outreach initiatives to a wildlife and social experience. It also offers tours to the Garden Route and beyond – the ideal way for volunteers to fit in some travel alongside their work in the Cape. Booking with a volunteering agency like Ama Africa Experiences or All Out Africa, or a tour operator such as Acacia Africa, is a great way for travellers to ensure they make the most of their time overseas. All Out Africa and Acacia Africa both organise activities throughout Southern Africa.
Heading along the coast from Cape Town, many wonderful backpacker hostels mix beach bumming with cultural activities. Muizenberg’s Stoked Backpackers, near a surf beach with a famously photogenic row of bathing huts, is a great base for exploring this up-and-coming town. The small coastal spot boasts both the popular Blue Bird Garage Food & Goods Market and the Casa Labia Cultural Centre, respectively occupying a 1940s aircraft hangar and a villa dating to 1929, as well as arty cafes and hipster bars.
To head further from Cape Town, travellers can rent a car through affordable operators such as Around About Cars. Road tripping to off-the-beaten-track spots is one of South Africa’s great pleasures; for example to experience the Karoo’s quirky, offbeat culture in historic dorpies such as Matjiesfontein, Prince Albert, Graaff-Reinet and Nieu Bethesda. For travellers who don’t fancy driving, and enjoy the sociability of the backpacker scene, the coast road awaits on the hop-on hop-off Baz Bus. Linking Cape Town to Johannesburg via Port Elizabeth and Durban, the bus stops at numerous cultural hotspots; shuttles can also ferry passengers inland to fascinating towns such as Oudtshoorn, with its ostrich-farming history, and Hogsback, the fairy-obsessed mountain community.
The Baz Bus makes several stops on the Garden Route, a deserved tourist hub with culture, history and activities among its old-growth forests, lakes, lagoons and bays. Knysna has cultural cred with its painters taking inspiration from the coastline; township tours, including the art-themed Mad About Art and visits to the Judah Square Rastafarian community; the country’s oldest microbrewery and 19th-century Belvidere Church. Woodwork and furniture shops recall the bygone woodcutters, who, as Dalene Matthee’s novels evoke, once dodged elephants in the surrounding forests. The gay-friendly town comes to life during the Pink Loerie Festival, its Mardi Gras in April/May, and the Knysna Oyster Festival in July, a week-long celebration of its excellent seafood.
Among the Garden Route’s many tour companies, Rock the Route offers interesting cultural itineraries – including Band Tours, which facilitate performances at intimate venues. The ‘groupie’ package offers the opportunity to ‘hang out with these hairy special humans’ and ‘go backstage, if there even is a stage’. Rock the Route’s more conventional tour packages explore the area’s small towns, with tastings and agritourism along the way, and the option of travelling in a 1961 ‘fintail’ Mercedes.
Over the provincial line, the Eastern Cape is famous for its Xhosa culture and friendly people, which are both found in Port Elizabeth. Sprawling around Algoa Bay, ‘PE’ is a surprisingly dynamic town emerging from a period in the doldrums, thanks to the regeneration of its inner city. The Richmond Hill neighbourhood is the best place to get a feel for this, with buzzing restaurants and bars on Stanley Street. Nearby, the Route 67 heritage trail begins in the Donkin Reserve and leads between sculptures, monuments and Victorian buildings, narrating local history from the famous influx of British settlers in 1820 onwards. The South End Museum shows the human effects of tumultuous local history, covering the multicultural area destroyed by forced removals under apartheid. Likewise, the recently reopened Red Location Museum delves into PE’s oldest township, which was involved in the anti-apartheid struggle.
Being a relaxed city for surfing and hanging out, PE has a healthy backpacker scene. Lungile Backpackers Lodge occupies an airy A-frame house near the beach, offering day trips to local townships and Addo Elephant National Park. Island Vibe, which also has branches in Knysna and surf-mad Jeffrey’s Bay, is a ‘flashpackers’ in the upmarket Summerstrand neighbourhood, with comfortable accommodation and an outdoor jacuzzi.
Moving east, the Wild Coast, once the apartheid-era Xhosa ‘homeland’ of the Transkei, is one of South Africa’s cultural gems for the African experiences it offers. Among greens hills and windswept beaches, travellers can easily meet the locals and glimpse the traditional, rural life taking place in the pastel rondavel huts. This is also where Nelson Mandela grew up; at the Nelson Mandela Museum in Qunu, guides point to spots in the surrounding veld where the future president swam and herded cattle.
The Wild Coast’s coastal lodges offer a distinctive and memorable take on backpacker accommodation, with rooms in rondavels, stunning settings and integration with the local community. Reached on bumpy gravel roads through Xhosa villages, Mdumbi Backpackers offers an eco-friendly slice of African Eden by the sea. Mdumbi, a compound of rondavels above a white-sand beach, offers activities from village tours to volunteering in community projects run by Transcape, its affiliated NGO. It is 30% owned by local employees and 10% of profits go to the community.
The African fun continues in the epic province of KwaZulu-Natal, home to South Africa’s largest ethnic group, the Zulu. With landscapes ranging from the raw Drakensberg Mountains to the tropical Elephant Coast, KZN is an awesome place to learn about Shaka’s people. At 1560m in the Southern Drakensberg, you can get away from it all at Sani Lodge Backpackers, which offers cultural activities such as San rock art tours alongside the famous hiking trails.
The province’s urban heart is Durban, the beach city affectionately known as ‘Durbs’ (and as eThekweni in Zulu), which received a pre-World Cup makeover. There are museums, galleries and historic buildings throughout the centre – from the Phansi Museum’s tribal art, to the Sugar Terminal’s coverage of Durban’s sugar trade. Also here are the southern hemisphere’s largest Hare Krishna temple and largest mosque, serving one of the world’s biggest Indian communities outside the subcontinent. Gandhi spent two decades here and Durban even has a unique curry dish, the bunny chow.
Reflecting all this vibrancy, Happy Hippo backpackers is inspired by South African culture from its craft shop to its décor, which splashes the colours of the national flag on industrial spaces. Happy Hippo’s roof bar is a great place to start a night on lively Florida Road, while jazz fans should head to the Rainbow Restaurant, BAT Centre or the University of KwaZulu-Natal’s Centre for Jazz.
Johannesburg should definitely be your last stop if it wasn’t your first. Pretoria may be the national capital, but this swaggering metropolis is the place to feel the pulse of Gauteng, South Africa’s most populous and frenetic province. Galleries and public murals have sprung up in inner-city enclaves such as the Maboneng Precinct, where culture has played a key role in urban regeneration.
With its buzzing and multicultural nightlife, Soweto’s sights and tours, and day trips including the Cradle of Humankind, Jo’burg is increasingly popular for longer stays. For people looking to improve their language skills, Avenue English, one of several English schools in South Africa, offers two- to six-week courses. After all, there are 11 official languages in South Africa – why not take the time to learn one.