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What follows are only basic snap shot summaries. If you have decided these are some of the countries you want to visit and need more planning information then you are strongly recommended to complement what you find here with a planning guide. Trust us it will make life much easier. If you are set on going and need a guidebook or reading material please see a list of recommended guides/books here (go on have a look!). All guides/books can be viewed in more detail and click-through purchased with Amazon in the UK, US or Canada. Plus shopping through the site is a big thank you (if you have been helped out), to see why click here.
Get your bearings... show/hide map of the region
Intro: One of Africa's few economic successes (in large part due to what the British didn't find under the soil), Botswana (despite featuring high on wish lists) is visited by few budget independent travellers who if anything transit and is pretty much the realm of overland trucks and expensive 'safe' African package tours. In a nutshell transport to anywhere of interest is a major problem and quite expensive (hiring a car is the best bet).
Accommodation also is nowhere near widespread or affordable as in South Africa. What has happened in Botswana is quite simply the promotion of high cost, low impact tourism (we like the second bit), which means that backpackers are all but priced out (unless on a camping tour) of trips out of the heart of the Okavango delta (though less expensive trips can be arranged out of Maun). Perhaps for all it has to offer the only compelling reason to visit Botswana over neighbouring countries is if you have your own car (or on an overland truck) plus tent and are transiting between Vic Falls and Namibia (as most tours do).
Highlights: Chobe National Park - elephant filled, really need a 4x4 or take a tour from Vic Falls. Okavango Swamp, unique inland delta - fast becoming out priced for backpackers. It is recommended that you head for the western delta (aka. the panhandle), Sepuna for cheap mokoro trips. Our opinion is we don't rate the delta that highly considering cost and would much prefer to take the same type of river trip in Brazil or Bolivia.
Lowlights: Costs and distances - the fact that if you go independently without your own car or tent you will get to Francistown, Gaborone and that's about it - both of no real interest.
Visa strategy: 30 day free on border for USA, Commonwealth and EU.
Typical tourist trail: Overland truck from Vic Falls to Chobe to Okavango to Namibia.
Dangers: Crime is rare for Africa, but make sure you keep your petrol tank full and take sensible precautions.
Hot/cold, wet and dry: Hot although cold at night, desert on the whole. Delta and falls areas subject to humidity and rain for a few months every year.
Costs: About US$40-50 per day, with your own/rented car and tent. Consider spending much more for mokoro trips in the delta, the sky is the limit when it comes to costs in this region and if you are heading elsewhere in the region and on a budget consider waiting till Uganda/Zimbabwe/Kenya, etc.
Money: ATMs - SA rand easily changed
Getting around: There's a fairly efficient network of buses and minibuses running along the main tar road through the eastern corridor. Hitching on this road is possible. Useful public transport elsewhere only really takes you between Nata and Maun. There is a train between Gaborone and Francistown. There is also a good connection between Maun and Windhoek in Namibia. Your best bet is to bring a hire car from South Africa.
Guide book: Not really required for normal rush through tour trips - otherwise Lonely Planet
Tourist factor: 7/10 on main circuit
Accommodation: At least one campsite in most places of interest. Other budget accommodation is virtually non-existent.
Average cost: Without a tent, expect to pay something like US$30-60 a night if not in a remote area and on the budget circuit.
Health: Hygiene comparable to Namibia. Malaria is rife in the Okavango and Chobe, but limited at most elsewhere (except after rain).
Food: Supermarkets, many BBQ sites
Hassle and annoyance factor: None
Women alone: Fine
Intro: Lesotho is small land locked mountainous kingdom. The lowest point of Lesotho is the highest [lowest point] of any nation in the world. Barren wild mountainous scenery, fenceless, bare, sometimes bitterly cold, friendly people with a cultural visibility uncommon in South Africa, perfect for hiking, horse riding or just to get off the track and feel remoteness.
Considerably less visited compared to Swaziland and somewhat impregnable to backpackers with one way routes taking you to one of only a few lodges (normally at the end of a long dirt road) where you can stay for a few nights walking or riding by day, huddled around a fire at night. Well worth a visit (not just the common trip of over the Sani pass from South Africa for a day). A hidden gem of South Africa.
Highlights: Mountainous fenceless scenery - monkong
Lowlights: Access and roads
Visa strategy: Not required by South Africans, almost all EU15 countries, USA, Canada, Israel and Japan. Others such as Australia, New Zealand, Belgium and Austria might need one and should check in Pretoria - otherwise you will normally get three days transit on the border.
Typical tourist trail: Day trips over the Sani pass or out to Malealea or Semonkong and back via the capital.
Dangers: Typical African petty crime in capital.
Hot/cold, wet and dry: Winter temperatures can often drop below 0 degrees C. John Jose (who lived at the mission in Semonkong for 3 years) writes that: 'To say that winter temps can drop below zero may be insufficient warning. I saw frost in every calendar month. About 100 days of frost/year... frequent hard frost in winter sometimes required taps left open all night to prevent pipes bursting.'
