Proof in the Numbers

So how much did it cost? I get this question often and I’m sure there are others that want to know, but are too polite to ask. Well, I’ll tell you…region by region with a summary at the end. But first, the most important thing that I want to convey is that travel does not have to be as expensive as you might think. Sure, there are luxury package tours and lots of upgrades that CAN make travel unaffordable for many people, but it doesn’t HAVE to be. If you’re thinking of taking a trip, be it a short vacation of two weeks or an extended journey of two years, there is a way to make it happen. Cost doesn’t need to be a deterrent!

This post, as it is written, is intended for nomads and fellow backpackers so if you’re a fan of luxury travel, this isn’t for you.

Before I begin, a few caveats that will explain my chosen style of travel….

– as a general rule, I slept in hostels in a shared dorm room. I didn’t pick the cheapest hostels, but would look for places with good reviews in a good location. No matter the stigma about hostel dorm rooms, I really liked some of them and definitely recommend considering this if you’re on a budget. Occasionally, I also camped, slept in private rooms in hotels, hostels or guesthouses, and stayed in AirBnB rooms from time to time. Accommodation is generally where I saved the most money over other styles of travel.

Tented camp in Namibia
Cucuruchos Boutique Hostel in Antigua, Guatemala
Space pods at 93 Loop in Cape Town, South Africa
Traditional bunks at D Hostel in Bangkok, Thailand


Food and drink – I rarely cooked for myself. I ate out almost every single meal, but usually limited meals to two a day because that was plenty of food for me. If I was hungry for a third meal, I usually ate fruit or something else equally light and inexpensive. Sometimes I would eat local food, sometimes I would eat in touristy type restaurants, and occasionally I would have street food. Also, only a few times did I ever have more than one alcoholic drink with my dinners and then only a few times a week, usually beer or wine, and I rarely went out specifically for drinking. I could have saved money by eating street food more often or cooking for myself (ever), but I saved money over other travelers by drinking less alcohol.

Thali in India
Chalupas in Guatemala


BBQ in Laos

Ground travel – This is a tricky one. Generally, I took the cheapest option. However, if the cheapest and the next cheapest were close in price, but provided considerably more comfort (i.e. India) then I would upgrade. I would arbitrarily make a decision on upgrading depending on my mood at the time. And when I say upgrade, I mean a step up from local bus to tourist bus or from second class train to AC train. Usually, though, I chose the cheapest.

Ferry in Indonesia
Train in Sri Lanka
Flat tire on the minivan in Namibia
Overland safari in Uganda
Night bus in India

– I never chose to not do something that I wanted to do because of the cost. That’s why I was traveling after all – to see and do stuff! If an activity was more than I had budgeted (e.g., Galapagos cruise, gorilla trekking, climbing Mt Kinabalu), then I would look harder to find a discounted option, although I wasn’t willing to sacrifice the activity itself. I would just adjust my budget so that maybe I would cut corners on something else down the line. However, in some cases when an activity was more than I expected (e.g., Shark cage diving), I decided I didn’t really want to do it that bad in the first place and I was willing to let some things go as a result.

Gondola ride in Venice
Cycling on the Cape Peninsula in South Africa
Climbing Mt Kinabalu in Borneo


Airfare – I tried to use credit card points and airline miles as often as I could, but if that wasn’t possible, I would keep my schedule flexible so I could choose a cheaper fare. Sometimes choosing less desirable flight times would provide a much cheaper fare. For longer flights, I usually booked 4-6 weeks in advance, but depending on the route, you could book long flights with much shorter notice and still get low fares. I just chose to be more proactive. For shorter flights, I booked anywhere from one day to two weeks in advance.

