14 things you need to know before backpacking Africa

Chris Clark

written by
Chris Clark

updated 20.05.2024

For intrepid and adventurous backpackers, the enigmatic African continent will always possess a particular allure. But Africa is not for the faint-hearted, and even more seasoned travellers will undoubtedly face a steep learning curve during their time here.

From dealing with deadly fauna to falling foul of dodgy juice, here are some of the things you need to know before you embark on the adventure of backpacking Africa.

1. Africa is not a country

Contrary to common stereotypes, Africa is an immensely diverse continent of 54 countries, a billion people and 2000 languages. Don’t be that person that walks off the plane in Johannesburg already decked out in your safari overalls. And don’t be fooled into thinking that you’ll ever really “backpack Africa” – at best, you’ll probably see a small fraction.

For your first backpacking trip, Gambia is perfect - Africa's smallest country has it all: stunning nature, beaches and loads of exciting things to do.

2. Patience is a virtue

Throughout most of Africa, public transport runs on a very different timetable from what you might be used to. The buses and trains don’t always leave when they’re scheduled to – they generally leave when enough people fill them. That can often take a very long time.


Dades Gorges pass, Morocco © cornfield/Shutterstock

3. Anything that moves faster than you could be public transport

If you’re using public transport to get around, you may well need to expand your concept of what this means. Minivans, trucks, motorbikes, bicycles, steamboats, horses and carts, donkeys and camels all form part of Africa’s informal public transport networks.

4. There are lots of things that can kill you

Africa’s astonishing flora and fauna is one of the main draw cards for many visitors, but both are to be treated with the utmost respect if you want to come home alive and in one piece.

When a marauding lion or elephant wanders through your campsite, you’ll realize just how vulnerable most of us are outside of our comfort zones. Listen to the locals and respect the rules.

5. Your sense of time and distance will change drastically

Africa absolutely dwarfs Europe. In ten hours, you can get from London to the south of France; 10 hours driving in South Africa will barely get you across a single province.

Also, in many parts of Africa “main road” is a very subjective term, making the already long distances an even more epic undertaking.

Going to South Africa? Start preparing for your trip with our useful travel tips for South Africa.


© Anna Om/Shutterstock

6. Dust does not respect personal boundaries

Most people choose to backpack through Africa during the cooler, drier winter months. But in so doing they unwittingly accept that fine red dust will enter every corner of their luggage, and every orifice of their being.

7. Vegetarianism does not exclude chicken

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

8. You get what you pay for

However tight your budget, you’ll soon learn not to stoop too low when booking your Kilimanjaro trek, Maasai Mara safari or Cape Town township tour. Unfortunately, there are a number of cowboy operators willing to throw ethics and professionalism out of the window in the name of cutting costs – invest in reliable operators and you’ll be rewarded with incredible experiences.

Start your African journey with one of the most popular destinations - South Africa. Simply choose one of our South Africa itineraries and connect with a local expert.

Safari vehicle in river

9. You probably shouldn’t drink the juice

In many restaurants and diners across Africa, if you order juice what you will actually get is some kind of concentrate diluted with tap water. This is something many learn only when making a mad dash for the toilet clutching their stomachs.

10. Some of the expats belong in a Victorian novel

Even in the most remote corners of the continent, you will probably find a few red-faced Europeans who continue to defy the changing world around them in their incongruous outpost of colonial grandeur, whilst subsisting entirely on a diet of stiff gin and tonics.

11. Beer is never far away

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


© Jacob Lund/Shutterstock

12. Don't believe everything you read

The media tends to paint a picture of Africa as entirely and perpetually consumed by war and overrun by mad despots and 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.

13. A campfire is the best type of TV

There is something truly mesmerizing about a good campfire. With obligatory sundowner in hand and the sounds of the African bush reverberating all around you, you’ll find yourself staring into the fire for hours on end, thinking about nothing in particular.

14. Africa is never boring

Backpacking in Africa can be exhausting, frustrating, taxing and occasionally risky. But one thing it can never be is boring. There is always something happening here, whether it’s a mesmerising African sunset, or a small group of children materializing out of nowhere and flocking towards the side of your vehicle screaming “SWEEEEEEEEETS!”

Explore more of Africa with our destination guides. Compare flights, find tours, book hostels and hotels for your trip, and don’t forget to buy travel insurance before you go.

Top image © Fizzl/Shutterstock

Chris Clark

written by
Chris Clark

updated 20.05.2024

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