Costs: Slightly cheaper than South Africa
Money: The Loti is pegged 1:1 with the SA rand- take enough cash from South Africa. Both Rand and Loti are accepted as legal tender within Lesotho.
Getting around: As with much of Africa Chinese road building has made a dramatic improvement to many routes. There are now many paved roads, but the country is rual enough you can easily leave them, but a 4x4 is not a must. The road is tarred to Mokhotlong (via Leribe) and is now tarred all the way to Qacha's Nek going south from Maseru. The road to Katse and the road to Thaba Tseka are tarred, and the road to Semonkong is (as of April 2014) tarred for all but the last 15km. In the towns some side roads are unsealed but you can bump along in a saloon easily enough — only if heading off in to the mountains on unsealed roads then a 4x4 is a must and you will still need a 4x4 for the Sani pass. Buses cover most, but not all routes (slowly). Best bet is with a rented car from South Africa, but check you can take your car to Lesotho with your rental agency.
Locals: Generally friendly, they stop asking for money when you get to know them.
Other travellers: South Africa visitors and a few Peace Corps on top of the usual suspects.
Tourist factor: 6/10
Accommodation: The three main lodges in the country are not backpacker lodges, but do have dorms for standard rates. Doubles will be expensive compared to South African hostels.
Average cost: Around US$10-15 for a dorm, US$25 - US$50 for a double
Communications: Most areas of interest don't even have a phone, so don't expect too much, but you will find internet in main centres and accommodation.
Food: Meals at accommodation can be a little expensive. If on a super tight budget then bring food from South Africa or the capital to cook for yourself.
Intro: Mozambique long known as a "jewel of Southern Africa" with paradise beaches and great food. However, as with much of Africa it can be a nightmare to get from A to B and you must be the kind of person who can easily live without western amenities to be able to enjoy it.
There is a language barrier to consider for many and it is rather expensive compared to its neighbours (particularly South Africa and Tanzania). Nevertheless, find the right spots and you will be humbled by what is seriously at tropical paradise, and you will be telling anyone who will listen for years about how you... like to spend some time in Mozambique where the sunny sky is aqua blue...
Many thanks to Alex Schofield for taking the time to put this summary down and Peter John for some updates.
Do note that information here is from this author and not the site author. The views and facts expressed here are well-researched and good quality, but just bear in mind they should perhaps not be compared directly to other country summaries by other authors.
Highlights: Tofo Beach and Imhambane, Fantastic locals, Maputo's brilliant nightlife (In my experience the best in Southern Africa), Berea, Scenery that will knock you for six, Whale Shark and Manta Ray scuba diving that is easily accessible and not at all expensive. Some good surf spots further north.
Lowlights: At times an impenetrable language barrier (Portuguese), Some foreigner pricing, corrupt policemen hassling you for ID and bribes in Maputo, long distances sat in the back of a minibus taxi as it is often the only form of transport, Maputo during the day.
Visa strategy: Technically available at most, if not all border crossings and generally more expensive if bought at an embassy beforehand (however there are periods when this rule changes to a mandatory requirement to have a visa in place before hand (unless you don't have Mozambique representation in your home country, i.e. Australia)). Not the clearest set of rules to understand anymore. No visa needed for South African nationals or other SADC members.
Typical tourist trail: Most enter through South Africa either at Komatipoort or through Swaziland and go to Maputo and up to Tofo, Berea and Vilankulo. A few make it up to Ilha de Moçambique, and then on to Malawi or Tanzania.
Dangers: Considerably safer than South Africa, violent crime is not really a problem but common sense about petty crime, mugging etc should be used. Take taxis at night for example and don't walk around at night on your own.
Hot/cold, wet and dry: Hot and very humid most of the year, can flood considerably in summer October-February. North is extremely humid and can easily reach 40 degrees. South is usually typical tropical climate but can rain heavily April-September.
Costs: More expensive than South Africa but visitors from N America or Europe will still find it okay value. If coming from [and use to prices in] Tanzania or Malawi you will find it expensive. Nightlife can be quite expensive as are restaurants in comparison to what you actually get for your money. As with all of Africa, anything imported from further than South Africa is expensive. Accommodation is pretty cheap. Around $35-40 a day will easily cover food, reasonable basic accommodation and a fair amount of transport. Can easily double or triple this figure if eating in nice places and going out regularly as the nightlife is excellent and you have to pay to get in nearly everywhere.
Money: ATMs in major towns and cities, loads of bureaux de change offering good exchange rates but there is a black market in the border where you can change money at even better rates, but this obviously presents dangers of getting ripped off or getting old currency etc. Worth carrying some SA rand around as well as people often quote two prices and you can just pay whatever is the cheapest. Best to have money in small denominations as it is notoriously difficult to get change. Travellers cheques cashed at bureaus for a small fee.
What to take: Mozzie repellent not always easy to find away from the capital and is very useful at certain times of the year.
