Ten Tips For African Travel

by Peter Baxter on August 25, 2008

by Peter Baxter | August 25th, 2008  

Africa is a huge part of the modern world. It is also one of the most exciting outfield destinations for the contemporary traveler left on the planet. There is an aura in Africa that it is travel on the front line, and in many ways it is. However the reputation the continent suffers for gratuitous violence, corruption and unrest is largely exaggerated, and with a few simple precautions travel in Africa is as reliable, reasonable and enjoyable as anywhere else in the world.

Rural Bus Zimbabwe

General Safety

Africa has a shocking reputation for violence and civil unrest, and there are certain places where the life expectancy for a westerner on the streets is measured in hours, if not minutes. However in general, for example Sierra Leone, a nation with arguably the worst legacy of violence in the world, is also one of the friendliest tourist destinations in Africa.

A fact worth remembering is that African political violence usually has an internecine flavor that rarely includes random or misdirected acts of violence against outsiders. You can get caught in the crossfire, so make a point of avoiding war zones, but donít assume that because a country has experienced violence in the past that violence is endemic in the national psyche. In fact Africans continent wide have a reputation for openness and friendliness that is unparalleled anywhere in the world.

AIDS

In many parts of the continent it is beginning to look as though the disease might have peaked out, although in many areas statistical evidence is sparse while in others politics intrudes on the debate to quite a degree. AIDS first crossed over in equatorial Africa and has since swept down the continent like biblical plague. In some countries like Swaziland, Zimbabwe, Botswana and South Africa it cut through the productive sectors of the population like a cyclone. There is no place on the continent where you can afford to fool around with risky sexual practice unless you want to commit suicide by nookie, in which case from Nairobi to Cape Town the opportunities are almost unlimited.

Conservation

Africa is in the midst of an environmental crisis. Populations across the continent are bourgeoning while economies and infrastructures simply cannot keep pace. The direct exploitation of the environment is the only way that huge numbers of people can survive, and the result is a rapid and catastrophic depletion of natural resources. Do not buy any curious or souvenirs that are made either of animal or forest products. Malawi chairs, Zimbabwean wooden sculptures or furnishing, West African Djembe drums or the ubiquitous East African giraffes are all made out of hardwoods, and if your jovial street vendor assures you that his timber is sustainably harvested the odds that he is lying are close to 99.9 percent. These are all beautiful things but if you carry one onto the aircraft with you have contributed to the destruction of African indigenous forests and the African wildlife habitat, and therefore you are not a cool person.

Overland Travel

This is still the best way to see the continent. Plane hopping from one wildlife destination to another is increasingly the least viable method since so much of the color and ambience of Africa is nowadays best seen from the window of a moving vehicle. The days of being able to bus, train and taxi hop from Algiers to the Cape are more or less over now, although in shorter hops, if you can cope with rough travel, it is still viable. What tends to make it difficult is the fact that Africa is extremely poor and local people have come to assume that white skinned foreigners are wealthy, which, or course, in relative terms they are. At the very least the hassle factor can make independent travel in Africa a trial and at worst a danger. This is not universally the case, but increasingly it is so.

The best way to get around these days is on an overland truck. There are all kinds of outside and internally registered companies that offer long or short journeys in rigged out overland expedition vehicles that will take you around a limited region or from London all the way to Cape Town. Increasingly these days this is the optimum way to travel. You get to see the soft underbelly of the landscape without being exposed to the rigors or difficulties. Sometimes these journeys are canned, but mostly not, and although you ply tried and tested circuits there are smaller and more exclusive options by which you can really cut into the heart of Africa. A little internet research can make for a viable and memorable African journey.

Crime

Wherever the very poor clash on intimate terms with the very rich the flow of capital will tend to always be one way. There is an inevitability under these circumstances that crime will be a factor. Certain cities in Africa exist where unrestricted movement and free range are simply not possible. In any of the South African cities this is so. There are other cities like Nairobi or Dar es Salaam where the danger is not so immediate and direct, but the hassle factor and general importuning, as well as the petty aspects of crime like pick pocketing and bag snatching, are rife. There are yet other cities like Maputo, Lilongwe Windhoek and Lusaka where street crime is very limited, and it is possible to enjoy street life and culture with limited precaution and very little fear.

As a general rule trust your instincts. As a very specific rule treat South Africa and its veneer of modern, urban respectability with extreme caution. South African crime is rampant and should never be underestimated. However in South Africa the tourist industry is also so sophisticated that you need never be left alone on the street looking this way or that.

All urban areas in Africa should be avoided after dark, and make a point of never venturing into shanty towns, high density suburbs or informal locations without trusted company or as part of a tour.

When moving about use two money bags. One with a few dollars in it that you produce if your are robbed or mugged, and the other with your main stash in it that you keep hidden. If you hand over a few bucks at the point of contact usually the thieves will accept the offering and leave you alone.

