How to Travel Around Africa

By Nomadic Matt | Published June 6th, 2010

This article is by fellow travel blogger, Caz Makpeace. She’s spent time in Africa (I haven’t) so she agreed to write this article.

Africa is a continent known for its wild animal encounters, dramatic landscapes, exotic cultures, and stunning beaches. It’s a travel experience that will creep under your skin, compelling you to return again and again. However, traveling around Africa can be a difficult and daunting experience for travelers. The most popular backpacking trail is through East and South Africa starting in Cape Town and ending in Cairo. The question most travelers ask themselves is “How am I going to get around?” There are many different transportation options in Africa:

Overland Africa Safari Tours
overland safari tours
Overland safari tours are the organized packaged tours of Africa, and are filled with people traveling for a short time who want to see Africa without the hassle. It’s not what I would call an “authentic” local African experience, but if you are a little intimidated about traveling Africa on your own, this may be your best option. Overland tours are more expensive, but your food, transport, and accommodation costs will be covered. Seven day all-inclusive tours start around $750 USD and go to $6,000 for a 63 day ‘Kenya to Cape Town’ tour.

Baz Bus
the baz bus
The Baz Bus is a transportation company in South Africa with designated routes that generally follow the travel trail. It is a hop on, hop off style bus that picks you up and drops you off at your hostel. You choose the route you want and buy the proper ticket. You can buy a ticket for a certain number of days or a more open-ended, flexible ticket. Prices range from $175 to $500 USD depending on the type of ticket bought.

Public Buses
overland safari tours
Traveling by bus gives you an opportunity to be a part of the everyday life of the people of Africa. Our bus journeys were often filled with laughter and conversation with local Africans, who went out of their way to make sure that you, the visitor, were made as comfortable as possible. Children were plonked on your lap and entrusted to your care, and quite often the head of a neighboring rooster would poke threateningly around your face and cock-a-doodle in your ear. Public buses (USD$3-$32) are usually taken for longer journeys and across borders where there is a good network of sealed roads. These buses are generally comfortable, safe and spacious. Places that have fewer or no sealed roads will have ancient buses that frequently break down, and are overcrowded.

Mini Vans
overland safari tours
How many people do you think you can fit in a mini-van? Africa is the place that defines the limit to that answer. Just when you think they couldn’t possibly fit another person in, they have them stand on the window sill outside the van. Mini-vans are a very cheap way to get around, and are usually taken for up to 6 hour journeys within a country (usually around USD$0.20-$8). They don’t leave until they are full, so jump on one that looks ready to go and avoid waiting for hours until it fills up.

Hitchhiking
overland safari tours
More people tend to hitchhike through Namibia and South Africa more than other East African countries. Hitchhiking always brings risks, but is an easy way to get around. If you hitch from the side of the road it’s best to wave your hand up and down as sticking out your thumb is considered rude in Africa. Craig and I hitchhiked from Namibia to South Africa because other transportation options were limited. A Namibian trucker, for a small tip, drove us halfway, sharing stories with Craig about Namibian life while I slept comfortably in his bed. Chinese students drove us the rest of the way to Cape Town for the price of gas.

Car Hire
overland safari tours
Hiring a car will put a small dent in your budget, so make sure you know which game parks you want to go to, and where the best viewing areas are, so you can plan accordingly and cut down on fuel expenses. We hired cars for safaris in Namibia and South Africa, which made for a flexible, relaxed and comfortable safari. We also hired a car to experience the beautiful Garden Route, a popular and scenic stretch of the coast of South Africa. Car hire from South Africa can be found for as cheap as $30 a day especially if you book online. In other parts of Africa it ranges from $75- $100 a day. If you are planning on long-term travel in Africa you may even consider buying your own 4WD to tour the continent in. South Africa would be the best option for purchase, or a departing traveler ready to sell up!

When planning your African travel adventure, carefully consider your budget and safety interests for getting around. While public transport is cheap and authentic, it is uncomfortable and less safe. Hiring or buying a car is the more expensive option, but will give you greater freedom as well as maintaining an authentic experience. Overland Safari tours will be expensive and less authentic but will give you an all-inclusive package and the biggest sense of safety. No matter how you get around Africa, you’ll find the experience unforgettable.

