When you’re planning a trip to Africa, you will most likely come across all sorts of information.
The news always shows the most negative aspects of Africa, which is only part of the day to day Africa that I know and love. Unfortunately there are very few reports about all of the wonderful and great things happening on the African continent, so it’s not uncommon to feel nervous about going there.
I was scared and a little confused the first time I went to Africa too. Not to mention all the comments, concerns and objections people express when you first tell them you are going to Africa, especially as a woman, on her own!
What you (or more likely your well-meaning friends and family) need to remember Africa is a huge continent made up of 54 countries. Of course there are dangerous places (as there are in every continent) but most dangers can be easily avoided or managed.
I’ve travelled solo using public transport, taken a 2.5 month overland truck from Nairobi to Cape Town, self-driven, camped in the bush, stayed in hostels and luxury safari lodges, lived like a local, volunteered and worked as a tour guide. And now I am an Africa travel blogger and I run my own small group, African adventure tour company, so I’ve done it all!
And I want to show you, how you can travel through Africa in a fun and safe way too!
So to help you prepare for your upcoming travels, I’ve pulled together all my top tips and advice for travel in Africa, based on my experiences and all the things I was curious about before I went.
I originally wrote this post for solo female travellers in Africa, but it applies to everyone really – men, couples, families and groups of friends too! Whether you’re going for a couple of weeks or overlanding through multiple countries.
Whilst I don’t want to generalise too much, as each country and region is different, some things are kind of universal. Not everything will apply to everywhere, but you’ll get the idea and have a starting point for your planning. I go into more detail in my posts about individual countries.
Africa Travel – Before You Go
If you are in the early stages of planning, have a read of my How to Plan a Trip to Africa post, which talks you through the whole process of planning a trip to Africa from start to finish in 20 easy steps.
You may also find my Africa Travel Resources page useful to have open. On this page you’ll find all my favourite hotels/camps in Africa, booking sites, safari companies and a whole load of other useful info.
It’s now almost 8 years since I first stepped foot on African soil and I’ve never regretted travelling there solo, in fact it turned out to be the best decision of my life.
Planning for Africa might seem a little daunting at first. I remember scouring the internet for all kinds of information and it was so confusing!
But hopefully this guide will help! Enjoy the planning stages and use the time to prepare yourself physically and psychologically (as my friend Moses would say) for the trip ahead. Get informed and excited and most of all don’t panic!! You’re going to love it!!!
Your passport needs to be valid for 6 months after the date you intend to leave the country and you will need to have at least 2 blank pages for every country you intend to travel to. I almost didn’t get let into Morocco because I didn’t have a free page. I had lots of space, but no free pages. They let me in, but I got a telling off from border control.
So make sure you have room in your passport for the countries you intend to travel to.
If you have dual nationality, it’s worth checking both of your passports to see which one will work best for you. However, if you are travelling to different countries, you can only use one passport for the duration of your trip.
You will need a visa for most African countries. For some countries or special types of visa you will need to apply in advance.
For some countries or special types of visa you will need to apply in advance.Sometimes this is online and other times from the embassy in your own country or in a neighbouring African country.
Others you’ll be able to get at the point of entry (airport/border).
Most East, Southern and North African countries allow most people to purchase visas on arrival (not all, but in general). Whereas most Central and West African countries require you to apply in advance.
If you are working as a volunteer, you will often need to get a special volunteer visa.
However, there are some exceptions and it can vary depending on your passport. Always check the rules for your nationality and your passport, as it varies. For instance, let’s look at Rwanda. If you are from the UK, you can get a Rwandan visa on arrival, but if you are from Singapore you don’t need a visa, but if you are from France, you need to apply in advance (or so the website says).
Project Visa is a great resource to get information on your specific visa requirements.
If obtaining the visa on arrival, ensure you have the correct money in the currency required – usually dollars (sometimes euros) and have that amount easily accessible, away from your hidden cash so you are not having to rifle through your bags or counting money out in the open.
Preparing Your Money
If I have cash on me when I arrive, I usually have most of it hidden in my carry on luggage (split into a few money wallets) and then a small amount in my every day purse which I carry in my handbag.
I usually bring pounds (as I’m British, but you would bring your own currency) and dollars for visas and some activities. It might also be good to take euros for some countries (especially in North or West Africa). If I can, I sometimes take some of the local currency too, if it’s available (some countries have closed currencies, which mean it is only available in that country).
If I don’t have the local currency already, I usually use the ATM at the airport when I arrive (if there is one) or if not, change just enough money to get to where I need to be.
Then I use ATM’s as I go. However, it’s always good to have cash to change, just in case the ATM’s aren’t working/empty.
I never carry travellers cheques as they can be a pain to cash. That’s just my personal preference.
- Have a look at Martin Lewis’s website to see who is offering the best currency exchange rates. I usually use Marks & Spencer because they have good rates (especially if you have a M&S credit card) and I also like the ladies who work on the counter in my local branch (they’re always so excited to hear about where I’m going).