Getting around: The real downside of Mozambique, it is a nightmare to get around sometimes. Hardly any trains or buses so mostly dependent on minibus taxis of whom the long distance ones usually depart at a stupid time like 0040; regional airports at Imhambane and Vilankulo which can be a convenient, if more expensive, option. Main roads are in good condition but car hire is expensive. If possible rent car in South Africa and see if it can be taken over the border, but few can.
Guide book: The LP single country guide is average at best and the multi-region Southern Africa version is poor. Rough guide is slightly better. As always much better to get advice from travellers in the country.
Locals: Friendly but obviously most do not speak good English. If you can speak any Portuguese it is a huge advantage and very much appreciated. All very interested in where you come from etc., and extremely hospitable.
Other travellers: South Africans and Zimbabweans whom have bought property there, some "I'm a harder traveller than you" sorts, general mixed bag of nationalities but usually adventurous people who want try somewhere a bit different. A lot doing the Cape Town to Nairobi trip and passing through.
Tourist factor: Plenty in Maputo and Beach towns, very few elsewhere. Very easy to get off beaten track if so desired. Rating 5/10
Accommodation: Hostels in Pemba, Ilha de Moçambique, Nampula, Tofo, Imhambane, Maputo and Vilankulo but very few elsewhere. Some fairly cheap budget hotels scattered round of reasonable standard. Obviously top-end available which is western standard.
Average cost: Double with bathroom usually around US$25, hostel bed around US$9. Can get a little hut in beach towns which are very cheap.
Communications: Best to use cell phone with Mozambican SIM, some public phone booths where you can pay cash for call, Painfully slow internet available in major towns but not off the beaten track.
Health: Malaria is a serious risk so sleep under a net at a very minimum. If you feel flu like symptoms go straight to a doctor and get a test. The only other risk is sunstroke as the sun is vicious.
Food: Absolutely terrific. Brilliant seafood (huge prawns, crayfish, lobsters etc) available at restaurants at reasonable prices but better is to go to local fish market and cook it yourself. Piri-Piri chicken is also very popular and is damn delicious. No problem eating well, also sample the delicious cashew nuts.
Vegetarians: No problems
Hassle and annoyance factor: Usual people selling everything under the sun, but they take no for an answer. Not really many other problems, odd beggar/ prostitute proposition etc.
Women alone: No real issues, usual precautions. You won't encounter too much sexism or anything like that. Some paternalistic attitudes.
Local poisons for the body: Plenty of good local beer and local rum. Soft drugs are pretty easy to get hold of and quite widely used.
Rating: 7/10 on the whole, but Tofo is one of the most beautiful beaches you will ever see, and Ilha de Moçambique is a spectacular, old Portuguese colonial town with some inviting islands just off the coast.
Intro: Tell a South African you'll going to drive up to Namibia and he'll probably say don't bother, I'll take you to the beach and show you some sand. After two days solid driving on dust roads you might begin to wish you had taken the advice. Like Botswana, Namibia is an arid and sparsely populated country. It is without a doubt more suited to travel either with a tour (normally going to or from Vic Falls) or if you have a license, with your own (hire) car.
Even then it's difficult to see the full range of this country's bizarre sandscapes, weird vegetation, rock art and, most worth a visit, the outstanding Etosha national park (almost 1500km from Cape Town). The most interesting parts of this country take days to drive to and are almost always along far flung dirt trails.
Even after four days of driving and reaching some of the more special sights you might still be wondering why this country is so highly rated. Reaching Etosha national park will probably answer your question since it is something special. In reflection you'll probably be deeply impressed by a unique beauty and vastness most would not have come across before.
However, Namibia (unless going to and from Vic Falls) is on the whole inaccessible without a long tour or your own car and a little overrated. Given limited time most would preferred to spend the equivalent time in Zimbabwe and/or South Africa.
Highlights: Etosha, given its setting, is probably is the best game reserve in Southern Africa, but is not a million miles ahead of the much more easily visited Kruger and does not match East Africa's best. Despite the long drive (which turns out to be the highlight) to see sand dunes, the Namib-Naukluf is a remarkable site. Swakopmund, especially the quad biking available, is also well worth it.
Lowlights: Distances, lack of public transport and dirt roads that make driving at any speed really quite dangerous. If you have seen the Grand Canyon, the Fish River Canyon will probably disappoint.
Visa strategy: 90 days on arrival normally for neighbouring countries, American, Commonwealth and EU passport holders.
Typical tourist trail: Overland between Cape Town and Vic Falls via Fish river canyon, the Namib-Naukluf, Swakopmund/Windhoek and Etosha NP.
Dangers: If self-driving the dirt covering roads especially whilst on the roads that crisscross the vast Namib-Naukluf means that speeds over 80kph (in a non-4x4) mean any braking or sudden turns easily translate to skidding. It is of course also very important to make sure you are topped up with oil/water/fuel.
