Distances are great in Africa and, if time is short, regional flights can considerably widen your options. For example, after touring South Africa for a while you could fly from Cape Town to Victoria Falls and then tour Zimbabwe or southern Zambia. Alternatively, fly to Lilongwe, which is a good staging point for trips around Malawi or eastern Zambia, or to Maun, which opens up northern Botswana, northern Namibia and southern Zambia.
Even within a country, tight schedules can be accommodated with short hops by air. Both domestic and regional flights are usually operated by both state airlines and private carriers and, except in Botswana and Zambia, the competition generally keeps prices down to reasonable levels. Remember, however, to factor in some additional time to ensure a cancelled flight doesn't totally ruin your trip.
Sometimes the only practical way into remote national parks, reserves and lodges is by air, and charter flights provide easy access. Although these are normally for travellers on less restricted budgets, access to the best of the Okavango Delta and some of the more remote corners of Namibia is possible only by charter flight.
Airlines in Southern Africa
The following list includes regional airlines with domestic and intra–Southern African routes.
Air Botswana Domestic Botswana flights and connections to neighbouring countries.
Air Namibia Connects Windhoek with Johannesburg and other regional cities.
Air Zimbabwe A handful of regional flights.
Airlink Operated by South African Airways, Airlink has flights throughout the region, connecting South Africa with most other countries including Swaziland.
FastJet Low-cost airline connecting the countries of the region's east, South Africa and East Africa.
Linhas Aereas de Moçambique Regional destinations include Johannesburg and Harare.
Malawian Airlines Connects Malawi to Johannesburg (South Africa), Lusaka (Zambia) and Harare (Zimbabwe) from Blantyre and Lilongwe.
Proflight Zambia Regular flights around Zambia and between Zambia and Jo’burg.
SA Express South African Airways operated with good regional links.
The Star Alliance Africa Airpass allows flexible travel around sub-Saharan Africa, including all the countries in Southern Africa except Swaziland and Lesotho. 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 is a cheap, convenient, healthy, environmentally sound and, above all, fun way to travel. It can also be addictive. On a bicycle travellers will often be on an equal footing with locals and will have plenty of opportunities to meet and visit people in small towns and villages along the way. Be aware, however, that cyclists are usually regarded as second-class road users so always be on high alert for cars and trucks.
Aim to travel in cool, dry periods, and carry at least 4L of drinking water. Bikes can easily be carried on buses or trucks – although you’ll need to pay an extra luggage fee, and be prepared for some rough handling.
A good source of information may be your national cycling organisation. In Britain, the Cyclists’ Touring Club (www.ctc.org.uk) provides cycling advice. In the USA, the International Bicycle Fund (www.ibike.org) organises socially conscious tours and provides information.
You’ll normally be able to hire a bike locally, especially in tourist areas. Otherwise, local people in villages and towns are often willing to rent their bikes for the day. Ask at your hotel or track down a bicycle repair shop (every town market has one).
Outside South Africa, you’ll have difficulty buying hi-tech European or American spares, so bring anything essential along with you, and know how to make your own repairs. Plan for frequent punctures, and take lots of spare inner tubes. Because automobile tyres are constantly being repaired, patches and glue are available almost everywhere. However, it may be worth carrying a spare tyre, in case of a really devastating blow-out.
Flying With A Bike
It’s quite straightforward to take your bike onto a plane and use the bike to get around on the ground. For air travel, you can dismantle the bike and box it up. Bike boxes are available at airports and most bike shops. If you’re willing to risk damage to your bike, it’s also possible to deflate the tyres, remove the pedals and turn the handlebars sideways, then just wheel the bike up to the check-in desk (if your bike doesn’t hold up to baggage handlers, it probably won’t survive Africa!). Some airlines don’t charge to carry a bike, and don’t even include it in the weight allowance; others charge an extra handling fee of around US$50.
Options for getting around by boat are limited but there are some possibilities. Boat types and services in the region vary greatly from large ferries and cargo ships to traditional dhows plying the coastline of Mozambique and mokoros (dugout canoes) skimming along the Okavango Delta, although the latter is more a form of sightseeing rather than a means of getting from A to B.
