Did you know that travel makes you a much more awesome and happier person? You know what’s even better? Skip the jam-packed itinerary of a guided tour and travel independently. We did exactly that on our recent trip to Tanzania, Kenya, Uganda and Rwanda. We loved the freewheel, without any guidelines, timelines or other rules and regulations. We had the freedom to do what we want and when we wanted. Although daunting at first because East Africa doesn’t have a reputation for being a backpacker destination, travelling to the beat of our own drum was the best thing we could do.
For years Asia has been known for being the perfect place to explore by travelling independently. Africa on the other hand is much courted by travel agencies and there doesn’t seem to be a big backpacker scene in East Africa. But travelling independently in countries like Tanzania, Kenya, Uganda and Rwanda grows you in a way that any organised tour won’t. So I’ve compiled a list of reasons why everyone should travel to East Africa independently.
1. Plan your own itinerary
Planing a trip to an unknown part of the world can be intimidating at first. I spend hours, maybe even days, to craft our final itinerary. But once I had it all together I was really satisfied with it. I had done tones of research, looked into various countries, contacted quite a few travel agencies and read many experience reports. Finding our journey was like finding our very own way into Africa. In the end, I managed to create a route that would include doing a safari in Kenya’s grassland, trekking down gorillas in Uganda’s jungle, exploring urban life in Rwanda and enjoying white sand beaches in Tanzania. I promise you, this itinerary is not to be found with any tour operator. It was literally tailor-made for us.
2. It’s cheaper than package tours
I have contacted them all, tour operators specialising in budgets travels, luxury vacations and tailor-made holidays. And I always found the prices just a tat too high. So I started communicating with the hotels and lodges directly. Most of them would be able to provide contact details for local drivers and airlines companies. We often stayed at Airbnb’s and got some of the best contacts from our hosts. Just as an example of how much money you can safe when organising everything yourself. A drive from Kabale in Uganda to Bwindi National Park with a 4×4 (3-4 hours) would cost as 350 USD one way if we had chosen a tour operator. Instead we found Osbert through local contacts in Kigali and he drove us from there to Bwindi and back (6-7 hours one way) and stayed 4 days with us for a little less than that.
If you are looking for a reliable and trustworthy driver who can take you around Rwanda and Uganda contact Osbert (firstname.lastname@example.org / +256 782 604330).
Another cheap and super friendly driver is Aliy from Zanzibar, Tanzania. He offers very fair prices from the ferry terminal or airport to anywhere on Zanzibar (+255 715 416047)
Exploring a country on your own terms is probably my favorite part of traveling independently. I love the feeling of knowing that I can just stay another day or two if I want to. Sometimes it also happens that you meet other travelers or locals who rave about a place that’s not on your itinerary. How awesome is it to just simply go and not to depend on a group or fixed schedule. You don’t want to leave a country and think that you missed out on chances. It’s always your decision to make new plans and explore new places.
4. Explore less crowded places
My dad always says: “I want to see places that are not marked as highlights in a guide book”. So when we went to Rome this fall for my birthday, he totally didn’t want to visit the Spanish steps because he felt they are over-crowded and thus less charming than any of the many wonderful hidden side streets. And he was right. Lucky for him, we fully owned our Rome trip and could decided where to go and where not to go. When you open the guide book for East Africa, you’ll see the obligatory list of the 10 must-sees and must-does. Check if you find Lake Bunyonyi in Uganda.
You probably won’t because when we went to this beautiful lake landscape there were hardly any tourists and we had a whole island to ourselves. During two blissful and relaxing days we lived in a tree house and were the only hotel guests of Bushara Island Camp.
5. Take all the time you want
Here is a confession. I’m not a big fan of sightseeing. I like to visit historical and cultural sights but not for too long. I rather spend my time in a Cafe people watching or talking to the owner of a small local gallery. And sometimes I just love to sit on a bench in a park and watch old gentlemen playing chess. So I’m certainly not fond of waiting for other people until they know every stone of a castle and on the other hand I get quite irritated if I have to rush through the streets of a small town when I would rather stand still and soak in the atmosphere instead. When I’m on vacation I want all the time I need as every moment is extremely valuable to me.
8. Challenge your negotiation skills
If you asked me a few years ago, I would have told you that I hated negotiating. And that I would rather pay a higher price or not do or buy something at all than debating back and forth. Today I think it’s quite fun. After haggling with street vendors the past few years I found that testing your negotiation skills can actually be quite educational. You learn a lot about the culture of a country, so as long as you don’t only talk about the price but try to get to know the people on the other side. Where in Uganda does the camp manager originally come from, how much does a taxi driver earn per day on Zanzibar and does the local artist like the president of Rwanda? Travelling independently in East Africa will involve a lot of bargaining because most vendors and sellers try to charge much more than something would cost in Europe or the States. And if you are asked to pay 750 USD for a 4 hour drive to a destination where you have to get to within the next day, negotiating is your only solution.
6. Learn more about the country, culture & people
Yes, one of the best things about travelling independently in East Africa is the people you meet and the cultures you get to know. Put yourself out there, listen, laugh, understand, ask, explore, cook, relate and take chances. Stop generalising by saying “people from country x are like y” but experience true stories and meet real people. And tell your friends and family back home all about it. East Africa is an easy region to mingle with locals. A lot of people speak English or sometimes even French and have a generous curiosity about you, the foreigner who visits their country.
7. Choose a mix of accommodation
One of the most fascinating parts of travelling is getting to know new people. We have established that before. But it’s also the part when you can just relax and think about nothing because others do it for you. This is why I love to book a mixture of accommodations during my travels. On the one side of the spectrum you have small B&Bs with simple facilities but a warm welcome of the owners who makes you part of their family. On the other side you find yourself in a luxury hotel where the staff magically knows how to read your mind. And that vast array of options provides you with the opportunity to sleep in a tree house with no electricity or running water but the most beautiful view over a lake and a village women bringing you warm water in the morning. Or a hotel staff that serves you freshly pressed juices and homemade croissants at your favorite spot at the pool. Or your Airbnb host recommending the best local food and connecting you with friends who take you out for a drink in the evening.
9. Become street smart
The satisfaction you get when ordering Ugandan food in a restaurants where nobody speaks English, of discussing politics with your taxi driver in Namibia or being invited by a local artist to a yoga workshop in Kigali, is priceless and allows you to enter a world of new skills set and valuable knowledge
10. Eat better food
East African dishes are still under-represented in the culinary world. The Ethiopian cuisine managed to win over a few culinary hearts in Europe. I’m speaking from experience because even though I’ve never been to Ethiopia I love its food. But had no idea what to expect food-wise from Kenya, Ruanda, Uganda and Tanzania. My guess is that most of you also never tasted nor heard much about East African specialties. And surprise, surprise – variations are plentiful due to ethnic and religious influences.
However you often find dishes made from grains including millet, rice, maize, beans, vegetable stews and a variety of spices. Continental breakfast? No chance. We either went to the market and stocked up on fruits and vegetables for the next morning or specifically stayed in places where only local food was served. One of my favorite breakfast dishes was the millet porridge served in Uganda because, you know, I absolutely love my breakfast bowl. The original recipe calls for millet flour, water, salt, cane/brown sugar, banana and milk. I slightly modified the recipe but only used ingredients available in East Africa.