“Is it safe to travel Africa independently or should I take a tour?”
This is probably one of the first things you’ll start thinking about when you first start researching your trip backpacking through Africa.
The problem is, there is a lot of conflicting information online which can be confusing, so trying to figure out what is the best can be a little overwhelming.
But don’t worry – I’m here to help!
There are a number of ways to travel around Africa and all have their pros and cons. These include backpacking around using public transport, self-driving or taking a tour – of which there are many different types to choose from.
I guess the first thing to say is that ‘safe’ is a relative term.
Africa is a huge continent with 54 separate countries. As with anywhere else in the world, there are some places that are considered pretty ‘safe’ and some that aren’t, so you should always do your research before going anywhere.
But deciding between a tour and solo travel isn’t just about safety. There are many other factors to consider, like the logistics of getting around, cost, whether you want to plan and organise everything yourself and your own personality/travel style.
For instance, countries like Malawi, Tanzania, Kenya and Uganda are pretty easy to travel through independently. Ok, ‘easy’ might not be the correct word, they are challenging at times, but they are generally regarded as ‘safe’ and the public transport is pretty frequent and easy to find. You might not always be able to get to the most remote places, but you can always join tours for short sections of your trip if you need to.
Then there are countries like Namibia, where public transport is more scarce and will only get you to the main cities or towns, which usually aren’t the places you want to go to, so the best options are to either self-drive or join a tour.
So today I’m going to help you look at your options. I’ve only done a couple of self-drive trips through Africa, in South Africa and Botswana, so I’m going to leave that for another time (especially as that usually requires a whole different mindset) and I’m not going to include the high-end tours, as they tend to be for small private groups anyway.
But for those who want to travel Africa, within a relatively low budget but who are debating the pros and cons of taking an overland tour vs. backpacking independently, this post is for you!
Hopefully, this will give you an insight into both options and help you decide which is right for you. Or maybe you’ll just end up feeling even more confused… but let’s dive right in.
To take a tour or not to take a tour? That is the question!
African Overland Tours
There are a few different types of tour that you can take in Africa. If you are new to the African continent, the ones that you probably think of are the fancy safari tours that you see in the movies, or in magazines or on Instagram. These tours are usually private tours and they can be expensive.
But if you’re a backpacker or googling ‘budget Africa tours’ the type of tour you’ll usually come across first is an overland tour.
What is an African overland tour?
An African overland tour, or ‘overland’ for short, usually consists of a group (usually between 10 and 30 people), travelling around Africa together (overland, obviously) in a large, self-contained and purpose-built truck. Most trucks will have a guide as well as a driver and some will also have a chef.
Overland tours are usually participatory, meaning that you will help with things like the shopping, cooking (if you have a chef you may not get involved in the cooking), washing up and cleaning the truck. They vary in price, usually depending on the type of accommodation, how much participation is required and what is included in terms of activities.
Most overlands are camping tours too (but not all), so you will sleep in safari tents (sleeping two to a tent) and you put the tents up yourselves. But even if they are predominantly camping trips, you sometimes have the option to upgrade to a room (at an extra cost) if the place you are staying has them and they are available.
On my very first trip to Africa, I spent two and a half months of my six month trip on an overland with Absolute Africa, travelling from Nairobi to Cape Town, which is the ‘classic’ overland route that most companies follow, but there are other routes too in different parts of Africa. You can do shorter stints for part of the journey and most tours last between 1 and 12 weeks.
Overland Africa is a great introduction to the continent, especially if you are unsure of what to expect or how you’ll cope travelling alone and they allow you to see many of the main highlights in a short space of time. Plus, you’ll have a new group of friends along for the ride.
If you don’t have your own car, tours will allow you to go to some places that might otherwise be difficult to get to, especially in countries (like Namibia) where public transport is few and far between and overland tours tend to be a pretty economical way to get around too.
When I joined my overland, I’d already spent three months in Africa, not really backpacking as such, but doing 2 separate volunteering stints in Zambia and Tanzania, climbing Kilimanjaro (with guides but without a group) and travelling solo on the Tazara Train between the two countries.
