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About The Backpack

Toni and Lee The Backpack

“We are an accred­ited Fair Trade Back­pack­ers that invests in peo­ple and com­mu­ni­ties, giv­ing mean­ing­ful and relaxed travel expe­ri­ences. As a trav­eler, your choices mat­ter: to peo­ple and com­mu­ni­ties, species and ecosys­tems, and to the cli­mate as a whole. And the choices that trav­el­ers make influ­ence the behav­ior of the mil­lions of busi­nesses that make up the tourism indus­try, arguably the largest indus­try in the world”.

Lee and I (Toni) began South Africa’s orig­i­nal back­packer back in 1990, after Lee had to leave Aus­tralia due to visa con­straints and I was tired of work­ing with heart­less peo­ple! I moved onto Lee’s turf in Sea Point when I was 14 and 30 years later we have proved the books wrong – that best friends can do busi­ness together.

With a mere 3000 Euros we fear­lessly bought the first house, which had been a com­mune for 25 years and housed a few polit­i­cal activists in the 70’s. The 80’s saw the house trans­form into some party place. Tim­ing and luck was on our side –after 3 weeks we were full – all 13 beds! Work was easy in those days… we were closed between 10 and 2 every ­day. Lee and I would have gar­den­ing com­pe­ti­tions and clean the house with Margie (who is currently the Head of the Housekeeping Department and has looked after Lee and her fam­ily for more than 37 years)!

There were not too many back­pack­ers around in the early 90’s. South Africa was not a free coun­try, but Nel­son Man­dela had just been released! The major­ity of South Africans were ecsta­tic! We used to bribe the train mas­ter with a 6 pack of beer ever Fri­day, to lure any­one sport­ing a back­pack to come our way. Our lit­tle VW bee­tle was the shut­tle. The trav­eler had time – stay­ing with us for 3 months or more….the aver­age stay in Cape Town is now 3 days!

More than 20 years later, we have man­aged to stay friends, grown from 13 to 100 beds, hire more than 25 staff, and we own (or should I say the Bank owns), 4 beau­ti­ful Vic­to­rian houses.


As the say­ing goes ‘life is all about choices’, and mak­ing a dif­fer­ence through good busi­ness prac­tice is at the heart of how we oper­ate at The Back­pack. We pro­mote a strong value sys­tem and work with every mem­ber of our team to instill the impor­tance of hon­esty, trust, integrity, respect, ser­vice, good health, recog­ni­tion, uplift­ment and respon­si­bil­ity.

Our phi­los­o­phy is that by doing one small thing, its rip­ple effect will lead to big­ger change. In fact, cor­po­rate social respon­si­bil­ity is not an optional add on, it is part of our core busi­ness prac­tice and has helped us to accom­plish incred­i­ble things. Since 2010 alone our guests have gen­er­ously donated R235,509.00 — and col­lec­tively by July 2014 we had gen­er­ated over R900,000.00 of inde­pen­dent fund­ing that has gone towards help­ing oth­ers.

We have always felt a nat­ural respon­si­bil­ity to the peo­ple and envi­ron­ment around us. We are com­mit­ted to ‘fair trade’ and its prin­ci­ples of cre­at­ing ben­e­fits beyond the bound­aries of The Back­pack. Over the years we have dis­cov­ered a num­ber of unfor­get­table projects in and around the city of Cape Town that we sim­ply can­not walk away from. As a fast devel­op­ing coun­try there are always going to be chal­lenges to over­come, but by the same token we have a unique oppor­tu­nity to bring about pos­i­tive change by par­tic­i­pat­ing, giv­ing of our­selves and con­sid­er­ing the broader impact of what we do. This is a fac­tual account of how our story unfolded and about the ini­tia­tives we have taken under our wing.

Our first project came about at the turn of the mil­len­nium in the year 2000 when we built Masikhule Crèche in Khayelit­sha, a town­ship com­mu­nity near Cape Town. We came away so inspired by the expe­ri­ence, it moti­vated us to con­tinue to be involved in help­ing com­mu­ni­ties. Whether it is knit­ting blan­kets for sick babies, help­ing young chil­dren with HIV, or try­ing to amass used soc­cer boots for kids with noth­ing but a pas­sion for the game, we have found our­selves try­ing to help with every­thing that comes our way and encour­ag­ing oth­ers to do the same.

In 2009 we began a new project work­ing to sup­port chil­dren whose lives are affected by gangs. We have invested in a num­ber of sports based projects such as soc­cer and rope skip­ping, as well as sup­port­ing edu­ca­tion and lit­er­acy pro­grammes. Our efforts are cur­rently focus­ing on a school in the Cape Flats that is one of the low­est aca­d­e­mic per­form­ers in the West­ern Cape.

Edu­ca­tion is key to poverty alle­vi­a­tion, but good school­ing remains beyond the reach of many chil­dren in poor areas around the city. At Wood­lands Pri­mary School in Hei­de­veld, we can see that things are chang­ing for the bet­ter thanks to a local hero called Mario van Niek­erk. An ex-​gang leader from the Cape Flats, Mario made a life chang­ing deci­sion to turn away from gang­ster­ism to become a men­tor and guardian in his com­mu­nity. His dream is to cre­ate a bet­ter future for the chil­dren attend­ing this pri­mary school as well as the youth liv­ing in the area. Many are affected by drugs, alco­hol abuse and gang related activ­i­ties. Mario estab­lished him­self as a co-​ordinator for intro­duc­ing var­i­ous sports projects at the school and founded an organ­i­sa­tion called ‘Greater Com­mis­sion United’.  GCU projects receive ongo­ing finan­cial sup­port from The Back­pack and Mario receives a reg­u­lar salary, which means he can con­tinue to reach for his goal.