- Visa is much more widely accepted than Mastercard or any other card so always take a Visa card with you.
- Remember to tell your bank where you are going, otherwise they may block your cards.
- Try and get cards that don’t charge commission when you take out money in a foreign country.
- There are ATM’s and FOREX bureaus in most major cities and towns but you may have to try a couple as they don’t always have enough money in.
- Sign up for Western Union, just in case you need money wiring to you. There are Western Union branches everywhere.
- Download a currency conversion app onto your phone (I use Units Plus) so that you can always check how you are paying, as it can get confusing when you are moving between countries that have similar currencies, with different values. I once confused Tanzanian Shillings with Kenyan Shillings and accidentally ordered a £50 bottle of wine at Carnivore in Nairobi. Ouch! It still makes me cringe when I think about this.
Vaccinations and Malaria Prevention
I’m often asked about what vaccinations, malaria and other health precautions you have to take when travelling to Africa, but I am not a doctor or medical practitioner, so I would advise you speak to one asap! However, here’s some guidance, based on my own experience.
The World Health Organization is the place to find out about any particular issues that are affecting the areas you might be travelling to or you can try The Travel Doctor, another great resource when looking at what precautions you need to take in which countries.
First port of call is to speak to your doctor or a specialist travel clinic – they should be able to advise you on what you need to do and your doctor may be able to give you some of your vaccinations for free, or on a cheap prescription.
For everything else go to your local travel clinic. I use Nomad Travel Clinic or Boots Travel Clinics in the UK.
Just remember that travel clinics are businesses, so they will advise you get everything. Your doctor may be less over zealous with the injections, so you need to weigh up the risks v’s costs yourself.
The truth is there aren’t many you HAVE to take (apart from getting a Yellow Fever vaccination certificate for entry into some countries – see below), but there are a lot that you are advised to take.
Aside from your routine vaccinations (MMR, Polio, Diptheria, Meningitis etc) – Hepatitis A, Hepititis B (3 x vaccinations), Tetanus and Typhoid are all highly recommended.
3 x Rabies vaccinations are also recommended if you are going to be visiting any remote areas or likely to come into contact with animals.
A Yellow Fever is compulsary for some places (see below).
Just remember that you need to get some over the course of a few months, so don’t eave it to the last minute.
A Yellow Fever certificate is required if you are travelling from a country where Yellow Fever is a risk (this can include transit too but only usually if you have spent more than 12 hours in a risk country) – you can find more info about whether you need a Yellow Fever certificate here and here.
Do make sorting out your Yellow Fever certificate a priority as some countries will not let you in without it, or they’ll make you get a shot at the airport (if available).
Malaria is rife in many parts of Africa. Taking anti-malarials is a personal choice and some people don’t like them as the side effects can be a bit nasty. I do take anti-malarials, that’s my choice and I’ve never had any trouble with the ones I’ve tried. If you choose to take them, your doctor can advise the best ones for you.
Always test them out a few weeks before you go. If you do get side effects, probably best to find out before you leave home.
Some people choose to get some from home and then buy the rest in Africa as they tend to be a bit cheaper over there. just make sure you buy them from a reputable pharmacy.
See below in the ‘Staying Healthy’ section for more info on malaria prevention (just remember some malaria tablets make the contraceptive pill ineffective).
Travel insurance is a must when travelling in Africa (or anywhere else in my opinion).
Make sure that the policy you take out covers you for all of your travel requirements, including the sometimes remote nature of Africa travel and any adventurous activities that you wish to do.
I usually use World Nomads however, they don’t cover everything, so it’s always best to double check that they cover your planned activities. If not, you may need to get specialist cover.
For some African countries with travel warnings get in place (like the DRC), you may need to get specialist insurance.
Books To Read
There are some great books you can read to find out more about Africa before you gonor to read as you travel! Here are some of my favourites,
- DON’T RUN, Whatever You Do: My Adventures as a Safari Guide by Peter Allison
- Cry of the Kalahari by Mark Owens
- Colour Bar: The Triumph of Seretse Khama and His Nation by Susan Williams
Democratic Republic of Congo
- Blood River: A Journey to Africa’s Broken Heart by Tim Butcher
- Cutting For Stone by Abraham Verghese
- An African Love Story: Love, Life and Elephants by Daphne Sheldrick
- Out of Africa by Karen Blixen (aka Isak Dinesen)
- Born Free by Joy Adamson
- I Dreamed of Africa by Kuki Gallmann
- A Primate’s Memoir: Love, Death and Baboons in East Africa by Robert Sapolsky
- The Last Lions by Beverly Joubert
- The Constant Gardener by John Le Carré
- The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind by Bryan Mealer and William Kamkwamba
- The Sand Child by Tahar Ben Jelloun
- Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
- We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families by Philip Gourevitch
- Shake Hands With The Devil: The Failure of Humanity in Rwanda by Roméo Dallaire
- A Long Way Gone: The True Story of a Child Soldier by Ishmael Beah
- Africa: Altered States, Ordinary Miracles by Richard Dowden
- The State of Africa: A History of the Continent Since Independence by Martin Meredith
- The Last Train to Zona Verde: Overland from Cape Town to Angola by Paul Theroux
- The Shadow of the Sun: My African Life by Ryszard Kapuściński
- Swahili For The Broken-Hearted by Peter Moore
- Dark Star Safari: Overland from Cairo to Cape Town by Paul Theroux
- Long Way Down by Ewan McGregor and Charlie Boorman
What to Wear in Africa
Africa is vast and even if you’re only visiting one country, you’ll likely have to pack for a number of different occasions, activities, temperatures and cultural considerations.
