A Solo Travel Fail in Durban


Beach in Durban

I spent last winter obsessed with cheap flights.

For the first time in five years, I had a home to base myself in, and that meant I could take advantage of round-trip deals.

It turns out, there’s a hell of a lot of them around.

And who knew they would be so much cheaper than one-way flights?

Not me. 

I excitedly booked flights from Lisbon to Mozambique in January, to South Africa in February, and to Namibia in March, then got down to planning.

And it was then that I made a discovery.

The flights I’d booked to Mozambique would have me returning to Lisbon in early-February, then five days later, I’d be jumping back on a head back down to Cape Town.

That seemed pretty dumb.

Why not just stay in Southern Africa for an extra few days, then meet Dave in Cape Town afterwards?

And who knew that when you skip an outbound flight, it invalidates the return ticket?

Not me.

But that’s a story for next week.

Durban Boardwalk

I had a multitude of options for my extra week in Africa and my research had me overcome by wanderlust.

I could stay in Mozambique and explore the islands in the north of the country. I’d had to cut out Ilha de Mozambique and the Quirimbas during the planning stages of my trip, but I had a feeling they could be even better than the south.

Or I could jet over to Comoros — a little-known country off the coast of Mozambique that has long been the subject of my travel fantasies.

Or I could travel up into Tanzania and spend my days lazing on the beaches of Zanzibar.

Or I could journey into South Africa and explore more of the country before heading to Cape Town. I could go to Johannesburg and safari my way across Kruger National Park. I could go to Durban and kick back on the beach. I could travel into Swaziland — a new country for me — and get struck by lightning.

Fun fact: Swaziland has one of the highest numbers of people struck by lightning per capita in the world!

In the end, I opted for a combination of the latter. I had a full ten days allocated for Cape Town later in the month and I hadn’t been planning on venturing outside of the city during that time. After hearing how amazing South Africa is from everyone I know who’s been there, I knew I needed to explore more of it. These extra few days seemed like the perfect opportunity to check out somewhere else.

I opted for Durban over Johannesburg because, while I’d been researching the city, I’d discovered there was a whole array of amazing-sounding activities on offer, from game drives, to day trips into Lesotho, to wetland cruises, to walking tours of the city’s street art. Plus, there was a beach. It sounded like my kind of place.

I booked my flights and began making plans.

Beach in Durban

I crashed into my first barrier when I booked a kickass-sounding game drive to Hluhluwe Umfolozi Park for $177. Moments later, I received an email saying:

Dear Res

Please note that to date, there are no other guests booked on this departure, therefore the single supplement applies.

Please advise if guest is willing to pay for two in order to confirm?

Ha. No.

I told them I couldn’t afford to spend $354[!] on a tour, then they immediately processed my booking and charged me $177. I emailed to ask if this meant I was confirmed on the tour, but didn’t hear anything back. I emailed them a week later to ask if it was still going ahead, but they didn’t reply. I emailed them two days before the departure date of the tour and they ignored me. I contacted Viator for help and finally received an email from the tour company. They were cancelling my tour because nobody else had booked it for those dates.

Sadface.

Lavender Moon Guesthouse swimming pool

I was gutted I wouldn’t be able to go on a game drive in South Africa.

Back when the tour company had told me I’d have to pay a single supplement, I’d begun searching further afield for somebody who would accept a solo traveller.

Nothing.

This company required a minimum of two people. This company required a minimum of two people. This company required a minimum of two people. This company required a minimum of two people.

And so on.

I was disheartened but not discouraged, though, because there were plenty of other activities I could do in Durban.

I booked a St Lucia estuary tour. This trip involved spending an afternoon cruising alongside hippos and Nile crocodiles in iSimangaliso Wetland Park, which sounded like a decent replacement for not being able to do my game drive.

After booking and paying for it, the company got in touch to tell me nobody else had signed up for the tour and if that was the case on the departure date, they’d cancel it.

Guess what happened?

Yep.

So I took a look on Viator at a similar tour, but that required a minimum of two people.

I emailed Durban Street Scene, whose tours receive amazing reviews, to enquire about taking one with them. They run a walking tour through the city that sounded like a fun way to spend a morning.

They ignored all of my emails asking if I could take a tour as a solo traveller.

