Backpacking Africa: Overland Travel from South Africa to Tanzania
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Are you thinking about backpacking Africa? There is SO much to see and do within the continent — it’s seriously the place bucketlists were made for. From sandboarding in Namibia, walking with rhinos in Zambia and witnessing the mighty Victoria Falls, travelling through Southern Africa is the ultimate adventure!
Only going to East Africa? | Try my guide for overland travel around Lake Victoria
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 language(s). South Africa alone has 11 national languages! 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, way cheaper and in my opinion 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.
I recently travelled solo over 3575 miles, backpacking Africa from Cape Town, South Africa up to Mwanza, Tanzania in 6 weeks (though I definitely recommend moving at a slower pace if you have the time). Here is the route I took and a brief rundown of what I did!
Backpacking Africa: Overland Itinerary
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 — due to this, I don’t recommend entering past 4:30pm. When in doubt, ask locals for information.
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 and have free rental insurance through my AMEX credit card. 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 do the Garden Route. Stop in lively Jozi, meet cheetahs up close at the Van Dyk Cheetah Conservation Center.
Be sure to hike the Drakensburg mountain range and wake up with wildlife in the Blyde River! It is also 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 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. In my experience, they were small, private cottages behind main houses, situated within gated and secure compounds. (If you haven’t tried AirBnb yet, here is $30 off your first booking).
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 a long-haul bus with Intercape from Cape Town up to Windhoek.
Option: If you have more time, definitely try to break up this 24 hour bus journey.
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I stayed at Chameleon in Windhoek, which I liked for its relaxed atmosphere and large, open kitchen. From Windhoek, rent a car for your epic Namibian road trip!
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.
Climb the dunes in Sossusvlei, test your limits on a sandboard in Swakop, explore the rocks in Spitzkoppe and scope out wildlife at your own pace with a self-drive safari in Etosha National Park.
I rented a 2WD Jeep from Hertz for $30/day and managed fine not having a 4×4 (though I would recommend getting insurance as it is very common to pop a tire — mine had a slow leak after 7 days which thankfully only required a patch). I used my complimentary rental car insurance through American Express.
Take an overnight bus to Katima Malillo and cross the Namibia border to Botswana by mini bus.
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!
If you aren’t sure how to get to Kasane, I have another post which outlines how I crossed from Namibia into Botswana via pubic transport.
Option: If you have more time, head South to explore untouched nature at Botswana’s Okavango Delta.
Zimbabwe (Week 3)
Cross into Zimbabwe and head to Victoria Falls, a town named for obvious reasons. If you cross from Kasane, Botswana into Zimbabwe by land like I did, you can find out how to do it and what to expect in my Kazungula border 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).
Pro tip: Bring lots of cash into Zimbabwe or you may end up bonafide broke like me. The card machine at the border wasn’t working so I blew virtually all the cash I had on the 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, so I highly recommend taking USD into Zimbabwe with you.
Zambia (Week 4)
Cross into Zambia via the bridge and head to Livingstone, the epicentre of all things adventure! Though you can see the falls and try adrenaline-inducing activities from both sides of the Zambezi, 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. Soar over the falls in a microflight or find out why the Zambezi river is known as the world’s best rafting destination.
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 for devil’s pool, Livingstone island and white-water rafting.
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. I would highly recommend instead seeing the protected white rhinos at Mosi-oa-Tunya National Park, where they are free to roam the entire park.
When you are ready to move onwards, take a bus from Lusaka to Lilongwe (I have a transport guide on how to get to Lilongwe from Zambia with all the details).
Malawi (Week 5)
Malawi is a relaxed and peaceful haven — the kind of place you will want to stay longer than planned. Recover from your bus journey at at Mabuya lodge and camp. From here, spend a couple days relaxing by the lake in Cape Maclear or Senga Bay.
Take a mini bus or matatu North to ride horses at Kande Beach or get your drink on in Nkhata Bay, before heading to the border.
Tanzania (Week 6)
Of my entire trip backpacking Africa, I would say Tanzanian overland travel is the most difficult. The language barrier is thick (this pocket dictionary was a life saver) and you can expect long, hot, uncomfortable bus rides.
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 fresh smoothies from the Ridge Café. From Mbeya, hop on a bus to Tabora (avoid Sasebossa Trans if possible…filthy bus and they scammed me).
I have a personal preference towards Mwanza because its 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.
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).
End your journey on South beach in Dar es Salaam or if you have more time, take the ferry across to Zanzibar for some R&R! Don’t miss exploring Stone town, take a boat to Prison island and enjoy the stunning waters at Paje beach, where you can try scuba diving or wind surfing.
If you would rather head East, I have an entire post on overland travel around Lake Victoria (through Rwanda, Uganda and Kenya), which includes practical transport tips, how to see mountain gorillas for just $75 and where to stay and play on the Nile River!
I hope you enjoy your trip backpacking through Africa as much as I did! If you are unsure of what to pack, be sure to check out my backpacking list of what I brought with me and which backpacks I personally use, or learn how to pack lighter in 5 steps.
If you are still undecided on how to plan your trip, I always recommend picking up a Lonely Planet guide book. Otherwise you can reach out to me and I will be happy to answer any questions!
Have you tried backpacking Africa? If not, would you?
Let me know in the comments below
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