But there are a few general packing rules I live by that will cover you for all situations.
- Dress modestly if going to anywhere local (school, market, village, border crossing etc). Shoulders are usually fine, but keep your knees covered. No mini skirts or hot pants. Knees and shoulders should be covered in predominantly Muslim areas, such as Stone Town in Zanzibar. If in doubt, look at what the locals are wearing. Follow suit.
- At your hotel/round the pool/on the beach, it is usually fine to wear what you want.
- I always carry a scarf with me in case I need to cover my shoulders or head.
- Take at least one nicer outfit if you are planning to go to any of the upmarket hotels, however they don’t usually have strict dress codes.
- Leggings are great. You can wear these under a dress that might be too short otherwise and they’re super comfy.
- Even though it’s Africa and you don’t expect it to be cold, it DOES get cold at night in many places and you will likely spend a lot of time outdoors, so take some really warm clothes ie) a fleece or down jacket.
- Take good pair of sturdy shoes for hiking and night time treks to the loo.
- Girls, take a sports bra for those bumpy roads.
Other Packing Considerations:
- Leave your fancy jewellery at home.
- Take a good camera, you’ll want to capture all of the amazing things you’re going to see.
- Good feminine hygiene products are hard to come by, especially out of the big towns and cities, so take a stash with you from home.
- Toiletries are available at most major supermarkets, but if there’s anything specific you want, you’ll have to take it.
- Suncream is also hard to find, so take it with you.
- Take a good book and your iPod – journeys and nights are long.
- Always have a torch, headlamp preferably. Power cuts are frequent.
- I usually have a roll of gaffer tape on me to fix anything that needs fixing.
READ MORE: What To Pack for Backpacking in Africa
Africa Travel – When You Are There
Arriving in Africa
On my very first trip to Africa, I started off in Livingstone, Zambia, where I worked as a volunteer for The Book Bus. This was a really great introduction to Africa as I was picked up at the airport and my accommodation was taken care of.
Volunteering allowed me to get involved with the local communities, visit places most tourists never see, immerse myself in the culture and see the ‘real’ Zambia before venturing out on my own. By the time I left for my first completely solo adventure, taking the Tazara train to Tanzania, I felt ready.
However, if you’re going it alone, or have a few days before joining a trip or volunteer programme, arriving in Africa needn’t be a scary experience.
- Arrive in daylight: Arriving in daylight (if you can) is great as it allows you to get your bearings, but it’s easier said than done and it’s not a problem if you can’t. Cheaper flights tend to arrive at night, so unless you want to pay the big bucks, you may have to take this route. But that’s ok, don’t panic! Arriving at night is absolutely fine (I pretty much always arrive in the dark due to the flight times) and there are a few things you can do to make it easier.
- Book accommodation: My advice is to always book your first night’s accommodation before you arrive. In fact, I like to book ahead when I’m arriving in any new city or town. But at least have your first night booked when you are fresh off the plane, feeling tired and disoriented. It just makes things a lot easier and if you don’t like where you’re staying, you can always move, but get your bearings first and then move on.
- Get picked up: If you’re arriving in a new place for the first time – day or night, it’s probably a good idea to get picked up. There are always taxis at the airports, but almost all hotels and guest houses have a pick-up service (for a fee) and if not, they will always be able to order you a taxi. Give them your flight details and you can agree the price beforehand. If they can’t/won’t – consider staying somewhere else. The driver will usually be waiting at the gate with a piece of paper with your name on.
- Don’t panic: If for any reason they aren’t there, don’t panic. Likelihood is they are just late. You will get used to ‘African Time’. There will be a number of touts/taxi drivers waiting at the gate. They’ll ask your name, but don’t give it out as they will likely tell you they are the person picking you up, even if they aren’t. Not that they’ll necessarily try and rip you off, but they want the business. If you’re being picked up, wait for that person, they should know your name! If you’re worried, find other tourists to hang out with whilst you wait, or find a member of staff who can assist you. Have the name, address and telephone number of your accommodation written down.
Where to Stay in Africa
There are loads of great places to stay in Africa and I find that picking the right place can really enhance your africa travel experience.
My favourite sites to book accommodation for Africa are Booking.com and Hostelworld and I also use Google, as there are often cool places that aren’t listed on the booking sites, but they do have their own websites. Traveller and local recommendations are also a great way of finding the best spots!
The booking accommodation, I always look at a few key factors.
