Years ago, my friend Zach backpacked from Cape Town to Cairo. It was him, a small backpack, and nothing else. He hitchhiked, rode in the back of buses and trucks, slept in ultra-cheap accommodation, and ate only local food. I was fascinated by the stories he told me of his adventure. Africa is always seen as a scary place to travel alone, with danger and theft lurking around every corner for the unsuspecting traveler.
But there are a lot of people who travel the continent alone, people like Helen. Helen is a thirty-three year old English woman who spent months volunteering and traveling around Africa on her own. Today, she shares how she did it and how you can do it too.
Nomadic Matt: Tell everyone about yourself.
Helen: My name is Helen, I’m 33 and originally from Liverpool in the UK. In 2009 I made a life-changing decision to backpack around the world, starting in Africa. It was one of the best years of my life and since then some fantastic opportunities have come my way – but then I believe you make your own destiny! I now divide my time between my travel blog Helen in Wonderlust and my job supporting social entrepreneurs in business. Last year I was working as a tour guide in Zambia and Malawi.
What inspired your trip?
I’m a massive fan of the TV documentary shows with David Attenborough and ‘Tribe’ with Bruce Parry. In the programme, Bruce lives with remote tribes for a month at a time. I also grew up watching films like The Goonies, Indiana Jones and Romancing the Stone, but I was always a little bit scared of actually going on adventures of my own. Then my grandmother, who I really admired for her adventurous spirit, became really ill. It really devastated me and made me think about what I had been doing with my own life. So I began to save and then I was made redundant from work, so I decided it was the ideal time to take charge of my future and go on the adventures I’d always dreamed of.
Did you feel overwhelmed when you were planning?
There were so many times when I was so overwhelmed! From deciding where to go to deciding which companies to choose, everything seemed daunting at first! I did as much research as I could and plotted a basic route and then booked a few things so I had a basic structure, especially for the first leg of my trip. Once I’d done that I felt a whole lot better and everything began to fall into place. Once you’re actually on the move, things tend to get a bit easier and you relax into your travels.
Where did you go on your trip?
I started off with a volunteering project in Zambia called the Book Bus. I spent a month there, before getting the Tazara Train across to Tanzania, where I spent a month volunteering for an orphanage that runs a lot of outreach programmes in the Bagamoyo region on the east coast. After that I took the bus up north to climb Kilimanjaro. After that I took an overland truck through Rwanda, Uganda, Kenya, Tanzania, Malawi, Zambia, Botswana, Namibia and down to South Africa where I did a self-drive along the Garden Route.
What drove you to explore Africa?
Everyone thought I was crazy to be starting off my trip in Africa. I guess it’s not the obvious destination for your first solo venture. But I found Africa fascinating, it was a bit of an enigma. The media portrayal of Africa is rarely positive and the history of the place is just mind blowing, so I wanted to go and see it for myself. A few of my friends had spent their post university days exploring Europe, Thailand and Australia, but I didn’t know anyone who had been backpacking around Africa. I also love wildlife and sunsets, so Africa seemed the most obvious choice.
Was it difficult being a solo female in Africa?
To be honest, no. There are tons of preconceptions about what travelling in Africa is like, and about Africa in general. But in reality, it’s actually not that scary at all. Don’t get me wrong, there are places that I might not necessarily go to, but that’s not because I’m a woman or that I am alone – but more to do with the fact that there might be political unrest in the area or something like that. Africa is vast and there are many ways to travel safely and easily as a woman.
What safety advice would you give to others?
Africa can be a very safe place to travel, if you take a few basic precautions. First, take your malaria medication and get all of the relevant vaccinations. Drink bottled water, carry anti-bacterial hand gel and wash your hands. The most common cause of illness is people not washing their hands properly around food.
Whilst most Africans are very gentle, honest and respectful, as with anywhere else in the world where there is a lot of poverty, you need to be careful with your belongings and not make yourself a target. Don’t keep huge amounts of money in your main wallet. I always carry the bulk of my money about my person, either in my bag or a hidden money belt, and then keep a small amount of cash in my wallet to pay for basic things.
Don’t walk around alone after dark, try to stay with a group or take a taxi. Your hotel or hostel will be able to recommend a reputable taxi driver to take around town. I often get a couple of taxi numbers whilst I’m in a place and just use them. On another transport note, wear your seatbelt when available!
