Backpacking Africa Story: The good, the bad, and the ugly
[Admin’s Note: Tarek is a backpacker that first reached out to me online before his trip. We kept in touch while he was traveling, and he has an awesome story to share. While his time was incredible, he also faced some realistic problems that come with travel… especially travel in Africa. So read on, & learn some of the non-sugar coated, real life tips and tricks.]
1. What Made You Choose Africa?
I had three regions/continents that interested me to go travelling. I started travelling in May, therefore the climate was best for travelling (not too hot because of the southern winter). What interested me in Africa were its landscape, wildlife and culture.
2. Tell me more about your route…. Where did you go? How Did You Get Around? Etc.
I started in Namibia and went then to South Africa, Madagascar, Zimbabwe, Zambia, Tanzania and Ethiopia. Usually I took buses because its one of the cheapest ways to get around and a good way to get in touch with locals. I took some flights too e.g. to travel to Madagascar and back.
3. What is one of your favorite memories from your trip?
It’s really hard to choose just one favorite memory! But a nice story happened in Zambia where I wanted to catch the train to Dar Es Salaam. Unfortunately the train didn’t run and I had to take the bus, which departed at 5pm but I arrived at the train station at 10am. So I went to the “store” where they sell bus tickets, which happened to be a café where a woman was selling tickets. I bought one and a man started to talk to me and asked me, where I was from etc. We went on talking and to shorten my waiting time he invited me at his home where he was showing me around and even served me lunch and dinner. It may sound a little risky if you just read this, but I had also made some experiences and had a good feeling about doing it.
4. You Got Really, Really, Sick in South Africa? What Happened? And how can other travelers avoid something like this?
Yes, food poisoning got me on the way from Durban to Johannesburg. I took a burger at a refreshment stop, it happened to be very bad and I had to go to a hospital by emergency car in Johannesburg. Others may avoid this by taking some food with them from a super market. I never had any problems with food of restaurants it was only this refreshment stop burger that made me sick. In some countries I would also abstain from eating meat because of the hygiene.
[Admin Note: This happened to my friend Jackie in Ethiopia. Because of unreliable power, meat often goes unrefrigerated longer than it should & thus goes bad. But if you go vegetarian, you still have risk there too…. I listed all my top health & safety tips for food here.]
5. You had another crazy experience in Madagascar. What happened & how did you handle it?
That was the horror story of my trip. I met a couple in a hostel in Madagascar; we decided to do two trips together and booked it through the hostel. We also discussed the trips with the guides. On the way we found out that the so called guides weren’t able to estimate the distances and time it takes to travel from one place to another, there were additional costs we didn’t know about and they had no license to drive tourists around.
We found out, that they were friends of one of the receptionist of the hostel and not official tour guides. We told them just to do and pay for the first trip. After long discussions they told us to leave us just with the driver who could only speak Malagasy and that the hostel where we had reservations was booked out. So we went on with the driver, who even drank too much the night before we got back to the capital. There we went to the hostel where there were no reservations but still some rooms available. So we decided to take a hotel since the “guides” were also coming back later. We went to the city, paid the driver for the first trip and then escaped.
I went to the embassy the next day to check, if what we did was legal and they confirmed that we didn’t do anything wrong. Two days later we got a threat mail from the “guides”. So we went to the embassy again and they told us to leave the country as soon as possible. I really felt like in a James Bond movie. A funny thing was, that we also met the minister of tourism of Madagascar. Madagascar is quite poor, the roads are really bad, you are not allowed to rent a car without driver and the only public transport are mini-buses called “taxi-brousse” which are very packed and often involved in accidents.
So I recommend everyone who wants to go to Madagascar to go there but to book your trip from home. The nature of the country is really worth seeing so don’t be too scared about my story, just spend a little more money and stay safe.
6. How would you describe public transportation in Africa? Any tips for the novice beginner?
The coaches are quite alright. To be safe you should buy a ticket one day prior departure and make sure you buy it at an office and get a ticket/receipt. The coaches depart normally, when they are full so expect to wait for around an hour until the coach starts. For entertainment they usually have local music or movies. Nevertheless I recommend bringing a charged smartphone and/or tablet with music, series, movies, hear books or whatever may entertain you on your ride. If you are traveling in winter you should bring some warm clothes too. There are buses which leave in cold air or they leave running air conditioning. And of course bring some food and something to drink.
7. What’s something you learned about Africa that you didn’t know before?
Since it was my first travel I prepared very well, so I didn’t learn something totally new that I haven’t read of. But it was quite interesting to experience that somehow the things work, sometimes you just don’t know how. Several people told me: “In Africa there are only solutions, the problems are already here.” This describes quite nicely this experience.
8. What’s one MUST-DO activity from your trip that other travelers would love??
Visiting Cape Town, there is so much you could do and everyone will find something interesting to do
9. If you could do one thing over again, what would you do?
It’s too hard to pick just one thing!
10. As a solo backpacker, did you ever get lonely? Bored? Would you encourage another person to go solo?
I was quite worried about traveling solo. Yes there were times when I felt lonely, mostly when I had to solve a problem. The longest period I was alone was for three days. But normally there are always people around. I only got bored for a short time, as soon as you get bored you can leave the place or plan some activities. I would encourage people to travel solo, because you experience things you wouldn’t experience when you traveling with others like the story that happened to me in Zambia. I’ve also learned a lot about myself and improved my gut instinct.
11. What would you tell the nervous backpacker afraid about safety, etc.?
Inform yourself about the places you visit and use common sense e.g. don’t carry too much cash on you. And have a look at traveling tips on Backpacking Africa Blogs or Backpacking Africa Youtube. Tell your friends/family you intend to go to Africa when you already have an idea what you want to visit and show them the pictures on the internet – they may still worry but understand you.
Have a question for Tarek? Leave it in the comments below or at the Backpacking Africa Forum!