Things To Consider
- Is there a good there a good common area or bar which will be good for making friends? The backpacker hostels and campsites tend to be the best places for this.
- Is it clean?
- Is it value for money?
- Does it have character?
- Do they offer activities?
- Do they have lockers/places for your valuables?
- Is it in a good location? For me that’s near the action and/or with a great view.
- Is there a night watchman?
- Does it get great reviews? I usually cross reference with Tripadvisor and Lonely Planet. I also often do a Google image search too!
READ NEXT: My Favourite Africa Travel Resources (all my favourite camps, hostels and hotels are listed here)
You will meet some wonderful people on your trip, both locals and other tourists. Please don’t think you will be robbed at every turn. This just is so far from the reality, it’s untrue.
In general, the same rules apply as they do at home and listening to the advice of those who know the local area.
But there is a lot of poverty and like anywhere, there are some dodgy people about and you as a tourist are going to stand out. You may not have much, but you have more than most.
I once spent a wonderful afternoon in a little shebeen (pub) in a township in Namibia. Me and five friends had read about an organised ‘tour’ but we decided to go by ourselves. We stopped for a drink (actually a few drinks). Our tour guide, Moses, said it was fine for us to walk over, but to be back for nightfall. This wasn’t a township like you might find in South Africa or Kenya, but a township nonetheless.
Everyone we met was super friendly and I was up dancing to Herero music at one point with our new friends, having a great time. I could have stayed all night and felt totally safe. But they also warned us that we should probably leave before it got dark as this area of town wasn’t really safe for tourists at night. We followed their advice.
General Safety Tips:
- Ask advice from the people at your accommodation. They are your best resource for knowing where to go and where not to go in your local area.
- Do not walk around alone at night, especially in quiet areas. If you do need to venture out, take a licenced taxi. Your hotel will be able to call you a reliable one. Get them to pick you up afterwards also.
- If you have to walk, make sure it’s in a group and in a lively area. I’ve done this many times and never had a problem.
- If you are going out, let people know where you’re going.
- Don’t drink too much alcohol or leave your drinks unattended, especially if you are in a public place.
- If you are lost and need some help, ask a shop keeper or someone official to point you in the right direction. I also prefer asking women for directions where possible.
- Don’t leave expensive items in your tent or dorm room. If your accommodation has a safe, use it.
- Have a small wallet with a little bit of day to day cash, and keep the main bulk of your money separate from that, either in a hidden money belt (I like the ones that loop onto your belt), or in a safe. If I don’t have access to a safe, I usually spread my money about my person.
- Don’t exchange money in the street with illegal money changers. Change it at a proper Bureau de Change or at a hotel.
- Don’t make yourself a target by flashing money about, wearing expensive stuff or leaving expensive belongings unattended.
- Walk with confidence. I do this and no-one messes with me.
- Try not to look lost, even if you are. I try to study the map and learn my directions before I head out. Or sometimes I just write them on a piece of paper or my hand. If you need to find your bearings, pop into a cafe/shop to ask directions or look at your map discreetly.
- Don’t give out your number or the name of your hotel to any random strangers.
- Dress appropriately for where you are.
- Listen to your guides on safari.
- Make a copy of your passport and store it separately to your actual passport.
- If you do (God forbid) get mugged. Be friendly and polite, I know that sounds weird, but just do it. Hand over what you’ve got. Everything is replaceable – except you.
‘Hassle’ comes in many different forms and I have certain ways in which I deal with different types of hassle.
It is very normal to greet people as you pass in Africa. I remember coming home and found it weird that most people didn’t say hello as they passed me in the street. Heck, even in my office, people walk past and don’t even say hello – and that’s when they know you. A smile, an eyebrow raise or even just a head nod and a greeting goes a long way and doesn’t mean you’ll get unwanted attention. You’ll more likely earn a lot of respect. If someone wants to talk to you, they probably will, regardless of whether you smile at them or not.
In some countries, people might say that you shouldn’t make eye contact or look at men because it’s an invitation. In my opinion, I wouldn’t say this is a massive problem in sub-Saharan Africa, but it does happen.
I have had a few ‘situations’ where men have been a bit of a problem. I’ve never felt in any danger, but these situations were more annoying than anything and to be honest, I’ve had worse bother at home in the UK.
Whilst travelling alone on the train from Zambia to Tanzania, I found myself eating in the dining carriage. Despite there being a number of others in the carriage, a guy came in and made a beeline for me. I was a woman alone and I stood out. He wasn’t threatening in any way but he was drunk. I was polite to him and eventually he said it was nice to meet me and left.
Last time I was in Kenya I made friends with the guy who worked behind reception at our hotel. He was a nice guy, only young, always chatty and friendly. He even came out with our group (and a load of others from the hotel one night). I thought we were pals. When we left the hotel, he asked if he could keep in touch by WhatsApp. I said sure. To be honest I didn’t think anything of it.
