Pyramids of Giza, Zanzibar, Lake Malawi, Victoria Falls, South Africa’s Garden Route
Thinking about going to Africa? We put together a three-month backpacker itinerary covering 25 different destinations in North, East, and South Africa. The itinerary will lead you from the pyramids of Giza in Cairo, over Zanzibar (Tanzania), to Lake Malawi, to Zambia and South Africa. But before we jump into the itinerary, here’s a little guide on how to navigate the African continent.
What to expect? Africa for first-time visitors.
When frequenting the lobbies of popular backpacker hotspots, stories of travels in Thailand, Spain or Australia are the common thread. Only seldom will you hear travelers talk about Africa. The African continent is still a hidden gem, only discovered by travel fanatics.
Cape Town by night
We are convinced that this will change in the next few years. Increasing development, political stability, and open-mindedness will transform the continent as backpackers will flock to up-and-coming destinations like Tanzania, Mozambique, Morocco, and Ethiopia.
Yet, the continent is not quite as easy to travel as, perhaps, South East Asia. Infrastructure is still inferior, which causes the hopping from one country to another a tiresome endeavor. Also, the destinations are not designed for a herd of backpackers. On the other hand, exotic cultures, pristine nature, and captivating history will make up for the obstacles on the road. Here are a few pieces of general advice as you embark on your adventure.
The golden rule for those wanting to explore Africa: “Take it slow in Africa.”
Bus trips advertised as 4-hour rides can easily turn into 10-hour journeys, trucks may get stuck in the dirt and border-crossings may take longer than expected.
Be prepared to spend at least 4 to 5 days at each individual location. This will help you to budget for delays, recover from long bus rides, and really get a grasp of local culture.
Also, organize your visas in time! Research beforehand which countries will require you to apply for a visa.
How to get around?
As before, mentioned getting around is not as easy as many of us are used to.
Flights: This is probably the easiest way to get around. Here are some booking sites that we have found helpful. Google Flights, Skyscanner, Travelstart (South Africa based) and Jetstar.
By rental car: in order of convenience, the next mode of transport on our list is rental cars. If you want to avoid long cross-country bus rides consider renting a car. The drawbacks: you might become a victim of fake police controls asking for a small bribe for an obviously non-existing violation (usually harmless though annoying), some streets might not be suitable for driving unless you have a jeep. The perks: you are able to drive up to many national parks and don’t depend on tour agencies (though for other parks you do), the freedom of being able to stop wherever you want to (the magic in traveling Africa often lies in taking it slow, staying longer, and taking in the local vibe. Read up on local driving rules (some countries require special permits etc.); make sure there are gas stations along the route.
Anyways, for the purpose of this itinerary, we limit ourselves to public transportation and budget options.
Buses: cross-country buses are a popular choice with backpackers with many options available ranging from more or less luxurious double-decker buses to more budget options. Make sure to compare different companies and buy your tickets in advance to make sure you get a spot. Many buses don’t have bathrooms so bring your own toilet paper. Be prepared for looooong trips (36 h bus trips may be inevitable) to get you from A to B. Negotiate prices and book tickets at the local bus terminals.
Mini-vans: the most common form of getting from A to B as a traveler is probably by mini-bus. The options range from crowded 9 seaters to private charter shuttles. If you are on a tight schedule or travel in a bigger group consider getting a driver. Sometimes your accommodation will also arrange pick-ups or tours upon request. Again: the rule is to ask around.
Trains: some countries have a more or less well-developed train system. Sleeper or private departments might be a good option. Consider taking the train if you want to experience some of the scenic landscape as you go from village to village. One popular train route e.g. is the train from Dar es Salaam to Mbeya in Tanzania: a country that’s known for its unsafe roads and poor service on buses.
Now that we’ve got all of this covered let’s jump into the ultimate three-month Cairo to Cape Town itinerary that we put together for you.
How to use this itinerary: we cover only transportation. We recommend you to book most of the tickets a few weeks in advance but leave room for delays and changes to the route. Book accommodation on location and budget money for food and tours. Many times there are plenty of activities to do at the locations in our guide. Use this itinerary as a baseline and build your trip on top of it.
