Reader Story: How Helen Successfully Traveled and Volunteered Around Africa

By Nomadic Matt | Published November 25th, 2013

writingYears 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.

writing

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.

writingWas 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!

writing

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.

writing

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.

writing

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.

Become the Next Success Story

One of my favorite parts about this job is hearing people’s travel stories. They inspire me, but more importantly, they also inspire you. I travel a certain way but there are many ways to fund your trips and travel the world and I hope these stories show you that there is more than one way to travel and that is within your grasp to reach your travel goals. Here are more examples of people who gave up living a typical life to explore the world:

We all come from different places, but we all have one thing in common:

We all want to travel more.

comments 45 Comments

Jo

Thanks for sharing. Makes me want to reconsider my travel plans for next year and head to Africa. I dipped my toe into the African travel scene last year and it made me hungry for more, but as a solo female, I was a bit nervous about it. Good to know it can be done!

Hey Jo,

You should definitely go! I’ll come too! :)

Helen

Great post Helen! You are so adventurous. I hope we meet again some day :)

Thank you Erin, me too! Your kids would love seeing all the animals on safari!!

Diana Ford

I am currently nearing the end of my 5 months in Africa and this is my 4th visit to this amazing continent. I volunteered in Uganda for 2 months with Uganda Hands for Hope, travelled independently in Kenya, including getting the overnight train from Mombasa to Nairobi which was an experience! Then I went on an overland truck through Tanzania, Malawi and Zambia, before flying to Cape Town for another 2 months volunteering. This continent is AMAZING!!

Couldn’t agree more Diana! Sounds like you are having a wonderful experience! I can’t wait to get back out and do some more exploring. Perhaps West Africa next time! :)

Love this article! We are really wanting to go to Africa within the next few years. Volunteering is definitely something that we want to do while we are there as well.

Hi Michelle,

You will love it! Volunteering is a great way to integrate into the community… IF you pick a good company that will actually benefit the community! Have a look around, I can recommend some if you need. I always listen to what the locals say about the impact they think a specific company is having.

Helen

I’m so happy to read about another person loving the continent of Africa……And I’m even more excited to see that you spent time in Bagamoyo!! My mom runs a NPO there building primary schools…..It is such an amazing place! Thank you for sharing your travels, it’s stories like these that get me that much closer to committing to a similar and life changing experience.

Thank you Jack! Oh that’s amazing! I loved Bagamoyo! Such a beautiful place, steeped in history! I haven’t even started writing about it yet!

I will have to look up your mum wen I go back! What’s the name of her organisation?

Helen

What a great story! I really enjoyed reading it. I love the positive tone and the advice. you make Africa seem so easy to travel. I especially loved the advice on being a solo woman traveling and the volunteer opportunities. Did you just get a one way ticket? did you have to pay to volunteer? I have a million questions! great interview, thanks for sharing! I will have to check out your blog!

Hi Rebecca,

Question away!

The first time I went, I had a round the world ticket. I flew into Zambia from London vis Jo’Burg, and out of Cape Town and onward to Bangkok. But the other times I’ve been I’ve flown from UK and back.

I paid for one of the companies, Book Bus, but I felt it was worth it. And for the Baobab Home and Soft Power Education, I raised money through doing bake sales, a music night, quizzes etc and just donated the money straight to them, and then I just paid my board at a shared house/campsite respectively and bought my own food. I ate local & street food (rice and beans in Tanzania/chapatis, rice and beans and samosas) which kept the costs low.

They were all very different but fantastic experiences!

Helen

hey Helen, you are very brave to wander around Africa by yourself. I grew up in Zimbabwe and was always told to never go anywhere by myself, my mum would walk our 2 German shepherds and take a “sjambok” which is like a whip and lots of people (mainly woman) used to get attacked, sometimes even raped or killed where we lived.
Maybe things have changed in the last 9-10 years but all i can say is you are very brave :)

Africa is the place I most want to travel extensively in the world, but it is also the place that would worry me most. It certainly didn’t help that I watched the movie blood diamond a few nights ago! Still though it’s great to read this account from a solo female traveller, it certainly proves that much of the stereotyping is misplaced.

Hi Francis,

Yes Blood Diamond is probably not the best movie to watch if you are worried to go to Africa! :)

But it’s not all like that. I’m hoping to go to Sierra Leone myself next year… we’ll see!

But generally Africa is not how it is portrayed on TV. There is famine, disease and wars. But Africa is massive. Much bigger than people imagine. There are more countries in Africa than any other continent, each very different so the images you see in films and TV only portray a small part of a huge and beautiful continent.

I hope that you get to go and see it! I fell in love immediately. There are times when Africa completely frustrates me. It’s a complicated relationship! :) But the same reasons that frustrate me, are kind of the same reasons that I love it all at the same time.

When you do go… I want the full report! :)

Helen

Hi helen, thanks a lot for getting back to me. I’ll be sure and give you the full report when I finally get there!

Hi Sam,

You know, Zimbabwe is one of the places I haven’t been to yet. In 2009, we were told not to go due to the political situation and I haven’t had the opportunity to go since, even when I was working in Zambia last year – more to do with time than anything. I have a lot of friends who fled Zim in the mid 2000’s too and they’ve told me some stories that would break your heart!

Since then, some have moved back and a number of friends have visited without incident. But I can imagine that growing up there when you did was very scary!!

When I travel, I always avoid places that were politically unstable. It’s just not worth the risk. I’d love to go to Mali, but at the moment, I wouldn’t go and there are plenty of other places to visit.

