Mention Africa, and for most people it
immediately conjures up images of wild
leopards stalking a herd of zebra on the
Serengeti, crocodiles wallowing in muddy
rivers, and brightly painted warriors with
spears and animal fur clothing.
Of course there are areas with all these
things… but not many as most people
imagine. In reality, Africa is a huge
continent that is impossible to pigeon-
hole into any particular style or category.
From the ancient pyramids in the north,
to Table Mountain in the south, it is a
fascinating, intriguing, and above all,
For all its amazing scenery & unbelievable
wildlife, it’s the people that make Africa
what it is. Fiercely proud and strong they
certainly are, but they’re warm hearted,
unendingly cheerful, and have an amazing
ability to see the bright side of everything.
Everywhere you go there will be singing and dancing at the first sign of a foreign face. They will
offer you there last morsel of food as a gesture of friendship, & sleep outside to offer you their bed.
For large parts of Africa, poverty, hunger, disease, and all too often death, are sadly the norm.
Without the unquestioning support and assistance of the huge number of charities, missions, and
other non-governmental organisations, the already dreadful mortality rate would be unthinkable.
There are also areas where it’s still not safe to travel, because of civil wars, insurgencies, bandits,
and the like. Slowly these seem to be reducing in number, and countries that were once absolute
no-go areas are now slowly seeing a return of visitors.
The north of Africa is wholly different to that south of
the vast Sahara Desert. To begin with it has been home
to intelligent, civilised, trading nations for thousands of
years. Travel along the Nile through Egypt, and you will
see evidence of these ancient civilizations all around.
The sandy streets are lined with bazaars and markets,
camels are still a main form of transport outside of the
cities, and the bustling towns along the Mediterranean
coast are mostly well versed at welcoming tourists.
South of the desert, it’s a different story. Communities
are thinly spread, have little infrastructure, and often
seem to live with few differences to the way they have
for centuries. The land is arid, with rocky outcrops, & few areas that can be successfully cultivated.
The coastal countries of western Africa are far greener, being fed by large river systems heading to
the Atlantic. Central to southern Africa, across Uganda, Kenya, Tanzania, Namibia, Botswana, and
Zambia, has huge areas of undeveloped bush land, and some areas of dense jungle, with a fairly
even spread of small towns and villages. This is the area where you will find the best of the large
wildlife parks, mostly well managed with the tourist and ecologist in mind. South Africa is the most
popular destination of Sub-Saharan Africa, with a landscape that ranges from game reserves, to
mountains, and rich coastal resorts.
Throughout the continent, the forces of nature have created some monumental natural landmarks.
The most outstanding of these has to be the Great Rift Valley, which stretches for 3,500 miles from
Mozambique to Syria. As it passes through Kenya, Ethiopia, and Uganda, it’s edges are marked by
dramatic cliffs towering out of the plains.
Sitting astride the Kenya-Tanzania border is Africa’s highest mountain, Kilimanjaro. At almost six
thousand metres it towers above the Atlas Mountains in the north, and the Drakensburg Mountains
in the south. Great rivers such as the Nile, Congo, & Niger, are a lifeline to those along their valleys,
& the Zambezi attracts visitors with their camera, as it flows over the mighty Victoria Falls on the
Africa is compelling, captivating, and exciting. Scientists believe it to be the origin of the human
species, which maybe explains its un-natural power to make you feel at home, even if you’ve never
set foot on African soil before. Spend any amount of time there and it really gets into your blood,
making you want to return again and again.
Africa is not only home to the earliest elements of the human species, it is also the oldest land.
While the rest of the planet has been shifting around, the vast majority of African soil – or rock to
be strictly accurate – has been in place for the last 300 million years.
The first signs of early man began about 2 million years ago somewhere in east Africa, although it
wasn’t until around 150,000 years ago that they developed into the ‘modern’ man that we would
recognise today. Slowly they began to spread north to the Mediterranean coast, and around
100,000 years ago the first of them began to leave the continent and settle in the Middle East.
From these humble beginnings our planet became inhabited in the way we see today.
