Taking a Gap Year in Africa

At risk of stating the obvious here we’d just like to point out something important – Africa is huge. This fact, combined with certain regions being off-limits for travellers, as well as the time, energy and (sometimes) expense needed to get around means that most backpackers pick just one region to explore. These tend to be, in the main, the south and the east of the country although Ghana in the west is also popular, especially with travellers looking to volunteer during their gap year in Africa.

However, don’t let this fact fool you into thinking your options once there are limited. Nothing could be further from the truth with enormous diversity packed cheek by jowl just about everywhere. Many travellers – particularly those on gap years – choose to spend their time in Africa on voluntary work placements. This is not only because there are a wealth of fantastic opportunities but because it is simply the easiest and safest way of catapulting yourself instantly into the richness of the culture and accessing the sights of this fascinating land.

However you choose to go about things it is hard not to connect with your inner explorer here. Africa offers a pure paradise of heart-stoppingly majestic landscapes, incredible wildlife encounters, adventure activities by the bucket-load and cultural experiences full of vibrant colour and magic.

A Quick Rundown of the Main Regions on the Gap Year Map

Kenya – An animal lover’s delight with its wealth of amazing safaris, Kenya also packs a good punch for all the culture vultures looking to learn about and take a peek into tribal life. Lesser known but nonetheless incredible is Kenya’s rich history of theatre, art and literature – the like of which can’t be found quite like this anywhere else. Of course the number one thing to do here is to safari until you drop. And there are plenty of outfits ready willing and able to deliver experiences by the score in all kinds of budget ranges.

Ghana – With a festival to be found just about every week, Ghana tends to buzz with a special atmosphere injected throughout with a spirit of pure carnival. These are great opportunities for tapping into the main vein of the culture, experiencing a vast variety of music and dance of both ancient and modern varieties and otherwise immersing yourself wholesale in this fascinating country.

mole national park

If escaping into the natural world is more your thing there are a wealth of stunning waterfalls – including Kintampo – West Africa’s largest – as well as sandy beaches, caves, mountains and rivers. Ghana’s national park jewel is the Mole National Park which is home to elephants, hippos, buffalo and gibbons to name but a few of the species found here. An exploration of the country’s capital Accra is also a must for all visitors.

South Africa – Here is a country which somehow seamlessly blends Western-style amenities and attitudes (and therefore comfort) with 100% African charm and beauty. Little wonder – for this fact alone – it annually attracts millions of visitors, many of the gap year and backpacker set. Add into the mix a warm climate, twenty plus national parks, opportunities for hiking, diverse food choices including worldwide influences and mile upon mile of stunning coastline and it’s not hard to see why it is so popular.

But there is a further draw for the traveller set too – this is adventure activity central. On the menu are such things as great white shark cage diving, skydiving, bungee jumping, scuba diving, surfing, jungle zip-lining and whale watching….and that’s just for starters.

Absolute must-dos include the iconic Table Mountain, UNESCO World Heritage listed Robben Island, the surf Mecca known as Jeffrey’s Bay (or just J Bay), richly diverse cities such as Johannesburg and Cape Town and a foray along the beautiful Garden Route taking in along the way its various lagoons, lakes and interesting towns. If National Parks are your thing it is hard to avoid them here with one of Africa’s largest – Kruger Park – typically topping the bill. There are even opportunities to do self-drive safaris in some of the parks.

Tanzania – as with Kenya the main draw here is without doubt the ‘Big 5’ safari opportunities found in the magnificent Serengeti National Park. However Tanzania has more to offer than simply wildlife spotting. This is the land where you can experience something of the Masai people’s life with all kinds of cultural immersion experiences up for grabs. Alternatively you can lose yourself in vibrant cities or hike the majestic 5895m high Mount Kilimanjaro.


Accommodation Options

Because each African country is so different so too are the accommodation choices offered. In the main, the more backpacker established destinations such as South Africa and Kenya have the greater number of options including hotels, camp-sites and hostels. Lesser visited places will also have possibilities for the budget traveller but with more limited choice.

Budget end accommodation in South Africa goes by the name of ‘backpackers’ and ranges from tiny establishments to larger affairs. Found just about everywhere – from village to sprawling city – here you can rent a room/bed or pitch a tent in the grounds (the latter being the lowest cost option). Typically you can expect a shared kitchen and shared bathrooms and usually a bar, restaurant and a buzzing hostel vibe.

