In Africa, the journey is very often the destination. There's everything from impossibly crowded minibus services along rutted roads to international-standard airlines between major cities.
Air Major capitals are reasonably well connected by flights within Africa; smaller capitals may require inconvenient connections.
Bus & Bush Taxi Often the only option in rural areas, bush or shared taxis leave when full; buses connect major cities.
Car & 4WD Reasonable road infrastructure connects major cities; roads deteriorate elsewhere, and are sometimes impassable after rains so 4WD is often required.
Train Trains operate in West Africa and South Africa with limited services elsewhere and very few cross-border operations.
Africa's internal air network is comprehensive; certainly, flying over the Sahara, Central African Republic and the often difficult South Sudan can be a good idea. Always check flight details carefully, but be prepared for delays and cancellations. 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.
Airlines with extensive African networks from their hub cities include the following:
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 Star Alliance 'Africa Airpass' allows flexible travel around sub-Saharan Africa. It covers more than 30 airports in 23 different countries, and you can buy between three and 10 coupons (each coupon representing a single trip, eg Jo’burg to Windhoek). The Airpass allows for substantial savings, and flights are operated by Ethiopian Airlines, South African Airways and EgyptAir – see www.staralliance.com for more.
Cycling around Africa is predictably tough but rewarding. Long, hot, gruelling journeys are pretty standard, but you'll be in constant close contact with the peoples and environments of the continent and will get to visit small towns and villages that most people just shoot through. In general, the more remote the areas, 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.
Touring bikes aren't the best choice for Africa, a continent not blessed with universally smooth tarmac roads. Adapted mountain bikes are your best bet – their smaller 660mm (26in) 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 fairly quiet. Be very cautious about cycling in busy towns and cities.
The heat can be a killer 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 (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.
Bringing Your Bike
You could cycle all the way into Africa or you could save your legs for Africa's rough roads and stick your wheels in the hold of a plane. There are two ways of doing this: you could partially dismantle your bike and stuff it into a large box, or just simply wheel your bike to the check-in desk, where it should be treated as a piece of baggage (although you might need to take the pedals off, turn the handlebars sideways and wrap it in cardboard and/or foam). Don't lose too much sleep about the feather touch of baggage handlers – if your bike doesn't stand up to air travel, it won't last long in Africa.
Some airlines don't include sports equipment in the baggage allowance; others may charge around US$50 extra because your bike is not standard luggage size; others, however, will take it without hassles.
Travelling by boat could well rank among your most memorable journeys in Africa.
Rivers & Lakes
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, 3rd class on all ferries is crammed with people, goods and livestock, making it hot and uncomfortable. Happily there's usually a better way: at a price, cabins (semiluxurious and otherwise) with bar and restaurant access can be yours.
Pirogues (traditional canoes) and pinasses (motorised canoes) are staples of travel on remote waterways where small, diesel-powered (and often unreliable), pontoon-style car ferries are not available. They're especially common in the rivers of West Africa. The Southern African equivalent, the mokoro (dugout canoe), is more for sightseeing in and around the Okavango Delta than getting from A to B. Not many ferries or boats take vehicles (the river border crossing between Zambia and Botswana is an exception), but you can get a motorbike onto some.
Common routes or lakes with ferry, cargo or some other form of boat service:
- Lake Malawi/Nyasa (Malawi, Mozambique and Tanzania)
- Lake Tanganyika (Tanzania and Zambia)
- Lake Victoria (Tanzania and Kenya)
- Congo River (Democratic Republic of Congo and Republic of Congo)
- Nile (Egypt)
- Senegal River (Senegal)
- Gambia River (The Gambia)
- Zambezi River (Zimbabwe & Zambia)
The most important coastal ferry service is that between Dar es Salaam and Zanzibar. There are also some services along the West African coast, especially in Sierra Leone and Guinea-Bissau. There are also ferries between Limbe (Cameroon) and Calabar (Nigeria), and between Malabo and Bata in Equatorial Guinea. Coastal ferries are also important in Gabon and São Tomé & Príncipe.
A more romantic alternative is to travel by small Arabic-style dhow sailing vessels that ply the Indian Ocean coast. The easiest place to organise this is in Mozambique, where you can sail to and around the Quirimbas Archipelago. Similar to dhows are feluccas, the ancient sailing boats of the Nile.
Travelling by boat can sometimes be hazardous. For the most part you can forget about safety regulations, lifeboats or life jackets, and overloading is very common. To make matters worse, on some ferries the 3rd-class passengers are effectively jammed into the hold with little opportunity for escape.
This 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 some 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.
Bus Survival Tips
- Bus station touts are there to drum up business and work on commission; they're occasionally a pain but they can be very helpful.
- When using bush taxis keep your options open; hold on to your money until departure.
- Sitting on a camping mat or towel can ease the pain of African roads.
- Drinking more means peeing more – balance hydration with bladder control.
- When travelling on dirt roads use a scarf to keep dust from your nose and mouth.
- That baby may look cute – but let it onto your lap and it WILL pee…
- Carry your passport at all times – getting through roadblocks without it can be expensive and complicated.
- Try to book your bus or minibus ticket in advance.
- Addressing questions to the driver directly is a social no-no – the conductor is the social hub of the journey, while the driver is the quiet achiever.
- If you have a choice as to your seat (more likely on buses), opt for what will be the shady side.
Car & Motorcycle
Exploring Africa with your own wheels takes some doing, but is a wonderful way to see the continent.
Your Own Car or Motorcycle
The easiest way to enter Africa with your own car or motorcycle is to cross from southern Europe to Morocco aboard a car ferry and then take it from there. The obvious main barrier to travelling this way is the Sahara, most of which is problematic at present.
