backpacking africa

12 things you should know before backpacking Africa

The continent of Africa is a place full of bucket list adventures and colourful cultures, but not for the faint-hearted. Travellers will undoubtedly face a steep learning curve during their time here. So here are a few things I think you should know before backpacking Africa.

12 things you should know before backpacking Africa

Get on the Africa Time

Have you heard about Africa Time? Africans tend to have a much more relaxed attitude to time than in other parts of the world. Nobody stresses. There is no sense of urgency. It happens when it happens. It’ll probably be the most frustrating part of backpacking Africa.

The sooner you can get on Africa Time and live a little like them, the better.

Driving distances are loooong

Africa is a very big place and many of the main places to visit are spread out, so understand that you’ll be spending a lot of time moving from place to place. Even when the distance isn’t so long it can still take much longer than you expect to travel everywhere. This can be due to buses and trains not being on time or the bus stopping every so often because the roads are bad. So give yourself a good amount of time to get anywhere, and travel by day where possible as driving at night can be dangerous.

Dust does not respect personal boundaries

When it doesn’t rain, the dust goes all over your clothes, in your belongings, in your ears, up your nose, in your hair and in your eyes! If you have electronic equipment, protect them with good cases.

In the cities and on the beaches you can bring some nice clothing, but when you’re in villages or on safari, try to bring clothes that you don’t mind getting dirty. Also bring sunglasses to wear to keep the dust and grit out of your eyes.

It can get chilly

Believe it or not, Africa can get very cold. It’s a huge and diverse place with various micro-climates, so the chances are if you’re travelling to different places, you’re going to experience different weather conditions and temperatures. You’ll also be spending a lot of time outdoors too if you’re backpacking and going on safaris; once the sun goes down, the temperature can really drop.

Vegetarianism does not exclude chicken

“I’m a vegetarian” is not a phrase that exists in many African languages. Meat and maize porridge are two main foods for most Africans, and apparently chicken is actually a vegetable!

You will stand out

Unless you’re in a cosmopolitan city such as Nairobi, you’ll stand out as a traveller. People will stare and be curious about you. Kids will be excited about seeing you, and you’ll often hear the word “mzungu” muttered – meaning foreigner.

Just try showing people that we aren’t different in so many ways – use local transport, hang out with local people and eat in local restaurants.

Prepare for cold showers

Hot showers whilst backpacking Africa (especially in the East) are quite the rarity. Having a cold shower isn’t so bad when you’re in a hot place, but when you aren’t it isn’t very nice, so shower quick and learn to tolerate the cold water!

If the water is cold, wash your hair first (keeping your body dry) and then quickly wash your body after. The other thing to keep in mind is that you’re lucky to have water, as a lot of people don’t even have proper access to it, let alone hot water for showering. Having this in the back of your mind will make you much more tolerant.

You get what you pay for

However tight your budget, you’ll learn not to stoop too low when booking your Maasai Mara safari or Kilimanjaro trek. Sadly, there are cowboy operators willing to throw ethics out of the window in the name of cutting costs. Pay that extra for reliable operators and you’ll be rewarded with incredible experiences.

You’ll have some lonely days

There isn’t the volume of travellers that you find in other popular backpacking destinations, so whilst you’ll definitely meet people in hostels and backpacking campsites, it doesn’t always mean you’ll be on the same itinerary. Be prepared that you might get the odd day or two where you don’t meet many people.

Beer is always nearby

In many of the small and remote villages and towns throughout Africa, you may find more bars (often unlicensed), known as sheebeens in South Africa, than inhabitants. Beer can sometimes be cheaper and more available than bottled water.

Don’t believe everything you read

The media often paints a picture of Africa as being entirely consumed by war and overrun by mad machete-wielding militias. But most Africans are too busy getting on with their lives to join in with all that nonsense. You’re probably more likely to encounter violence on a Friday night back home.

Africa is never boring

Backpacking in Africa can be frustrating, tiring and occasionally risky. But one thing it can never be is boring. There is always something truly wonderful happening here, and it’s just such a unique experience from anywhere else in the world that you’ll have the time of your life.

Have you backpacked in Africa before? Share with us your experiences and things you learned along the way!


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