Every tour of the Drakensburg Mountains required there to be a minimum of two people.

Day trips out to see the San people cave paintings required a minimum of two people.

Durban city sightseeing tours even required a minimum of two people.

And so on. And so on. And so on.

Durban boardwalk

In fact, the only tours I could take were ones that made me uncomfortable.

Like the day trip into Lesotho, which I’d originally planned on taking. It’s just a few hours away from Durban, and the tours take you up through the Sani Pass — a beautiful part of the world that can only be traversed by 4×4. It looked spectacular, and then you’d round off your tour with a drink at the highest pub in Africa, which is an odd thing to celebrate, but hey, it would be a cool experience nonetheless.

The only problem was, when I began researching online, I discovered every single one involved some kind of cultural village immersion experience with locals, and I’m not into treating humans as tourist attractions.

I don’t think people should be treated like zoo animals, and that’s what this tour sounded like. It seemed like you’d be walking into a village and gawping at the locals and having them parade around for you, and the whole thing sounded not just uncomfortable, but inauthentic, too. I highly doubt that was how they’d spend their time while tourists weren’t around.

I was in two minds about whether to go, but then I spotted a post by Kami and the Rest of the World about how her tour had made her feel uncomfortable, and it was off the cards for me.

I wanted to visit a new country, but I wanted to do it on my own terms. If I’m on the fence about whether something is ethical or not, I’ll always err on the side of caution. And plus: Lesotho definitely deserves more than a four hour visit.

Durban beach views

Subsequently, I did very little in Durban.

In fact, I basically did nothing, which you might be able to tell from the fact that almost all of the photos in this post were taken at the exact same beach.

Because I went to the beach.

And I went to a shopping mall.

And then I left.

In fact, confession: I didn’t even venture into Durban’s city centre. I was staying out in Umhlanga, a resort town north of Durban, and after everything I’d hoped to originally do fell through, I stayed there. It was within walking distance of both the beach and Gateway shopping mall, the largest mall in the southern hemisphere, and what more does an intrepid traveller need?

I was originally frustrated that my trip hadn’t worked out as I’d hoped. I’d been excited to gain a precious extra few days in this part of the world, so having everything fall through felt as though I’d wasted them.

But you know what? I actually had a lovely time.

My trip to Mozambique had been some of the toughest travel I’ve ever done, so to spend three days relaxing by the pool, reading books on the beach, and buying jewellery at a mall, was a blessing in disguise.

It helped me to recharge, recover, and get pumped up to travel to Swaziland.

Shopping mall in Durban

But how could I have avoided this happening in the first place?

I could have stayed in a hostel. Hostels usually run group tours that you can easily join, so knowing that taking tours was so important for me in Durban, I could have booked my stay in a hostel that offered activities I wanted to check out.

But I’d chosen to stay at the wonderful Lavender Moon Guesthouse, which was easily one of my favourite guesthouses ever, and it totally made my trip to Durban. The owner was lovely, the breakfasts were divine, and the surroundings were peaceful. I wouldn’t have wanted to skip out on that to stay in a hostel and struggle to sleep.

I could re-learn how to drive. In Mozambique, South Africa, Swaziland, and Namibia, I have come to discover that if you can’t drive and you’re travelling alone, you can do next-to-no activities in the countries. I’m not a confident driver. I had an awful instructor who taught me how to pass my test but not how to actually drive safely and confidently, and on top of that, I haven’t driven for more than a couple of hours in over eight years.

Re-learning how to drive is on my list of things to do, but given that there are essentially no flat surfaces in Lisbon, I don’t think there is the best place to do it.

Either way, I know that having the independence and freedom that comes from being able to drive would vastly improve my solo travels in the future. And in this case, I could have been like, screw you, tour companies! I’m going to go visit these places anyway! And I’m going to save money while doing so! 

I could have sucked it up and paid the extra expense. I was so disappointed I didn’t get to take any tours at all in Durban. I personally didn’t want to pay double to do any of them out of principle, but, y’know, I could have.

I could have checked out Durban myself. When every one of my planned activities fell through, I could have shrugged it off and explored Durban’s city centre anyway. Instead, I took it as a sign to take some time for myself and chill for a few days. Subsequently, if you ask me anything about Durban, I won’t be able to answer your questions. Unless it’s about where the shopping mall is.

