Planning your Trip to West Africa
Want to travel West Africa, but don’t know where to begin? This page is your starting point. It covers everything from how to get to the region to what vaccinations you may need. Each section has links to more specific articles that will help you fill in the details.
Not sure if you want to travel West Africa? You may still benefit ffrom some of the sections below, including those that cover cost, and health and safety. If you are in need of some inspiration, go read some stories from other travelers, check out some photos or listen to some tunes.
How much will it cost?
Your budget will likely vary from country to country and you will want to take a look at individual country pages to make the most accurate budget estimation.
That said, there are a few things we can say in general about the cost of traveling in West Africa. See the following points:
- While you can travel West Africa on a very small budget, the region can also be expensive depending on your accommodation, transport, and dining choices.
- When I traveled in the region in 2010, I averaged close to $1,000 a month. I had one month where I spent roughly $150, however — a month in Cote d’Ivoire, couchsurfing the entire time, taking public transport and eating street food or preparing food with my hosts.
- There were other months where I went over $1,000 — months that included hotel stays, hours in bars and nightclubs, and long voyages and tours (paying for a guide in Dogon Country, for example).
- Your budget depends on your comfort level. Many places in West Africa don’t have the hyper-cheap but also highly comfortable facilities and infrastructure for travelers that you can find in places like Southeast Asia.
- This does not mean you have to be miserable to travel on a budget in West Africa. While it’s true that you may not be able to find a $15 room with air conditioning, you will be able to find a clean room for that price with a fan and a bathroom.
For more on what you can expect with respect to travel expenses, please have a look at our country guides and our articles on budget travel. For a general overview on cash, credit cards and ATMs in West Africa, read this.
Is it safe?
The dangers of traveling in this region are greatly overstated. While there is active conflict and specific risks in certain areas of certain countries, West Africa is a much more peaceful place than it was 15-20 years ago. Rates of violent crime are lower than they are in many other parts of the world, even in urban areas. And while there are certain health risks, you can take proper precautions and avoid major illness.
The greatest threat to your safety in West Africa is on the roadways. Unfortunately, road safety is not taken seriously by many vehicle owners and even many government officials. Roads in some places may be in very poor condition and the same can be said for many vehicles. That said, there are steps you can take to make the roadways safer — see our guide to road safety in West Africa here.
Is it safe to travel as a solo female?
Many people are under the impression that traveling as a solo female in West Africa is extremely dangerous. In reality, it is no more dangerous than anywhere else in this regard. You may be subject to marriage proposals and unwanted attention at times, but outright harassment is rare in most places. As a female, there are certain precautions you will want to take, but you should not fear for your safety. For tips on traveling as a solo female in West Africa, please see a guest post that was written on the subject here. Also, please reference the individual country guides for specific cultural practices that you may want to take into account.
Passport and Visas
Have a look at the expiration date in your passport. Make sure that it does not expire during your trip or within 6 months of your trip’s end date. Also, make sure there are plenty of blank pages. If you are planning on traveling through multiple countries, be prepared to be issued visas that take up whole pages.
We have long been holding out hope for an ECOWAS visa that would cover the whole of West Africa, but for the moment, the conditions and prices of visas vary by country. Some countries, such as Senegal, don’t require visas for the majority of visitors. On the other hand, some countries have costly visas and a complicated application process. It’s worth noting that some nationalities may have certain advantages over others depending on the country.
Read our comprehensive guide to visas in West Africa here. That guide includes general tips as well as country by country information that covers everything from cost to application process to embassy location.
If you are wondering whether you should take out travel insurance before coming to West Africa, the answer is yes. Even if you take every precaution with your safety and health, you never know when something could happen and that’s the bottom line.
We recommend World Nomads because they deliver on claims, have very helpful customer service and their coverage is easily renewed and extended even while you are traveling. This is the insurance we use whenever we are on the road. Click here to get a free quote.
For more on choosing a policy for your trip, see our article on travel insurance advice for West Africa.
What about vaccinations? malaria?
Many countries in West Africa have vaccination requirements for entry. Beyond that, there are certain vaccinations you will want to have anyway. Often, Yellow Fever is the only immunization that is required for entry, but sometimes countries require meningitis as well. For all the details on what shots to get and where and how to get them, see our comprehensive article on the subject here.
