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The Best Way to Travel Around Eastern & Southern Africa

Updated: Jun 19

Independent Travel vs Overlanding Tours in Africa:

pros and cons


If you're thinking of dipping your toe into backpacking in Africa, then the route from Nairobi to Cape Town (or this in reverse) is a great itinerary to start with. The countries in these regions of east and southern Africa are relatively well-travelled, and they all offer extraordinary experiences.


Trying to plan an adventure like this for the first time can be confusing, as there is not so much information out there on backpacking in Africa.


Your Google search feed will be filled with companies offering tours and luxury safari packages, and it takes some real digging to find information on how to travel around Africa independently.



Broken road Cameroon
Road quality varies in Africa (This is in Cameroon!)

The information in this blog post is based on an itinerary from Kenya to South Africa, but the same principles can be applied to many routes around Africa, it depends on which countries most intrigue you!



CONTENTS




 


So let's run through your 3 main options for an overland adventure in Africa, and their pros and cons:


Self-drive vs Public Transport vs Overlanding Tours



I Dream of Mangoes the Trans-kalahari Highway on the Bots-Nam Border
The Trans-kalahari Highway on the Bots-Nam Border

 


Overlanding Tours in Africa


This post may contain affiliate links, which means I may get a commission if you make a purchase through this website, at no extra cost to you. I only link to products I use and love, but I AM NOT AFFILIATED WITH ANY OVERLAND TOURS - the following is my honest opinion about the best way to travel around Africa.

There are plenty of these overlanding tours available across Africa, and they normally involve a huge truck with perhaps 10-20 people, traversing across multiple countries in speedy fashion.


There is a DIY element to the more budget overlanding tours, where guests all take turns preparing meals and they set up their own camp in a different beautiful spot each night.


The cheapest one I could find online is with Absolute Africa - which will set you back about £4500 for a 77-day tour from Nairobi to Cape Town, plus spending money.


Guests do not normally all join for the entire tour, but rather there is a mix of people leaving and joining along the way.


The pros of this are that if you are travelling alone, joining an overland tour means you will have company. The risk is that these people you are sharing a tent with, all meals with, and plenty of all-day bus journeys with – could be really annoying. If I know anything about humans, this risk is a high one.


But, you could make friends for life? This part is all about luck.



A traveller looking out car windown Namibia sunrise
On the open road in Namibia

Another pro of overlanding with a tour is that you mitigate all the hassle. You will be left alone by scammers, corrupt officials, and pervy men, as the tour guides will act as a complete buffer and handle all paperwork, border crossings, and entrance fees. They may even get you a discount on attractions!


If you are looking for a completely smooth and stress-free trip - then overlanding is probably for you. It is worth noting that the overlanding companies often say that their tours work out cheaper than independent travel, but speaking from personal experience this is not necessarily true.


Another point about overland tours is that they tend to cover huge distances in a short amount of time. Depending on how you like to travel, this could be good or bad. If you prefer slow travel like me, this does not work.


The stops are almost always based around wildlife, so you rarely ever have opportunities to hang with the locals, and really get to know the culture of a place. It's more about ticking off bucket list attractions - which don't get me wrong are normally really cool, but your experiences don't go much deeper than skimming the surface.


It really depends on what is important to you.



Backpackers and locals in Malawi
New friends in Malawi

 


Not sure what to pack for your trip to Africa? Check out my article:



 


Independent Travel in Africa by Self-driving


Self-driving is a very popular option for travelling around Africa. When I was backpacking from Nairobi to Cape Town this year, the majority of the other tourists I met were overlanding in their own vehicles - and it does have its perks.


Most overlanding vehicles have roof tents, so there's no setting up and breaking down camp each day – one press of a button and your bed is ready. You can keep stocked up on supplies without lugging them around on your back, and you also have complete freedom to be flexible with your journey and to reach places that public transport doesn't offer.


While self-driving is the most comfortable option, it is also the most expensive. Not only do you have to buy/rent the vehicle, but you need to get permits to move through each border, and you normally always have to pay extra when entering a National Park.


Again, you're pretty much in your own bubble and don't experience the real day-to-day life of the locals.


If your main interest is seeing the beautiful landscape of Africa, photography, and wildlife, and you have a bit more to spend – then self-driving is probably the best option for you.



Car with roof tent and green field
A typical roof tent set up

 


Independent Travel in Africa by Public Transport


The vast majority of people in Africa do not have cars, they get around by public transport - and so can you. From Kenya to South Africa the main mode of transport is mini-bus - called matatus in Kenya, chapas in Mozambique, and dala-dalas in Tanzania (the list goes on).