Signs in Durban
Yes, I have now officially run out of photos of Durban

Solo travel is one of my favourite things in the world. It’s made me into the person I am today, which is a much nicer human than I was five years ago. Solo travel helped me to overcome my anxiety. Solo travel boosted my confidence and self-esteem. Solo travel showed me I’m more capable of, well, everything than I ever believed.

But sometimes being a solo traveller sucks.

Sometimes being a solo traveller means spending so much more money because so many tour companies and hotels charge a single supplement.

Sometimes being a solo traveller means rocking up to a place with a list of activities so long you’re worried you won’t be able to cram them into the time you have, only to find out that you can’t do any of them at all.

But that’s okay, because maybe a break from travel is what you need to recover from your previous destination and increase your energy levels for the next one.

Next stop: Swaziland!

And hopefully not a lightning bolt to the face. 

 

What’s been your most frustrating aspect of solo travel?

Previous A Perfect Day in the Bazaruto Archipelago
Next Stepping Back in Time in Mbabane

32 Comments

  1. Becky
    March 11, 2017
    Reply

    One of my biggest frustrations with solo travel is that it can be lonely sometimes. It can also feel awkward when you go out and are constantly surrounded by couples.

    • Lauren
      March 14, 2017
      Reply

      I’ve definitely experienced that! Even as an introvert, there have been times when I’ve just wanted some company but haven’t been able to find any.

  2. Rachael
    March 11, 2017
    Reply

    It’s a real shame that you didn’t get to do any of the tours you’d planned in Durban. It looks like a beautiful city, I’ve always wanted to visit. But then taking a break once in a while and recharging is also important. If you do too much too soon you don’t end up enjoying it anyway. I can’t wait to read the rest of your South Africa posts, it’s somewhere I’ve always wanted to visit but too scared to go alone.

    • Lauren
      March 14, 2017
      Reply

      I’m looking forward to writing more about South Africa! It’s a little bit more intimidating than the U.S. or Western European countries, and you need to take a few more precautions, but on the whole, I felt safe there and fell in love with the country.

  3. Andrea Anastasiou
    March 11, 2017
    Reply

    Ugh I hate the single supplement nonsense! I also miss having someone to share the experiences with – let’s face it, it’s extra special when you’re sharing an amazing sight/sunset etc with someone you love. Also when things go wrong, which they invariably do while on the road, it’s so much more easier when there’s someone to share the burden with you.

    Saying all this, I still wouldn’t give up solo travel. I’ve become a much stronger person because of it.

    • Lauren
      March 14, 2017
      Reply

      That’s so true! It’s funny, but I’ve noticed every time I travel somewhere alone, I end up just wanting to return with Dave so that I can experience it with him.

      But like you, I’d never give up solo travel entirely!

  4. Katie
    March 11, 2017
    Reply

    This is so frustrating! I travel with my partner the majority of the time and we run into “at least 8 people need to have booked this tour” type things! So annoying!

    At least you had some time to relax, unwind, shop and tan! :)

    • Lauren
      March 14, 2017
      Reply

      It’s really frustrating! I know they have to cover their costs, but you’d think they’d still make a profit if one person came along.

      It’s especially annoying when it’s a big tour, like you mentioned. I was looking at doing an overland tour in Mozambique and I would have had to pay double as a solo traveller and they had 12 other people coming along, too.

  5. Katie
    March 12, 2017
    Reply

    So frustrating! That’s a shame about the Lesotho tours too – I stayed in the highest pub in Africa for 3 nights and got to wander through the village and do independent hikes which was a great way to experience the area and the Sani Pass was amazing. Glad you had a good time anyway – it is so nice sometimes to just be able to relax

    • Lauren
      March 14, 2017
      Reply

      That sounds like a much better way to see some of the country! It looks beautiful, so I’ll make sure I spend at least several days there when I next get the opportunity to visit.

  6. Rebecca
    March 12, 2017
    Reply

    I can so relate to this. I was in South Africa last year and had a few days in JNB before joining a tour and I found it the hardest place I have ever been to book a tour as a solo traveler. I flat out refuse to pay double just for me and I finally found two companies that I only had to pay slightly more as a solo traveler. While I wasn’t thrilled in theory with this, the exchange rate is very good against the USD, and it was the only way I could do what I wanted.