I then received a barrage of messages, a poem and even a voice message declaring his feelings for me. Say what? I told him I was sorry if he got the wrong impression, but I am married and definitely not interested in him that way – at all. Undeterred, he said that he was coming to see me as he wanted to talk to me. WTF?
I told him that shouldn’t come, I wasn’t interested and did not want to talk to him. I went out for the evening, my phone was in my bag on silent. When I got home, I had about 7 missed calls and a load of messages. He had followed me to the next place I was staying (we’d told him where we were off to next before he went a bit weird), but luckily we’d moved hostels so he couldn’t find me. He was angry that I hadn’t been there to meet him. I explained what he had done was pretty much stalking and blocked him. I’m still baffled by his behaviour.
But it wasn’t just the fellas. Once I gave my number out to a girl I met in the street. I’d just arrived, she stopped me to chatand she said she wanted to be my friend. She DID. NOT. STOP. CALLING. I had to block her because it became too much.
- Always be polite, but firm.
- If you feel the situation isn’t great, remove yourself as quickly as possible.
- Don’t give out your number unless it’s to someone you know really well (unless you want a stalker).
- Consider wearing a fake wedding ring.
One of the things that annoyed me most when I first lived in Tanzania, was people shouting at me constantly. I’d hear ‘mzungu, mzungu’ (which means white person’ or ‘foreigner’) as I walked down the street and then they’d laugh when I turned around and put their heads down or hide. I used to get it from the kids in Zambia, but in Tanzania, the adults did it too.
The word itself is not offensive, but when people just do it to get a reaction out of you, it annoys me.
I counteracted this by going over to the people that did it and introducing myself, in Swahili. “Jina langu ni Helen” I’d say. I wanted to show them I wasn’t special or different. I don’t know if this is the best way to deal with it, but it worked for me.
- Be polite, introduce yourself, shake hands. Let people see you’re not so different.
Touts and Sellers
Over the years, I have perfected the ‘don’t mess with me look’. I’m so good at it, I didn’t get any harassment in Morocco, which is notorious for it.
The first time I travelled alone in Africa was a bus trip from Livingstone to Lusaka, on my way to catch the Tazara Train. I was a little too prepared for the touts when I arrived at Lusaka bus station and I think I literally knocked about 6 men out of the way as a walked off the bus in my determination not to look like a scared tourist. This may have been a tad unnecessary. As soon as I said ‘No, I have a taxi thanks’, they backed off. I mentioned this earlier in the ‘Arrving in Africa’ section, but just be confident and take your time to assess the situation.
One of the phrases that I guarantee will grate on you when travelling in Africa is “Come into my shop, looking is free”. The first time you hear it, it’s funny, but after you’ve walked past the twentieth curio shop in a row, selling the exact same stuff, it gets a bit annoying. But there’s nothing you can do about it – they said it to the hundred people before you and they’ll say it to the hundred people after you. Smile and say no thanks if you’re not interested but don’t lose your patience, it will achieve nothing.
At the market, look nonchalant until you’re ready to commit. If someone is following me round trying to sell something I sometimes just say, “I’m not a tourist, I live here”- always seems to do the trick and people back off a bit after that. If you do want to buy, it’s fine to bargain or trade. You may get charged more because you’re a tourist so you’ll need to weigh up whether the price is fair. Don’t pay way over the odds, but at the same time, don’t barter them down to nothing. Start with a price about half what you’d be willing to pay, and work up from there.
On the beaches, you’ll be asked a million times if you want to buy bracelets, tours, hair braiding or whatever else they happen to be selling. Same rules apply, be confident, be patient and say no thanks.
People are just trying to make a buck to provide for their families. Just be confident, firm and polite when saying no and always smile!
- Be confident when you say ‘no thanks’ and move on.
- Always smile and be polite.
- Don’t lose your patience, it will achieve nothing.
- Pay the price you think is fair (and that you can afford) and you’ll never get ripped off.
The biggest thing that gets you is when people beg or ask for money. Many people live in poverty and begging is common in Africa. “Mzungu give me money! Mzungu give me pen! Mzungu give me sweets!” That’s people you don’t know.
Occasionally, you’ll also be asked by people you do know well, that’s when it gets really tough to say no. It’s hard not to want to give to people who are obviously in need, but it’s not always the best thing for anyone concerned.
I once gave some left over food to some boys in Kenya who looked really hungry. It was obvious that they were glue sniffing, something people do to stave off their hunger. What I should have done, is divided the food up equally. What I did was just hand the food to one of the boys. So what happened? They started to fight over it. I started that fight.
I just read a great post over on Uncornered Market on the topic Should Travelers Give to Kids Who Beg? which has some great points that I wholeheartedly agree with on how best to give in developing countries, so go have a read, it applies to both adults and kids. It sucks not to be able to help people. But sometimes, you can cause more harm than good. The only thing I give now to anyone who asks for anything, is water bottles. This is something they will usually share with their friends.
Making Friends Travelling Africa
Do not worry about making friends in Africa, even if you are a solo traveller. On every trip I have been on in Africa, I’ve always made friends, even if it was just for a few days at a time. People bond quickly in Africa because it is such an amazing and crazy place.
