Backpacking Africa Tips
Backpacking Africa is not for everyone, simple as that. You can have bad experiences in Asia, uncomfortable bus rides in South America and plain awful experiences in just about any other part of the world but when you come to backpack Africa, you really need to start managing any expectations you may have had prior to arriving there.
For many years I worked as an overland tour leader in Africa (I still do on occasion) and I cannot recall the number of times things went wrong while operating these tours. In fact, most of my job as a leader was to stop things going wrong ahead of time but ultimately, it was usually unavoidable. Things go wrong and it’s just not going to be super comfortable, I just have to point this out.
That being said, Backpacking Africa will be the single most memorable travel experience you will ever have, from trekking the Simien Mountains in Ethiopia and sleeping wild in the Serengeti, to meeting nomadic tribes in Namibia and watching as a herd of elephants cross the road in Botswana. There are so many unique experiences, incredible wildlife encounters, unforgettable landscapes and truly memorable locals. They say that the warm heart of the continent is in Malawi but honestly, backpacking Africa will show you that a warm heart is beating no matter what part of the continent you visit.
Whether you encounter disaster, delays or annoying circumstances on your trip to the ‘Dark continent’, backpacking Africa will never cease to offer new experiences and genuinely unique destinations in one of the most primitive parts of the world.
MOST POPULAR PLACES for backpacking africa
Kenya – Most popular for being home to the Masaai Mara National Park but there are also some great places to in Kenya such as Lake Naivasha and the white sands of Mombassa.
Malawi – Warm locals, stunning resorts, many villages to explore, horse riding, scuba diving and volunteering.
Mozambique – Less infrastructure and less information for getting around, the sandy shore of Mozambique are to die for but it can be difficult organizing a trip here without your own transport.
Namibia – Awesome if you have your own car while backpacking Africa but there is very little in between each destination in Namibia making it more popular for overland tours rather than independent travel.
Rwanda – The land of a thousand hills is best known for the sad event of the 90’s when an awful genocide took place. However, today you can find a welcoming sea of faces all eager to greet the new arrival. Also a great place to see the Mountain Gorillas.
South Africa – Well, for me this is not really the Africa you might expect. The game parks are mostly private reserves and aside from Cape Town, I would recommend checking out countries further north rather than spending too much time here.
Tanzania – Climb Kilimanjaro, safari into the Serengeti, relax on Zanzibar or volunteer in a local community. Tanzania is the most popular tourist destination in Africa for good reason.
Uganda – So much less visited and primitive than neighbouring Kenya, Uganda is extremely friendly while also being popular for visiting the Mountain Gorillas and white water rafting the Nile in Jinja.
Zambia – Extremely popular for volunteering, I find most people backpacking Africa will stick to Livingstone and Lusaka before staying in a remote village somewhere toward the interior. South Luangwa is expensive but home to one of the most amazing safaris in Africa.
Zimbabwe – Again much less visited than nearby countries but it is also very expensive here. If you are backpacking Africa on a budget then it’s best to stay in Vic Falls for a few days and move on before you spend too much.
GETTING AROUND WHILE BACKPACKING AFRICA
I need to be honest with you here, getting around Africa is not easy and this comes from someone who has cycled the length of the continent. As mentioned before, sometimes the bus doesn’t even arrive and you can forget customer service entirely. Am I trying to put you off? Absolutely not, I’m trying to prepare you for an adventure.
Taking the local bus in Africa – Okay, if I had a child I would just hate them to be travelling 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 despite having to change buses so often, this will certainly keep the budget down.
Overland tour in Africa – I work as a tour leader for an overland tour in Africa and this is without doubt the most popular way of ‘Backpacking Africa” even though it will feel like cheating a bit. You leader organizes everything, they are comfortable, budget friendly and all you need to prepare for are the early mornings.
Self Drive Africa– It won’t be cheap, your vehicle is going to break down and there are always headaches with the carnet at borders. Except this is probably the best way to really immerse yourself and make your own itinerary.
Africa Bicycle Cycle – In 2013 I decided to cycle across Africa and I cannot tell you what that experience did for my life, attitude and general happiness. It will not be easy but you will certainly see the real Africa and have time to witness the landscapes changing in slow motion.
Backpacking Malawi is not the easiest but if you can stomach the changing of buses, the waiting around and the cramped conditions, you’ll make it there eventually.
Check out more on each destination by clicking the link above.
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$40 per night for a room in a guesthouse with western standards. However, hostels are starting to pop up in certain places and if you know the right people (like me) you can often stay in clean guesthouses for as little as $7 – $10. In saying that, my biggest tip for backpacking Africa is to bring a lightweight tent and stay in campsites as much as possible. There are some awesome campsites in Africa and besides, it’s one of the best places to pitch a tent to listen to the surroundings.
A long distance journey by coach (where possible) in Easy Africa will rarely cost more than $10 one way but when you get further south past Zimbabwe you can expect western prices. And then there are the extremely cheap matatus (Just a few dollars) which are small minibuses, except you sometimes need to change from one to another when travelling long distances. Taxi’s are always expensive and not far off Western pricing even in East Africa but it beats flying because flights cost a fortune.
Ps. The Intercape bus running in Southern Africa is very luxurious albeit more expensive than up north.
FOOD AND SHOPPING
Eating in a local restaurant in Africa can take some getting used to but once you stop feeling so self aware, you will find the food is decent and so cheap. If you eat locally for the duration of the trip and avoid booze, you will cut your spending in half. As for shopping, enjoy the markets and the great offers they have on offer. Electronics are cheaper than Asia in places and sometimes the clothes are second hand, but who cares, this is Africa!
Most Popular attractions in Africa
Places to see in Tanzania
Serengeti National Park, Tanzania – The Big Five are here in the world’s most famous National Park. Expensive to visit? Yes, a little but nothing next to the value you will find on a two night safari into the wild.
Ngorongoro National Park, Tanzania – Situated right next to the Serengeti, this is the choice for a backpacker who cannot afford the Serengeti. Sleep on the rim of the 8th largest caldera in the world and descend the next morning inside in a 4 x 4 to see all the wildlife. Giraffe are probably the only notable absentees compared to the Serengeti.
Kilimanjaro National Park, Tanzania – Tallest free standing mountain in the world and for $1,500 you can spend 6 days climbing to the roof of Africa. Incredible experience but would I pay 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 to paradise.
Places to see in Kenya
Masaai Mara National Park, Kenya – North of the Serengeti in neighboring Kenya, the Mara can be better for viewing wildlife than the Serengeti depending on the time of year but in all honesty, it’s not quite the same.
Lake Naivasha, Kenya – One of the worlds largest populations of bird species, hundreds of hippo, colobus monkeys and more. Camping next to Lake Naivasha is one of my favourite things to do in Africa.
Mt Longonot Crater, Kenya – Another spectacular volcanic crater but this time you can hike 360 all the way around the rim or if you are brave enough, try camping down inside it.
Places to see in Uganda
Jinja, Uganda – Source of the white Nile and one of the number one destination in the world for white water rafting and more.
Lake Bunyoni, Uganda – Winston Churchill called it the Switzerland of Africa and it would be hard to disagree. Green terraces, rolling conical mountains and a spectacular lake in between.
Queen Elizabeth National Park, Uganda – Home to what is possibly the best River Cruise in Africa, you can see many crocodiles, hippo and more up close with the most amazing guides for as little as $40pp. Park is not great for game drives but very exciting at night when animals come to camp.
Bwindi Impenetrable Forest, Uganda – Home to the infamous mountain gorilla, trek up into the rain forests to witness this majestic mystery in all it’s glory.