We spent the last month experiencing one of the most incredible areas in the world. Our trip took us overland in Eastern Africa from Kenya to Zimbabwe, passing through six countries along the way. We visited the plains of the Serengeti, saw part of the great migration in Ngorongoro Crater, tasted the tantalizing spices in Zanzibar, slept amongst the elephants in Zambia and the lions in Botswana before rafting the Zambezi River at Victoria Falls.
Our trip through Eastern Africa was done as part of a 21 day group participative safari. Travelers partake in the cooking, cleaning and set up which helps keep the cost of the trip down. We entered Africa via Nairobi after a two day stop over in Dubai, which was fortunately short as it was 111 degrees F (44 degrees C) and quite miserable. This was the simplest route from Bucharest and allowed us to take care of some last minute preparations before entering Africa. During this section we visited Kenya, Tanzania and Zanzibar, Malawi, Zambia, Botswana and Zimbabwe. The total distance traveled in Africa is 4,375 kilometers from Nairobi to Victoria Falls.Some of the best things about traveling in Africa can be seen on the sides of the roads. Children love seeing foreigners and wave, yell with excitement or run besides the vehicle as you pass. People carry, drive or sell any type of oddity which can provide endless entertainment on long drives.
Africa has proven to be quite a bit more expensive for travel than Europe. This is partially based on the need to do guided tours throughout the continent, as travel is difficult and game parks require permits and professional guides. Our total cost as a couple for this portion was $8,015.57, or $320.66 per day, which includes our flights and time in Dubai. We booked our trip through African Budget Safaris / Africa Travel Co, which provided a decent experience for the money albeit somewhat inefficient. If we were to do this portion again, we would pay more for air transport between locations to cut down on travel time due to the far distances. Added costs for some flights would have been valuable by allowing more time to visit each country.East Africa is a “cash is king” area. Most of the countries we visited accept or prefer USD for payments. Only crisp bills in good condition marked 2009 or later are accepted. Credit cards are not widely accepted and when available are unreliable due to poor network connection. A large portion of the cost of our safari had to be paid in USD cash on arrival which presented us with a challenge. We had been traveling for over two months before reaching Africa and did not want to carry much cash. Fortunately, Dubai is a global financial hub which made it a convenient place for conversion.The currency of the United Arab Emirates, AED, is pegged to the USD at a 3.675 conversion rate meaning that there is no fluctuation in the exchange. There is a very narrow buy/sell spread for conversion between these two currencies in Dubai and lots of competition from various exchange companies. In other words, most places will trade for USD at a very fair price. We used Al Fardan Exchange which had several locations around town and posts their rate on their website. We took AED from an ATM which had no fees at the official international exchange rate. We converted the AED to USD at a 3.68 conversion rate with a nominal 3 AED fee. The total cost of this transaction was less than $8 USD, or .0021%. Unfortunately, we found no ATMs in the airport on arrival in the international terminal which dispensed USD. However, on our way out of the country we encountered three ATMs (RAK Bank, Standard Chartered, and Mashreq) inside security in the airport terminal 1 which dispensed $, £ and €. Obtaining visas in Africa can be a painful process. Make sure to have plenty of blank passport pages available and order the 52 page book if you will be doing extended travel. Many of the visas take up one or one and a half pages which quickly fill up a normal passport. Visas can only be paid in USD and cost will vary depending on your nationality. We would have benefitted from getting e-visa approvals in many countries prior to our visit to save money. Visas advertised on embassy websites in Africa are sometimes “not available” upon arrival, for example:
- Tanzania advertised $50 single entry online, but we were required to purchase a multi entry visa at the border for US residents which ran $100.
- Malawi allows $50 transit visas for visits up to 7 days, but required a full $75 visa at the border without any explanation.
- Zambia and Zimbabwe had a combined visa (Kaza) for $50 which they did not issue in person on the Zambia side. We spent $50 for entry to Zambia and another $30 for Zimbabwe.
These countries are not first world so many amenities are not available. Wifi is rare, extremely slow, or altogether nonexistent. We couldn’t back up our photos on the cloud for over 3 weeks. Road conditions are very rough and bumpy. Campsites are sparsely equipped with bathrooms often having cold showers (if at all) and no soap or toilet paper. For proper sanitation you’ll need to bring your own. You can view our minimalist camping safari packing list at the bottom of this post which fits into a carry on sized bag. You can also see our entire world trip packing list, travel insurance comparison, and essential travel technology posts which supplement this information.The first highlights of our trip were safaris in the Serengeti and Ngorongoro Crater. We spent one night in each of these locations and saw hundreds of amazing animals. Our camps were in the parks amongst the wildlife with no barriers other than the cloth of our tents. As with most park campsites, these were very sparsely equipped but very well located.
