How One Girl Traveled Africa
I traveled Africa, & know you can too!
In 2013, I backpacked through 13 African countries. By myself. Using public transportation only. That’s right, no planes. Just one train, a few boats, and hundreds and hundred of buses.
I started in Cape Town in March and after seven months I traveled Africa (complete length of the continent) and ended in Cairo.
It was amazing.
I mean absolutely, incredible, not-enough-English-words-to-describe, life changing kind of trip.
Ironically, for being such a huge trip, it was also my first real time backpacking.
I say real because I did go to Costa Rica once with my friend Kelly. But we brought suitcases and not backpacks. Used hostels but not local transportation. And basically just drank beer on the beach for a week. So despite being incredibly fun, it doesn’t exactly fit into the rugged, backpacking category.
So whether you count it or not, either way, I traveled Africa as a complete, naive, beginner.
I had no clue what to do, how to get around, or what to pack. I kept asking myself, “Is Africa even safe?” So I said a bunch of prayers. Packed everything I could possibly think of, including exercise equipment (seriously what was I thinking), and grabbed a map of South Africa that my best friend had printed off of Google.
Then I arrived in Cape Town.
Barely able to lift my bag (which is why I now only recommend backpacking light) and saw a whole new world that I never knew existed.
It was like a veil had been lifted and a great secret uncovered when I realized that I wasn’t the only traveler. There were tons of other backpackers. And beautiful beaches. And 54 other reasons that quickly made me fall in love.
It didn’t take long before I got into the backpacking groove. Other travelers were quick to show me the ropes. And locals could not have been any more friendly or helpful.
So my original goal to make it to Ethiopia in two months going through as few of countries as possible shifted. Dramatically. My backpacking route turned into a giant zig zag where I included as many countries as I could, spending as much time in each as possible.
What ended up unfolding was a multitude of experiences like no other. Everything I saw, every person I met, and everything I did was over the top incredible.
When I tell people about my trip though, they are always amazed. And the one question I get always without fail is, “How did you do it?”
Easily. That’s how.
In fact, I truly believe that if I traveled Africa as a newbie backpacker, anyone can. You don’t need an expensive tour and you don’t need to have traveled extensively before.
Here’s a few tips to get you started:
How I Traveled Africa: Getting Around
Getting from point A to point B isn’t as hard as it seems. My not so sophisticated method was to decide where I wanted to go and then ask someone how to get there. Either a traveler who had already been there or a local was always able to give me directions. Typically it meant going to the bus stop, finding which bus was going there and when, and then buying my ticket.
Sometimes I could get buses going directly to the city I wanted to go to which made it really easy. If it was a bigger bus or a longer travel, I usually had to buy my bus ticket the day before I left. If it was a smaller distance then I could find multiple mini-buses going there all throughout the morning and afternoon. For those, it was usually first come first serve.
Travel did take much longer than I expected. A 200 mile trip never was as quick as what it would be back home. Nor was it ever as comfortable. But either way, I always made it. Sure my legs were a little cramped or the person beside me held a chicken that squawked the entire time, but it was always an interesting, one-of-a-kind, and often humorous experience.
How I Traveled Africa: Getting into Countries
Getting through immigration and into my next country of choice was simple. In fact, it’s especially easy for Americans, Canadians, and most Europeans. Because while most African countries do require a visa to enter their country, these nationalities can often purchase one on the spot at the border.
Usually I checked visa requirements before arriving just in case. A quick search on Google pulled up the information from the country’s embassy page. It told me where I could purchase the visa, what the fee was, and any other requirements.
The one time I forgot to look was Burundi. Go figure it was one of the few countries I could not purchase a tourist visa at the border. However, the officers did grant me a transit visa so I got a quick three day tour of the beautiful country. Other than that the immigration process was pretty simple and almost always the same for each country. I would proceed through customs of the country I was leaving, fill out a short form, answer a few questions, and get my passport stamped. Next I would walk across the border into the new country, fill out another form, answer some questions, pay my visa fee, possibly get fingerprinted, and then get a stamp from that country. That simple process allowed me to enter 13 countries with no problems.
How I Traveled Africa: Getting Money
Most African countries are primarily cash based societies. So the purchases I put on my visa were few and far between. I found out that most places, even if they advertise that they accept cards, usually are unable to do so due to network or power issues.
So the main way I got money was through ATMS. This worked perfectly because it also came out in local currency. Normally, I withdrew enough to last me for a week or two and hid it in my favorite travel tank-top. Although I took out a little extra if I knew I was going to a more rural area.
I also tried to use up all the money I took out while I was in that country. Because I learned the hard way that it’s not easy to trade it in once you cross the border. On the bright side, next time I go to Mozambique I will have the first few days already covered!
Another lesson I learned was the importance of taking multiple credit/debit cards. I took two. Unfortunately, one card was hacked during my layover in Europe and subsequently had to be canceled. That meant I was down to one. Which in my opinion is a little too nerve racking when you’re traveling alone. Luckily I was able to have a replacement card sent to some friends I knew in Mozambique. However, in the future I know I will take at least three cards with me.
How I Traveled Africa: Everything else
Sure, there’s a little more to it. Figuring out where to sleep, where to do laundry, and how to communicate despite language barriers were other things I learned along the way.
What helped me the most was realizing that others who had traveled Africa before me had already overcome these challenges. So I knew it was possible.
I also knew that locals had the same needs I did. They needed to sleep somewhere safe, do laundry, eat, drink and move around just like me. So I followed their lead. It usually looked a lot different then how it did at home. But I always got all my needs met. In the process, I also learned new ways of doing things that I never knew existed. Some I even now prefer.
Of course you need to be careful while traveling (anywhere– not just Africa). That’s why I also share more safety, money-saving, and healthy tips as well.
So would I do it again?
In fact, it’s only a matter of time before I whip out my backpack and do it all over again. Only this time I’ll travel even longer, even further, and include even more countries.
I would recommend anyone who’s up for an adventure, wants to discover some of the prettiest and most loveliest people and places on the planet, or just wants an awesome vacation to consider making Africa their next destination.
Have more questions? Want to share your thoughts? Leave it in the comments below.
Thursday, February 26, 2015