First Time Backpacking Africa: Experience of an African American Girl Traveling Solo
First time backpacking Africa, Ronisha Smith,
Founder of UnR, read the Backpacking Africa for Beginners Ebook, then took off for her first time backpacking Africa. She did it totally solo and shares her experience with Backpacking Africa for Beginners.
[Q:] Why did you want to travel Africa?
During my senior year of college I took African American Psychology. This fed my desire to travel to the continent. I had already lived in Europe and had visited the Middle East, but I had never traveled to Africa. Me being African American, I felt it was only right to visit the land of my ancestors.
[Q:] Which countries did you visit? And how long was your trip?
It was my first time backpacking Africa, and I spent two months journeying across South Africa, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Zambia, Malawi, Tanzania, Kenya, and Egypt.
[Q:] How much money did you spend?
I spent approximately $5,200. This includes flights to and from Africa, a flight from Kenya to Egypt, visas, accommodation, public transportation while in Africa, food, activities and more.
[Q:] Could you have done it cheaper?/ Any money saving ideas for other travelers?
Certainly! I could have traveled through Africa much cheaper by couch surfing. I only couch surfed twice my entire time in Africa, but felt this route wasn’t really for me. Many people love couch surfing and have saved a lot of money by going this route. Also, due to personal reasons, I bought a plane ticket from Kenya to Egypt which wasn’t really expensive, but much more expensive than using public transportation. With the money I spent on this particular flight, using the bus I could have visited Ethiopia and Sudan with money left over to go toward visa expenses.
When it comes to money saving tips, I suggest public transportation, couch surfing or staying in hostels, and eating from local restaurants. If you’re really on a tight budget, if find yourself staying in a particular country for a long period of time, buying your food from the local supermarket is a good option as well.
(Admin note: If you’re interested in what other travelers spent, a general cost breakdown per category, or more ideas on how to save money, then check out the book about traveling Africa.)
[Q:] What was it like traveling as a girl? As an African American?
My first time backpacking Africa solo as a woman wasn’t as difficult as I thought. I felt that many locals were more willing to help me because I was a woman traveling alone. As far as safety, I never found myself in a situation where I feared for my life, but I made sure to never put myself in these types of situations. Although, sometimes this is inevitable depending on where you travel.
Being African America, I was mistaken for being African by everyone I met. Not only the locals but by the other tourist as well. So, I avoided being hassled too much by simply keeping my mouth shut and blending in, but of course, this only worked in my favor for a short period of time. People are friendly and people want to talk, so the moment I opened my mouth and my American accent was detected, I was the center of the attention. Sometimes, unwanted attention. Locals were extremely surprised that I was a Black American. Being a Black American was so unheard of with the locals I came into contact with. Many couldn’t understand how I could be black and not born in Africa. It was okay in the beginning but after a while this became quite annoying having to explain that all black people aren’t from Africa to almost every local I came across.
[Q:] What was your favorite thing you did?
Climbing Table Mountain in Cape Town, South Africa was the highlight of my trip. Climbing/hiking up a mountain was on my bucket list and I was proudly able to check that off the list. Being so out of shape, it took me fairly longer than your average athletic tourist to climb the mountain, but like someone told me, “It doesn’t matter how long it takes, just as long as you make it to the top.” This was one of the hardest things I did in Africa, and I pride myself for not giving up.
[Q:] What were you not prepared for? And how is Africa different than you expected?
Since it was my first time backpacking Africa, I was not prepared for the different treatment I got traveling through Africa as an African American compared to my fellow European/Caucasian tourist. During times when I did activities with groups of other people, I experienced some unfair treatment by the locals, which caught me off guard.
This was my first time backpacking and I chose to backpack through one of the hardest continents to navigate via overland transportation. Don’t get me wrong, it can be done, but I was not expecting the chaos that came along with riding the public bus system. For example, while traveling from Livingstone, Zambia to Lusaka, Zambia I had to stand up for a 5 hour bus ride although I paid for a seat on the bus. These types of things are hard to prepare for because you don’t know until you actually find yourself in a situation.
[Q:] Did you ever get sick?
I got a mild case of traveler’s diarrhea while in Zambia. Fortunately, this didn’t keep me from enjoying my time in Zambia. It went away fairly quickly. I also had a more extremely case of Diarrhea while in Egypt. Lucky for me,the hostel manager noticed my constant visits to the bathroom, and offered me a local remedy of freshly squeezed lemon juice and disgusting black coffee that had my functioning properly within an hour!
[Q:] Did you ever feel unsafe or feel at danger?
During a 5-hour wait for my bus from Gaborone, Botswana, I found myself at risk for being robbed. While on the bus, waiting for it to depart, I witnessed two women get their purses snatched. One was unsuccessful because her boyfriend stepped in. All I could think about is how I had all of my belongings with me, and if these men came on the bus I was at risk for being robbed! By the grace of God this didn’t happen, but I think this is the most afraid I’d been while backing in Africa.
[Q:] How did you get around?
Public transportation was my means of getting around from South Africa to Kenya. I caught a plane from Kenya to Egypt.
[Q:] What was the hardest part?
For me, the hardest part was backpacking alone and seeing so many couples or groups of travelers. I was always the only solo traveler in the hostels I stayed in or during any activities I participated in. Also, having a significantother back home made it hard to see all the happy couples exploring the world together. I often found myself living vicariously through the happy couples, haha.
(Admin note: When I did my backpacking trip, I only saw a handful of people traveling together…. Everyone else was solo. Perhaps it depends on seasons or just completely random on if you meet people traveling alone or in a group.)
[Q:] What would you differently?
I’d make sure to bring an unlocked smart phone this go around. Having a phone makes it easier to communicate with your accommodation and book arrangements for a taxi/uber to pick you up from the bus station once you make it to the next city/country. Many times I had to use a local’s phone in order to arrange pickup from the bus station to my accommodation. Many hostels don’t send a taxi until the bus arrives due to the bus never arriving on time.
[Q:] Would you recommend traveling African countries to others?
I recommend that everyone visit Africa at least once in their lives. It doesn’t have to be backpacking, but I do recommend going to Africa on vacation. There’s tons to do in Africa and it’s a beautiful continent.
[Q:] Tell me more about your T-shirt company:
I founded UnR in 2016 as a way to encourage people to live outside of their comfort zone by traveling more. Each T-shirt has a unique slogan that travelers can relate to whether they travel for long periods of time, or only a few days a year. When people wear the t-shirts, I call this the human billboard. 10% of all profits will go toward creating the UnR Travel Grant for world travelers traveling for a cause. This gives more people an opportunity to travel who doesn’t have the means to, but has a want to make a change in a far away place and make difference.
There’s not many travel grants out there that caters to your average traveler outside of study abroad grants, so I aim to be the first. UnR will eventually extend its products to become the ‘Go To’ lifestyle brand for travelers world wide.
[Q:] Anything else you want to tell future travelers?
It’s important to live your life based on your own reality and not anyone else’s. If you want to up and quit your job to take a chance at fulfilling your dream of traveling the world, then do so without any regrets. Don’t get stuck in a life you hate, because you want to make others proud of you. Make yourself proud by not being confined. I recommend travel and cultural immersion to everyone. Living outside of the box can open your world to possibilities you never knew existed!