There is evidence that farming with crops and cattle was
already in existence across northern Africa as early as
10,000 BC. At that time the Sahara was still a green and
fertile area. By 2000BC, however, the climate had begun
to change, and slowly the population moved south away
from the increasingly barren lands of the north.
These groups began to link up forming one large tribe
called the Bantu. But these were no primitive or unskilled
peoples. They were adept at agriculture, & had mastered
the art of iron smelting. As their numbers spread, so did
the area of land they occupied, until by about the 4th
century AD they covered most of Africa.
Of course this was by no means the first really civilised African society. That honour goes to the
Egyptians, who were a well established, sophisticated, trading society, as far back as 3000BC.
Their power and dominance brought them great wealth, helped them develop a written language,
and gain an understanding of astronomy & mathematics. It also, later, bought them many enemies
who sought to steal these prizes for themselves.
Further south, in what is present day Ethiopia and Sudan, was the kingdom of Askum. Home of the
legendary Queen of Sheba, this is also apparently where the mysterious Ark of the Covenant is
supposed to be hidden, waiting for a real life Indiana Jones to come and reveal it. The Askumites
ruled these lands, and some of southern Arabia, for many centuries. They traded with Egypt and
with the Bantu along the coast of East Africa, and were a remarkably civilised society. They had
their own coinage and language, substantial buildings, and a well developed agricultural and
manufacturing industry. From the 3rd Century they became a Christian kingdom, following the
As the Egyptian power began to suffer at the hands of many invaders, there began to appear voids
in the Mediterranean trading markets. In the sixth century BC, Carthage was taken over by the
Phoenicians, who began to develop strong trading routes across to Europe. They were a well
developed nation, and ruled this area until the Romans decided enough was enough, and destroyed
Carthage in 146BC. For the next 800 years North Africa was a constant battleground, until the
Arabs finally took control in the 7th Century AD.
South of the Sahara, both east and west coasts developed successful and highly profitable trading
empires. In the east, the rulers of the many small kingdoms in present day Kenya, Tanzania, and
Mozambique, were trading with nations as far away as China, way back in the 7th century. On the
west coast a succession of empires traded gold and salt, mined in the Sahara, and transported
overland to the coast by camel. They became fabulously wealthy, & at their height held land from
Niger to the Atlantic coast. They were organised, civilised, and even built centres of learning in
cities such as Timbuktu.
In the 15th century all this changed, when
the Portuguese began taking over the lands
along the east coast, and Morocco invaded
the gold trading kingdoms in the west.
Around the same time, Europeans began to
develop the slave trade. Slave trading was
not new to Africa, having been a mainstay
of the trading with the Far East and India
for centuries. But it was the huge numbers,
many sold for profit by rival tribal leaders,
that was different this time. It’s estimated
that over 20 million Africans were taken as
slaves for either America or Europe, with many dying on the tortuous journey, or during capture.
All this time the interior of the southern half of the continent remained a complete mystery to the
rest of the world. But in the 19th century, with the thirst for discovery and knowledge, a flood of
explorers began to delve deep into uncharted areas. Following the great rivers, or travelling across
inhospitable & dangerous land, these were brave men who had no idea what they would encounter.
But it opened the way for the insane rush to grab territories, known as the ‘scramble for Africa’, in
which the major European powers all claimed whatever area’s they could in the hope they would
yield precious resources. The boundaries set in those years, are mostly those that shape the
continent’s political map today.
Colonisation of these lands meant Africa had been changed from a rich, proud, trading continent, to
one of forced labour, harsh punishments, and subservience, in a little over 500 years.
Following the Second World War, the move towards independence for African states has seen many
of them returned to self-rule. Sadly though, the prosperous past, and much of their wealth, seems
for many to have been lost forever.
Unless you’re fortunate enough to arrive on a cruise ship, or are planning to cross by ferry from
Spain to Morocco, the only real way to arrive in Africa is by air. The majority of flights are from
Europe, although there are links from North America, Australia, & the Far East. The African airlines
tend to offer cheaper fares, although can sometimes be less reliable and with less sophisticated
aircraft. It’s also worth checking if your flight is direct, as its quite common for flights to route via
one or more other cities to maximise profitability, and that can add several hours to your journey.
