Backpacking Africa: Overland Travel from South Africa to Tanzania
*This post was updated for Jan. 2022*
Are you planning a backpacking trip throughout Africa? You’ve come to the right place! After travelling solo from South Africa to Tanzania, circumventing Lake Victoria by land and settling as an expat for a year in Tanzania, I am sharing my best tips and itinerary with you.
There is so much to see and do within the continent…some serious once in a life time bucket list experiences! From sandboarding in Namibia, flying over the mighty Victoria Falls, taking a 4 day safari in the Serengeti National Park in Tanzania, walking alongside rhinos in Zambia and hiking with mountain gorillas in Rwanda, travelling throughout Africa is the ultimate adventure!
Backpacking Africa: General Misconceptions
The biggest concept to wrap your head around before coming to Africa is its diversity. Each country has its own unique culture, customs, currency, climate and languages (refer to this list of African countries and capitals to see what I mean).
This contrast between countries mixed with the sheer size of the continent, can make planning your backpacking trip feel overwhelming…but I assure you: traveling independent of groups or tour guides is 100% possible, and in my opinion it’s cheaper and way more enjoyable!
Disclaimer: I don’t typically create itineraries because I don’t use them when I travel. However, I recognize some people do so I created this post as a loose guide based off my trip. If you have more or less time on your hands, or have your heart set on other attractions, simply adapt it to meet your needs.
Oh, and do yourself a favour and leave some wiggle room — there will always be that one place you fall in love with and want to stay longer.
In 2018, I backpacked solo using public transportation from from Cape Town, South Africa up to Mwanza, Tanzania in just 6 weeks (though I definitely recommend moving at a slower pace if you have the time…I didn’t but I am amazed at what I was still able to accomplish in this period).
When I eventually needed to leave Tanzania to renew my visa, I took the opportunity to travel overland around Lake Victoria, from Tanzania through Rwanda, Uganda and Kenya in just 2 weeks (again I don’t recommend doing it that fast, it nearly killed me…but I proved it is possible if you are low on time).
Countless visa runs later by bus to Kampala, Uganda and Diani Beach, Kenya, I eventually ran out of passport pages and took the bus from Mwanza up to Nairobi where I renewed my Canadian passport abroad.
Only backpacking East Africa? | Try my overland itinerary for Lake Victoria
Backpacking Africa: General Tips for Overland Travel
I created an African border guide series with the more ‘logistical’ travel info for overland travel simply because it wasn’t available on google when I needed it!
Note: These were created pre-covid – I will try to update them with accurate info as I can.
The reality of bus travel throughout Africa is that it can be super long and uncomfortable depending on road conditions so I always recommend packing your daypack or carry-on bag accordingly with useful supplies (I use the Osprey Questa 27 as my daypack). You will want to bring food and water (though during most bus journeys there are opportunities to buy drinks and snacks), hand sanitizer, and sunscreen depending on your sensitivity to the sun (I wear SPF 60 by Ombrelle on my face daily).
I also recommend traveling with an external charger so you know you will have a charged phone while in transit (I love this one by Anker), a good book, and for those with long hair a BUFF (I use mine religiously to shield my long hair from dirty bus seats and motorcycle helmets).
I also recommend downloading maps.me, a navigational alternative to google maps, except you can use it offline (you must download the country map first while on wifi).
Backpacking Africa: General Tips for Packing
If you are unsure of what to pack before backpacking throughout Africa, definitely check out my ultra light backpacking list of everything I personally brought with me (plus I share the things I wished I brought or things that were a waste of space). If you are new to light packing then this post on how to pack lighter in 5 steps is for you!
If you are curious which backpack I personally use, feel free to read my full review of my Osprey Questa daypack (the infamous pink backpack).
Backpacking Africa: Overland Itinerary
Here is the route I took and a brief rundown of what I did over the 8 weeks!
South Africa (Week 1)
With over 50 million people and 11 official languages spoken, South Africa is a culturally vibrant destination with a complex political history. Start your journey in Cape Town and learn about apartheid at Robben Island, on a free history walking tour or at the museum in colourful Bo-kaap.
Note: As of May 2018 when I visited Cape Town, there were scheduled riots in Bo-kaap at 5:00pm (please note, I am using riot vs protest language as this is how it was explained to me by Cape locals). The context may be very different as of 2022, so be sure to ask around for accurate information. I got the above info by asking my server at a restaurant nearby for tips, so keep in mind your Uber driver, servers, hotel/hostel staff are excellent resources!
Rent a car to do a one-day self-drive tour of the Western Cape Peninsula, stopping at St. James beach (Muizenberg), Boulder beach and the Cape of Good Hope. I used budget rent-a-car for just $25/day, but it is also possible to do the peninsula via the hop-on/hop-off bus if you don’t want to drive.
Have more time?
Extend your South African trip to the Garden Route and Joberg (even if it’s just one day in Johannesburg). The Apartheid museum is a must!
