Southern Africa on a budget

Written by Donovan March 1, 2017 Category: Africa, Botswana, Lesotho, South Africa, Zambia, Zimbabwe Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , Comments

An astonishingly diverse region fused by its prolific wildlife, breathtaking landscapes and remnants of ancient culture, Southern Africa will etch itself on your heart. Most people will immediately think of safaris or impoverished people when ‘Africa’ is mentioned or ask “Is it dangerous?”, but did you know that South Africa is the second largest economy in Africa, while Botswana is among the top 10 most peaceful countries in the world? Traveling in this region has opened up my mind and offered me different perspectives.
During this 3-week trip, I visited South Africa, Lesotho, Zambia, Zimbabwe and Botswana. I had wanted to add Swaziland to my list but it was too rushed, and I would rather spend more time at each place than to rush through so many countries without experiencing the local culture.  This is my third time to the African continent, yet I continue to be amazed by it and how easy it is to travel around without getting into difficult situations. It is not dangerous at all, as long as you take the necessary precautions to be vigilant and to avoid going out at night.

map of my Southern Africa trip

South Africa is the main gateway to the region, with Singapore Airlines and South African Airways flying direct to Johannesburg and Cape Town. Being budget conscious, I chose the cheapest flight available on Skyscanner which happened to be with the world’s five-star airline. My return flight cost S$700 on Qatar airways which was bought during one of their sale periods, about 3 months in advance, versus a direct Singapore Airlines flight which would have cost twice as much.

South Africa

one of the three capitals – Pretoria

South Africa has three capital cities – Cape Town the legislative capital, Pretoria the Seat of the President and Cabinet, and Bloemfontein the administrative capital. Pretoria is a more compact version of Johannesburg and it is worth checking out the Union buildings. The imposing statue of Nelson Mandela can be seen behind and he is definitely a revered figure in the country.

Johannesburg and Pretoria are conveniently located by high speed train in under 40 minutes, Yes, South Africa is very developed that they even have a high-speed train in Gauteng province, known as the Gautrain. It links the international airport to Johannesburg and onwards Pretoria.

In Johannesburg, don’t miss out the chance to do a Soweto (Southwest township) tour which wil bring you to  world famous Landmarks such as the Baragwanath Precinct, the Hector Pietersen Museum and the Mandela House Museum. A walk down Vilakazi Street brings us to Archbishop Desmond Tutu’s house. Vilakazi Street is the only street in the world that has produced two Nobel Peace Prize winners (Nelson Mandela & Desmond Tutu), hence it is very significant in the area.

Artwork along Vilakazi street, Soweto
Nelson Mandela house attracts a steady stream of tourists everyday.

After Johannesburg, I headed down south to Port Elizabeth (PE) to explore the coast and to run a marathon there. As its name suggests, it is a coastal city, where many South Africans flock to during summer to enjoy the sun, sand and sea. The bus ride from Johannesburg to PE was $35 on APM. There are several companies to choose from and the price for the 15h journey range from $35-$45.

The amazing beach at Port Elizabeth with soft powdery sand and clear blue skies.

PE has several beautiful attractions and offers a wide range of activities to indulge in, from visiting Addo Elephant Park, surfing the sand dunes at Sundays river to diving in the Indian Ocean to going on a craft beer tour. It forms the Nelson Mandela Bay metropolitan area,

Minivans (also known as combis) ply the beach avenue and the railway/bus station. Each ride only costs $1 regardless of distance traveled and it serves as a local form of transport.

Colourful houses around PE add some vibrancy to the neighbourhood.
Artwork around Donkin square to commemorate the first time people went to the polls.
Children on the street posing for my photo.

After spending a week in South Africa, I went up to Bloemfontein (overnight bus $40) and then crossed the border to Lesotho. It is a unique country indeed because Lesotho is an independent country that is totally surrounded by South Africa as you see on the world map.

