Traveling in Africa as a Solo Female Backpacker
Ok everyone. I need some help so maybe some of you backpackers who traveled independently to Africa can provide some! After traveling to Europe, Asia, Central and South America, I’m ready to hit Africa. The only place I’ve been on the continent so far is Morocco (which I loved!) but now, I’m looking for slightly more adventure and safaris (yes, I’m an addict)! After starting 2010 on Copacabana in Rio, I’m looking to spend another New Year’s Eve abroad. I’m thinking of traveling to either Tanzania or South Africa but not sure which place to pick. New Year’s Eve in Cape Town or on the beach in Zanzibar. Difficult choice… So as a solo and independant female backpacker, and first real African experience, where should I go? Do keep in mind that I’m not a fan of organized tours and I really want to avoid taking one even though it’ll be my first time backpacking in East/South Africa.
So what’s so special about Tanzania other than climbing the Kilimanjaro? Hmm… white-sand beaches in Zanzibar, the preserved lake Tankayika, visiting banana trees and rice fields in Pemba and safaris from Arusha. Bus seems to be the preferred transportation mode for getting around the country. Overall, backpackers seem to love the place and doesn’t sound like it’s too dangerous. Would this be a good destination for a 3-week vacation for a solo female backpacker?
One of the gems of Africa, South Africa is probably more a of a hip place to visit. With a vibrant city such as Cape Town, National parks like Kruger that offer various safari tours and Dragensberg mountain to be hiked, it’s only normal that’s South Africa is a backpacker’s heaven destination! All sorts of activities can be considered when traveling in SA, from horseback riding, hiking, white water rafting to bungy jumping. In order words, it’s a adventure paradise for us crazy backpackers! After doing some research, roads also seem to be in good condition and travel time between places isn’t so bad.
So what African destination should I opt for? Any solo backpackers who traveled to South Africa have some advice for me ?
Hey Tanya, Great article – and would that it were possible to do both – Zanzibar is definitely on my bucket list! I’m not too sure about the transport situation in Tanzania – but probably buses and mini-bus taxis – don’t know if there are any dedicated tourist/backpacker buses. Your best option here may be to do a regular tour – shout if you need some suggestions on good operators.
South Africa is definitely more developed and easier to travel in – regular intercity buses, trains, flights and a dedicated backpackers bus – check out http://www.bazbus.com – that’s hop on, hop off and door-to-door. So that takes the hassle out of it. That said – if you want to really go as you please, and get to those more interesting, out-of-the-way places, car hire is the way to go.
There’s are plenty of excellent backpacker lodges – reckon the standard is comparable with the best in the world. But unfortunately, there are some dodgy ones – so do your homework – watch reviews online or talk to fellow travellers. Lots of good lodges offer singles and girls-only dorms too which can be a bonus! (far less snoring & other questionable noises
Lonely Planet is always a fair, insightful guide with excellent info about the areas, history, etc – but impossible to keep up-to-date on prices, management and reputations of places as these can change so often.
The Backpacking South Africa (BSA) association is a good places to start: http://www.backpackingsouthafrica.co.za/ Two good directory sites are http://www.alternativeroute.net/ and http://www.coastingafrica.com/ – which give you a good idea of what’s available – but again, check with fellow travellers for latest info on what’s hot & what’s not.
Hope that helps – shout if you need more info. BTW – many of the good backpacker lodges have forums & blogs where you can also advertise to meet fellow travellers to eg share lifts & hire cars & find travel companions – just don’t commit for too long a stretch Some are like fish – start to smell after a couple of days. Others are gems – and mates for life. But then, as a traveller, you know that already
Hi Alison! Thanks so much for all the info! I’m not too keen on taking a tour for 3 weeks. It is a vacation afterall and don’t want to be on a schedule How much would a 3-week trip to South Africa cost, consideration that I’d want to take a safari tour and probably take one or two internal flights? I’d be however staying in hostels and traveling like a backpacker. Have you backpacked through Africa by yourself? Do you have any other countries you would recommend? Thanks for all your help!!