But what if you’re not in a group?
If you are backpacking solo, you will need to be prepared for the fact that you may need to make a few journeys alone. You’ll meet awesome people in hostels and camps for sure (most of the places I have listed on my resources page are good for meeting people). But the likelihood of them taking the exact same route as you at the same time is a lot lower than say in somewhere like Southeast Asia, where people just tend to rock up.
I met tons of great people in a hostel I stayed at in Lilongwe in Malawi. It was my last few days in Africa and I wanted to go on one last safari over to Zambia, but the people I met at the hostel either; lived there, were working there for various NGO’s or they were passing through on an overland and didn’t have the flexibility I had.
Another time in Zambia I met some great people in a hostel in Lusaka. Lisa, my dorm mate was there working for the UN, and the big group of lads we met were driving overland from London to Cape Town. We were best friends for approximately 2 nights before we went our separate ways.
It isn’t like this every time, and you can meet other pure backpackers, but most people will be there with a set purpose and a set plan (or some pre-booked activities) You’ll often meet the same people along the way as the main travel trail is quite well beaten, if a bit less ‘dense’ with travellers than a lot of other places. I guess this is what makes solo Africa travel seem that little bit more challenging at times. But, it’s really quite fun and a lot less scary than you think! I had no idea it was like that before I went, but it was just the challenge I needed. I learned to love my own company and it allowed me to become truly independent, like I’d never been before.
Whatever you do, get out and meet the people who live there. If you don’t do that you will really be missing out. The heartbeat of Africa lies with the people.
Each to their own and all that, and far be it from me to tell anyone what their holiday should be like, but I can’t say that it doesn’t annoy me when people go to Africa, only go on safari and throw in a token township or village tour to ‘meet the locals’.
As a backpacker, self-driver or volunteer, you will get to interact and make friends with local people more than if you are an overland or on a luxury safari. And if you are travelling solo, your local friends will really be a lifeline at times. If you are friendly, approachable and kind, they will almost always want to look out for you.
Africa isn’t set up for backpacking in perhaps the same way as other places, but it is fairly easy to travel around in most places. Travel can be a bit slower than you’re used to and seem disorganized, but there are always ways to get from A-B. Always. It just might not be on the day you planned. Ask around at your accommodation they will be a great fountain of knowledge.
My general rule for any kind of overland road travel in Africa, is travel by daylight. African roads aren’t always the best, there are few street lights, animals in the roads and in some areas bandits (although this is rare). Keep your journeys short and don’t forget to check sunrise and sunset times as the sun goes down early in many parts of Africa.
Oh, and wear your seat belt. If there’s one provided there is no excuse to not to!
Bus: The most common form of transport is the bus. They range from big coaches, to smaller mini buses known by many different names (dala dala in Tanzania, matatu in Kenya etc). Undoubtedly the bigger buses are generally more comfortable and safe as most have seatbelts. I’d recommend them, especially for long distances.
The small buses are often packed solid, and sometimes they drive too fast, but they are the quickest way to get around. I often take them as they’re really cheap and sometimes the only way I can get to where I need to go. For instance when I was living in Bagamoyo in Tanzania, the only ways to get there from Dar es Salaam were to take a dala dala that cost a couple of dollars or a taxi that cost $60.
If you do take a mini bus, keep the distances short and if you feel in any way unsafe, get off at the next stop where there are plenty of people around. Another bus will be along soon.
Buses are few and far between in Namibia and some parts of Botswana and South Africa, and may not get you exactly where you want to go, so you might be best hiring a car if that’s where you are going.
Train: Travelling by train in Africa is awesome, there just aren’t enough of them. But if you get the opportunity train is a great way to travel. I took the train from Zambia to Tanzania and you can read all about my experience and safety tips for train travel in Africa here. I also took the Naironi to Mombasa train but haven’t written about it yet!
Plane: If you’re short on time, need to cross an area that’s notoriously unsafe or travelling in the rainy season when roads are bad, flying is a good option.
Motorbike: Motorbike taxis (called boda-bodas or piki-pikis) are common in many places, especially East Africa. Whilst they don’t generally go too fast (the roads aren’t good enough for that), very rarely will the driver have a spare helmet so you are taking a bit of a risk if this is how you choose to travel.
Boat: Taking a boat or ferry in Africa can be a really fun experience but safety regulations are not always as hot as they are at home, so my best advice is to ask around for a recommended company. Check if they have lifeboats/lifejackets and if in doubt (looks really shabby or overloaded), don’t get on.
Hitchhiking: This isn’t something I would do from the roadside personally, but I know people who have. Hitchhiking anywhere in the world carries risks, Africa is no different. If you are really on a budget, the best thing to do would be to ask the other guests (there are often overlanders who could give you a lift) or staff at your hostel/hotel can hook you up with a ride (in my experience, Africans are very well connected – especially those that work in the tourist industry)!
