Backpacking Africa: Overland Travel from South Africa to Tanzania
Are you planning a backpacking trip throughout Africa? You’ve come to the right place! After travelling solo over 3500 miles from South Africa to Tanzania, circumventing Lake Victoria by land and settling as an expat for a year in Tanzania, I am sharing my wealth of knowledge 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.
Last year I backpacked solo using public transportation from from Cape Town to Mwanza in just 6 weeks (though I definitely recommend moving at a slower pace if you have the time…I simply didn’t but I am amazed at what I was still able to accomplish in this period).
Here is the route I took and a brief rundown of what I did!
Only backpacking East Africa? | Try my overland itinerary for Lake Victoria
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 the Garden Route and Joberg (even if it’s just one day in Johannesburg).
Meet cheetahs up close at the Van Dyk Cheetah Conservation Center, 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. 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 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 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 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. 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. 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. I stayed at Kumbali Lake Retreat in Senga Bay (pictured below) and it was simply amazing!
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 my this 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 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).
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 are planning to head West towards Lake Victoria, refer to my overland travel itinerary around Lake Victoria based on my experience circumventing the lake through Tanzania, Rwanda, Uganda and Kenya).
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. I hope it helps you plan your travels!
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 use and love this one by Anker), a good book (Dark Star Safari is an interesting read for overland travel in Africa) and a BUFF (I use mine religiously to shield my long hair from dirty bus seats and motorcycle helmets).
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, I have a full review of my Osprey Questa daypack (the infamous pink backpack).
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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