By this point, I was pretty confident travelling by myself, but I had already booked my overland months before I left home. Back then there wasn’t as much info on backpacking Africa independently as there is now so doing an overland seemed the best choice.
Let me start by saying that I really enjoyed my overland tour. I met some of my best friends on that trip and made some great memories. I don’t regret a second of it. Solo travel in Africa can be lonely at times, but on an overland you have a built in group of friends to share the experience with.
All overland tours generally include safaris too, so you get the benefit of being able to share the costs that might have been super expensive on your own and it was nice not to have to think about the logistics of how to get from one place to the next.
You also don’t have to worry about much as you have the support of a tour leader and everything is done for you – yeah you have to help out sometimes, but you know where your next meal is coming from, you don’t have to navigate busy bus stations and you don’t have to negotiate with taxi drivers, or work out how on earth you’re going to get to the next place or find a place to stay. Accommodation, transport and food is all taken care of.
You only have to worry about what optional activities you’re going to add on and your guide usually books those for you anyway!
Looking back, I ticked off a lot of my Africa bucket list and hit many of the major highlights in East and Southern Africa in those two-and-a-half months, but I now realise that I didn’t really see much of the ‘real’ Africa on that trip. For there record, there’s nothing wrong with travelling this way and I had an amazing time, but let me explain a little more about what I mean.
At that time, an overland suited me. I was younger, Africa was new to me and I just wanted to see as much as I could in the time I had. Since then, I’ve done a lot more solo travel around Africa, so my travel style has changed.
Overland tours, in general, don’t give you as much freedom or downtime as you would get travelling solo. You’re on a set schedule. If you like somewhere and want to stay, you’ll have to leave the trip and lose your money, unless you re-join up with the group later on.
Often we’d spend all day driving – now this is true of a lot of Africa trips, as the ‘main highlights’ are few and far between. But when you travel independently, you realise it’s not all about the main highlights. Overlands tend to move pretty quickly so driving is a big part of the tour. Occasionally we’d spend 3 or even 4 nights at a place, but usually, it is 1 or 2 tops. Add into that your daily activities and ‘chores’ and it doesn’t leave you with a lot of time to get to know the places you go to.
Sometimes we’d venture out, but it wasn’t always practical as we were often in the middle of nowhere, so most nights you end up staying at the camp and only really mingling with the others on your trip.
But you can get around it. I’d already had a taste of local life whilst I was volunteering and missed that side of travelling on the overland, so on occasions, I would forfeit the bigger activities so I could go wandering around the local village. On one of our free days in Dar es Salaam, I took some of my new pals on a magical mystery tour to Bagamoyo, a town two hours north by dala dala (mini bus) to visit the kids I’d been volunteering with.
On my first overland, I was on the truck for the duration of the trip. When we started in Nairobi there were 21 of us, after a couple of weeks another 7 joined, but by the time we got to Cape Town, there were only 11 of us, but of that 11, only 6 of us had come all the way from Nairobi. So people were joining and leaving at various points of the trip. There were 28 of us for a big chunk of the trip, so you barely had time to get to know the group, let alone anyone else.
But I was lucky. My group were awesome and we all got on (most of the time). I’m also pretty laid-back and find it easy to get on with most people, so I didn’t find travelling this way difficult. But if you aren’t the most tolerant person or like a lot of alone time, you may find the big groups a bit annoying/overwheming and I’ve known people to leave the overland trips mid-way through as it just wasn’t for them.
I know a few overland guides and I have heard stories about some awful groups. I’ve also had friends who’ve been on overlands and their groups have been quite cliquey and if you’re an independent traveller staying at the same place as an overland group, it can be annoying. When I was volunteering in Livingstone, we used to dread the overlanders rocking up to our campsite, being loud, insular, taking over the bar, hogging the bathrooms – then I became an overlander and it wasn’t so bad.
My group were ‘different’, obviously. 🙂
It can also be sad when your friends leave the trip, but not every overland has people leaving, I was on for a long time remember, some trips are shorter, and when you travel you have to get used to saying goodbye anyway.