If you’re travelling to one of the areas popular with tourists – Egypt, Kenya, Tunisia, Morocco,
Gambia, and South Africa – its worth checking out the charter airlines. They often have seats
available in excess of those used for the package holidays, and are generally less expensive than
the scheduled airlines. Visa requirements vary from country to country, and depend on nationality
and reason for visiting. Some must be obtained in advance, and others can be purchased on arrival.
Wherever you plan to travel in Africa, ensure you check the relevant embassy website well in
advance, and follow the instructions for your particular circumstances. Airports in many African
countries can be fairly basic, even those that serve capital cities. Allow plenty of time for your
connections if you have an onward flight or travel arrangement booked.
Africa is, for the most part, a cash society. Credit and debit cards can be used in some of the
major cities, tourist resorts, and modern hotels, but it is never guaranteed, and you should always
have other means of payment. Local circumstances can also dictate refusal of card acceptance,
for example power cuts are a regular feature of many countries, and during these times they can’t
process card payments. The best use of your card is for drawing cash at ATM machines. Most
airports and main cities have these, and they will generally be the way of obtaining local currency
at the most favourable exchange rate.
Haggling is a way of life in Africa. Fixed prices are rare, and everything is worth only what people
will pay. For most travellers coming from nations where bartering is unusual, it can be quite nerve-
wracking to begin with, but you’ll soon become accustomed, and even enjoy it. The trick is to
decide how much you want to pay to begin with, and start with an offer much lower. The seller will
laugh, and make a ludicrously high counter bid, and so it goes on. Its always done in good humour,
and becomes almost like a game. But take a moment to think, as its easy to get drawn in to
haggling over small amounts to get to the final agreement, only to realise afterwards that if your
were to convert the amount you disagreed over to your own currency, it would represent a couple
of the smallest coins in your pocket! It’s also worth remembering that you are on a pricey foreign
holiday, and they almost certainly need those few coins much more than you do. Each country has
its own local currency, so if your touring it can be an annoying necessity to keep changing it as
you cross borders. American dollars are widely accepted, although be prepared for rip-off exchange
rates in many places.
It’s hard to generalise when dealing with such a
vast continent, but for the most part shopping in
Africa falls into two main categories. There are
the modern, western style shopping centres,
which are increasingly appearing in major cities
and tourist areas. And there are the endless
market stalls, small shops, and roadside sellers,
that range from the well stocked store, to those
which are just a rickety table beside a dusty
road selling a few items of home grown produce.
Each country has the obligatory range of items
aimed at the tourists. Some actually represent
good value for money, especially in central and
western Africa. It’s worth exploring the markets
and local shops, as many bargains can be had compared to western prices.
Eating and Drinking:
Of course each region has its own everyday and speciality foods, but wherever you go in Africa the
chances are you will come across all manner of culinary delights that you’re not familiar with. From
Kenya to the Cape, maize based meals are the mainstay, often formed into a kind of dough. Fish is
also widely used, both from the sea, and the many rivers and lakes. Rice is common throughout the
continent, and fruit is also much used in sub-Saharan Africa.
Many tourist areas offer ‘traditional’ local food at special evenings. In truth, there is often little
traditional about them, but whether they are offering you ground sheep’s eyes as a condiment in
Tunisia, or roast crocodile in Kenya, it makes an interesting addition to the cuisine you’ve sampled.
Hygiene is not always a high priority in Africa, & in many cases not a priority at all. Local stomachs
are hardened to the conditions, but bear in mind that yours is probably not, and eat accordingly.
Tea and coffee are commonplace wherever you go, but vary in quality. As a rule of thumb, in the
old British colonies tea is better, and elsewhere the coffee has the upper hand. Fizzy drinks such as
Coca-Cola are also easily obtained in even the most remote places. Fruit juices are widely available,
and local beers also feature in most areas. South Africa has a quality wine producing industry, and
in West Africa, palm wine is the local speciality.
One tip, which, depending on your point of view, may or may not be useful. Alcohol apparently kills
bugs, so alcoholic drinks are probably the safest in Africa!
