Backpacking Africa: Everything You Need to Know
Backpacking Africa is not the same as backpacking anywhere else in the world. You can saunter around Southeast Asia and South America all you like, but Africa is a different beast. In short, you won’t find the same comforts or tourist infrastructure and you won’t find many fellow backpackers in comparison. That said, I ended up working as a tour guide on the continent for many years and now regard backpacking Africa as the single-most rewarding travel experience I have ever had. When you are finished reading this article, make sure to check out my post about the best overland tour in Africa.
Where Should You Go in Africa?
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. But where to go in Africa? Here is a quick run down of some destinations I highly recommend you consider for a first trip to Africa:
Kenya – Home to Masai Mara Safari. Ideal starting point for any safari or overland tour in East Africa.
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. I recommend visiting both Kenya and Tanzania on the same trip.
Uganda – More primitive than Kenya. Uganda is friendly and where you can visit the Mountain Gorillas. There are excellent overland tours which include Uganda and my favourite Africa Overland Tours for Less than 30 Days is a 19 day tour of Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania.
Rwanda – The land of a thousand hills is best known for genocide in the 1990’s. A friendly country where you can also visit the Mountain Gorillas. FYI It is much cheaper to trek the same gorillas in nearby Uganda.
Malawi – Warm hearted locals, stunning resorts, and plenty of villages to explore. Horse riding, scuba diving and volunteering are also common. Malawi is a highlight on an epic Nairobi to Cape Town overland tour in Africa!
Zambia – Popular for volunteering and visiting Victoria Falls from Livingstone. South Luangwa is expensive to visit but included on some of the more affordable overland tours in Africa.
Zimbabwe – Less visited than East Africa and somewhat expensive but affordable and easy to travel on an overland tour.
Botswana – Animals roam wild and you will feel immersed in the African bush. Overpriced wildlife safaris are made affordable by taking an overland tour which passes through Botswana. Nairobi to Cape Town and Vic Falls to Cape Town routes both include Botswana.
Namibia – Incredible vistas. Home to Etosha National Park, the Namib Desert and Fish River Canyon.
South Africa – Game parks are mostly private reserves but Cape Town is a great place to start/finish an Africa overland tour.
How to Get Around When Backpacking Africa?
I need to be honest with you; getting around Africa is not ‘hard’ but also not easy. Bus journeys are long and cramped. You can forget customer service (LOL) and the roads are often bumpy. Am I trying to put you off? Nope, I want you to backpack Africa!
Taking the local bus in Africa – 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 ridiculous. 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 and you will likely grow tired and frustrated trying to get around.
Overland Tours in Africa – I worked as a leader for overland tours in Africa for many years. They are comfortable, safe, and the easiest way to meet other travellers. Keep in mind, I also travelled independently for 3 years in Africa and it was nowhere near as fun.
Self Drive Africa– I would love to do this sometime but it’s very expensive!
Moral of the story: This is why I write about overland tours in Africa and try to encourage others to take the journey!!
Typical Costs of Backpacking Africa
Africa is not cheap and most especially if you stay in hotels all the time. Expect to pay top dollar for branded hotels and $20 – $30 per night for a room in a basic guesthouse. Hostels are starting to pop up in certain places for as little as $7 – $10. But an overland tour is definitely the best way to get most bang for buck, while not having to worry about your safety or how to get around etc.
A long distance journey by coach (where possible) in Easy Africa will rarely cost more than $20 one way. South of Zimbabwe, you can expect western prices. Matatus (small minibuses) are usually just a few dollars for long distances but they are cramped and unsafe.
National Park Fees
Entry fees are often high in Africa and there is no way around them. There is usually a set fee on each park and you will have to pay for transport, drivers and guides on top of this fee. Fees are included on tours – ANOTHER reason to consider an overland tour in Africa.
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. The same goes for shopping at local markets as opposed to supermarkets.
The Best Place to Start a Trip in Africa
I recommend starting in either Nairobi, Victoria Falls or Cape Town. Most overland tours begin in Nairobi because it’s easy to reach and a great base from which to explore places like the Masai Mara, Serengeti and Kilimanjaro. If you want to explore Southern Africa, Cape Town is the best place to start and you can take overland tours in the other direction (South to North) from here. If you decide to travel for several months all the way through Africa, I suggest leaving Cape Town for the end point of your journey – it’s a beautiful city.
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. With less time available, I would still consider an overland tour but for a shorter distance – either a Nairobi to Zanzibar for Vic Falls to Cape Town. Check out the following:
Important: About 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 it’s not something you want to risk. Make sure to check out my page for the best travel insurance for Africa and in short, I always recommend you get a quote from World Nomads.
Why Do I Recommend World Nomads?
- Trusted reliable underwriters
World Nomads 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
World Nomads 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.
- 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.
- Commitment to exceptional customer service
They provide the best customer service which makes all the difference when you need to make a claim.
Wishing you the best whatever you decide and make sure to check out the How to Plan Your Trip to Africa page. This will help you decide what to do and give you a quick breakdown of all the places and tours I recommend you keep in mind.