In the meantime, here is the list of what you should have:
- Routine vaccinations – these would include tetanus, polio, measles, mumps, rubella (MMR, comes in 1 shot), varicella (if you haven’t already had chickenpox), hepatitis A and hepatitis B.
- Yellow Fever – increasingly rare disease, but the vaccination is commonly required for entry into most West Africa countries.
- Meningitis (meningococcal disease) – Much of West Africa falls in the meningitis belt and even though not every country in the region requires it, you would be wise to get this vaccination as it is a potentially fatal illness.
- Typhoid – Not required for entry into any country, but it is highly recommended.
- Rabies – Recommended if you plan on spending extensive time around animals.
Again, for more details on immunizations for West Africa, see here.
Malaria is endemic throughout West Africa. While there is no vaccine available, there are prophylactics that you can take to prevent it. It is important that you have a travel health consultation before traveling to decide your course of action on this.
You can read our take on malaria in this post, where we talk about different prophylactic options and general prevention tactics. We also discuss treatment in that article and what you should carry as an emergency standby.
In that article, we explain all the options and talk about some choices we have made in the past, but choosing a prophylactic or choosing not to take them is something that should be discussed between you and your doctor.
What should you pack?
Many people are under the impression that a trip to Africa must involve over-the-top safari gear. You know, khaki bush jackets, moisture wicking pants and all that crap. You are welcome to bring safari gear of course, but there’s really no reason to do so. For one, West Africa is known less for its game reserves than it is for its cultures and history. In addition, you will probably feel like an idiot in safari gear.
Essentials: (in no particular order)
- Power adapters – certain electronics may require converters if you are coming from the U.S. Countries in West Africa run on 220V of current. Whether you need converters or not, you may need plug adapters, such as these. In general, the plug formats of countries follow those of the previous colonizer. For example, the outlets in Mali have the two round openings that you find in France and other parts of Europe. In Ghana, there are three pronged plugs identical to those found in the UK, etc.
- A telephone – if you have an unlocked phone, bring it. If you don’t have an unlocked phone, budget some money to buy one once you arrive. With a local sim card, you can easily coordinate with new friends. If you have a smartphone, apps like maps.me are incredibly helpful. For our full list of helpful apps for traveling West Africa, see this article.
- Bug spray – mosquitoes are around. Bring a bit of spray as it can be hard to find here. Go for something with at least 20-30% DEET.
- Sunscreen – you will be somewhat near the equator, which is all you need to know.
- Backup battery USB charger – if you need to charge electronics, try one of these for those long voyages. Alternatively, go off the grid.
- Water filter/purifier – you can buy bottled or treated water just about everywhere, but if you are planning on spending a lot of time in the bush, buy a portable device that you can use for purification. Try the SteriPen Ultra.
- Mosquito net – most places are equipped already, but it’s not a bad idea to have your own. Here are a few.
- First aid kit – just in case. If you don’t want to make your own, buy a pre-made kit.
- Medication – bring any prescription medication you take, along with a backup supply. You can buy most medications in pharmacies in West Africa, but you may not be able to find certain brands. Also, it’s not a bad idea to bring some over the counter medicines, like ibuprofen and an antihistamine for allergic reactions.
- Toiletries – you will have no problem finding toiletries when you arrive. It’s just a question of whether you are attached to certain brands and products. If that’s the case, bring your own supply from home.
Packing List for Guys
The short version: West Africa can be quite warm. This is true. Pack plenty of short sleeve shirts (you can also have shirts cheaply made once you arrive with local fabrics and tailors). Go for cotton. Wherever you go in West Africa, you will notice that far more guys where pants rather than shorts. Pack a pair or two of jeans, but definitely bring some shorts for the hotter months. Oh, and bring a hat. Depending on the season, you may also want to bring a lightweight jacket or sweatshirt.
Packing list for Women
The short version: dresses and skirts are your friends. Some countries are more conservative than others, and you may need to pay attention to how much skin your outfit reveals. In general, plan to dress more conservatively in the predominantly Muslim countries of Mauritania, Senegal, Mali, Niger and Burkina Faso. Certain regions of specific countries may also be more conservative than areas elsewhere in the same country (for example, northern Cote d’Ivoire and northern Ghana).
