There is no question: Africa is magnificent, but the infrastructure is a mess. Its size, roads, and groundwork makes the overland travel option intimidating at best, and terrifying to worst. But don't be discouraged; traveling overland through this monstrous continent is well worth the struggle. And that is saying something.
In order to help, here are 12 tips on how to travel overland through Africa safely and (relatively) smoothly. Master these, and you'll be equipped to take on the roads, and enjoy the magnificent, albeit bumpy, ride.
1. On booking tickets:
Most transportation transfers don't have a website. Talk with your hotel, but know you'll likely need to buy all of your tickets at the station. At the station, always book your ticket from the official ticket stand, as forged tickets are common.
2. Remember kids: Africa is big.
Distances are vast. Leave plenty of time between transfers and prepare yourself for the ride with healthy snacks and a paperback book.
3. A paperback? Huh?
Yes, try and keep your electronics out of sight so you are less tempting for theft. Also have the name, address, and phone number of your accommodations written on an old-fashioned piece of paper, so you don't have to bust out your phone.
4. Pass the time with watching.
As you go, look around! And instead of being a passive observer, notice details that give insight into the vastly different life and culture that surrounds you. Really look and really think. Also, never skip a bathroom break, which reminds me: "really look and really think" is incidentally the opposite advice I have for the African bathrooms which is...
5. In the bathrooms:
Don't look around, and don't think about it. Trust me. Also remember: clean bathrooms are rarely free. And free bathrooms are rarely clean.
6. Talk to the bus driver.
If the bus route has multiple stops, tell the driver your destination and ask him to tell you when you arrive. Many times there aren't actual stops, so you can get dropped off wherever is closest to your destination. This isn't fail proof, so keep alert.
7. Africa is scary at night. Prepare accordingly.
Often, transfers leave well before sunrise. Hire a local from your hotel to escort you to the station and to get you on the right bus or train. If you're arriving at a station after dark, arrange for transportation through your accommodations. If that isn't possible, only go with verified taxi and always negotiate the price beforehand.
8. Why are all of these taxi drivers yelling at me?
When you arrive at the station, countless taxi drivers will be waiting and yelling to take you to your hotel. Don't be alarmed; this is how they feed their families. Pick a driver and the others will leave you alone.
9. Negotiate well.
When picking a taxi, negotiate the price to your final destination. If possible, research the appropriate taxi fare (either from your hotel or a travel book) so you know where to begin. And as you negotiate, don't let yourself be rushed. Also, once you find a driver you like, arrange for him to pick you up for your next ride. And the next!
10. Stations are a mess.
Whether they're bus stations or train stations, in the U.S. or Africa, transfer hubs are chaotic hot spots for theft. Get packed up and mentally prepared before you enter the station. Have your bags locked and attached to your body. As a young ragamuffin boy, who could hardly speak English, once told us, "Don't trust anyone."
11. But do trust some people.
Befriend a local on the bus to explain transfers and watch out for you. African people are incredibly warm and, once they're on your side, you're part of the family.
12. Look with your eyes.
If you can't befriend a local, watch the locals carefully and mimic what they do. Is everyone getting off the bus for a snack? You should too. Do they take their belongings with them? Do the same. Brief stops don't have time estimates so, when you get off the bus, don't stray too far.
As you go, appreciate your good fortune. You're traveling as a local and get precious glimpses of a life and landscape usually left unseen. Enjoy the villages through your window and marvel at the diversity of the world. Africa is spectacular, so join the lucky few who get to experience it from the ground.
Blakely is traveling around the world with her husband and recounting their adventures on her travel website. Follow to get lost, thrilled, taught, scared, shocked and changed with them.