So in total, over 813 days on 5 different continents, I spent a grand total of $52,250.97. That includes EVERYTHING travel-related – airfare, visas, accommodations, food, drink, activities, ground travel, souvenirs (of which I bought few, but I accumulated a couple of tattoos!), personal items, laundry, and all other stuff (like paying to use the toilet or an ATM fee) that doesn’t fit into any categories. What it doesn’t include are things I was paying for at home – insurance, storage for my stuff, a replacement iPhone, a replacement iPad, and a replacement keyboard for my iPad. Sheesh! This works out to $64.27 per day. Let’s see how I did it…

Before each graph, I’ll list out some details specific to my time there that may make the cost higher or lower than you would expect. Text in red if it’s higher; in blue if lower. If no comments exist, then it can be assumed that these are straightforward backpacker costs.

Africa – 152 days (5 months) x $97.92/day = $14,883.84

Namibia – I spent four weeks volunteering at a wildlife sanctuary

Morocco – Eighteen day pre-packaged tour with Intrepid Travel

Kenya, Uganda – Eighteen day overland truck camping safari, including gorilla trekking, with Acacia Africa

Botswana, Zimbabwe – Eighteen day overland truck camping safari with Nomad Africa

Asia – 257 days (8.5 months) x $41.03/day = $10,544.71

Malaysia – I stayed with a friend in Kuala Lumpur for 10 days so I saved on accommodation and some food costs

Sri Lanka – I stayed at an Ayurvedic resort for 6 nights that included 3 hrs of spa treatments per day


Europe – 193 days (6.5 months) x $58.12/day = $11,217.16

Spain – I studied Spanish for two weeks in Córdoba

Italy – I stayed with friends in Tuscany for 6 nights and saved on accommodation and some food costs

South and Central America – 194 days (7 months) x $47.33/day = $9,181.50*

Bolivia – I studied Spanish for one week in Sucre

*Does not include Galapagos – Galapagos cruise was 7 days and cost $3,462.97 for one person sharing, including airfare to/from Quito. I didn’t include this in the cost breakdown of South America because it’s not considered typical backpacker travel and significantly changed my per day average. It’s possible to go to the Galapagos using a discounted or cheaper itinerary, but I wanted to have a specific experience and was willing to spend more to make it happen.

Enlightening even for me, just compiling these graphs all into one place, you can see just how expensive Africa travel was compared to everywhere else.   I did several tours, which add up quickly, but they saved some headaches from logistical concerns of getting around on my own.  I went over budget in almost every country because of this, although Africa will long hold a special place in my heart so it was worth every penny!

Asia, specifically Southeast Asia, is commonly thought to be the cheapest region in the world to travel, but South and Central America are not far off.  Countries like Colombia and Guatemala are challenging that preconception, whereas Thailand and Indonesia are creeping up in cost as they become more and more popular.  Food and bus travel were slightly more expensive in South America than they were in Southeast Asia, but if you consider how much wine I drank in Argentina and that bus travel often lasted for more than 24 hours in the Americas, that extra expense was definitely justified.

And in Europe, I surprised even myself with falling under budget in almost every country I visited.  I spent a lot more in Croatia than I expected (my most expensive dorm bed was in Dubrovnik at $50 per night) and a lot less in Austria.  I stayed away from pricey day tours, favoring “free” walking tours as an alternative, and walked instead of taking another form of ground travel.  It wasn’t that hard to keep costs in check.

I hope this post sheds a ray of light on the behind the scenes part of round the world travel.  I know the cost can seem daunting, but it doesn’t have to be a showstopper.  Please use my experience to create your own travel budget and if you don’t follow any other advice, I highly suggest keeping track of your own travel expenses.  I’ve always done this, in travel and in my life back home.  I can never say, “I don’t know where my money went” because I know where it went.  I find that my money goes a lot further when I write it down and forces me to be accountable, if only to myself.  Good luck!