When it comes to toiletries, expect to travel with your own toilet paper. Oh, and tampons. You will struggle to find a reliable supply in most countries in West Africa. Better to come prepared.
Getting to the region
Depending on where you are coming from, West Africa can be an expensive air ticket. In terms of proximity and cost, Europe is the most convenient for departures.
Travelers coming from elsewhere may find it difficult to get a direct flight and/or a reasonably priced one.
But regardless of where you are coming from, there are some tactics you can use to minimize the flight costs
- Book in advance (at least 2 months if possible)
- Be flexible when it comes to your travel days (middle of the week is always better and holiday times are always more expensive)
- Make a multi-flight itinerary
- Fly into a hub and then overland it to your destination
For a detailed guide to finding cheap airfare to West Africa, please see our comprehensive article on the topic here.
Many travelers enter West Africa via Morocco and Western Sahara after taking the ferry from Europe. Whether you use public transportation or your own vehicle, overland travel can be an affordable and fascinating way to discover West Africa.
Of course, both public transportation and private vehicles have their tradeoffs. Public transport can be more convenient in some ways, because checkpoints and borders are less complicated. On the other hand, you can’t control when and where you stop.
We highly recommend checking out our section on overland travel, which features articles like this one: 3rd Party Insurance for Overland Vehicles in West Africa.
Getting around in West Africa
While transport varies by country, there are a few common themes:
- Regional and domestic flights – airlines like Air Cote d’Ivoire, Asky, Air Senegal and Air Burkina offer intercity flights. Some airlines like Air Ivoire in Cote d’Ivoire and Starbow in Ghana provide flights between cities within those countries. Read our guide about regional flights here.
- Buses – buses ply the roads of every country in West Africa. They are often affordable, but the comfort offered by the bus varies. Most long-haul bus trips are an adventure. Don’t skip our guide on marathon bus trips.
- Bush taxis and mini-busses – more cramped than a bus and often more of an adventure, too. In some places, bush taxis or mini-busses are your only option to get between two cities/towns/villages. They are cheap, and they will eventually reach their destination. Important note: despite the discomfort, buses, bush taxis and mini-buses allow you to make plenty of new friends and cultural discoveries.
- Taxis (of all varieties) – Depending on the city, you will have a variety of taxi options at your disposal. In Togo, you will see moto-taxis. In Cote d’Ivoire, private taxis, but also woro-woros (a type of shared taxi). Taxis are rarely metered, and if it’s not a shared taxi with a set route, you will need to negotiate the price.
- State-run transport – most public transport in West Africa is actually privately run. But some countries have bus networks, water taxis and ferries, and train service (ok, train service is very limited in West Africa at the moment). Expect cheap prices and hit-or-miss service (although this depends greatly on the country. Ghana’s STC bus service, for example, offers value and decent service).
- Overland Tours – there are not many companies that offer overland trips throughout the region, but a few do. One company we can recommend is Overlanding West Africa, which is one of the only companies to do overland trips through the Guinea-Sierra Leone-Liberia corridor. We highly recommend them for their responsibly-run trips that get you truly off the beaten path.
As we mentioned above, the roads – statistically and anecdotally – pose the greatest threat to your safety. See our article with tips for staying safe on the roads here.
West Africa does not have the same number of cheap well-run hotels and hostels that you find in many developing world countries in Latin America and Asia. But there are a few gems in every country along with plenty of adventurous options, from couchsurfing and free homestays to seedy brothels to family run guesthouses. Here are a few tips:
- Try a homestay at least once – some people organize entire trips this way. Even if you need your private space, try to stay with a local family at least once. It could change your whole trip. We have had success with Couchsurfing.
- Read our country guides – in the country guides, you can find specific recommendations for lodging. We’ve stayed at these places, and we can vouch for them.
- Certain hotels and guesthouses may offer discounts – it never hurts to smile and ask for a price reduction. Hotels in smaller towns and villages are likely to be more flexible.
- Avoid hotels that have hourly rates – these hotels are more likely to be brothels. Your main concern here is cleanliness. Many of these places do not put much effort into room maintenance.
- Profit from the wisdom of other travelers – if you come across someone who is coming from where you are going, pick their brain for some basic travel knowledge. They may have an excellent recommendation for lodging. Join the West Africa Travellers Facebook group to get info directly from travelers who have been or are currently in the region.
