I first set foot in Africa in 2006, landing in Cairo before heading to Morocco and down through West Africa. In 2009 I returned, to Tanzania where I lived for 2 years, followed by 3 months in Kenya and in between, other adventures around East Africa. Rather than a hard and fast ‘rules of travel’ list, the following is more of a guide and advice from my own experiences.
Sever your electronic umbilical cord. Leave your ipod, smart phone, Mac and kindle at home. You can live without Wi-Fi, status updates, emails and twitter. Even if more and more young Africans are connecting to the digital age, as a traveller, I would recommend disconnecting as much as possible. In saying that I travel with a laptop, to write and store photos on, but as much as practicable try to stay ‘offline.’
Firstly, for practical reasons, you will have less stuff to carry making your backpack lighter and you will have less stuff that can be stolen or broken. Secondly it will force you to connect with the places you are. Instead of plugging in your headphones on long bus journeys, talk to your fellow passengers, watch the scenery, listen to the radio – for the music and language, or read a book or daydream. Instead of reading on a kindle, buy a second hand book, once finished swap with another traveller; instead of navigating with a smart phone, ask a local, buy a map, use a travel guide, and have a few days away from Facebook and emails, allow a chance to miss something and to be missed.
Travel in Africa takes time, sometimes more than is comfortable, reasonable or even logical. And there is, usually, absolutely nothing that you can do about it. If you don’t have patience, you will quickly develop it or send yourself mad with worry. So remember when you are packing your bags, include some ‘chill pills,’ you will need them!
Never go anywhere without a book (and playing cards)
As we’ve established, travel in Africa will inevitably involve waiting. Whether it is for a bus, a boat, a plane, a taxi or a meal, you will find yourself waiting at some stage in your trip. Without an ipod (because you have left that at home) a book is the best way to pass the time. So if you’ve been putting off reading Shantaram, Don Quixote or Mao’s biography, because they’re just so damn big, take them with you on your trip to Africa, you will at least be able to make a dent in them. They might also make a handy footrest or pillow.
Learn some language
This is more important for solo travellers. If you are part of a tour group, then you should be able to survive without learning any language, as your tour guide will usually speak for you. I would still recommend you learn some language, as a matter of interest and courtesy to people you meet – at least basic greetings and ‘transactional language.’
If you are travelling solo, depending on which part of Africa you are in, you will need any of Arabic, French, Swahili, Portuguese or English, then depending on which country you are it may be advantageous, fun and interesting to learn more. After all, how many of your friends can speak Kinyarwanda, Tigrinya or Yoruba?
Travel by land
If time permits, the best way to see and experience Africa is overland, whether walking, cycling, on a donkey or camel, in a bus, train, taxi, tuk-tuk or motorbike. Intra-Africa flights will mostly drop you from one big, steaming city to the next, whereas Africa’s real highlights are found in the villages, mountains, deserts, rivers and small towns in between and in the journeys themselves. Travelling overland will expose you to all of these and present you with surprises, difficulties and unforgettable memories.
Book tours when you arrive
Once again, if your travel plans permit this, book tours once you have arrived. Not only are prices you in your home country exorbitant, but booking on arrival puts more money into the local economy. In Tanzania and Kenya, it is quite easy to book a Kilimanjaro climb, safari or trip to Zanzibar with only a few days notice, Egyptian Nile tours can be organised in a matter of hours, as with all tours in Morocco. I haven’t been to South Africa or Zambia, but I imagine things would be similarly easy there too. Another advantage of booking on arrival is that you can shop around for the best deals, create your own, or even combine with other travellers to get discounts and make new friends at the same time. There are some exceptions of course, one being the gorilla treks in Rwanda, in which number restrictions dictate bookings well in advance.
There is a mountain of travel literature on how to act appropriately with a camera. It’s unusual that people travel to Africa as their first overseas trip, so I expect that anyone who is going has visited somewhere else where photography is a sensitive subject. With Africa it’s the same as anywhere else – ask first and be careful. Always ask before you take a photo of that cute black baby and even ask yourself why you are taking his or her photo, especially if you don’t know them. Always ask before taking a photo of anyone dressed in ‘traditional’ dress, firstly out of respect, but also because you may be charged a ‘fee’ following your happy snap. Also be careful around borders, government buildings, large crowds, banks and as I found out in Burundi in 2010 – at military parades. Hopefully your gut will tell you if you should or shouldn’t be taking photos – one way or the other you’ll figure it out.
Grow a pair
Whatever your reason for going to Africa, it is essential that, for the time you are there, you grow a decent pair of steel testicles – or whatever the equivalent is for women. Africa can be a tough place to travel in and it is, a lot of time, hot, late, crowded, poor, dirty, smelly, unpredictable and ‘in your face.’ But you won’t ever experience any of this if you sit in your hotel room the whole time. So suck it up, grow a pair and go out and experience everything Africa has to offer. Get lost in a big city, eat the street food, catch derelict public transport, go out at night, talk with the touts and other weirdos on the streets, visit the wrong side of the tracks, kiss a giraffe – and most of all leave your bottle of Aquim hand wash at home, a bit of spit on your hands will do just fine.