The Place of Abandoned Water

Day 636 – 26 November, 2016

Four hours from N/a’an ku se over bumpy and dusty roads, eight volunteers headed south to Neuras Wine and Wildlife Estate. An unlikely combination, Neuras has the distinction of producing the driest wine in the world deep in the Namib Desert, but after the van Vuurens’ bought the estate in 2012, it also became a research center in conjunction with N/a’an ku se’s wildlife. I was joined by Sanna from Finland, Oda and Andrea from Norway, Tia and Noor from Denmark, Rachel from Australia, and Seraina from Switzerland, rounded out by Miranda from the Netherlands and Chloe from the UK who had already been working at Neuras for a couple of weeks before us newbies arrived. We were all women with a median age of 19, yet a powerful bunch we were. Jeanette was our fearless leader who not only runs a successful research program, but also was our acting tour guide to drive us all over the desert in search of natural treasures and beautiful scenery.

We would be sleeping in a semi-permanent tented camp on elevated platforms. Each was equipped with a front porch, a dressing area and two twin beds with surprisingly indulgent mattresses (too bad my wake up call averaged 4:00am everyday!). We had battery-powered lanterns and thick wool blankets to ward off the chill that crept in as soon as the sun disappeared. Open-air bathrooms were shared between two tents. I especially liked the post-sunset shower so I could ogle the stars that reached the horizon on all sides. Locks on the tents were unnecessary, although baboon sightings were common so it was imperative to keep any edibles in a locked cabinet. I ate a vegetarian diet while in Namibia, but the meat eaters dined on oryx or ostrich that had been hunted by the estate’s staff.

Almost immediately after our unrelenting drive from N/a’an ku se, Jeanette explained that we needed to capture a leopard which had been accused of stealing a farmer’s livestock. A capture cage had already been set by a previous team, but it was necessary to reset the bait. When you’re trying to attract a leopard, catnip won’t do. You need something bloody and smelly and of substantial size. An unfortunate warthog had become trapped in a barbed wire fence a day or so prior and had perished from her injuries. Her deathly aroma was only just beginning to blossom so over the next few days she was to ripen in the hot desert sun in hopes of attracting our leopard. Noor, who plans to study medicine, volunteered to do the dirtiest work. She had to slice the warthog from sternum to bowel to release all of the innards before the creature was then tied to the back of the buggy, bouncing along behind as we drove so as to create a fragrant trail of guts all the way to the cage. The bait was complete only after Rachel wrapped a wire around the tusks and back legs to fold up a warthog package for easier handling. Subsequently, we pushed her inside, reset the trigger mechanism, and resolved to be patient.

The next morning Jeanette sent us on a scavenger hunt for GPS training. With two Garmin GPS devices, she gave us some coordinates and sent us off into the barren landscape to try our hand at getting lost and then found. We hopped a barbed wire fence and were soon completely engulfed in desert. The subtle hills, canyons, and rocky outcroppings obscured our view of the estate and we were on our own. It was a fun game actually as we moved between one pile of rocks to another. About halfway through the clues, Jeanette called us over the radio that we should return immediately. A leopard was in our cage….

Lightning, a female that has been collared longer than any other leopard in the wild, had found our warthog. The only problem being that she was the wrong leopard. Lightning was known to have a cub in the area and it was dangerous for both of them if she was in the capture cage for very long. After a briefing (that included “be quiet,” “no sudden movements,” “watch out for the cub who is likely nearby,” and “keep the windows closed and locked in your non-airconditioned transport”) and a chance to grab our cameras, eight of us piled into an old work van with a driver and one Japanese tourist who had been staying at the lodge. Chloe and Miranda rode with Jeanette and a few other staff members. In the noon sunshine, Lightning was perfectly visible to us even from our obstructed vantage point. She seemed frightened and not even a little bit happy.

