Backpacking Africa: Everything You Need to Know
Backpacking Africa is not the same as backpacking anywhere else in the world. Simple as that. You can saunter through Southeast Asia and South America all you like, but nowhere comes close to the Dark Continent. And I mean this in the best possible way because backpacking Africa can be one of the three most important experiences you will ever have, next to getting married and having children.
In this post, I wanted to write about my experience backpacking Africa and working as a tour leader on the continent:
Backpacking Africa: Everything You Need to Know
As mentioned above, I worked as a tour leader in Africa for several years. This was an amazing experience, however, operating these tours was also incredibly challenging. In fact, most of my job as a tour leader was to stop things going wrong. I just have to point this out because that’s often how it feels while backpacking Africa in general!
Backpacking this stunning continent is also a real treat. There are so many different experiences, close wildlife encounters, iconic landscapes and memorable locals. They say that the warm heart of the continent is in Malawi. But honestly, backpacking Africa should show you that a warm heart is beating no matter what part you visit.
First things first, where to go in Africa? Here is a quick run down on some of the most popular places to visit.
Most Popular Places to Visit in Africa
Malawi – Warm locals, stunning resorts, and plenty of villages to explore. Horse riding, scuba diving and volunteering are also common.
Mozambique – Less infrastructure and little information for getting around. The sandy shore of Mozambique is to die for but it can be tricky for backpacking.
Namibia – Incredible vistas. Home to Etosha National Park, Swakopmund and Fish River Canyon. Also, the famous Spitzkoppe and the Namib Desert.
Rwanda – The land of a thousand hills is best known for genocide in the 1990’s. However, today this is a friendly and fascinating country. You can also visit the Mountain Gorillas.
South Africa – Not really the Africa you might expect. Game parks are mostly private reserves but some decent places to visit near Cape Town and along the Garden Route.
Tanzania – Climb Kilimanjaro, take a Serengeti safari, relax on Zanzibar or volunteer in a local community. Tanzania is the most popular tourist destination in Africa for good reason.
Uganda – More primitive than neighbouring Kenya. Uganda is friendly and has many off the beaten track destination which are worth the effort. Best place to visit the Mountain Gorillas.
Zambia – Extremely popular for volunteering. I find most people backpacking Africa stay in Livingstone. South Luangwa is expensive but offers one of the most amazing safaris in Africa.
Zimbabwe – Again much less visited than nearby countries. If backpacking Africa on a budget then it’s best not to stay in Vic Falls for too long – expensive.
How to Get Around While Backpacking Africa
I need to be honest with you here; getting around Africa is not easy. Bus journeys are long and cramped and sometimes the bus doesn’t even arrive. You can forget customer service entirely and the roads are usually quite bumpy. Am I trying to put you off? Nope, I want you to backpack Africa!
Taking the local bus in Africa – Okay, personally, I have never enjoyed long distances by local bus in Africa. The drivers are reckless, the buses are falling apart and the speed at which they move is outrageous. If you’re still up for it, they are cheap and this will certainly keep the budget down. However, call it an “adventure” as much as you want – eventually, it sucks!
Overland Tours in Africa – I have worked as a leader for an overland tour in Africa for several years. They are comfortable, safe, and the easiest way to meet other travellers. Keep in mind, I travelled independently for two years in Africa and it was nowhere nearly as fun.
Self Drive Africa– I would love to do this sometime. More expensive but freedom to roam is priceless.
Cycling Africa – In 2013 I decided to cycle across Africa. I do not recommend this as an option but you know, I’m not here to tell you what to do!
Typical costs Backpacking Africa
Africa is not cheap and most especially if you stay in hotels along the way. Expect to pay top dollar for branded hotels and $20 – $30 per night for a room in a guesthouse. However, hostels are starting to pop up in certain places for as little as $7 – $10. If you have a lightweight tent, take it. If you join an overland tour, don’t worry about it.
A long distance journey by coach (where possible) in Easy Africa will rarely cost more than $10 one way. But anywhere south of Zimbabwe, you can expect western prices. Matatus (small minibuses) are usually just a few dollars for long distances. However, they are cramped and unsafe. Taxi’s are expensive and best avoided.
National parks and reserve entry fees
Unfortunately, entry fees are really high in Kenya and there is no way around them. The Kenya Wildlife Service puts a set fee on each park and there is no bundle so that you can buy entry to more than one. Most last for 24 hours. A free alternative is staying in a campsite at Lake Naivasha where you will at least encounter monkeys, hippo and many birds.
Food & Shopping
Eating at a local restaurant in Africa is an experience and very cheap. If you eat local for the duration of the trip and avoid booze, you will cut your spending in half. As for shopping, enjoy the markets and don’t be afraid to mingle. Electronics at the market are cheap and clothes are second hand, but who cares, this is Africa!
Common Questions About Backpacking Africa
Is it safe to go Backpacking in Kenya?
Yes, it is completely safe, I even took a solo Africa bicycle tour across the continent for one year with not a single issue. Use common sense wherever you go but honestly, I feel safer in Kenya than almost anywhere I have travelled with the one exception being parts of Nairobi. But don’t worry too much, this is usually after dark in sketchy parts of the city you should never see.
Is there Malaria in Kenya?
Yep there is and you should buy tablets before you arrive but don’t ask me which ones – consult your GP. Just so you know, locals in Kenya treat Malaria just like the flu – yes it is dangerous but once you treat it, everything will be fine.
Do you need a yellow fever certificate to travel to Kenya?
No but you do for Tanzania and the rules are always changing so just get one anyway.
How to get a visa for Kenya
It is $50 for a single entry visa to Kenya and you should go to the Kenya Embassy website to apply for one. I have gotten mind on arrival many times but again, things keep changing so it is best to check the website either way.