Hot/cold, wet and dry: Desert nights can get quite chilly, other than that it can often get very hot and since dust on the road prevents windows being down, having AC in your car is well worth the extra cost.
Costs: A little cheaper than South Africa, the main cost is fuel. Entry fees are about N$40 a day and double for Etosha and normally plus N$10-30 for a car. The currency is pegged to the South African Rand, so when the Rand exchange rate is good (which is often of late) Namibia is great vaule.
Money: The Namibian dollar is 1 to 1 with the South African rand which you can spend freely. ATMs in major cities.
What to take: If you are travelling independently with your own transport, a tent bought cheaply from South Africa is a worthy investment since unless you are booking far ahead in national parks and willing to pay big money you'll have problems. If on a budget you really need a tent to visit Etosha. Camping rates are always reasonable, fixed accommodation is often not. A weeks trip will pay for a tent no problem. It also removes some of the worry about where to stay if on the road late.
Getting around: Buses cover the main B1 road which acts as the spine of the country, and side roads to Swakopmund (also a train here from Windhoek). Its about US$70 from Windhoek to Cape Town or Maun in Botswana. As mentioned there is more than a strong case for getting a group together and renting a car. These are a little more expensive in Namibia than South Africa, so you may want to bring one from there. As with South Africa, the best deals are normally found before you leave on the internet. If driving is not an option, any hostel will put you in touch with a camping tour which will cost about US$40-60 a day inclusive.
Guide book: Not over important. Footprint guide is good, but so are others.
Locals: Similar to South Africa, generally nice.
Other travellers: A large number of overlanders
Tourist factor: 7/10
Accommodation: As mentioned, if you are not on a tour and are going out to national parks, it is worth taking your own tent to cut costs. Or at least worth booking any accommodation in advance.
Hot water: Never a problem, even in national parks
Average cost: Expect about US$40 for a basic room or chalet, about US$10-20 to pitch a tent (for two) and in Swakopmund and Windhoek hostels slightly cheaper than South Africa (US$10-20).
Communications: Internet and plenty of Wi-Fi in Swakopmund and Windhoek hostels/cafe/hotels.
Food: Supermarkets as in South Africa are plentiful and well stocked. If not on a tour and visiting National parks, these normally have BBQ or some facilitates for you to self-cater in order to cut costs as selection can be very limited when reaching far flung national parks. Shops for emergencies in most national parks, but don't bank on getting food there (apart from Etosha).
Hassle and annoyance factor: None
Women alone: Perfectly fine
Local poisons for the body: Windhoek beer, highly rated
Intro: South Africa, apart from being one of the best value and most under-rated backpacking destinations around, is a country of stunning variety. Forgetting the gems and highlights easily visited in its bordering nations, you've got everything from the typical African acacia scrub in Kruger national park to the typically un-African green fynbos-clad slopes of Cape Town. In between there is everything from wine lands to the mountainous Drakensbergs to a red desert. Most importantly among all this is one of the worlds best networks of hostels and budget accommodation.
A trip can be as African (Zulu-land hut) or un-African (Jo'burg shopping centre) as you wish. Prices do depend on the exchange rate which spent several years strengthening against major international currencies (making travel more expensive) before crashing with problems in the mining sector. For a developed country with high standards - away from over visited tourist hot-spots - it is excellent value. Your money will go much further than in Australia, Europe, Japan or the USA, and just as well really since there are so many brilliant things to do (most quite reasonable) from the world's highest bungee jump to sand boarding to getting in the water with Great White Sharks!
So what's the down-side? Well there is always crime, which in actual fact (despite its undeniable presence) few travellers come across in any measure considering the natural precautions normally taken by them and almost any one else in the country with anything worth stealing (crime has been slowly declining since the 2010 World Cup). Public transport can't be relied on completely and will normally mean you will have to venture into less-safe areas to catch. Thus really to get around and to the gems that most fleeting visitors miss, you do really need to join a hop-on-hop-off backpacker bus or much better still, hire a car. The country lacks the history of somewhere like Israel or India, the exoticism of the likes of Peru and Thailand, and certainly perhaps the beauty and compactness of, say, New Zealand. Nevertheless, it still has all that in small measure and a lot more besides.
Highly recommended and certainly not to be missed over most other African destinations and/or the typical 'round-the-world' imagination-lacking hang outs.
Highlights: Wide network of great hostels with great social scenes, good infrastructure, numerous attractions from very 'western' to very 'African' and the easy to enjoy beach/surf life. Many travellers rate Cape Town and the Garden Route as their highlight, which are both interesting and pretty, however those that travel more widely rate the less visited KwaZulu-Natal including the Drakensbergs, battle fields, St. Lucia and numerous beaches as the highlights. It is great value for money.
Lowlights: Initial paranoia regarding crime, lack of affordable public transport and big cities.
Visa strategy: Visas are not required by nationals of USA, Israel, Japan and most EC, Scandinavian and many Commonwealth countries. You can get up to 90 days stamped in, which is a good idea to insist on as renewal can be a pain. Having said that SA is becoming more of a pain including now requiring visas for Kiwis and making life travelling with children (when only one parent going through immigration).
