Top Transport Picks in Africa

Babu's taxi, the way to get to Nepal after the flight was cancelled. Denise LaFountaine photos.
Babu’s taxi, the way to get to Nepal after the flight was cancelled. Denise LaFountaine photos.


Independent transport in Africa is erratic, its quality varying across the continent. Many countries have regional airlines that offer excellent deals, but for an up close look at Africa, take local minivans, buses, motorcycle or bike taxis, or hitch a paid ride with a trucker.

In West Africa, the “bush taxi” — a shared Peugeot or minivan that travels “when full” from the cities into the countryside — reigns supreme. East and Southern Africa variations on the bush taxi include “matutus,” “dala dal,” “chapas” and simply, “minibus taxis.” Don’t look for a website — most are first come, first served.

Other options, such as scheduled buses, trains, and boats, are easier to plan ahead. Try one of these unique ways to Go NOMAD around Africa.

Take an overland truck

Overland trucks operate all over the world, but Africa is where they really shine. The trucks are movable little worlds of camping gear, bulk foods, and spare parts that enable travelers to travel to remote areas and camp in the wild with the lions and elephants. Outfitters vary in quality, and gear their trips to different demographics. But there’s no better way to see the continent up close and personal than from a truck.

Bike Africa


Follow in the tire treads of rock drummer Neil Peart (of Canadian rock band Rush) and bike your way through Cameroon, Togo, or a host of other African countries. Bicycle Africa does not have a “sag wagon” following the bikers. If you get tired, you either rest or take your bike on a local truck. Lodging is in towns and villages, and costs are phenomenally low in spite of Bicycle Africa’s experience and attention to detail.

Motorcycle South Africa

Don’t want to pedal-power yourself through Africa? Rent a motorcycle and be an easy rider! South African Motorcycle Tours and Rentals offers quality, late-model BMWs to give you the freedom to explore South Africa on your own. From daily rentals to two-week long trips with or without a guide, you can discover the pristine beaches of the coast, get into the villages, explore the tropical forests and mountain passes of this beautiful country.

A scenic view in Africa.
A scenic view in Africa.

Cruise the Niger

In Mali, there is a lot of desert between the hearty African traveler and Timbuktu. The main travel artery is the Niger River, which you can traverse in a “pinasse.” Catch one of these long, open-air diesel-powered boats at the Mopti port, where you must use your best negotiating skills to bargain for passage. Bring camping equipment, mosquito repellent, and food for the journey– you’ll be camping on the banks at night, where you’ll interact with locals. Alternatively, go with a reliable tour operator and leave the gear at home.

“Hop-on, Hop-off”

Backpacker buses are the norm in many parts of the world, but in Africa they are uncommon. If you’re on a tight budget, take the Baz Bus through South Africa. They’ll even drop you off at your choice of hostels.

On the road in Africa, exactly where is unknown. Notice the two men in the left front of this photo carry rifles for protection from lions and tigers.
On the road in Africa, exactly where is unknown. Notice the two men in the left front of this photo carry rifles for protection from lions and tigers.

Freight Trains

Take the twice-weekly TAZARA, or Tanzania Zambia Railway from Dar Es Salaam to Zambia. It’s not the fastest way around — its primary purpose is to get freight from the Tanzanian coast to the African interior — but it is probably the most reliable Zambian transport for the independent traveler. You can take the train all the way to Victoria Falls, but you must change trains at Kapiri Mposhi.

Horse Around

Peter Heller horsepacking in Patagonia
Peter Heller horsepacking in Patagonia

See Lesotho’s rugged mountains the easy way — from the back of a surefooted Basotho pony. These ponies are the result of crossbreeding between European horses and short Javanese ponies. Their small size and sturdy reliability make them perfect mounts for beginners.

African Queen

Lake Malawi, which stretches along Malawi’s Eastern border, is best seen from the steamboat “Ilala.” It travels once a week in each direction, and is a three day trip, except when it’s late — which is most of the time. Reserve ahead for cabin class, or join the line (as much as a day ahead of time) to get a First Class or Economy ticket. Except for cabin class, tickets are only sold when the boat is in visual range. It could be a long wait. For shorter distances, catch a local boat, called a “dhow.” There’s no website, so you’ll have to resort to local info and a trusted guidebook.

More Boats

Many African tour operators specialize in various forms of water transport. In Botswana, you can take a shallow dugout canoe called a “mokoro” through the Okavango Delta. In Zimbabwe, the Lake Kariba houseboat is the boat of choice.

On the Zambezi River in Zambia, you can watch hippos, baboons, and zebra from a safari canoe.

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