Options include the following:
- In Malawi and Mozambique, the Ilala ferry chugs passengers and cargo up and down Lake Malawi but only stops at Malawian ports. Malawi–Mozambique connections are made by a newer boat called MV Chambo: it links ports on the Mozambican side of Lake Niassa with Malawi, running a twice-weekly northern route from Metangula via Cóbuè to Likoma Island (Malawi) and Nkata Bay (Malawi); and a once-weekly southern route linking Metangula with Meponda (Mozambique) and Chipoka (Malawi). Full fare Metangula–Chipoka is US$31.
- Dhow safaris are possible in Mozambique at Vilankulo and Pemba.
- There is a ferry crossing between Zambia and Botswana, departing from Kazungula, Botswana, which takes vehicles.
- Based in South Africa, LBH Africa (www.tallships.co.za) has cargo ships between Durban and various Mozambican ports that sometimes take passengers.
Long-distance buses operate regularly between most Southern African countries, with most routes covered by fairly basic, cheap and often slow services. From Cape Town and Jo’burg, larger and more comfortable buses run to many destinations in the region including Maseru (Lesotho), Mbabane (Swaziland), Maputo (Mozambique), Gaborone (Botswana) and Windhoek (Namibia).
For bus travellers, border crossings can be tedious while customs officials search through huge amounts of luggage. Minibus services may be more efficient, as fewer passengers will mean less time at the border.
There are also several international bus services especially designed for backpackers and other tourists. These companies normally have pickups/drop offs at main tourist centres and backpackers’ hostels. Among these is the Baz Bus, which links Cape Town, Jo’burg, Pretoria and Durban.
The following are major bus companies operating throughout the region. They are generally safe and reliable, and standard facilities usually include air-con, video, sound system, reclining seats and on-board toilet:
Cheetah Express Maputo–Nelspruit.
Greyhound Jo’burg, Cape Town, Harare, Bulawayo and Maputo.
Intercape Mainliner Extensive services with destinations including Jo’burg, Cape Town, Maputo, Windhoek, Victoria Falls and Gaborone.
Intercape Pathfinder Has a daily service linking Harare to Vic Falls, Bulawayo and even Hwange.
Luciano Luxury Coach Maputo–Durban.
Mahube Express Gaborone–Jo'burg.
Tok Tokkie Shuttle Windhoek–Gaborone twice weekly.
Translux Jo’burg, Pretoria, Maputo, Blantyre, Lusaka.
In general it’s always better to buy tickets in advance, over the phone, on the internet or by dropping into an office in person, although sometimes it may not be necessary. Sample fares include approximately US$30 for Jo’burg to Gaborone, and US$93 for Cape Town to Windhoek (both one way).
An Alternative to the Bus – Overland Trucks
Lots of companies run overland camping tours in trucks converted to carry passengers. Sometimes the trucks finish a tour, then run straight back to base to start the next one and drivers are often happy to carry ‘transit’ passengers on their way back. This is not a tour, as such, but can be a comfortable way of transiting between Vic Falls and Jo’burg, or Harare and Nairobi (Kenya), for around US$30 per day, plus food-kitty contributions. Those looking for rides should check around truck stops in well-known tourist areas, such as Cape Town, Jo’burg, Harare, Victoria Falls, Windhoek or Lilongwe or visit backpackers’ hostels (where these companies invariably leave stacks of brochures).
Car & Motorcycle
Fuel & Spare Parts
Fuel and spare parts are available across the region, although both have recently been scarce in Zimbabwe. Finding spare parts for newer-model vehicles can be difficult outside the major cities.
Fuel prices vary across the region, but they're roughly comparable to prices in Western countries – for example, in Malawi it's US$1.10 per litre, or US$0.70 per litre in Botswana. Diesel is slightly cheaper than normal petrol.
If you’re driving in remote areas, such as Zambia, careful planning is required to ensure you have enough fuel until you reach the next petrol station.
To rent a car in Southern Africa you must be aged at least 21 (some companies require drivers to be over 25) and have been a licenced driver in your home country for at least two years (sometimes five).
