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.

traveled Africa. Backpacking Africa. Kids in Africa

 

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.

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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?”

The answer?

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.

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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.

Traveld Africa. Backpacking Africa by motorcycle
 

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.

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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.

Traveled Africa by crossing borders

In “No Man’s Land” between the Tanzania & Burundi border

 

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.

I traveled Africa by crossing through and backpacking Zimbabwe. They use USD, and it's really dirty!

Zimbabwe uses USD as their currency– only it’s 1000x dirtier than you’d expect

 

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?

Absolutely.

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. 

Val Bowden

Val Bowden took off on the adventure of a lifetime in 2013 when she backpacked from Cape Town to Cairo solo using only public transportation. Since then her love of the African continent has continued to grow. She currently lives in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, and is the author of Backpacking Africa for Beginners E-book.


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11 responses to “How One Girl Traveled Africa”

  1. Bryan says:

    Hey Val! My name is Bryan and a couple friends and I just booked a flight to Cape Town and want to do a trek to cairo as well! We wanted to know about how much did you spend total on your journey, and also how much time you’d recommend spending MINIMUM. I know you’ve spent over half a year accomplishing the trip but would it be possible in say maybe 2-3 months? If you could email me your thought I would greatly appreciate it!

    • Val Bowden says:

      Hey Bryan! Awesome! Cape to Cairo is definitely a trip of a lifetime! So spending totally depends on where you go (ex. SA is way more expensive than Malawi), what you do (Safaris are so expensive, but if you avoid big spenders travel can be cheap), where you stay (I recommend bringing a tent and sleeping at hostels to save money), and what you eat (if you eat local food at food stalls or tiny little “restaurants” it’s cheap!). So it’s kind of hard to estimate how much you’ll spend. In my book,I go into more detail about my exact trip cost, what other backpackers spent, etc. But this blog post might also help you. http://backpackingafricaforbeginners.com/backpacking-africa-cost/

      And as far as time…. you can do it in 2-3 months. I knew a guy who did it in 59 days actually! But there are sooo many incredible things to see, so you might miss out on some awesome stuff. If you’re set on Cape To Cairo, try to do at least 3 months so you can enjoy it a bit more. The travel is rugged, and you’ll be worn out and sore from all the bus rides.

      And if you are trying to be cheap,here’s a route idea: I’d spend less time in SA (even though it’s awesome!)(Skip Botswana and Namibia if you’re in a hurry and trying to save $, although you could easily fit in Lesotho and Swaziland without too much extra travel) –> Mozambique (cheap and beautiful…. be a little more careful here though safety wise), from there you could do Zimbabwe to Zambia so you can see Vic Falls or cut directly into Malawi (cheap, beautiful, lots of travelers, my fav country!) —> cross by lake or train to Tanzania. Take time for zanzibar! –> from there you could go directly to Kenya but if you have time try and fit Uganda in 1st. I did Tanzania, Burundi, Rwanda, Uganda then Kenya…. but for you I’d cut out Burundi & Rwanda, but fit in Uganda if possible. And from there you pretty much have to do Kenya, Ethiopia, Sudan, and Egypt. You could try and fit in South Sudan, but i’ve heard from locals it’s not super safe right now and travel is super rugged which would eat up a lot of time. You’d probably be better off skipping it and using extra time to see Ethiopia or Egypt more.

      Anyways hope that helps! If you need more help, check out my book or keep asking me questions! 🙂

  2. Jeannette says:

    Hi Val,

    Your blog is so inspiring. Well, i am thinking about about a Trip to Cape Town. Two weeks in december. So, everybody of my friends and Family tell me that i should not do that, because it is to dangerous. What do you say?

    Thaaaank youuu for your answer. 🙂
    Jeannette

    • Val Bowden says:

      Hey! So great to hear from you!! And sorry for the late reply… I just got married! So I wasn’t online. But my husband is Ethiopian…. and that plus my trip plus living on the continent for 3+ years makes me an obvious fan. lol. Anyways…. 1) That is SO awesome you’re thinking about a trip to SA. It’s a great country. And especially a great place to start if you’re new to Africa. Personally, I found Cape Town super amazing… Beaches, mountains, cool culture, good wine, lots of backpackers… You’ll love it. Just follow typical common sense safety rules… like 1) Dont walk alone at night. 2) Don’t like your drinks unattended. 3) Don’t wander off with guys you just met. 4) Keep valuables safe ( I highly recommend something from Clever Travel). etc. I know your family is worried, because mine was too. But just remind them that you’ll be careful and that there are so many people visiting SA and having great experiences. Anyways, let me know if you have any more questions, but I vote yes!! 🙂 🙂

  3. Raychill Kay says:

    Hi! Yer blog is super inspiring, I’m just curious about what kinda permission/visa you had to stay for 7 months!

    • Val Bowden says:

      Hey! Thanks so much! So depending on where you’re from… it will differ. As long as you’re from the US, Canada, or Europe visas are pretty easy. They vary per country. Most of mine I got at the border, but just google the country you’re trying to get into to learn their requirements. Almost all of them offer a 2 week to 3 month tourist visa. And it’s good to get a bunch of passport size photos before you go for the random countries who want them. Anyways, hope this helps! You’ll love it! 🙂

  4. Ebony says:

    Hi,
    Did you get all of your vaccinations before you left to Africa? I’m landing in SA and I read that you can get vaccinated there for cheaper in the US. Would you advise that? Also how do you plan for a prescription of anti-malarials if your route and time frame is unknown?

    • Val Bowden says:

      Hey Ebony! Great to hear from you. So I got all my vaccines before because at the time, I had really great insurance. But I bet you could get vaccines cheap once you arrive… because that is true for meds. But you’ll have to be really careful when you arrive… because if for example you eat something bad the first day, and didn’t have a typhoid shot, it wouldn’t be good. The only other problem with getting them when you arrive is you don’t know for sure where to get them and if they’ll have the ones you need. As long as you are arriving in a big city and are super careful the first week or so you should be fine (lol but please definitely consult a doctor). And as far as the anti-malaria pills, again talk to a doctor. Some of them depend on how long you’ll be traveling and where… which like you said is hard to plan. You can get them when you arrive and then you would get the ones right for where you are. But the problem is sometimes they take 2 weeks before they work, so if you land in a malaria area you could be in trouble. Also malaria pills have lots of weird side effects and when you travel you don’t have as much choice on what you’ll get. All this to say, you’d probably be fine if you waited… But since it’s your health, it might be better to just get everything before you come. I met a guy who got sick (because he didn’t have a typhoid vaccine) and had to fly home early. SO in the end, you might spend more if you get really sick and get hospitalized or have to go home early. Hope that helps…:)

  5. Elizabeth says:

    You technically didn’t “backpack” through Africa considering the many modes of transportation that you used. Check out “Jake Does America”. He WALKED across America, 3 times in 3 years for 3 different charities. Alone. THAT is true backpacking.

    • Elizabeth says:

      Sorry if that sounded rude. It wasn’t intended to be.

    • Val Bowden says:

      Hey Elizabeth. That sounds like an awesome trip for Jake. Well, backpacking has a lot of different definitions for different people. Walking is by far the best (and most adventurous) way to do it. And I definitely think it can be done in Africa. Along my trip, I met people bicycling, walking, running, hitchhiking, public transport, and even flying. In a way, backpacking can also be defined as a mindset. It’s about being a traveler, not a tourist. Getting to experience the real culture. So I try not to get too hung up on technicalities. The important thing is just to go. 🙂

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