Posted in travel

How to Travel Southern Africa on a Budget

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.

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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.

Go off-season

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.

Eat local

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.

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Posted in Photography, travel

Into the Okavango

In Maun I was staying at the Old Bridge Backpackers largely because I’d read online that they operated community-run mokoro trips into the Okavango. As a child, I grew up watching BBC documentaries about African wildlife and, it seemed, half the time those documentaries were shot in the Okavango. It was a place I couldn’t have pointed out on a map, but whose name was etched into my brain; a place synonymous with beauty and wilderness.

I got up early one morning and was driven by jeep way out to a small village right on the edge of the Okavango Delta. I met my guide, a lifelong mokoro poler, who pushed us out onto the waterways. He was very quite, almost alarmingly so. But then, so was the world around us. We were miles from the nearest road, miles from the nearest town, and heading further into the wild.

From the offset, we were surrounded by wildlife – namely birds. I don’t know much about birds but they were stunning, as they had been all through my African trip. Some of them were like pterodactyls – impossibly large creatures beating the air violently with their massive wings.

I lay on the mokoro – a small, dugout canoe, as he stood, pushing us through the water. We spent about two hours travelling through the shallow channels of this bizarre inland delta, birds all around us. Occasionally the guide would tell me to stand up and we would see zebra or wildebeest beyond the reeds.

Eventually we arrive at what would be our camp for the night. It was only late morning by this stage, but we were to spend the afternoon hiking. First, though, the guide wanted to take a nap. Fair enough – it must have been tiring pushing the mokoro in heat approaching 45 degrees.

While he slept, I walked out into the wild to explore. I didn’t go far, but far enough to find myself walking across plains, surrounded by zebra, wildebeest, and one elephant. It was thrilling. There is no better word. Everywhere I looked there was wildlife that until recently I’d only seen on TV or, sadly, in zoos. The long grass was lion-coloured and I couldn’t help but imagine I was being watched.

A huge storm came in quickly and I soon found myself sheltering from thunder and lightning and torrential rain, which the parched lands badly needed. I went back to my tent and sat watching the lightning all around, and listened to the rain on the tent.

After a few hours my guide awoke and we set out on a 15 km hike through the surrounding area. We tracked animals on foot, coming upon a few lion kills (and even a dead lion), and getting close to a few elephants, dozens of giraffe, and some smaller game. The feeling of walking through that incredible landscape was humbling. This is how humans felt thousands of years earlier, walking through the landscape as a vulnerable speck, hoping a lion doesn’t come running from the treeline.

At night we made a fire and watched the stars. They were so bright and innumerable, and shooting stars shot across and over the horizons.  I walked around in the dark, flashing my torch to see if eyes would shine back in the night. Giant catfish flopped about in the shallow water.

In the morning, I awoke at 5am and watched the sunrise over the baobab trees and mist hang in the long grass over the waterways. We set out walking again – 20+km this time. My boots soon filled with water from the dew. On this walk we saw much of the same as the day before, but got altogether far too close to a large elephant, which charged at us and sent us running. Thankfully, it was a warning charge and it chose not to pursue us further into the trees.

I wish I could have had more time to spend walking through the Okavango. There really is no place I know of which is like it. It is the wildest place on earth and, I think, the experience of simply walking there – even over a hundred or so meters – puts so much into perspective. You feel so small and insignificant on that great landscape, so much at the mercy of the world around you, yet entirely filled with awe at its power and beauty. And that is how life should be lived.

Posted in travel

Hitch-hiking Through Botswana

After a few days at Victoria Falls, in Zimbabwe, I set out for the Botswana border post. I walked west from the town until I came to the cross roads of Livingston Way and Kazungula Road, then hitched a ride to the border. When I passed through into Botswana, which was a hell of a lot easier than getting into Zimbabwe, I found I couldn’t go anywhere. I’d planned to walk to Kazungula and then, depending on what I found there, either hitch-hike into Kasane or head south towards my ultimate destination – Maun. Unfortunately, though, there was a girl working at the border who told me I couldn’t walk to Kazungula.

“You can’t walk,” she told me.

“Why?” I asked.

“It’s too far.”

“It’s ok. I walk a lot. Besides, it’s only a few kilometers.”

“There are wild animals there.”

“I’m not afraid of wild animals.”

“Well, you can’t go.”

“Is it illegal?”

“Yes.”

So she called me a taxi and rode with me. Later, I realized she might have just tried to score a free taxi ride, which she got. In any case, soon I was in Kasane, waiting for a bus to a town called Nata. I was told that from Nata it would be possible to hitch-hike west to Maun.

