Single female looking to travel in Africa!
September 28, 2010 2:02 PM   Subscribe

Where in Africa can I travel alone for a week (single female)? Company is paying for a flight ticket anywhere in the continent of Africa, but not expenses. Destination has to be fun, affordable and very very safe for a single female.

A couple of additional points:
1) I am not looking to hang out in groups of other people, would like some alone time.
2) I only speak English.
3) Would like to go somewhere where people will not stare because I am of a different ethnicity.
4) I am somewhere in the middle of the spectrum between the bold adventurous backpacker and fun-loving tourist.
5) If this were Europe and I was in a similar situation, I would go to Switzerland because it's not *incredibly* touristy, it's cosy and intimate without being suffocating, not too many people will stare at me, and the majority of the population speaks English. Oh, and it's very travel-friendly and has clean, non-dodgy hostels that do not break the bank.

Would welcome any suggestions, including, "there is no such place you can go to." :)
posted by moiraine to Travel & Transportation (32 answers total) 19 users marked this as a favorite
posted by elsietheeel at 2:12 PM on September 28, 2010 [2 favorites]

Speaking as a lone female tourist, I'd go to a big city. I don't know how it is now, but back in 1991, as a college student, I accompanied my father to Nairobi, Kenya when he was invited to a conference there. (We'd lived in Tanzania when I was a kid, and Mom sent me with Dad since I had fewer memories than she did.) dad went to the conference all day for a week, and I explored the city on my own - sometimes walking around downtown, sometimes going on short group tours outside of town arranged by the hotel.

With most large cities (I'm thinking Nairobi, Cairo, Johannesburg, etc.), as long as you stay within the tourist-populated areas (and ask the hotel people where to go and not to go!), remain alert, and keep a tight grip on your purse (or don't carry one), you're about as safe as you would be in any large city around the world - no guarantees, though! If you book short day tours, it's fairly easy to not actually talk to anyone - you just have to be That Quiet One in the corner of the bus (this is my usual role, as I don't much like talking with strangers).

If you want some serious alone time and are willing to drop some money, then find a lodge in a scenic area, like in Tanzania on the edge of the Ngorongoro Crater, and spend a few days there.

In any major tourist destination, lots of people will speak English, so you don't need to worry about that.
posted by telophase at 2:19 PM on September 28, 2010

Maybe Cape Town, South Africa? It's one of few places where your ethnicity will not stick out. (I am assuming you're white.) According to Wikipedia it is the most popular tourist destination in Africa. Haven't been there though, so I can't speak to what it actually feels like to travel there.
posted by PercussivePaul at 2:20 PM on September 28, 2010 [1 favorite]

Cape Town?
posted by oinopaponton at 2:21 PM on September 28, 2010

Cape Town's about as good as it gets.

As Biru says, there is nowhere that is very very safe for a lone female tourist. But you can take cabs at night and you'll be safe in daylight hours in key tourist areas. People won't stare at you. It is a travel-friendly place. It has nice dodgy hotels at reasonable rates. You can hire a car or take an organised trip to the winelands around Stellenbosch and Franschhoek. You can stay at either of those places.
posted by MuffinMan at 2:21 PM on September 28, 2010

I can only think of Mauritius (and I'm from Africa). You can sit on the beach with a book or wander a little. Should be lots of other tourists around so you won't stand out, and if you stay in tourist hotels and areas you will most likely be very safe.
posted by meepmeow at 2:23 PM on September 28, 2010

oops, Mauritius is not on the continent, but it is on a small island right next to it and is a country in Africa. It does have an airport.
posted by meepmeow at 2:26 PM on September 28, 2010

Nice non-dodgy hotels!

