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Traveling in Southern Africa: How to Stay Safe, Happy, and Sane

That is a fake smile. Trust me. Luckily, I was with friends!

The following is a post from our September Featured Guest Blogger, Dani Olds!

Dani Olds
September’s Featured Guest Blogger
Something about traveling around Africa makes many travelers uneasy.

Maybe it’s because Westerners only hear about the wars, violence, disease, and poverty that plague much of the continent. Maybe it’s because it’s just so dang expensive to get there, and difficult to travel around once you’re there.

But the mystery, unadulterated landscapes, and vibrant cultures that await you are worth the trip. And the best part? With a little preparation, common sense, patience, and a sense of humor, Southern African travel can be a piece of cake!

Here are a few tips to get you started:

Transportation

Transportation is difficult, but usually abundant! A positive effect of high poverty rates? Low car ownership rates! Great for the environment, but also great for getting most places you could want to go. Living in a remote village in Zambia taught me that you can get almost anywhere in Africa using public transportation, even outside of the big cities! And you can do it cheaply! Unfortunately, it won’t always be comfortable. It might look a bit like this:

Minibus ride in Zambia. On a hot day.
Minibus ride in Zambia. On a hot day.

But when you get to where you’re going, sometimes it looks like this:

Fumba, Zanzibar. Photo Credit: Hudson Henry
Fumba, Zanzibar. Photo Credit: Hudson Henry

Yes, this picture is for reals. No, I did not take it.

Unless you are a millionaire who can charter flights on a whim, here are some of the types of transportation you will likely take, from the most expensive to the least (roughly):

Rental car: Rental cars are super expensive in this region. Also, unless you are familiar with driving on narrow roads with chickens, bikes, and children popping out of the bushes, I’d advise against renting a car here. If you really want to rent a car, you can hire a driver for relatively cheap (I think around $15 a day).

Taxi: Taxis are everywhere and they’re generally fairly inexpensive for trips under 40km. However, probably 90% of taxi drivers will know you are not a local, think you are very wealthy (even if you’re wearing dirty rags), and try to rip you off. Depending on where you are, there may not be a meter in your taxi. Even if there is a meter, sometimes the driver chooses not to use it. No matter what, discuss the rates before you get in the car.

Try to find a friendly local and ask him/her about a good price to get from point A to point B (or a good meter rate if it isn’t posted on the taxi). A taxi driver would generally quote me anywhere from 2-3 times the price a local would pay. I know this because I lived there and still had to negotiate with the same taxi drivers every time. Make sure to stand your ground and know when you have the upper hand. If there are other taxis waiting around, you do! If you’re stranded in a bad neighborhood, it’s better to be safe and give in.

Commercial bus: For any long distance travel, this will probably be your best option (unless you choose to hitchhike). Pretty cheap and of varying quality, you’ll find that some of the incrementally more expensive bus lines are clean and equipped with AC! You can often buy tickets ahead of time with these companies, which can be good or bad. If the bus shows up late (even 10 hours late), you typically can’t get a refund. If your plans change? No refund. However, this risk might be worth ensuring you have a seat.

Minibus: Oh the minibus. These are the small, ubiquitous buses that are generally used for local to regional trips. These can get really crowded, as they pick up passengers on the way, and really hot, as they do not have air conditioning. A minibus ride could potentially be the most miserable ride you’ll ever take. Or it could be one of the best! But it will definitely be one of the least expensive, so if that’s what’s driving your decision making, hop on! Minibuses also often go places other vehicles do not, so if you’re going somewhere remote or particular, a minibus might be your only option.

Canter Truck: These flatbed trucks are a popular means to cheaply transport a lot of people. You’ll see them everywhere. This is not a fun ride when it is full. However, when you’re able to spread out a bit and it’s a nice day, canter trucks are definitely preferable to a mini bus. These rides are generally caught through hitchhiking, but there are often organized routes, particularly to rural locations. Observe a particularly terrible canter truck experience below:

That is a fake smile. Trust me.  Luckily, I was with friends!
That is a fake smile. Trust me. Luckily, I was with friends!

Hitchhiking: Before I start, you should know that hitchhiking safely in Africa involves having incredible discretion, patience, and a little knowledge of the culture. This was the primary way I traveled around Zambia. It was often free, comfortable, and safer than any other option!

