Aside from South Africa, southern and eastern Africa are not easy to travel independently. You have three options:
1) Rent or buy a vehicle and drive around Africa independently (and be a total badass).
2) Travel independently with public transportation (and also be a total badass). You will need a lot of time and a hell of a lot of patience because there’s a major lack of public transport in southern and eastern Africa, so it’s not uncommon to get stuck in a small town for up to a week. Before my Africa trip, I met someone who traveled from Cairo to Cape Town via public transport and he advised me to not go alone solely because I would literally be all alone for the majority of my trip (which is not my purpose of solo travel).
3) Join an organized Africa overland tour.
I prefer to travel independently and I try to avoid organized tours because I dislike how they’re rushed, expensive and lack freedom, independence and authentic local experiences, but with a lack of public transport (with the exception of South Africa where it’s easy to travel and popular to rent a car or do the hop-on hop-off Baz Bus), southern and eastern Africa are extremely difficult to travel independently without your own vehicle. As a solo female traveler, I saw joining an Africa overland tour as my only practical option. I booked a 54 day budget participation camping tour through G Adventures and with 8 countries visited, it covered just about everything I wanted to see.
Here’s what you can expect on a budget participation camping Africa overland tour:
- Participation means everyone is expected to help with cooking, cleaning, packing, unpacking and washing dishes. This keeps costs lower.
- Despite camping for the majority of the trip, this is NOT a budget-friendly trip. Africa is really expensive to travel because tourism is the one area where they can really make money.
- You sleep on a two inch thick mattress in tents most nights, which you pitch and unpitch yourself, unless you chose to sleep under the stars (which I don’t recommend if mosquitoes love you). Every so often, some campgrounds have upgrade option available if you want a room and a break from tenting for an extra fee (which will add up quickly) and in the bigger cities, you’ll often stay in hostels or budget hotels.
- Extremely early wake up times- you’ll wake up at 5:30am, before sunrise, most mornings and pack your things and unpitch your tent in the dark with the help of your flashlight/cellphone.
- The campgrounds in southern Africa are surprisingly nice and often have showers, swimming pools and bars. The amenities decline rapidly as you get to East Africa, which often involve a hole in the ground for a toilet and sometimes a bucket for a “shower”. There were only two nights out of the 54 days that had only basic bush camping.
- A LOT of driving. Often 7-10 hours of driving almost every day. We covered almost 13,000km in those 54 days. Bring music, cards, games and books to entertain yourself.
- You can charge your electronics on the overland truck while driving.
- The optional excursions will add up VERY quickly, so you’ll need to have a lot of extra money set aside for those, as well as meals (not all meals are included on a tour), snacks, drinks, water, snacks and souvenirs.
- Get used to going to the bathroom on the side of the road behind a bush (if you’re lucky enough to find a bush, in some places). But it’s often more ideal and clean than the rare public toilets you’ll find.
- If you have to go to the bathroom in the middle of the night, it can be terrifying because of the wild animal situation.
- There are very few places to do laundry, so you’ll often end up doing your own, so come prepared with some soap or detergent and a clothesline is very helpful.
- There were extremely long waits between meals on my tour- often 8-10 hours between breakfast and lunch (which is insane, so we had to survive off snacks we bought ourselves), and when we did get fed, it was garbage food (ie. plastic meat and plastic cheese, all carbs, very few vegetables). Everyone was severely hangry all the time. However, my tour crossed paths with some other G Adventures tours who had much better quality food and didn’t have such long waits in between meals, so it all depends on your tour manager and your luck.
- Driving short distances can take a long time due to terrible roads (ie. it’s normal that driving 300km can take 6-8 hours). And Africa is HUGE.
- The roads can often be incredibly and violently bumpy. It’s a good idea for the ladies to wear a sportsbra.
- It’s very fast-paced with very little freedom and independence. Some of the places start to blend together and it was kind of a superficial experience because there were very few authentic local experiences.
- Some people will come and go from the tour along the way because the 54 day tour consists of a few shorter tours, but many people are in it for the long haul so you’ll be with mostly the same people for the whole tour.
- You’ll have some really awesome people in your group.
- You’ll have some not-so-awesome people in your group and you’ll be stuck with these people 24/7 for 54 days.
- All the planning and organizing is done for you, so you don’t have to think for yourself, which has both pros and cons.
An unfortunate personal experience I had on my Africa overland tour was when I got stung by a scorpion (an extremely rare and unlucky occurrence). The tour managers reassured me that scorpions were not fatal in Africa, so that was fine, but the pain and symptoms wouldn’t stop escalating severely and I was concerned that I might lose my finger. The tour managers weren’t sure if that was a possibility or not, yet they weren’t overly interested in taking me to a hospital because it was inconvenient. 20 hours later, they begrudgingly took me to a hospital (but I still have my finger!!!).
I had done a few tours many years ago, so I knew what to expect with regards to being on a tour and I knew it would be difficult, but it was more difficult than expected. I’m really glad I did it, especially when I look back at all my amazing photos, but I can’t say I recommend being on a tour, especially a camping tour, for nearly two months (and everyone that was on my tour for the duration of the 54 days agreed). I was dealt with an exceptionally poor tour group and while I don’t think that would always be the case, it is a risk you take when you sign up for a tour.
The tour companies Acacia and G Adventures run fairly identical Africa overland tours. I chose G Adventures because Acacia required a local payment of $1860USD cash on arrival and I didn’t feel comfortable carrying around that much cash with me because I had some time in South Africa on my own before the tour started.
I took the Ultimate Africa 54 day tour with G Adventures, which visits South Africa, Namibia, Botswana, Zambia, Malawi, Tanzania, Zanzibar, Kenya and Uganda. And I was able to take a one day trip to Rwanda from Uganda. Many people opted out of Uganda and chose to stop their tour in Kenya (here), which makes the tour exceptionally more affordable as the gorillas in Uganda are a pricey add-on (but so awesome and worth it if you can make it work!). G Adventures often has 20% off sales on their tours, which is worth waiting around for as you can save a significant amount. The price includes the majority of meals and entrance fees.