Was it hard to get around on local transport?
Local transport is not as well set up as in other parts of the world such as Southeast Asia, but it’s still fairly easy to get from A to B. There are a number of big bus companies that run between many of the main destinations, but they’re not as frequent, so be prepared that the bus you want to get may be full or only runs on certain days so allow for that in your plans. The train I took from Zambia to Tanzania only runs on a Tuesday in that direction, and the train arrived 24 hours later than expected. But, there is a common saying, ‘T.I.A. – This is Africa’, and if you’re prepared for it, then it can be a real adventure.
Local mini buses can also be a good way to get around, if you don’t mind being crammed into a small space. At the end of my last trip to Africa, I had a few days spare in Lilongwe, Malawi, so I decided to take a trip to South Luangwa National Park in Zambia, which is about 8 hours away by car. The safari company only ran 4 day trips, and I only had 3 days. So I negotiated a discount, and told them I would make my own way back. When I arrived at the camp, I made my way to the bar and asked around for local transport options. The bar man said he would sort something out for me and sure enough, on the day of my departure, I was picked up by a local mini bus that took me close to the Malawi border, from there, I got a taxi, walked through customs, got another taxi to the next mini bus stand and then another mini bus all the way back to Lilongwe. It took a bit longer – maybe 12 hours, and wasn’t quite as comfortable – but it was cheap and I had absolutely no issues. Where there’s a will, there’s a way.
You volunteered a lot in Africa. How did you find reputable companies to volunteer with?
I’ve actually been really lucky with the companies I’ve volunteered with, they’ve all been great. I had two months to spare before doing my Kilimanjaro trek, so I started looking around for placements. I saw an advert for the Book Bus on a job site and they are a UK based company. After exchanging numerous emails, I knew that they would be great to volunteer for. I also sponsor a little girl in Bagamoyo, Tanzania, so I wanted to find somewhere to volunteer near her so I could visit and through a bit of internet research, I came across the Baobab Home. The home is run by Terri Place, an American and her husband Caito who is Tanzanian. I loved the look of the work they were doing and asked if I could come along to help out! My third volunteering assignment was in 2011 at Soft Power Education in Uganda with whom I’d spent a day helping out in 2009, so I knew they were a good company.
My main piece of advice would be to contact previous volunteers, which is easily done by Facebook these days, or look for recommendations from bloggers or online forums. I can recommend a lot of good volunteering projects that I’ve come across on my travels.
What advice would you have for people trying to backpack alone around Africa?
If you’re worried about going for the first time, joining an overland truck is a great way to see the continent. You won’t have as much freedom as you would if you were travelling completely independently, but transport and food is taken care of and there are plenty of opportunities to get out an about and see the real Africa.
Joining a volunteering project can be a great way to get used to backpacking alone. Spending a month in Livingstone, Zambia working with the local people and being an active member of the community really helped me settle in to Africa and I was well prepared for all of the solo travel I did.
If you do decide to go it alone, I’d recommend booking accommodation for your first few nights. Most good guest houses will be able to help you book your onward travel.
Check the visa requirements for the countries you are going to. Most allow you to get entry at the borders, but it’s best to check beforehand. You will need a yellow fever certificate for many African countries.
Always take a mix of dollars in various denominations, that are dated post 2002. Some currencies are only available in country, but visas can be purchased with dollars. Travellers cheques can be difficult to change, so I’ll leave it up to you whether you take them. A Visa card is much more widely accepted than any other card.
Be flexible, make sure your schedule isn’t too tight and expect the unexpected. If you can embrace that, then you will have an unforgettable adventure.
Oh, and be prepared that you WILL fall in love with this continent.
A lot of people view Africa as this monolithic plus but it is a gigantic continent with a lot of variety. You can’t lump it all together. There are many safe areas and many, many dangerous areas. I loved my time in Africa. I met some amazing, friendly, and helpful locals and never once felt unsafe where I was.
Helen’s story (as well as my friend Zach’s experience) shows that while there maybe be touts, scams, and petty crime that happens (my friend got robbed at knife point in Malawi), if you keep your wits about you and use some common sense, you can safely backpack around the continent of Africa.
Just like any other place in the world.
If you want to read more about Helen’s adventures, check out her blog, Helen in Wonderlust.