Only a pleasure! No, I wouldn’t recommend taking a tour for 3 weeks in SA – unless you’re a totally inexperienced traveller. I would recommend a 3 – 4 day wildlife tour to eg Kruger Park – you see & experience so much more with good tour operators than you ever would on your own. To give you an idea – a great 4 day Kruger tour I know of is about R3665 – (R4530 if you’re single) – includes a night safari, a game walk, trip to Blyde River Canyon and heaps of game viewing in custom safari vehicle.
Otherwise, would recommend Baz Bus – or hiring a car (pref. sharing with someone tho’). Have travelled & backpacked Europe on my own (3 months) – but not my own country – the usual dichotomy! However, did run a backpackers lodge in Jo’burg for 13 years so have a fair idea of what it’s about. And have travelled my own country extensively.
There are a fair amount of solo female travellers – but many join up with travel buddies – of either sex. Good backpacker lodges are the best places to meet & make friends & swop travel stories & advice. If you’d like me to recommend a starting off place, I’d be glad to. Once you’re there – you can get a wealth of info from the lodge managers and fellow travellers.
If you’re coming in December? remember that it’s mid-summer – so can be especially hot in eg Kruger Park/Botswana/Zimbabwe/Mozambiqe/Namibia – but it’s fantastic beach weather then too!
Hope that helps – just let me know …
SA is definetly easier to travel than Tanzania. But, take a look at Mozambique (between SA in the south and TZ in the north). I’ve backpacked there for 3 weeks myself and, despite being much more complicated to travel arround – because it’s much more 3rd world than SA or TZ (both, very developed in terms of tourism services if you take the rest of Africa as a benchmark) – it’s really worth the time and trouble. (Btw, Pemba is in Moz and not TZ). You have Gorongosa National Park (check out the doc National Geographic shot there, called “Africa’s Lost Eden” and also the piece 60minutes did about that it). Also, the Bazaruto Islands and the Quirimbas Archipelago… very nice places. The people are very friendly, but as in anywhere these days, you have to be careful and avoid situations like wandering alone at night or eat or drink something that you didn’t see being prepared. More nice places, Inhambane, Vilankulos and for wild Africa, look for Niassa lake (Malawi lake, on Malawi’s side of the border). Maputo is te capital city of Mozambique and it used to be considered the Paris of Africa, but with 30 years of consecutive war, it’s really messed up… but still a very beautiful city. Hope it’s useful.
PS – if you need any more info feel free to ask.
I’ve been through almost all of the RSA as a solo female backpacker and loved it so much I’ve sort of adopted it as a second home and go back to visit frequently. I firmly believe that it requires at least two months to see properly, but work with what you can and go from there.
FYI, in my experience, a lot of backpackers underestimate how long it takes you to get from place to place in South Africa. It’s probably best to pick three “regions” and plan for a week in each, esp with jet lag from Canada.
If you do pick SA, I offer the following:
The BazBus is convenient and good if you’re sketched out by trying to figure out transit, but frankly way overpriced and sort of inconvenient if you’re on a tight timeline (three weeks is tight) as it bumps along and stops at each hostel on the way. I prefer Intercape, or even a flight on kulula.com where you can get from major city to major city for under $100 (e.g. I’ve gone from Joburg to Durban for $35 CAD in the last year). I also liked being able to travel with normal South Africans instead of other backpackers sometimes on Intercape/CitytoCity/Greyhound. The buses run on time in most places except the Transkeii where all bets seem to be off.
Google coast to coast for a decent list of what accom is available. It’s overly positive about some spots but more complete than any other guidebook and downloadable.