On a separate trip in 2016, I met cheetahs up close at the Van Dyk Cheetah Conservation Center, hiked the Drakensburg mountain range and woke up with wildlife in the Blyde River! It is definitely possible to get around South Africa by bus (I recommend Intercape as a reliable, safe and comfortable bus line).
Note: It is important to be aware that South Africa has a complex political history and the devastating impacts of apartheid still exist today. Most residents will tell you there are safety concerns, so educate yourself about where you are going (or when in doubt, I highly recommend asking locals about the situation and precautions you should take). Petty crime is extremely common so be vigilant, especially if you are alone.
Also consider the level of security when booking your accommodation. I used AirBnb as a more economical option in Cape Town and Joberg, as well as a hostel on a separate trip in downtown Jozi. In my experience, the AirBnbs were small, private cottages behind main houses, situated within gated and secure compounds, while the hostel was in a great location and had the obvious benefits of instant access to information and plenty of people to meet!
Namibia (Week 2)
Namibia is the country which left the biggest impact on me. Its otherworldly landscapes and unbelievably clear starry nights filled me with a child-like wonder. I took the long-haul bus option by Intercape from Cape Town direct into Windhoek.
Option: If you have more time, definitely try to break up this 24 hour bus journey.
Need a Place to Stay in Windhoek? | Explore Accommodation
I stayed at Chameleon in Windhoek, which I liked for its relaxed atmosphere and large, open concept kitchen. I liked that there was a bar in the garden area by the pool, so you could chill with a drink, but it didn’t have a rowdy party hostel vibe.
From Windhoek, rent a car for your epic Namibian road trip! I rented a 2WD Jeep from Hertz for $30/day, which I slept in to save money on accommodation. I managed fine not having a 4×4 rental, though I would recommend getting insurance as it is very common to pop a tire on the rugged roads — mine had a slow leak after 7 days which thankfully only required a patch. I used my complimentary rental car insurance through my American Express credit card.
Note: It is possible to take a bus from Windhoek to Swakopmund, or hitch-hike around the country, but it’s difficult to access the National Parks without your own car.
Stop in Sossusveli where you can climb the dunes (don’t miss “big daddy”) and visit the iconic landscapes of Deadvlei. I went before sunrise to deadvlei so I could get the photos below without hoards of tourists.
From Sossusveli, head to Swakopmond (but stop in Wavis bay on the way to see the famous flamingos). For those adventurous enough, you can test your limits on a sandboard (I have a full post on my experience sandboarding in Swakop here) and catch the sunset at the beach!
From Swakop, drive to Spitzkoppe where you can explore the rock formations and camp overnight if you wish! I only went for a few hours to take photos and continued onwards to Etosha.
Etosha National Park was one of my favourite parts of the trip because you can self-drive inside the park gates, so you can take your own pace and cruise around looking for wildlife.
When you are ready to move onwards, take an overnight bus to Katima Malillo and cross the Namibia border to Botswana. If you aren’t sure how to do this by public transportation, refer to my guide on how to cross from Namibia into Botswana at the Ngoma border.
Botswana (Week 3)
Kasane, Botswana is the gateway to Chobe National Park, renowned for its elephant population. Take a sunset cruise along the Chobe river for just 200BWP ($20). I saw many elephants grazing on an island, just a few metres away from the boat and too many hippos to count. This experience was one of the highlights of my entire trip and ended up being one of the cheapest!
Option: If you have more time, head South to explore Botswana’s Okavango Delta.
Zimbabwe (Week 3)
Cross into Zimbabwe and head to Victoria Falls, a town named for obvious reasons.
If you want to enter Zimbabwe from Kasane, Botswana overland like I did, you can find out how to do it and what to expect in my Kazungula border crossing guide.
Explore the Victoria Falls tiny downtown area by foot (watch out for wild elephants) and get soaked by the world-famous thundering water falls!
You can even do a canyon swing or bungie jump over the mighty Zambezi (or have a drink and watch those crazy enough to try it from the safety of your bar chair from the Look Out Cafe).
Note: I recently heard the Look Out Cafe had a fire and burned down. I don’t know the extent of the damage so be aware this may impact your plans to go there.
Pro tip: Bring lots of cash into Zimbabwe or you may end up bonafide broke like I did. The card machine at the border wasn’t working so I blew virtually all the cash I had on my tourist visa. I was lucky because my hotel (I stayed at Victoria Falls Rest Camp) took credit card and the restaurants I went to took credit card, but I highly recommend taking USD into Zimbabwe with you.
Zambia (Week 4)
Cross into Zambia via the pedestrian bridge and head to Livingstone, the epicentre of all things adventure! You can see the falls and try adrenaline-inducing activities from both sides of the Zambezi river, but I personally think the Zimbabwean side is better to see the falls and the Zambian side is better for activity options.
Stay at Fawlty Towers Lodge and have the staff help you organize your activities for a fair price. I had them arrange this microflight for me. Soaring over the falls was one of the most majestic experiences ever!
Note: the water levels change depending on the time of year and this will dictate what activities are available. In June when I visited, the water was too high to go to devil’s pool, Livingstone island and white-water rafting, which seriously sucked! I guess I will just have to return another time.
