First of all let me clarify that by Africa, I mean the sub-Saharan continent. It’s quite different from travel in North Africa which has a different set of “rules” to play by.
“I’d love to go to Africa some day, but I’m afraid it’s unsafe, too expensive and too difficult to get around. Can you really travel around as a backpacker?” That’s a question I’m often asked.
My answer is YES YOU CAN! -and it’s fantastic!
There seems to be general apprehensiveness amongst travellers when it comes to traveling in Africa. It’s a shame because ‘the dark continent’ is most definitely accessible. True, it’s not the easiest area to travel in -especially if you compare it with South East Asia- but it’s still very doable even for the unexperienced traveller. Budget-wise, you can make your trip very affordable if you don’t mind the occasional bucket shower and can handle a few rough edges.
There are however, a couple of things to keep in mind before you start planning:
1. Realise that Africa is huge. Depending on how much time you have, pick one or two neighbouring countries to explore.
2. It’s essential that you choose the “right country” for you. Intrepid travellers could try places like Sudan, Mozambique, Malawi, Djibouti or any country that’s more or less politically stable. I would recommend beginners to start off with ‘easier’ countries that offer a minimum of tourist infrastructure. Places where you will meet plenty of other travellers and expats to exchange travel tips and ideas with.
Ghana, Senegal or Gambia are good options for West Africa. So are Uganda, Rwanda, Tanzania, Ethiopia or Kenya in Eastern Africa. In Southern Africa consider Zimbabwe or Botswana. All of these countries allow you to travel around effortlessly by public transportation, lodge in hostels or homestays and they offer Western food options which come in handy when you’re tired of the African staples.
Though South Africa is a possibility as well, I wouldn’t classify it as a typical African country in terms of tourism as it has an endless array of travel possibilities for the visitor and is so modernly developed you could think you’re in Europe of the States.
3. Take into account that you’re looking at slow travel here. It’s quite common for buses, trains and boats to run late. When I say late, I’m not talking about the “crazy” 20 minutes we complain about in the West, but rather 5+ hours. Your vehicle may break down in the middle of nowhere or it may get stuck in a pothole at some point… This means your arrival time can ( and probably will ) get delayed -at least once during your trip. In other words, having a tight schedule is simply not an option.
4. The larger the region you want to explore, the more time you will spend on the road. Expect long hours in buses, boats, trains and minivans. Most of which won’t be the most comfortable rides you’ll have in your life. In your average African country, a 5 seat sedan fits 14. Easily. Sometimes you feel like you’re playing human Tetris.
5. Africa is not a place where you visit one attraction after the other as you probably would in Europe or Asia. It’s a place you experience by interacting with locals and taking your time to be somewhere without too much of an agenda. Spend several days in the same town to really get the vibe.
6. The food won’t always be all that. There are non-African dining alternatives especially in big towns and cities, but in most smaller towns you’ll be served the local staples. For truly delicious African food, make sure you score yourself an invitation to a wedding, birthday party, christening or any kind of celebration. That’s when all the mama’s show off their cooking skills.
7. The accommodation can get quite shabby at times. Unless you’re in a city or large town, there’s not always a midrange option. Often it’s either cheap and crummy or high-end luxury. Go for the cheap places and treat yourself every now and then with a more upscale stay, if your budget allows it.
8. Whether you’re backpacking or not, safari’s are always an expensive affair. If that is something you want to do, keep a separate budget just for your safari. To give you an idea, at the time of writing the cost for a 2D/1N camping safari in Serengeti NP, Tanzania was $300 per person. And this was a decent deal with a local agent. There are cheaper safari’s available if you stay away from the most renowned parks.
9. There are relatively few solo travellers in Africa so I would suggest you find yourself an awesome travel partner before leaving. Even though you could smoothly journey solo, you will have a better time traveling in pairs. Especially for women. You’ll feel more comfortable, it will dramatically cut the costs and it’s usually more fun when you have someone to talk to while you wait around for *insert anything*.
Traveling in Africa is very rewarding; it lifts your spirits and opens your eyes to some important issues the media hardly ever talk about. There are so many unspoilt spots that simply take your breath away. People are generally welcoming and excited to have a conversation with you. Let yourself get swooped off your feet by the laughter and rhythm in the air. If you’re still doubting whether or not you should backpack in Africa, all I can say, is DO IT! The adventure awaits!