We explored the parks in pop-top Land Rovers which provided a very good view of the surrounding game and landscape. The sunset and sunrise created an incredible scene above the grassland plains and acacia trees.
After these safaris, we moved to Dar Es Salaam to kick off a few days trip to the island of Zanzibar. The island joined Tanganyika to form the Republic of Tanzania in 1964 but still maintains separate governments and border controls. A passport and yellow fever card are necessary upon arrival from the mainland. Zanzibar was part of the Silk Road trading route between Africa and Asia and provided very valuable spices to the East from plantations which still cover many areas on the island. The area is still primarily Muslim and visitors are expected to dress modestly. However, this is not expected at the beach resorts.
We took a fascinating tour of a small spice plantation outside of Stone Town and tasted fresh spices from the plants including pepper, turmeric, cinnamon, cardamom, vanilla, nutmeg and ginger. The tour was followed by an amazing home cooked traditional African lunch which used spices from the area with a local tropical fruit desert. This tour was offered by our trip for $30 but we booked it online for $15 through Colors of Zanzibar.
Stone Town holds a night market by the ocean every evening from 6-10pm where local fisherman and merchants sell all types of food and drink. We tried some delicious street food including sweet and savory pizzas, meat and dumpling soup, gyros, chapatis and freshly squeezed sugar cane juice. Children were using the dock as a diving board and jumping into the water throughout the evening.
Afterwards, we moved to Nungwi in the north part of the island. This area is know for its coral reefs and white sand beaches. We were able to do some scuba diving amongst the tropical fish before heading back to the mainland by ferry. We also got to see a few humpback whales on the boat trip back. We had our first tuk-tuk ride which is a three wheeled tin can vehicle which seats two people and light luggage. It was a very cheap way to get around costing $2 for eight kilometers.
Following our stay in Zanzibar, we moved south to the lush country of Malawi. This was one of the more frustrating borders we encountered. There was a long wait despite almost no traffic, and two different employees demanded bribes from members of our group to enter the country. One for “quickly” processing our visa applications and the other for a yellow fever card “discrepancy”. The employee demanded $150 cash payment to ignore the deficiency. Apparently this is normal and many visitors get hassled upon entry.A large portion of the country is covered by Lake Malawi which resembles an ocean from the shore. In our opinion, Malawi is the most beautiful of the countries we visited on this trip. The mountains surrounding the lake make for a incredible backdrop. We stayed on the beach and we toured a neighboring village of 4,500, including the medical clinic and school. The clinic and school serve several neighboring towns as well, and are severely short on supplies. The clinic serves over 18,000 people and is staffed only by a medical assistant and helper who treat malaria, HIV, and perform births. The school is filled with outdated books donated from around the world, and has almost no room to sit. Interestingly, all courses are taught in English except classes on the local language.
On our way out of Malawi, our truck was detained by a policeman at a traffic stop claiming paperwork issues, adding to the frustration of visiting this country. Despite all of the barriers getting in and out of the country, we wish we could have stayed much longer.
After leaving Malawi, we moved on to Zambia for some Safari time in Luangwa National Park. Again we camped amongst the animals and had baboons, impala and hippos roam through our camp site. This was one of our favorite areas for game drives as we got very close to several elephants in a watering hole and watched a leopard stalk a herd of gazelle.
Our next stop in the country was Livingstone, which shoulders the northern portion of Victoria Falls. The Falls span 1.7 kilometers with the vast majority held on the Zimbabwe side. Entry is $20 USD, but there is a group rate available for $15 per person. We spent two hours hiking around the various trails, which did not provide quite enough time to appreciate all of the views. There is a hike down to the Zambezi River at the Boiling Pot which is a steep path on uneven terrain. There are packs of baboons on the way down which often try to steal handbags and food.
We moved on from Zambia and into Botswana for some more safari time. Chobe National Park is located on the Chobe River near the border of Botswana, Namibia, Zimbabwe and Zambia. On the way to the camp we came across lots of game, including two male lions roaring to defend their territory.
The sunset over the park blazed with colors through smoke from nearby Namibian wildfires. Again, we tent camped amongst the wildlife with no power or water nearby. The night sky was scattered with stars and the Milky Way streaked across the darkness.Our last stop on this trip was Victoria Falls in Zimbabwe. This is the town on the other side of the falls from Livingstone, which holds the vast majority of the actual waterfall. Entry is $30 which has 16 lookouts to different areas, including some which have no barrier to the canyon. The Zimbabwe side provides a superior view to the Zambia side in our opinion. You can also get great canyon scenery on the bridge between Zambia and Zimbabwe. This area is free and you can watch people bungee jump from the bridge. You’ll need to show your passport to obtain a bridge pass although it doesn’t require a stamp.
