Cape Town vs Port Elizabeth - choosing your volunteer destination in South Africa

So you made your decision: South Africa is where you want to go. You have done your research and know you want to go to this huge and exciting country. 

The incredible stories you have heard about the most southern country of this great continent make you dream of the vibrant lifestyle, incredible landscape, exotic animals and numerous adventures to be had.

Visiting South Africa is pretty easy if you compare this to most other African countries. It has all the facilities overseas visitors are used to such as great infrastructure along the most touristic routes, good hospitals, a vast variety of wildlife destinations that are very affordable with your USD or EURO, high quality dining and accommodation options and the welcoming nature of its people making you feel at home in no time. Some even would call it “Africa Light” as it is so familiarly European at times and relatively easy to travel through independently by rental car, bus or Bazbus - which is a fun way to travel when you are travelling solo by the way.

So now comes the big question: Where in South Africa should you go? Here are some of the pros and cons of 2 favourite destinations for great volunteering programs  - namely, the obvious first choice most people make being Cape Town, and the more relaxed city of Port Elizabeth 800 km to the east.

Let’s start with the Mother City as Cape Town is so lovingly called. This world class travel destination is for most who visit South Africa as a volunteer or intern the seemingly only choice as its international reach as a city of immense beauty is well known. It has a mountain right in the middle of the city where Table Mountain and Lions Head offer amazing views over the Cape Peninsula, the City Bowl and beyond and it offers a great variety of day activities in and around the city.

So let’s sum some of the pros and cons up to hopefully make your decision a bit easier. Let’s start with the city of Cape Town.

PROS:

International airport, incredibly beautiful setting with mountains all around, a vibrant historical city centre, posh neighbourhoods to eyeball the rich and famous, a vast range of nightlife options, incredible restaurants of which the choice is limitless, beautiful surrounding seaside towns such as Hout Bay, Camps Bay, Simons Town and many more, international level of shopping opportunities, within close reach of the surrounding wine lands, a wide variety of volunteer organizations as well as projects to choose from.

CONS:

Wildlife is hours away from the city in expensive private reserves, staying in Cape Town revolves around clubbing and its nightlife for many younger visitors, Capetonians are famously cliquey so don’t expect to make local friends easily, unique volunteering opportunities are limited as Cape Town is crowded with volunteer placement providers often offering the same or similar programs, very cold Atlantic Ocean water making swimming an artic challenge, general costs of living in Cape Town is much higher than other cities and safety is a bigger issue to be well aware off.

So while we briefly and very generally praised and criticised Cape Town as a destination to spend your internship or volunteering experience let us have a look at the city well known as the Friendly City - Port Elizabeth, also known as PE for short.

This seaside city in the Eastern Cape has a very laidback feel to it and is a popular and affordable holiday destination for many South African families. The warm Indian Ocean is a big draw for many not living close to the ocean and swimming is a year round possibility due to the warm currents.

PROS:

Laidback seaside city with long beautiful beaches, it is well positioned to explore the Garden Route to the West, the Karoo to the North and Wild Coast to the East quite easily, its welcoming community is eager to befriend international visitors, volunteer projects rarely have high numbers of volunteers at the same time, it is a much more affordable destination compared to Cape Town,  incredible sea and marine life as it is known as  the Bottlenose Dolphin capital of the world, it is only an hour’s drive from world famous Addo Elephant Park and many other smaller wildlife reserves.

CONS:

There is little to no nightlife scene so going clubbing is not why you go here, there are no mountains in the city or wine tasting around the corner and the scenic beauty of the city is limited, it is not a well-known cosmopolitan city but rather has a village feel to it despite its 1.2 million inhabitants, there is less variety of projects to choose from and less providers of volunteer programs as well as less options for food markets and touristic day activities.

Ok, so we’ve now had a brief but critical look at both cities. Cape Town pulls so many to South Africa as an incredible travel destination in its own right, and we believe Cape Town cannot be missed when you visit South Africa - but if your 4 week or 3 month volunteering stay will offer you the best and most diverse South African experience in Cape Town, is debatable.

Each city has its own draws and downsides and we could easily add more to the lists of pros and cons - but we rather conclude that both destinations have their unique way of providing a great way of staying in South Africa. Depending on what you are after, each destination has something else to offer that will contribute to the success of your stay.

So do your research, don’t assume Cape Town is the only place to volunteer as there is so much more to see in this huge country  - we haven’t even started with places like Durban, Johannesburg and other more rural places!

We hope you want to choose a volunteer destination firstly to on the quality of the program, the impact it makes, the living conditions provided (is it a volunteer house or a crowded backpackers where you will have to stay?) and the affordability of a program -  not on where to go clubbing 3 nights a week!

 If parties and clubbing are your preferred activity after hours, then go to Cape Town where the options to party are limitless. If you are serious about volunteering this should not be your first criteria to look at. If you are more interested in a more authentic stay where meeting locals is easy and you are not one of many tourists like in Cape Town, then maybe try and look at other destinations and consider the lesser-known destination of PE.

Khaya offers programs in both cities and values the diversity of projects we offer - but also believes that promoting a lesser-known destination such as Port Elizabeth actually provides potential volunteers with a more rewarding possibility to see the diversity of South Africa and its people. In Port Elizabeth you will be part of projects that have limited numbers of volunteers, allowing you to take a clear position in the organization as a volunteer.

You will live comfortably in an exclusive volunteer home close to the beach, and get a lot more quality for your hard-earned money then in a city like Cape Town where programs are more expensive due to the high influx of volunteers from all over the world.

Good luck with your decision!

See you in Africa.

Martijn

martijn

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