Im sure thats what more than a few people thought when I moved to South Africa for eleven months to study and travel. We associate Africa with poverty, corruption, violence, and AIDS. And Im not here to argue that everything is fine and dandy on the Mother Continent; these are very real issues.
The problem is, thats where we stop. When you hear about Africa, you hear about disease and failed aid schemes, starvation and war. But you dont hear much about untouched beaches, hiking and trekking, exotic wildlife, vibrant traditional culture, lush rainforest, vast desert, and the kindness, generosity and resilience of the people.
Whats more, if we want to understand the problems of these troubled nations, we need to experience Africa ourselves and share what we learn. Simply funneling money into the continent is not the solution. Africa can be a fascinating and compelling travel destination for just about anyone, whether youre a poor college student living like a local or youre in search of a luxurious safari. Although the airfares pricey, once you arrive you can usually travel quite comfortably for far less than it would cost in the developed world; tourism is what supports many Africans, especially if you seek out local-run enterprises rather than profitable foreign programs. Youll probably get a better deal, and get a much better sense of culture and place while youre at it.
While in Africa, I traveled for eleven weeks: to Mozambique, Lesotho, Swaziland, Tanzania, Zanzibar, and all through South Africa. Its impossible to give general travel tips for a continent with 54 countries and 8,000 dialects. Africa is bigger than the U.S., Europe and China combined, and every country and culture is different.
Heres a few stories, however, that may hold a few general words of advice...
KEEP AN EYE ON YOUR
Actually, in some places, a vice-grip would be more appropriate. Better yet, keep it hidden - a bra, ladies, is a surprisingly good place to store all sorts of things, up to and including your cell phone, and I did it regularly. Theft is economically motivated, and in Africa, if youre white, youre rich - it doesnt matter if youre a poor college student.
For the most part, I was smart and lucky, but on a deserted beach in Mozambique, of all places, I got myself into trouble. Id left my cell phone (which doubled as my flashlight) in my pants pocket when I threw my clothes off one night for an impromptu swim in the warm Indian Ocean. It was great - until I returned to shore to find my cell phone, sweatshirt and long-sleeved shirt missing. At least the thieves were courteous enough to leave my pants and T-shirt.
Its likely that your travel plans will change. A three-hour boat crossing to Zanzibar will last eight hours. Youll get flat tires, and your bus will break down. Youll end up someplace you dont want to leave. Its best to give yourself several days of wiggle room - and be prepared to wait. When I stayed with Marisa, a Peace Corps volunteer in rural Lesotho, she told me she spends at least a third of her life walking or waiting for taxis.
Sure enough, I woke at 4:30 a.m. on the morning of my departure to catch a 5 a.m. minitaxi to the nearest proper town, a three-hour ride away. And waited... and waited... until a minitaxi - an ancient VW van, packed with 19 people - finally spluttered by at 9 a.m., four hours later.
However, the experiences gave me a real taste of life for the majority of African people, who accept inconvenience as inevitable. Im a lot more patient now, and I appreciate our public transportation and the value we place on timeliness. And Ill never be without a journal and a good book.
BEWARE MUZUNGU PRICES
Muzungu means white person in Swahili, as well as several other East African languages. And muzungu price means youre paying more because youre white. Sometimes, as in the case of the ferry from mainland Tanzania to Zanzibar, these prices are institutionalized, even legislated. But most of the time, youre just getting ripped off. When I was sitting alone and ordered a Fanta soda, it cost me 500 Tanzanian shillings; when I was sitting with a local in the same bar, I paid 300.
Paying 40 cents for a Fanta instead of 25 doesnt hurt me too much. But paying extra for every bus fare and cab ride can be frustrating - and can make a big dent in your budget. (Especially when you find out youve paid twice as much as everyone else for a ten-hour bus ride with no air conditioning and one bathroom stop; everyones staring at you, the only muzungu on the bus; and the driver keeps asking for your phone number.)
The best way to avoid being overcharged is to travel with locals, or ask people how much something should cost before you purchase it. In some countries, be prepared to bargain not only at markets, where the initial asking price is always too high, but with cab drivers, bus fares, and even hotel rates. However, accept the fact that once in a while, you will be ripped off, and choose your battles.
DONT FEED THE BABOONS
When you take a tour of the Cape Peninsula in South Africa, youll notice the sign: Baboons are dangerous and attracted by food. Theyve been known to break into houses in wealthy Cape Town suburbs, raiding fridges, upturning garbage cans, ruining furniture and defecating everywhere.
