As an African, when you think of travel, your first thought likely goes to Europe, The Americas, or Asia. While on the other hand, people from said countries spend thousands of dollars to visit Africa. Slowly but surely, though, Africans are starting to see the beauty in their backyards as well.
I decided to embark on a solo trip from Nairobi, Kenya to Johannesburg, South Africa by road. 90% of it was through local transportation, and 10% through a tour operated overland. If you’re planning on making a similar road trip, then this article is for you.
My initial plan was to do a two-month long trip via road and rail, to and fro. But I ended up amending it to about a month because, at the time, I had something
better waiting at home. The trip ended up being about a month long, i.e., to by road and flew back to Kenya. A longer trip to savor the different regions better would have been far better.
Countries crossed to get to South Africa were Tanzania, Malawi, Zambia, Zimbabwe, and Botswana. All countries except South Africa are visa-free for Kenyans. All that’s required is a passport and a yellow fever certificate. The grapevine has it that there are talks between the countries to give Kenyans a South African visa on arrival, so crossing fingers for that to happen.
Please note that this is not a detailed post on the individual countries. It’s just a brief overview of the trip. But, I will do detailed posts on the individual countries later on.
Research: As the cliché goes, “Google is your friend.” I used it to research the journey from Kenya to Zambia and not so much Botswana to South Africa since I was using a tour group for that route. But still, I didn’t overthink it. I winged most of it. I figured that the locals would know best and it’s best to inquire when I’m there.
Budget: Budget preparation is integral. Otherwise, you’ll end up overspending and might run out of cash before your journey ends. You need to decide how much money you’re willing to spend based on your resources, interests, and preferences.
Communication: If you’re not an off-the-grid kind of person, I would encourage you to buy sim cards for every country. Roaming is extremely costly.
Packing: Packing light is fundamental because you need to be able to move/haul your luggage around easily. I used a 20L military backpack, rolled my clothing and fastened it with rubber bands to allow for a compact fit, mostly relied on layering for warmth, and did some laundry on the way. I, also, packed more tops than bottoms and had primarily dark bottoms to help conceal any muck. Packing light also helps if you want to purchase souvenirs on the way. I, intentionally, packed some clothes to leave on the way in case I ended up buying something.
Nairobi, Kenya To Arusha, Tanzania
Transport: Modern Coast Bus services Duration: 5 hours Cost: Kes. 1,100 (US$11) VIP
The bus is meant to depart at 6 a.m., but be warned that this is Africa and true to the African timing stereotype, the bus left at 8 a.m. It’s a fairly comfortable bus overall.
Note that you’ll have to bring your luggage with you to the immigration offices.
While in Arusha, I stayed in a single room for US$12 B&B at Arusha Backpackers, which I had booked online before the trip.
Arusha, Tanzania To Mbeya, Tanzania
Transport: Hood Bus Services Duration: 30 hours Cost: Tsh. 49,000 (US$22)
The bus leaves at 6 a.m. It’s considered the “best” bus based on a recommendation. However, I did not find it comfortable at all. In my opinion, I’d say it’s ideally meant for a 2-hour ride maximum.
The impression that I got from my Google was that I would get a bus from Arusha to Mbeya via Dodoma, which would be about 15 hours long. Well, the bus ended up going from Arusha to Mbeya via Dar Es Salaam. That was another 15 hours on top of what I had anticipated. You can split the trip up, though, by either going to Dar Es Salaam, overnight and then leaving for Mbeya the next day. Or alternatively, leave Arusha for Dodoma, overnight, and then do Dodoma to Mbeya.
I arrived in Mbeya (the border town) at about 12 p.m. the next day. That’s about 30 hours on the road, which is quite a stretch. Commercial vehicles are not allowed to drive at night in Tanzania so as from 1 a.m. to 6 a.m., we had to stop for the night. We ended up sleeping on the bus. Fun! The bus made many stops, too, which added to the long trip.
Mbeya, Tanzania To Songwe Border, Malawi
Transport: Minibus a.k.a dala dala Duration: 2 hours Cost: Tsh.6,000 (US$3)
Although I was exhausted, I decided to keep going from Mbeya to Malawi on the same day. The area is pretty rural, so they only follow the basic road rules. Expect to be squeezed into the dala dala like gum pellets. Nevertheless, it’s all part of the unforgettable and unique experience.
The dala dala doesn’t get right to the border, so you have to take a boda-boda to the border itself. It will cost Tsh.1,000 (US$0.50.) Remember to get a Tanzania exit stamp before you move on to the Malawi border. Actually, ensure that you have an entry and exit stamp for every country. If you don’t have both stamps, you’re doing it wrong. Due to a misunderstanding between the boda-boda guy and I, I missed it and had to go back.