Africa is home to just about every disease known to
man. If that weren’t enough, there are countless
reptiles, insects, spiders and mammals, that would
like a piece of you. That’s the bad news. The good
news is that as long as you are sensible, and take
adequate precautions both before and during your
stay, you can minimise these risks to an acceptable
level. Most areas advise vaccination against several
diseases before you travel. Your local health centre
will have the up to date information on the particular
destinations you are planning.
Never drink local water straight from the tap. Either
use bottled water, or as a last resort boil the tap
water first. Use a good quality insect repellent, and
a mosquito net when you sleep. Age-old tips such as banging your shoes upside down before you
put your foot in them in the morning are probably of little value, but you never know what might
have crept in during the night. If nothing else it keeps you alert to the possible dangers around you.
Keep an eye on where you’re walking, especially away from the towns and cities, and if you are in
an area of wildlife follow the game ranger’s instructions exactly. Finally, ensure you’re well covered
by a medical travel insurance, so that you can call for help should the worst happen.
The majority of Africa is no more dangerous than anywhere else on our planet. Areas of the big
cities can be unsavoury after dark, as they can anywhere, and many have regions where it’s
probably not advisable for outsiders to venture. But in most of your everyday travels you should
encounter little to worry about. Keep your money and valuables safe. Cash should not be kept all
together on your person, and money belts are a good idea.
Depending on how you look at it, getting around in Africa is either a nightmare, or an adventure to
be cherished. Every journey should be seen as a chance to experience even more of this diverse,
fascinating, and scenic continent. There are so many ways to travel in Africa, that it would be
impossible to list them all. Riverboats, camels, bicycles, minibuses, canoes, and horses, all have
their place alongside the more common means of reaching your destination. You can grab a hot
air balloon ride across the Massai Mara, hitch a lift with a truck driver across Uganda, or simply buy
an old car for peanuts, and blend in as you drive yourself about. Greater distances, without doubt,
are quicker by air. In most countries there are many smaller airlines that will fly you to remote
airstrips, almost like an air taxi. These can be quite exciting, as they are often in small aircraft that
fly much lower than the commercial airlines, and allow you to see a good deal of the landscape
from a few thousand feet.
Perhaps the best experience is by train, especially if you are not too concerned about the time. It
can be a somewhat limited service, particularly in central and western Africa, and timetables are
rarely adhered to. In the north, and in South Africa, trains are of a reasonably modern design, and
fairly reliable. Anywhere else it can be something of a lottery, and you could well find yourself on
carriages left over from the days of the old empires. Breakdowns are not uncommon, but you don’t
need to worry, as help or another train will usually be along in a day or two. Travelling by road is
much the same price as train, far more convenient, but infinitely more dangerous & uncomfortable.
There seems to be an unwritten rule that to drive a taxi, minibus, or coach, almost anywhere in
Africa, you need to have lead filled boots and ambitions of becoming a racing driver. Everything
is frantic, the roads can be full of pot holes, and you are likely to be thrown around as the driver
dodges chickens, bicycles, and all manner of other moving targets. If you’re not into this kind of
adventure, the best option is to take a taxi, and make it clear to the driver before you set off that
you want to travel slowly, to take in the scenery, or take photos. Another option, which is quite
common, is to hitch a ride with one of the many long distance trucks that ply the main highways.
This can be a great way to understand more about the local peoples, and experience Africa the
way the Africans do, especially if the journey will take you more than a day. Car hire is available in
most countries, and can be very expensive, but it is the best way by far to explore any area you
wish in your own time. Be aware that fuel, or rather the lack of it, can be an issue, as shortages
can be sudden and widespread.
There are a limited number of tours from the main centres, which can be very useful ways to visit
a particular place or tour an area. They are usually a little on the high side for price, but do take a
lot of the stress out of planning alternative means.
Of course sometimes the means of travel is the highlight of your trip. Cruising on the Nile through
Egypt, or taking a trip on South Africa’s Blue Train, can both be greatly enjoyed. For the truly
adventurous there are overland expeditions using old army trucks. These will bounce you from
Morocco to South Africa, taking several weeks to complete the journey. They will not be the most
comfortable, but are a great way to witness the ever changing scenery, and you really will be
able to say you’ve seen Africa.