    You didn’t miss much in Durban, It is just a tourist beach town. I was thankful I only had 1 day there, it was more then enough.

    • Lauren
      March 14, 2017
      Reply

      Oh, that’s so interesting you had a similar experience in South Africa. And good to know I didn’t miss much — I always feel guilty if I don’t make much of an effort to fully explore the place I’m in.

  7. Dominique | dominiquetravels.com
    March 12, 2017
    Reply

    That’s terrible… The fact that all tours require a minimum of two is very limiting! It’s a good tip that if I would want to go there, I’d have to stay at a hostel. I wouldn’t mind doing that if I would know it paid off in the end!

    • Lauren
      March 14, 2017
      Reply

      Yeah, it’s so frustrating! And it wasn’t like I was there in low season, either — I was visiting in the middle of summer. But for whatever reason, nobody else was signing up for tours and that meant I had to miss out, sadface.

  8. kami
    March 13, 2017
    Reply

    I made the mistake of not researching the tour to Lesotho properly, I was so sure I’m not allowed to go there without the visa so when I was offered a chance to go anyway the idea of visiting a new country won with my common sense hence the uncomfortable tour. The views were definitely spectacular but so not worth all the bad feelings I’ve had to deal with. I’m glad you didn’t go after all, I’m sure you’d have felt the same way…

  9. Stephanie Craig
    March 14, 2017
    Reply

    I’m impressed you’ve done so much traveling without driving! I don’t think I realized you’re not renting cars at some of these places. I love driving in foreign countries, but I come from a driving culture where you can’t even get to school without a car.

    I don’t know about SA specifically, but there are some places where hiring a private driver/tour guide isn’t that much more than a single tour ticket and you don’t have to deal with other travelers. =)

    • Lauren
      March 30, 2017
      Reply

      Yeah! Most of the time, public transport is way easier and cheaper for getting from place to place. I’ve only rented a car maybe three times in six years of travel! But it would definitely improve my solo travels if I felt confident enough to rent a car in a foreign country.

  10. Jonathan Elston
    March 20, 2017
    Reply

    Would you recommend hiring a car and driving in Mozambique?

    • Lauren
      March 20, 2017
      Reply

      It’s hard to know without having done it myself. From what I’ve heard, it’s a bit of a pain in the ass in Mozambique because the police are so corrupt that you’ll constantly be pulled over and asked to pay bribes. But you get the benefits of saving money (unless you take chapas), having more control, and seeing more of the country. There is a Facebook group for driving in Mozambique that could be a useful resource for you: https://www.facebook.com/groups/DriveMoz/

  11. Priyka
    March 21, 2017
    Reply

    Argh That’s so frustrating. I had the same thing happen with a free walking tour, where I was the only person to turn up for it, as it was in low season. They cancelled the tour and wouldn’t run it with me.

    • Lauren
      March 21, 2017
      Reply

      Oh man, really? I know those tours are tip-based, so while the person running it wouldn’t have made very much money from just one tip, it’s still technically advertised as a free tour. The number of people who turn up shouldn’t affect whether it runs or not.

  12. Melissa
    March 21, 2017
    Reply

    I’ve had that experience before. I wanted to do a city walking tour of Leon, Nicaragua but no one else had booked it so I offered to pay a bit more if the guide would take me out anyway. It wasn’t double and it was still an affordable price to me so I didn’t feel *too* bad about it. Figured I was helping the local economy. But it’s frustrating.

    I was recently looking at a cool afternoon tea bus tour in London and they didn’t have an option to book for just one person. I tweeted them though and they said that they’d get right on fixing that and to email them or call if I wanted to book a spot for myself. So…it’s something.

  13. Victoria @The British Berliner
    March 27, 2017
    Reply

    So sorry that Durban didn’t work out for you. It must have been awfully frustrating. :(

    I tend to do a combination of solo travel, family travel, and travelling with my teen for some quality time. When I travel solo, I prefer to be where lots of people are, so that I can “hang out” with them and get to talk to people, as I like a social envirnoment lol!

