Planning a trip to Africa: where to begin

If you had said ‘Africa’ to me two years ago, incredible imagery of lions, dusty savannahs and red sunsets would have come to mind. But I wouldn’t have had a clue how to plan a trip!

If you feel the same, I’m here to help.

I’ve just returned from a four-month, eight-country extravaganza round East and Southern Africa and I’m feeling in the know. I want to share my stories and encourage others that it CAN be done easily, safely and without breaking the bank.

So first of all – where? There are 54 countries in Africa so it’s normal to not have a clue where to begin. So to start, what would you like to do? Here are some of your options:

Safaris

I don’t know about you but this was a big pull towards Africa for me. There aren’t many places in the world you can do this! You might consider the following destinations…

Serengeti National Park, Tanzania

Within five minutes of driving into the park we’d seen leopards AND lions – could it be real life? The Serengeti was my favourite safari experience in Africa by far – we saw so much and camped right in the middle of the Park which was scary and amazing in equal measures.

READ NEXT: My Serengeti photo blog

Etosha National Park, Namibia

The flat, dry plains of Namibia are perfect for spotting large and small animals. It was here that we saw our first wild rhinos!

READ NEXT: Africa overlanding – arriving in Namibia and spying rhinos in Etosha

Kruger National Park, South Africa

By the time I reached South Africa, I was low on funds and completely spoilt with five safaris already under my belt. I gave Kruger a miss but many people say it’s the best safari they’ve been on.

Chobe National Park, Botswana

Fun fact – Botswana has more elephants than any other country in the world! Your best bet is to spy them in Chobe and, if you’re lucky, you’ll also see zebras, lions, hippos and more.

READ NEXT: Africa overlanding – our week in Botswana

South Luwanga National Park, Zambia

In the wet season of February, this park was green and glorious. It made for a cool contrast to the arid savannah of Namibia and Tanzania (though those environments are awesome for animal spotting).

READ NEXT: Africa overlanding – on safari in Zambia

Towns and cities

You might not automatically think of Africa for awesome urban hubs but your opinion may change if you visit these places…

Cape Town, South Africa

Where to begin with Cape Town? You’ve got everything on your doorstep – hikes, scenery, shopping, beaches and a fantastic eating and social scene. If you’re looking for a cool, cosmopolitan city in Africa, Cape Town’s the one!

READ NEXT: My Cape Town guide

Stone Town, Zanzibar

While Zanzibar’s beaches are everything, I’m personally more of an urban girl and loved the culture on the island’s main city. Everything from the ornate doorways to the rich coffee of this UNESCO World Heritage Center did it for me.

Hiking

Africa has some amazing hikes for those who want a bit more out of their trip than seeing the sights and enjoying the beach. Here are a couple you might want to look into:

Kilimanjaro, Tanzania

I didn’t climb Kili but as Africa’s tallest peak, it’s one of the continent’s most worthwhile challenges. There are seven main hiking routes taking between 5-7 days to complete. Trips can cost up to £2,000 including guides who will transport all of your food and water, so cost is a big factor to consider.

Fish River Canyon, Namibia

The second largest canyon in the world is worth a visit whether it’s to admire the views or complete the multi-day hike. Those who’ve done the 85km trail say that despite the high desert temperatures, taking in 1.5 billion years of archaeological history – and of course those amazing views – makes it worthwhile. I can vouch for the views part.

Atlas Mountains, Morocco

High on my bucket list, Morocco’s Atlas Mountains are described as an easy to medium trek and take in some fantastic scenery, valleys and scenes of local life. Tours can be arranged before or after arrival and a two or three-day trek is recommended.

Beaches

Africa has some real gems when it comes to beaches. If they’re a high priority for you, consider the following destinations:

Nungwi Beach, Zanzibar, Tanzania

Zanzibar is incredible – warm blue waters, soft white sand and lots of opportunities for snorkelling and diving. Zanzibar is just a short ferry ride from Tanzania’s mainland so it attracts lots of travellers.

READ NEXT: Africa overlanding – Zanzibar Island

Kande Beach, Malawi

This sandy paradise is set around a lake rather than the sea which makes it all the more interesting. For very reasonable prices (we paid about £8pp) you can hire a beachfront cabin. Alongside sunbathing and swimming there are plenty of activities on offer such as horse riding along the sand and diving in the lake.

READ NEXT: Africa overlanding – Malawi by horseback

Garden Route beaches, South Africa

If it’s beaches you want, you’ll be spoiled for choice on South Africa’s south coast. You’ll find them all along the Garden Route down to popular Coffee Bay and Durban. Cape Town’s Boulders Beach even has a penguin colony!

Sand dunes and desert

Africa has some of the world’s oldest desert and visiting it is real bucket list stuff! Two big areas are…

Morocco

A sandy haven, Morocco is home to desert tours and camel safaris if you can handle the heat.

Dune 45, Namibia

Climb this famous dune and you’ll see for miles around. Other activities in the sandy area include quad biking and skydiving over the dunes.

READ NEXT: Africa overlanding – Dune 45, Sossusvlei and Fish River Canyon

Other places of interest

Africa has lots of sights that don’t fit into any particularly broad category but might influence where you choose to go. These were some of my favourites…

Okavango Delta, Botswana

This wonderful corner of the world is a wetland made up of islands linked by waterways which can be travelled by canoe. We spent a night camping on one of the larger islands and exploring the wildlife (which included spying elephants) by foot. However, the highlight was the journey through the lilypad-lined marshlands.

Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe/Zambia

The world’s largest waterfall HAS to be on your Africa itinerary especially if you like adventure sports. You can view the Falls from Zimbabwe or Zambia (we stayed in Victoria Falls town on the Zimbabwe side) but both sides offer similar activities like helicopter rides, bungee jumps, zip wiring and white water rafting.

READ NEXT: Africa overlanding – halfway point at Victoria Falls

Spitzkoppe, Namibia

This place – just wow! Spitzkoppe is one of the most unchanged areas of the world and some of these striking granite cliffs are 120 million years old. The dusty desert landscape in Namibia is mostly flat so these insane cliff faces are quite the contrast. We camped below them and climbed to the top of one for a magical sunset!

Animal conservation centres, Nairobi, Kenya

If you want to get up close to large animals and invest in their futures too, Nairobi is home to the Giraffe Centre (also a luxurious hotel you may have seen on Instagram) and the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust, an elephant orphanage for babies who’ve lost their mothers to poaching.

READ NEXT: Africa overlanding – exploring in Nairobi

Sossusvlei, Namibia

This incredible area close to lots of sand dunes was starved of water by building salt pans and is now so striking. Check out the white earth, orange dunes and blue sky!

Ngorongoro Crater, Tanzania

The perfect extension to any Serengeti trip, this volcano crater is home to a ton of amazing wildlife from lions to elephants. The land is so flat that they’re easy to find – plus there are views for days!

How to travel

This might be a big question of yours – it was for me. Africa isn’t blessed with amazing transport connections. Flights even to neighbouring countries are incredibly expensive. Here are a couple of different options:

Tours

I took a tour from Kenya through Tanzania, Malawi, Zambia, Zimbabwe, Botswana and Namibia, finishing in South Africa. Tours have their benefits in Africa as distances are LONG, roads are often in bad condition and tourist infrastructure isn’t very developed in many places.

Several operators such as G Adventures and Intrepid offer camping, self-participation tours (i.e. put up your own tents, muck in with the washing up etc) aimed at those aged 18 to late 30s. These include your accommodation, food, selected activities and overland travel on a shared vehicle – ours was a big purple bus!

On the plus side – while they’re still undeniably expensive, the number of places we visited would have taken months fitting around public transport schedules. I’d have needed to pay for many more meals and night’s accommodation if doing it alone. Tours can also be great for working out your budget PLUS sharing the safari costs can make for huge savings.

On the downside – moving so fast means you sometimes only spend a day in a place you’d like to spend 10.

Our overland vehicle along a long and dusty road!

Top tip: I got 20% off my tour as I booked just two months before and there was a sale on the final spaces – so if you can book last minute you might find a deal. My trip worked out at £65 per day which for Africa is an absolute steal especially considering this included two safaris (the Serengeti and Etosha) and the excursion to Zanzibar.

For higher-end tours set in hotels rather than tents you’re looking at more than double that figure. Bottom line: if you can hack tent life, you’ll save yourself thousands. If you can’t, you’ll need to factor in more funds or consider a shorter trip.

READ NEXT: Tours vs. independent travel – the pros and cons

Public transport

My lovely friend Bethany did a load of travel around Africa via local buses and trains. She had no negative experiences with safety as a solo white female. The only restriction is that buses run between cities rather than tourist attractions which are often out in the countryside. She recommended bus companies Bravo, Extracity and Pathfinder for Zimbabwe, Shalom in Zambia as well as the Tazara train, and local minibus companies in Malawi. We travelled together around Lesotho taking public mini bus taxis which were cheap (a couple of dollars a journey) and although cramped, there was a safe and friendly vibe.

The Intercape bus connects major towns in Namibia though not many out-of-city tourist attractions and the same can be said for Botswana.

In South Africa, you can take public buses TransLux, Greyhound and City to City Bus. You can also opt for the Baz Bus, a minibus service designed for backpackers which picks you up and drops you at the door of your hostels. It’s more expensive than public buses but very reliable and safe.

READ NEXT: South Africa’s Garden Route – the backpackers guide. 

Car hires

It’s really popular to hire a car in South Africa and drive it up to Namibia, Botswana or Zimbabwe and I only heard of positive experiences. If hiring a car in East Africa, it’s best to pick it up in Kenya or Tanzania and begin there – it would be a very long drive from South Africa! Poor road conditions mean you’ll likely need an off-road vehicle and to be a fairly experienced driver. As a solo female, I probably wouldn’t do it alone mainly because you’re less likely to meet other backpackers apart from in cities (or South Africa generally) but the general consensus seems to be that car hires are a good idea with all the control to you.

Where to stay

Stay in hostels in cities or campsites in rural areas. Lots of camps have bedrooms for mid-range travellers and a campsite for those travelling on a budget. As you would in other places, use Hostelworld and Booking.com to find these places. In cities like Cape Town, Airbnbs are also a good option.

The most rural nights of our trip…

What else to remember

Mainly to have a great time and enjoy yourself. A trip to Africa is probably going to be one of the best times of your life! Make sure to also remember the phrase ‘Africa time’ which basically means life is at a slower pace. Your bus may not always be on time and things may run a little late. It’s all part of the fun!

Have you been to Africa? If you have any thoughts or questions, get in touch! x

READ NEXT: My Africa overlanding trip – the series

Get ready to have the time of your life! (Bo Kaap, Cape Town)

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