Songwe Border, Malawi To Karonga, Malawi
Transport: Shared taxi Duration: 1 hour Cost: Mwk.1,000 (US$1)
The Malawi border closes at 6 p.m., so you have to be there on time. I got there at a little over 5 p.m. I tried to get a taxi from there, which is meant to cost between Mwk 2,200 to 3,000 (US$3 to US4$), but I was almost scammed by someone who was trying to charge me Mwk 8,000 (US$11). Therefore, I decided to walk on further out of Songwe to try to get a cheaper car. Here, you’ll start to experience the full benefits of packing light.
I managed to get a shared taxi going to Karonga instead of Chitimba.
Karonga, Malawi to Chitimba, Malawi
Transport: Minibus Duration: 2 hours Cost: Mwk.3,000 (US$4)
The norm is that the minibus does not leave until it is filled up, so it takes quite a while, and much like their Tanzanian counterparts, they make sure they pack it to capacity. No space is left unoccupied. Comfort is not part of the game here. This is Africa, where function is, almost always, over comfort.
Chitimba, Malawi To Livingstonia, Malawi
Transport: Shared pick-up truck Duration: 30 minutes Cost: Mwk 1,500 (US$2)
On arrival at Chitimba, the plan was to head on over to an eco-lodge called The Mushroom Farm in Livingstonia, which I had pre-booked online prior to the trip. However, it was about 10 p.m. when I arrived, and there was no vehicle to take me, so I just asked around and got very cheap accommodation for the night at about US$2 bed only. I know! Major score. I was as tired as a worn out shoe and knocked out within 5 minutes of getting into bed.
I had been to Chitimba before so I skipped it this time. However, if you’ve never been to Chitimba, it’s definitely worth exploring. It’s quite the gem.
There are two options to get to Livingstonia from Chitimba if you don’t have your own means of transport; a pickup truck or hike. And by the way, when I say pick-up truck, I don’t mean like a proper comfy vehicle here. It means sitting in the back with some random goods. I got cases of beers.
Livingstonia is up a hill, and the road is very bumpy, but the stunning views of Lake Malawi on the way make up for all the discomfort.
My stay at The Mushroom Farm Ecolodge cost about US$25 per day, bed only, for a tented room overlooking Lake Malawi.
Livingstonia, Malawi To Chitimba, Malawi
Transport: Hike Duration: 1.5 hours Cost: 0
I hiked down this time. Did I mention pack light? Another pro for packing light is you can explore more movement options. The hike gave me a better interaction with the surroundings. I got to see and learn about the vegetation, drank water from a nearby spring, and collected some edible mushrooms. Additionally, I learned how to identify edible mushrooms from non-edible thanks to my guide.
Chitimba, Malawi To Mzuzu, Malawi
Transport: Minibus Duration: 2 hours Cost: Mwk 3,500 (US$5)
The commute from Chitimba to Mzuzu is very hilly with stunning views of the lake. I didn’t have prior accommodation in Mzuzu, so I got recommendations from the locals for something close to the bus station, of which I got a self-contained room for the day for about Mwk 7,000 (US$10) bed only.
Mzuzu, Malawi To Lilongwe, Malawi
Transport: Random bus Duration: 6 hours Cost: Mwk 10,000 (US$15)
Since it’s a big town, there are plenty of Lilongwe bus options available. It does take a while to get it full, so it’s better to be there early in order to get to Lilongwe on time. I went a bit late and suffered the consequences of getting to Lilongwe at about 9 p.m.
While on the way, I Googled where to stay and found a hostel that had a room available. Unfortunately, when I got to Lilongwe, the taxi guy couldn’t find the place. Plus, it was Christmas, so a lot of options were fully booked. After about 2 hours of driving around and trying, I managed to find a guest house and got myself a self-contained double room for Mwk 20,000 (US$27) B&B. It was pretty good and homely.
Lilongwe, Malawi To Mchinji, Malawi
Transport: Minibus Duration: 1.5 hours Cost: Mwk 4,000 (US$5)
I initially wanted to get a direct bus from Lilongwe to Lusaka, but the bus travel days did not coincide with my plans, so I took the next best option; using a minibus to get to the border, then figure it out from there.
Mchinji, Malawi To Chipata, Zambia
Transport: Shared taxi Duration: 1.5 hours Cost: Mwk 4,000 (US$5)
Mchinji town is close to the border but not quite there yet, so you have to take a shared taxi for Mwk 1,000 (US$1), to get you to the actual border. From the Zambia border, I took a shared taxi to Chipata, which again, may take a while to fill up. You do have the option of renting up the whole car if you pay for the unoccupied seats.
In Chipata, I got a single room close to the bus station for Zmk 100 (US$10) bed only.
Chipata, Zambia To Lusaka, Zambia
Transport: Random bus Duration: 7 hours Cost: Zwk 300 (US$30)
The bus to Lusaka left at 5 a.m. It’s a reasonably comfortable bus, and it made only one stop. When I got to the Lusaka Intercity Bus Terminal, I decided not to stay there, so I booked a bus directly to Livingstone.
Lusaka, Zambia To Livingstone, Zambia
Transport: Random bus Duration: 8 hours Cost: Zwk 300 (US$30)
Except for the Modern Coast Bus services, this was the only other bus throughout the whole journey that I would describe as comfortable.
