Helpful tips for Getting around East and South Africa

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.

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.

Overland safaris in Africa
The overlanders

Baz Bus

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.

Public Buses

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!

African Transport

The Baz bus experience

Mini Vans

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.’

]Matutu Kenya Africa

Of course there is more room!

Pick Ups

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.

We share more about this experience in this podcast on Amazing adventures to have in Uganda.

Hitchhiking

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.

Hitchiking in Africa
Comfy ride

Train

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.

train travel in africa
Lunch time

Car Hire

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.

car hire In Africa
Are you quick with a gear shift?

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.

More Africa travel tips

48 thoughts on “Helpful tips for Getting around East and South Africa”

  1. Christy @ Technosyncratic

    WOW – this is a phenomenal guide! I feel like I don’t have a very good sense of how to travel around Africa (compared to other places), so this is really helpful. And that last photo with the elephant is quite cool. 🙂

    1. It was really cool having him flap his ears ready to charge. Lucky my brother was ready to roll in reverse. Africa is a really daunting place for a lot of people to travel, but is not as bad as you think.

  2. Good tips. For me, information about transportation is one of the most important things when traveling. It determines a big part of your schedule. Sometimes, guidebooks do not offer enough specifics on this topic. Good to know the options in this part of Africa.

    1. And if you are going to travel Africa independently, you really want to know a lot about your options before you go. Public transport is really slow, so you have to factor that into your schedule and choices.

  3. Great post guys. If you ever get over to w. africa try taking a sotrama in guinea or mali. Their version of the minibus just has wooden benches around the perimeter. Truly unlimited seating – infinite division of space! Another minibus rec I would make, check the tires and the drivers eyes! When in Ghana I had tires blow on three different tro tros. Thankfully driver maintained control of the car. I try to chat with the driver before setting out. If their eyes are bloodshot and they’re chewing kola nuts like mad, I will try to find another car – chances are they’ve been up for more than 24 hours driving. Sometimes there is only one car though and I’ll pray for the best!
    B well, Phil

    1. Great tip about checking the driver’s eyes! You spend a lot of time praying on the roads in Africa. We had a couple of tyre blow outs as well. One pick up had its wheel fall off and roll of down the embankment while we were in it!! I’ve never had so many transportation adventures.

  4. Jordi @ Destination Southern Africa

    Great post, I personally spent 6 months up and down the Cape-VicFalls route working as assistant guide/translator… money spent in languages never paid so well! Best time of my life.

  5. great guide guys! between you and mark @migrationology, my africa pre-trip homework is complete 🙂 gorgeous photos here as usual and always love your details. would love to do the public buses (gotta love ’em, right?) and hitchhike, but not sure how comfy i’ll feel doing the latter solo. you’ve definitely given me lots of choices here. 🙂

    1. Glad you find it helpful. The hitchhiking solo might not be a great idea. Catching a ride with fellow travellers, rather than strangers would be good.

  6. Nice roundup of transport options. The Baz Bus sounds like a pretty good alternative. Your picture sleeping with your mouth open is interesting — is that some kind of local custom? ;]
    Jason

  7. What a comprehensive list of transportation options in Africa! Love the photos of the pickup truck and buses… I felt like I was there with you 🙂 We were in Africa briefly during our RTW trip and rented a car in South Africa. We drove from Pretoria to Durban and it was fairly easy (except for a flat tire on the highway and subsequent problems with the rental company– they gouged us on the tire charge and we spent months getting the international car rental company to reverse the fees).

    1. Driving in South Africa is pretty easy. That is a bugger about the rental company. You have to really read the fine print, we got down on mileage too in Namibia. They are like insurance companies!!

  8. I have done the car hire route in Namibia and had great success. For over two weeks we explored the country on mostly empty but very good roads.

    I have taken mini vans in Zambia which only cost a few bucks but it was one heck of a ride. There were literally at least 20 of us in the bus + stuff so comfort wan’t there but great interaction with the locals. I was worried that my daughter and I would be stuck with the very cute 1 year old baby that got passed to us.

    And then of course there is always the bicycle – and it’s really very safe.

    A very comprehensive & excellent article.

    1. That is great you travelled in the mini bus with your daughters. I would be terrified the whole time, it was bad enough with just me. The roads are so straight and long and empty in Namibia hey! The landscape is really surreal as you are driving through.
      How far and often did you bike?