Here are a couple of general hitchhiking guidelines:

  • Look for NGO vehicles. These are the shiny, new SUVs and pickup trucks emblazoned with the NGO’s logo. This is the best ride you can possibly get. They usually won’t charge you because they technically can’t charge you. The drivers are also generally quite intelligent and interesting to talk to.
  • Avoid 18-wheelers. Riding in an 18-wheeler, though exotic, is sort of hit or miss. Like…sometimes the driver is totally pleasant and sometimes he is the creepiest person in the whole wide world. Unless you are stranded somewhere, just don’t do it.
  • DO NOT hitchhike in South Africa or a warzone. Period.
  • Do a casual test of the driver’s sobriety. Impaired driving is not regulated in most of Southern Africa and boy is it rampant. As you negotiate a price, try to check the driver’s breath, look around his seats for packets/cartons/bottles of alcohol, and monitor his speech. Sounds weird, but being observant could save your life.
  • Put on your perceptive hat! Look at the driver and his passengers. Is he looking at you like you’re a piece of meat? Are his passengers drinking? It is hard to pass up a free ride, but sometimes it’s not worth it. Use good judgment, especially if you’re a female traveling solo.
  • Know the signal. In Southern Africa, people don’t stick their thumbs up to hitchhike. If you do, people will just smile and give you a thumbs up while they cruise past. If you want a ride, extend your arm palm down and wave it up and down. Sort of like you’re waving to a baby or patting a dog on the head.

Pack light

I know, I know. You always try to pack light, right? Well, if you plan on taking any form of public transportation that is smaller than a commercial bus and larger than a compact car, you will probably want to keep your belongings with you. Although people in Southern Africa* are generally friendly and helpful, as with any place with high poverty rates, theft is not uncommon. I always try to travel with only a daypack and a purse for trips up to 2 weeks long.

Whether I was hitchhiking, on a minibus, on a commercial bus, or in a semi-truck, I could keep my backpack in my lap. Sometimes the driver/conductor would want to store my luggage elsewhere, so I always made sure to keep my valuables in my purse. Like I said, this is common sense stuff!

Hitchhiking with my trusty daypack and purse.
Hitchhiking with my trusty daypack and purse

Beware of Amaguys!

‘Amaguy’ is a Zambian colloquialism for what could be considered a “street hustler”. I’m pretty sure these guys exist in most third world countries. Often drunk, always loud, and generally trying to either rip you off or hit on you… or both at once, which is my personal favorite (lots of sarcasm here, ladies). Just don’t allow them to get to you. Also, it’s not a bad idea to not respond to them at all, especially if you’re alone. Amaguys are generally harmless, but can be intimidating and rude, so it’s best to just avoid them.

No, this man is not a police officer.  He is an amaguy hanging out on a police motorcycle. Classic.
No, this man is not a police officer. He is an amaguy hanging out on a police motorcycle. Classic.

Be Patient

Plan ahead, but be flexible. As a general rule, the cheaper the form of transportation you choose, the more variability in schedule adherence.

Border Crossings

Plan for lines insanity at border crossings. Borders are a ginormous s#%t show in Africa. Large bus companies try to account for border crossing time in their ETA, but even they can’t predict occasional spouts of madness. If you happen upon one of these spouts, refer to number 4.

Language

Learn a few phrases in the local language. The quickest way to engender good will is to learn a phrase or two in the local language. This is true everywhere, but particularly in Africa, where very few people ever take the time to learn the local languages.

Go Local

Try to get off the beaten path. Some of my favorite trips involved visiting secluded, relatively unknown waterfalls, beaches, and towns. Even the tourist destinations in most of Southern Africa aren’t particularly crowded and touristy, so as soon as you take a detour, you’ll be right in the midst of local life!

Respect Local Customs

In most of Southern Africa, thighs are considered a private part. Wearing short shorts in these places is not only disrespectful, but can seriously compromise your safety. A quick internet search will help you figure out these cultural intricacies before you embarrass yourself.

The most important thing when traveling in Southern Africa is to be constantly aware, flexible, and optimistic! Things are a lot more beautiful, safe, and easygoing in Southern Africa than people think. Give it a shot and you won’t want to leave!

*For simplicity’s sake, I’ve used a few generalizations throughout this post. These generalizations are not meant to imply that all Africans are the same.

Check out Dani’s other posts:

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