Solo Travel in Africa? Yes You Can!
Don’t be pulled away by not travelling Africa as a solo traveller. Katja and I have seen quite a big piece of Africa so far. Uganda, Western Sahara, Morocco, South Africa, Gambia, Mauritania, Senegal, Tanzania, Rwanda, Kenya, Zambia, and this year we will add to our map Ghana, Egypt, Sudan, Ethiopia, Somaliland DR Congo Benin, Burkina Faso and Togo. We are still alive and never had real problems as solo travellers in Africa!
Here are some tips for first time solo travellers in Africa. It is not meant to generalise and not all might apply to every African country, but the point of this post is to get the idea! When you add a bit of research of specific African country you plan to travel solo and a little bit of common sense on the road, you will be ready to travel solo in Africa.
Choose African Country That is Easy To Travel
Having some solo travel experience on other continents is definitely a plus, especially third world countries. If not, the key is to choose right country in Africa for first time solo travel. In this case you will probably not go straight to Mauritania or Angola, right?
Choose African Country Where Majority Speaks English or Language you Understand
If English is your only language, then travel to Ghana in the west is one good choice, while in the east I would recommend Tanzania and Kenya. Those two countries are used to tourists, even though Kiswahili is formal language, you will not have problems communicating in English. Transport wise those countries have good transport options for getting around, but will have to count on long distances and get used on hectic bus stations and touts.
Rwanda on the other hand is much smaller and in comparison to Tanzania or Kenya, much easier to get from point A to B. Young people usually speak English, while elders might speak only French or Kinyarwanda. My first choice for first solo trip to Africa is Rwanda. If your strongest language is French, West Africa is the place to be. Senegal is good option for first time solo travellers to Africa.
Before You Travel Solo To Africa
Vaccination Research and Malaria Prophylaxis and Bilharzia
For travel to Africa some vaccinations are mandatory, others are matter of choice. Check with travel clinic what jabs to take. Usually Yellow Fever is mandatory, other important vaccinations are: typhoid fever, hepatitis a and or b, tetanus, rabies, cholera, meningitis shot, It all depends where are you going and what you plan to do in Africa. Start vaccination research early enough as some vaccinations require multiple shots.
Malaria is present in many countries and prevention is necessary although free choice whether you will take precautions. There are different type of pills for prevention of Malaria so ask your travel doctor what to choose.
And there is Bilharzia also known as Schistosomiasis, found in water contaminated with the parasites. Usually still waters like lakes. Some parts of Lake Nyasa (Lake Malawi) are infected, river Nile as well as Victoria Lake. The best thing to do to avoid the risk of Bilharzia is not to swim in still waters.
Although a significant cost, it is wise investment. Be on the safe side and buy travel insurance for any trip to Africa. There are many insurance providers, but one that is most popular in travel circles is Nomad Travel Insuarance. If you plan to participate in risky adventures you might buy additional policy, but Nomad insurance offers so many things in standard policy, even climbing up to 6000 meters, its worth considering it. You can also check out how travel insurance saved me 600 EUR
Let Family or Friends Know Your Itinerary or Register With Foreign Office
When I travel solo in Africa I leave a rough plan of my travel plans to my family so they know where I am going. This way they feel better and I know if something happens where to look for me. The ministry for foreign affairs, at least in my country has application to register travel plans.
For formal registration of your trip you can probably register too with your foreign affairs institution and list the dates and countries you plan to visit. This is good thing, when travelling to African countries with security alerts. Makes it easier for the Foreign Office to ensure its citizens abroad are safe in the event of an emergency in that area. You can also log details of emergency contacts.
UK passport holders can register here
US citizens register at Smart Traveler Enrollment Program (STEP) is a free service to allow U.S. citizens and nationals traveling abroad to enroll their trip with the nearest U.S. Embassy or Consulate.
Security on General
Some African countries are under permanent security alerts and if you plan to travel solo to African country where public safety and political situation may change quickly, its good to be updated.
I usually find local news media of the country, subscribe to local news on Facebook to follow a little bit what’s going on. International headlines reach only big news, so try to follow local media of the African country you are planning to visit. Just few days ago, for example, out of nowhere in Burkina Faso military coup happened overnight, so be careful. Although I am not UK citizen I am subscribed to newsletter security updates by GOV.UK Its great as its possible to select security update for each African country. To be updated on Twitter about security updates in Africa and recent news, follow Reuters Africa.
Now to the point of the post:
Tips for First Time Solo Travel in Africa
Travel During Daytime
If possible travel during daytime! Many travellers opt for night buses to save on time but personally I wouldn’t travel at night in Africa. There is no lightning on the roads, people walk in the road, not to mention cattle, bikers along with bad roads are just good recipe for accident.
Katja experienced on her own skin, how it looks like being involved in a bus accident in Kenya. She took night bus from Nairobi to Kampala and in the middle of the night, the night bus got involved into the accident. Luckily she got away with few bruises, but bus driver ran away from accident scene.
Arrange Taxi Through Hotel if Possible
Order taxi through your hotel. Hotels and other accommodation usually have taxi drivers working for them. Better than randomly choose a stranger with a car, as in Africa looks like everybody can be taxi driver as long they have a car!
Make Friends With Taxi Driver!
Once I meet a reliable taxi driver, I take his number and I call him for every ride I need. This way I know I am safe and even get discount on next rides as loyal customer.
Book First Night in Advance
Book accommodation for first night in advance, so you don’t have to roam around the city with luggage or driving and spending money on taxi to take you around from hotel to hotel.
