Backpacking through East Africa – everything you need to know

Nivumilie, haya yote ni maisha.

In this post, I’m going to tell you how I traveled across East Africa, from Nairobi to Tanzania, Uganda, and Rwanda, by road – and on a budget! Get comfortable, and let’s take a little trip.

For context, and to help you understand my experience better, I am 23 years old as I write this.

Starting with the basics, the East African Community (hereafter referred to as the EAC) consists of 6 member States: Kenya, Uganda, Rwanda, Tanzania, Burundi, and South Sudan. This means that if you are a citizen of an EAC state, you can use your travel document (passport, ID, inter-state pass, or other acceptable travel documents) to travel to other EAC States without a visa requirement.
I recommend you visit the EAC website for more information.

Now that we know it’s possible to cross EAC borders hassle-free, here are some lessons I’ve learnt from traveling on a budget from Nairobi to Arusha, Dar es Salaam, Kampala, and Kigali.

Overview

Arusha, Tanzania
Mural of Julius Nyerere by Bankslave

The title of this article is ‘Backpacking through East Africa’, so what does that mean?
The term ‘backpacking’ comes from a style of travel that involves literally having to carry all your essentials in a bag that you carry on your back, as you travel.
Personally, I think of backpacking as a budget way of traveling, which would entail staying at budget accommodation, i.e hostels, surviving on the bare minimum, and usually involves being immersed in the local culture of the place you are visiting.

Saving cost

So now, let’s talk about how to travel around East Africa on a budget.

The golden rule I have learnt, is that the most effective way to save money when traveling, is by choosing a budget mode of travel, and staying at budget accommodation. That’s it. That’s literally all you need to know about how to travel on a budget. Save money on travel and accommodation.

Travel

Consider traveling by bus.

I know, traveling by bus inter-state might sound scary at first, but when I took my first trip from Nairobi to Dar es Salaam in late 2018, I had no choice but to take a 19-hour bus ride. Yes, you read that correctly, 19 hours on a bus.
I needed to go to Dar es Salaam to facilitate a spoken word poetry workshop, and with my allocated budget at the time, I couldn’t afford a flight ticket. I therefore had to make the journey by road. Ka mbaya, mbaya. If it wasn’t for this trip, however, I would have never discovered the world of budget travel.

There are a number of bus companies that will get you across borders, some bus companies being better than others. My bus ticket to Dar at the time cost around 4000 KES ($40) in total, for a round-trip ticket. That is, 2000 KES to get to Dar, and 2000 KES to get back to Nairobi.

Kampala, Uganda

Buses are for sure not as comfortable as flights, but you get what you pay for. Buses will often charge extra for the more premium seats at the front of the bus, which are usually more comfortable, and have more leg room.

P.s, if you’re reading this and you run a bus company in East Africa, your next customer could be reading this blog. Feel free to reach me if you would like to sponsor this post.

Most bus companies also have routes through most East African major cities.
If you’re worried about long distance travel by bus, consider breaking your journey at intermediate cities. Example, I took a 26 hour bus ride from Nairobi to Kigali non-stop in 2019 (you’d think I’d have learnt my lesson after the 19 hour bus ride a year earlier). What I could have done, was take a 13 hour bus ride from Nairobi to Kampala, rest for a day, and then take another 13 hour bus ride from Kampala to Kigali. Breaking your journey will definitely be more expensive, as you will have to buy multiple bus tickets, and find accommodation in the city you’ll stopping at, so this really just depends on you. Also, stopping at intermediate cities before you get to your destination allows you to explore more of East Africa.

I would also recommend taking the day buses, if you are wary about night travel.

Bus rides for me have always been about the experience, as much as I was saving cost, I was gaining so much in the friendships I made, conversations I had, and all the incredible stories I heard from people during my trips.

Accommodation

As with travel, when it comes to accommodation, you get what you pay for.

If you’re traveling on a budget, you should be open minded when it comes to your options. That being said, I have found beautiful, clean, private, and decent accommodation spaces around East Africa, even for as low as 1,500 KES ($15) a night. It is definitely possible to find even cheaper accommodation, but don’t torture yourself, please. You’re already saving a lot of money by choosing budget accommodation, so you should at least choose to stay somewhere where you feel comfortable and safe.

There are a lot of websites with catalogs of accommodation; ranging from private rooms, a bed in a dorm, hostels, and budget hotels.
Remember that sometimes cheap can be expensive. Post COVID 19 especially, you need to be ware of the environment of the place you’re looking to stay at.

