A year ago today I said goodbye to my brother Harry and headed off to embark on a six month trip across East & Southern Africa which resulted in the following countries:
Kenya, Uganda, Rwanda, Tanzania, Malawi, Zambia, Namibia & South Africa.
Steve and I had already been travelling for six months through The Philippines, South America and a stop gap in the UK to visit friends and family. We were incredibly excited to be heading for Kenya and with a day’s stop over in Steve’s favourite city, Istanbul (which was beautiful) we then found ourselves in Mombasa, Kenya after many planes rides through countless countries and cities (London-Istanbul-Dubai-Kigali-Nairobi-Mombasa).
Before we left UK, we were really in two minds about whether to do an overland tour or just find our own way round on local buses with the freedom of coming and going when it suited us. An overland tour is an arranged tour on a four wheel drive bus where people of all ages from various countries spend the next 30 days or more (they can go up to 9 months!) glued to each other while they drive from country to country through Africa with a tour guide and driver. There are loads of companies out there doing so many routes to choose from its crazy.
Because the media makes us all think that Africa is a dangerous continent, we really didn’t know what to do. So, we searched loads of forums trying to find out what other people did and what their experiences were like in both situations. Both had mixed reviews and because Steve & I really didn’t like the idea of being committed to a load of other strangers for quite a long time (30 days in the travelling world is a very, very long time!) we came up with a plan. We found a few companies that looked the best for the price range to overland with and decided to book a flight out to Kenya a week before the overland tour started so that we could suss out what the vibe was like and whether it was actually going to be OK to travel independently giving us then the option to sign up, pay up and jump on one of the tours.
The overland tours that we did like were Absolute Africa and Oasis Overland Tours and the reason was they didn’t come across like they were too forced in trying to make you have fun (I have seen this countless times in hostel bars) I mean as in a party bus and the price was also reasonable. You see, when you actually look into these tours, you end up paying an awful lot of money and it doesn’t even include many or if any activities. We worked it out that we would be paying quite a lot of money for the trip. I will say however that doing a tour in Namibia may have been a better decision purely because it was an expensive country to travel around compared to other African countries and because the country is mainly a huge desert, a four wheel drive truck would have been way more accessible to travel around. (I’ll do a separate post about the stunningly gorgeous country that is Namibia)
Before we left for Africa, we really embraced ourselves for everything possible to happen. We had a plan if we were to get ourselves into any kind of situation such as an attack or mugging to anything really but nothing happened at all and that was really just another one of those things that the Media drills into you thinking that the whole of Africa is dangerous. I thought it was going to be a bit like India in the sense of people staring at a Westerner and wanting photos or to just come and meet us but when we got off the plane I was like, ‘why aren’t people overloading us with attention god damn it!’ haha, no not really. It was nothing like I expected. It was more of a chilled out India to be honest. India is pretty intense seeing as there are a billion people living there but I won’t go on about India in this post, I’ll save that for another one.
Hands down, every in country we went to in Africa there wasn’t a single local person who was rude to us. I was in complete awe and it really is such a nice feeling to come across local people who are actually nice. It’s something I always notice when coming back to The West. A lot of people are so miserable and treat others so badly. There is so much irony in this it’s mental. People in The West are afraid of people in poorer countries that they might rob them but in reality, that’s more likely to happen in the city you live in. I’ve seen people in some of the poorest countries in the world way happier than someone living in The West. It’s incredible how we are brought up in a society of wanting materialistic items all the time.
Back to the overland tour debate… it’s really hard to plan any kind of trip until you get there. No matter how much research you do, none of it will make any sense until you arrive. Once you start talking to other backpackers with where they have been or are going to, it suddenly starts making sense on where things are and what you want to see.
After a few days of literally chilling out in our nice hotel in Mombasa (always a treat!) we made plans to head up north near to the Somalian border town of Lamu. Now Lamu is stunnnning, a beautiful spot that has had a bad rep a few years back with a few travellers being kidnapped by the Somali pirates. I don’t really get that as the Princess of Monaco has a house there so surely if they were to take anyone, they’d take her?? Nowadays it’s all good there and it was an amazingly beautiful part of Kenya with a huge Indian influence and amazing food. We had nowhere to stay and ended up finding a beautiful guesthouse right near the water. Staying there were two separate couples from the States and a German guy travelling on his own. They were all so accepting of us and we really learnt a huge amount from them about travelling through East Africa. From this moment on, we decided that it would be crazy for us to jump on an overland tour and that it was completely fine to travel by ourselves. And it really was. We even met up with one of the couples a month or so later in Uganda and had the best time with them!
From reading those forums about travelling on your own around East & Southern Africa people mentioned that it was really hard to get public transport. It wasn’t at all. I don’t really know what they were on about. I suppose if you went in the wet season then maybe the road were bad but we knew that July – August was the best time to travel around East Africa and that by the time we were getting to Cape Town it would be summer there. I had this vision that the roads would be like dirt tracks, they really aren’t. It’s way more advanced to what you think it is.