For example, I was camping at Lake Malawi and had a few days to spare before a Lilongwe to Jo’burg flight when met a group who offered to take me with them overland to Jo’burg. I ended up taking a quick trip to Zambia instead (I was looking for a leopard), but the only safari I could find was longer than the time I had so I made my own way back to Malawi with the help of the camp barman. True story. The only time this isn’t great is when you’re on a schedule, but schedules in Africa are a bad idea anyway! If your heart is set on hitchhiking, I found this great post on Mzansi Girl which has some tips for hitchiking in Africa.
Some companies/hotels can help you arrange a shared private mini bus. These will pick you up from your hotel, and drop you off where you need to be. These are cheaper than taxis, but more expensive than public mini buses. I took one of these from Moshi in Tanzania to Nairobi in Kenya. It cost me £20, but this was for a six hour drive, so definitely worth it! It was easier than getting a mini bus as they take you all the way, rather than the other mini buses that don’t cross the border with you, so you have to find another one the other side. Plus, they just drop you at the stand in town, so you have to then get to your accommodation. This isn’t the cheapest option, but it is a great way to travel.
Small Group Tour
Tours are a great way to see Africa, especially for safaris or for the more remote places that are difficult to get to without your own transport. Plus they take a lot of the hassle out of finding accommodation and working out how to get from A to B.
You can take various safari trips that last from a couple of days to a few weeks usually. Some even longer.
I created my own small group tours in Africa because I wanted to create a kind of hybrid between an experiential tour and a backpacking adventure, that feels more like a group of mates going travelling together rather than a ‘tour’. But I take all the hard work out of it for you!
The trips are usually between 10 – 15 days and great for travellers who want to see and experience a lot in a short space of time (without feeling too rushed). They go to places a little bit off the usual overland route so you get the feel of a true backpacking experience. Sounds good right?
READ MORE: Helen in Wonderlust Tours
Whilst I love to travel completely by myself, I’m also a big fan of overlanding. An overland tour is basically where you travel together in a big group, with people you’ve never met before in a converted truck. You have a leader and driver, you’ll camp for the most part and either cook your own meals or have them cooked for you. It basically takes all the hassle out of the logistics for you and you get built in travel companions. This will be heaven for some people, hell for others – I’ve written a lot about my overland experiences… the good, the bad and the ugly.
Plus, it’s one of the most economical and safe ways to travel around Africa. Whilst it isn’t necessarily as cheap to get around as public transport you may actually save money on other things such as accommodation and activities, plus you pay for most things up front, so it makes it really easy to budget. You pay a basic price which includes your transport, food and some activities (but not visas), then you just add on any extras along the way. I took a 2.5 month trip from Nairobi to Cape Town and it cost me around £3,000 – in total. That included all of my accommodation, breakfast, dinner and activities (including a few safaris). A two week safari holiday could cost the same. It’s not luxurious, but for the experience, it’s totally worth it (in my opinion).
Doing a self-drive is possible, but it will take a lot more research and prep than if you’re taking any other form of transport. All the same rules apply– whether you’re going by car or by bike. There are a number of companies that offer self-drive packages, both guided or not and some offer back-up support. As a solo person (woman or not) I personally would choose a group self-drive, public transport or an organized tour over a solo self-drive, but that’s just me. If you’re determined, here’s a bit of advice:
- Get yourself a good vehicle.
- Learn about the mechanics of your vehicle.
- Do your research and plan your routes well! Ask around as you go for advice.
- Don’t drive at night.
- Keep distances short.
- Always let someone know where you’re going.
- Keep a very close eye on travel warnings and avoid dangerous areas.
- Think about taking a GPS and satellite phone as a back-up to your mobile phone.
- Always have a Plan B.
- Know the legal requirements of the countries you are travelling through and ensure you have the correct paperwork. Roadblocks are common so don’t give officials any reason to fine you.
One thing I’m not massively fond of is self-drive safaris. They may be cheaper, but you have to remember that the guides are trained to navigate the parks safely and to help you get the most out of the experience. You may have seen what happened to the couple who tailgated an elephant in Kruger. The elephant was showing clear signs of distress, yet the couple didn’t back off. They panicked, sending the car forward, rather than into reverse.
Either way, it ended badly for everyone concerned, with the couple being severely injured and the elephant being put down as a result. If you’re an experienced safarigoer, this could be a wonderful experience. For those who aren’t… extremely dangerous. My advice is to go with a guide – but that’s just me.
I’ve done around 20 overland border crossings in Africa and I’ve never once had a problem. If you’re travelling with any kind of tour or private transfer, your guide will be able to give you any help you need.
If you’re completely alone, don’t worry. Keep your bags with you, have your money ready, read up on entry requirements (see above) and be confident. Most borders are nothing to worry about. Just keep alert. Watch out for traffic and if anyone hassles you, find an official.
Don’t give your visa money to anyone except the person behind the counter!
The weirdest border crossing I have done, is the Zambia – Malawi crossing returning from South Luangwa National Park. The mini bus I was travelling in dropped me off at a local taxi stand. I took a 5 minute taxi to the border, sitting pretty much on another lady’s knee all the way. I walked over the border getting my passport stamped at both passport offices. Then repeated the taxi/mini bus process the other side. It was fine, just a bit of a random process.