Bring quality toilet paper
Ok, so you’ve left your Aquim at home, but I will allow one luxury and that’s quality toilet paper. Basic, ‘roughing it’ travel isn’t for everyone, but chances are if you’re embarking on a trip to Africa you aren’t some princess who can’t travel without their hair dryer or thinks it’s disgusting to wear the same underwear for a three days straight. The one luxury I would recommend you take is decent toilet paper – the more plies the better. Now it is possible to buy decent toilet paper in Africa, but if you take a roll from home then at least you some have to start with, in case you forget, aren’t able to buy it or eat something dodgy on the plane. The standard toilet paper in Africa is uncomfortable at the best of times, much more so when you have eaten something that doesn’t agree with you – and scratching your bum in public is just as taboo in Africa as it is anywhere else in the world.
Don’t say ‘TIA’
Usually travellers to Africa grow out of this, so if it’s your first trip I’ll excuse you. For the uninitiated T.I.A means ‘This is Africa’ and is the excuse for anything that doesn’t work properly or go to plan in Africa. Oh my bus is late – T.I.A! Oh I have a fly in my food – T.I.A! Oh no, did that guy just got eaten by a Hippo, oh well – T.I.A! Hollywood actor Leonardo Di Caprio popularised the saying in his 2006 movie Blood Diamond and it has been adopted by travellers ever since. Not only has it been overused to nauseating levels, in a similar way to ‘bucket list,’ but it also lets people off the hook, people, let’s call them tour guides, bus drivers or even teachers, who perhaps should be doing better and it can also be patronising, buying into the common theme of Africa as a hopeless place full of hopeless people who always seem to get things wrong.
This is a recent conversion of mine. When I first travelled in Africa in 2006 I did it completely in thongs (flip flops for anyone outside Australia, in case you had another image in your head). Though I am now a born again convert to a good pair of shoes. I would recommend buying them in the country you land, again helping to help the local economy and you’ll pick them up much cheaper. The main reason I converted is because I walk a lot and the state of village tracks, footpaths and roads is often not all that great. Add to that that when the rains come all sorts of shit gets washed down the street and you don’t want it touching your feet (I had a particularly slushy experience in Cote d’Ivoire). With the clothes that you take, don’t take your best clothes because they will not return in the same condition, but you also don’t want to look like a bum, generally speaking, Africans take considerable pride in their appearance and it is nice if you can too.
Remember that Africa is a continent
When speaking of, writing about or referring to Africa remember that it is a continent, not a country – and Bob Marley is not from there either. Be specific about which country or part of Africa you are travelling in – Morocco is very different from Gabon, as South Africa is from Ethiopia and Namibia is to Somalia. So when you are referring to ‘African music,’ or ‘African culture’ and so on, be specific.
A few safety tips
Finally, a few safety tips – safety advice goes hand in hand with travel anywhere, especially in Africa. Really though, most of time you will be safe, Africa is not as dangerous as most people make it out to be. Sure, if you’re in Libya, DRC or Somalia you may run into some trouble, but generally speaking, if you use your common sense you’ll be fine. And honestly, there is far more chance that you’ll be involved in a plain old car crash than any great exotic mishap or death.
Firstly don’t worry about money belt, not only do I not want all my documents together, but money belts get all sweaty and uncomfortable and I’ve really never felt the need for one. Instead, I leave my passport locked in my bag at the hotel (if it goes missing at least I have a starting point) and carry my wallet, camera, phone (if I have one) and hotel keys in a small plastic bag. Also, carry the bag in the hand that is on other side to the road. I have never come across random bag snatchers in Africa, mostly I’ve heard about it Asia, but I find it works for me and it’s a good habit to get into.
A couple of times I have been followed, in markets and medinas – crowded places. If you think you might be being followed go into any shop, or if you’re in a market, stop and chat to a stallholder. Otherwise just stop walking and look around, like you’re lost or something has caught your attention, then notice if anyone else around you stops or pauses or does anything strange, you’ll be able to figure out. It can be helpful to know the local word for thief, however be extremely careful if you use it, because the punishment for thieves, especially in markets, can be a severe beating or death by angry mob.
In the hygiene stakes – if any touts or self appointed ‘tour guides’ want to shake your hand and theirs looks kinda grimy – simply offer your fist in a slang, ‘gangster’ style greeting, it will go over just as well, if not better.
Finally, have a fantastic time and tell all your friends to go – Africa is an amazing place to live and travel – jump in with both feet and swim!