Written by The Leap on 18 / 09 / 2022
Gap Year Advice
Next up in our ‘where in the world’ series is Africa. One of many people’s favourites. Africa - known for its dramatic landscapes, wild encounters, exotic cultures, stunning beaches and never-ending skies. It’s more popular than ever before the pandemic with backpackers and there are so many reasons why - falling asleep to the song of the African bush has to be one of the best feelings out there. It is easy to spend a lot of time in Africa because it never disappoints. It is so beautiful. We know it’s not a typical gap year destination, but please pause for a moment and think about Africa. It has amazing wildlife, national parks which will blow your mind, and a coastline down east Africa which is simply stunning and unspoilt. Because of this, you will feel a little bit more intrepid. You will really get the cultural immersion. The cultural difference is huge, and it smacks you straight between the eyes upon arrival. But the rewards far outweigh the challenges.
But it’s a huge continent and travelling around as a backpacker can be difficult and daunting at times, hence our useful guide. But as an overall mission, for a perfect, all-encompassing gap year in Africa, the ideal itinerary should include a mix of backpacking, volunteering and organised overland tours/safaris. Starting in Cape Town - as compared to a lot of African cities it is relatively western, relaxed, friendly, safe (if you stick to the main areas) and there is so much to see and do. It will ease you into African life nicely and gently.
The countries most people head to in South Africa are Zimbabwe, Malawi and Tanzania, either ending or starting in Kenya. It is possible to go overland which takes you all the way through those countries. There is massive diversity along the way in terms of geographical areas, cultures and the people that you meet. You could easily spend 6 months doing this route. Here is an example of how:
The most common backpacker route is to start in Cape Town and work your way up the continent, ending in Cairo, but most gappers stop in Kenya and include the following highlights:
From the hustle and bustle of city life in Cape Town to the glorious beaches perfect for surfing at Camps Bay, South Africa is jam-packed with things to explore. You can't come here without venturing on your safari trip - head to Kruger National Park and have your eagle eyes at the ready to spot the infamous big 5 - look out for those cheeky vervet monkeys stealing your snacks.
At the end of a busy day put your feet up and sip a glass of refreshing South African wine from the surrounding local vineyards. If you're a culinary connoisseur this is the place for you - there are multiple cuisines to tickle your tastebuds.
You can't visit SA and not explore Table Mountain. Trek it with a private guide, or get up there in a cable car. Focus on the incredible wildlife up there and the views for days!
Kruger National Park
If you fancy getting your African adventure off to the best start, head here to start your love of safaris. If not - Zambia and Botswana, later on, have got you covered.
Home to some of the best wine regions you can explore Stellenbosch for a half-day wine tour. The best excuse to try the local drink of choice.
A secret gem that is having its moment… and rightly so as it is totally different from its surrounding ‘savannah’ landscaped countries, in every way possible.
Namibia is all about unique habitats, remote Himba communities and spectacular, rugged landscapes. It’s about the desert adapted flora and fauna, the black rhino in the Damaraland, the massive sand dunes at Sossusvlei (they make for insane photos), big game in Etosha National Park (highly recommend nighttime watching at the waterhole – you can hear a pin drop) and the spooky Skeleton Coast.
Etosha National Park
The third largest park in Africa, owing its unique landscape to the Etosha Pan, a vast shallow depression of approximately 5,000km². Great for game viewing especially at the waterholes along the southern edge of the pan.
A huge clay pan in the heart of the Namib Desert, enclosed by giant sand dunes, some reaching 300 metres, the highest in the world.
Famous for the ghostly shipwrecks beached on the remote and inaccessible white shores. Seals in their thousands colonise lonely beachheads along the coastline. Creepy but cool.
A huge, untamed, ruggedly beautiful region, with prehistoric water courses, open plains, grassland, massive granite koppies and deep gorges – home to desert-adapted elephant, black rhino, giraffe, ostrich and springbok.
Botswana, a landlocked country in Southern Africa, has a landscape defined by the Kalahari Desert and the Okavango Delta, which becomes a lush animal habitat during the seasonal floods. The massive Central Kalahari Game Reserve, with its fossilized river valleys and undulating grasslands, is home to numerous animals.