To minimize the stress for Lightning, the plan was not to tranquilize her, but instead the team wanted to tilt the cage onto its side, fasten a rope to the door and to the back of a truck, and then gently tug the door open as the truck inched forward. It seemed to be the safest method for both the animal and the spectators. A team of lodge staff, including Jeanette, Chloe and Miranda, began removing the thorn bushes that had decorated the perimeter while others draped a blue tarp around the outside. The cage mostly consisted of small square vents on the top and sides, but the door had long vertical slats and would be the most vulnerable region to stand during this maneuver. Lightning’s roar could be heard even inside our hot and stuffy van that was parked several meters away. Every time she struck at the sides, the blue tarp would rattle and the team members would jump a little. Once in position, slowly they began to rotate the cage into the correct angle so they could pull the door when there was another roar, a gust of air behind the tarp, and one of the team members near the door jumped back reflexively. From the van, we could see the back of her yoga pants was torn and exposed a claw-shaped wound in the center of her hamstring. Well, isn’t that a lesson in the unpredictability of wild animals?? No time to spare, the remaining workers pushed the cage onto its side, fixed the rope and slowly slid the door open a few inches. Lightning emerged, paused for a second to glance directly toward our van, and then she vanished just as quickly into the scrub. Stitches weren’t necessary for the injury, but a thorough cleaning was the best we could do for a wound made by a claw that had previously been sunk into a decaying warthog.

To take the edge off, our evening was filled with a wine tasting and cheese tray as we learned about the discovery and production of the driest wine in the world. A volunteer’s life isn’t all hard work after all!

Our other tasks that week included using the GPS to hike several kilometers to change camera traps in isolated locations, game counts, and other mundane project work like building a contraption to flatten out the dirt service road. Most of this work was completed in the mornings so that in the afternoons, when the mercury climbed well past 40 C, we either catalogued photos from the camera traps or Seraina and I tried to build a spreadsheet to count any spotted hyena sightings in the area.  

Jeanette was focusing her research on the spotted hyena and wanted to prove a correlation in the seasonality of sightings. As prey decreased with the dry season, hyenas were also predicted to decrease. She aimed to estimate their density and population structure, as well as their home range and prey preference by analyzing their scat. So far, twelve individuals had been identified.
Of course, the most important responsibility of the volunteers was feeding the cheetahs. At the time of my stay, Neuras had seven adult cheetahs in a 50 hectare enclosure. Every morning we would have to pull a frozen slab of meat out of the freezer for it to thaw by the afternoon, although it was often necessary to aid the thaw process for such a thick piece by hosing it down and prying it apart with a dull knife. A few staff members were responsible for hunting in order to feed the cheetahs and the lodge, but they would choose animals that were abundant in our game counts, like oryx, springbok, zebra, or ostrich. Incidentally, I definitely saw more dead animals that week than live ones and the smell of rotting flesh will forever be linked in my mind with Neuras.  

Jeanette would drive our buggy to the cheetah enclosure while the volunteers would stand in the back. On instinct, the felines would see us coming and run alongside. Usually, we would greet them at the front gate and toss their feed from the safety of the gate, but on one occasion, we drove inside to a small wooden feeding platform about 100 meters from the entrance. These cheetahs had all been wild once and had taken to killing livestock (the easy prey) so they were perhaps the most dangerous type of cheetah to us humans (extremely easy prey). We held them at bay using long sticks while we climbed the steps to the platform. Unfortunately, cheetahs are not the smartest of cats so a stick seemed to be enough of a defense. Their specialized binocular vision, which is meant to spot prey from a long distance, proves to be very poor when faced with close up targets. We each had to hold a piece of meat, make sure our designated cheetah saw it, and throw just when they could follow the arc to know where it landed. In the cases where the cheetahs didn’t see the bloody dripping animal part land on the ground, they couldn’t find it on their own using their eyes or nose. We then had to toss small stones at the meat so that they could find it. I found it remarkable to see how their senses would fail them.  

Sanna felt extremely uncomfortable inside the enclosure with seven drooling hungry cheetahs so the day that we returned for enclosure cleaning, she walked the perimeter making sure any warthog holes were filled in. Rachel and Tia stayed outside to taunt the cheetahs with more bloody carcasses while the rest of us snuck inside to clean up any bones and scat. I found it interesting that there were plenty of dried out cow patties that had been there several years before this enclosure had been built.