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At the bus depot, I got into an awkward conversation with a few workers. They were arguing over why white people travel more than black people. Two men said that their country’s government had failed them by not providing a higher income level for its population, while the other said that black people (specifically Africans) prefer to spend their money immediately, and are inherently bad at saving. They were friendly but very intensely arguing, trying to win me over to their respective sides. I agreed with the two guys about their lack of income, but didn’t want to take sides, so I just nodded and listened for a while. They were, like almost everyone I met in Africa, incredibly friendly and helpful.

Soon I was on the bus to Nata. From the window I could see giraffes and elephants walking along the road. We had to stop to go through various checkpoints, and stamp on some wet mat. I never did see the purpose of all this.

At Nata I got off the bus at a service station. Soon the bus left, and I was waiting for another to take me to Maun. But it never arrived. I waited about forty-five minutes, and still nothing.

There was a Swedish girl, too, waiting for this phantom bus. Eventually we gave up and looked around for a hotel. I had Maps.Me working on my phone, and it led us to a little guesthouse near the Nata River. There wasn’t much to see in Nata. Only a few houses, a few tin shacks from which people sold food or drinks or haircuts. There were cows and donkeys roaming the streets. It was just a dusty crossroads in the middle of nowhere.

We found a “Zambian Liquor Restaurant” and had dinner – beef and cabbage and maize – and a lot of beers. After a month in Africa, I finally got stupidly drunk. I would wake up the next morning with a brutal hangover.

 

The next morning I set out to find an ATM, because I didn’t have enough money to pay for my room, and they didn’t accept cards (despite a sign outside claiming the contrary). Luckily I was able to withdraw a small amount for a large fee.

We went back to the cross roads and gave up on the idea of ever finding a bus to Maun. “Let’s hitch-hike,” I said. Johanna said she’d never hitch-hiked before, but I told her I’d hitch-hiked many times in many countries, and said that we should definitely do it.

We sat at the side of the road to Maun, talking. She said that it would be two hours before we go a ride on account of the fact that there were absolutely no cars travelling along this road. I said I bet it would be twenty minutes.

Twenty minutes later, exactly, a beat-up old Toyota Corolla pulled up beside us. I’d written “MAUN” on a piece of paper and stuck my hand out. The car was more or less full but we managed to squeeze in. Roaring off into the great barren expanses of central Botswana, I was filled with enthusiasm, thinking, “I’m the greatest hitch-hiker in the world!” What luck to have found a ride so quickly on a desolate road.

After Johanna commented on my luck, I told her that I wasn’t always lucky in travel. In my life I’ve been in a plane crash, numerous car crashes, several motorbike crashes, two bus crashes, on a train whose engine exploded, and on a boat which sunk.

Shortly after saying this, the car’s back right tire exploded and we veered off the road.

After standing by the side of the road in the brutal African sun for half an hour, hoping a lion wouldn’t come out from the bush and eat us, a car finally passed. It stopped and they tried to help us replace the burst tire. Then another car passed, and another. Soon everyone was laughing and joking by the side of the road. This is what I loved most about Africa – the people. Such warm, friendly, decent people.

We got back on the road, now driving in a convoy. The radio blared and people sang and danced in their seats. But after twenty more minutes, the back left tire burst. The convoy stopped and we replaced another tire.

Soon we had to stop again and the driver turfed us out. We weren’t entirely abandoned because another car in the convoy took us, and we set out once again. I regretted having mentioned my awful luck with transportation…

This car broke down four times on the way to Maun, each time due to the engine overheating. I wouldn’t say it was entirely my bad luck – the driver seemed intent on pushing the car to and beyond its limits, driving at breakneck speed through the Makgadikgadi. The road and the heat were unforgiving, and the cars hardly built to withstand such punishment.

Eventually we arrived in Maun. Through all my travels in Africa I’d learned that “just” going a few hundred kilometers would take a long time, and this was another fine example. It had taken almost a full day to get from Nata to Maun, and two full days to get there from Victoria Falls. I’d been naive to think it could’ve been done in a day.

From town we had to take a taxi out to The Old Bridge Backpackers, which sits at the northern end of Maun, on the edge of the Okavango Delta. This was one of my goals in Africa – to see the Okavango. I’d grown up watching BBC documentaries and its name was burned into my consciousness. I had planned out a camping trip, sleeping under the stars amidst the greatest collection of wildlife on the planet.

First we checked into the Old Bridge and I booked a mokoro (a small dug out canoe) to venture off into the wild the next day. It would prove to be one of the greatest and wildest experiences of my life.

 

Photos coming later this week. Follow this blog for updates.