A few years later, I joined for part of an overland tour. I got on the truck in Nairobi expecting a load of friendly faces, who would be interested to find out who I was and welcome me with open arms. But what I got was a bunch of people who barely spoke to me for the entire journey to Arusha because they were all hungover and tired from the night before and some were leaving the tour that evening, so they weren’t really interested in making new friends. But once we got to Arusha, a couple more people joined and we all got chatting properly over dinner and the rest of the trip was lovely. So don’t worry if it takes a little time to integrate, just give it time and be yourself!
This next point could be seen as a pro or as a con… depending on your preference. Most of the meals we ate were those we’d cooked ourselves, so they were pretty much what I’d eat at home. Occasionally we’d go to a local restaurant, but most nights we ate things that were easy to cook for a group of 28 people – pasta, chilli, curry… I don’t remember much about the local foods from that trip, although having lived on chapati, bananas, rice and beans for a month previously, I was quite happy to eat whatever I was given.
The last downside is the hidden costs. Whilst most overlands include some activities, usually, they don’t include all. Luckily, most overland companies give you a list of the optional activities before you sign up – so before you decide which company you go with, it’s worth doing a cost comparison and working out how much extra you might have to spend when you are there on any activities you want to do and well as any additional meals you need to buy.
A reader contacted me the other day to say she was debating whether to go on one of my tours or an overland safari tour she’d seen – both for the same length of time, but with different itineraries. She said the overland was much cheaper than my tour. I asked to take a look and said that I would give her an honest opinion, based on what she said she was looking for.
When I had a look, the two tours were very different. The other tour was a completely safari based camping tour, with little cultural interaction. The cost of the other tour was cheaper. However, it also had a local payment (this is a payment you pay when you arrive, as well as the cost of the tour which you pay before you go). She hadn’t spotted this, but the local payment was almost the same price as the tour itself, so when you added the two together – the other tour was actually more expensive than mine. So just be aware of the extra costs before you book!
Backpacking Africa Independently
There is a vicious rumour going around that you need to take a tour if you want to travel in Africa. This is not true. It is very possible to backpack through most African countries by yourself.
What do you mean by backpacking Africa independently?
When I’m talking about backpacking Africa independently, I mean predominantly using public transport to get around. This doesn’t necessarily mean you have to be a solo traveller. You could be travelling with a friend or partner, just not primarily on an organised tour.
But even if you travel around Africa independently, it’s likely that you will need to take tours for some parts of the trip – especially if you don’t have your own transport.
For instance, if you backpack around Tanzania, you’re probably going to want to take a tour to the Serengeti – this could either be a private tour or you could try and join a group departure. You can also hire a car and drive yourself which might be cheaper, but I wouldn’t recommend it because it’s huge and you’ll probably get lost and also the guides know what they are looking for.
Or in Namibia, it’s almost impossible to get to some of the places you probably want to go without your own transport, so a tour might be the only option. Or you could try and hitch a ride with some other travellers.
Independent travel gives you the one thing we all want as a backpacker – freeeeeeeedom! Being able to go where you want, do what you want and when you want, is the dream. If you love a place, you can just stay there. If you hate it, you can leave.
Travelling alone can be extremely rewarding and you’ll often find yourself in the most random situations, that never would have been possible if you were on an overland tour. Like the time me and my friend Melissa ended up staying in Livingstonia, Malawi for an extra day because we got invited to a dowry celebration for the daughter of the local Chief. It was one of my favourite travel days ever and I didn’t stop smiling.
Or there was the time we heard the Ilala Ferry was in town, so we completely scrapped what we were going to do and took that instead.
Whilst it can be daunting, after a week or two (often less) of solo travel, most people get into the swing of things and in the long run it will be an incredible confidence builder as it pushes you out of your comfort zone and forces you to use your initiative. The first few days are always the hardest.
The Africa backpacker scene tends to be very friendly and there’s a big sense of a ‘we’re all in this together’ kind of camaraderie. There aren’t as many hostels as in other parts of the world, so the backpacker crowd tend to stay in the same places and pretty much every good hostel has a bar or social space and there’s usually always someone to chat to. You can see some of my favourite hostels here.
You also tend to meet a lot of cool people when travelling around Africa on your own, either on safaris, in hostels or just out and about. Like my friend Tracy, who I met in Malawi, who has pretty much cycled the whole of Southern Africa. Had I been in a big overland tour group, I may not have had the chance to speak to her.