I've stayed in An African Villa and I'd thoroughly recommend it. It's a low key neighborhood. If any gay mefites are reading this it's also very gay friendly, if my memory serves me correctly.
posted by MuffinMan at 2:26 PM on September 28, 2010

Umm, when I went to south africa 5 years ago, i was told that it was one of the most dangerous places in the world to travel. Especially Johannesburg, but Capetown wasn't a whole lot more safe feeling, to be honest. Beautiful and lovely, but not safe. And I was two women travelling together, not one alone. The poverty and racial divide make it not ideal for your requirements.

this website lists Seychelles (island off of africa) as the safest place in africa
posted by wurly at 2:31 PM on September 28, 2010 [1 favorite]

I'd really recommend Sabi Sands, especially if someone else is paying the freight. It is a luxurious but very private "camp" in the Kruger, with daily game rides, wilderness walks with really knowledgable rangers, and top notch food. It is English speaking and your ethnicity would be a non-issue. We saw so many amazing things -- lions, elephants, wild dogs, hyenas . . . Going there was one of the peak vacation experiences I've ever had with my husband, and I wouldn't hesitate to go back alone if my husband were unavailable to come with me.
posted by bearwife at 2:32 PM on September 28, 2010

Maybe you can fly to Tangiers and ferry over to Spain.
posted by jabberjaw at 2:35 PM on September 28, 2010

Oh, and this is the part of Sabi Sands I'd return to.
posted by bearwife at 2:36 PM on September 28, 2010

I'm a solo female traveller and the only African country I've been to is Egypt. Although I enjoyed Cairo, I wouldn't recommend it unless you have very thick skin. When I walked down the street (dressed conservatively) it was literally non-stop cat-calls and car honks and took me a few days to learn to ignore. I'm blond so it was pretty obvious I was a foreigner but I imagine most Western females would have the same experience.

On the other hand, Dahab, Egypt was very laid back and felt safe but would probably only be of interest to you if you scuba dive. I very clearly remember finding a good deal at the Hilton Hotel for $51 USD/night that included breakfast, and I'm sure you could find other cheaper yet not-sketchy accommodations. Not much to do outside of diving though, except for a spectacular sunrise hike up Mount Sinai.

In terms of actual safety in Egypt, there are tourist police everywhere who are specifically there to protect you. Tourism dollars are a very important part of the economy. I personally felt safer there than I do in my Denver neighborhood, but everyone has their own different ideas of safety and comfort zones.
posted by shornco at 2:50 PM on September 28, 2010

If you go to Cape Town, DO NOT take the taxis. Not safe.
posted by chicago2penn at 3:02 PM on September 28, 2010

I'd head straight to Marrakech. I'm female (though not alone) and I felt pretty safe. Most people in Marrakech speak English, or at least enough to get the point across, plus they are used to tourists. I could spend days in the souk there happily haggling away.

Wherever you choose, have a great trip!
posted by PorcineWithMe at 3:14 PM on September 28, 2010 [1 favorite]

I was a Peace Corps volunteer in Africa and lived alone and frequently traveled alone or with a small group (and I’m a female, too, which will impact your experience, hence the data point). During my stay in Africa, I was there ~3 years and made it to 8 countries.

This was just my experience, but I had a very hard time traveling in large cities. To put it mildly, cat calls can be the tip of the ice berg (e.g. pple may follow you, etc.). I’m not going to elaborate too much, but it really was far more pleasant in villages and small villages (little to no harassment). If I were to travel there again, small towns/villages only and stay out of the large cities, but that's me. There are 2 places that may be interesting for you that meet some of your criteria (English speaking, etc.). Lamu, Kenya is an island – no cars, mosques everywhere (you could hear calls to prayer throughout the day), beach, ruins. I really enjoyed seeing the culture. Also, you could pay someone for the day to take you snorkeling or explore ruins with a boat. The cost was really cheap (accomodations, food, going out on the boat was dollars/day), although you probably need another plane to get there.

The other place was Malawi – there are also animal resorts there, too. These were a bit more unique, too, because in Kenya those places were over run with tourists (far more tourists to an animal), whereas in Malawi, it was rare to see anyone. You could probably get alone time there, although you probably need to drive a car/rent a car to get to those sites in Malawi.

If you go to these countries, get an update from teh government before you go. I can change politically, even months to a year or a few years - so my info may be dated.

I’m not sure why I’m addressing this, but there are some places/villages where…it was safer than the states, even as a lone female. However, the traveling is a bit rough (no electricity, no paved roads) and people only spoke French – you can see unique things (local religion ceremonies, rain forest, etc.), but I’m not going to recommend it unless you’ve done a lot of that before. If you do, drop me a memail, but I don’t think it will meet your criteria.

Would like to go somewhere where people will not stare because I am of a different ethnicity.

I never found a place like that, even in the small villages. You may need to prepare to be the center of attention. However, there or >30 some countries in Africa, so maybe someone can recommend a place that will meet this criteria.
posted by Wolfster at 3:17 PM on September 28, 2010 [4 favorites]

I don't think there's anywhere that people won't stare / won't yell muzungu/vazaha/ferenji/etc at you. Maybe the big cities in South Africa, but as I've only passed through Joburg, I have no comment about the safety.

I felt very comfortable in Kigali, Rwanda. Not everyone speaks English, but many do in the city, and very minimal French would certainly get you through. Tons to see, and a really, really beautiful country.
posted by quadrilaterals at 3:28 PM on September 28, 2010

The staring is going to happen, I suspect, regardless of where you go in Africa.

A few thoughts on Cairo: Cairo is actually very safe, but the harassment is out of control. A survey from a year or two ago indicated something like 95% of Egyptian and 80% of foreign women reported being harassed at some point. They might not touch you, but they will do everything else. If you can deal with this, you'll be fine otherwise. But it can be exhausting as a solo traveler.

However, I agree with shornco that Dahab is a really interesting idea. Dahab is incredible: very laid back, beautiful, and relaxing. Stay in the village area, in a smaller hotel, and then find a group (though your hotel) to join to visit St. Catherine's and Mt. Sinai. Snorkel, dive, and relax. It's lovely. You can have all the peace and quiet you want as you gaze over the Red Sea to Saudi Arabia's distant shores. You'd still get the "beautiful lady" comments and such, but not nearly as much, and it'd be easy enough to get away from it (just watch out for the guy who wants to be your Egyptian boyfriend).

But now I will recommend the place I always recommend: Ethiopia. Addis Ababa is a very safe city (unlike many developing world capitals), and there are some extraordinary cultural heritage sites in the countryside. I'm thinking specifically of Lalibela (rock hewn churches), Bahir Dar (ancient monasteries, headwaters of the Nile, Blue Nile Falls), and Gondar (old castle). You'll be fine without English, if you are a good and patient traveler.

Though, your mention of Switzerland is throwing me off. Are you looking for western-type amenities and experiences? Because then South Africa might be your only choice. I don't know.
posted by bluedaisy at 3:40 PM on September 28, 2010

I, also, am a former Peace Corps volunteer in Africa (female).

There may be places I'm unaware of, but I agree that you're not going to find somewhere where you won't be stared at or cat-called all the time. And I don't think any cities are as safe as your home neighborhood would be.

I also agree that villages and small towns tend to be way safer and nicer; they are, however, intimidating and (at times) hard to get to, and often lack good hotel/hostel options -- so probably not best for someone in your situation.

Those caveats taken as given, how about Swaziland? When you mentioned Switzerland, it's what I immediately thought of (and not just because the names are similar!). English-speaking, very lovely, peaceful, enough off the beaten path that you won't spend all your time surrounded by tourists, but with enough tourist infrastructure that you will find genuinely nice places to stay, geared toward your comfort. And because it's so small, you can get to some of the smaller villages easily while still staying in the larger towns if you so desire. When I went I happened to see the umhlanga, which was astonishing and awesome -- unfortunately, it looks like you've just missed it, but if you go around December or January you might get to see the Incwala Ceremony.

Even without those things, though, Swaziland is great. I spent a week there at about this time of year, and my one regret is that it was only a week.
posted by forza at 4:24 PM on September 28, 2010

You won't be stared at in Namibia. It's quite safe except - slightly - in the capital Windhoek. Swakopmund is very very safe, and anywhere out of the capital is also. Beautiful country, amazing, special people.

Some of my photos from my amazing trip in August.
posted by smoke at 5:27 PM on September 28, 2010

I spent a month in Cape Town and I never felt unsafe. Sure, there are dodgy areas of the city but if you're smart, you'll be fine. It's so amazingly beautiful and the people there are extremely nice but sometimes a little too nice. There's a lot of poverty out there and when some people found out I was American, they were entralled and in awe and asked me a ton of questions.

It's very Americanized and most people speak English, I never had an issue with a language barrier.

As far as being stared for your ethnicity, there are a lot of white people out there. I was actually stared at because I'm super, super pale. All the white people out there are very tan so I was actually stared at by white people, not black or coloured people (this is not a racist term in SA). I also was there in March which was the end of winter in the States but the end of summer in SA which didn't help the contrast of my paleness to everyone elses.

It looks like one American dollar equals 7 rand. When I went it was equal to 9 so 7 is still good. My money went far and I really didn't even spend a lot. The main expense of the entire trip was the plane ticket.

Anyway, if you are interested, one of my good friends lives out there and he can give me some recommendations for places to go.
posted by MaryDellamorte at 5:28 PM on September 28, 2010

Sorry, the link I posted starts at the bottom of the page, click here instead.
posted by MaryDellamorte at 5:31 PM on September 28, 2010

I think you should watch Long Way Down.
posted by Glendale at 6:42 PM on September 28, 2010

3) Would like to go somewhere where people will not stare because I am of a different ethnicity.

It would help to know your ethnicity.
posted by threeants at 7:42 PM on September 28, 2010

I understand that you would prefer not to be part of a group but free airfare to Africa is too good an opportunity to let go by. You may want to look into tour packages that do not include air. You can choose to not participate in any excursions that don't interest you and social interaction is not required. Tour groups have security built in and you can fall back on their assistance if you get sick or otherwise need it. I would download a history course on the relevant country and let my headphones be my social buffer. Egypt is all sorts of amazing (try and work in a Nile cruise) and Morocco is wonderful. English is widely spoken in both countries and while a little French is convenient in Morocco, it is not at all necessary. As far as affordability is concerned, you may wish to check out school trips; many universities have travel programs open to non-students.
posted by Morrigan at 7:57 PM on September 28, 2010

Response by poster: I'm trying very hard to stay unrecognized on the Internet (so as to not leave a digital trail for any wannabe-stalkers) but I'm ethnically Asian. I don't know how this would impact some of your suggestions (all very wonderful, thanks!), but here is it.
posted by moiraine at 12:13 AM on September 29, 2010

I have worked and traveled through many countries in Africa and my suggestions might surprise you, but Rwanda and Senegal would be my choices. Rwanda, despite the past troubles, is an amazing place and, in Kigali anyway, you're above the malaria line. Greatest people you'll ever meet. Senegal has loads of history and Dakar is wonderful city. You can get by with English in both places, but knowing a little French would help greatly.

Spent time in Cape Town and central South Africa last year. Definitely on the list of places to see before you die, but best done with friends and family. I wouldn't advise any of my single female friends to travel there alone.

Look at Lonely Planet and other sites for discussion boards on safety when traveling in various African countries. There should be some up-to-date reports and comments.
posted by flyingrock at 1:09 AM on September 29, 2010

Rwanda is amazing.
posted by tarvuz at 2:51 AM on September 29, 2010

I felt fairly ok in Namibia, but wasn't travelling alone.

While travelling alone, I went to some game parks in Kenya and had a great time. There are opportunities to talk to others staying in your camp (some camps are rather luxurious, but there is something for everyone's budget range), or to keep to yourself if you like (except you generally have to share game drives - it was quiet when I was there, so I got some by myself). I enjoyed Masai Mara - can't remember the name of the place I stayed though.

In Nairobi, I recommend the Fairview Hotel, or its cheaper (but still comfortable) companion next door, Country Lodge. I have travelled quite a bit, but really did not feel safe or comfortable in another (cheaper) hotel I had to stay in. I used the travel agent at the Fairview, Muthaiga Travel, to arrange my safari trip - they had plenty of options in plenty of price ranges. While in Nairobi, I did some sightseeing alone - the baby animal park, the giraffe park, one of the shopping malls. I hired a taxi from the hotel for a day, and felt that arrangement was safe. I didn't really like walking around the city by myself at all.

Also, Zanzibar, off the coast of Tanzania. Stayed there by myself, generally felt ok wandering Stonetown during the day (not really at night, would stick to the main road,but as much because I was worried about getting lost!), did a day tour to spice farm etc one day, there are also beach resorts. Stonetown is quite exotic looking, winding alleyways and interesting architecture. Has quite a lot of pleasant little cafes overlooking the water too. I stayed at the Zanzibar Palace Hotel, in their cheapest room (Rosewood - very pleasant)- it is run by a European couple, who were very helpful with anything I needed. Zanzibar is reasonably touristed, and I didn't feel that I attracted unwanted attention.
posted by AnnaRat at 4:07 AM on September 29, 2010

I was going to say Morocco, but my half-Japanese friend was a bit stared at in the large town we were in. I don't remember whether it was noticeable in the cities. No one harassed us, at all. One potential tour guide was annoyingly persistent, but did go away when we asked. I did feel very conspicuous walking around, especially Tangiers after dark, but I generally prefer to be completely invisible - my friend was perfectly happy. There was not a ton of English speaking but we were also mostly off the tourist paths. I think taxis would be the only place that would be a problem.
posted by sepviva at 9:55 AM on September 29, 2010

If in Europe, you would go to Switzerland, in Africa, I recommend Cape Town.

You will not get stared at, can have western comforts, be in a fascinating country with a promising future, exciting musical, foodie, and multicultural vibrancy, and still have your "I'm in Africa!" experiences by visiting the cape, table mountain, the vineyards, the townships, etc.

Yes, there is still a lot of random violence there. But, you can do what you can to not be a target: stay in the right areas, use the cabs you call by telephone (when people say don't use cabs, they usually mean don't take a random one off the street)... you have heard all this before.

That said, you'll be surprised by the number of places you would see other Asians. There are huuuuge numbers of Chinese living all over Africa (locals make no distinction between Chinese and other resident Asians, in my experience). But, people will stare at you because you obviously don't live there and aren't used to the way things work. Given your later comment about anonymity on the internet, there's not going to be a lot of places you can even think about blending in as much as you seem to want to; people will always know - even if there are a lot of resident Asians - that you are from outside. In my experience, in Cape Town, people don't care, and don't stare.

(I have spent time in South and West Africa, live in France, and lurve Switzerland. I am female, white, and traveled with Asians in both of these places.)
posted by whatzit at 10:39 AM on September 29, 2010

but I'm ethnically Asian

Then go to any sub-Saharan African country you want, sans South Africa. The Chinese are already there, my friend (yes, I realize there are many more nationalities than that in Asia, but your average African can't tell the difference any more than you could tell the differences in their nationalities).

I'm a single male, and I've lived in South Africa (Pretoria, north of Joburg a bit), and currently live in Nairobi (about 2 years here now). In addition to ZA (abbrev for South Af.) and Kenya, I've worked, in the last 3+ years or so, in Lesotho, Mozambique, Malawi, Zambia, Zimbabwe, DR Congo, Tanzania, Uganda, Rwanda, Ethiopia, Mali, Ghana, and Senegal. So, my info on all of these countries is relatively recent, whereas some of the info you're getting above in this thread isn't, necessarily (ex: English, since becoming the official language in Kigali, is becoming more widely spoken by the day over the last few years).

I'd advise an English speaking person of Asian ethnicity that they'd be comfortable in any of those countries on my list except perhaps DR Congo (French, on the less-safe side pretty much all around) and Mozambique (exclusively Portugese and local languages, little English). Now, in ANY of the countries on that list, the further you get from the city centers / tourist locations, the more local language / less English you'll be dealing with. If you want a country where you can speak English everywhere, you want South Africa. Kenya would probably be next in line on that list.

1) I am not looking to hang out in groups of other people, would like some alone time.

