In order to properly know Africa, you need to give the continent time. It is a massive, diverse place and cannot be covered in a couple of weeks like large swaths of Europe. Over the past several months I have learned quite a bit from my experiences and mistakes as a traveler in Africa. Here are some tips to make sure you are as prepared as possible for an extended trip in this fascinating part of the world.
1. Get Your Shots and Pills Right Away
If buying a plane ticket is step 1, booking an appointment with a travel doctor is step 2. Good travel doctors in Western countries will be able to pull up on their computer a list of shots, vaccines and pills that you need prior to departure. The travel doctor will also ensure that you have plenty of anti-malarial pills and antibiotics, such as ciproflaxin, which are very important to combat stomach bugs. Some of these medical precautions need to be taken several days before you leave, so take care of the necessary visit as soon as possible.
2. Research Visa Requirements Early
Visa requirements for any country you plan to visit in Africa should be researched well before you travel. The documents needed change regularly (sometimes depending on with whom you speak at the consulate), as do the visa fees. Additionally, while you can obtain a visa without prior application at the airport in Ethiopia, Kenya or Djibouti, countries such as Cote d’Ivoire require that you have a visa upon arriving at any border. Even more difficult is the case of countries such as Ghana, which makes certain nationals apply for the visa in their home country. It may take a few phone calls with a nation’s local representation to determine what you need for a visa, but the early footwork will avoid headaches with immigration officials.
3. Bring Plenty of US Dollars
Banks in Africa frequently run out of cash and, quite often, their ATM’s simply will not cooperate with your foreign bank or credit card. However, even if you find yourself without the local currency and unable to exchange money, the US dollar will fund any activities through a cash shortage. If you know the exchange rate, many tour companies or hotels are happy to accept payment in the equivalent in US dollars.
4. Be Aware of the Prices of Intra-continental Flights
Crossing African borders via an airplane can be very expensive. A two hour flight that would cost $200 in Europe or the US will be at least double the price in Africa. Overland travel is much cheaper and allows you to experience the changing landscape more intimately, with the disadvantages that it is time-consuming and often presents uncomfortable seating. The choice between the two modes of transport will always be a balancing act.
5. Try to Use Reputable Airlines
Many national carriers in Africa have a long road to reliability and safety, but there are a few stars whose performance and service mean that they should be a preferred airline choice. Ethiopian Airlines is, in my opinion, the best carrier on the continent. Ethiopian is constantly improving its fleet and pilots across Africa travel to Addis to train at the airline’s flight school. It has an excellent network across Africa and is expanding direct flights to European and Asian hubs. In addition to Ethiopian, Egypt Air and South African Airways are good options in the northern and southern portions of Africa, respectively.
6. Prepare Yourself for Uncomfortable, but Rewarding, Nights
Once you’ve left the more Western hotels in larger cities, accommodation options fall off in terms of amenities. Nicer luxury options can be found, but the hygiene, quiet and warm showers to which many travelers are accustomed may be substandard or nonexistent in rural areas. Despite these aspects of the lodging, sleeping and subsisting in such radically distinct conditions breeds an appreciation for the daily lives of those in the developing world. Seeing and experiencing a way of life different than yours is one of the most persuasive arguments for traveling in Africa now, and a stay in a modest bush hotel is one of many ways to do so.
7. Learn Key Words and Phrases in the Local Language(s) of any Country You Visiting
In addition to making travel easier, here are the essential words which will also ingratiate the traveler to the locals in the destination:
Indispensable – yes, no, hello, goodbye, thank you, water, coffee, toilet, room, you’re welcome;
Very helpful – friend, home, beer, eggs, wine, hot, cold;
Elective – “Make it a double,” “I have a wife/husband/boyfriend/girlfriend,” change, local rate.
8. Bring a Strong, Compact Umbrella
I got caught in a couple of classic rainy season storms not long after arriving in Africa that sent me scrambling for cover, as I had left my umbrella elsewhere. If the skies bear even a grayish tint, I grab the smaller umbrella I bought prior to departure and have never regretted it. I have yet to see another quality umbrella for sale here – now I know where those rainy-day umbrella salesmen in New York get their goods – so pack something small and dependable.
9. Invest in Quality All-Terrain Shoes
Right before I left the US, I bought a pair of trail running shoes. Thank god I did so. Loafers do not fare well on uneven surfaces and the many unexpected rocks are best tackled with all-terrain sneakers. Those shoes have lasted me almost a year, with many hikes and walks easily handled as a result. My wife manages to get by with her “safari flats” on shorter excursions, but rougher ground demands appropriate footwear.
10. Check Taxi Rates Before You Arrive
This is a more general rule that I follow whenever traveling someplace new, but it especially holds true for Africa. I have not seen a metered taxi in 10 months and have realized how much of a luxury it is. I have come across countless overcharging and dishonest taxi drivers who will refuse to provide a decent rate to a foreigner. The best way to combat them is to research message boards and guidebooks beforehand to find reputable drivers and to understand what the market price of the fare should be. Also, don’t be afraid to walk away when a fair price seems unattainable – that is the moment when many drivers will cave and you may hear a better rate offered once your back is turned.
Have you traveled to Africa? Are there any other long-term travel tips that you can share?