Car rental isn’t cheap, but can be a very convenient way to travel, especially if you’re short on time or want to visit national parks and other out-of-the-way places. Costs can be mitigated by mustering a group to share the rental and petrol, and will open up all sorts of opportunities.
- Check whether you’re able to cross borders with a rental vehicle. This is usually allowed by South African companies into Namibia, Botswana, Lesotho, Swaziland, Zambia and Zimbabwe (but not Mozambique). In such cases, they sometimes charge an additional cross-border fee (usually around US$100).
- Go for an unlimited-mileage deal. Also, check on the fees for other items such as tax, excess and insurance.
Types of Vehicle
Whatever kind of vehicle you decide to rent, you should always check the paperwork carefully, and thoroughly examine the vehicle before accepting it. You should also carefully check the condition of your car and never ever compromise if you don’t feel totally happy with its state of repair.
Generally, South Africa is the cheapest place to hire a car (starting from US$30 per day), although Namibia and Botswana are also pretty good (from US$50 to US$60 per day) and Malawi (US$65) isn’t too bad. Zimbabwe is ridiculously expensive and in Zambia and Mozambique you’re looking at a minimum of US$80 to US$100 per day to take a 2WD out of the city.
Most companies include insurance and unlimited kilometres in their standard rates, but some require a minimum rental period before they allow unlimited kilometres. Most companies also require a deposit and/or a credit-card imprint.
Additional charges will be levied for dropping off or picking up the car at your hotel (rather than the car-rental office), for dropping off the car at a different office from where you picked it up, and for each additional driver. A ‘cleaning fee’ (which can amount to US$50!) may be incurred – at the discretion of the rental company – and a ‘service fee’ may be added.
Most major international car-rental companies have local franchises.
Prices for 4WD rental range from US$80 to US$250 per day and usually come with unlimited mileage.
Types of 4WDs
There are numerous variations on the theme, but the most common vehicle models are two- or four-berth Toyota (Hilux, Land Cruiser or Fortuner), Land Rover (Defender or Discovery, although the former is slowly disappearing) and Ford Ranger, all adapted for camping. This may mean a pop-up roof that has space to sleep two people, rooftop tents and/or ground tents, as well as all camping gear (ie bedding, although some, including Avis, offer blankets instead of sleeping bags), cooking and eating equipment, fridge/freezer and all the mechanical tools necessary to get you out of a tight spot. To be sure of what you're getting, make sure you ask for a full equipment list at the time of your booking.
If you’re looking to rent a car for exploring Southern Africa, we recommend booking through companies that offer specialist rental of fully equipped 4WDs with all camping equipment. Most can also arrange for pickups/drop offs in Windhoek as well as Maun, Kasane, Gaborone, Victoria Falls, Harare or Livingstone, but remember that you'll usually pay a fee if you decide to pick up your vehicle in a place away from the company's main office, or if you drop off your vehicle in a place that's different from where you picked it up – fees range between US$250 and US$500 for either service.
Most 4WD rental agencies have their head offices in South Africa, but have offices across the region. Among the better companies are the following:
If you hire directly through the rental company, you'll get just the vehicle and you'll need to make all of the other travel arrangements on your own. For most travellers, it works out more convenient to book through an operator that can also make campsite and other accommodation bookings, arrange a satellite phone and make any other necessary arrangements. For this, try the following:
Drive Botswana This excellent operator arranges 4WDs and also organises a complete package itinerary, including maps, trip notes and bookings for campsites. Although Botswana is where it all began, 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. Prices include all equipment, emergency back-up, detailed route preparation and bookings, satellite phone and free tank of fuel.
Self Drive Adventures 4WD rentals and all bookings made on your behalf. Although you do the driving, you'll be accompanied by a support vehicle and a local guide.
When hiring a car always check the insurance provisions and any excess that you may be liable to pay in the event of an accident. It’s also worth checking if the insurance covers driving into other Southern African countries (depending on where you intend going) and driving on dirt roads for 2WDs.
Some countries, Zambia among them, require you to purchase 3rd-party insurance at the border, regardless of whether you already have it.