    However, last year my son and were in Switzerland, and the tour guide didn’t turn up ‘cos we were the only people who booked! And just last week, my husband and I were in Vienna and had booked a group tour. The tour guide didn’t turn up either. And because I’m quite bossy, everyone thought that I was the guide. And I would have done it if I was at home in Berlin lol! :D

  14. Karlie
    April 6, 2017
    Reply

    Thanks for your honesty in writing this post on travel fails. I know that I’ve had some, too. There was the time that I booked a tour with some friends to the scenic Yeosoo area of South Korea with lots of hiking/temples… only to find it covered with fog and rain almost the entire time.

    Never went to Durban when I was in SA, but I loved Jo-burg. Most of the attractions, however, were ones that you had to drive to (like you mentioned).

    • Lauren
      January 2, 2018
      Reply

      Aww, man, I hate it when bad weather ruins a trip.

  15. the_southafricangirlx
    September 22, 2017
    Reply

    This made me so sad… I was born and raised in Durban! And while Durban is so different to Cape Town (I’ve been there multiple times), it’s a city that makes you work to see her beauties! If you ever have the chance to, come back again and ask me for some addresses of trendy markets, local art galleries, artisan bakeries, and amazing cafés! Umhlanga is beautiful… but just 20 minutes away is a completely different world. And forget yo the hill (about 35 minutes away) is a town with dog parks and great restaurants!

    • Lauren
      January 2, 2018
      Reply

      I absolutely will do! I’m already hoping to return to South Africa in 2018 :-)

    • Olivia Holland
      April 19, 2018
      Reply

      I’m on my way to South Africa next week and Durban for a few days. Can I get those address’ to the markets and restaurants?

      ?Olivia

      • Lauren
        April 19, 2018
        Reply

        The chances of the commenter returning to this post seven months later and seeing your comment is unfortunately very slim.

  16. Pol
    December 23, 2017
    Reply

    I felt bad for you reading this post. I still have it on my list for next year and yeah I am interested in the same tours and also saw them on Viator. Look slike I really need to find a second person or otherwise I will have the same experience as you had.
    It alos mad eme laugh cause you write it in a funny way :) lol but then it made me feel bad for you. I hope you will have better travel experiences the next year.

    cheers

    • Lauren
      December 31, 2017
      Reply

      Ha! Thanks. No need to feel bad for me — it wasn’t too bad compared to some of the other experiences I’ve had on my travels!

  17. Nicholas Bell
    November 29, 2018
    Reply

    Really a shame about your time in durban. I’ve lived in durban for my whole life and done most of the things you’ve wanted to do. It’s different as a local though as you don’t do tours, so I’ve never really been aware of these problems with booking tours.

    I will say that being in South Africa, and perhaps especially durban where a lot of attractions are possibly a few hours drive, being able to drive yourself is quite invaluable. That said the roads in South Africa can be quite daunting as driver behaviour is very poor and obedience to rules of the road is seemingly optional.

    I do think that viator is perhaps not the best tool to use for tours in South Africa, you’d do better to speak to a local and ask for advice and deal directly with various tour companies.

    How locals do game reserves is to take a car, book accommodation, and then mainly self drive around the reserve, the only thing you need to be aware of is keeping your distance from elephants when in the car, and never get out your vehicle. You can then book game drives from the accommodation within the reserve, which will probably be anywhere from 20 dollars to around 50-60 dollars. And that will be useful as it will teach you a lot about the animals that you’d probably not know.

    Regarding Lesotho and sani pass, it is a must do. One of the most spectacular drives in the world for sure. There must be tours that don’t offer “exhibitions of the locals”. In fact I’d recommend staying at sani pass backpackers, which is at the bottom of sani pass.

    I’d highly recommend going to the drakensberg and hiking/walking and possibly sleeping overnight in a cave. Best to see if a guide can take you, you don’t really want to get lost in the mountains. Or just go there and camp and do short day walks to waterfalls and such.

    There are many beautiful beaches near durban. Umhlanga is recommended, umdloti is nice too, and if you want to head further out, there are nice ones in ballito, salt Rock.

    I come from Zinkwazi Beach, it is a beautiful little beach village with stunning beaches, I’d recommend staying there if you just want to chill at quiet beaches. It’s a really small town with not much else to do.

    There is so many great things in the vacinity of durban, its a real pity about your experience with the lack of tours for singles.

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