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Backpacking in Africa

Advice and inspiration for travelling in Africa

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A gap year in Africa

Africa, in case you hadn’t realised, is massive. It’s the world’s second largest continent, accounting for over 20% of our land area. There’s a whopping 54 countries and 3 different surrounding oceans. As a result there’s a huge amount to see and do in Africa, and many backpackers travel here for their entire gap year to make sure they don’t miss a thing.

The most popular backpacking destination is South Africa, home to Cape Town and Johannesburg, incredible scenery, game reserves, extreme sports, and much besides. There’s also Egypt, Morocco, Nigeria, Ghana, Seychelles, Madagascar, Botswana, and many, many more.

Travelling in Africa can be a mixed bag in terms of ease and cost. Many countries don’t have established travel networks, and political turmoil can sometimes make some areas unsafe to visit. As a result it’s definitely worth planning ahead. To make Africa feel a little less daunting, we’ve broken it up into a number of regions, so you can work out exactly what you want to see.

Backpacking in Southern Africa

Southern Africa

This is generally the most popular region of Africa for backpackers, largely as it boasts some of the best travel infrastructure, making it easier to take advantage of what the region has to offer. Compared to elsewhere in Africa the south is much more about having outrageous fun and going along for the wild ride offered to visitors.

Most people will start in South Africa, often in Johannesburg, a thoroughly modern city packed with shopping, restaurants, and vibrant nightlife, or Cape Town, which has all of those things alongside the beautiful coastline and Table Mountain.

In many ways South Africa is a microcosm of the continent: the massive Kruger National Park has zebras, elephants, and big cats galore, the coast is laden with beaches and resorts, and inland the scenery looks even better than the documentaries promise. You zip line, sample wine, fine dine, bungee jump on a piece of twine, and marvel at landscapes divine. South Africa kind of has it all.

From there you can travel to Botswana or Namibia, the latter particularly renowned for its ecotourism and must-see destinations like the Skeleton Coast Park, Caprivi Strip, and the Etosha Salt Pan. You could even try your hand at sandboarding the giant dunes of Namibia’s Swakopmund. The region also includes Swaziland and Lesotho, although these countries are not particularly well-equipped for travellers.

You’re likely to pay a little more in southern Africa than you might elsewhere on the continent, but it’s bound to be worth it.

Backpacking in Northern Africa

Northern Africa

The north of Africa almost feels like a different continent entirely, and is incredibly popular with travellers and tourists alike. Like the south there is good travel infrastructure, making it reasonably easy (and often very affordable) to move around the region at will.

For many the main event will be Egypt, and for all the obvious reasons: pyramids, Valley of the Kings, the River Nile, and some relaxation time at Sharm el-Sheikh. Many can scratch off half their bucket list in Egypt alone.

From there you can travel to Morocco for its ancient walled cities, red-sand dunes, and bustling markets, to Algeria, the largest country in Africa and a fantastic place to venture (safely) into the Sahara Desert, or to Tunisia, famed for its golden beaches and the ancient ruins of Carthage. Prices in Northern Africa will vary depending on where you visit, but it is generally a very affordable gap year region.

Backpacking in Western Africa

Western Africa

For a start, it played a vital role in the birth of humanity, it being here that sedentary farming began. You can read more about that in our A Brief Visual History of Travel feature. Although there’s no stand out favourite country in this region of Africa for travellers, there’s a bunch that deserve a place on any itinerary.

Many start with Nigeria for its national parks and game reserves, before moving on to the likes of Ghana for more of the same, as well as beautiful coastline, some rapidly developing cities, and a thriving cultural scene.

There’s also the island of Cape Verde, where tourism is improving as people arrive to admire the volcanic coast, Ivory Coast, Togo, and Gambia. There isn’t much travel infrastructure in much of western Africa, so it can be an ideal region to visit if you’re after ‘real’ Africa, but it can also prove a difficult journey.

It should also be noted that some countries in western Africa are frequently unsafe to visit. Due to politics, extreme poverty, and social turmoil, countries like Liberia and Sierra Leone are not recommended for travellers, unless you are part of an official volunteer program.

Backpacking in Eastern Africa

Eastern Africa

This is the place to go if you’re after island paradises and drop dead gorgeous scenery. The two tallest peaks in Africa, Mount Kenya and Mount Kilimanjaro, are here. It’s also one of the best regions to see the ‘big five’ wild animals: elephants, buffalos, lions, leopards, and the black rhinoceros. In many areas the heat is nowhere near as harsh as elsewhere on the continent.

The number one stop is Kenya, where tourism is a huge part of the economy thanks to attractive beaches and expansive national parks, as well as the snow-capped Mount Kenya attracting intrepid climbers and hikers. There’s also Lake Victoria, the largest tropical lake in the world. From there you might find yourself spoiled for choice. Tanzania has the stunning volcanic cones of Mount Kilimanjaro, the highest free-standing mountain in the world, as well as more beautiful national parks. Reunion is a scorching, charming French island, and Eritrea is a melting pot of cultures and histories.

If you’re in the mood for relaxation, you can visit Mauritius and Seychelles, where you can hop between islands to make the most of the beaches, wildlife (including giant tortoises), and coral reefs. This can be a great to unwind after a long trek across the mainland of Africa.

Volunteering in Africa

Africa volunteering placements

Africa is a brilliant destination to volunteer on your gap year, although it’s not known for having many paid work opportunities. Even teaching, the mainstay of jobs abroad, isn’t well-represented, as many schools simply can’t afford to pay a foreign teacher. Instead the majority of these roles go to volunteers.