Our time at the lodge wasn’t all work, though. One day, Jeanette drove us to Sossusvlei to climb Dune 45 (Big Daddy) and to admire the salt pan at Deadvlei. The day started with a flat tire before the sun had even risen, but once we saw the dunes peeking above the horizon, you could feel the excitement buzzing like electricity in the van. While it’s highly unnecessary, many tourists in Namibia get around by overland truck tours so I consider us extremely lucky that on the day our small band of volunteers visited, it was also an off day for the overlands. The place was virtually empty. It doesn’t look so daunting from a distance, but propelling ourselves up the epic Dune 45 was no easy feat. Head down, one foot in front of another, mind over matter…one by one all of the volunteers made it to the top. The vista was a sea of sand and it was all ours. We had walked up barefoot so it was important that we leave the summit no later than 9:30am or else the sand would be too hot on our feet before we reached the bottom. Noor, Seraina, and Rachel practically dove in headfirst as we tumbled through the sand. One leap and a cushion of sand could catch you a few meters farther downhill.

The bottom of the dune deposited us right in front of Deadvlei, the valley where trees have been dead from 500-900 years already, yet they still proudly stand as mere shells in the dry desert air. It is an eerie landscape, especially when there aren’t any other camera-toting tourists in sight. It’s one of those vast places that makes you question time and space and your own significance in the universe.

We finished that outing with a fancy buffet lunch at an upscale resort and a dip in a sparkling emerald waterhole to take an edge off the heat.

On another day, Jeanette drove us to Naukluft for more hiking and swimming. We trekked through rust-colored canyons and were amazed by the amethyst and jade hues in the stones. Zebras mocked our unstable footing as they easily trotted up and over the gorge. We swam in yet another idyllic swimming hole and thanked our lucky stars for bearing witness to such stunning wilderness.

Our final night at Neuras was meant to be a sleep out and a braai, the traditional South African barbecue. The sleep out was effectively cancelled because we still had one more early game drive the next morning, but we prepped the volunteer area for a celebratory braai nevertheless. Sanna built the fire, while I tried to learn how to build a fire, and the rest of the ladies brought supplies from the lodge. Seeing as most of my fellow volunteers were Scandinavian, they showed me how to make Snobrod (Norwegians – I know this isn’t the right spelling, but my keyboard doesn’t make that letter!), the traditional camping bread that is grilled on a stick. Then there were sausages and oryx steaks and a variety of salads to be washed down with an ice cold Tafil. Gazing up at the stars while gathered around a robust campfire with lovely people, my time working with N/a’an ku se was coming to a close and I felt truly gutted by it. Meeting like-minded, strong and independent women was just icing on the cake after four weeks of quality time with some of Mother Nature’s most majestic creatures. Out of everything I’ve done in two years on the road, N/a’an ku se falls at the top of the list.

Photo by Oda

Wildlife Underworld

Day 626 – 16 November, 2016

Snakes.  Something that no one ever seems to want to talk about or else shudder when they do is the plentitude of venomous and non-venomous snakes to be found in the harsh desert environment. Puff adders, Anchietas cobras, zebra spitting cobras, boomslang, and black mambas, to name a few of the venomous variety, are all indigenous to Namibia and we were lucky enough to get schooled in snake awareness by none other than the country of Namibia’s resident snake expert, Francois. Only 23 years of age and a native Namibian, he has been working with snakes for 10 years and has made it his mission to educate the public about the various species in order to reduce fear and save some lives. We learned how to identify a few of the farm’s most common visitors – specifically, puff adders and cobras.

Puff adders are nocturnal and are tan and gray in color with a chevron pattern in black along the length of body with a triangle-shaped head. They have the longest fangs and are the fastest striking snake in Africa, but at the same time, they tend to be very calm and relaxed and don’t strike unless imminently threatened. Their venom is cytotoxic in nature, causing severe swelling, pain, discoloration, blistering, compartment syndrome, gangrene, and in extreme cases, amputation is required.

