Travelling around much of Africa often requires time, patience and stamina. African public transport sometimes leaves and arrives roughly on time (off-the-beaten-track transport is more circumspect and unreliable), but there are few interesting places that you cannot reach without your own car, even if you have to wait for a few days. It’s also worth remembering that some of your most memorable and enjoyable travel experiences will take place en route between places – in Africa, the journey is the destination.
Lakes Malawi, Tanganyika and Victoria in southern and East Africa, as well as Lake Volta (Ghana) and Lake Nasser (Egypt and Sudan), all have ferries operating on them. There are even more fantastic journeys to be had along the Niger, Congo, Nile, Senegal, Gambia and Zambezi Rivers, to name but a few.
On simple riverboats you’ll be sat on mountains of cargo, the bows of the craft sitting just above the water line, but on some major river routes large ferries and barges are used. Generally speaking, third class on all ferries is crammed with people, goods and livestock, making it hot and uncomfortable. Happily there is usually a better way: at a price, semiluxurious cabins with bar and restaurant access can be yours.
Seafaring travellers might be able to hitch a lift on cargo boats down the West African coast, up the east coast of Madagascar, and on the Red Sea, but this will take some work. Down the east coast there’s a little cargo traffic and ferries from Dar es Salaam to Zanzibar, but you’ll find small Arabic-style dhow sailing vessels plying the coastal waters. Similar to dhows are feluccas, the ancient sailing boats of the Nile. Pirogues (tiny canoes) ferry people across remote waterways where small, diesel-powered (and often unreliable), pontoon-style car ferries are not available. Not many ferries or boats take vehicles, but you can get a motorbike onto some.
Travelling by boat can sometimes be hazardous in Africa. For the most part you can forget about safety regulations and lifeboats, and overloading is very common. To make matters worse, on some ferries third-class passengers are effectively jammed into the hold with little opportunity for escape.
Hitching is never entirely safe in any country, and we don’t recommend it. But in some parts of Africa it’s a recognised form of transport – there is often simply no other option to grabbing lifts on trucks, 4WDs, lorries or whatever vehicle happens to come down the road first. Whatever vehicle you jump on to, you’ll generally have to pay. One exception might be in more developed countries, such as Ghana, Kenya, Morocco, South Africa, Tunisia and Zimbabwe, where there are plenty of private cars on the road and it’s not only possible to hitch for free, but in some cases it’s very easy indeed.
Travellers who decide to hitch should understand that they are taking a small but potentially serious risk. People who do choose to hitch will be safer if they travel in pairs. Remember that sticking out your thumb in many African countries is an obscene gesture; wave your hand vertically up and down instead.
Travelling in your own vehicle will enable you to explore Africa at your leisure, but it takes some doing. As well as cars, motorbikes are a popular way of travelling around Africa, but the same things generally apply to bikes as to car travel. For heaps of other options and inspiring tales from overland trips past, present and future, check out the website of the Africa Overland Network (www.africa-overland.net).
Rather than shipping your vehicle all the way to Mombasa or Cape Town, you are much better off buying something in Kenya or South Africa before taking off to explore southern and East Africa by car. South Africa in particular is a pretty easy place to purchase a car –either from a dealership or from a fellow traveller who has finished with it. Handily, cars registered in South Africa don’t need a carnet de passage for travel around southern Africa, but you will need to have an international driving licence, your home licence, vehicle insurance and registration, and you will have to get a new set of plates made. The Automobile Association (www.aasa.co.za) in South Africa offers vehicle checkups, insurance and travel advice.
A carnet de passage (sometimes known as a triptyque) is required for many countries in Africa, with the notable exceptions of Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia. A carnet guarantees that if you take a vehicle into a country, but don’t take it out again, then the organisation that issued the carnet will accept responsibility for payment of import duties (up to 150% of its value). Carnets can only be issued by national motoring organisations; they’re only issued if it’s certain that if ever duties arose you would reimburse them. This means you have to deposit a bond with a bank or insure yourself against the potential collection of import duties before getting a carnet.
You don’t need to prearrange a carnet for many West and southern African countries (most southern African countries will issue a Temporary Import Permit at the border, which you must buy), but if you’re driving through Africa, you’re going to need a carnet, which sadly doesn’t exempt you from the bureaucratic shenanigans encountered at numerous borders. If you’re starting in South Africa, you can get one from the Automobile Association (www.aasa.co.za) there pretty easily. In the UK, try the RAC (www.rac.co.uk).
Also consider the following:
Motoring organisations’ insurance companies can be a little paranoid in their designation of ‘war zones’ in Africa so watch out; none will insure against the risks of war, thus denying you a carnet.