Don’t Tell Strangers About Your Place of Stay
As you will see people in Africa are curious. Some just out of curiosity, but you never know strangers agenda.I never reveal strangers where I stay. I always give name of some hotel far from my actual location. This tactic saved me probably by a serious incident while on Zanzibar last year. I was stalked by stranger who followed me in Stone Town. While I was in local restaurant, he bribed waiter to ask me where I was staying and whether I was alone or with friends. Long story, but all ended well at the end.
Don’t Tell Strangers You Are Travelling Alone
Another tip, probably more useful for solo female travellers. I always say I am meeting a friend at the end of destination or someone is waiting for me.
How to Deal With Street Touts
Personally I always try to respect all people so I am not dealing with touts like they are some annoying flies. If someone wants to sell me something I politely but firmly decline and tell them I don’t need anything.
The best thing to say according to my experience is “I am volunteer”. This was the magic sentence, and since volunteers have a reputation of not having money, touts will leave you alone and stop treating you like an ordinary tourist. It helps that you blend in with clothing.
But there will be more pushy people, specially on hectic bus stations, right after you step off the bus, you might find yourself surrounded by a dozen of men, some pulling your hand or your bags, just firmly state you don’t need any help and you are not paying for anything.
Make sure you walk confidently, any kind of confusion of not knowing where you are going, will attract touts to show you the way of course not for free. In this situation, when I feel a little bit lost, I try to find a woman in the crowds and let them know if they can help me. It happened to me once in Arusha, I joined a lady on the street, and asked her to walk with her, just a little bit to get rid of touts.
Bus Stations in Africa
You will need some time to get used to bus stations in Africa. Places are hectic, full of touts wanting to sell you tickets.
Buy Bus Ticket in the Office of Bus Company
Sometimes the office is a simple shack, I found it amusing! There is hard to tell who is who on bus stations, there are usually no uniforms, so make sure you buy from ticket office directly. If buying from touts, chances are, you will be overcharged. Don’t give money in advance for bus tickets.
Scams on Bus Stations
Usual scam is, a guy approaches you, saying he will be helping you buy the ticket, you give him money and he disappears. But there are honest people too! I remember during my first trip to Tanzania, me and my friend bought a ticket form a tout, we got the tickets, we were already sitting on the bus and then driver approached us, telling us we were overcharged and gave us back the difference in price.
In Lusaka, I was late for bus to Livingstone due to traffic jam on the way. Bus station was jammed too, so my taxi was far from bus to Livingstone, I had a heavy bag to carry and luckily a bus station worker in uniform approached me, asking where I am going, told him to Livingstone, gave him money, he ran to the office and someone else escorted me straight to the bus. When we reached the bus just in time, the other guy delivered the ticket. Amazing!
Another thing to consider before travelling with bus in Africa is bus company and their fleets. It is good to ask around either in hotel or locals, which bus company is safe. According to what I have seen in Africa, doesn’t look like there are any technical regulations regarding vehicles safety.
Never Sit Alone in Empty Bus or Dalla Dalla
If waiting for minibus to fill up and there are no people, wait outside and not in the bus.
Never Leave Your Luggage Unattended
One of the worst downside of solo travel in my opinion is, looking after the bags and backpacks. Starting at the airport! You have to go to pee and have nobody to look after your bags. So you have to drag your bags to the toilet!
On the bus stations in Africa, make sure to keep an eye on your luggage in the trunk of bus until it is closed! Don’t put it in a open trunk and go straight on the bus. There are many people around; it happened that travellers were stolen backpacks. Sit on the bus on the side where trunk is, so in between stops you can check that nobody is taking your bag! Same goes with unknown taxi drivers, first take your luggage out of taxi trunk, then pay the taxi fare.
Agree on Price Beforehand
When arranging any kind of tour or private transport, like taxis, make sure you clearly agree on the price before the departure.
Shopping at the Markets and Local Shops – Looking is Free
The mentality in Africa is – if you are white you have money. Many times you will feel like being perceived like walking money tree.
First of all, if possible inform your self about local prices of what you intend to buy. Locals are the best source of information, even in your hostel or hotel they should tell you. Be it a pineapple or Maasai bracelets. This way you have idea of real prices, hence, you will never get a local price, but little less than Mzungu price.
It happened to me at Maasai market in Arusha when I was shopping for some souvenirs before going home, that vendors wanted to exchange – my sunglasses for pair of beautiful leather Maasai beaded flip flops. If you have extra pair of sunglasses, or anything else, you can offer to exchange. Now I carry some cheap sunglasses with me, and when I am asked for exchange I am in for a trade. However, always keep in mind that people try to provide for their families and don’t go too low with insultingly low price bids when negotiating the price.
Mingle With People
Solo Travel could be lonely or could be fun, depends how you make it for your self. I always meet so much more people when I travel alone, be it other fellow travellers be it locals. Even if you find yourself more on the introversive side, don’t be shy, be approachable and open to new acquaintances.
You might end up with great company maybe for the night of fun, a great day trip, or meet new friends with long lasting friendship. Swap travel info and experiences with other travellers, specially in hostels. Chances are, there will always be somebody around who already did a trip you are about to make, and can give you valuable information for further travel.
Become a Selfie Person!
Even if you are not a fan of taking selfies, you will become a selfie person when travelling solo! As much as I hate them , I got used to the fact, if I want some memories with myself on the pictures, I have to take selfies. 😀
Be Open Minded
Keep an open mind and don’t get upset when things go slowly in Africa. Control freaks will have troubles adjusting to the pace and laid back mentality in Africa. Africans live in the moment and for now. What happens tomorrow, its not their worry.
Travel to Africa is great opportunity to embrace the philosophy “go with the flow”. Be patient and when things or events might start to frustrate you, just remember the famous saying: T.I.A. This is Africa!
Did you travel solo in Africa? Share your solo travel experience and tips with us!