Africa is arguably the best continent there is for volunteer work, offering a huge array of projects that allow you to explore your interests at the same time as making a real difference.

If you’re interested in humanitarian work, Africa provides opportunities to work with orphans, children stricken by poverty, disabled people and children, or generally offering support in medical facilities. There’s also a huge range of volunteer teaching opportunities.

Many areas of Africa are developing rapidly, and the narrative of it being a universally poor continent is simply no longer accurate. But there is still severe poverty and disease in some regions, and volunteering there gives you the opportunity to really help people in need. It also gives you great experience to show employers when you return home.

Africa also provides incredible opportunities to volunteer with animals. You can bottle feed monkeys in Malawi, cuddle tiger kittens before they’re old enough to maul you, dive deep into coral reefs as part of the conservation effort, and many, many more. After all, Africa has some of the best wildlife on the planet.

As with any volunteering project anywhere in the world you should think very carefully about your strengths, weaknesses and natural interests before committing to anything.

Whatever volunteering placement you choose, it’s guaranteed to be an experience of a lifetime.

Budget accommodation in Africa

Africa accommodation

Accommodation in Africa can be hit or miss, in terms of availability, quality, and price, depending where you travel on the continent. In popular gap year destinations like South Africa, Egypt, and Morocco you’ll find plenty of variety, whereas other countries with less developed backpacking infrastructure, like Chad, Lesotho, and Uganda can prove a little more limited. It’s definitely worth researching and getting this sorted ahead of time.

Accommodation in Southern Africa

Like the north far above it, southern Africa is one of the easiest regions of the continent to find a place to stay. South Africa is incredibly well-equipped for all your gap year needs, and the growing popularity of neighbouring Botswana and Namibia, with their incredible natural attractions, means they’re beginning to catch up, and finding accommodation here shouldn’t be a problem.

Other nations like Zimbabwe and Zambia aren’t quite as robust, but there’s still a range of hotels, lodges, and safari camps that will suit most budgets. Outside of big cities the quality of accommodation can dip steeply.

Accommodation in Northern Africa

Accommodation in this region of Africa is generally good thanks to the popularity of Egypt, Morocco, and Tunisia. In these countries you should find everything from hostels to luxury hotels, guesthouses and beach huts. There are also luxury resorts all along the coast.

Further from the coast in countries like Niger and Chad, finding a place to stay can prove more difficult. Bigger cities have a handful of hotels, and these aren’t usually too expensive by western standards. Outside of cities can prove a great deal more difficult – there might be some specialist accommodation around natural tourist attractions, but we certainly don’t recommend trying to wing it.

Accommodation in Western Africa

This region can be a mixed bag for accommodation. Ghana is incredibly well-equipped for all price ranges, as is Senegal; Cape Verde has some wonderful accommodation to cater for its beaches, and the coastline of Gambia has a host of resorts, inland boasting fairly basic eco camps and lodges.

Elsewhere in this region can prove trickier. Countries like Nigeria, Benin, and Ivory Coast have cities that have some options for visitors, whereas other nations like Burkina Faso, Sierra Leone, and Togo are not developed enough to really cater for visitors.

Accommodation in Eastern Africa

With exceptions, you shouldn’t have too much difficulty finding a place to stay in eastern Africa. It’s home to many popular visitor destinations like Kenya, Tanzania, Madagascar, and Mauritius, which means there’s plenty of hotels, hostels, and guesthouses to cater to their numerous tourist attractions. You might end up paying a little more unless you can find somewhere a little more out of the way.

Other countries, like Rwanda and Djibouti have more limited options, and some, like Somalia, simply aren’t safe for independent travellers at present.

Accommodation in Central Africa

Another mixed bag here, as despite being home to some of Africa’s most stunning landscapes, many of the central countries are not as developed as elsewhere on the continent, which can make accommodation limited or occasionally unsafe.

Cameroon and Angola have some good hotels, though prices can be high and other options limited. Independent camping isn’t recommended due to safety concerns. Other countries, like DR Congo and Gabon, are beginning to improve in larger cities, but are still not equipped for travellers.

Best way to get around Africa

Transport in Africa

Although some transport networks in Africa are not as developed as elsewhere in the world, you can almost always find a way to get where you’re going. It might not always be cheap, or comfortable, or quick, but you’ll make it to your destination in one piece sooner or later.

By plane

If you’re short on time, hopping on a plane to traverse this vast continent can be a great – if not terribly cheap – option. There are many airlines that will fly between African nations, usually to major cities, as well as domestic airlines that will take you from one end of a country to another.

Exercise caution when using smaller domestic carriers, especially in countries with dubious political stability, as they may not meet safety standards. These can be checked with the EU Commission on Air Safety.

By train and bus

Rail travel in Africa is still very much developing, improving year after year. Generally speaking, passenger railways in Africa stay within one country only, with some exceptions. There’s an interconnected railway network between Botswana, Zimbabwe, Zambia, Tanzania, and Rwanda, making it a good option for travelling between those countries.

Elsewhere the quality varies. Many countries like Morocco, South Africa, and Egypt have extensive networks for passengers between major cities. Even in countries like Kenya and Botswana, which have limited routes, trains can be worth getting as a means of wildlife spotting and to enjoy the scenery. But it’s likely they’ll be a link in a more complicated journey, rather than your soul source of travel.

If you’re looking to travel extensively overland, buses will likely become your best friends. Almost every African country has a bus service that acts as the main form of transportation for tourists and locals alike. The price and quality of these vary from country to country, so it’s definitely worth doing some research before you set off. In many countries missing a bus can mean a long wait until the next one.

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