Africa - known for it's dramatic landscapes, wild encounters, exotic cultures, stunning beaches and never-ending skies. It’s more popular than ever before 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.
But it’s a huge continent and travelling around as a backpacker can be difficult and daunting at times… having lived there for over 2 years, i know its challenges only too well. So to help you out and share my knowledge - I’ve put this guide together for you.
As an overall mission though for a perfect, all encompassing gap year in Africa, the ideal itinerary should include a mix of backpacking, volunteering and organised overland tours/safaris....just saying.
Where To Start
I always recommend Cape Town. Compared to a lot of African cities 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 nice and gently.
The most common backpacker route is to start in Cape Town and work your way up the continent, ending in Cairo. The only issue with this is you stick to mainland Africa meaning Madagascar is missed – a huge error in my opinion! Now, unlike mainland, Madagascar is slightly less easy to navigate as a backpacker, the best way to see the country and get to know the people and culture is to volunteer.
Don't Miss Seeing
Serengeti National Park
You can’t come to Africa without going on a true safari and what better place than the Serengeti – the mecca of national parks, home to the wildebeest migration, the ‘Big 5’, one of the oldest ecosystems on the planet, and the ancestral lands of the Maasai. Safaris are expensive when you take park fees and guides into account so make sure you budget this in from the beginning.
Beaches of Mozambique
People often think of the Maldives or Mauritius for pristine Indian Ocean beaches but don’t overlook Mozambique. White-sand beaches, crystal clear waters and diverse coral reefs can be found around every corner. Check out this guide to some of Mozambique’s best-kept secret beaches.
White water rafting in Namibia
Namibia is home to the Kalahari, Sossusvlei sand dunes, the skeleton coast… and many more wonders including the Orange River.
As the longest river in South Africa it originates in the Drakensburg mountains and winds its way across to the Pacific coast forming the majority of the border between Namibia and South Africa. The rafting is packed with adrenaline and stunning views. You can have a sundowner in South Africa before paddling across to set up camp in Namibia for the night.
The penguins of Cape Point
Yes, there are penguins in South Africa. Aptly named, African penguins can be found around southern African waters but the best place to see them is Boulder’s Beach, Cape Point. Just a short hop south from Cape Town you can head out on a walkway through the penguin burrows, watch them come in from a long days fishing and, if you’re lucky, swim with them in the brisk Atlantic waters.
A Mokoro through the Okavango Delta
The Okavango Delta is one of my favourite places I’ve ever visited in Africa. The combination of wildlife and scenery is hard to rival and the best way to see it all is from a Mokoro, a canoe like boat made from a hollowed out tree. Watching elephants whilst you float down a river is something hard to find anywhere else.
Scuba Diving in Madagascar
The waters of the Indian Ocean make the coral reefs of Madagascar particularly diverse and stunning. It’s top of my recommendations if you fancy exploring the underwater world. Whether it’s a one-off dive or volunteering in marine conservation for a few weeks, Madagascar is the place to do it.
There is nothing quite like seeing these majestic animals in the wild. This one is probably best done as part of a tour. You’ll need to head West, Congo, Uganda or Rwanda are the best countries and locations will vary with permit accessibility throughout the year.
Embrace the local culture
Africa is a land of so many diverse, colourful and fascinating cultures. When you’re travelling through take time to stop and learn about the people who live there, their beliefs and traditions. One of the best ways to do this and get to know the community is to volunteer.
For example – join our Tanzania program and you will be immersed in the culture of Arusha, working in local schools and getting to know the Maasai tribe.
How To Travel
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.
Sadly corrupt border processes are a standard part of African travel, however frustrating. Whether it’s a queue for no reason or a corrupt official asking for a bribe, be prepared. 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.
Where To Stay
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?
Top Travel Tips For Africa
- Don’t travel at night, for safety and to avoid animals on the road
- Negotiate your fare before you go anywhere
- Learn a few language basics – hello, thank you, yes please and no along with the local term for foreigner – mzungu (swahili), vazah (malagasy) etc. It's never an insult but important to not be caught out when people shout out to you!
- Get all the vaccinations and make sure you have a good first aid kit
- Purchase a universal adapter plug and a solar charging battery pack – in many areas electricity is limited
- Don’t walk around on your own at night
- Dummy wallets are your friend
I also feel it’s important to say that whilst some parts of Africa do have a reputation for being dangerous, I’ve never felt so welcomed and safe when travelling then I did in Madagascar and Botswana. It’s always advisable to keep your wits about you and be safety savvy but don’t let that stop you doing new things when you’re travelling through Africa on your gap year.
TIA - This Is Africa
You’ll very quickly learn about African Time. Nothing happens when it should, so be prepared to relax, be patient and go with the flow, remember This Is Africa.
So now you know some things to do and how to travel around Africa, it’s time for you to get the guide books out and start planning your gap year in Africa. Remember we are here to help with tips and advice along the way.
on 23 / 08 / 2018