Africa is a wild and diverse continent that presents an abundance of activities for a traveller to enjoy. How to get around East and South Africa comes at a price and in order to experience them you need to make cut backs in other less important areas of your travel budget. Check out our article on Budget travel in Africa tips.
One of the most popular backpacking trails is through East and South Africa. Getting around East and South Africa is rough travel, but it’s cheap and it will provide you with some of your most entertaining stories.
There are many transportation options to suit each travellers budget, desired experiences and comfort levels.
Overland Africa Safari Tours
For those travellers who feels a little intimidated about backpacking Africa independently, or a short on time and want to be spared the hassle, there are organized overland safari tours. Craig, and I decided not to travel Africa in this way, although we ran into a lot of these trucks through Africa and were given quite an insight into how they operated. We were able to travel more slowly through each area, and had a lot more contact with the local people.
Overland safari tours will be more expensive than independent travel, but costs usually cover meals, transport, and accommodation Companies to check out include Kumuka, Acacia, and for what seemed like a more mature and less party type experience try Dragoman. 7 day all inclusive tours start at around USD$750 ranging up to $6,000 for a 63 day ‘Kenya to Cape Town’ tour. Travelling Africa independently for 5 months cost us $7,000 total.
The Baz Bus is a hop on, hop off style transportation company organized to help backpackers and travellers get around South Africa in comfort. It has designated travel route that follows the backpacking trail, taking you to the most popular destinations. You can choose the route you want, and the bust will pick you up and drop you off at your selected hostel. Tickets can be purchased for a specific number of days, or more open-ended fleixible tickets are available. Prices for the Baz Bus range from USD $175 to $500.
After 4 months of traveling around Africa using public transport, I welcomed the Baz Bus ‘luxury’ experience with open arms, using it for the last two weeks in South Africa to travel from Durban to Johannesburg via Zululand, Swaziland and Kruger Park. Getting picked up and dropped off at my hostel door, spreading myself out on my own spacious seat while I watched videos and swapped stories with other travelers, was pure bliss and so worth the extra expense.
There wasn’t a bus journey we went on in Africa that did not involve a laughter and conversation with the locals, having a child thrown on your lap, a neighbouring rooster dangerously pecking around your head, a protective mother figure curing your motion sickness with matchsticks, or dramas such as punctured tires, highway roadside ablutions and bus drivers leaving behind those who did not get back from the toilet quick enough. This is Africa and what better way to experience it.
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 crowded. A step up from the local public buses is the Intercape, the largest privately owned intercity bus service in Southern Africa. Think modern coach service with reclining seats and restrooms. We experienced the comfort of this from Cape Town to Durban…ahhh!
I thought Asians knew how to fill a mini-van, but they are quite spacious in comparison to mini vans in Africa. Africa is the place that sets the outer limits as to how many people can be transported at once in a vehicle. Just when you think they couldn’t possibly fit another person in, they have them stand on the window sill outside the van.
I questioned my sanity, every time I rode in a mini-van, and spent the majority of the journey eyes closed to avoid seeing the drivers careen around mountainous corners at speeds of over 80km/h, overtaking anything from bikes to livestock trucks. Travel in Africa, like this, is not for the faint hearted. Africa is poor; the drivers want to overfill the beat-up, rusty van and go as fast as they can in order to make more money.
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 sitting in the front seat, commonly referred to as the ‘death seat.’
Pickups are cheap (usually not much more than USD$2) and tend to go a lot slower, traveling more on the smaller rural or village roads. I appreciated pickup travel a lot more than mini vans. Even though I was hanging out in the pickup tray with bags of rice and potatoes, bicycles, and generally the whole village, I still felt a lot safer. Traveling in this way is extremely uncomfortable, but the communal aspect of it makes up for this.
A local African took me under his wing, as his muzungu (white person), on an 8 hour, 97km pickup trip to see the gorillas in Uganda. No one was to touch me or make me uncomfortable; he even threatened to beat two handcuffed prisoners for accidentally sitting on my shoulder. We sat under a blue tarp as rain pelted down on our drive through treacherous mountain passes. Benson rescued me several times from sliding off the side of the truck to certain death below. You can always count on African pickups to give you memories like this.
Hitchhiking is something that would turn most people’s blood to ice, especially with the thought of doing it in Africa. It can be a relatively safe and cheap way to get around East and South Africa. More people tend to hitchhike through Namibia and South Africa than any other East African country. Hitchhiking can be free, although many times you will be expected to leave a small tip, you have to be able to judge each situation. It is always a good idea to ask how much up front.
Accommodations and internet message boards often have notices for those seeking rides, in return for the sharing of fuel costs. If you hitch from the side of the road it’s best to wave your hand up and down to flag a lift, as sticking out your thumb is considered a rude gesture in Africa.
Craig and I hitchhiked from Namibia to South Africa, only because other transport 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 remainder of the way to Cape Town, for the sharing of fuel prices and stories of life in South Africa as a Chinese student.
Although not a common form of transportation in East and South Africa, there will be times when the opportunity for train travel should be taken as it is a pleasantly relaxing, cultural experience. Passing through a Game Reserve and seeing giraffe, wildebeest and zebra from my sleeper class cabin window was a surreal experience. It was a treat to pick up passengers from small African towns and have goods hawked at our windows while children raced up to smile broadly and wave at the passing Muzungus.
Usually with travel in Africa you are squashed in like sardines, but if you pay for the higher class ticket (USD$20-$30) you will have your own sleeping cabin, giving you the space and freedom to walk around and appreciate African travel.
If you are not doing a guided safari in the Game Reserves, then leave room in your budget for car hire. There is no other way to view the wildlife of Africa, and let’s face it this is one of your main reasons for coming to this beautiful continent. Be clear on where the best viewing areas are for your chosen game parks and plan accordingly so you can cut down on mileage and fuel expenses. Car hire can be expensive, but can work out to be a more cost effective way to go on safari and tour certain regions of Africa. We hired cars for safaris in Namibia and South Africa and to experience the beautiful Garden Route, a popular and scenic stretch off the coast of South Africa.
Car hire in 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. Be careful of where you have to pick up your vehicle from. If it is too far from the safari park you will have to allow for extra mileage and fuel expenses. 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.
Getting around East and South Africa can be done really cheaply if planned well. Carefully consider your budget and safety interests for getting around Africa. 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. Overland Safari tours will be expensive and less authentic but will give you an all inclusive package and a greater sense of safety.