Getting around in Africa

Bus in Nairobi Kenya
Busses are numerous in Nairobi

Getting around in Africa can be easy or very difficult depending on the country, region, destination and time of year. Flying is often preferred when traveling over longer distances and it will of course save you time and hazzles. But there are many other means of transportation; regional busses, trains, mini busses (Toyota & Nissans), city taxis, Tuk Tuk’s, Boda Boda’s, renting a car or motorcycle, bicycling or walking.

And when going on a safari mini busses or four-wheeled vehichles are being used and such can be booked via tour operators in Africa. Each mean of transportation has it own advantages and disadvantages as described in the following articles regarding.

Getting to the national parks

In the national parks there are no public transportation so if you want to go on a safari, you will have to either have to borrrow or hire your own car, ride with some other tourists or book a safari with a local tour operator. In the National Parks the animals always have the right of way and a minibus have to wait to pass as a pride of lions have taken place on the road in order to soak up the accumulated heat from the ground before the cool night falls in the Masai Mara.

In Africa the roads are usually not up to american or european standards and one should always be alert. Especially driving at night is not recommended, as there are most often no street lights and pedestrians and animals use the roads anytime of day and night. If a car or truck has a mechanical problem become has been involved in an accident it is common to use some broken off branches, some stones or whatever is available to mark the road as a warning sign for other traffickers.

Going on Safari to Lake Turkana
Where the going gets rough, four-wheel drive vehichles like a Land Cruiser or a Land Rover is the perfect car for going on a safari in Africa

Travelling by boat or ship in Africa

Boat with tourists Shela Beach in Lamu
Boat with tourists at Shela Beach in Lamu

Where there are sea, lakes or rivers, travelling by ships, boats or in canoes can be the only form of transportation possible. Most often travelling on water is an amazing experience in itself – especially in Africa with its abundance of waterways and crystal clear seas.

Some places in Africa one can still experience the most basic means of transportation as in Omorate in Omo valley in southern Ethiopia, the canoes are traditional dugout canoes and their shapes are organic as can be seen on the photograph below.

On Africas big lakes like lake Victoria, Tanganyika, Malawi and others regular ferries can be found to take you from one town to another or across the whole lake to the neighbouring countries. The ferry route around the lake stopped around 1975 but a small ship that sails a couple times a week from Kisumu to Mwanza and back should be working again.

On Africas big lakes like lake Victoria, Tanganyika, Malawi and others regular ferries can be found to take you from one town to another or across the whole lake to the neighbouring countries. The ferry route around Lake Victoria stopped around 1975 but a small ship that sails a couple times a week from Kisumu to Mwanza and back should be working again.

Travelling by boat or ship on any body of water in Africa can be a fascinating and rewarding experience. The water itself as well as a direct view to the exotic flora and fauna that exists in tropical Africa is always fascinating.

On all the bigger rivers like the Congo, the Niger and the Nile – sailing with even big ferries is possible. Of course it should be stressed that any setting out in a boat or ship involves the risk of capsizing and if there is no safety equipment on board, people may die! Therefor it is important to always ask the captain about the quality and quantity of safety equipment on board.

setting sail on the Indian Ocean
Outrigger canoes off the beach in Zanzibar to fish in the Indian Ocean

Travelling by minibus

Local transportation in Africa
Long rows of Toyota- and Nissan minibusses awaits to be filled with passengers at the central bus terminal in Kampala, Uganda

If you travel by local transport in- and around the cities and bigger towns it is usually very cheap. The main transportation devices in most African cities and towns are busses (in kenya called Matatus) – Nissan or Toyota 12-14 seater minibusses, that will take you almost anywhere within the city limit for less than a dollar.

On some longer journeys there are also the option of getting a seven seater taxi, which is a bit more expensive than a Matatu but you will have your own comfortable seat and since it only takes seven people, it won’t take as long as a matatu to fill up with passengers (The matatus will only leave when full). Busses and matatus are the main form of transport for most people in Kenya. Here a medium sized city bus hurries through the street in Nairobi, Kenya

Regional buses

Probably needless to say, when being at a place with many people travelling, packing suitcases, buying food and drinks for the journey etc. – you should always be alert regarding your possesions and money as thiefs in such busy places have an advantage. Also the risk of accidents on the road should be taken into consideration before embarking on the local busses.

Usually it’s safe and everything will be just fine, but driving at night is generally a “no go” in developing countries, where street lights are often non existant and people take on the road with donkeys, horses, cows, sheep, dogs and slow wagons.

A city bus in Nairobi, kenya
Many people use public transportation in the big cities. Here a city bus in Nairobi, kenya

Going by Tuk Tuk

Tuk tuk - or Bajad in Hawassa Ethiopia
Tuk tuk - or Bajad - the small but fierceless three-wheelers have become enormously popular all over Africa

An auto rickshaw or three-wheeler (tuk-tuk, trishaw, rickshaw, bajaj, rick, tricycle or mototaxi) is another way to get around towns and nearby locations where even a car might not be able to enter. Tuk Tuk’s is a usually three-wheeled cabin cycle for private use and as a vehicle for hire they are a cheap way to get around in many African towns and cities.

Auto rickshaws have recently become an essential form of urban transport in many developing countries as it is basically a motorized version of the traditional pulled rickshaw or cycle rickshaw. When going on longer journeys taking a local bus is definetely an option to consider as they are cheap and you will meet and interact with local people on the way, thus learning more about the culture.

Renting a car or motorcycle in Africa

Under the tropical sun in Africa a motorcycle is not a bad choice as your vehichle because the wind can lower the temperature on your body and in perfect conditions, riding a motocycle usually brings a big smile on the riders face.

But there’s a few things to take into consideration before setting out on the African dusty and potholed roads. When renting a car or a motorcycle in Africa you should first check with the authorities that your drivers license is valid as in quite a few African countries an international drivers license is needed. Also you should check the mechanical condition of the vehicle being offered and ensure with the owner that some sort of insurance will cover any damages. The price should always be negotiated before you depart and if there are small scratches and marks on the motorcycle or car, be sure to remind the owner of these before setting out, so that no claims can be held against you when returning the vehicle. Also one should keep in mind, that traffic and driving in third world countries can be a bit more challenging than in the West. Traffic lights may be missing and people have different ways of driving and there can be big potholes in the roads without any warning. Finally, just finding your way can sometimes be a bit problematic as there are few signs and not everyone speaks english. Obviously, going to a national park on a motorcycle is prohibited most places. And as a general rule you should never drive at night!

This is why the majority in Africa ends up driving in a car of some sort. Cars are much safer than motorcycles too and you can bring much more luggage with you on a safari or longer distances. Always check with locals if a four-wheel drive vehichles is needed. Also a local driver and a cook can be hired to make your safari smooth and troublefree and keeping focus on all the wildlife instead of spending time cooking and putting the tents up.

A man on a motorcycle in Jinka in Ethiopia
Man on a motorcycle in Jinka right before sunset

Flying in Africa

Safarilink flies between Nairobi, Naivasha and Masa Mara as well as to other destinations in Kenya
Handling luggage on an airstrip in Masai Mara

There are a number of airlines flying to- and from Africa as well as many national and local African airline companies to choose from when travelling in Africa. Most offer high service for a relatively small price though some don’t have the highest rating regarding safety.

Traveling over land can be time-consuming, uncomfortable, hot, dusty etc. but this is the way to go if you want to experience more of Africa and its landscapes, people and animals.