Travelling to Africa for the first time has a tendency to freak people out. All we seem to know about the place is that it’s a land full of war, disease, poverty and starving children.
It saddens me a lot that this often causes people to dismiss Africa as a travel destination. Such preconceptions are largely untrue and are simply embedded in our minds due to the Western media.
Africa is a beautiful continent, full of fast developing nations and incredibly rich in culture and diversity. It has an energy unlike any other place on Earth and the spirit of the people is something to be admired. Life in Africa is about love, gratitude and community – something that we in the developed world could probably learn a thing or two about.
To me travel is about discovering and exploring a way of life you never knew existed – one that leaves an impression on you and changes you for the better. In my mind, there’s no better place than Africa to do exactly that.
With that in mind, here’s a few things you’ll need to know before you take that first trip into the motherland:
1. Take new US dollar bills
Make sure you take large bills no older than Series 2006. Many places in Africa will not accept older bills than this, and many places will not accept $10, $5 and $1 bills at all. To avoid carrying large amounts of cash try and use the ATM’s where possible – they’re widespread and accept credit cards and Plus cards. This will save you the anxiety of carrying thousands of dollars in your pocket.
2. Take an old smartphone
Cellphone carriers are surprisingly good. 3G is available and cheap – you might only pay $20 or so for unlimited data for a month. Take an old smartphone that uses the original size simcards (eg. iPhone 3G or something similar). Here’s why:
- Original sized sim cards are both cheaper and easier to find – they’re standard issue in East Africa and cost around $1. Getting your hands on a nano or micro sim will be more difficult and more expensive. Most shops I’ve seen still use the old school method of cutting original sims with a pair of scissors.
- With a working smartphone you won’t die from Whatsapp withdrawal but you also won’t risk losing your brand new iPhone 8. You’ll also be connected on email, Skype, GPS etc. for any emergencies and have Google handy for all your tourist needs. It’s tough to get wifi in some places, so using the hotspot on your phone will keep you connected on your laptop, too.
3. Malaria awareness
Malaria is no joke – it’s a big problem in Africa and millions die from it every year. However, don’t let the fear of this ruin your trip. Malaria is easy to prevent and with the proper precautions you’ll be fine.
Malarone and Doxycycline are the two most common anti malarials. Malarone is the more expensive option (around $7 a pill), but has the least side effects. Doxy is far cheaper (a 6 month supply may only cost $50) but it renders your skin sensitive to sunlight, meaning you’ll burn easier, and some people experience hallucinations. No big deal.
Malaria is not easy to catch, it’s a specific species of mosquito called Anopheles that carries it and it struggles to live at altitudes above 1,500m. That means in places like Addis Ababa and Nairobi you can relax a little, however seaside towns like Zanzibar and Mombasa require extra vigilance. The obvious prevention method here is to use insect repellent whenever outdoors at night, in the bush, or wherever mosquitoes might be found. If you don’t get bitten, you’re safe!
4. Learn about HIV
To some people HIV and Africa are almost synonymous. That’s a little bit sad. People seem to be arrested with the fear that just spending time on the continent will put them at risk. I was extremely poorly educated on the topic on my first trip to Africa. Turns out, HIV is a very difficult disease to contract. Don’t have unprotected sex, don’t get a blood transfusion, don’t use needles. Easy!
5. Take sunscreen
This can be hard to find in some African countries, simply because the local population have no need for it. When you do find it, it’ll be expensive and you’ll be lucky to find your favourite brand. Take your own from home.
6. Get the Ducharal vaccine
This is an oral vaccine that protects you from traveller’s diarrhoea. Drinking it will iron plate your stomach for 3 months so you have a much lesser chance of pooping water. I’ve had this vaccine on each of my Africa trips, eat all sorts of crap and haven’t had diarrhoea once! It’s not always included in a family doctor’s “Africa value pack” so make sure you ask for it.
7. Dress down
Remember that poverty is a big problem here. Don’t draw attention to yourself and respect the culture. That means easy on the bling bling and no flashy clothes. For the ladies, try and stay covered up.
8. Take a torch
Powercuts are widespread and frequent, and many areas don’t have electricity.
9. Don’t pack a lot of white clothing
It’ll get dirty real quick and you’ll probably be hand-washing it.
10. Careful with your camera
You’re going to come across some amazing photo opportunities of local people doing things you’ve never seen before. Have some tact with your camera because local people will often take offense at you taking photos of them. Many people will approach you and ask you for money if they catch you. Use your zoom and take your snaps from afar or just be discreet. If you wish to get up close and take your perfect photo, ask permission first. Alternatively, take the photo and then offer a “tip” afterwards. It’ll keep the peace and they’ll appreciate your respect.
11. Hand sanitiser
If you’re planning a few trips off the beaten track you’re bound to be touching all sorts of dirty things and have local children jumping all over you. Keeping a bottle of this handy is a lifesaver. Hard to find in some places, so take your own from home.
12. Carry a pack of baby wipes
You’ll thank me later.
13. Use a VPN!
Most places in Africa have wifi now but security isn’t quite up to the level that we’re used to. I’d highly recommend getting a VPN before you go if you plan on connecting to wifi networks in hotels/cafes/restaurants etc. This will encrypt all your connections and ensure your activity is secure, which is particularly important if you’ll be accessing bank details online, Paypal, or any other sensitive information. I use Private Internet Access and have been for a few years. If you’re new to this stuff I’ve got an article about internet security while travelling here!
14. Be smart with the hustlers
While walking around the streets you’ll get some unwanted attention. Guys will try to sell you arts and crafts or lure you to souvenir stores in an effort to earn a commission. That’s fine if you’re interested, but chances are you’re not. If any case these people are harmless and are just an annoyance more than anything else, so the trick is to just be cool and relaxed rather than hostile.
When they ask if it’s your first time visiting just say “No, I come every year, my brother lives here” or something like that. Once they realise you’re not a clueless tourist they’ll most likely chit chat with you for 10 more seconds before moving on to a more promising target.
I remember getting off the bus in Arusha one year and before my feet have even touched the ground some dude has his hand on my shoulder screaming “Taxi my friend? My friend? Taxi!?”
I ignore him and he goes on, “Your first time in Africa, my friend?”
I shake my head. “My family lives here.”
“Oh! You have African wife?”
I start laughing and turn to him nodding. “Ndiyo, kaka” (yes, my brother).
He smiles with that knowing look in his eyes, and then disappears so fast that even I’m surprised. I turn my head to nod him off and he’s already back at the bus door, hassling someone else.
15. Get a driver
Once you land in the country, get the phone number of a reliable taxi driver. If your hotel sends a driver to the airport and you get to your hotel alive, get his number. Otherwise ask the hotel staff for a reliable taxi. Keep his number in your cellphone or even better, memorise it. You can call him whenever you’re in a fix, especially if you’re stuck somewhere after dark, making sure you’ll never be stuck behind enemy lines.
16. Pack a first aid kit
A standard first aid kit can come in handy in a place where ambulances are scarce and hospital helicopters don’t exist. That means bandages, antiseptics, prescription antibiotics, a pocketknife, sterile needles (some hospitals don’t have these), DEET, anti diarrheals and painkillers.
17. Use common sense and stay safe
Despite what people think Africa is not a wild, lawless place. Of course there’s crime, but common sense will be sufficient to keep you safe. Don’t go out alone at night – take a local male with you. When you arrive in the country, ask someone you can trust such as a tour guide or hotel staff about the danger spots in the city. If you always have an escort at night and don’t go wandering, you’ll be in no more danger than you would be in your home country.
I’ve been to every continent and Africa is by far my favourite! Go, explore, discover, enjoy.