Anchietas cobras can be either brown or banded with black and tan stripes. They are diurnal and territorial, living in abandoned termite mounds or burrows, inflicting a neurotoxic bite when so inspired causing descending paralysis from the eyes, lips and tongue down to the heart and cardiac arrest. And alternatively, the zebra spitting cobra is black and white striped with a black head and causes the majority of bites in Namibia. They can spit venom as far away as 3 meters and have been known to go into houses to find shade, but then, being nocturnal, bite people while they are sleeping, often on fingers or toes that may drape off the side of the bed. Francois, always the snake apologist, has a theory that these are cases of mistaken identity and those appendages could have been prey. This one also delivers a cytotoxic punch when just one week earlier, a girl of only six years old had three of her fingers amputated after a zebra bite.

About halfway through Francois’s presentation, he received a legitimate snake removal call (not to be confused with the dozen previous calls about snakes he received in the first half of the session. Taking his job very seriously, me and Mirijam and Joshua quickly grabbed our necessities and jumped in the backseat of his hatchback for a breakneck speed car race toward Windhoek. As we neared the GPS directions on his phone, Francois said he hoped we weren’t going to a shack. Common in the poorer neighborhoods, a shack is literally defined as a makeshift structure with no floor and some kind of impermanent walls and roof. Unfortunately, snakes can easily penetrate the various holes and gaps left in the shoddy construction so of course, our GPS directions led us directly to a shack. The whole neighborhood was standing around in the yard, afraid to go back inside. I must admit I much preferred to stand in the yard as well, but I guess N/a’an ku se volunteers are expendable as the three of us were asked to go inside and begin removing furniture. We had no idea what kind of snake we were looking for, which made it all the more frightening. I have grown used to having fingers and toes and the use of my cerebral functions so I wasn’t too keen on a snake bite today (or any day really).

Cardboard and carpet scraps had been haphazardly positioned on the floor. A broken bed frame lay askew in the corner and a yellowing mattress was propped on the wall. The walls and roof were made of tin that swayed a bit in the breeze. From what I could tell, the rest was random junk and broken furniture, like a cabinet door without a cabinet or a shelf without a bookcase. Cautiously, Mirijam, Joshua, and I formed an assembly line, trying to stay as close to the exit as possible, and began moving furniture through the open door. Francois crawled on the ground with a pen light and a snake pole, looking in holes and dark creepy places. He was convinced the snake would be gone already so just as we were about to give up, he spotted a small brown head down a deep crack in the ground.

The next few seconds happened so fast that I didn’t actually see anything, but from what I gathered, Francois and his colleague attempted to coax it out of the hole which then motivated the snake to retreat through a tunnel and another hole, back out through a crack in the siding, along the side of a neighbor’s physical house (not a shack), only to be caught by Francois’s colleague when he scaled a 6 ft fence in one swift Olympic jump. The neighborhood audience hooted and clapped and generally kicked up a raucous as these two snake mavericks proudly displayed the non-venomous brown house snake like a trophy.

Getting its name from the fact that it often turns up in someone’s house in search of mice, the Brown House Snake is not dangerous but is commonly vilified as if it were. Francois showed the snake to the neighbors, explained how to identify it, and encouraged people to hold it and take photos, all in an attempt to address the fear people have of snakes and perhaps save a few wrongful snake deaths in the future. He passed out his business card to almost everyone present and insisted they call him during day or night if they need a snake removed rather than immediately killing it and identifying it later.
After measuring it and taking note of the sex, where it was found and when, and a few other research details, we put the snake inside a large plastic bucket and drove to a nearby wildlife reserve. According to Francois, when a snake is relocated it has a very low survival rate because it loses touch with available prey and water sources. Therefore, depending on where the snake was found, he has a few different release sites that seem to have higher successful survival rates. At the reserve entrance, the guard recognized him like they were old pals and waved us through even though she covered her eyes when he wanted to show her our prize. We drove a few kilometers inside of the reserve and then released the little guy back into the bush. We’ll never know what might become of that snake, but I was already feeling more secure knowing Francois was living at the farm in case of any more dangerous encounters.