  9. Can emopathise with some of the travel modes. And especially the elephant 2 metres in front of the car….aaaagh!
    Didn’t know Caz has a belly button piercing.

    1. Nothing like an ellie staring you down to get the blood pumping. There were numerous times my heart ended up in my throat. I no longer have my belly piercing. I took it out a few years ago. I just woke up one morning and decided it needed to go. I got it done in Gibraltar after a few pints and a rugby tri-nations match with some friends. I think the Kiwis beat South Africa that game!

  10. Very useful tips! I had no idea that trains were not common in east and south Africa. The Baz Bus and public buses look like they would be my style!

    1. The Baz bus was lots of fun. It was great to spend some travel time with other backpackers catching up on stories. It made travel so easy.

  11. Very informative post. I really learned a lot about transportation options in Africa. Thanks for sharing your own experiences to provide a great resource for the rest of us. Love the pic of the elephant on the road. And of course, the one with Craig on the Intercape is a classic.

  12. Another super useful article! Two questions if you don’t mind answering: 1) Where did you catch the train? 2) Did you visit the Ngorongoro Crater and the Serengeti? And if so, was this by hire car? Just trying to figure out what’s possible…

    1. WE caught the train from Dar Es Saalam in Tanzania to close to the Malawi border. WE didn’t visit Ngorongoro or Serengeti. We went to the Masai Mara instead. I’m not too sure about hire car in this area. We didn’t hire cars until we got to Namibia and South Africa. I think it is more expensive to hire cars outside these countries. You might be better looking at tours for these parks.

  13. Hi Caz and Craig

    I’m a South African and stumbled upon your site in search of some travel related articles. About a year ago I got this crazy idea to backpack through Africa.

    Starting from Cape Town and just travel through Africa to experience and see this wonderful continent. Other reasons would be that I feel I need to find something, or realize something. I dunno. I think it is more to fill a void in my life.

    I’ve read your “About” page and the reasons why you do what you do and I think that one thing that might have sparked this idea is the fact that I love history. I would love to see places where great events took place in history.

    Now my question to you: What tips and advice would you have for someone like me? Someone who is thinking to live a life as a traveler. You have my e-mail address should your reply be a lengthy one.

    1. Not a crazy idea!! A brilliant idea! I think in life when you feel this intense desires to do things then you have to go to it, because it is usually something higher than ourselves wanting us to experience something for a certain reason.

      My tips and advice is really pretty basic just go and do it. Don’t think of all the reasons why you can’t just why you can. Turn to those who have done it before for inspiration. Once you make the first step the rest is pretty easy. You can find out how to do it easy enough the hardest part is breaking through your comfort barriers to just go.

      Do decide to do it and then start your action steps. So start listing down all the things you want to see and where you want to go, then you can start researching to find out how you can get there, how much it will cost, where you will stay…etc.. all the logistics. You should find a lot of info on our site under the planning tab. You could also consider working in another country. that is how we have gotten ourselves around the world. It is a great way to do it. Exploring your own beautiful continent would be a great place to start as I am sure you already know a lot about it.

      I’m excited for you Christo. You are in the same place I was in 1997. I had an intense desire to travel, and I had my brother who was doing it as inspiration to encourage me to go. I didn’t have a lot of money just an intense desire. Once I stepped on the plane, I have never looked back and my life has been so enriched by travel.

      Let me know if you have any other questions and what you decide to do.

  14. Breath taking! Breath taking! Great tips, most are the times when we find ourselves caught up in crazy situations just because we didn’t have someone to give us tips on how to handle stuff. Thanks for the tips, guys you can also check out flying doctors society of East Africa, they have nice travel insurance rates for East Africa :-).

  15. Hello, I need help because my husband and me will start travel around Africa per 5 or 6 months in 4×4 car. We will start in Cape Town to Mozambique and them Tanzania, Malawi, Zimbawe , Bostwana and Namibia.
    Someone know about people did this trip? and the route, highway ,etc.. We have a project called Lambe Queltehue, is a Theatre mobil with puppets, for children around Africa, and we talk about our native people in Chile.

    I hope answers

    Regards

  16. Wow, this is really incredible. Can’t believe you hitchhiked, but that deserves respect. I am thinking of traveling East Africa and glad to hear it is well possible!

      1. I am curious, what’s the best way to travel between the borders? Let’s say from Kenya to Tanzania or Uganda. Did you guys take a bus? Are there even international buses that local people use?

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