Typical tourist trail: South Africa is a vast country and it seems many travellers fly to Cape Town and explore up to about Port Elizabeth or Durban. Those that land in Johannesburg seem to take in Kruger NP and then to Durban and along the coast to Cape Town, as is the Baz Bus route.
Hot/cold, wet and dry: On the whole South Africa is a hot country and the Indian coast line is often quite humid, that said somewhere like Cape Town, where you are further south than Sydney, is during winter months (June, July, etc.) really quite chilly and often wet with a biting wind. Other areas of the country can also be quite cold and the Drakensbergs see snow. If travelling at these times be prepared, although any warm clothes you may need can be bought in country no problems.
Costs: Between two, hiring a nice car, doing loads of miles, eating out, partying and doing a few organised activities (basically having a great time) your daily budget would be about US$40-50. This could, then again be halved if you wanted to watch your funds more carefully. South Africa is not an expensive country and probably the least expensive of all developed countries. The currency (and country) seems to lurch from one crisis to another. Bad news for South Africans, great news for visitors.
Money: ATMs are very plentiful and the best way to get money. Travellers cheques should be changed in private booths found in shopping centres for the best rates. You can also rely on your credit card in large measure
What to buy: You can find African curios in South Africa, but these are much better bought in Zimbabwe, Zambia or Malawi. Clothing and other items are at notable savings to western countries and if this is your last stop you may want to take some back. When doing so make sure you get VAT (tax) receipts, since (at the airport - turn up early and be prepared to show what you have) about 14% of the value of your purchases (which are leaving the country) can be claimed back.
The down-side is that South Africa has
one of the highest crime rates in the world, and
Johannesburg is one of the most dangerous cities covered
on this website. An increasing number of backpackers do
get robbed there and it is one of only a few places
where there is a risk of being killed for your
possessions. Nearby Pretoria is a great place and far
less dangerous. It is really quite easy to head straight
here when you arrive and if you do stay in Johannesburg,
hostels will pick you up from the bus station or airport
and transport you to one of the safer wealthy, satellites of town
where they are based. From there you need not really
stray. Still Pretoria, Cape Town and Durban still have
high levels of crime and you would be a fool not to take
care. Especially don't walk around town with your pack,
money belt or day-pack on.
As dangerous as South Africa can be the areas of real danger will be very far from tourist route and actually fairly inaccessible. Any big city has the majority of the problems and guidebooks, commonsense and locals will constantly steer you away from hotspots. With the World Cup came big improvements in tourist infrastructure and security (such as the train link from JHB airport to Santon).
As always, follow the basic advice in this guide and take advantage of all facilities in place to help you avoid crime and bad luck aside, you will be fine. South Africa's highly publicised crime rate should in no way put you off visiting. Many visitors are surprised after hearing all the scare stories prior to visiting, just how removed from crime they feel in South Africa.
After much time spent in both Australia and South Africa, we'd heard more tales of travellers being robbed (petty crime) in the former where a relaxed attitude is more prevalent.
Getting around: South Africa does lack an effective public transport system or at least one that is both practical and accessible to backpackers (apart from inter-city buses). With so much to be seen and many of the country's best attractions lying far outside town centres, without a doubt the best way to get around is with your own hired car. On a long term rental (30 days) with unlimited miles, rates are (especially if sharing) are very affordable. The price does however rise the shorter the rental is. The best way to get a good deal is to book your car in advance through the internet before you leave. You will find many good offers through a simple search and can iron out all the details such as taking the car to Namibia, Botswana etc. Rental is normally arranged through an agency, however cars are generally supplied through a big international company such as Avis. One way drop-offs cost as little as US$20. Despite some toll roads, all in all - sharing the cost - a hire car in South Africa is the difference between a great and amazing trip and a money saver in the long term.
If you can't or don't want to drive, in addition
to the few intercity buses, there is an effective backpacker bus
running. Similar to its Australian and Kiwi counter parts, the
Baz Bus is a hop-on and hop-off
unlimited time ticket bus that drops you and picks you up
directly at your hostel following the most popular routes around
the country (that of the coast line). The bus works well if you
really can't or won't drive, but travel times are slow as drop
offs and collections take a while and varying pick up times can
see you lose time while you hang around waiting to be collected
(the bus is notoriously late).
You also need to consider the other people on the bus you are
seemingly forced into a group with and the fact that once at
your hostel you are more or less stranded and might need to fork
out on taxis.
There is now a reasonable and affordable budget airline network, should you want to save time making jumps between big cities. Just remember, the best of South Africa is far away from the major urban hubs.
Guide book: The Rough Guide to South Africa is without a doubt the best guide, but others are not particularly bad.