At the time of writing, most trans-Saharan routes were off limits to travellers due to simmering rebellion and banditry, although the Western Sahara route (from Morocco to Mauritania via Dakhla) was considered safe. Other potential barriers to getting around Africa by car or motorcycle include the cost of hiring a barge to transport your vehicle from Egypt into Sudan; and either war or the nonexistent roads of the DRC (or both). For a multitude of other options and inspiring tales from those who've made overland trips present, future and past, check out the website of the Africa Overland Network (www.africa-overland.net) or, for motorcyclists, Horizons Unlimited (www.horizonsunlimited.com).
If you're keen to begin in East or South Africa, it can be expensive to ship your vehicle all the way to Mombasa or Cape Town – it may work out cheaper to fly there and purchase something once you arrive. 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 AA of South Africa (www.aa.co.za) offers vehicle check-ups, insurance and travel advice.
Travelling around Africa by motorcycle is popular among hard-core motorcyclists, but road conditions vary greatly. Remember also that many drivers (particularly truck drivers) are either unaccustomed or disinclined to taking two-wheeled transport into consideration. Motorcyclists, especially those with newer model bikes, should also, where possible, be self-sufficient in parts.
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 AA of South Africa (www.aa.co.za) 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 not recommended everywhere but renting a 4WD is an increasingly popular way to get around in Southern Africa, especially Botswana, Namibia and Zambia.
Renting in Africa is usually only an option to travellers aged over 25 years. 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 around US$150 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 a real bargain (if you hire for a longer period, it can be less than US$30 a day), especially if booked from overseas. Some vehicles can then be taken into Namibia, Mozambique and Botswana. Also consider hiring a car for exploring southern Morocco and taking a 4WD (possibly with driver) to explore Kenya and Tanzania's wildlife parks at your leisure. In some places it's not possible to rent a car without a local driver being part of the deal. In others (eg Botswana and Namibia) it's impossible to rent one with a driver.
Renting a 4WD in Southern Africa
The following companies rent 4WD vehicles in Southern Africa.
- Africamper 4WD rental from South Africa.
- Avis Safari Rentals Offices in Botswana, Namibia and South Africa.
- Britz 4WD rental with offices in South Africa and Namibia.
- Bushlore 4WD rental.
- Drive Botswana Arranges trips and makes bookings for Mozambique, Namibia, South Africa, Zambia and Zimbabwe.
- Safari Drive Expensive but professional and upmarket company with its own fleet of recent-model vehicles.
- Self Drive Adventures Guided self-drive expeditions.
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 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 serious trouble, 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 (www.campbellirvine.com).
- Watch out for kamikaze cyclists, pedestrians and livestock – and massive potholes.
- Night-time road travel is never recommended.
- Local driving skills are generally nerve-shatteringly poor, especially in rural areas; moderate your speed.
- Tree branches placed in the roadway signal a stopped vehicle or other problem ahead.
- Reckless overtaking on blind bends, hills and other areas with poor visibility is standard operating procedure; head-on collisions are common.
- Keep your fuel tank full and carry a jerry can. Fuel sold on the roadside is unreliable (it's often diluted), and some types of fuel (including diesel) aren't always available in remote areas.
- Expect frequent stops at checkpoints: police, customs and border officials will want to see all your documentation. The time taken at these checkpoints is one of the biggest variables of African overland travel. Sometimes it can take two minutes, sometimes hours.
- Mechanical knowledge and a collection of spares are essential. A winch and a set of planks can get you out of muddy trouble in the rainy season.
- Most trips off the beaten track require a 4WD.
- Motorcycles generally aren't permitted in national parks.
Hitching is never entirely safe in any country, and we don't recommend it. But in some parts of Africa, there is often simply no other option than 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. In more developed countries, such as Ghana, Kenya, Morocco, South Africa and Zimbabwe, where there are plenty of private cars on the road, it may be possible to hitch for free.
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.
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 aren't uncommon. Second-class fares weigh in about the same as, or less than, the corresponding bus fare.
More expensive (but still negligible by Western standards) are sleeping compartments and 1st- 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.
Some of Africa's most iconic train journeys:
- Nairobi–Mombasa (Kenya)
- Zouérat–Nouâdhibou (Mauritania)
- Dakar–Bamako (Senegal and Mali)
- Transgabonais (Gabon)
- Windhoek–Swakopmund (Namibia)
- Pretoria–Swakopmund (South Africa and Namibia).
In many out-of-the-way places, trucks are the only reliable form of transport. They may primarily carry goods, but drivers are always keen to supplement their income, so there's usually room for paying passengers. Most folks are stuck up on top of the cargo, but a few more expensive spots are often available in the cab.
Sitting high and exposed on top of a truck chugging through the African landscape can be a great experience; just take heavy precautions against the sun, wrap up against dust and bring a carry mat or similar to cushion yourself against uncomfortable cargo – you could find yourself sitting on top of a car engine for hours on end! Also, remember that trucks are even slower than buses.
On many routes you'll be able to wave down a truck, but lifts can often be arranged the night before departure at the 'truck park' – a compound or dust patch that you'll find in almost every African town of note. 'Fares' are pretty much fixed – expect to pay a little less than an equivalent bus fare, and make sure you agree on the price before climbing aboard. If the journey is going to take more than one night or one day, bring your own food and water.
Overlanding on the Cheap
Because most people prefer to travel north to south, overland truck companies sometimes drive empty trucks back from South Africa's Cape Town, Victoria Falls and Harare, and will sometimes transport travellers back up to Arusha (Tanzania) or Nairobi (Kenya) for negotiable knock-down prices, with a pleasant two-day stop by Lake Malawi sometimes thrown in. Ask around in backpacker hang-outs in the departure towns for tips on when these trucks may be leaving.