For visitors, South Africa is the best place to buy a car (other countries place restrictions on foreign ownership, have stiff tax laws, or simply don’t have the choice of vehicles). Also, South African–registered vehicles don’t need a carnet de passage to visit any of the countries in the region. Travelling through Botswana, Lesotho, Namibia and Swaziland is easy, while for Malawi, Mozambique, Zimbabwe and Zambia you’ll easily get temporary import permits at the border.
It’s usually cheaper to buy privately, but for tourists it is often more convenient to go to a dealer. The weekly Cape Ads (www.junkmail.co.za/cape-town) is the best place to look for a private sale. Also try Auto Trader (www.autotrader.co.za), which advertises thousands of cars around the country.
Although prices tend to be cheaper in Jo’burg, most people do their buying in Cape Town – a much nicer place to spend the week or two that it will likely take for the process. Cape Town’s main congregation of used-car dealers is on Voortrekker Rd between Maitland and Belleville metro train stations.
Some dealers might agree to a buy-back arrangement – if you don’t trash the car, you can reasonably expect to get a decent percentage of your purchase price back after a three-month trip, but you need to check all aspects of the contract to be sure this deal will stick.
A recommended contact in Cape Town is Graham Duncan Smith (021 797 3048), who’s a Land Rover expert offering consultation, repairs and sales. He charges a consultation fee.
No matter who you buy from, make sure that the car details correspond accurately with the ownership (registration) papers, that there is a current licence disc on the windscreen and that the vehicle has been checked by the police clearance department. Check the owner’s name against their identity document, and check the car’s engine and chassis numbers. Consider getting the car tested by a garage.
Cheap cars will often be sold without a roadworthy certificate – required when you register the change-of-ownership form (RLV) and pay tax for a licence disc. Some private garages are now allowed to issue them (a few hundred rand), and some will overlook minor faults.
Registering your car is a bureaucratic headache and will likely take a couple of weeks. The forms you need should be available at vehicle-registration offices, dealers. They include the following:
- RLV/NCO5 (notification of change of ownership/sale of motor vehicle)
- ANR8 (application and notice in respect of traffic register number).
Next, present yourself at a vehicle-registration office along with the following:
- Your passport and a photocopy.
- A copy of the seller's ID.
- The registration certificate (in the seller’s name).
- Proof of purchase.
- Proof of address (a letter from your accommodation should suffice).
- A valid licence.
- Your money.
It will help if the seller comes with you and brings their ID. Charges at the time of writing are currently about R500/1000 for a small car/4WD.
Insurance against theft or damage is highly recommended, though not legally required for private-vehicle owners. It can be difficult to arrange by the month. The Automobile Association of South Africa (www.aasa.co.za) is a good contact, and may be willing to negotiate payment for a year’s worth of insurance with a pro-rata refund when you sell the car. Insurance agencies include Sansure (www.sansure.com) in Cape Town.
The good news is that most main roads in Southern Africa are in fair to excellent condition, and are passable for even small compact cars. On lesser roads, standards vary considerably, from relatively smooth highways to dirt tracks.
Other things to remember:
- In Malawi, Zambia, Mozambique and elsewhere, you may be slowed down considerably by sealed roads that haven’t seen any maintenance for many years and are plagued with bone-crunching and tyre-bursting potholes.
- In Namibia, take special care on the huge network of well-maintained gravel roads that supplement the paved-road network.
Whatever vehicle you drive, prepare to deal with some of the world’s worst, fastest and most arrogant and aggressive drivers. Also be aware of the following:
- Tree branches on the road are the local version of warning triangles.
- If you come up behind someone on a bicycle, hoot the horn as a warning and offer a friendly wave as you pass.
- On rural highways, always be on the lookout for children playing, people selling goods, seeds drying or animals wandering around on the loose. This is particularly the case near roadside settlements.
- Livestock is always a concern, and hitting even a small animal can cause vehicle damage, while hitting something large – like a cow or a kudu – can be fatal (for both the driver and the animal).
- If you see kids with red flags on the road, it means they’re leading a herd of cows.