Egypt, Tanzania, Malawi, Zambia, South Africa: Here we go!
1. Metro: Cairo, Egypt – Pyramids of Giza – Cairo $1
In this sample itinerary, we start out in Cairo, Egypt, home to the world-famous Pyramids of Giza.
Speaking about wonders of the world: the Pyramids are easily accessible by metro or bus from the city center of Cairo. It’s about a 20min ride costing 40 cents one way.
2. Train: Cairo – Alexandria – Cairo $2
The catacombs of Kom El Shoqafa
The ancient town of Alexandria is also easily accessible from Cairo by train and makes a nice day trip. Take the train (about 3h) from Sidi Gaber to Alexandria and explore the City of Alexander the Great, and now the biggest seaport in Egypt.
3. Flight: Cairo – Dar es Salaam, Tanzania $244
Of course, there’s plenty more to do in North Africa. But we’ll head over into East Africa to embark on the second leg of this trip. If you are on a budget or tight schedule you could skip Egypt and fly directly into Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. The sample flight we found was on Google Flights for $200 to $240.
Dar es Salaam City, photo: Stefan Magdalinski, Flickr
Dar es Salaam is mostly a transit hub for tourists making their way to Mt. Kilimanjaro near the Kenyan border or the island of Zanzibar.
If you choose to go to Kilimanjaro ask around in Dar es Salaam. Plenty of tourist agencies offer tour packages. Be prepared to spend roughly 14 hours on a bus or catch a connecting flight to the city of Arusha.
We’ll skip Mt. Kilimanjaro on this trip and move on to Zanzibar.
4. Ferry: Dar es Salaam – Zanzibar – Stone Town – Dar es Salaam $70
The island of Zanzibar lies just off the coast of Tanzania. You could catch a flight from Dar but we choose the budget option: the ferry. The best resource guide we found about this leg of the trip is by GoGirlGuides. The ferry trip should take between 3 and 4 hours and cost about $35 USD.
On Zanzibar: spend at least a few days to hit different beaches, go snorkelling and explore the old center of Zanzibar city. Stone Town, also known as Mji Mkongwe, can be reached by taxi and was designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2000.
Stone Town, Zanzibar, photo: Photo: @jenlaceda, Instagram
Take your time to relax because the next leg of the trip will involve quite some travel time.
5. Dar es Salaam, Tanzania – Nkhata Bay, Malawi $24
Optional stops: Mikumi National Park, Mbeya, Kasumulu border, Karonga, Mzuzu, Nkhata Bay
If you are in a rush you might want to consider taking a flight from Dar es Salaam to Lilongwe (Malawi) and head to Nkhata Bay from there.We choose to take it slow and make our way to Lake Malawi by land.
The fastest and cheapest way it to book a bus ticket from Dar es Salaam to the Malawi border (Kasumulu border) for about $18 USD. Once Upon a Travel has a good guide on this leg of the trip on her blog. The bus takes about 24 hours. If you need a guide on how to survive the long bus ride read our article here.
If you want to break it up into different parts: stop by Mikumi National Park first, then make your way to Mbeya, stop there for a few days and then cross the border by mini-van or bus.
Photo: Mikumi National Park, Tanzania by @africanvibes_
Another option would be the slightly more expensive but scenic train ride that takes you from village to village from Dar es Salaam to Mbeya, Tanzania for about 70 USD. Be prepared for a long ride though. The train takes about 24hours. Roadsandkingdoms wrote a good guide on this trip.
From there you could take a bus to the border.
After you crossed the border ask for a taxi or bus to the town Karonga. From Karonga take a bus or mini-van to Nkhata Bay on the shores of Lake Malawi. Catch your breath! You made it to lake Malawi, UNESCO world heritage site and one of the largest sweet water lakes in the world.
Lake Malawi is a popular tourist spot in the area due to its beautiful beaches and pristine water. It is also essential for the region’s economy and ecology. Lake Malawi’s ecosystem is of similar value than the Galapagos islands when it comes to evolution research. The whole area around Karonga is considered the cradle of humankind with early hominids believed to have lived there between a million and 6 million years ago.