Sign on the bathroom door at a backpackers hostel in Kampala, Uganda.
(The shower was awesome)

When choosing accommodation also, a pro tip is to stay somewhere central to all your activities. i.e. if you want to see museums, art centers, landmarks, and if you want to be close to malls and restaurants, find accommodation close to those places. You will end up saving a lot when it comes to transport costs while you are there.

It helps to have an itinerary ready when looking for accommodation. Have a list of the places you want to go to and the activities you want to do, and then look for accommodation within that radius.

I have experienced staying in shared dorms, private rooms, budget hotels, and I’ve even been hosted for free a few times when I traveled for poetry events!

Budget accommodation is not a one-size-fits-all. Pick what works for you.


P.s, if you’re reading this and you run a budget accommodation space in East Africa, feel free to reach me if you would like to sponsor this post for promo. Your next guest is definitely reading this blog.

Language barrier

Spoiler alert: you’re going to get lost, or you’re going to need to order food, or buy something from a shop, or use public transport, or make friends. The point is, you’re going to need to talk to people!
Make sure you know what the local language is wherever you’re going.

My first time going to Tanzania, I was fairly confident because I thought I knew how to speak Kiswahili. Key word: thought.
Shock on my life when I realized that Kiswahili really becomes a foreign dialect when you cross the border. No matter how well you speak Kiswahili in Kenya, Tanzanian Kiswahili itakupiga na butwaa.

At the Campaign Against Genocide Museum in Kigali, Rwanda

English is fairly common across East Africa, but it depends on who you’re talking to. i.e. in offices or tourist attractions, English would be one of the common languages. However in shops, or public transport, the local language will be more common.

My first time in Kampala, I decided to hail a boda boda to get me to a mall. The conversation between me and the rider was a comical exchange in English, Luganda, and sub-par Kiswahili. It was actually the tower of Babylon part 2.
Be prepared by having Google maps to find your way around (you won’t have mobile data or WiFi at all times, so save the directions to view offline). I formed the habit of literally drawing the map of the city on a piece of paper with all the street names, so that I could walk around without getting lost.

Find out what the local language is, and learn key phrases, such as how to say hello, excuse me, I’m sorry I don’t speak *insert language*, how much is this, etc.

Traveling alone

For this one, I’m just going to list a few of the pros and cons of traveling alone.

Pros of traveling solo:

  • You choose what you want to do, at your own time
  • You get to spend time with yourself, and get out of your comfort zone
  • You’ll be motivated to make new friends
  • Traveling alone boosts your self-confidence and independence

Cons of traveling solo:

  • You have to be a lot more conscious about your personal safety
  • It might be more expensive to travel alone
  • You have to ask strangers to take pictures of you
  • You will get lonely

When deciding whether to travel alone or with friends, you just need to weigh the pros and cons for yourself. I have done majority of my traveling alone, and these are some tips I have:

Zip-lining in Kigali, Rwanda

For your personal security, be ware of your surroundings. Know your destination and the address of your accommodation. If possible, get a contact of someone at your accommodation, e.g. the manager or host.
Be ware of scammers! Foreigners are easy targets for scams, so make sure you know what you’re doing before you spend money on anything, or before you give anyone your personal information.
Change money at trustworthy foreign exchange shops. Currency exchange at the border might be at better rates, but there’s always the risk of being conned, so you have to pay close attention.
I would usually change just a little money at the border, just so that I have some of the local currency on me in case of an emergency, and then I’d wait until I got to a town to go to reputable foreign exchange shop, to change the rest of my money.

Keep your luggage safe, e.g. by using a padlock.

To overcome loneliness, I would usually travel with a book or two. I would avoid using my phone as much as possible to preserve battery life. Go to social venues, i.e art galleries, and try make friends. Most importantly, learn how to spend time with yourself.

Conclusion

You don’t have to travel in luxury for you to travel. Come up with a budget, and then break it down to see what travel mode would be best, how much you can spare for accommodation, and how much you have as pocket money. Organize your travel this way, and you’ll find out that budget travel can be a wonderful experience.

Keep an open mind, always.
Also, remember to pack your phone charger, and your toothbrush!

Wanna reach me?

Email me at machariamumbi1@gmail.com
Instagram: @mumbipoetry
Twitter: @mumbipoetry
Facebook: Mumbi Spoken Word

Published by mumbimacharia

Performing spoken word poet, writer, event curator, East African.

4 thoughts on “Backpacking through East Africa – everything you need to know

  1. I totally agree on the getting lost part, I went on a solo trip and no one warned me I will get lost but it was an amazing experience.

    Like

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