Some thoughts on backpackers

Knysna Travel Blog

 › entry 2 of 13 › view all entries

I was planning to make a couple of stops on the “World Famous Garden Route” after Cape Town, and the first of these was the quaint seaside town of Mossel Bay. This turned out to be not so much quaint, as St. Ives-like. Pretty enough, though, and while lying on my dorm bed, I got thinking about that most intriguing of human sub-species: the backpacker.

Mostly this thinking started because, in contrast to Cape Town, I hadn't stumbled across many backpackers on this stretch of coast. Which left me with sufficient freedom to contemplate.

Now I don't really like backpackers as a species, even though, I suppose, I must enumerate myself amongst them. I think the thing that bothers me the most is the sense of collectiveness, the sense that by virtue of being wealthy enough to see the world on the cheap you somehow belong to an ephemeral community of pseudo-hippies. In some way it's worst at the best places, the places where you have the most fun. These are the places packed with backpackers from all over the globe. Places were the Germans mix it up with the French, the Americans start special relationships with the Brits and Aussies and New Zealanders remain the only people who can tell each other apart. And places were everyone belongs.

It would take a sterner man than myself not to have a good time in the party-atmosphere and a far stronger soul to condemn those who just can't leave the aggressive funness behind and so find themselves staying longer than expected. Much longer. And that, I think, lies at the heart of my problem. What point is there in traveling the globe if everywhere is the same? There are hipster bars in most the home cities of these backpacking folks, cool hangouts where one can pass the time without having to traverse the planet. Of course, this isn't strictly true, most backpacker places have peculiar vibe that while constant between Durban and Delhi, isn't really something you can find in your hometown (even if said hometown is in fact Durban or Delhi). Still, that vibe is could never be mistaken for a feature of whatever locale you happen to find yourself in; no, it's a feature of a lifestyle.

And yet the notion of travel rather than tourism pervades our community. The idea that somehow we're experiencing the real _____________ by carrying a ratty backpack and remaining under-washed for days on end seems universal. This is clearly very silly. A delightful beach hut hostel, full of Europeans and situated in a hidden bay is not the real _____________. It's just another resort, another way of trading the illusion of experience for foreign currency.

Incidentally, there's nothing wrong with with resorts or tourism. I think that they're great. Trade is good and experience (illusory or otherwise) is a worthy export. I just find the self-delusion to be a but troubling.

Of course, I may well be projecting with this little rantette. Just because I catch myself falling into the trap of occasionally believing in the profoundity of my trips, it doesn't necessarily mean that everyone else is prey to similar delusions.

Join TravBuddy to leave comments, meet new friends and share travel tips!

There are two ways to catch a 7am bus when jet lag prevents you from crawling out of bed any earlier than 10ish:

1- Go to bed early, set your alarm and pray.

2- Stay up all night chain-smoking and swimming in alcohol.

Just in case you were wondering, I can now definitively say that option 1 is the better choice.

Sitting in the bar at the venerable Long Street Backpackers is not the most exciting activity in the world, but there's something about being on holiday that brings out the alcoholic in me, so there I was, nursing my 11 o'clock beer, and deciding what to do with my day after discovering that prison tours are an overly popular activity.

(Actually, now that I think about it, this is surprisingly true all over the world – why is it that a city's must see sights, one will inevitably find some gruesome establishment were notable worthies were looked up for someone else's sins? I'm fairly sure there's a deep truth about humanity hidden in this observation, but I cannot work out what it is. Also, it's probably not that important.)

Back to the bar. So, sitting, nursing my beer, contemplating a day of nursing more beers interspersed with with the odd beer for nursing, when pretty young American (well, actually Canadian, but who's counting) thing strolls into the bar and declares her intention to brave new frontiers and visit Table Mountain. This sounded like a more adventurous option than my previous plan of doing nothing and so I immediately jumped on the mountain train and planning began.. This is where things started to go wrong. When a large fit-looking chap tells you that the cable car is tacky and that the way up is best on foot, be wary. When he goes on to explain that the optimum choice of routes is some obscure path by the name of “Woody's Ravine”, step back slowly. And when he finishes up by assuring you that the climb is easy, run away quickly. Of course, I did none of these things, so instead of being crammed into a cable car with other gawking tourists, I, along with my Canadian companion and another Brit who was also roped in to the excursion, jumped into a cab and headed off to the wilderness.

Well, not quite the wilderness. It turns out that our path began in Cape Town's wealthiest suburb, So, after getting lost in millionaire-ville for a bit we began our climb up the hill. And I do mean climb. I suppose the chain-smoking and heavy-drinking somewhat prevent one from being completely objective with regards to the hike. But still, it was not at all what I would describe as easy. More like hard. However, we did eventually reach the top, though after all the exertion we decided not to continue up to the famous plateau (which means I can't really claim to have “done” Table Mountain yet) and instead marched back down again to a well-earned cocktail by the beach.

I just re-read this post. It's incredibly dull. I'm very sorry about that, and if you've made it this far, congratulations, though I suggest you find better ways to pass the time.

Funny thing about Bank Holidays, stuff is closed, very closed. Unlike America, folks in South Africa take their days off seriously, so seriously that even the things you would like to do on your day off are unavailable, because the people that run them are also having their day off. I mention this since my three days in the Mother City straddled May 1st – that's International Worker's Day for the non-hippie bourgeois amongst you – so everything was closed. Well, not quite everything, but an awful lot, and if it wasn't closed it was booked (Robben Island) or windy (Table Mountain). All of which is to say that I have little to say about Cape Town. I spent my first day sleeping, my second exploring the minuscule sections of the town that don't believe in Worker's rights and my third, well, that turns out to be a more interesting story...

pxk161 says:
Cool blogging. Liked the post on backpackers, although I thought you were a bit harsh. POST PICTURES!
Posted on: May 13, 2008
photo by: elnaerasmus