- Potential hazards become much harder to deal with in the dark and many vehicles have faulty lights – or none at all – so avoid driving at night.
- In some areas (in northern Botswana, for example), wandering wildlife can also appear unannounced. An elephant encountered in such a manner could wreak havoc with your vehicle.
To Go or Not to Go?
A dangerous traffic quirk in Southern Africa concerns the use and significance of indicator lights. When a car comes up behind a slow vehicle, wanting to overtake, the driver of the slower vehicle will often flash one indicator to let the other driver know whether or not it’s safe to overtake. Logically, the left indicator would mean ‘go’ (that is, it may potentially be turning left, and the way is clear) and the right would mean ‘don’t go’ (it may potentially be turning right, indicating that the way is not clear). Unfortunately, quite a few confused drivers get this backwards, creating a potentially disastrous situation for a trusting driver in the vehicle behind. The moral is, ignore the well-intentioned signals and never overtake unless you can see that the road ahead is completely clear.
Traffic officially drives on the left – but that may not always be obvious, so be especially prepared on blind corners and hills.
Drive on the left; steering wheel is on the right side of the car. Conditions vary widely but include well-developed road networks.
Driving in Remote Areas
Careful preparations for any remote trips in Southern Africa are required. You will need a robust 4WD vehicle, and enough supplies to see you through the journey – this includes food and water for the entire trip. You should also consider the following:
- Travel in a convoy of at least two vehicles and/or carry with you a satellite phone for use in an emergency.
- Carry several spare tyres for each vehicle, a tyre iron, a good puncture-repair kit and a range of vehicle spares, as well as twice as much petrol as the distances would suggest.
- For navigation, use a compass, or preferably a global positioning system (GPS). Relevant topographic sheets are also extremely helpful.
- Be careful where you camp; always ask permission on private land, and think twice about pitching a tent in shady and inviting riverbeds: large animals often use them as thoroughfares, and they can also be subject to flash floods.
As in any other part of the world, hitching is never entirely safe, and we don’t recommend it. Travellers who hitch should understand that they are taking a small but potentially serious risk.
Even so, hitching is a way of life in Southern Africa, and visitors may well have the opportunity to join the throng of locals looking for lifts. While this is a good way to get around places without public transport (or even with public transport), there is a protocol involved. As a visitor, you’re likely to take precedence over locals (especially with white drivers), but if other people are hitching, it’s still polite to stand further along the road so they’ll have the first crack (that is, unless there’s a designated hitching spot where everyone waits).
Another option is to wait around petrol stations and try to arrange lifts from drivers who may be going your way. If you do get a lift, be sure to determine what sort of payment is expected before you climb aboard. In most cases, plan on paying just a bit less than the equivalent bus fare.
Within individual countries, public bus services are usually pretty basic.
- As well as typically spluttering big buses, many countries also have minibuses.
- Minibuses are faster, run more frequently and are usually even more dangerous due to their speed.
- Minibuses or combis in Zimbabwe are not recommended to travellers – they break down and constantly have lethal accidents.
- In Southern Africa, there’s a lack of long-distance shared service taxis (such as the seven-seat Peugeots that are so popular in other parts of Africa).
- In rural areas, the frequency of bus services drops dramatically.
- Public transport may be limited to the back of a pick-up truck (ute) in rural regions. Everyone pays a fare to the driver, which is normally comparable to the bus fare for a similar distance.
Travelling by train within the various countries is a decent option – and it’s almost always fun – but can be a slow way to go. South Africa has the largest and most efficient rail network, with passenger train services also possible in Namibia, Malawi, Mozambique, Zambia and Zimbabwe.
Cross-border services are few and are rarely convenient. For example, for train services between Mozambique and South Africa, the only current route is Maputo–Komatipoort, where you need to disembark at the border and change trains. Trains on the Mozambique side, however, are very bad and slow. It’s much better to travel via train on the South Africa side, and then bus or chapa (minivan) for the Mozambique stretch (Ressano Garcia to Maputo).
Namibia also has two luxury 'tourist trains' which are effectively trains chartered for sightseeing on fixed routes that span Namibia and South Africa: