Can I Backpack across Africa Alone?
April 10, 2006 5:12 PM   Subscribe

Can I safely backpack through Africa (East to West) alone?

Hey, I'm finishing University this year and would like to go travelling. The extent of my travelling so far is the USA - twice, once across it with a friend, the second time hiking alone on the Appalachian Trail. I do believe I am an 'intelligent traveller'. I have no language skills.

I should be able to save about £3000 to travel with and expect this to allow me to do quite a lot in Africa or Asia. I was thinking of travelling in Asia but I do not particularly want to following 'lonely planet' guides :) I will definitely travel alone.

My ideal route -

through Spain, then along the East African Coast, through the centre of Africa, then towards India (via Saudia Arabia/Yemen).

Any help much appreciated...
posted by RufusW to Travel & Transportation around (35 answers total)
Looking at your route... do you mean west to east?
posted by stopgap at 5:15 PM on April 10, 2006

errr... oh yea West to East .... sorry
posted by RufusW at 5:22 PM on April 10, 2006

IANATourGuide, but you'll want language skills to get through Yemen, and be warned that as far as Islam goes, Yemenis are somewhat more intense than others, at least acccording to the stereotype.
posted by BuddhaInABucket at 5:40 PM on April 10, 2006

My kenyan girlfriend seems to think that certain parts of Kenya are not safe after dark. And she wouldnt go there without an armed escort. I belive shes being a little over dramatic. But having never visited Africa I guess I can only take her word for it.

I am assumeing you would be passing in that general direction anyway.
posted by gergtreble at 6:17 PM on April 10, 2006

I think you can get better advice in 43things
posted by zouhair at 6:17 PM on April 10, 2006

No, you can't.

Bad things will happen and there are better vacation packages available. Wandering through Appalachia with a pack on your back is very different from immersing yourself in another culture without speaking the language. Even the scariest ol' boys in W. Virginia aren't going to cut your friggin' head off for laughs.

No, it is not safe.
posted by cedar at 6:30 PM on April 10, 2006

After rereading your question. Im pretty sure that asia has what you are looking for. Just dont buy a lonely planet.

I think your main problem in africa will be the central part. It may be worthwile seeing about flights from east africa to saudi.

Cedar. I think you are overreacting a little there. The world outside your front door isnt exactly safe either. As is always said. You could get hit by a bus tomorrow.
posted by gergtreble at 6:49 PM on April 10, 2006

I don't know about Africa, but re the Yemen / S.A. leg:

Saudi Arabia is notoriously hard to get into. They rarely, if ever, issue tourist visas. You might be able to wangle a transit visa, but they don't last long, and they're very much transit only.

Yemen - Dunno, never been there.

Oman, to the East of Yemen, is lots of fun. As traditional as anywhere on the Arabian peninsula, more tolerant than S.A., safer than Yemen. I'd recommend it highly. Two major cities, both quite different in climate and vibe, and lots of interesting desert & forts in between.
posted by dontoine at 6:53 PM on April 10, 2006

Why are talking about Yemen, Saudi arabia and asian stuff, africa is not asia

What I can say is you can go safely through morooco, tunisia, lybia, egypt, Senegal, mali but not Algeria, tchad, sudan and ethiopia

And I think there's more violent deaths in American cities than in all those african countries (beside starving and american bombs)
posted by zouhair at 6:58 PM on April 10, 2006

The US Department of State has issued a travel advisory for Yemen. For what it's worth. You do not sound like an American, though, so perhaps you do not care so much. For what it's worth, here are the rest of US travel advisories.
posted by Roger Dodger at 7:03 PM on April 10, 2006

And I think there's more violent deaths in American cities than in all those african countries (beside starving and american bombs)
No. Not even close.
posted by kickingtheground at 7:11 PM on April 10, 2006

After spending some time with friends that are from Central/East Africa and talking with them about their home countries, I'd say you'ld be insane to do that alone while carrying a bundle of cash. With a group, a vehicle, lots of planning and advice from knowledgable locals, yes it could be fun; without those things it's a recipe for disaster.
posted by blue_beetle at 7:12 PM on April 10, 2006

Backpacking that route through Africa solo is one of the worst ideas I've heard in a while.
As said above, and all (easy and cheap) America-hating aside, a trip through the US is VERY VERY different than a trip across Africa.
Parts of Asia that are not controlled by Muslim fundamentalists would be a much better choice. If you plan on coming back in one piece.
posted by BillBishop at 7:13 PM on April 10, 2006

I agree with everybody on the Asia idea -- scrap Africa on foot.

If you never buy a Lonely Planet book, you'll never (or hardly ever) wind up where all the beer-swilling Swedes are -- not that I have anything against them; Swedes are great! I'd recommend flying to Bali or the Phillipenes and just getting lost on the thousands of Islands in either country. You'll find plenty of solitude. If you really do want to walk a long way, fly into Bangkok, take a bus to Chang Mai and then head off for Laos and then into Cambodia. You can do this by foot and it'll be a lot safer. Or go to non-Peninsular Malaysia (Sarawak) and Brunei. That in the LP but nobody ever goes there because it's expensive and there's not that much touristy stuff. Wild orangutans though!
posted by zpousman at 7:28 PM on April 10, 2006

Your route isn't making any sense to me. Have you thought much about this? How long have you got? West Africa I don't know about, but I hear Morocco's ok. Tunisia is friendly and well touristed. Kenya, Tanzania, Egypt are ok (and I'd certainly recommend a trip to them), if you keep your wits about you and don't do anything daft. Libya's unlikely to let you in without a lot of paperwork and inside contacts up front. Algeria, Sudan, Chad, parts of N. Kenya, Somalia - forget it. My info is likely to be out of date, based on anecdote, do your homework before jumping on a plane, IANADiplomat, etc, etc.
posted by normy at 11:38 PM on April 10, 2006

From the little bit of research I did on travelling in Africa, the common consensus seems to be that you need to travel with armed guards. Probably not in every part, but enough to make you carefully reconsider whether you really want to go through Africa. I think if you want to see Africa, you'd be safest going in a tour group...although I agree with a lot of the posters above that Asia sounds more like what you're looking for.
posted by johnsmith415 at 11:57 PM on April 10, 2006

It's as safe as any of those other places that people go in order to never be seen or heard from again.
posted by Nicholas West at 12:01 AM on April 11, 2006

I asked a W. African friend and he laughed out loud, saying that he wouldn't survive such a trip in an armored tank. I've never traveled to Africa myself, but I am passing on his remarks.
posted by Falconetti at 12:06 AM on April 11, 2006

A friend of mine who lectures in arabic and has travelled a lot in that part of the world was quite worried by the Yemen. He said the Government only really sort of controlled the cities and the main roads between them - everything else was run by tribal warlords. Aparently not uncommon to see a tank parked next to the tribal chieftain's hut for when he has a little war with his neighbour...I would think, particularly if you're a USian, its worth giving the Yemen a miss...
posted by prentiz at 1:31 AM on April 11, 2006

Two British friends of mine (1 male, 1 female, both aged ~22) spent 18 months backpacking around Africa in 1993, I think they went mostly up the east coast without any serious problems with violence or even major theft. One did get pretty serious malaria though, and health issues are something that you will have to consider before you do start any such trip. Two people are probably a fair bit safer than one.
You will need to assess information about each country you plan to visit on an individual basis, and should often also consider regions within a country to have some idea of any tensions amongst different tribes or racial groups. Check out the relevant pages for different countries at either the UK's Foreign Office, US State Department or your national equivalent.
posted by biffa at 2:10 AM on April 11, 2006

The whole 'worse things happen in America' argument really doesn't stand up. It depends on how you view odds. The chance of getting seriously injured in Africa is significantly higher than in America. You can't use general numbers to back it up. Only a small number of people get killed or kidnapped traversing the Darien Gap, but, well, only a small number of people actually try.
posted by wackybrit at 3:23 AM on April 11, 2006

Thanks for the replies. I'm thinking of travelling in Africa exactly because no-one does. Asia would be good, but Africa is different level. I believe travelling south down the West African coast would be my best bet, then maybe a flight to Asia.

However, I'm sure that if you had a good guide who could follow you the whole way it would be possible to cross the continent.
posted by RufusW at 4:00 AM on April 11, 2006

RufusW: Too many areas in Africa are involved in perpetual war. When having a war, people tend to not want outsiders around, and feel rather casual about killing them, or worse, enslaving them. Slavery is alive and well in Africa today. Just look up threads about cocoa or coffee to learn more.

I live in South Africa, in Eastern Cape. Just north of here a bit is an area called Transkei. Lately, even locals refuse to go up there. Recently a police station was attacked and all their guns stolen. My partner has 2 coworkers who had relatives shot up there. And that's in the most civilized country in Africa (south of the Sahara). It's a shame, the coast there is astoundingly beautiful and wild (great surfing).

Africa is a hell of an adventure, it's true. But that adventure could turn more 'hell' than adventure, all too easily. And I would think you'd want at least French skills, that being a more typical common language in Africa.
posted by Goofyy at 5:19 AM on April 11, 2006

The AP is lovely, but it is an established route through one part of one country, not an unplanned route across multiple countries -- it's not really a comparative trip.
posted by desuetude at 6:11 AM on April 11, 2006

I'm Kenyan, and I don't think I or anyone I know would recommend a trip like this alone, in any part of the continent. There are no reliable maps or friendly visitor centers, and far too many ways to get lost, mugged, or injured. There are definitely options for travelling through Africa (google 'Africa overland' to see a list of travel agencies/guides) where you can join a bunch of like-minded people and have a guide - those trips can be a lot of fun.
posted by darsh at 6:16 AM on April 11, 2006

It might be worth looking into an Around The World Ticket (for example). (I just found this site with a quick search, not sure of it's quality.)

This way you can go to countries/regions that are fairly safe, backpack around them, then fly to the next country/region. When I was in Ghana (which is very safe, btw) a few years ago, I met a single (female) traveller doing exactly that. She'd been travelling around Burkina Faso, Ghana, and Togo, and then she was off to India.

Many of the comments on this thread are a bit hysterical about safety in Africa as a whole, but it's certainly true that there are areas that it would be quite dangerous to backpack through alone and without knowing the language. On the good side, there are lots of places in Africa that are safe, and Africa is really freakin' big. That means that you can do lots of extended exploring in a relatively safe area.

Good luck. I hope you keep Africa in your travel plans. It's well worth it.
posted by carmen at 7:18 AM on April 11, 2006

i've travelled a bit in africa and haven't had too many problems (even in Sudan), but i do think that's more down to luck than anything else.
morocco will be generally ok to travel on your own. The bus services are easy and well connected and the people generally helpful and friendly (as is the case with most of africa that i've seen) with a bit of common sense the worst that will happen to you in morocco is being harrased into buying a carpet you don't want.

it will definitelly be worth your time to learn a bit of French before going though.

i know you probably would like to do things independantly in the rest of africa, but like others i don't think it's recomennded. However, have you considered one of the many overlander trips that operate there? i've met people on these trips and have heard many good things about them. the organisers generally know their stuff and it's likely the only and/or cheapest way you'll get to many of the best parts of africa safely. They also allow you a the freedom to get off and explore when you stop in cities.

also, i think a question like this might be better posed to the lonely planet thorntree than here.
posted by tnai at 8:25 AM on April 11, 2006

If you want adventure - and you want to avoid other "tourists" then learn some of the local language. Especially in Africa, where it is quite likely that some power-addled border guard in designer camos and relflector shades has decided that you are his retirement plan of the week. If you can't communicate, then only you are to blame for the positions you are going to find yourself in.

Outside of the cities, Yemen is not safe - kidnapping tourists for ransome is part of the rural economy. Traveling through rural Egypt alone isn't recomended at this time, not to mention Sudan, Chad, and border regions in Ethiopia/Eritrea.

I suggest seriously reevaluating your itinerary. You can have adventure in a lot of places that others have also safely visited.
posted by zaelic at 8:51 AM on April 11, 2006

I've traveled a bit in Africa, and I think you can do it - you're male, right? - by traveling in certain countries and flying over certain other ones. If you have a lot of flexibility, you could do something like travel in Morocco, then fly to Dakar, Senegal and travel in Senegal, then fly to someplace like Conakry, Guinea (or travel overland - that's ok), or Bamako, Mali, and travel in there, then hop on another flight someplace else in West Africa - Burkina Faso or Ghana maybe. [Btw, watch Guinea - it looks like it might blow at any time, but it's a wonderful country.] Then you could catch a flight from someplace like Accra, Ghana to the East or south, and travel around there a bit. I'm not as familiar with the East as the West, but I am sure there are places you could go. I wouldn't recommend total isolation - I'd try to meet up with other travelers as much as possible.

All the countries I listed have peace corps volunteers currently active and I believe they all have "Friends of _____" organizations, or similar peace corps organizations, where you could post on thier listserves and ask for advice. [E.g. Friends of Guinea.] Current volunteers would have some of the most recent and accurate advice around concerning traveling alone in their countries - they do it all the time.

French will help immensely in West Africa. I spoke french so I'm not sure what it would be like to travel there without it. At least learn some phrases. Ghana is a wonderful country, though, and it's anglophone. East Africa would be easier on that count, obviously.

Transportation in Africa is ridiculously dangerous. That has nothing to do with being alone, or speaking the language, but something to take into account. Bush taxis often malfunction and the drivers can be quite reckless. Don't count on buses being available - some countries yes (e.g. Mali), some countries no (e.g. Guinea). You can almost always (always?) pay for extra seats in bush taxis - will make you more comfortable and possibly save your life if something happens. You can even rent the whole car - meaning buy all seats - not sure if your budget allows for that, but it's the safest choice. Ferries are dangerous there too. City buses are seriously dangerous - take taxis in cities even if it costs a lot more.

Malaria seems to have broken through larium in Guinea, possibly elsewhere. Take Malarone (best choice I think), or doxicyclene (but it's an antibiotic and you need to be careful about sun exposure and throat ulcers). Take your malaria medicine religiously and assiduously avoid getting bitten by mosquitoes - other bad illnesses can follow too.

My friend recommends wearing boxers while traveling - you can be strip searched at the military checkpoints in some of these countries - better to be wearing underwear.

Anyway, I think it can be done. You need to be alert, and flexible, and probably have time to spare, and err on the side of caution. I love West Africa and think it has a lot to offer. In my experience, West Africans are very hospitable, and want to make sure guests (visitors) get treated well. Of course there are exceptions, but I think you can be selective and have a great trip. But do fly over certain areas.
posted by Amizu at 9:17 AM on April 11, 2006

However, I'm sure that if you had a good guide who could follow you the whole way it would be possible to cross the continent.

posted by RufusW at 4:00 AM PST on April 11 [!]

The phrasing here makes me fear for your safety. The guide follows you? Check out a story by Paul Bowles called "A Distant Episode."

Also, zouhair, we all know africa is not asia. Asia came up because RufusW asked about it too.
posted by dontoine at 10:43 AM on April 11, 2006

I mean follow as in - you decide where you want to go - the guide tells you how you can do it safely. Paying a guide to travel with you would also cut out much of the language problems. I don't believe it would cost too much to hire a guide in each city/country (?)

To people beforehand - I am not equating the AT with travelling around Africa - they are obviously incomparable.

I understand now that there are countries I should definitely avoid - unless I can spend a huge amount on bodyguards. However, it does seem possible to travel in West Africa alone, as long as I am aware and reasearch my trip as extensively as possible.

Thanks for all the answers - has helped me a lot. Although it saddens me that there are parts of the world you cannot travel in....
posted by RufusW at 11:14 AM on April 11, 2006

I think the discussion is mostly over, but I'll throw this in in case it helps. I've been to Uganda twice. Travel there is mostly safe, but backpacking is dangerous, especially in the northern parts of the country. The LRA roams in small groups over large parts of the north, and is not above killing anyone they stumble across.
posted by walljm at 12:12 PM on April 11, 2006

Check out a book called "Dark Star Safari." Paul Theroux goes overland from Cairo to Capetown. I've only been to Kenya, but I would think it would be a difficult journey to cross Africa.
posted by Frank Grimes at 7:44 PM on April 11, 2006

My brother went to west Africa last year as part of a delegation of US governmental agriculture officials. I think they flew into Lagos, Nigeria. They were told that if their arrival was delayed until night that they should not leave the airport. They did get in on time, and were picked up by embassy vehicles which were bullet-proof. In Lagos there were people with automatic weapons everywhere.

Stay out of west Africa.
posted by neuron at 10:16 PM on April 11, 2006

Okay people - rest assured I will not travel anywhere in Africa without a hell of a lot more research. Thanks again for the replies.
posted by RufusW at 5:39 AM on April 12, 2006

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