While you are here you must experience camping deep in the delta and hearing the sounds of the wildlife as you fall asleep. Arrange for one of the expert local guides to transport you around via a mokoro (a canoe made out of hollow tree trunks) as you paddle through the reeds watching the elephants in the distance. Utter heaven.
The Okavango Delta is a vast inland river delta in northern Botswana. It's known for its sprawling grassy plains, which flood seasonally, becoming a lush animal habitat. The Moremi Game Reserve occupies the east and central areas of the region. Here, dugout canoes are used to navigate past hippos, elephants and crocodiles.
The Central Kalahari Game Reserve
One of the most beautiful deserts on Earth. It is an exceptionally varied desert, from the salt pans of Makgadikgadi to the baobabs of Nxai Pans, and the magnificence of Kubu Island in the north, to the wonderful wildlife of Kgalagadi in the south.
Fossil river valleys, light woodland, swaying golden grasses, Kalahari black-maned lions and the echoes of the indigenous San people in the Central Kalahari Game Reserve make it one of the most beautiful deserts on Earth.
Chobe National Park
Some of the world's largest herds of elephants roam here in one of the greatest wildlife destinations in Africa. It became Botswana's first national park in 1968 and is broken up into 3 main areas: Chobe Riverfront, Linyanti Marshes and Savuti.
Unesco World Heritage site in North West Kalahari. Dramatic and beautiful chunks of quartzite rise out of the very flat country in dramatic colours which are very special to the local community. View over 4000 prehistoric rock paintings.
A country bursting with flora and fauna, specie rich rivers and
balancing boulders perfectly positioned for sundowners - Mauya to
Home to the thundering, awe-inspiring Natural Wonder of the World - Victoria falls; a playground for adrenaline junkies. You can bungee jump, white water raft and if you are brave enough, perch at the top of the falls in Devil’s pool and have a photo that your family at home will be pleased they didn’t know about at the time!
An awe-inspiring Natural Wonder of the World. Two-thirds of
the falls including the main falls are on the Zimbabwean side - venture
along the top of the gorge for
spectacular views. There are many other activities suited for all including
the 'Flight of Angels' Helicopter flight over the falls but also ones
for those adrenaline junkies such as bungee jumping, whitewater rafting
on the Zambezi River, a microlight flight, riverboarding, hydrospeed
surfing and a hair-raising experience at Devil's pool - find yourself
right on the edge of the falls; the ultimate natural infinity pool.
Hwange National Park
One of the 10 largest national parks in Africa and the largest in Zimbabwe - welcome to Hwange National Park. The park is teeming with wildlife, with 400 species of birds and 107 types of animals. A great attraction to Hwange is that it is home to one of the world's largest populations of the majestic giants - elephants and a large pack of wild dogs roam the plains - keep your eyes peeled!
It's time to put on those walking boots you have lugged with you and
head off on some wonderful hikes within the national parks in the
Eastern Highlands. Expect to weave your way along rivers, admire
tumbling waterfalls and take in the outstanding panoramic views. The
Eastern Highlands is a narrow strip of mountainous country featuring
hills covered in mist, pine forests and botanical gardens.
The land of the legendary African walking safari, Victoria Falls, the wild Zambezi River, abundant wildlife,and raw wilderness, all in one friendly country. Blessed with awe-inspiring natural wonders, an abundance of wildlife, huge water bodies and vast open spaces, Zambia offers unforgettable gap year experiences. The locals are very friendly and will quickly make you feel welcome.
Commonly regarded as one of the most beautiful, friendly, diverse and unspoilt countries on the entire African continent. Aside from the majestic Victoria Falls, Zambia has more natural water resources than any other southern African country, including many other falls dotted across the country, not to mention the famous Zambezi River which you cannot leave Zambia without experiencing - watch out for hippos and crocs.
South Luangwa National Park
One of the great remaining unspoiled regions of Africa. Even as Zambia’s reputation as a spectacular safari destination grows, it retains its essence of true wilderness; South Luangwa National Park is a place that still feels relatively untouched by humans, and is therefore able to provide an unpredictable and exhilarating safari experience.