You can also try review sites. In major cities, you will find that a good number of hotels are on sites like Tripadvisor.
Food in West Africa
Food in West Africa varies by country and region, but there are some similarities between multiple areas.
- The power of the grill – Charcoal grills are everywhere. Most grilled foods are eaten in the evening, whether it’s brochettes and kebabs or whole barbecued fish. Every country has their own take, and you should try as much as possible.
- Lots of rice, lots of sauce – in most West African countries, a local lunch is typically rice accompanied by a sauce that has meat or fish in it.
- If it’s not rice, it’s probably a doughy starch – foutou, fufu, tô, placali. These are all examples of non-rice starches that are often eaten with a sauce. Some are cassava based, others plantain, millet, etc. The starch-sauce combo has been perfected over generations. Expect a delicious, hearty meal that will keep you full for hours.
- It can be difficult to be a vegetarian – if you are a strict vegetarian, West Africa may present a bit of a challenge. Many dishes are prepared with fish or meat even if they are not the principal ingredients. If you make an effort, however, you can get by. Just don’t expect to be overwhelmed by the number of choices.
- You can still find “Western” food – in any major West African city, you can find food that could be considered “Western.” Many local dishes already incorporate aspects of Western cuisine — the influence of several hundred years of colonialism. This is why you can get a decent French vinaigrette in a random town in Togo.
The bottom line: West African cuisine may not have overwhelming variety, but there are more than enough delicious plates to satisfy your palate.
What is there to do in West Africa anyway?
That’s kind of a stupid question really. Anywhere with this many cultures, climates and shear land area is going to have plenty to see and do. You’ll get specifics in the stories or tips category, along with the country guides, but here are some basics:
West Africa is not the place for wildlife – Unless you are interested in birdwatching (and West Africa is indeed a great place for this), the region is not a top destination for wildlife. One notable exception is the Pendjari Nature Reserve in northern Benin (unfortunately, there was recently a kidnapping in this park and we cannot recommend it for the moment given the proximity to the border of Burkina Faso). There are at least 1-2 worthwhile wildlife attractions in almost every country, and most parks are nowhere near as crowded as those in East and Southern Africa, but many of them are more manicured and controlled, such as the Fathala Wildlife Reserve. By the way, did you know that you can see chimpanzees in Mali?
Culture is West Africa’s greatest asset – Hundreds of languages spoken, countless musical styles, specific local customs like “joking cousins” (a hilarious system in certain countries of insulting people based on their family names that’s also used to strengthen the social fabric and defuse tensions), strong communities and plenty of good things to eat. Travel slowly and you’ll find it easier to appreciate the culture here. Learn a bit of the local language. See some music. Drink a few beers in a maquis. Lounge with a family in their living room after a big lunch.
History/Archaeology – Multiple empires flourished in West Africa before the era of colonialism. The Ashanti Kingdom in Ghana, the Dahomey Empire in Benin, the Songhai and Bambara empires in Mali and beyond. Every country is dotted with World Heritage sites, and you will rarely run into crowds of other tourists. In fact, more often than not, you will have the place to yourself.
Nightlife – Between informal maquis (a kind of cheap outdoor bar), music venues, and flashy nightclubs, you can keep yourself busy until sunrise in most West African cities. Cities with a Muslim majority tend to be more conservative, and the venues may be more discreet, but there are always plenty of places to let loose, hear some live music or listen to a DJ and dance all night.
En brousse – West African cities are a lot of fun. Every neighborhood offers a blend of cultures that few villages can replicate. But the village offers peace and tranquility. Stargazing on a roof as you fall asleep, playing cards in a shady courtyard, watching chickens chase piglets. All the good things.
The coast – West Africa boasts some of the world’s best beaches. Whether it’s the untouched beaches of western Ghana and Sierra Leone or the urban beaches of Lome and Dakar, where you can enjoy a beer and people watch with the waves a few steps away. And surfing! Surfing is becoming increasingly popular from Dakar down to Ghana.
Wander – Many places in West Africa lend themselves to wandering without a plan. Transport is cheap, and it’s easy to find yourself in casual interactions with strangers. On multiple occasions, I have arrived in villages and towns without a place to stay or even an idea of where to look. Fellow passengers on the bus or bush taxi (or whatever else) invited me to stay and eat with them. I am never worried traveling without a plan in West Africa.
