Overall, Africa has provided an amazing set of experiences that will stick with me forever. This continent can obliterate your faith in humanity one minute, then transport you into a euphoric state that restores all faith the next minute. It is a lesson in the best and worst of what humanity has to offer. You’ll gain a newfound love for all that you have back home. You might also be envious of locals for their simple, no stress kind of lifestyles. It is a land of beautiful contradictions that is well worth seeing for yourself! This list of things to know about travel in Africa is invaluable for anyone planning a trip to Africa.
3 Important Things to Know About Travel in Africa
With over-sensationalised media reports and travel warnings issued by many countries, it can be hard to know whether travelling in Africa is safe or not. Personally, from a safety point of view, I don’t think travelling in Africa is different from travelling in any other place. There are problems everywhere and it always helps to be mindful of your surroundings wherever you are.
Let’s talk about travel warnings for a bit. Obviously, governments think they are issuing these in the interests of their peoples’ safety, but often they are issued based on outdated and/or exaggerated information. This tends to create fear and worry, which leads to needless itinerary changes. Also, the people issuing the warnings have probably never been to the countries they post the warnings for. You wouldn’t want to learn a language from someone who doesn’t speak that language, so why take travel advice from someone who hasn’t travelled?
Unecessary Travel Warnings
Of the 13 Northern and Western African countries I’ve travelled, 9 had current ‘exercise a high degree of caution’ warnings, with one of those having a ‘reconsider the need to travel’ warning. The last one, incidentally, turned out to be the most amazingly friendly country where I never felt anything but completely safe. I also managed to pass through the rest of the countries with no incident. Do your own research and contact locals in the places you intend to visit; they are in a much better position to tell you what it’s really like. They will probably show you some awesome African hospitality when you arrive too!
Even if you’re travelling alone, you’re never alone in Africa. Almost every car ride or outdoor walk produces new friendships, which will endure long after you’ve returned home. Locals will help you out of the goodness of their hearts, to make sure you’re safe and don’t get ripped off by people who just see a walking dollar sign instead of a person. These same kind-hearted souls will call you weeks or months later just to check that you are okay. Perhaps the biggest lesson I learned from travelling through West Africa was that when the focus isn’t on money, humanity prevails. On the flip side of that, when money is the focus, corruption prevails.
Parts of Africa are almost infamous for their corruption, but the corruption presents itself to visitors in different ways, depending on the country. It can range from a light-hearted, cheeky attempt to convince you that you need to pay for an entry stamp, to out-right extortion where a passport is held until money changes hands. Of course, corruption can run much deeper than what takes place at borders.
Sometimes the level of corruption in a country’s government is painfully evident in the lack of infrastructure and services within its cities. Other times, roadblocks are set up for the express purpose of pocketing other peoples money. It can be extremely disheartening, but be thankful you only have to deal with it for a short time; some Africans have to deal with it their whole lives.
Most of the countries in the North and West Africa regions were colonised by the French and therefore mainly speak French. Arabic is also widely spoken in the Northern region, but as you move into the Western region, you’ll begin to hear a variety of local languages, sometimes several within one country. Locals from different language groups in the same country will often use French as their medium for communication.
It would most definitely be advantageous to have some knowledge of French when traversing these countries, but that’s not to say that it’s impossible to make it through without. Just be prepared for a little more frustration than usual, but it’ll help you find new ways to communicate without words. There are English speakers here and there, so you could get lucky.
2 Logistical Things to Know About Travel in Africa
One thing to keep in mind is that time is a different concept on the African continent. While people in other places are watching the clock and busily rushing around to get through their never-ending lists of things to do, Africans are ignoring clocks and taking it easy. This means that Africans always have time to chat and connect with people. You can see this in communities, where everyone greets everyone they pass in the street and everyone in the community looks out for each other.
The lack of regard for time creates a situation that most from outside the continent might not be used to; excessive waiting. While schedules do exist in North Africa, they’re rarely adhered to. In West Africa, schedules are almost non-existent and most forms of intercity transport require a wait. It could be an hour, it could be a day, but however long it is, it’s a great opportunity to talk to some locals. You can guarantee they will be eager to talk to you!