6. Ferry: Nkhata Bay – Likoma Island – Monkey Bay, Lake Malawi $25
Ready to move on? Lake Malawi is also known as Lake Nyasa and the second largest and deepest freshwater lake in the world after Lake Baikal in Siberia. The lake has two inhabited islands. Likoma Island is one of them. A perfect way to explore the lake is by taking a ferry across the lake hitting the most popular spots like Likoma Island and taking you all the way to Money Bay in the South. Make sure you bring enough cash: none of the little towns around the lake is known to have working ATMs. Read more details about the ferry journey here.
Monkey Bay, Malawi, photo by @Jonathan Reid, Flickr
Recharged? Another long trip is ahead of you. We’re slowly making our way down to Victoria Falls. If you’re willing to spend a little bit more consider booking a flight from Lilongwe (Malawi’s capital) or Blantyre to Livingstone (Zambia) the hub for Victoria Falls.
7. Bus: Monkey Bay – Lilongwe (Malawi) – Lusaka (Zambia), $43
From the beach town of Monkey Bay catch a mini-van or bus to Lilongwe, the capital of Malawi. It should take about 3 hours and cost about $9 USD. We recommend staying a night before jumping right on the next 12-hour cross-border bus to Lusaka, the capital of Zambia. Tickets are sold at the bus station in Lilongwe and cost about $34 USD. Ryan Rowe writes about his border-crossing from Malawi to Zambia here.
Photo by IG: @tetemunalula, Lusaka
8. Bus: Lusaka – Livingstone – Victoria Falls $13
Catch your breath for a few nights in Lusaka. Explore the city or closeby destinations like Munda Wanga Environmental Park. When you’re ready catch an 8h bus to Livingstone. It should cost about 13 USD like VictoriaFalls24 describes.
Livingstone is the gateway for Victoria Falls. Book a tour or venture over to the majestic falls yourself. Spend a night or two and then move on.
9. Flight: Victoria Falls – Johannesburg $100
From Victoria Falls we recommend catching a flight to Johannesburg. Alternatively, you can extend the trip by going through Botswana and hitting Chobe National Parks and the famous Okavango Delta. We suggest catching a flight to Johannesburg for about $100 USD with Fastjet.
Photo: IG @binxywiesner
10. Flight: Johannesburg — Port Elizabeth $59
From Johannesburg catch a cheap flight to Port Elizabeth, one of the largest cities of South Africa. Port Elizabeth is a major port, known for its numerous beaches and the gateway to the famous Garden Route to Cape Town.
11. Rental Car: The Garden Route: Port Elizabeth – Knysna – Cape Town from $150
The Garden Route is a 300km picturesque drive along the south-western coast of South Africa. The name comes from the diverse and unique landscape in the area ranging from numerous lagoons, lush vegetation and the ocean along the coast. It includes towns such as Knysna, Plettenberg Bay, Mossel Bay, Little Brak River and Nature’s Valley. The route is best explored by car: so if you can: rent a car for about $34 USD per day + gas. Otherwise, jump on a bus from Port Elizabeth to Knysna (4hrs 28min) for about $17 with Greyhound South Africa. Stay in Knysna for a few nights and then move on to the second leg of the trip: Knysna — Cape Town about 8 hrs 35 min on the bus; about $24 with Greyhound South Africa.
12. Last stop: Cape Town
Cape Town is a vibrant city with lots of culture and nature to explore. Spend a few days hiking the famous Table Mountain, exploring South Africa’s famous cuisine and people. Enjoy!
What a trip!
TOTAL: $632 USD ($418 USD without Cairo starting in Dar es Salaam)
PLACES VISITED: 22; 5 countries
DAYS: approx. 21 days just for South Africa; 40 days for Tanzania and Zambia; 10 days for Egypt – recommended trip length min. 2-3 months
We hope this guide will inspire you to pull the trigger and explore Africa! Putting this guide together was hard as a lot has to be left to chance and tickets for ground transportation is best bought on the spot. Take your time for this life-changing adventure and don’t pressure yourself to hit every single destination exactly like outlined. Keep in mind that wildlife safaris are probably the most sought-after in Africa but also the most expensive experience you could have. Budget for it and plan ahead!
If you have any feedback on the itinerary, please let us know!