Meeting local people is also a lot easier, because you have more opportunities to meet them, at the markets, local bars, restaurants and whilst organising activities because you are not restricted by other people or a strict schedule.
And if you don’t like the people you meet, you don’t have to travel with them!
It’s also a small world, so you often see the same people again and again and end up having mini reunions all over the continent. Melissa and I met tons of cool people on our trip through Malawi at various points. We didn’t travel with them as such, but hung out at various places for a few days at a time. Then we heard about a festival happening right near the end of our trip and through the power of social media, we all arranged to meet everyone there. We changed our plans because we could.
Despite what people think, Africa can be a cheap place to travel. Public transport is pretty reasonable and if you eat local foods or cook for yourself you can keep costs low. Hostels aren’t as cheap as places like Southeast Asia, but they’re not crazy expensive and if you really want to travel cheap you can consider bringing your own tent and camping or maybe homestays or couchsurfing.
Travelling independently in Africa isn’t as difficult or dangerous as people think or as the media portrays. But it is harder, it’s exhausting, it takes effort and a bit of planning. It’s the type of travel that challenges you. And I like a challenge… most of the time.
I wrote a post about how to plan a trip to Africa, but it can be a bit daunting when you first start thinking about it and I cannot even tell you how many emails I’ve had from people going ‘please help, I’m lost, I don’t know where to start, where shall I go, what should I do, what company shall I use’.
I plan itineraries all the time but it can still be confusing, even for me. Of course you can wing a lot of things and you can sort a lot out on the ground, but you can’t wing everything. Some things need advance planning, like some visas or gorilla permits.
When you travel independently, you are always thinking about your next move. You are the decision maker, you are in charge. You are at the mercy of public transport. Navigating bus stations and haggling with taxis will test your patience. Sometimes I enjoy it and sometimes I want to scream.
Without a tour, it can sometimes be a bit of a pain getting to the exact place you want to go. Tours take you door to door and you don’t need to worry about getting taxis. Public transport takes you to the bus station and then you still need to make your way to your accommodation from there, but that can be part of the fun.
I’ve known some people stay longer in a place because they love it and some stay longer simply because they couldn’t be bothered to move.
Then there’s the costs. Africa can be a cheap place to travel but it’s the activities that make it expensive. Especially if you are travelling alone. A taxi for 1 or 2 is more expensive than a taxi for 4. A safari for 1 or 2 is going to be a lot more expensive than a safari for 4 or 6.
You can find group safaris, but it sometimes takes a bit of time and effort. Either contacting companies before you go, or asking around when you get there – which is probably the easiest option. The downside to this, is that you might spend a day or two waiting for a space on a group trip so if you’re short on time, it’s not ideal.
Travelling Africa solo can be lonely at times. You will most likely meet great people and sometimes you may even travel with them for a few days or even weeks, but then you will have days when you will be alone (usually when travelling between locations), as everyone is likely to have their own agenda and timeframe. So if you don’t enjoy having some time to yourself, then you may want to consider whether solo travel is right for you. But like I say, the first few days are the hardest and you get used to it pretty quickly.
Let me tell you a little story, if I may…
As a solo traveller, I took a tour to South Luangwa in Zambia from Lilongwe in Malawi. I managed to find a last minute group departure joining a family of 5 and another solo traveller. We all got on great and I had a nice time!
To get there, it was 7 hours in a comfortable safari jeep with water and snacks provided. However, I needed to be back in Lilongwe for a flight, so I had to leave the tour a day early and travel back by public transport.
What can only be described as a ‘disco bus’ picked me up whilst it was still dark at 5.30am (as arranged by the bar man at the camp). I had ababy on my knee for part of the journey, whilst loud techno music blasted through the cramped mini bus – the whole God damn way. The bus dropped me off at a bus station near to the border, the driver pointed towards a jumble of cars and said it was the taxi rank. Ok… I crammed in with 6 others (a lady was sat on my knee) and we drove to the border. Passport stamped, I walked across, found another taxi (equally as cramped) which dropped me off at the mini bus station on the Malawi side.