I arrived in Livingstone in the evening and used my trusty friend Google, once again, to get accommodation. I ended up staying at Livingstone Backpackers for Zmk 200 (US$18) a night for a shared room.
This was the destination where I was going to join the tour operated overland truck. After a couple of days, I moved on over from Livingstone Backpackers to The Victoria Falls Waterfront to join the tour group for camping.
Livingstone, Zambia To Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe
Transport: Taxi Duration: 30 minutes Cost: Zmk 100 (US$10)
Since my travel period was around New Year’s Eve, I decided to cross over to Zimbabwe for the Victoria Falls New Year Festival, which I had heard a bit about before the trip. I took a taxi to the border then got a lift from a truck to Victoria Falls since it’s, like, 5 minutes away.
Please note that Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe primarily uses US dollars.
Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe To Livingstone, Zambia
Transport: Taxi Duration: 30 minutes Cost: Zmk 100 (US$10)
If you cross over to Victoria Falls just for the festival, you may have to overnight there because the border closes at 5 p.m. and re-opens again at 6 a.m. I spent the night at the festival, and as the beautiful benefits of travel have it, I met a wonderful Mozambique lady who then hosted me for a few hours until 6 a.m. I then, later, walked back to the border. From there, I took a taxi back to the Victoria Falls Waterfront.
Livingstone, Zambia To Kazungula Border, Botswana
Transport: Overland Truck Duration: 1 hour Cost: Included in the package
By this time, I had joined the tour company, so no more randomness but rather a scheduled set of events. We used the Kazungula Border to cross to Botswana from Livingstone, Zambia. The border crossing includes a ferry since you’re basically going through River Chobe. What I noticed this time when crossing the border is that when I was alone, it was much faster and I had a lot of flexibility. This time it took a bit of time to clear the vehicle, so there was quite an amount of time wasted there.
Kazungula Border, Botswana To Nata, Botswana
Transport: Overland Truck Duration: 1 hour Cost: Included in the package
I thought Kenya had easy access to wild animals until I got to Botswana. We had barely driven an hour before we saw a family of wild elephants just calmly grazing and crossing the road like it’s just another day. And that’s where we got to our accommodation in Elephant Sands, where we set up camp, literally, next to elephants. It’s a fantastic, once in a lifetime, experience.
Nata, Botswana To Serowe, Botswana
Transport: Overland Truck Duration: 6 hours Cost: Included in the package
Luckily, the overland truck was comfortable and ideal for long journeys, so this journey was kind of a breeze despite the warm Botswana temperatures.
We left Nata early in the morning and arrived in Serowe in the evening. We only made a less than an hour stop for lunch.
Serowe, Botswana to Martin Drift/Grobler’s Bridge Border, Botswana
Transport: Overland Truck Duration: 2 hours Cost: Included in the package
We checked out of the camp very early to avoid any long queues at the border. Unfortunately, some of the kids from the group did not have written authorization to travel, which is required by the Botswana immigration. It took us at least 2 hours to sort it out. Luckily, after everything was sorted out, the South African clearance process was speedy.
Martin Drift/Grobler’s Bridge Border, Botswana to Johannesburg, South Africa
Transport: Overland Truck Duration: 11 hours Cost: Included in the package
From the border, we headed on further into South Africa for Johannesburg via Pretoria. We arrived in Johannesburg later that night.
Overall, the landscape from Kenya to Malawi is stunning. A sight for sore eyes. It’s filled with a plethora of greenery, hills, mountains, and lakes. As from Zambia, it’s mostly flat and monotonous, and it gets drier as you go down south to Botswana. But once you enter South Africa, you’re back to mountainous green landscapes before you get to the concrete jungle.
Crossing borders was fairly easy. You just have to have your documents up to date and ready. This is especially important if you’re traveling with kids.
If you’re not a fussy person, cheap accommodation is very easy to find. The same applies to food, that is, if you eat where the average local dines. Basically, live like a local in everything and you’ll be good to go.
Maybe I’m a little paranoid, but I always changed my money in actual bureaus unless it is a minimal amount for use on the road. It’s better to be safe than sorry when it comes to money. I had US dollars as the primary currency for exchange. I used the ATM, too, but I do not recommend it because the bank charges can be very high.
Rome2Rio app is excellent for researching route options, costs, and vehicle options. It was almost accurate and very beneficial.
The further south you go, the more expensive things get.
My favorite place was definitely and without a doubt, Malawi because they’ve maintained a lot of forests and since it’s not too developed, yet, everything seems natural. The least favorite place was South Africa because it’s too developed. I’m more into actual jungle than concrete.
When I was starting the trip, I was very nervous and anxious, but I have to say that this is the best trip I’ve ever done and I would, easily, do it again. I learned a lot about myself and the diversity of the African continent.
If you have any questions, comment them below, or alternatively, head on over to the contact section and I’ll be happy to get back to you as soon as I can. Thank you for reading.