Wherever I go, whether it be Africa, Asia etc, I’m careful not to put myself in dangerous situations ie) I don’t walk around at night, unless I’m with friends, or somewhere I know or have transportation sorted etc. I’ve travelled quite a lot there by myself since my first trip and I’ve generally felt very safe, especially in rural Africa. Also, volunteering there has meant that I’ve made friends with quite a few people who lived there too, and they’re always quick to advise where I should and shouldn’t go.

I never really think of myself as brave but thank you for saying so! Do you think you’ll go back? :)

Helen

Amanda

Thanks for the post! I have enjoyed it. I’m planning a trip to Kenya. Are there any reputable organizations to volunteer with that you know of? Thanks! :)

Hi Amanda,

Can you send me an email and we can chat about it?

Helen

Fantastic write up and very helpful in the volunteer department. As I’ve looked into volunteering myself I noticed the numbers just weren’t adding up with some well known tour companies. The research in finding something more legit has been a bit frustrating so I’m very grateful for your post and tips on the matter.

No worries Jamie, glad you found it helpful!

A beautiful story, makes me very jealous … Good luck and I look forward to hear from your next trip

Amazing story- well done! Anyone needing tips on Cape Town, or just some visual inspiration, I can always assist – my blog will hopefully lure you to my beautiful Mother City :) bon voyage to,you, wherever you’re going! Be safe*

Thanks Allison, what a beautiful city you come from! I love Cape Town! :)

Hi. I sincerely admire you. Not only for what you do, but for the courage to make a change in your life. Only very few of us are so fortunate do do what they wish in life.
I too, dreamed about touring the World and volunteering. It seems that I never had the courage to start, even tough I’m sure I would have done a great job.
Well, maybe in the next life :D
I’ll see you on your own blog, which I just bookmarked.
I wish you best of luck and live the life of your dreams!

Thank you Bogdan. I hope you get the chance to live your dreams.

Hi Helen!
I like your story, i really want go to Africa to volunteer, but my english is not good. Can you help me, Helen?
Goodluck & best wishes for you :)

Hi Viet,

Yes I will try to help you! Can you send me a message via my website?

Thanks,

Helen

Inspiring stuff, would love to make it to Africa some day and volunteering is something we’ve always wanted to give a try, we’ll definitely look into some of these companies- thanks for the great info! :)

No worries Brian. I can personally vouch for the companies I have mentioned. I also know of a few others that I trust also.

Love to travel

Hallo Helen
I love to travel and travel everywhere else but not in my own country. I just want to say you are one of the luck ones. all I can say is you must have traveled with closed eyes and ears! But I am glad that I did not get to read about you in the paper. Safe traveling.

Where are you from in Africa?

Congrats on exploring Africa. Sounds like fun and you made the country seem more accessible.

Thanks Linda, I do love Africa and found it a great place to travel.

Mel

Hello Helen
I found your article inspiring and informative. I have wanted to go to Africa for some time but found it daunting to organise due to the size of it, and knowing which places to avoid.
I plan to go to Africa in 2017. My circumstances are slightly different in that I travel with my children. They already fund raise to support projects, and they are interested in doing volunteering.
Would the organisations that you volunteered for be suitable for us do you think?
I am 46 and a late starter in travelling and exploring.
Would you be able to advise of suitable places to go please?
I am making up for lost time though. So far I have been to Europe, USA, Canada and Iceland.
I also suffer from ridiculous nervousness, but push through it so that I can enjoy seeing the world.
Best wishes for your further adventures.
Mel

Hi Mel, Thanks for your comment!

You’re starting now and that’s brilliant! When I was on the Book Bus the first time, there’s was a family with kids aged 9 & 10 volunteering. It was amazing to watch them grow in confidence as the weeks went on and they were even teaching by the end of it! They were great kids and they got so much out of the whole experience. I think it’s wonderful that their parents took them to do something like that at such an early age! If I ever have kids, I’ll be taking them! :)

Zambia or Uganda would be really good places to start I think.

Give me a shout if you’d like any more info, really happy to help!

Helen

Hi Hellen,
Sounds like an amazing time you had in Africa. i work with Development Pamoja (together) Kenya and so the next time you visit Africa, please don’t miss to visit. Its a small Irish charity in Nakuru, please do check our website http://www.developmentpamoja.org Its free of charge to volunteer unless people want to fundraise and initiate/fund a project while out with us. We are always looking for volunteers to help us grow communities together.

Keep up the good work Helen as you travel the world and volunteering too!!!!
I

Sounds like a plan Mary! Hoping to get back there soon! :)

Alissa

I loved reading about your time in Africa! I lived in Uganda for six weeks a few years ago and like you I absolutely fell in love with Africa.

Hey Alissa,

Uganda is an easy place to fall in love with! :) I spent a good bit of time travelling through and also in Jinja. Loved it there and hope to go back soon!

Hi Helen, Absolutely loved reading your post. Thank you so much for sharing your experience. It’s fabulous to hear another person speak so fondly of this vast continent.

Thank you Mzuri! :) I am very fond of Africa, as you can probably tell!

Hi Helen thank you for this enlightening and stereotype-dispelling post. Most people really need to ignore all the negative portrayal of Africa by the media and just travel to Africa and see for themselves. You did a great job with this post. One I’m thankful for as an African. And thank you nomadic Matt for featuring Helen’s post.

Jay

Hiya Helen i reeeeeeeeeeeeeeeally enjoyed the read, till now its more up my alley of answering many Q’s i have swirling around in my head…ive literally JUST thought of travelling to africa as ive aaaalways hoped to and it would b my 1st time backpacking and i’m doing it alone as a female backpacker. im so excited and terrified because i have no idea where to start ect…your tips have helped alot.

thanks for your tips :)

Jay

Leave a comment