This page offers general info. While we can point to some common threads when it comes to travel in West Africa, we don’t want to do a disservice to individual countries, all of which have their own unique features. Next stop? Head to the country guides, the tips page or the stories category.
The 8 must-have vaccines before you travel to Africa
When your safari to travel to Africa is booked and confirmed, you are likely to experience a surge of emotions ranging from the excitement of anticipating a new adventure to the thrill of fulfilling a dream. However, some African countries will not allow you to enter unless you have the necessary vaccinations.
The good news is that if you follow your doctor’s or travel clinic specialist’s recommendations, get up-to-date vaccines, and use common sense, you’ll be OK. It’s recommended that you visit your doctor four to six weeks before the travel date to ensure that you are up to date with the routine vaccinations.
The vaccines to get depends on where you’re going. If you are travelling to African countries such as Kenya, Tanzania, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Ghana, Nigeria, Sudan, and other African countries, don’t let sickness stifle your safari plans.
Also read: NFTs and the future of capital raising in Africa
No matter where you’re going, make sure you’re up to date on all routine vaccines such as measles-mumps-rubella, diphtheria-tetanus-pertussis, chickenpox, polio, hep B, and the annual flu vaccine. The following are the vaccines you need before you travel to Africa.
Hepatitis A & B
Hepatitis B Vaccine.
Hepatitis A also called Hep A or HAV is transmitted through contaminated food or very close contact with an infected person whereas Hepatitis B is a contagious liver infection with severe symptoms that can lead to lifelong illness. full two-dose Hep A&B vaccine is strongly recommended when visiting Africa.
Also read: Africa Travel Indaba gets underway
Meningitis is an inflammation of the membranes covering both the brain and spinal cord. We recommend a meningitis vaccine before you travel to Africa because about 10 to 15 percent of cases can lead to death. Permanent side effects such as deafness, brain damage, and amputation may occur.
There are three forms of meningitis. Bacterial, viral, parasitic, and fungal. Each form of meningitis has some identifying markers and spreads differently. Viral and bacterial will spread person-to-person through air droplets, kissing, or nasal secretions whereas environmental factors cause fungal and parasitic.
Viral and bacterial are the most common variants that often spread within communities that live together such as Dorm living, close contact, and other shared facilities.
Yellow fever spreads mainly from the bite of infected mosquitoes. It’s easily prevented with vaccination that’s routinely available from travel clinics.
Also read: Investing in Africa: Why here and now
Travellers are strongly advised to vaccinate against yellow fever and get a vaccination certificate from the approved center. You must have been vaccinated at least 10 days before travelling because it takes a few days before you are effectively protected. Once you’ve had the yellow fever shot, the travel clinic will issue you with an International Certificate of Vaccination or Prophylaxis (IVCP) that proves they have inoculated you.
The COVID-19 Vaccine
Although the coronavirus-related entry requirements vary from country to country, some commercial airlines that fly to Africa require that passengers produce a negative COVID-19 PCR test conducted within 72 hours of their departure. However, with travel restrictions and COVID-19 protocols easing by the minute, some African destinations no longer require fully vaccinated travellers to undergo PCR testing before departure or on arrival.
As disease-carrying female mosquitoes spread malaria, the risk of contracting it is highest where mosquitoes are prolific. Malaria is one of the most common diseases in Africa but is preventable and treatable with antimalarial medication. If you plan to travel to Africa, your doctor will give you medicine to help prevent that.
Oral Cholera vaccine.
Cholera is a bacterial infection in food or water sources contaminated with human faeces. Cholera poses a threat to over 600 million people all over the world. Every year, between 3 and 5 million cases are reported, resulting in over 100,000 deaths.
Symptoms are usually modest, and in some situations, there are no symptoms at all. However, even mild cholera symptoms, such as vomiting or diarrhoea, can ruin a trip. Cholera can cause a person to pass up to a litre of diarrhoea per hour.
Also read: Insurtech deepening uptake of insurance in Africa
Cholera patients can develop severe symptoms in up to 20% of cases. The infection can kill within hours if not treated. If you are travelling to Africa, a vaccine against some bacteria that cause cholera is highly recommended.
If you plan on doing outdoor activities such as camping, hiking, bicycling, or travelling extensively in rural areas, and you are in danger of being bitten by an animal, get a rabies vaccination.
