Quietly considering myself a “seasoned traveller”, in June 2010 I packed my backpack and headed off to Africa for the adventure of a lifetime. Family and friends told me I was out of my mind and requested I join a tour. But I had already backpacked the USA, Europe, and worked as a tour leader in Central Asia, Russia and China independently travelling in those parts between tours. So what could Africa throw at me that I could not handle?
This naivety is not uncommon, I am relieved to admit. But in fact Africa is NOT Europe. It is not even Vietnam, which may be considered a reasonable comparison if you look at development data. But that is the wonderful thing about this amazing continent: it is different to everywhere else in the world. And despite having started my backpacking career sixteen years ago, Africa still makes me feel like the greenest of travellers. That is not to say independent travel is impossible; indeed I survived three months backpacking South Africa, Mozambique and Malawi. If not for finding a job, I was planning to continue up to Nairobi. As it happens, nine years later I find myself living here, in the continent which has thrown me my toughest challenges and continues to do so.
These days I do suffer an internal conflict: I am a huge advocate for independent travel, getting to know real life through home stays and using public transport; but now I run a tour company offering private safaris (I’ll admit that up front, so you can read this article in whichever light you think appropriate) and the more I use my own vehicle, the less I enjoy crowded buses. So what’s my advice for someone wanting to travel solo in Africa?
First let’s talk about public transport. It’s not comfortable and you need to be prepared to be overcharged on the price of a journey. But maintain a sense of humour, ask locals how much the journey usually costs before embarking the bus, and relish the opportunity to “live like a local”.
Most people come to Africa to see the wildlife, so getting to a National Park or three is a priority, and the second challenge. Unfortunately public transport rarely gets you all the way to a National Park. The best way is to book your accommodation and ask them for a pick up from the nearest town.
Speaking of accommodation, lodges in or near the parks tend to be expensive. Regardless of where you are in the world, travelling solo and sleeping in private rooms every night can eat into your travel budget quickly. After a month of backpacking in South Africa, I noticed many other backpackers were carrying a small tent and I realised that could be a way to extend my travel time by cutting costs. There are many hostels and guesthouses that have yard space where you can pitch your tent and safely camp as a solo traveller. I do not advocate bush camping though! Also at such hostels and guesthouses, it’s easy to meet fellow budget travellers with whom you can share the costs of hiring a vehicle for game drives.
Even if you are not into the group tour thing, I would suggest getting yourself on short trips – just to save your sanity. From Nairobi for example, there are regularly three-day tours to the Maasai Mara or Amboseli. Three days is manageable, right? So use long distance buses to get between big cities – Nairobi, Mombasa, Kampala, etc – and then join a short tour and make your life a little more enjoyable.
If are not averse to group travel, overland tours can be a fun way for solo travellers to see Africa. Overland trucks traverse the continent, catering mainly to the backpacker market, making them a cheap option. Sitting in the back of a truck for a few weeks sharing all the amazing new experiences with a bunch of other travellers is fun. At the end of the day, there’s always someone to have a drink (or three) with.
Africa is not like Europe with backpacker hostels everywhere. Some countries are easier than others – South Africa for example has great tourism infrastructure to suit all budgets, while Tanzania has less options and Botswana outright targets the luxury market. It’s definitely possible to travel solo without being a millionaire though. With humour, time and a little bit extra in your back pocket so you have room to splurge when the going gets tough, travelling solo in Africa can be one of life’s greatest adventures.
If you would like more advice about travelling in Africa, please contact me on firstname.lastname@example.org. I love to talk travel and will be happy to point you in the direction that suits your preferred travel style so you can get the most out of your African adventure.