 

Lesotho

Lesotho is also known as the Kingdom in the sky because everywhere in the country is at least 1000km in altitude. Geographically speaking, most of the country consists of high mountain ranges, which have been carved out by rivers. During winter, there is abundant snow in the mountains and people from neighbouring countries like to go to Lesotho to engage in winter activities such as skiing and snowboarding.

Visit to the origins of the Lesotho kingdom, where the first king defeated his enemies.
Mohale dam which provides freshwater to Lesotho and the excess sold to South Africa.

The currency in Lesotho can be used interchangeably with the South African rand because they are the same value. Some highlights of Lesotho include the Mohale Dam, spending a night in a traditional Basotho hut and visiting the highest single drop waterfalls in the region – Maletsunyane Falls. The waterfalls create a haze of smoke as the water plummets 186 metres into a spectacular gorge. It is from this smoke that Semonkong – The Place of Smoke – gets its name. Staying at Semonkong Lodge gave me the chance to experience living in the countryside and enjoying the pure nature that it offered.

Traditonal Basotho hut
Life on the edge at Semonkong.
Maletsunyane Falls, largest single-drop falls in Africa.

The original plan was to go to Harare, the capital of Zimbabwe to catch up with my friend, but unfortunately due to the lack of time, I decided to head straight to Victoria Falls, which separates both Zambia and Zimbabwe.

 

Zimbabwe

Zimbabwe still has its challenges as it is rebuilding the nation while rejected US aid, which is painfully sad to see, but I hope to promote this as a safe destination of outstanding natural beauty and wonder, worthy of every traveller. Zimbabweans were very friendly and told me directions to the train station when I arrived in Bulawayo, the second largest city in the country, after a long journey of crossing the border from South Africa.

Taking the overnight train from Bulawayo to Victoria Falls.

One of the highlights in Zimbabwe was taking the overnight train from Bulawayo to Victoria Falls. It cost US$10 for a 15h train ride in a 4 bunk private compartment. The train was the old Victorian style and do not expect too much luxury, but at least I was able to sleep fully lying down and woke up to a beautiful sight of the town as we approached the town located in the northwestern part of Zimbabwe.

Victoria Falls is the only waterfall in the world with a length of more than a kilometer and a height of more than hundred meters. It is also considered to be the largest fall in the world, earning it the status as one of the seven natural wonders of the world and being recognised as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The entrance fee to the fall on the Zimbabwean side costs $30 and a taxi from the town to the falls will cost $5-7.

Victoria Falls from Zimbabwean side.

It was a gloomy day when I visited the falls, then it started to pour heavily, so I did not really enjoy my visit. There are a myriad of adventure activities being offered, such as whitewater rafting ($120), bungee jumping ($150), zipline, flying fox etc. I had originally planned to do the bungee jump, but after seeing the site of the jump which is at the border bridge and not facing the falls, I decided against it as I was not impressed with the view.

 

Zambia

After checking out the Zimbabwean side of the falls, it was time to cross the border to Zambia to see how it looks us on the other side. I also did the same thing when I visited Iguazu falls by checking out the Argentinean and Brazilian sides. The town in Zambia is called Livingstone and had a more local feel to it compared to the Zimbabwean side. Livingstone town was named after David Livingstone, the British explorer who was the first European to explore the area.

In my opinion, the Zambian side had less water flow but it looked more magnificent, probably due to the sun shining for me. One of the best moments I had on this trip was the swim in Devil’s pool. There are two ways to go about it, the first is taking a speedboat to the Livingstone island then to the pool ($140), while the second is to enter the normal entrance of the park and then take a 30 minute hike to the devil’s pool ($85). I chose the latter as it was more economical and transport from my hostel was also included.

Swimming at the top of Devil’s pool, Victoria falls.