While is town, we spent time whitewater rafting 30 kilometers of the Zambezi River. This is considered one of the best rafting spots in the world, and the trip did not disappoint. There are 18 named rapids between class 3 and 5, one class 6 which we skipped, plus numerous more which do not have officials titles. Most boats on the river flipped during the trip at one point or another. While we managed to stay upright, many of our paddlers were flung from the boat and had to be rescued during the ride. Every place in town advertises this trip for $120 USD but we were able to negotiate to $75 per person with Shockwave.
Things that we learned while traveling in East Africa:
- You can barter 25-80% of items in the local markets. We negotiated a handmade item from $120 down to $20.
- You can always find more affordable tours by researching online, visiting the activity offices around town, or asking a local.
- Water is typically not safe to drink (or toothbrushing) for foreigners.
- Mosquitoes are prevalent even in cooler months and will likely carry malaria so protect yourself!
- Most places accept USD, and credit cards may only be accepted occasionally.
- You have to bring almost everything you will need. Toiletries, bedding, towels, soap, etc. will not be provided at the your accommodations.
- Road conditions are terrible, but you are encouraged to enjoy the “African massage”.
- Wifi access is sporadic and weak. Plan on having everything you need downloaded or set up prior to arriving in Africa.
Our Camping Safari Packing List:
- Sleeping bag – Three seasons works well as night temperatures can range from quite chilly to very warm. We had two delivered to our camp in Nairobi from Great Outdoors for less than $50 USD per bag. This kept us from carrying them for the first portion of our trip. greatoutdoors.co.ke
- Sleeping bag liner – To add warmth or use on hot nights. Helpful is treated with Insect Shield repellant.
- A sleeping mat – If one is not provided.
- Inflatable camping pillow
- Ear plugs and eye mask – Camp sites can be very noisy.
- Toiletry kit
- Pack towel
- Baby wipes – When showering isn’t available.
- Hand-sanitizer – Soap and water are scarce.
- Nail clippers
- Q-tips – The dust is invasive.
- Toilet paper – Buy on arrival.
Medical Needs/Disease Prevention
- Anti-malaria medications
- Travelers diarrhea medications
- Various cold and injury meds
- Bug spray – With at least 50% Deet. There are lots of mosquitos.
- Sunscreen – Hard to find and very expensive in Africa.
- After sun cream
- Cortisone cream
- Lip balm – With sun block.
- Water filter – We use Sawyer Mini. To brush teeth and drink. Water is not safe for foreigners.
- T-shirts or collared travel shirts – Quick dry and breathable. Helpful if treated with insect repellant.
- Convertible pants
- Supportive bras – For traveling on bumpy roads. Many women wore two sports bras.
- Shoes – Tennis shoes plus flip flops for showers. We didn’t need our hiking boots on this safari.
- Thermal layers – For colder nights (e.g. Ngorongoro Crater).
- Warm packable jacket
- Gloves and warm hat – Optional but early morning game drives can be chilly in open vehicles.
- Rain jacket
- Brimmed cap or safari hat
- Neck cover – Similar to Buff’s, which can also be used to cover your mouth from heavy dust.
- Head lamp – Camp sites are dark and large animals may wander in at night. Look or a high powered light.
- Universal power converter – Plugs vary but are typically the British version
- Device power cords
- Device recharger / solar powered charger – There will be places without power ports
- Head phones
- Collapsable water bottles – We use Platypus 1L bottles.
- Packing cubes – Help organize for quick packing.
- Clothes washing powder
- Universal sink plug – Useful for hand washing clothes.
- Clotheline – We have a nice Sea to Summit backpacking line.
- Hours of podcasts/audiobooks
- Card games
- Continuing education – Dowloaded audio lectures.
- Yellow fever card – Most countries will require an up to date vaccine record for entry.
- Passport – With extra pages.
- Copies of important documents
- Travel purse – We use a Travelon Crossbody.
- Money belt
- Small padlock – To lock valuables, tent, or packs. Some places will provide boxes/safes for use and expect residents to provide their own lock. Tent break-ins do occur so always keep your valuables in a safe place. When sleeping don’t put your valuables at the edges of the tent where they can be easily reached by a thief. Keep it in the center of your tent between two people.
- Lots of travel gear now offer secret pockets such as sleeping bags, clothes, etc.
Also check out other posts from our adventures including our trek through Nepal, camper van-cation around Tasmania, stop in Indonesian paradise and misadventures in India. They are sure to inspire your lust for travel!
Feeling like long term travel needs to be in your future? Stop by our Trip Planning posts, where you can learn how to prepare for a lengthy trip, see how to never check your bags on planes, find out about travel security and make sense of travel insurance, amongst others.