A walking safari gets you feeling even closer to nature as you roam amongst the giants with your experienced guide.
Fly into Lusaka then to Mfuwe airport before getting in your 4x4 to explore all the park has to offer.
The Zambezi River is the fourth-longest river in Africa and promises a unique experience as you raft along it. With over 400 types of birds you will be captivated by your surroundings.
Start your day with a sunrise raft - opt for a guide to be in your kayak as it can be choppy and if you come too close to a hippo you want to know how to steer safely around it (trust us).
For this trip take a waterproof phone case and a dry bag to keep your belongings safe.
Though Zambia has over 17 waterfalls, this is the one it kindly shares with the neighboring country Zimbabwe. They are so close that you can even zip-wire from one country to another - it is awesome.
Get here nice and early to do a walking tour across the perimeter of the falls and get those all-important photos of the falls with the rainbow and mist over it - a top tip here - take a raincoat and sturdy shoes as the spray is quite something.
Lower Zambezi National Park
This covers a large stretch of wilderness areas along the northeastern bank of the Zambezi River where several small rivers flow through the park, which is centred on a beautiful flood plain alongside the Zambezi. The scenery is dotted with acacias and other large trees, and has a steep escarpment on the northern side, covered with thick miombo woodland. The best viewing is on the flood plain and river - watch out, it can be very hot in late October.
The second deepest lake in the world, containing about 15% of the Earth's freshwater. You can expect white sandy beaches with palm trees and snorkeling in crystal clear waters with multi-coloured tropical fish. Up to 15 million years old, and lying in the Great Rift Valley. The shores reach Tanzania, Burundi, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Zambia - that's a lot to tick off your bucket list!
Whether it is climbing Africa’s highest Mountain, Kilimanjaro or observing the majestic big 5 in the Serengeti or relaxing on the world famous beaches of the island of Zanzibar, Tanzania needs to be top of your gap year list.
Feel like you have stepped straight out of a David Attenborough documentary as you marvel at the vast plains teaming with wildlife, this country is the jewel of Africa and one that should be explored slowly to take it all in.
Due to the collapse of an active volcano 2 million years ago, the Ngorongoro Crater was formed. It is 260 sq km and home to some of the most unique wildlife in the world. Not seen a leopard yet on your African gap year? This is your place. Camp on the crater rim (it is freezing so pack layers) and then at sunrise get your safari truck down into the crater basin and brace yourself for out-of-this-world natural beauty. Watch as herds of wildebeest stampede their way over the plains, if you're lucky you will spot the rare type of wildebeest that is only found in the crater.
Starting in Stone Town - you have to stay in one of the old spice houses and have a roof top supper - watching the sun go down over the water. Ahhh heaven. Definitely spend a few days here exploring the winding streets, crafts, museums and food markets. Utter chaos but happy, colourful chaos.
When you are exhausted - it's time to explore the beaches... and a perfect circuit is the answer as the north is so different from the south. Don’t miss out on a trip to Nakupenda Beach, aka the beach of starfish, where you can go snorkeling to see these remarkable creatures. While the fishermen cook crayfish, lobster, squid and shrimp, you can relax on one of the many beach chairs with a cold drink and soak up the rays, or hire a raft and drift out to sea.
The highest mountain in Africa and Tanzania's iconic image. It can be
climbed year round but the best time is late June to October when it is
dry season. The mountain rises from farmland on the lower level to
alpine meadow and then barren lunar landscape at the peaks. The slopes
of rainforest are home to buffaloes, leopards, monkeys, elephants and
Vast savannas, mind bogglingly sunsets, acacia trees, herds of elephants stampeding through dusty desert land – this is Kenya.
A cultural melting pot of over 40 different tribes, rich in cultural history - so much more than just the backdrop for The Lion King and a luxury safari - backpacking in Kenya will be a challenging yet satisfying experience as you navigate the big distances, tribal life and contrasting environments.