It was really safe travelling on our own yet obviously like any country you travel around the world you have to keep your whits about you. The general rule was don’t travel at night as the bus drivers do like to speed. Saying that, I didn’t think it was that scary with their driving, it wasn’t as bad as people make out on forums. I suppose if you have travelled before then it won’t be anything new seeing people drive a bit crazier than normal. I also wouldn’t go out at night as it seemed to turn a bit dodgy in some places (Kenya, Uganda notably). I suppose you just have to have common sense and don’t think you are invincible like a lot of backpackers do. Things can happen to you if you aren’t switched on like in any country around the world.
If you book any small tour for a few days or so, always haggle with the seller. You can definitely shop around! Same goes for accom, you can always get the price down and never settle for somewhere crap because there are usually always better options around. When booking buses, we jus turned up at the bus station and booked. They will usually make up a price for westerners so we would ask the locals how much they paid before we got on the bus. Everyone speaks English throughout every country we went to. People also spoke to the following languages as well:
Rwanda – mostly French speaking
Zanzibar (Tanzania) – mostly Italian speaking
Namibia – mostly German speaking. The sign posts were even all in German!
Also, a lot of backpackers brought their own tents. It’s really easy to camp your way around Africa, especially in a country like Malawi. A lot of people would camp at the hostel grounds which would save you soooooo much money! I think we would have done it now looking back to it as your money would go so much further. That’s not saying that it is expensive for accom it averages around $20-$30 a night for a double and around $6 for a dorm. People always say it’s so expensive to travel Africa but in actual fact, I spent way more in South America in three months travel than I did in six months in Africa. The pricey things are doing safaris (we did the Masai Mara for $350 each for 3 days) and Gorilla Trakking which cost us $500 each. Most overland tours don’t include these onto their trips. I think the one’s we looked at were $3000 for 28 days each and you have to camp for most of it. That’s a lot and your money can stretch really far if you do the trip independently. Also look at volunteering if you want to save money, check out my other post on that here.
We were glad we travelled by ourselves because at the end of the day you don’t even get the option of staying in a town if you want to. There were so many amazingly beautiful places that we travelled to and I am glad I wasn’t being rushed back onto a bus to get to the next town. We met a lot of single travellers who were also women in their early 20s so that’s a giveaway that it’s fine to travel on your own there. It’s very easy to meet other backpackers and the best part is the backpackers were really nice people. The only one’s who were a bit pretentious were the guys who had cycled around the world for the last five years. But then again, that is a great achievement and they just had a bit of an ego. Some volunteers we met whether it was Peace Corps or your standard volunteers were a bit on the dull side but that’s a very small minority. Overall the travellers we met in that six months were awesome and I’ve got some friends for life that I made on that trip.
If you are thinking of going on an overland tour or any tour for that matter around the world remember to take into account for the following:
- You will be stuck with the same people all day, everyday for the entire trip
- You will be told when to wake up, when to sleep etc
- You will have very little time to do what you want
- You will have to pay more money to actually do activities
We stayed in a hostel in Nairobi where a lot of the tours started and when we arrived we met a lot of the tour leaders. They were actually really cool although none of them were African and all from Western countries with a passion for what they were doing. They gave me and Steve loads of info on where to travel to as we were pretty blind as to what we were doing at the start.
It was quite funny watching these tours from the start as the people all turned up to meet each other before it started. It was a bit of an ego test. You know, everyone was listing the countries they had been to and it was a bit of a look how awesome I am contest. We heard from many people living in different African countries that when they saw a bus load of the overlanders turn up to a café, all they would over hear is everyone bitching about eachother. It doesn’t sound like a lot of fun for anyone.
A very good friend of mine who I volunteered for in Malawi (see here) said that when she did an overland tour ten years ago, all she wanted to do was meet local people and hang out with them. Alice said that didn’t happen and she was told it was too dangerous to go out anywhere on her own. I understand that the tour company can’t take risks but that doesn’t sound like a lot of fun.
I also remember when living in Malawi that there was a huge anniversary party for the 20th year a resort had opened up on Kande Beach, right on Lake Malawi. This beach was stunning, could have been somewhere in Australia really and it mainly catered for overland tours. We were told there weren’t going to be any overland tours there that weekend and ex tour leaders and industry peeps were flying in from all over the place to get together for this weekend. While we were there, an overland bus turned up at night time. Everyone looked really miserable and the backpackers on that bus stood out a mile all sticking together even though no one spoke. I can’t really say that would be my idea of a dream adventure away, can you? I am personally glad I didn’t do the overland tour because there is no way I would have had the experiences or met the friends I have today otherwise.
If you are still considering the tour then a good part of doing it is you can jump on at any point rather than sign up for the 30 days or more. If you are going to book, make sure you call the company first to find out what is exactly included. I am glad that we just turned up to see how comfortable we were in backpacking by ourselves and I would probably recommend just turning up at one of the starting routes such as Nairobi and getting a cheap last minute tour.
I hope I have made some sense to you guys if you are wanting to experience Africa. Seriously go and see that continent. It is out of this world. A-mazing!!!