Scams

Bumsters, spivs, tsotsis and rude boys dominate the African urban scene and rarely will you visit the continent without coming into contact somehow or somewhere with a local variant. Watch out for the smiling face, the happy handshake and the unsolicited offers of assistance. These usually mask a plan to part you from your coinage with the skill of a magician. The most obvious scam is the sympathy angle. Certain regions of Africa are worse for this than others for this, but as a rule it is the Swahili speaking parts of Africa where the sense of entitlement has so overrun the local consciousness that any interaction, no matter how informal or friendly, is accompanied by the expectation of payment. This might be as simple as a request for a few pennies for permission to take a photograph or an invitation to a wedding for which you are afterwards expected to pay the entire cost of the ceremony as well as the extended party.

Throughout West Africa the scam industry is huge. Often this involves corrupt police who will lure you into some compromising situation and then threaten you until you pay. Any kind of street deal in these regions is to be discouraged.

As a rule of thumb treat every offer, invitation, assistance, friendly face, sad face and open palm with extreme caution. Never indulge in street deals for drugs or currency exchange without the advice of your hospitality proprietor or overland driver, and never take at face value a sad story that ends in a request for funds, support, sponsorship or donation. These are all industries, and as compelling as the hook may be, and as strong as your desire is to help, do so through established agencies and not on a street level. You will lose return home feeling scammed.

Budget Accommodation

The scam industry in Africa has in recent years slipped over into the accommodation industry. Unless you are careful, and in particular if you are a women traveling alone, you could find yourself in a hostel or backpackers lodge that enjoys an open invitation to local men to hang out at the bar and try their luck with foreign women. Affairs of this nature are usually exploitative and will once again tend to revolve around a one-way flow of cash.

At the risk of accusations of racism many reputable backpackers lodges and hostels simply do not allow non-residents past the gate. This is vital in allowing for some safety and relaxation to travelers who otherwise are in the thick of it as they journey between cities and destinations.

It always makes sense if you are planning your African journey to book your initial accommodation through an internet portal which acts as a filter against the suspect lodges and hostels that proliferate throughout Africa. Thereafter you can slip into the informal information network that exists on the travel circuit and move according to the advice of other travelers, lodge owners, tour operators and overland drivers.

As a general rule of thumb wherever you see a collection of commercial overland tour trucks parked up you will find a popular and trusted hospitality establishment.

Never free camp out in the open without the permission and protection of local worthies, and never chance sleeping rough in an urban area. Never camp in a campsite that does not have a visible security presence.

Street Deals

Over much of Africa changing currency is done on a street level, but obviously this leaves you vulnerable to all kinds of sharp practice, not to mention crime. If you have located a good backpackers lodge then your first port of call for changing currency, if it is not done at a bank or local bureau de change (some countries such as Zimbabwe have a much lower official rate than the black market rate) is your lodge manager. He or she might take a small commission but usually this is the safest way to do the deal.

The same is true for drugs. The main interest in this regard in marijuana which continent wide is as bountiful as it is cheap. It is however illegal and if you are not careful a corrupt cop could sit on you for a week and empty your pockets and your bank account in the process. Almost every lodge or hostel will have both a gatekeeper and a gardener, and discreet inquiries in that direction will invariably result in a score. This is absolutely the tried and tested routine so you will be embarking on nothing that has not been done a million times before.

Bottom Feeding Tour Operators

There are some countries like South Africa, Namibia and Botswana where the local tour industry is so sophisticated and well regulated that there is hardly any scope for malfeasance, but other places such as Kenya, Tanzania and throughout West and Central Africa you need to be very careful about who you sign up with and how. Once again this is an area that risks a racist overlap, for most of those who have poor reputations are local and most of those that do not are external.

Corruption throughout Africa is the continentís most burdensome social problem, and is almost single handedly responsible for the weight of poverty, disease and social neglect that characterizes so much of the region. This is no less true in the tourist industry. Most external tour operators use local contractors, often the same contractors that you would use for a safari or excursion were you to book locally. Your safety net in booking from the outside is that tour outfitters based in your home country will have cultivated a long term relationship with their local contractors, who will then, in order to protect that relationship, ensure that internationally accepted standards of service, conservation and environmental usage are applied. This is your guarantee.

Corruption

It would be naive to offer advice regarding corruption in Africa to simply say Ďavoid ití. This is not possible since corruption is so entrenched in most of Africa that it is in some places more influential than the formal economy. In Africa you have to go with the flow. If a policeman at a roadblock offers you a deal to get through sometimes it is sensible to take it. If a customs official will let you off your expired inoculation certificate for a few bucks thank him and hand the money over. If an extension of your visa can only be achieved by a small gift then make that gift. So long as you do not allow yourself to be so unnerved by the process that your payments become a rout, and so long as you are so blatantly robbed that you have to visit your embassy then you can look at it simply as being part of the informal taxation system and go with it.

Some places are of course worse than others. In general from north to south it is in Southern Africa where the practice is least pervasive, and in west and central Africa where it is most commonly applied.

As a final word never trust a taxi driver, and if you have to hop into a taxi from the airport to get downtown then make sure you have negotiated your fare in advance. Taxi Drivers are the first and last contact for any dubious transaction or local advice that you need, but they are on the front line of the tourist scam industry and will seldom lose any sleep over an unhappy foreigner.

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