If you intend to sell the vehicle at some point, arrangements have to be made with the customs people in the country in which you plan to sell the car for the carnet entry to be cancelled.
If you abandon a vehicle in the Algerian desert, you’ll be up for import duties that are twice the value of your car when it was new.
Hiring a vehicle is usually only an option to travellers over 25. For the most part, vehicle hire is a fairly expensive option (2WD vehicles commonly cost over US$75 a day in sub-Saharan Africa; you’re looking at over US$100 a day for a 4WD) and rental can come with high insurance excesses and bundles of strings. On a brighter note, car hire in South Africa can be an utter bargain (if you hire for a longer period, it can be less than US$30 a day), especially if booked from overseas; have a look on internet sites such as Travelocity (www.travelocity.com), Expedia (www.expedia.com) and Holiday Autos (www.holidayautos.com). Some vehicles can then be taken into Namibia, Mozambique and Botswana, which is great if you get a group together. Also consider hiring a car for exploring southern Morocco and taking a 4WD (possibly with driver) to explore Kenya’s wildlife parks at your leisure.
Legislation covering third-party insurance varies considerably from one country to another – in some places it isn’t even compulsory. Where it is, you generally have to buy insurance at the border (a process that is fraught with corruption), but the liability limits on these policies are often absurdly low by Western standards; this means if you have any bad accidents you’ll be in deep shit, so it’s a smart plan to insure yourself before heading out. If you’re starting from the UK, one company highly recommended for insurance policies and for detailed information on carnets is Campbell Irvine (020-7937 6981; www.campbellirvine.com).
Where available, travelling by train is a wonderful way to get around Africa. Even the shortest rail journey can be a classic experience, full of cultural exchange, amazing landscapes and crazy stations where all kinds of food, drinks and goods are hawked at train windows. Train travel is safer and usually more comfortable than travelling by road, although outside southern and North Africa the trains are often very slow. Long delays while the train or track is repaired en route aren’t uncommon. Second-class fares weigh in about the same or less than the corresponding bus fare.
More expensive (but still negligible by Western standards) are sleeping compartments and 1st-class or 2nd-class carriages, which take the strain out of long journeys and occasionally allow you to travel in style –some high-class train carriages are like little wood-panelled museums of colonialism. It’s worth noting that in many countries male and female passengers can only sleep in the same compartment if they buy the tickets for the whole compartment (four or six bunks), and even then you might be asked for evidence that you’re married!
The flip side of train travel is that security and sanitation facilities on trains can be poor, especially in 3rd class, which, although novel and entertaining at first, soon becomes simply crowded and uncomfortable. Keep an eye on your baggage at all times and lock carriage doors and windows at night.
Bus travel is the way to go where there’s a good network of sealed roads. International bus services are pretty common across the continent, and in the wealthier African states you may get a choice between ‘luxury’ air-con buses with movies (the trashy Hollywood/Bollywood variety) on tap and rough old European rejects with nonfunctioning air-con and questionable engineering. In poorer countries you just get the latter. Out in the sticks, where there are very few or no sealed roads, ancient buses tend to be very crowded with people, livestock and goods; these buses tend to stop frequently, either for passengers or because something is broken.
Small minibuses take up the slack in many African transport systems. All too often they are driven at breakneck speed and rammed with nearly 30 people when they were designed for 18 (there’s always room for one more), with a tout or conductor leaning out of the side door. The front seat is the most comfortable, but thanks to the high number of head-on collisions in Africa, this seat is called the ‘death seat’: how many old bus drivers have you seen? (If you do see one, be sure to choose his bus!) These minibuses are known by different names across the continent (matatus in Kenya, dalla-dallas in Tanzania, tro-tros in Ghana, poda-podas in Sierra Leone), names that are, confusingly, pretty interchangeable for shared taxis and bush taxis. Minibuses usually only leave when very full (a process that may take hours), and will stop frequently en route to pick up and set down passengers. Minibuses are also the favourite prey of roadblock police, who are not averse to unloading every passenger while they enter into lengthy discussions about paperwork and ‘fines’ that may need paying.
Shared taxis are usually Peugeot 504s or 505s or old spacious Mercedes saloons (common in North Africa). They should definitely be considered where they are found (which is not everywhere). Your average shared taxi is certainly quicker, more comfortable (if a little crowded) and less of a palaver than taking a bus or minibus, although many shared taxis are driven by lunatic speed freaks. They cost a little more than the corresponding bus fare, but in most cases once the vehicle has filled up (usually with nine to 12 people, packed in sardinelike) it heads pretty directly to the destination without constant stops for passengers. You should expect to pay an additional fee for your baggage in West Africa, but usually not elsewhere.