Besides Victoria Falls, visitors can also sign up for one of the many safari tours organised by various tour operators in Livingstone. While Kruger National Park in South Africa is very famous for its safari tours, I did not do it there because it was too touristy and they charged exorbitant prices. Besides, not having my own vehicle made it more difficult to visit Kruger as there is not public transport headed there. In Livingstone, I signed up with some new friends from the hostel and bargained to $50 for a half-day safari tour at Mosi-oa-Tunya National Park in a 4WD. The main highlight of this safari was spotting the white rhinos which are close to extinction. As we heard our tour guide explain, people continue to poach the rhinos for their horns with their purported medicinal value. Even though there are park rangers guarding the park 24/7, there was an instance of a syndicate who arrived in the middle of the night by helicopter and swiftly removed the horns of a few rhinos before escaping without detection. It is so unfortunate that our selfish human demands have led to the endangerment of the species.

Up close with the endangered white rhinos and there were armed guards standing close to us for our protection.
A giraffe turns her head gracefully to feed on the leaves.

Botswana

Finally, the last stop of this South African sojourn was Botswana, named one of the top 10 most peaceful countries in the world. Free from internal and external conflict, Botswana was named among five countries in the world, to achieve a perfect score in the domestic and international conflict category, alongside other countries such as Mauritius, Switzerland, Chile, and Uruguay.

Botswana shares borders with Zambia, Zimbabwe, South Africa, Angola and Namibia. The town of Kasane is easily accessible from Victoria Falls, so many tour operators in Zimbabwe and Zambia would offer safari trips to Chobe National Park in Botswana. Chobe is famous for spotting massive elephants and is home to some of the world’s largest herds of them.

Elephant spotting at Chobe National Park.

Botswana is home to the Okavango delta, the largest inland delta in the world. The Okavango Delta is one of Africa’s last remaining great wildlife habitat and provides refuge to huge concentrations of game. A night at one of the safari camps deep in the delta can cost upwards of $500, but my budget was not permitting, so I chose to stay in Maun, the town nearest to the delta. I met a Finnish and Turkish backpackers, so we signed up for a full-day tour to the Okavango delta in a mokoro (a traditional dug-out canoe used as a form of transport in the delta). We paid $36 per person include park conservation fees, a compulsory guide and a peddler for our mokoro.

On the mokoro tour through the Okavango delta.

It was very relaxing to sit in the mokoro, surrounded by tall reeds. On the occasion that some wildlife is spotted, our boat peddler would tell us to gingerly stand out to spot the safari animals and take some photos. It was indeed a fun water activity option on safaris and a great way to see animals from a new perspective. However, it was the rainy season, so not many safari animals appeared as they had sufficient water deep in the delta and they would try to avoid contact with humans. Nonetheless, I had fun in the delta and even tried my hand at peddling a mokoro, which turned out to be difficult to steer as there is only one pole, but the locals had already mastered the art of rowing it.

Spending a tranquil day out in the Okavango delta.
Spotting animals in the distance.
Ending off my trip in Gaborone with my couchsurfing family.

I ended my trip in Botswana, in the capital Gaborone, with skyscrapers that reminded me that it was time to head back to the concrete jungle of Singapore. The whirlwind trip around Southern Africa was really enjoyable thanks to the friends I made along the way, the magnificent animals that kept me in awe, and the variety of natural scenery  from mountains to plains to the beach. Since these were all former English colonies, language as not a barrier for me because almost everyone I met spoke perfect English. Locals were also curious about a lone Singaporean guy traveling in Africa and while even the locals warned me to be careful of my belongings in the big cities, nothing happened to me. Next up, I hope to visit either West Africa to hone my French speaking skills or to discover Eastern Africa to climb the highest mountain on the continent – Mt Kilimanjaro. The possibilities in Africa are endless indeed!

 

Summary of expenses for a 21-day trip to Southern Africa

Category Price (SGD S$)
Flight tickets $703
Transport tickets (intercity buses, metro) $450
Food $180
Activities (park entrance fees, safaris, swimming at Devil’s pool) $300
Accommodation (hostels in Semonkong, Victoria Falls, Livingstone)* $200
Miscellaneous (SIM card, souvenirs) $120
Total $1953

*In other places, I used couchsurfing. Prices quoted are in Singapore dollars.

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