Here’s a rundown of why I would go to each place:
Joburg: arts/cosmopolitan africa – if you are into cities, you need to give Joburg a couple of nights and hit up Sophiatown, Melville, Sandton clubs, the art galleries, the retaurants, you name it. I also highly reccommend the Apartheid museum in Soweto as an introduction to the country, and if you’re into social issues looking at some of the progressive community projects going on in Soweto. It’s difficult to tap into JNB so I would look into something like couch surfing or heading there with a friend. Crack magazines before you go for tips about what’s going on and where – I used to read something called SL, but Cleo SA and Elle SA also list fun events/nightspots that are totally reasonable. Plan to spend a lot on cabs (necessary for safety and the city is big). Grab food at the Cat’s Pyjamas in Melville at 4am where people line up around the block, then tell Joburgers that you did and they will love you forever.
Durbs: surf city. Connect with locals and find house parties with guys who drive their cars without shoes. The nightlife is quiet sometimes but the people are fun and very friendly. Durbs is a fun place to take local transit if you can get a lay of the land (this will horrify some people living there but I promise it’s totally doable from Florida Road to the beach and bumping along to kwaito is fun).
Lesotho/Drakensburgs: The Drakensburgs are beautiful if you’re into mountain hiking and rugged accom nestled in misty mountains with many baboons. Lesotho is very rural but, frankly, I felt sort of like an intruder. Would you go to rural North America to observe people?
Transkeii: there are two sides to the transkeii coin. The first is traditional rondavel housing/Bulungula eco progression/tribal life. The second is the refuge it provides for a population of weed-smoking, campfire having, mushroom hunting, bongo loving hippies. If you’re into the former, you might also like some of the WWOOF setups like Terrapi.
Kruger: Disney park style wildlife viewing. To be honest, if you want to live out some sort of khaki fantasy, SA maybe won’t be for you. The parks are well developed and very touristed and you’re going during high season. It’s sort of equivalent to Banff National Park. The other attractions in the area (ex. God’s Window) have a similar feel – not a judgment, because I enjoyed them, just an observation. If all you want are to see some animals, and other stops are a priority, consider Addo in the Eastern Cape instead (blasphemy I know!).
Eastern Cape: this, esp during December/January, is SA’s party circuit. The wealthy from the major cities spill into summer homes along the coast (Plett, Kysna, JBay, St. Francis) and sleeping fishing towns turn into month long party meccas, with waves full of body boarders and a lot of Lady Gaga. It’s, erhm, where I will be this NYE.
Stellenbosch: a college town. When school is in session, Feb to November, the streets are full of coffee drinking brunch having young people. Not an ideal destination if you’re rolling solo, but if you meet a group in CT who wants to head out, it’s not bad. Hit up Spier and Moyo as your last stop… the wine, eh, not that memorable, but the vineyard itself is huge and fun.
Cape Town: when I think CT, I think… food, yes, fantastic food. And pretty beaches with freezing water. Cape Town has a euro vibe that makes a lot of backpackers feel comfortable. The live music scene on Long Street is accessible if you can tap someone who knows what’s happening where (head out to a lounge early and ask the staff). To be honest, with everything else in the country, I wouldn’t plan for more than a few days here – but it is a world class city and a must see. Excellent stop to blow the last of your budget on the way out of the country on whatever vices you love or things you want to bring back (please, for the love of everything, do not buy a giant wooden giraffe on day two in rural SA and lug it along).
I’ve also had fun West Coast/Interior but it’s a different sort of thing that three weeks doesn’t quite allow.
You’re looking at about $15-20 per night CAD accom (backpackers), $7-20 food, more in CT, and $15-30 for a good night out (plus cover – $7 to $30 depending on city, most likely $7). Transit can get expensive but you can price it out before, transfers from the airport/bus station can be surprisingly expensive and add up. When I lived in Pretoria I found stuff like CityBug (citybug.co.za) which is primarily used by South Africans and can take you directly from the airport in Joburg to Nelspruit and the Kruger area in comfort and safety for under $50 CAD, which is more than the cab to the bus would run you.
If your’e looking for something different from the above, I’d second looking at Mozam and finding travel companions up to Tanzania, or even bombing over to Namibia. Botswana has maybe the best wildlife management but can get expensive and requires planning.