Buses, vans, shared taxis and mototaxis are available to take you where ever you want to go at almost any time of the day or night. Each type of transport has its own pros and cons. Buses are by far the most comfortable mode of transport but are generally not available for long distance travel in all but a few countries. Vans and shared taxis are the most common forms of transport for longer distances throughout West Africa. They can be quite cheap, but they can also be quite uncomfortable!
While in buses, you would have your own seat, in vans and shared taxis you would be sharing seats. For example, a small hatchback style car would have 6 people, not including the driver, squeezed in; 2 in the front seat and 4 in the back. A larger wagon style car would carry 7 people; 1 in the front, 3 in the back seat and 3 in another added seat behind that. A Landcruiser would have 10 people crammed in; 2 in the front, 4 in the back, then another 4 on bench seats in the luggage area. Depending on the country, a 12 seater van may have anywhere from 12 to 32 people inside, plus the ticket guy riding along on the back.
Mototaxis are normally the most prevalent form of transport through borders as you go deeper into West Africa. Sometimes border roads are so bad that they are essentially impassable for cars, or at least that’s what the Mototaxi drivers will tell you. Sometimes the lack of cars in the area and the condition of the road kind of backs up what they’re saying.
African Tuk Tuks
There is a fourth mode of transport that appears to only exist in Sierra Leone and Liberia, called Keke or Kekeh. It is essentially the African version of the Tuk Tuk and is generally the cheapest way to get around cities, as drivers will charge a per person rate, as opposed to a flat hire rate.
2 Other Things to Know About Travel in Africa
You will see a lot of animals roaming around African towns that you just won’t see in any other places. Goats are like the dogs of Africa. Many people have them as pets and many are strays that just wander around looking for food. Cows can also be common in more remote areas and you can guarantee that they’ll want to cross the road at the exact moment that your car enters their area. But you won’t mind, because you’ll be on Africa time.
In Northern Africa, you’ll see camels wandering around and donkeys being used as beasts of burden. In Western African countries you can see goats, cows and boars wandering around. Strangely enough, these animals seem to have a bit of road sense and tend to not randomly run onto roads. They also tend to be fairly docile and will barely take any notice of people walking near them, so they don’t pose any safety risks.
I stayed with locals for my entire trip, so I can’t comment on the condition and price of hotels in West Africa. Most locals live in very simple houses with no running water, so bucket showers and non-flushing outdoor toilets were very common. Some places even had outdoor amenities without roofs, where you could shower under the sky.
Just For Fun
Now, just for a laugh, I’ll leave you with my version of the Africa song and some trip stats –
I hear the taxi beeps tonight
Along with people hissing to get my attention
It doesn’t matter if it’s right
Kids keep stretching out their hands for a donation
A young man stopped me along the way
Saying welcome to my country, please take my phone number
Here, time moves in a different way
There’s no hurry, let’s just wait a while
Border officers try to bribe you on the way through
Sellers of water and peanuts will gather around you
And then it rains down in Gambia
Taking away all the power and the internet
The wild goats wander ’round at night
Taunting the tied up donkeys longing for some company
That’s when the time is just right
For friends to gather in the dark for BBQs or tea on a rooftop
Outside it’s cooler than inside
And everyone’s always glad you’re there
Border officers give their phone numbers to you
Transport is squeezy and some roads are atrocious too
But then it’s calm down in Cote d’Ivoire
Sit back, relax and enjoy your tea
Western African Trip Stats
11,000 kilometres in 235 hours (averaging 49.8km/h)
50 bucket showers
28 cars/vans in 11 countries (6300km, 100h)
15 motorbikes in 6 countries (280km, 4h)
11 buses in 4 countries (1550km, 30h)
8 coaches in 2 countries (2830km, 45h)
3 trains (740km, 16h)
3 car carrying ferries
1 regret; not finding Wakanda.
Check out some African adventures here