Caz Makpeace hails from Australia and traveled Africa with her husband Craig. You can read more about their adventures and travel tips at their blog, Y Travel.

comments 46 Comments

Chris

I’m currently planning a trip to Africa with a group of 4 other people. I’ve never considered actually buying a 4×4 there and just selling it before we leave. I suppose the timing would have to be somewhat fortuitous, but for the cost we’re each looking at shelling out anyway, even if we lose money on a quick sale, we’ll probably still be ahead in the long run. Any idea how large the used 4×4 market is and what we could expect to pay for something reliable–say an old Toyota or similar?

Great idea Caz. Thanks!

Hey Chris!
Seeing Africa from your own 4×4 would be the ultimate way to travel- it’s what we plan to do when we return. You can buy them with pop up tents and fully decked out. With the four of you, this would be a great option as you can obviously split the costs. It would really make it cost effective.
We’re not too sure about the market now but those we met doing it always spoke about it being pretty inexpensive. Let me email my brother and get back to you. He lived in South Africa for 2 years and traveled the route with his own vehicle. He’s in SA at the moment so he might be able to find up to date info. I do know that Cape Town or J’burg would be the best place to grab a deal.

A good second hand 4 x 4 would be about $20,000 USD I didn’t think they would be that expensive. You can sell it when you’re done though and it would give you a lot of freedom. About a $1 a litre for fuel. Hope that helps you out Chris

Hi there!

Totally agree with this post, and I must admit I am not an Africa traveling expert. There is backpacking around the world and then there is backpacking in Africa. Traveling in mini-buses, vans or a car are experiences you are guaranteed not to forget. Some numbers: in Senegal, the 30 person mini buses would not leave until 47 passengers were inside, and the usual 7 place Peugeots carry up to 7 adults plus all the children you can fit, plus animals and food. All this in 35 C plus temperatures- yet people are superb and you are in for one special ride. After all, TIA (this is Africa)!

Federico
maitravelsite.com

Backpacking in Africa is definitely in its own league. Some of your best African stories come from something as seemingly simple as getting from A-B. I know that in Kenya now there are strict laws enforced for the number of people allowed in a minivan. Apparently it has drastically reduced the number of deaths on the road.

David

Great post. Very thorough and informative. I felt like I was on the road with you.

David
My Little Nomads

We just finished Capetown to Cairo overland using a mix of rental car (south africa) public buses, coach buses, mini-buses and rides. It was great!

Wow! That would have been awesome. We didn’t make it past Kenya and Uganda. I hear it’s really rough travel from there up to the top. Would love to hear some of your adventures.

If it’s useful for any would-be Cape to Cairo backpackers, I recently returned from that journey, having done it overland on public transport the whole way and put an overview of some of the visa/packing/route/vaccination details on my blog.

Africa really does get under your skin – the more you travel the continent, the worse the nostalgia becomes :)

Great article, Matt! Very informative & comprehensive!! When we were in Kenya several years ago, the mini vans (called Matatus there) had a reputation not only for being over-crowded, but for very high accident rates (probably for the obvious reason – they’re over-crowded). But what a way to get to know the real people of Africa!

NomadicMatt

Don’t thank me- thank Caz!

Africa is an awesome place for backpackers and for safaris.. kenya, Zimbabwe, Tanzania, Zambia.. all you can see only in Africa.. :)…

Thanks for sharing good informations..

Hey you missed cycling:-) We cycled from Cairo to Cape Town in 2008. Definitely not for everyone, but it is certainly an amazing way to get up close and personal with the culture. You also feel an amazing sense of accomplishment when you reach the VNA Waterfront in Cape Town. 12,000 km of cycling the most incredible continent on the planet.
I have to admit though, on days that I was exhausted I wished that I was on one of those overland trucks. They look like a hoot!
Thanks for the great information, we want to go back and explore more of Africa, probably won’t take the bikes this time so this post helps to decide how we will get around next. Cheers.