Most rabies deaths occur in Africa where locals cannot afford vaccinations for themselves and their dogs.
Flu or Influenza Vaccine
We also recommend the flu or influenza vaccine in your good time before travelling to Africa. you don’t want to start your Africa safari fighting off a cold or flu. You should also take multivitamins or immune boosters and take along some of them to avoid the dreaded ‘flight flu’.
Visiting Africa is no doubt a thrilling adventure. Even if you’re in perfect health, chat with your health care practitioner before you travel to ensure you get health advice. Being a well-informed and well-prepared traveller will help you enjoy complete peace of mind and the freedom to immerse yourself fully in your safari vacation.
Africa travel tips: everything you need to know before you go
Planning a trip to Africa soon? From what to know before you go, how to travel around, and how to stay safe, to avoiding border scams, travel health, and finding accommodation, our Africa travel tips guide will answer all your questions!
You’ve finally taken the plunge and booked that ticket for an epic African adventure, you’ve planned a rough itinerary, picked your safari, and soon you’ll be on your way – hooray!
Believe us when we say that you’ve definitely just made one of the best travel decisions you could hope to make. From the incredible natural environment to the rich cultural history, the friendly locals to the vibrant markets, Africa has everything, sometimes all at once.
There’s just something about this fascinating continent that pulls you in and keeps you wanting to return over and over again. For many, it’s the ultimate in exotic and far-flung destinations. But there’s no also denying that it can also be a daunting place to travel for even the hardiest of explorers!
We’ve spent a total of 9 months travelling through Southern and Central Africa in our time, and we’re the first to admit we were a little lost and confused when it came to planning our first trip there way back in 2014.
Would we be safe? How does one even travel around Africa? Would we end up with Malaria?
Turns out we had nothing to worry about, travelling around Africa is pretty easy, with the right planning.
But those initial questions are exactly why we’ve compiled this list of Africa travel tips, and stuff we wish we’d known before we left – so you can focus on having the trip of your dream!
AFRICA TRAVEL TIPS: EVERYTHING YOU NEED TO KNOW BEFORE YOU GO
TRAVELLING AFRICA: WHAT TO ORGANISE BEFORE YOU GO
While you might be someone who enjoys ‘winging it’ when it comes to travel (aka us), this is one place where a little bit of pre-prep actually goes a really, really, really long way when you’re in this part of the world.
In fact, on our Namibian road trip a few years ago, we arrived into Sossusvlei after an 8-hour drive through the desert without phone service only to discover that the only available accommodation was a room in the super luxurious Sossusvlei Lodge. which also happened to cost about the same as our monthly budget!
If we’d been better prepared, we’d have known it was coming into high season and would have either booked one of the budget options, or organised camping gear and pitched our tent inside the park.
Before you go to Africa, spend some time researching the following and plan accordingly:
Where you want to go
How long you want to go for
What season you want to travel in – is it peak? wet season?
Work out whether you want to travel Africa independently or on a group tour (like Intrepid Travel)
What you’d like to do (safari, Kilimanjaro, etc).
What visas you’ll require for each country
What kind of budget you’ll need with all of the above in mind.
A few other things to consider:
Is your passport up to date, with at least 6 months left before expiry? You’ll also need more than 2 blank pages left in it.
How will you carry your money with you on the road? Traveller’s cheques are virtually useless here, ATMs can be temperamental, and carrying huge wads of cash around isn’t the best idea. We found using a low-fee bank card, taking out enough for a few days, and stashing it in different places across our bags was the best solution for us.
Your vaccinations and medications: most African countries will require proof that you’ve had a Yellow Fever vaccination. Malaria prophylaxis like Malarone is another must-have, and if you’re planning on trekking at altitude, speak with your doctor about organising Diamox or similar.
It might seem a little daunting to begin with, but trust us, having a good idea of all of the above will make your life a thousand times easier on the ground.
WHAT TO KNOW BEFORE TRAVELLING AFRICA
BE CAREFUL, BUT NOT AFRAID
The whole of Africa has had a pretty bad rap as a war-and-poverty-stricken, crime-ridden, and inhospitable continent over the last few decades, but we’ve always found that this perception couldn’t be further from the truth.
The reality is that most African nations are stable, peaceful, and working towards a brighter future for everyone there.