This is a par­tic­u­larly heart-​warming story. As a pas­sion­ate soc­cer player him­self who left gang life vol­un­tar­ily after his own son was born, Mario iden­ti­fied the power of sport to lure young peo­ple away from mak­ing bad life choices. Gangs are often seen as role mod­els and pro­vide a sense of belong­ing, espe­cially in frag­mented fam­ily dynam­ics. Mario sees sport as a way to trans­form neg­a­tive behav­iours into pos­i­tive emo­tions so that young peo­ple realise that there are alter­na­tives out in the real world. Mario and his team of coaches are work­ing hard to unite peo­ple in the com­mu­ni­ties so that they can expe­ri­ence how sport helps to build friend­ships, raise self-​esteem, improve self– dis­ci­pline and cre­ate a new sense of fam­ily.

One of the most inspir­ing sports that has been intro­duced at the school is rope skip­ping. A sport that is rapidly gain­ing pop­u­lar­ity around the coun­try, and being recog­nised com­pet­i­tively. It requires lit­tle in the way of equip­ment and is there­fore eas­ier to roll out across a range of age groups. We sup­port this project by way of a monthly dona­tion to make this valu­able oppor­tu­nity avail­able to as many chil­dren as pos­si­ble. Due to finan­cial con­straints, many impov­er­ished schools are not able to offer any kind of phys­i­cal edu­ca­tion to their learn­ers and we see this as the per­fect solu­tion.

Mario’s dream is to extend his per­sonal con­tri­bu­tion into the edu­ca­tion arena, estab­lish­ing sup­port for aca­d­e­m­i­cally chal­lenged learn­ers by improv­ing lit­er­acy and numer­acy with the help of a team of qual­i­fied assis­tants. His wish is to pro­vide a library and a life skills cen­tre for the school that will assist the teach­ers at grass routes level to keep the chil­dren on the straight and nar­row. It is well known that edu­ca­tion can be a path out of poverty, so the stakes are high for ensur­ing its suc­cess.

Our cam­paign to keep young­sters warm, espe­cially chil­dren suf­fer­ing from HIV, is called the ‘Val­lies Stitch and Bitch Pro­gramme’, which involves res­i­dents at old age homes. By encour­ag­ing this sec­tor of soci­ety to get active, it cre­ates a renewed inter­est in life and a feel­ing of being val­ued for many elderly peo­ple. It also pro­vides a socia­ble past time. Col­lec­tively we have knit­ted over one hun­dred blan­kets for AIDS orphans at Baphumelele Crèche in Khayelit­sha. A grow­ing num­ber of old age homes con­tribute to this valu­able project with their fan­tas­tic knit­ting skills. Vis­i­tors to The Back­pack are equally invited to get knit­ting and, while relax­ing in the lounge or bar, it is easy to cre­ate a square or two. To fur­ther the cause we reg­u­larly seek out dona­tions of wool wher­ever we can find them.

We firmly believe that from the per­sonal efforts we con­tin­u­ally invest at The Back­pack, we have the priv­i­lege of run­ning a holis­tic, sus­tain­able busi­ness oper­a­tion where ‘what comes around goes around’ in the truest sense of the word.

Inter­view done August 2011

“Choose a mean­ing­ful expe­ri­ence and make a dif­fer­ence with The Back­pack & Africa Travel Centre”

We are proud of our Fair Trade Accred­i­ta­tion – a trade­mark awarded to Tourism busi­nesses adher­ing to Fair Trade prin­ci­ples: fair wages and work­ing con­di­tions; fair oper­a­tions in the pur­chas­ing and dis­tri­b­u­tion of ben­e­fits; eth­i­cal busi­ness prac­tice; respect for human rights; cul­ture and the environment.

We are so grate­ful to all our fan­tas­tic staff – Mary who has been Lee’s friend since they were 5 years old (heads up all the front of house staff), Jane in House­keep­ing and Bren­dan tak­ing charge of the bar, restau­rant and enter­tain­ment. We proudly hire many refugees from Africa –Malawi; The Demo­c­ra­tic Repub­lic of Congo; Zim­babwe and Tanzania.

We have invested in a Value Pro­gram whereby all the staff were involved in the process of select­ing 8 val­ues by which they work; Hon­esty, Trust, Integrity, Respon­si­bil­ity, Health, Recog­ni­tion, Ser­vice and Uplift­ment. An ongo­ing pro­gram, with work­shops in lit­er­acy, health and social wel­fare. Uplift­ment and train­ing are essen­tial to our suc­cess.

If you are decid­ing where to stay on your trav­els in Cape Town, we hope you choose us. By doing so, you will be mak­ing a dif­fer­ence to many of our lives. Thank you to those thou­sands who already have!

“Choose to make a difference”

Lee and Toni.