In my experiences of local buses, when you thought they were full, that meant they were half full.

Excellent resource Caz. Thanks for sharing. Interesting how it’s rude to stick your thumb up while hitchiking – god to know.

Wroksie

Travel in Sub-Saharan Africa has a whole lot to do with whether you want to see animals and landscapes or if you are more interested in arts and culture. European colonization had a very different impact on West and Central Africa than in the East and South. Therefore, generally speaking, Southern and Eastern African states had much higher settlements of Europeans that discouraged cultural expression. This matters because it also shapes the way Africans travel.

I disagree with your opinion that one can, have an ‘authentic’ experience by renting a car for travel when 95% of Africans never travel in private vehicles.

Buying a car makes sense if the plan is to remain within S. Africa/Namibia/Botswana area for 4 or more months. Rates anywhere else in southern Africa are astronomical. And throughout all of West Africa and Central Africa, except Abidjan, I would not advise car rental for rural travel under any circumstances (especially in Lagos). Primarily because most policies prohibit off-road travel and most travel in the central and west is off road.

In fact, I found driving a personal car for long distances throughout Africa (for tourists/backpackers) is about as safe as driving in Iceland (which is very unsafe).

I strongly encourage public transport for so many reasons (local interaction, getting useful and updated info you can’t really get anywhere else) but the element of extreme economy by packing the vehicle like sardines, does take a bit to grow accostomed to. However, it also serves as a protection if an accident does occur.

Through traveling, I am thoroughly convinced that sub-Saharan Africans are by far the most helpful and friendliest host country nationals anywhere (except for crazy-head Nigerians in Lagos, central and north, J0-burg, and Dar es Salaam) –hope that’s not offensive, but I guess there are nuts everywhere. I did get a few rides in really nice modern vehicles too.

I guess I just don’t see how renting a car will give a traveler any sort of authentic experience when, in a place like sub-Saharan Africa, especially when it’s only an realistic option is so few countries throughout the continent. And really, for backpackers, southern and eastern Africa is so much less interesting and lively than central and west Africa.

andrew smiff

why would you say driving in africa is as safe as iceland??? plus would i really need a 4×4 along the west coast if i just wanted to stick to the roads???

andrew smiff

p.s thanks for your post its a goodie!!!

Good post matt about the options. I’ve travelled on all of these, and you’re pretty close to the mark.

Overland Truck Laws in Africa
The Worst Drivers In The World (ie. The Minibuses)
If for some reason you become injured in one of these forms of transport, you can always see Dr Juma

Cheers
Anthony

Ivo

Hi there! This is very useful information..
I am an intern from Amsterdam, currently working for an online travel organization in Cape Town, for which I write a weekly blog about my experiences in Cape Town. I am going to be travelling more of Africa in July..I’ll be writing a blog about my experiences on the blog of the company I work for.

Cheers,
Ivo

great advice. i’d assume for people with mobility disabilities, the car hire would be easiest (it is everywhere else, lol)…

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The Baz Bus looks comfortable. I definitely would not be travelling alone.

Great post! I’m dying to go to Africa and have been doing a lot of research, so this is very helpful. I’m nervous about dealing with jam-packed buses and vans (I get claustrophobic very easily), so it sounds like the off-road vehicles might be the winner for me… :)

Claustrophobia is not a good thing to have on bus travel in Africa Emily. There is not much breathing room and fear can take whatever is left. Off roading sounds perfect!

Liv

Great and informative post. Hitch hiking, though? Well, when in Africa, I suppose… I’ll take your words for it! :D

Desperate to visit Africa some day. Glad to know how to find my way around when I do!

Joe

Great post thanks for the info, I am not brave enough to hitch hike, so my girlfriend and I are going to hire a car for our trip through Namibia, Botswana, Zimbabwe and Zambia. We are using CABS car hire for out road trip, also I have heard nothing but good things about Baz Bus.

Nice post Matt. Good read.

When I traveled solo in east Africa, I used public buses, taxis, private drivers, small chartered flights, and an safari camp Landrover for overland game drives. While traveling solo in northern Africa, I also used trains, buses and walked a lot.

