A PEACE CORPS VOLUNTEER in Namibia, I lived in a remote village without any kind of mass transport. Bumming rides was integral to my basic mobility. If I wanted to meet up with a friend or visit the hospital, I had to wave down cars.
Necessity aside, hitchhiking contributed some of the most exciting travel experiences I’ve ever had. Over a period of two years, I successfully hitchhiked through Namibia, Zimbabwe, Botswana, South Africa, Mozambique, and Malawi. An adventure that still thrills me to this day.
In that time, I had countless fascinating conversations with the most unlikely people — from a Catholic priest doing AIDS work to an African farmer who was an Olympic cyclist.
I also encountered a range of truly unique situations, like the time a driver stopped and placed a hyena roadkill next to me in the backseat. Another day, I rode in a caravan of U.S. Special Forces taking out landmines.
Many travelers may not be looking for those extremes, but why travel if not to challenge one’s comfort zone and be surprised along the way?
Tricks of the trade
At this point, you may be thinking I was lucky. And I agree. Hitchhiking is risky. However, applying a strategy makes a tremendous difference in feeling secure on the road. Use these guidelines for effective hitchhiking in Southern Africa:
1. Start by asking for rides among people staying in your hostel or rest house. Other travelers are probably going somewhere interesting, and this approach is your best bet for getting a direct shot to your next destination.
2. If you can’t arrange a lift, stand at gas stations or public rest areas and observe potential rides as they stop. Politely approach people who seem appropriate and ask for a lift. Offer to pay for the transport.
3. If still out of luck, stand on a main road going out of town in the direction you’d like to travel. You’ll be exposed to a high volume of traffic there and can accept or refuse based on your feeling about the driver.
4. To get a driver’s attention, use the African hitchhike gesture of standing with your hand extended, palm down. Don’t make a fist and stick out your thumb as it’s done in the States.
5. Never accept a ride from a truck overloaded with people in the back.
6. Never believe drivers who say they’ll run an errand and come back to get you. It’s tempting to think you’re locked on, but you should continue to look for a ride.
7. Wear jeans and sturdy shoes.
8. Carry a bottle of water, hat, sunscreen, towel or wrap (for extended periods in the sun), book, and sleeping bag. Although I was never in an emergency situation, the sleeping bag gave me a big sense of security. I was always ready to fend for myself in the event I got stranded somewhere.
9. When a driver stops for you, assess the condition of the vehicle and whether the driver seems under the influence. Usually families with children and cars with multiple passengers are a safe bet.
10. Request to ride for a short distance first. Get a sense of the driver and overall situation. Don’t commit to a long ride with someone until you feel comfortable.
11. Be prepared to entertain the driver and other passengers with conversation. Often that’s the main reason they pick you up.
12. Be prepared to make stops along the way. Sometimes there’s a cousin who needs visiting or a package to drop off. Roll with it and don’t stress about time.
13. Research guesthouses and camping sites along your route in case you get stuck somewhere overnight.
14. Trust your instincts about a situation and bail if necessary. I often asked to get out earlier than anticipated if something felt “off.” Most of the time, I paid the driver some money when I skipped out early. They didn’t take it personally.
15. Finally, trust other people. Given our indoctrination against trusting strangers, this may perhaps be the hardest tip to adopt. But Africans are some of the warmest and most engaging individuals you’ll come across. What’s more, they’re ready to trust you.
Classic African hitchhikes
Hitchhiking through Southern Africa is popular among travelers due to the open spaces and lack of transportation services. Some of the most common routes include:
- Windhoek, Namibia -> Rundu, Namibia -> Livingstone, Zimbabwe (Victoria Falls)
- Windhoek, Namibia -> Sossuslvei, Namibia -> Fish River Canyon, Namibia
- Windhoek, Namibia -> Keetmanshoop, Namibia -> Cape Town, South Africa
- Windhoek, Namibia -> Maun, Botswana -> Bulawayo, Zimbabwe
- Livingstone, Zimbabwe -> Lupane, Botswana -> Bulawayo, Botswana
- Livingstone, Zimbawe -> Lusaka, Zambia -> Chipata, Zambia -> Lilongwe, Malawi
- Harare, Zimbabwe -> Tete Corridor, Mozambique -> Lilongwe, Malawi
Speaking from experience, it is possible to secure a direct lift between countries, especially if you hit up other foreign travelers. But more likely, you’ll have to break up the trip with overnight stops and different drivers.
Finally, for those still worried about roadkill and bizarre individuals, let me assure you of one thing: You will have plenty of mundane hitchhiking experiences too.
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