Locals: The 'A' word is of course no longer applicable, but you can't help feeling some separation between whites and blacks and you'll often find yourself in a crowd made up almost entirely of one or the other. The fact is that most hostels are owned by whites and that is where you spend most of your time. The legacy of South Africa's terrible past can still be felt and takes a while for the average traveller to adjust to.
Other travellers: Independent travellers are generally a little bit older than you might find in Australia or New Zealand. These are the normal crowd of American, EU (mainly British) and a few Australian/Kiwis. Surprisingly few Israelis.
Tourist factor: 6.5/10 more in Cape Town
Accommodation: There is a large and excellent
network of backpacker hostels throughout the country that
has expanded dramatically over the past few years. There
is a hostel in any given 'tourist attraction/route' town and
they are without a doubt the cheapest and best option. With
a great social scene and loads of information on offer. Some
would say (it's a close call with New Zealand) that South
Africa has the best hostel network in the world, and is a
real highlight. It is normally never a problem to get a dorm
bed, but doubles do need phoning ahead for. You can also
pitch your tent in hostel gardens, however you are going to
only save a dollar or so per night doing so.
Accommodation guides - The multitude of cheap accommodation options can all be found in what becomes the South Africa travel bible - the great Coast to Coast accommodation guide. This little booklet which hostel/guesthouse owners pay to be listed in can be found for free in all hostels. The quirky little book makes planning a trip/route a joy and inspires getting to the best of South Africa away from major cities. Coupled with the local information found in any hostel you, could probably leave the guidebook at home and be better off. Testament to the huge increase in budget accommodation (which peaked around the time of the World Cup) this guide has literally doubled in size from when we first used it ten years ago and a competitor called 'The Alternative Route' or AR is now found alongside. Both do the same thing, the AR is full colour and easier to follow, but less fun (the Coast to Coast does now include a colour photo section). Both the Coast to Coast and AR can be used together and are highly recommended (even if - paid - property write-ups are a little fluffy).
Average cost: From US$10-20 for a dorm bed to US$30-40 for a nice double
Communications: International calling cards can be bought to make calls home through phone booths, but it is better if you are called back on that line. Locally bought SIM cards are perfect for local incoming/calls. Internet is plentiful, but perhaps a little over-priced. Some hostels have Wi-Fi, but it is less widespread than you might think and rarely free, considering many restaurants and coffee shops have free Wi-Fi.
Health: There are few tropical diseases to be found in South Africa apart from Bilharzia in lakes and some malaria in the wet season. Malaria is limited to low-lying parts of Zululand and Mpumanlanga (Kruger NP) and most travellers don't take or need anti-malarials.
Books: Great book shops at just under European prices
TV: DSTV (cable) in most hostels and good value cinemas
Food: All hostels have facilities to cook for yourself and most supermarkets are great with loads of cheap fresh produce. However, not all backpackers cook for themselves since eating out is a good value option and often proves too tempting. Except in the Transkei tap water is fine to drink.
Hassle and annoyance factor: None really
Women alone: Fine with the same common sense that applies to everyone
Local poisons for the body: There is normally a lot of boozing at hostels, many have a good drinking/party scene on the right night. Beer, wine plus spirits and cigarettes are excellent value. Pot is both widely smoked and available - notably in some [more remote] parts of the country.
Intro: Bordering Mozambique and in the spanner grip of South Africa, Swaziland is the most popular side trip from South Africa and often transited going to or from Mozambique. Unlike Lesotho, Swaziland is transited by good roads and much of its popularity lies in its position between Kruger NP and St. Lucia/Durban, not to mention the Baz Bus (a popular South African backpacker transport option, see South Africa summary above) runs right through. Some of the scenery is striking and there are many ways to have an 'African' experience, but you wouldn't want to miss Lesotho or Zululand for it.
Highlights: Any royal festival and Myxos place where you can get a true taste of rural life. Both the Mlilwane wildlife sanctuary and white-water rafting are nice and equally popular.
Visa strategy: If you got into South Africa without requiring a visa in advance, then it is just a free stamp on the border.
Typical tourist trail: Manzini to Mlilwane sanctuary and then onwards to Mozambique or South Africa.
Costs/Money: A little cheaper than South Africa. Rand is accepted, ATMs in big cities.
Getting around: Public transport okay, but best to have own transport or Baz Bus ticket.
Tourist factor: 6.5/10
Accommodation: Few hostels and a few interesting community projects.
Average cost: About US$10 for a bed, up to three times this for a double.
Food: As with South Africa, hostels normally provide a meal option for sale, or you can cook.
Local poisons for the body: Swaziland grass is famous in South Africa and found quite easily in country, although taking it across the border is not really a bright idea.
Intro: Large, landlocked and right on the main Nairobi - Cape Town road. Boasting some of the finest and certainly untrammelled game reserves on the overland route. Zambia, is however is far from popular as a backpacking destination. Getting off the Malawi - Lusaka - Livingstone route and tackling the country's public transport not only gets tricky, but costs also rise surprisingly. For that reason, despite best intentions, few head out into the wilds of Zambia and really can't think of any reason why anyone should, over say Malawi or Tanzania.