Being wary, and taking the same precautions as you’d take while travelling anywhere else in the world – of course, while not allowing yourself to become closed off or fearful of every interaction – is the key here and will help you avoid many problems throughout Africa.
You’ll quickly realise that most of the fears you’ve carried with you are unfounded!
THE PEOPLE ARE SUPER FRIENDLY
Just as Africa is not the dangerous, backwards place it’s made out to be, the diverse and wonderful people who inhabit its countries aren’t waiting to rip you off at every opportunity.
Hospitable and friendly folk are everywhere, and we often commented to each other that we felt safer travelling through there than we often did in our own city, or in London (where we lived for 18 months).
You’ll probably encounter more unfriendly people on your daily commute on the tube than you will here!
It’s common to be greeted with a huge smile and hello, and most are keen to learn your name, where you’re from and why you’re visiting.
We had Malawians take us under their wing on a confusing and overcrowded long bus ride, new friends help us exchange money for fair rates at a border crossing, families who took us into their homes and cooked us chicken stew while their kids played next to us, a smiley Zambian cab driver who picked us up at all hours for our various adventures, and chatted politics, football, and the best meals in Livingstone, and so many more happy encounters.
We’ve only ever felt welcomed in Africa; if you’re open, friendly, and respectful (particularly bearing in mind that most nations are still deeply conservative), you’ll always be treated as a friend.
YOU’LL PROBABLY BE CALLED A ‘MZUNGU’
You’ll probably encounter the phrase ‘Mzungu’ being thrown your way – often by locals smiling as they wave out of car windows or pass you on the street. The literal translation from Swahili is ‘person who wanders without purpose’, though these days it’s used to describe any white foreigner.
It’s mostly said in a friendly, joking way – so try not to take offence.
BUILD FLEXIBILITY INTO YOUR ITINERARY
“Africa time”. It’s a phrase you’ll come to love and hate during your travels here, but the sooner you can embrace it the better!
Life just runs differently here. Buses leave when they’re full, not often when they’re scheduled. A pick up time of 8am might actually mean 11am and just because you ordered your food an hour ago, doesn’t mean it’s any closer to arriving.
Rather than getting frustrated by the relaxed attitude towards timings, roll with it – and always build time into your itineraries to account for it.
You’ll soon realise it’s actually nice to escape the immediacy of the west, where everything has to materialise the minute you’ve thought of it, and enjoy a more relaxed pace instead.
BRING YOUR FAVOURITE TOILETRIES WITH YOU
Generally when travelling, if you run out of your favourite shampoo or sunscreen you can just duck down the street and find a replacement at the local shop or pharmacy. That’s not quite the case in Africa, unless you’re in a large city, and even then you might struggle to find the toiletries you’re used to back home.
We found good sunscreen to be a near-impossible find in most parts of Africa, along with tampons and hair ties. If there are toiletries you simply couldn’t go more than a few days without, make sure to pick up some spares at home and add them to your luggage.
BE A RESPONSIBLE TRAVELLER
Witnessing people living in poverty can often be overwhelming for travellers, but as tempting as it is to give gifts, money, or good to beggars or children, the most positive thing you can do for them is not to give things to them.
Handouts can actually cause more damage to local communities than you’d realise by perpetuating the idea that Africa needs ‘saving’ by well-meaning rich foreign tourists.
You might also be surprised to learn that begging is actually one of the most visible signs of human trafficking; encouraging kids to stay out of school and earn money instead, and organised crime gangs to drug or deliberately maim people in order to garner sympathy from tourists and more donations.
Be a responsible traveller, and avoid funding this cycle of abuse. And while we’re talking about it, don’t take photos of random children (for a start, it’s weird – would you walk up to a kid in London and snap a photo of them without another thought?!), and avoid visiting orphanages and schools as it’s both disruptive to education, leaves children vulnerable to predators, and is often hard to distinguish a good orphanage from a scam one.
ALWAYS TRAVEL WITH TRAVEL INSURANCE
We’ve said it once, we’ll say it again (and we’ll continue saying it forevermore!) – if you can afford to travel, you cannot afford to leave home without comprehensive travel insurance.
Longtime readers will probably remember Mark’s story of getting bitten by a snake in Malawi; the ultimate proof that the unexpected really can happen, especially on a continent like Africa!