SA has a super well developed backpacking circuit that has gone into high speed because of the World Cup this June. I was first in the country in mid-2007 and returned last year to a more commercialized industry.
You could always do a whole overland tour across the whole of Africa, these tours can take up to months. Ask about dropping out of tours early or being able to join other ones if you’re looking fora slower pace.
I don’t think I would want to be in a tour throughout my entire trip. I prefer to mingle with locals
Kilwa Ruins Tanzania
To start I am partial to Tanzania, so I think you should consider it as part of a trip. I know people that have backpacked — even hitchhiked — from Tanzania down through Zambia and into South Africa. On your travel you could cut through game parks and definitely get a feel for what life is like out in the bush.
Aside from the Serengeti, Ngorongoro Crater, and other parks up North there are much less traveled sites down through the South. Following the coast and heading South may be something of interest to you. There is a game park named Selous where you can see lions lounging on the beach along the way. Also there is a heritage town called Kilwa that was once one of the busiest cities in Africa back in 12-15th centuries and a hub for much of the trade coming in and out of Eastern Africa.
If you do end up doing something along the lines of backpacking please do not do it alone.
Thanks for your feedback! I will be traveling alone. I’d love to backpack through Africa but I do have time restrictions. This is why I rather focus on visiting on country rather than seeing a little bit of many countries. I was actually also looking into Ethiopia but opted for Tanzania because I wanted to hike Kilimanjaro. I’m looking forward to my first real African trip!
How are your travel plans coming along, Tanya? I’m leaving for Ghana in about a month… spending 3 months there and another 3 months or so in east/south africa backpacking solo. Haven’t made any firm plans or decisions yet of where I want to go, would love to hear how things go for you.
Hi Jen! I actually booked my ticket to Tanzania. I’ll be traveling solo Doing a 7-day Kili climb, then 5 day safari in the Serengeti and spending my last 4 days in Zanzibar!! I’m so excited! Will you be in Zanzibar around Jan 2nd by any chance?
That’s an awesome trip you have planned for yourself! Is it your first time traveling solo in Africa?
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Hey Tanya and Jen
I am currently in Tanzania and have been traveling solo here for 3 months.
I will be in Zanzibar over xmas and for new years, then I am heading back up north for a month or so…I will be in South Africa for the rest of the winter into the spring, if either of you wanna meet up let me know!
Hi Gaby! I’ll be in Zanzibar (Kendwa beach) from Jan 2-5th. Will you be in that area on those dates? We should def meet up. I’ll also be traveling solo.
I am also thinking about backpacking Africa solo. How did your trip go? Is the conclusion that if you are confident backpacking alone in other parts of the world, it’s not much different? I suppose I’m mainly wondering how accessible places are with transport etc. I’m not one for tours either, but I do like to be able to see stuff!
Hi Miranda, I will email you this week!!
I had to do a double take when I came across your original post…if I didn’t know better I thought it was me!! I’m planning my first “real” African trip (been to Egypt and Morocco) this December for 3 weeks! I’m also traveling solo and I think I’ve decided on South Africa and reading others’ suggestions is very helpful.
You must be so excited!! Yes, I can help you out. You’ll love Morocco but if it’s the first Arab country you’re visiting, get ready to experience culture shock (in a positive way!). I’ve never been to South Africa but like Tanzania, it’s a popular place to travel in Africa so you should be alright. Of course, you always need to be alert and be aware.. avoid walking alone at night, don’t bring too much cash on you, etc… You can email me if you’re looking for answers on specific questions! firstname.lastname@example.org
Thank you! My only question is specifically for South Africa so hopefully someone will be able to help me …is renting a car really necessary to see places like Kruger NP, Drakensburgs? That really doesn’t appeal to me traveling solo, I think it would be quite boring driving place to place by myself… and I like having the opportunity to meet locals and other tourist. If I meet other travelers who want to split the cost of renting a car/fuel then that would be different but planning my itinerary based on driving doesn’t appeal to me.
I’m also hoping to get some help with figuring out a 3 week itinerary …thanks
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