Most Popular Attractions in Africa
Attractions in Tanzania
Serengeti National Park, Tanzania – The Big Five are here in the world’s most famous National Park. Expensive to visit? Yes, but still, take a two night safari into the wild.
Ngorongoro National Park, Tanzania – Located right next to the Serengeti, this is the budget option for a backpacker who cannot afford the Serengeti. Sleep on the rim of the eight largest caldera in the world. Descend the next morning in 4 x 4’s to see the wildlife. Giraffe are probably the only notable absentees in the crater.
Kilimanjaro National Park, Tanzania – Tallest free standing mountain in the world. 6-8 days climbing to the roof of Africa. Incredible experience but would I climb it? I already have.
Zanzibar, Tanzania – Pristine blue waters, white powdered beaches, rustic stone town and fine seafood. Sit down, lie on the beach and drift away.
Attractions in Kenya
Masaai Mara National Park, Kenya – North of the Serengeti in neighboring Kenya. The Mara can sometimes be better for viewing wildlife than the Serengeti.
Lake Naivasha, Kenya – One of the worlds largest populations of bird species. Hundreds of hippo, colobus monkeys and more. Camping next to Lake Naivasha = amazing.
Mt Longonot Crater, Kenya – Another spectacular volcanic crater. You can hike all the way around the rim or if you are brave enough, you can camp inside it.
Attractions in Uganda
Jinja, Uganda – Source of the white Nile and one of the best destinations in the world for white water rafting.
Lake Bunyoni, Uganda – Winston Churchill called it the Switzerland of Africa. Green terraces, rolling conical mountains and a spectacular lake in between.
Queen Elizabeth National Park, Uganda – Possibly the best River Cruise in Africa is here. You can see many crocodiles, hippo and more up close for $50pp. Park is not great for game drives but very exciting at night when animals come to camp.
Mountain Gorillas – Bwindi NP is home to the infamous mountain gorilla, trek up into the rain forests to witness this majestic mystery in all it’s glory.
Attractions in Ethiopia
Attractions in Rwanda
Mountain Gorillas in Virunga NP
Attractions in Malawi
Attractions in Zambia
South Luagwa National Park
Attractions in Zimbabwe
Hwange National Park
Attractions in South Africa
The Garden Route
Attractions in Namibia
Etosha National Park
Fish River Canyon
Where to Begin a Trip in Africa
Most travellers will choose their start and end point depending on the time they have available. For those who have just a few weeks, it may be best to stick to one or two countries in which case you can fly into and out of the other. However, for those who have a lot of time – Nairobi to Cape Town is the most popular route.
You can start at either end. Some travellers prefer to start in Cape Town because it feels like a lot less intimidating than starting in Kenya. My advice? Start in Nairobi and leave Cape Town as an epic end point for your trip. It’s also pretty easy to find flights in and out of either Nairobi or Cape Town.
What Do I Recommend You Do?
If I had enough time, I would honestly just jump on board an overland tour from Nairobi to Cape Town. If I did not have much time, I would still consider an overland tour but for a shorter distance. My favourite sections would involve either a Nairobi start and a Zanzibar finish or else, I think Vic Falls to Cape Town is a nice little trip.
Please note that while the links above are affiliate links, I choose this company because I have watched them in action. I did not work for this company but I do know that they operate their tours the right way and take care of their customers.
You Need Backpackers Travel Insurance for Africa
Travel insurance is an absolute must for any trip to Africa. I wrote a post about this recently in which I outlined the problems I had encountered on my tours. Some guests did not have the right insurance and on one occasion, one of my sick passengers had to contact their parents to foot the medical bills.
I also wrote an article about the best travel insurance for Africa. Take what you want from it but in my own experience, the crowd below have always performed well when called upon.
You can buy and claim online, even after you’ve left home. Travel insurance from WorldNomads.com is designed for adventurous travellers with cover for overseas medical, evacuation, baggage and a range of adventure sports and activities.
What Makes World Nomads Right for Backpacking Africa?
- Trusted reliable underwriters
WorldNomads.com is backed by a suite of strong, secure, specialist travel insurers who provide you with great cover, 24 hour emergency assistance and the highest levels of support and claims management when you need it most.
- Value for money with the cover you need
WorldNomads.com provides cover for what’s important for travellers from 140 countries. By focusing on what you need and leaving out what you don’t, World Nomads prices are some of the most competitive online.
- Flexibility when you need it most
Had a change of plans? You can buy more cover or claim online while you are still away. You can even buy a World Nomads policy if you’re already travelling.
- Cover for a range of adventure activities
From skiing & snowboarding in New Zealand to whitewater rafting in Colorado, WorldNomads.com covers a range of adventure activities, giving you peace of mind to get the most from your travels.
- World Nomads keeps you travelling safely
All WorldNomads.com members have access to up-to-date travel safety alerts, as well as travel safety advice and tips online through the World Nomads Travel Safety Hub.
- More than just great value travel insurance
All WorldNomads.com members can learn the local lingo through a series of iPod & iPhone Language Guides and can stay in touch with family and friends with an online travel journal.
- Commitment to exceptional customer service
We want to make sure you get the most from WorldNomads.com. You can find out more about why travel insurance is important for your trip. If you have any questions about your travel insurance or travel safety in general, please contact WorldNomads.com directly.
Stay Safe and Have a Fantastic Adventure
Whatever you decide, I know that Africa will live up to your expectations. As you can probably tell, this is my absolute favourite travel destination and backpacking Africa has literally changed the direction of my life. I wish you a safe journey and an unforgettable adventure. Now go, Africa is waiting – Safari Njema, Rafiki !
Thank you to the people who have kindly “bought me a coffee” for just $3 as encouragement to keep this blog going.