If you intend to sign up for a safari your accommodation will be included but here, typically, you get what you pay for. The lowest budget affairs will simply provide you with a roof over your head while higher up the scale you can expect spectacular lodges offering every luxury and convenience possible.

Gap Year and Volunteer Work

Voluntary work placement opportunities spill out of every corner in Africa and cover just about every type of work possible although social projects and those conservation themed tend to make up the majority of options. Because some parts of Africa are a little trickier to access from a backpackers point of view, voluntary work is often the easiest and safest way to immerse yourself into genuine African life and culture and is, for this very reason, incredibly popular. The most often found destinations for voluntary work include Ghana, Kenya, Sierra Leone, South Africa, Tanzania and Zambia.

africa school

There are literally thousands of organisations which work to pair up willing volunteers with suitable projects but you are going to have to do some homework. Projects range from the completely free or low cost to those which come with hefty price tags of thousands of pounds. Some offer free food and accommodation while some expect contributions for these amenities; some placements will see you living with a local family while others offer group accommodation for volunteer workers; some expect a minimum commitment while others have no set time-scales. There are no set rules here and if you can dream it, it is probably offered by some-one.

Check out www.truetravllers.org which offers a database of some superb opportunities. The big draw here is that all projects are totally free or ask for minimum contribution only for accommodation and food.

Transport Options

As with the accommodation options no two African countries have quite the same set up for how you get from A to B and what’s on offer comes in a vast variety of forms with wildly varying standards. Arguably the most convenient and numerous choices can be found in South Africa with its well established tourist infrastructure. Here you will even find hop on/hop off services such as the Baz Bus which give you greater freedom to explore the places which interest you while skipping the ones that don’t.

Otherwise, transport options tend to fall within one of the following categories:

Organised tours – These offer everything from a day or two to more extended journeys and some include food and accommodation in the cost. You may have to shop around to find something which suits your schedule, budget and to match what is offered with the experience you are looking for.

Overland trucks – This option – which also falls within the organised tour category – is great for those who like to have some comfort, the convenience of having everything organised for them and want to cover long distances. Found extensively throughout the south and east of Africa, trucking nights en route are typically spent under canvas and adventure activities are sometimes scheduled into the trips.

Buses – Each African destination will have some kind of public transport system and found almost universally are extensive bus services. As is true the world over this is typically the cheapest option but also tends to be the least comfortable. Anything goes here – from Western standard buses with plenty of space to those which are crammed and unlikely to make the journey without at least one breakdown. However, if it is authentic experiences you are looking for, a chance to chew the fat with the locals and have packed a spirit of adventure into your rucksack this is definitively the way to go.

Minivans – These are usually a budget option for shorter journeys and typically run to no specific schedule – rather they leave once they are full. They can be crammed and uncomfortable in some places or transversely a blissfully easy experience.

Health Issues for Africa

Before departing for any African destination it is essential to seek medical advice on any vaccinations needed and to get country specific health recommendations. Different African countries carry different risks of disease and illness and some of these tend to be in a constant state of flux. Your doctor can advise you of any current health advisory notices relevant to your destination, as well as the need for malaria medication – something of a big issue in many parts of Africa. It’s wise to protect yourself by using a good mosquito repellent when travelling in Africa, even if you’re using anti-malarial medication or travelling to areas with a lower risk of Malaria.

Aedes mosquito


Medical advice is best sought a few months before departure as some inoculations are given in series spanning several weeks. Travel insurance which covers medical costs is also an essential component of travel to Africa as medical care standards vary greatly from country to country here. Another thing to consider when travelling in Africa is whether or not the water is safe to drink. In most countries, you should treat water before you drink it or use a water purification bottle to make sure that harmful contaminants, viruses and bacteria are removed to help avoid illness.

Personal Safety Items for Africa

If we were to believe all the hype about the dangers of travelling in Africa it would be hard to believe that any traveller ever returned alive! There are without doubt dangerous places and those strictly off the traveller map but these are usually well documented. Some of the South African cities, for example, have high crime rates so listen to and ask for advice from fellow travellers and accommodation owners who can advise you what to look out for and where to avoid.

Otherwise, the basic measures you need to take for running the least risk of hitting trouble are the same as everywhere.

  • Don’t flaunt any obvious signs of wealth such as flashy jewellery and expensive gadgets and cameras.
  • Don’t carry more money on your person than you need.
  • Always have a copy of your passport and any other important documents stowed away somewhere safe to make replacement easier in the event of any loss.
  • Take extra precautions after dark and avoid being alone in any areas you don’t know.