So few ever travel extensively around Zambia on public transport, with the exception of crossing between Mpulungu on Lake Tanganyika and Karonga (Malawi). Still Zambia is currently booming and Lusaka has turned from a dusty back-water to something more akin to a South African town. The north cities (Chingola, Ndola, Kitwe) dominated by the copper mining industry (Africa's biggest producer) are also booming, but uneventful and much of the country is unpopulated with limited road links.
The great expanse in the Northeast is home to several national parks the best and most visited of which is South Luangwa. The park is famous for walking safaris, leopards, but lacks cheetahs or lions in the numbers found in Kenya/Tanzania. And yes the walking safaris are well guarded and safe!
Highlights: Victoria falls (which is on the border with only part of the fall in Zambia, however this side is less commercialised than the Zimbabwean side) . South Luangwa national park is becoming popular as a tour arranged out of Lilongwe (Malawi).
Lowlights: Lack of cheap/decent accommodation options outside of Livingstone and comparatively high costs for the region.
Visa strategy: Visas are not required by most Commonwealth countries, except for countries that don't have reciprocal agreements (most developed countries), these are notably: UK, Australia, NZ. Most others do need a visa which is best obtained on the border or at a nearby embassy. Fees vary from about US$50 to US$100. It is possible to get a free visa, if you have prior arrangements for accommodation and activities in Zambia. This must be arranged at least a week in advance, so your details will be on the border in time for your arrival. The normal methods for doing this are by arranging over the internet with Fawlty Towers in Livingstone (or another hostel - see guidebook for addresses) or by arranging a South Luangwa safari in Lilongwe. This is of course well worth doing, but don't leave it until the last minute.
Costs: US$25-35 a day not including activities in Vic Falls or any safari.
Money: ATMs in Lusaka and Livingstone - a Visa Plus over Cirrus card is useful. The currency is the Kwacha. Greenbacks [USDs]are still accepted for visas on arrival. During 2013 the Zambian Kwacha was redenominated in dropping zeros, meaning 6,000 (about 1 US$) became 600 (the ZMK became ZMW).
Getting around: Good buses connecting major points in the country. Trains, apart from the Dar es Salaam, connection are perhaps not preferable. To move around with speed, Pro-flight is a decent domestic airline, but prices may not included airport taxes and fees you will be hit for as you leave.
Guide book: Lonely Planet
Locals: Among the most friendly and best English speaking on the continent
Other travellers: Normal crowd, a number of Peace Corps volunteers taking breaks from work elsewhere. Large number of expats in and around N'dola working on the 'copper belt'
Tourist factor: Considering the compact circuit taken by most 7/10, outside this 2/10
Accommodation: There is little in the way of budget accommodation in most of the country. There are now a few hostels in Lusaka, none that are very good, however worth booking in advance if arriving late. Livingstone on the other hand has many great choices, the best being Fawlty Towers.
Average cost: US$30 - US$30, much less for dorm beds when available or in government guesthouses
Communications: Internet okay and in all decent accommodation - not a problem in Livingstone, Copperbelt and Lusaka. Go anywhere off the beatean track and you might be better off buying a local SIM card with a data connection.
Books/TV: International papers in Lusaka and DSTV in most hostels.
Food: Great food in Livingstone, average westernised fare in Lusaka/Ndola and basic elsewhere. We rate Mosi and 'Mosi Gold' as one of the world's most drinkable commercially produced beers.
Hassle and annoyance factor: None really
Women alone: Not normally a big problem
Rating: Considering you get half of Victoria Falls in Zambia and Livingstone is a great place 6/10, elsewhere 4/10
Intro: When most think of Zimbabwe, they think of violence and hyper-inflation. The hyper-inflation and violence linked to the last election and land-seizers is now gone. During 2009 inflation hit 7000% and the country ground to a halt. After an election came power-sharing and a lifting of a ban on USD transactions. The economy dollarized and things started on the path back to normality. Normality as in one of the friendliest and safest Africa countries.
At time of writing Zimbabwe is far off its heyday, but is improving fast and safe (by African standards with common-sense). If sticking to the worn paths, using local tours and avoiding trouble spots there is no reason why Zimbabwe should be crossed off any Southern Africa travel list. In fact it should be added!
The sights are great, the people are ultra-friendly, educated, stoic and great fun. Transport is easy and this country needs all the help from tourists to get back on its feet.
Victoria Falls , the Zimbabwe side is both bigger and more impressive than across the border. The Mana Pools are a great and unique place to see wildlife, as is Lake Kariba. In addition Great Zimbabwe ruins are among the most impressive in Africa and Matopos national park, while lacking in big game makes up for with unique scenery and a sense of history.
Harare is a modern city with smart areas and good shops/restaurants, but can easily be avoided. The previous crisis closed down much of the country's budget accommodation options and manufacturing. Meaning that because fewer traveller friendly places to stay remain and almost everything is imported, Zimbabwe - on some levels - is not an ultra-cheap place to visit.