Very easy to access from Nairiobi - catch a bus out and look out the
window as you enter the famous Rift Valley. For all geographers - you
will love the dramatic sceanery. About 1.5 hours out you will come
across Lake Naivasha which gets its name from the Maasai translation
due to its sudden storms that can arise. Much of the lake is surrounded
by forests of the yellow barked Acacia Xanthophlea, known as the yellow
fever tree and the surrounding farms dedicated to the flower farming.
Great place to chill, fish and explore before heading further north to
Mount Kenya is the second highest African mountain, after Kilamanjaro in
Tanzania established as a National Park in 1949. It takes a minimum
of 5+ days to summit taking you from the tropical rainforest at 2,400m
above sea level, to the alpine slopes of point Lena, and finally the
trekker’s summit at 4,985m above sea level.
In contrast with the bush, it’s time to cool off at the coast and the Indian Ocean is fantastic - when we say white, powdery sand - we mean it.
Watamu is the main draw - expect to find a small town about 105 km north of Mombasa and about 15 km south of Malindi. It lies on a small headland, between the Blue Lagoon and Watamu Bay. Lots of fun places to stay and everyone heads to Ocean Sports to play and Watamu Marine National Park to see the amazing marine life. Be careful of the beach boys - they are relentless.
Kilifi is further down the coast - not as much going on for the back packer but you perfect if you want a spot of peace. Lamu however is north and one of favourite places for the culture. Lamu old town is so special and you literally feel you have gone back in time - donkeys everywhere.
Like in Namibia we have a great gap year program in Kenya which combines adventure with conservation and community volunteering.
One of the best things about Africa? It’s always possible to get from A to B, it’s just the journey in the middle that’s another story… From tuk-tuks to moped, rickshaws, boats and even cow and cart, every form of transport is in use and accessible as a backpacker across the continent.
When it comes to your most common options, here’s the low-down:
Recommended for longer routes, especially across borders as they are tried and tested. Just be prepared for a hot and crowded affair where locals may place anything from a bag to their baby on your lap for safe keeping.
A hop-on hop-off option in South Africa. Safe and social, definitely a good way to meet other travellers towards the start of your adventure in Africa. Learn more here…
Also known as bush taxis, taxi brousse etc. These are the white minivans that you’ll see loaded up with people, bags and animals. They’ll fit more people in than you ever thought possible but they are an affordable way to get almost anywhere. You’ll be sure to get the authentic travelling experience just be aware they run to no schedule so embrace the African pace of life and negotiate the price with the driver before you get on.
Depending on your budget and how long you are staying, hiring a car is a good idea – you can safari a lot cheaper and if you are moving around a lot it will 100% be worth it, especially for a group of you.
Borders are open post pandemic but be mindful as borders can be a stressful place - and expect to queue for no reason or a corrupt official asking for a bribe. Have dollars in cash and know what you need when it comes to a visa so you won’t be fleeced. Also have your onward travel details handy. Be firm, be smart, be patient and be polite and you should have no problems.
All range of options are available although prices and quality vary hugely between countries. Camping is a popular one, often you can camp in reserves or parks where guards are present to protect you from any staying lions. Camping is cheap, social, accessible and safe. I have camped in multiple places in Botswana and you feel so much more immersed in nature.
When it comes to hostels and hotels it’s advisable to book in advance if you know where you’re going to be. Use guide books for recommendations as well as websites like hostelworld and tripadvisor. A few things to consider – Is there a social area to meet other backpackers? Is there a security guard 24/7? Do they run any organised trips you can take part in?
Yes, we know it is harder to do. Your parents might not be so sure. The hostels are not readily available, so you have to be much more organised. This is why a lot of people start on our Kenya programme which is a marine conservation programme. You go on safari, and you really learn how to navigate Africa and how to use your time and energy while backpacking. From exchanging money to navigating the transport – for example, which tuk tuks are safe, the matatus and the trains. We help with getting gappers around Africa through our travel resource ‘Leap VIP’. This gives you access to all our contacts, enabling you to jump from country to country, from hostel to hostel, staying in great and safe places which have all been tried and tested by ourselves throughout the years. Give Africa a chance and give us a call today on +44 1672 519 922 to talk through it.
on 18 / 09 / 2022