My “most unusual” and highly overpriced Africa transport experience was during a taxi cab ride in Nairobi, Kenya

cheers,
hiptraveler

I once came accross a German guy who was walking from Capetown to Cairo. We were in a small village near Lake Turkana in Northern Kenya and it must have been 40 degree’s C in the shade. It made me very appreciative of our trusty land cruiser!

Thanks for the great information, I will take a look at the ones I don’t know about. It is nice to find a site like this, I am a travel agency owner and always looking to find good information for my clients

Yavy

i am extremely scared of flights and i want to travel across Africa by a 4×4 vehicle. I want to hire and drive all the way from North Africa to South and then return the vehicle into same location from different destinations. i want to sail with a rental bareboat in Mozambique and travel to Madagascar and do some scuba diving to magnificent reefs. I want to swim with sharks. I will travel for 30-40 days. Do u think im nutz? is it safe to drive around? i am very skilled in driving and sailing. i understand from cars very well. i dont care spending a few extra hundered or thousand dolar to hire a 4×4. Can you give me some advice for this type of journey?
Thanks

Nice post. A lot of great options there. Getting around in those minivans can sure be an adventure.

maltana

Hi thnx for that usefull info.hw can one travel from uganda to south africa by bus.which bus company hundles that.

Great options for an unforgettable experience! Personally I always hire a car and self-drive. It is liberating, flexible and tons of fun! I recommend it to anyone with a sense of adventure, if the budget allows as it can get quite expensive.

Aaron

Why would you say using your own car isn’t safe in Africa or Iceland?

andrew smiff

im thinking of driving north to south (or as far as its safe) along the west coast next year. What sort of van would be the best. ????

Thanks for the advice – not sure i would risk hitch-hiking myself but your stories sound like so much fun!

Thanks for sharing :)

Good post to read. when i started to read this post my interest started to increase. i always love to send my holidays in different- different countries and after reading your post i am looking to visit Africa.
http://yachtsngulets.com/

a-Wanderer

for your information hitch hiking is a free ride, other wise call it “taxi-ride”.

Try to hitch hike in Africa without any money, you’ll understand the difference !

Great post! Even though we have a few months, makes us even more excited for Africa!

Jeff Bush

Hi all…thank you for the informative comments. Anyone care to comment on camping around SA? I am considering buying a caravan and a Landrover and heading off from Capetown to see much of Africa. In Australia, we are well organised for this type of holiday but I cant find out much at all about caravanning in SA. Is it safe? One often hears about the risks associated with life in SA…..Anyine care to comment?

mark

Jeff,
South Africa is well geared for camping trips and there are plenty of places to stay. For safety stay away from camping in or near to city’s (the same the world over). South Africans have fantastic equipment available for everything you need to camp in all sorts of conditions, basic to first class. Suitable vehicles can be purchased 2nd hand and will range in price from US$15,000.0 all the way up to US$80,000. Garages are good and can usually repair anything on the spot. Set yourself up in South Africa and the continent is yours to explore.

I am planning walking from Cape Town to Cairo in about 4 years time ( I am Canadian ) , and just trying to get a feel for how long it would take , and of course , logistics is very important …. Does anyone know any great source of info specific to my trip ? Greetings from Canada :)

Leanne

Thank you so much for this. I just recently read an article about how unsafe and hard it is to travel through Africa and no one should ever be alone when going through there. This put me at ease. I’m planning on backpacking around the world, including through Africa somday so this really helped.

Dean

Hi all,

Interesting reading :-) I’m from South Africa, been living in Thailand for 3 years, but myself and my Thai girlfriend are going to Cape Town (home!) for April ..yay!

I haven’t been through Africa myself, only as far as Zimbabwe really, but if anyone needs any basic ideas or suggestions on South Africa, let me know :-)

Dean

TAM NGUYEN

I’m thinking about a trip from S. Africa to Egypt as a backpacker. Please let me know which one is the best transportation mean.
are there several hostels in Africa?
thanks,
Tam Nguyen (USA)