When in Doubt, Thumb Out in South Africa
I like risk-well not so much risk as I enjoy adrenaline rushes and natural life highs. This need for adventure and new experiences are what has made my trip to South Africa the most incredible trip I could have asked for at this point in my life. Anything that makes my heart beat a little faster and makes my stomach flutter is my type of activity. Since arriving in South Africa three months ago, I have gotten a tattoo, hiked the Valley of Desolation at Camdeboo National Park in the Karoo, done the world’s largest bungee jump, partied as a zombie, sung “Hakuna Matata” to a warthog, fallen in love, and hitchhiked-just to name a few.
How did I end up studying abroad at Rhodes University in Grahamstown, smack-dab in the Eastern Cape of South Africa? Well, I wanted an exchange experience that did not sound cliche or match people’s expectations. I am also a communications major and an African studies minor, so moving to South Africa for almost six months seemed like a perfect fit.
As a women traveler in South Africa, it can be hard to navigate my way to new places. In South African culture, men are always addressed first so communicating as a woman can definitely be a challenge. As a twenty-year-old university student, I do not have the luxury (or the money) to be able to rent a car, so I have to be much more flexible in how I move around from place to place.
Unfortunately, South Africa is not known for its public transportation system. There are mini-bus stations throughout South Africa, but if you don’t find the right person to speak to, you might never find them. Also, if you do find one, you might end up waiting a long time because drivers won’t leave until their entire vehicle is full-it’s the only way they make a profit. A trip from Port Elizabeth to Grahamstown, which takes about an hour and a half, costs about 70R, which is less than $10 USD. As long as you know where to go and have some time to spare, this kind of transportation is safe and one of the most cost-efficient ways to travel throughout the country.
However, like I said, they aren’t always the most feasible modes of transportation, so there are times when one must compromise. This is why I found myself on the side of the road hitching my way back to Grahamstown three weeks ago. Yes, hitchhiking. Before anyone freaks out, I had a wonderful experience. I also had two other travelers with me. We were on the coast in Jeffreys Bay, which is a preferred spot to hitch due to the good traffic flow and scenery. I would not, for example, hitch in the middle of the Karoo, where roads are unpaved and traffic is not reliable. I was along the coast on the N2; on the right was the Indian Ocean and on the left, where I walked, was grass right off the highway.
A man with a bakkie (pronounced bucky), or pickup truck, stopped for us first. We hopped in the back where he took us from the main road to the N2, the highway we needed. After walking less than a kilometer, a surfer dad and his son in a huge van-type vehicle, packed with surfboards in the back, picked us up. While conversing about different types of African soil with his son, the father drove us to Port Elizabeth, which was almost the halfway mark of our trip. He acted like our group had just gone surfing with him and were hanging out. Because he knew we were university students, he kept talking about environmental issues in South Africa along the route. Most people respond to hitchers like they’re taking part in a normal activity, although some drivers were thrown off by our American accents.
Once in Port Elizabeth hitching became more difficult or maybe we were just more impatient. Trying to get to the airport and pay for transportation, we crossed the highway to get traffic going in the opposite direction and saw a man on the side of the road taking pictures of the waves. It turned out that he was a newspaper photographer. After apologizing for not having the time to drive us back to Grahamstown himself, he found us a minibus station. As we waited for it to fill, we took in the Xhosa and laughter around us. Soon enough we were back in Grahamstown, back on campus and ready for sleep.
All in all, the entire experience took six hours while a straight drive back would have taken around three. The truth is, we spent most of our time just waiting for the minibus to fill up.
I know that hitchhiking may not be right for every woman traveler, but it was the most convenient, cheapest, and best experience I could have asked for at that moment in time. I never felt threatened, insecure, or at risk during the experience. I understand that the stigmas surrounding hitchhiking make is seem like an impossible task, but if you’re curious like I was-and with a group-it may be worth the risk. Good luck and happy travels!