‘Bush taxi’ is something of a catch-all term and is used slightly differently across the continent. Basically, a bush taxi is any multiperson mode of public transport.
Africa’s internal air network is pretty comprehensive and can save you considerable time and hardship on the roads; certainly flying over the Sahara, Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and the often chaotic and difficult Chad and southern Sudan is a good idea. Some airlines are first-class operations; others are about as reliable as a chocolate fireguard. Check flight details carefully (many tickets are flexible), but be prepared for delays, cancellations and bureaucratic pantomimes, especially when travelling on state-owned enterprises. Don’t expect to be put up in a four-star hotel should your flight get canned.
If you’re serious about taking a few African flights, consider sorting it out when booking your main ticket. Any half-decent travel agent should be able to book a host of ‘add-on’ African flights and possibly find fares that allow a little flexibility. These add-ons are often sold at a discount overseas, so forward planning can save you a small fortune.
To give you an idea of what to expect, here are some sample fares for transcontinental travel:
Dar es Salaam–Johannesburg US$400
Nairobi–Dar es Salaam US$280
Sample fares for domestic travel include the following:
Dar es Salaam–Zanzibar US$55
This section is something of a misnomer. All products purporting to be Africa air passes are just cheapo deals on domestic and transcontinental flights available to travellers flying into Africa with certain airlines. These schemes operate on a tailor-made basis – routes are usually divided into price bands or sectors and you pick ’n’ mix to make an itinerary. Most schemes are fairly limited and usually dictate that your flights include an arrival or departure at one or two hubs. The airlines mentioned in this section won’t always offer the cheapest flights into Africa, but if you’re planning to take a few African flights some ‘air pass’ schemes offer great value in the long run – the best offer savings of well over 50% on domestic and continental fares.
The ‘air pass’ scheme run by Star Alliance (www.staralliance.com) allows flights on South African Airways to 25 destinations across Africa if you fly in on a member carrier. Oneworld alliance (www.oneworldalliance.com) has a similar scheme called Visit Africa.
Air Namibia (www.airnamibia.com) offers a southern African pass in conjunction with its international flights to Namibia from London and Frankfurt. The Indian Ocean Pass run by Air Seychelles (www.airseychelles.net), Air Mauritius (www.airmauritius.com) or Air Austral (www.air-austral.com) allows for great exploration of Indian Ocean countries, including Madagascar. It offers travel to limited countries in mainland Africa including Zimbabwe, Kenya and South Africa.
KLM (www.klm.com) offers aPassport to Africa, which hooks into the African network of Kenya Airways. It allows for between three and 12 African flight coupons in combination with intercontinental travel on KLM, Northwest Airlines or Kenya Airways.
Cycling around Africa is predictably tough. Long, hot, gruelling journeys are pretty standard, but you’ll be in constant close contact with the peoples and environments of the continent and get to visit small towns and villages that most people just shoot through. In general, the remoter the areas you visit, the better the experience, but you’ve got to be fully prepared. A tent is standard issue, but remember to ask the village headman where you can pitch a tent when camping near settlements in rural areas.
Steel steeds can be rented across the continent in tourist areas. Prices vary: you can pay US$2 to hire a cheap, Chinese bone-shaker or over US$7 for a half-decent mountain bike.
Touring bikes aren’t the best choice for Africa, a continent not exactly blessed with smooth tarmac roads. Adapted mountain bikes are your best bet – their smaller 660mm (26-inch) wheel rims are less likely to be misshaped by rough roads than the 700mm rims of touring bikes, and mountain-bike frames are better suited to the rigours of African travel. Multipurpose hybrid tyres with knobbles on their edges for off-road routes and a smooth central band for on-road cruising are useful in Africa, but your tyre choices (along with the types of components, number of spares and the like) should depend on the terrain you want to tackle.
You may encounter the odd antelope or zebra while cycling, but motorists are more of a threat to cyclists than rampaging wildlife. Cyclists lie just below donkeys on the transport food chain, so if you hear a vehicle coming up from behind be prepared to bail out onto the verges. That said, many of Africa’s roads are pretty quiet. Be very cautious about cycling in busy towns and cities.
The heat can be a killer in Africa, so carry at least 4L of water and don’t discount the possibility of taking a bus, truck or boat across some sections (bikes can easily be transported).
The International Bicycle Fund (IBF; www.ibike.org/africaguide) has a handy guide to cycling in Africa by country, although information for some countries is limited and out of date.