I'm sorry, but this is simply not going to be *as safe* as being with others, in any country over here. It is a different and more dangerous place, and those who don't respect that usually find out the hard way. I'm not trying to scare you off it, its beautiful and I think everyone should see as much of this continent as they can, but I hope they do it smartly. I see mzungu girls walking around after dark on their own on a pretty much weekly basis, and I shake my head, because they are a walking target that can be seen coming a mile away. You can travel alone safely, but you'll need to spend the extra coin to be with reputable taxi services / safari guides / decent hotels / local guides / etc. so that you aren't alone-alone.

2) I only speak English.

Lucky you. Most of west Africa is French speaking. East and southern are mainly English / local language. South Africa almost everyone speaks English and their local language (Zulu, Xhosa, or Afrikaans).

3) Would like to go somewhere where people will not stare because I am of a different ethnicity.

I honestly think you'll be better off in almost any country than a white person, but any non-black person is going to get stares when they leave the cities. Facts of life.

4) I am somewhere in the middle of the spectrum between the bold adventurous backpacker and fun-loving tourist.

This makes me lean South Africa for you, but maybe Kenya/Tanzania if you're feeling towards the former a bit more.

5) If this were Europe and I was in a similar situation, I would go to Switzerland ...Oh, and it's very travel-friendly and has clean, non-dodgy hostels that do not break the bank.

Hah...comparing Switzerland (I was there over Christmas) and pretty much anywhere in sub-Saharan Africa is like comparing apples and the Hubble space telescope.

I think the best you're going to do is to go with all the Cape Town answers. But what I'd recommend there is spend a day or two exploring CT proper (see the Waterfront, climb Table Mountain, maybe go out for a bit on Long Street at night but keep an eye on your drink and have a good cab standing by to take you to your hotel. THEN, spend the rest of your time (I don't care if its 5 days or 3 months) exploring the rest of the area. I'd strongly recommend:

1) Driving through the southern suburbs to Kommetjie - last town before the Cape Peninsula National park. Stop on the way in Hout Bay for the fish and chips at Snoekies. When you get to Kommetjie, there's some epic surfing you could spend all day watching from the beach there if the weather's right. Its a nice quiet local town to wander about a bit, but not at all touristy.
2) Spending a day doing the touristy part of the CP Nat Park - going to the lighthouse, taking photos of the signs, the baboons (give them a proper berth though), etc. Spend the rest of the day hiking the park, appreciating the nature there, some of the wild beaches away from the point itself a bit.
3) Spend at least half a day if not more exploring the little towns that dot the eastern side of the peninsula - Simon's Town, Fish Hoek, Kalk Bay (have the fish and chips at Kalky's on the harobor, then tell me if you thought it was better than Snoekies). Simon's Town is where you can catch an early morning boat out to Seal Island to see the Great Whites breaching for seals when they're in season. You can also catch whale-watching boats around the bay from there. North of there in the various other towns the nicer beaches (with tamer surf than the Atlantic side) will start to crop up.
4) Spend a day or two heading out to Gaansbai if diving with the Great Whites is your thing, or just to Hermanus to see some whales / penguins / etc..
5) Spend at least a day (if not a few) exploring the wine country in Stellenbosch and Franschhoek. If you only have one day, do the latter - less touristy, smaller, more laid back and in my opinion more beautiful (but they both are).
6) Figure out a way to see the townships safely if you can. Best way is to make friends with somebody who knows the ins and outs - I have friends who work in them, so I'm not as familiar with them in CT as I am with the companies in Joburg that arrange tours of Soweto. I think its important to see and understand the contrast of life there.

If you decide to buck up and come to Nairobi, I could give you my list of recco's here in Kenya too, from big touristy parks to quiet NP's you'll have completely to yourself, up and down the coast (Lamu's a great suggestion, btw - Malindi is great too), etc. etc.. And look me up on CouchSurfing - I'm in the MeFi group; my username with a ".mefi" at the end. I have a beautiful place that I'm only going to get to stay at maybe 2-3 weeks max for the rest of the year if my current travel schedule holds...
posted by allkindsoftime at 7:23 AM on September 30, 2010 [1 favorite]

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