Once I’d managed to find the right bus and waited for it to fill up, we were off (thankfully no disco this time). At every police check point, they made me get off (just me, no-one else – I was the only foreigner on the bus), had a quick (friendly) look through my bags, smiled and waved us on – confident I wasn’t running drugs. 12 hours after leaving, I found myself back in Lilongwe.
See the difference?
Each type of travel has pros and cons, so it’s all about working out which is right for you!
Rock My Adventure – Small Group African Adventure Tours
Still confused? Here’s another option…
Knowing that big overlands aren’t for everyone and that not everyone wants to travel solo (especially if travelling for the first time or on a short trip), I wanted to offer an ‘alternative’.
So in 2016, taking all my knowledge and passion for Africa travel, I created Rock My Adventure, a small group Africa tour company for travellers of all ages, whether you’re a solo traveller, a group of friends or couple. These tours were designed for adventurous travellers, who want the cultural immersion of a longer backpacking trip, but who perhaps only had a short time off work and wanted to make the most of it by having someone who knows Africa well do all the planning and organising.
Rock My Adventure trips aren’t typical ‘Africa tours’. They’re fun and laid-back group trips, that are somewhere between an independent backpacking trip and a tour, with lots of cultural interaction, a great mix of activities, free time to explore and do your own thing, a group of friends built in and a group leader to support you throughout your trip, so you get the best of both worlds!
““It has taken me 8 months to write this review because I couldn’t find the right words to describe it. It was perfect. Helen (you) are the perfect host. You know your stuff. You are good to the local guides you work with. You were always smiling. It was by far the best thing Jon and I have done together since backpacking through SEA in the early90’s. We thought we had lost the opportunity to feel that authentic travel. We are very experienced travellers, flashpackers, and there is no way we could have arranged this on our own. We loved that it never ever felt like we were on a tour. We felt like we met up with long lost friends for a backpacking reunion. The cast of characters and the relationships formed were because of how you put this trip together. It. Was. Life changing. All of it. The trip was so good Helen. I’ve recommended you to everyone I know. Thank you.”” (Heather & Jon, Canada – Rock My Uganda & Rwanda Adventure 2018)
Our aim is to literally ‘rock your adventure’ and make sure you have an amazing experience on your trip by organising an epic itinerary at an affordable price and without the stress of planning, booking and organising everything yourself. Most of the activities are included too, so you don’t have to spend much extra!
Each trip is limited to 8 – 12 people to provide you with an intimate and authentic backpacking travel experience. Keeping numbers low ensures that the trips don’t feel too ‘tour’ like and allows us to get to know each other properly and make new friends as we go too!
Last year, a couple contacted me saying that they were thinking about coming on one of my tours and the dates aligned perfectly with their flights. We had a great Skype session and I hoped that they would come. In the end, they decided they wanted to do their own thing.
Randomly, we ended up bumping into each other near the beginning of the trip. They hung out with us that night over dinner and we all got on really well, so decided to meet up again in Zanzibar, as we had one night in the same place. They ended up coming with us on one of our daytime excursions and partying with us that night.
They said themselves that they regretted not joining the trip as things had been difficult on their own and they loved the group!
Does this sound like you?
- I want to go on a great big African adventure.
- I want to travel in Africa but I don’t want to travel alone.
- I want a great itinerary at an affordable price.
- I want to make the most of my limited time and money.
- I want to experience the local culture and meet local people.
- I want something more than an ‘off the shelf’ travel experience.
- I want the structure and support of a tour, but with freedom to do my own thing too.
- I want someone else to take on the majority of the planning and organisation.
- I want someone to help me get prepared for my trip.
- I want the guidance of a seasoned Africa traveller who can help me have the best time.
- I want to travel with an awesome group.
If you answered yes to any of these questions then Rock My Adventure tours may be exactly what you are looking for.
There are a number of different Rock My Adventure tours to choose from, taking place in Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda, Rwanda & the DRC, Malawi, Zambia, Botswana, Namibia, South Africa, Swaziland, Mozambique, Sierra Leone and Morocco and you can find all of the trips and dates over on the Rock My Adventure tours page or on the Rock My Adventure website.
Whatever route you decide to go down, I hope you have a fantastic trip to Africa! And if you have any questions – just ask!