As well as getting your vaccinations and malaria tablets prior to your trip, there are plenty of other things you can do whilst in Africa to avoid getting sick.
Water: There will be some places where it is not advisable to drink the water. Ask at your accommodation and if in doubt, drink bottled water. Water is available to buy from street stalls, shops, tourist attractions and hotels or you could sterlise your on water by boiling or using a steripen.
Hygiene: One of the most common reasons for people to get sick in Africa is not washing their hands. Wash your hands before you eat and keep a bottle of hand gel with you. I like to take a nail brush to make sure my hands are extra clean.
Malaria: If you begin to feel fluey whilst your there, or even within a few months of returning home, head to the doctors as soon as possible for a malaria test. Cover up your arms/legs/feet at dusk and dawn when mosquitoes are most active. Use a mosquito repellent which is at least 50% DEET. Most hostels/hotels/static tents have mosquito nets, but some have holes in. I always keep a roll of electrical tape which can be used to repair a broken net. Don’t forget to tuck them in, even when you’re not in them. You usually won’t need a mosquito net in a put up, put down tent, but I would keep your tent as zipped up as possible. For any other mosquito emergencies, I find a can of DOOM is the way to get rid of the nasty little suckers!
Heat/sun: To avoid heatstroke/sunburn, make sure you wear a high factor sunscreen and drink lots of water. If you’re going to be out in the sun a lot, cover up!
Bilharzia (schistosomiasis): This is a parasite infection that you can get from water, either by swimming in it or drinking it. Ways to prevent it include drinking bottled or boiled water and avoid bathing/swimming in fresh water where a lot of people live along the shore i.e. some parts of Lake Malawi (however it’s ok to swim off the islands in the middle of the lake). Do your research and ask your guide or at your accommodation about whether it is safe to swim. For more info on Bilharzia click here.
Diarrhea/vomiting: If the inevitable happens, keep yourself hydrated. Take electrolytes to help you replace lost salt and sugar in your body. If it doesn’t go after a couple of days, get yourself to a clinic for some medicine.
STIs: It’s easy to let your guard down when you travel, but this should go without saying. ALWAYS practice safe sex.
Rabies: Rabies shots aren’t compulsory before you go and the likelihood of you catching it is low. But to be on the safe side, stay away from animals you don’t know. They may look cute but it’s better to be safe than sorry! For detailed info on rabies click here.
Kit: I always carry a first aid kit with me, usually with my own needles. Just in case.
Food: I’ve never had a problem eating local foods in Africa. I eat chapatis, samosas, rice and beans, plantain, ugali/nshima from street stalls and container restaurants all the time and I’ve been fine. Perhaps just avoid the usual suspects… thin skinned fruits and veg, salads, undercooked meat and unclean looking food prep areas. This really is a judgement call, and you will know the sesitivity of your stomach and sometimes it can just be the luck of the draw.
If you need any specific medications, take them with you as they may not be widely available.
Men, you probably don’t need to read this. Unless you want to enter the fascinating world of female toilet habits – whatever floats ya boat. If not, skip to the next point.
Anyways… oh, African toilets, you gotta love ’em. I wrote a post about 25 things that WILL happen on your overland tour. The points about the loos… probably will happen on any type of African trip. Unless you are on a really fancy safari. Then you might escape the lovely long drops. Otherwise, you will inevitably find yourself squatting and peeing somewhere. Most of the time, you’ll be able to stop at a proper toilet. But if it’s a case of just having to go in the bush, my best advice is:
- Don’t go wandering too far off in the bush by yourself. Especially if you’re in an area with animals.
- Check what’s around before you drop your pants!
- Wear a long skirt or keep a sarong with you, that way it’s easy to hide your modesty.
Whatever you do, do not stop drinking water because you don’t want to pee. You’ll end up dehydrated and ill, and constipated. Now, going for a lot of wees might be a pain, but being constipated will be a real pain in the ass – literally. Plus, you’ll end up spending longer hovering above that horrible toilet. You want to be in an out! Drink water!!!!!!!!!!!!
One major tip – always carry toilet paper with you!!!
A Few Last Thoughts
- Embrace the expression TIA, which means This Is Africa. It basically means, expect the unexpected, this is Africa and anything can happen. Be flexible, be patient.
- Borrowing this phrase from my friend Moses – “Prepare yourself physically & psychologically” – your trip will be amazing, exhausting, world changing!
- Don’t take pictures at border crossings or on bridges, unless you want a fine or a telling off.
- Relax and enjoy. Africa is bloody wonderful, it will surprise you and you will fall in love with it.
- My other main tip is to try learning a few key words in the local language, it will win you a lot of respect:
- Hello, how are you?
- What is your name?
- My name is…
- Thank you.
- You’re welcome.
- No, thank you.
I hope you enjoyed this post and hope it helps you on your trip to Africa!
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