They normally have enough seats for 12-14 people but they use little wooden planks to create extra space for bums, and you're expected to squidge up and share seats, or crouch on the floor, until the bus is stuffed to the max, and it does not leave until its full.


Sound like a nightmare?


Yes, it's pretty uncomfortable and stuffy, but it is also quite fun (and cheap) and all part of the experience.


You've also got motorbike taxis, which always have an inventive way of strapping on your luggage - and long-range big buses, which tend to be a little pricier and have a bit more comfort, as you should get a seat all to yourself! Every now and then you might get lucky and be able to enjoy a train ride, like the TAZARA train in Tanzania!



The TAZARA train in Tanzania
The TAZARA train in Tanzania

When we travelled from Nairobi to Cape Town we used public transport the entire time, as well as hitchhiking with long-distance truckers (also completely acceptable, but I wouldn't do this in South Africa). We rented a car for a short while in Namibia however this isn't completely necessary.



Lorry in Zambia
Our hitch-hiking steed in Zambia


The main pro of travelling this way is that it is cheap!


Not only that, but local people are friendly and curious and you have lots of great conversations. I lent a missionary my battery pack for a while during a mini-bus journey in Malawi, and later down the line his friend picked us up in Zambia and chased after our connecting bus that we had missed – even calling the driver to pull over and wait for us! This is a real example of paying it forward, and you would never have these interpersonal experiences when self-driving.


Another pro is that your pennies are going into local hands, not foreign-owned tour operators and car rental companies, which is small a way of reducing the negative impact of travelling.


You do as they do and live as they live. Do you know how many times someone on the bus told us how great they thought it was we were travelling with them, experiencing the 'real life here'? - Lots!


I won't lie to you, travelling by public transport in Africa is a huge challenge filled with a million other little challenges, but there is something extremely gratifying about overcoming them, figuring out the puzzle of routes and paperwork, and then actually pulling it off!


The cons? – Everything takes TIME. TIA baby.


Even if it's only a 2-hour journey, you have to write off the whole day. The number of times I've been waiting hours in a matatu before it's even left, or been pulled over at police checkpoints, or had to change vehicles due to the first one breaking down... the slog is real.


There is a safety aspect to consider too, as you rarely get a seatbelt and the drivers are always trying to make it to the destination in record time. I didn't ever feel concerned but some people may find this a bit worrisome.


As a mzungu, you will get approached, surrounded, hustled, and hassled because people want your business and they want to charge you 3 times the local rate. We found that if we asked around for the price before we got to the bus station, and went in saying ''I want to go here for this much'' - people quickly reverted and charged us the normal price.


Travelling Africa by public transport is often confusing, stressful and tiring, but again, so rewarding. Nothing beats that cold beer after a hectic day of travelling, and nothing compares to the friendships you make along the way, often with people you would likely never cross paths with otherwise.


For full disclosure, we spent £4000 in Africa, between the two of us, taking 80 days to travel from Nairobi to Cape Town, with no regrets. We camped with our own tent*, couch-surfed, and stayed in hostels when they were available, with the very occasional mid-range hotel treat. For me personally, independent travel with public transport is the best way to get around Africa.


*The tent we use is the Robens Boulder 3 - and we love it. It is super-easy to assemble, it is reliable in strong winds and heavy rains, and it only weighs 3kg!



 

FOR TRAVEL INSURANCE for Africa, do what I do and have a browse on Travel Supermarket and choose a cheap policy with a high Defaqto rating.


 


The Best Way to Get Around Africa - Independent Travel vs Overlanding Tours in Africa:

Which is for you?



In a Nutshell...


  • Looking for a stress-free and social experience with little to no planning, stopping at all the big-hitting attractions on a medium budget? For you, an overland tour is the best way to get around Africa.


  • Looking for a comfortable ride with complete flexibility and a higher budget? If the answer is yes, self-driving in a 4x4 with a roof tent is the best way for you to get around Africa.


  • Looking to experience a one-of-a-kind adventure in real day-to-day Africa, hang with the locals, and veer off the main tourist path on a lower budget? Then you'll need to put in the graft and deal with the nuisances, but you CAN do it independently – and travelling Africa by public transport is your calling!



Joe hitch-hiking in Botswana!
Joe hitch-hiking in Botswana!

 


If you have any questions about travelling from Nairobi to Cape Town (or vice versa) using public transport, please hit the comments section!


Thank you for reading my post on The Best Way to Travel Africa - Independent Travel vs Overlanding Tours. I hope this post is a useful jumping-off point for planning your first adventure in Africa!


For more Africa travel inspiration check out my other articles:


&


Happy Travels

xx



START PLANNING YOUR NEXT TRIP




 


Disclosure:
I Dream of Mangoes is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to Amazon.com and affiliated sites. That being said, I only link to products I use and love.

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