Health: Zimbabwe is quite a healthy country (despite research putting the average life expectancy at less than 40!) and it is normally okay to eat and drink what you like. Malaria is present in the Zambezi valley and especially in the wet season is a high risk. Elsewhere in the dry seasons malaria risk is very low.
Dangers: Dispute the period of unrest, by African standards Zimbabwe is reasonably safe. The usual rules apply, especially at night and in some areas Harare is a particular trouble spot (Bulawayo makes a much nicer base). However in places like Kariba Town, the wildlife is probably a bigger danger than crime!
Typical tourist trail: Either from Malawi, via Mozambique to Harare, a side trip to Mana Pools, then to Bulawayo and Vic Falls. Or (more typical) Victoria Falls, Bulawayo, South Africa. Some travels head to Hwange game park which can easily be arranged as a package in Vic falls. Or to Matopos N P which is full of history just 40kms from Bulawayo. Few are now making it to Great Zimbabwe the ruins which the country takes its name from since all or almost all budget accommodation options in the area have closed.
Visa strategy: Available on arrival where required for $30-70 USD depending on your nationality and if you need single or double entry. If you need them, Harare is one of the best places in southern Africa to pick up visas for onward travel for regional countries.
Hot/cold, wet and dry: Vic Falls is most impressive around March after the country's rains. Summer (November-December-January) can be very hot
Getting around: Good buses connect the country on good roads and there are good train linkages, the most popular taking you from Vic Falls to Bulawayo via Hwange NP and from Bulawayo to Harare. It is also possible to hire a car, which in a group makes real sense and savings visiting Matobo NP and Great Zimbabwe ruins.
Tourist factor: Vic Falls is touristy and your money can go fast on USD priced activities, but a lot of the rest of the country seemed quite void of travellers. 4/10
The situation in Zimbabwe has changed completely and for the
fourth time we are totally re-writing this section!
First a little history. After the land evictions, the Zim dollar dived in value, yet the government kept imposing artificial exchange controls and hyper inflation followed. Once-upon-a-time hard currency bought into the country could be changed (illegally) at a great rate making travel super cheap. Then as land grabs got worse and violence surrounding an election got worse so did the inflation reaching crazy levels.
At that time there were pretty much no tourists in the country and anyone who didn't' need to be there wasn't. As the country headed for collapse with empty shops and gas stations, a power sharing agreement was struck. How much power was shared and what really changed is not a subject for this site. However artificial exchange rates were dropped and dollar transactions legalised.
Whereas chaos and confusion ruled for quite some time,
with Zimbabwean banknotes becoming worthless, the
central bank lopping off zeros and cracking down the
black market, stability has returned.
Today, like Ecuador, Panama, East Timor and many other countries Zimbabwe function and runs on USDs. There are ATMs which provide USD and credit cards work fine, (but bring some USD and/or ZAR cash with you for outside of major towns). USD notes are for the most part in a terrible condition and change of small notes and below 1USD is a problem with 5 and 2 South African Rand coins used for small fares as cent coins. Alternatively your may be given a credit note on your receipt for the change up to the nearest dollar to spend next time.
Hassle and annoyance factor: A lot of hassle at Victoria Falls and then a surprisingly limited amount elsewhere apart from the odd curio sellers you meet
Accommodation: In common with the rest of Southern Africa, Zimbabwe has quite a good network of backpacker hostels - although many are now closed or closing with backpacker numbers so much reduced. A good price and a friendly owner come as standard. They are almost all white owned and some might be private homes. Elsewhere you can camp or find a small guesthouse. National parks have both reasonably priced accommodation and camping.
Average cost: About US$20-30 a bed
Locals: On the whole great people, both white and black (both having a hard time)
Other travellers: Few aprt from at Victoria Falls.
Communications: Internet is not a problem in most places backpackers end up, but often slow.
Books: Book shops in Harare, Mutare and Bulawayo. You will also find some second hand book shops in the same towns. International newspapers on sale
Guide book: Many guidebooks available, however almost all are now out of date.
TV: English language TV and DSTV in many hostels
Food: Good standard of supermarkets and restaurants, most hostels provide great food in house
Local poisons for the body: Always available and cheaply
Comment: In September 2015 we travelled through Zimbabwe from Victoria Falls to Harare. It was a wonderful place and after spending just under three weeks there did at any point feel in any danger. In fact most hostels we found great as they had not seen many backpackers in months. The train journey from Vic falls to Bulawayo was great. The whole experience was a pleasure. Best shared however as backpackers are very few and far between. - Amanda Rivett
Remember, this is only a take (an overview if you will); very few get the chance to see every inch of every country or have the time to get everyone's opinion (you are welcome and encouraged to mail in yours). Please, please if you have been anywhere recently send your comments to contribute and help keep all information fresh for future travellers. Or if you are about to head off remember this site when you return and put a few lines in an e-mail to let us know if things have changed.
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