From Livingstone, you can also explore the Mosi-oa-Tunya National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Here you can take a guided bush walk to see some of their 13 remaining white rhinos up close and learn about the park’s conservation efforts.
Take a bus from Livingstone to Lusaka, the urban hub of Zambia. Rest your weary backpacking soul with a beer by Lusaka Backpacker’s pool or explore the city centre by foot. Though I didn’t personally visit the Lusaka National Park, I have read they only have one rhino and it is in a caged enclosure. Instead, I would highly recommend seeing the protected white rhinos at Mosi-oa-Tunya National Park near Livingstone, where they are protected and free to roam the entire park.
When you are ready to move onwards, take a bus from Lusaka to Lilongwe. If you aren’t sure how to do this, refer to my border guide on how to get to Lilongwe from Zambia.
Malawi (Week 5)
Malawi is a relaxed and peaceful haven…the kind of place you will want to stay longer than planned (at least in my case). In Lilongwe, I stayed at Mabuya lodge and camp which offers dorm rooms, bungalows and grass areas to pitch a tent. Recover from your bus journey with a beer on their patio or by the pool outback.
Take a matatu North to ride horses at Kande Beach or get your drink on in Nkhata Bay (pictured below) before heading to the Tanzanian border.
Tanzania (Week 6)
Of the entire trip backpacking Africa, I would say Tanzanian overland travel is the most difficult. The language barrier is thick (this English/Swahili pocket dictionary is a life saver) and you can expect long, hot, uncomfortable bus rides with poor road conditions.
Take a bus from the Malawi border to the nearest town called Mbeya — if you stay a day in Mbeya to rest, definitely get coffee and a fresh smoothie from the Ridge Café. From Mbeya, hop on a bus to Tabora (avoid Sasebossa Trans if possible…they scammed me and overcrowded the bus to the extent that it was not safe).
Option: You can also take the Tazara train from Mbeya to Dar es Salaam, or the Central train from Tabora to Mwanza/Kigoma/Dar (Note: the central line is more limited).
I have a personal preference towards Mwanza because I lived there for a year. It has a beautiful location on Lake Victoria is absolutely gorgeous. Recover from your journey at Malaika Beach Resort (I mean, look at this pool) and watch the sunset from Hotel Tilapia, dancing rocks or fish eagle viewpoint.
Have more time?
If you have more time in Tanzania, I highly recommend a trip to Ukerewe Island from Mwanza.
This is the part where you decide if you are heading East, towards Dar es Salaam and Zanzibar or West towards Rwanda. I’ve done both so I will include recommendations for both below.
If you are going to Dar, you can either take the bus (DarLux), train (central line) or fly. Be sure to try South beach in Kigamboni (refer to my guide on how to get the Kigamboni ferry for more details). Take the ferry across to Zanzibar where you can explore Stone town, ride a boat to Prison island or Nakupenda island, and enjoy the stunning waters of Paje beach (refer to my guide on how to get the ferry to Zanzibar for more details). I’ve been to Zanzibar three times now and the East coast of the island is where I continue to return to each and every time. Michamvi is also a great option and the location of the famous Rock hotel.
Related | Where to get PADI certified in Zanzibar
Week 7 (Rwanda)
So if you are planning to head West from Tanzania into Rwanda, you can take a bus from Mwanza to Kigali. I have a transit guide which gives the full details about the Rusumo border here.
In Kigali I highly recommend taking a walking tour through the women’s centre, as well as catching some of the lunch buffet deals around town to try all the local food.
From Kigali, take a mini bus north to Musanze where you can plan to do either gorilla trekking or regular hiking within the Volcanoes national park. I opted for the Dian Fossey hike at $75 USD versus the gorilla trekking at $1500, and still managed to see two gorillas! I have an entire post on the experience of seeing mountain gorillas in Rwanda for $75 here.
Week 8 (Uganda)
Getting from Musanze to Kasane or Kampala via the Cyanika border was a little complicated in my experience so I wrote a transit guide on how to cross by public transit for your convenience. I stopped in Kasane for one night, where you can also do gorilla trekking for cheaper (I think it’s $650) and chimpanzee trekking. You can also hire a motorcycle driver to take you around the lake, which I did!
From Kasane (or Kampala), head onwards to Jinja. I stayed at Nile River Explorer’s camp, which offers a free bus transit to and from Kampala when you either book rafting or accommodation with them. I was just getting over a stomach bug so I didn’t raft but instead opted for SUP boarding on the Nile River.
From Jinja, you can easily take a bus across the border into Kenya (either directly into Nairobi or to Kisumu). I was heading down back to Mwanza so I stopped in Kisumu for a night (the sunset pictured below is from Kisumu) and then took a series of minibuses to the border. I have another border guide on how to cross from Kenya to Tanzania by the Isabania border because it was a little complex.
Backpacking Africa: Summary
If you are still unsure of how to plan your trip, what to bring or whether to go solo or with a tour operator, feel free to reach out to me on instagram and I will be happy to answer questions! Otherwise, I always recommend picking up a Lonely Planet guide book.
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