And despite all this, when I was on safari in Kruger Park, my friend Kunno - a Zimbabwean safari guide, who shouldve known better - announced, These apples are too mealy. Were never gonna eat em, and tossed one out the window as we passed a gang of baboons. Within seconds, the baboons had scrambled onto our car, a Citi Golf without A/C, as we frantically rolled up the windows.
A infuriatingly smart one planted himself right in front of the driver. We tried driving forward. Backward. Throwing more apples to distract him, which he caught without budging. It was 115 degrees, the sweat was puddling in our seats, and we began to panic. If we couldnt open the windows - SOON - we were going to suffocate. We got away by tossing another apple several feet away from the car, but it was a close call.
WEAR A LONG SKIRT ON BUS TRIPS
This isnt necessary if you take a South African Greyhound. But if youre taking a bus trip on a cheaper line or in another country, theres a good chance the stops wont look like your typical American rest area. In fact, they might not even involve toilets.
When I took a cheap overnight bus in South Africa, a bathroom stop occurred when someone stood up in the back of the bus and bellowed in seSotho or isiXhosa (common black languages in South Africa) The driver swerved to the side of the road, people piled off, relieved themselves in an open field (and by open, I mean no trees or bushes), and climbed back aboard.
This is no problem if youre a guy, of course, and its not too much of a problem if youre a woman in a long skirt. Capri pants, however, are a bad choice, I learned when a bus full of Africans got a good glimpse of my hindquarters.
No matter what kind of traveler you are, Africa holds something for you. Travel in South Africa will be easier and more familiar than travel in most countries. Taking comfortable guided tours with other Westerners is likely to go more smoothly than traveling on a shoestring budget, local-style (although sometimes that leads to the greatest adventures).
Malaria is no reason not to travel if you take the proper preventative measures, but dont underestimate the importance of using bug repellant to prevent infection if youre in a malarial zone.
Get a travel guide - Bradt publishes an excellent Africa line. Talk to other travelers for destinations and tips, and make friends with locals if you truly want to experience Africa. Bring hand sanitizer and T.P., and dont lose your earrings in a squat toilet.
Be adventurous. Explore. Uhamba kakuhle (go well in isiXhosa) and have fun.
From the plains of the Serengeti to the mountains of Lesotho, these were some of my favorite places in Africa.
Top Five Destinations
-Bulungula Lodge, South Africa
This eco-friendly backpackers lodge lies in the middle of a remote rural village, at a beautiful river mouth on the Indian Ocean. The lodge is a model of sustainable tourism, 40% owned by the vibrant local community. Locals guide village tours, horseback rides, canoe trips and visits to traditional healers - or you can relax and do nothing at all. Its hard to leave. www.bulungula.com.
Think the beach is the life? Try Tofo. You can scuba dive with manta rays and snorkel with whale sharks, join the Mozambican kids playing soccer in the sand, or befriend the locals harvesting sea urchins just down the beach. Take a break to enjoy food or drink at a seaside bar. This is the life - and you can live it up, even on a student budget, at Bamboozi or Fatimas, the two hostels in town.
This tiny country, the Kingdom in the Sky, is completely surrounded by South Africa, but it has a distinct culture of its own, marked by patterned Basotho blankets, bizarre hats and transport on horseback. The mountains and waterfalls are breathtaking, its much safer than its larger neighbor, and the people are the friendliest I met. If you visit South Africa, be sure to make it part of your trip.
-Serengeti and Ngorongoro Crater, Tanzania
It may sound silly, but when my safari truck bumped through the Serengeti, it was hard not to burst out singing The Circle of Life. This is the Africa of the imagination. The Ngorongoro Crater, a World Heritage Site, is breathtaking and packed with herds of wildlife; its hard to go on safari and not run into a pride of lions.
Stepping onto the spice island is like entering another world. Wander through Old Stone Town, where its easy to get lost among the old mosque doors (the island is 98 percent Muslim), and feast on local fish and fresh-squeezed sugarcane juice at the night market. And be sure to get away to the beaches, where the snorkeling and scuba diving is first-class. My five days in Kendwa, on the islands northern tip - where I lived on the beach for $10 a night - were as close to paradise as Ive ever seen.
For more African travel destinations and tips, visit www.lonelyplanet.com or