If you’ve ever looked into travelling around Southern Africa, you’ve probably found it’s a bit expensive. Everyone wants to go on safari, but who can afford to pay $1,000 per day? There are, however, ways to see this part of the world on a budget, and without sacrificing too much in the way of comfort, adventure, or experience.
Pick your locations carefully
Botswana is a notoriously expensive place. It’s hard to complain about it, because they do a great job of using tourist money to protect their wildlife. However, it’s one of the hardest countries to see on a shoestring. Zimbabwe is also pretty pricey, especially around the Victoria Falls area, which gets a lot of tourists.
Right now almost all of South Africa is cheap to visit because the economy is doing so poorly. Changing foreign currency will buy you huge amounts of rand. It’s cheap to sleep, to eat, or to rent a car. Even Kruger National Park – one of the greatest tourist destinations on earth – is cheap to visit.
If you’re planning a long visit, you might want to spend more time in South Africa and Swaziland, and less time in Botswana and Zimbabwe.
Hostel all the way
Even in the more expensive parts of Southern Africa, hostels are affordable. Moreover, Africa has some of the greatest hostels in the world. Whereas in other places they’re often rundown and dingy, throughout most of Southern Africa you’ll find absolutely brilliant hostels. In South Africa in particular they rank really highly – with many of them featuring swimming pools!
Remember to check online before to see prices and ratings. Despite all the great hostels, there are obviously a number of ones to avoid. In places like Cape Town you’re really spoiled for choice. Because of the competition, every hostel goes out of its way to impress its guests. Out in the sticks, however, you might need to look a little harder, and prices might be higher.
The same rules apply as elsewhere in the world – peak season in the most expensive time to visit. In Southern Africa, summer (that’s winter in the northern hemisphere, so think January-February) is considered a bit of an off-season. At this time, hostels are quiet and the national parks are empty of visitors. If you’re looking for vibrant nightlife, this really isn’t the time to go, but if you’re looking for peace, quiet, and budget travel, it’s perfect.
At this time of year, most backpackers are heading to Southeast Asia, which is going through its peak season in Jan-Feb. Southern Africa, on the other hand, is largely ignored at this time. I got great deals on safaris, accommodation, and transport because there was simply no one else around. What’s more, even flights to and around the area are cheaper than at other times.
Use public transport
In South Africa, renting a car is very cheap, but elsewhere it’s neither cheap nor particularly safe. There are long-distance luxury buses that will cart you around the area, or grossly overpriced trains, but these don’t go everywhere and they miss out on the important experiences.
Through Southern Africa the mode of transport most people use is the combi bus – that’s a small minivan that is crammed full of people. You can go anywhere if you ask in advance, and it’s dirt cheap. I travelled all over the place in these vans and met the friendliest people on the way. I seldom paid more than a dollar or two for long rides, and even though sometimes it was crammed and slow, I always enjoyed the journey.
Personally, I hitch-hiked a lot around South Africa and Botswana, although I’m reluctant to recommend it to others. I never felt in danger but of course it is always a risk. In certain places, however, hitch-hiking is quite common and a great way to get where buses won’t go.
For my first money in Southern Africa I never spent more than $3 per day on food because wherever I went there was a small kitchen to prepare. I’d just find the local supermarket and buy the basics. If I came upon a restaurant I’d eat the local food, whatever that was. It was always cheap and it’s great to try new things.
When I first arrived in Zimbabwe I ended up in a steakhouse in Bulawayo. It was a western restaurant – the first I’d eaten at in a month – and they had the most amazing steaks I’ve ever eaten in my life. My bill, though, was $25. Now in the West that’s not a bad total, but when you’re used to paying $3 per day for all your food combined, $25 for a steak and a beer suddenly seems a bit steep. Still, one has to spoil oneself sometimes.
Finally, be flexible, open-minded, and always travelling intelligently. Make sure that you’re insured, do your research ahead of time, don’t be afraid to try new things. This is one of the greatest places on earth and right now you can see it on a shoestring if you really want.