Is there any other continent as charged with emotion and excitement as Africa? This dazzling quilt of more than 50 countries is spread across a landmass that could swallow South America and Europe. Emma Gregg and Richard Trillo, authors of the new Rough Guide First-Time Africa, offer their expertise.
You wouldn’t be reading this if you didn’t find Africa a tantalising prospect. Its famous wildlife, the certainty of stimulating cultural encounters and the likelihood of tough travelling conditions – even a bus journey can be a physical challenge – make it a strong lure for adventurous travellers.
As a first-time visitor, the tricks you need to know are where to start, what’s feasible and how to get the most out of your trip. The golden rule is to give yourself time. Nothing will spoil your trip faster than trying to rush things. And almost as important is to have enough money: you don’t want to be passing up once-in-a-lifetime experiences for the sake of a little cash. As for where to go, with the exception of a few well-documented danger areas, the continent is yours to travel.
While North Africa is dominated by the Sahara – and desert travel can be exhilarating – the old cities and monuments are just as good a reason to allow time here. West Africa, although it is developing fast, retains an intoxicating blend of scenery and cultures: oceanfront fishing communities, cattle herders on the fringe of the desert, traditional villages such as those of the Dogon, and old Islamic cities such as Timbuktu. Central Africa has most of the continent’s rainforest, and you can certainly explore parts of it, even if much of the more remote areas are off-limits because of insecurity or inaccessibility. East and Southern Africa are the heart of safari country and include some of the easiest regions for first-time visitors to explore, with good infrastructure and incredible attractions: gorillas, coral reefs, snow-capped peaks, and of course those archetypal savannah landscapes laden with wildlife.
The oldest of the Kingdom of Morocco’s four imperial cities is beguiling and truly exotic – especially considering how close it is to Europe. You get a wonderful panorama from the site of the 13th-century Merenid tombs above the town. The oldest quarter, Fes el Bali, goes back to the 11th century and is bursting with monuments and historic attractions – it’s an easy enough place to spend several days in, exploring its labyrinthine alleys and souks and bargaining for crafts. Try to see the rather smelly tanneries and the exquisitely beautiful Merdersa Bou Inania, a Koranic student hall filled with light and colour.
Mali: Dogon Country
Hiking on the Dogon’s vertiginous sandstone Bandiagara Escarpment is a highlight of many people’s travels in Africa. Until the late 20th century the Dogon remained little changed by the tides of Islam, and then French colonialism, that swept over much of West Africa, and their traditional culture, house architecture and language remain unique. Even if some of the routes are well trodden by adventure seekers, you can still find solitude, walking between the villages in the early morning when the whole region is bathed in golden light. It’s easy to find a guide, with whom you organise your route, meals and accommodation (usually on village house roof tops, accessed by notched tree-trunk ladders).
Cameroon: Biking round the Ring Road
Cycling around the Ring Road – a seven- to ten-day jaunt that should be undertaken only in the dry season – is a classic Cameroonian adventure and a wonderfully immersive way of experiencing the region. This 360km red-earth road circles the Grassfields, where verdant hills emerge from stream valleys wreathed in rainforest – it hosts some of the most beautiful landscapes in Africa. Every town and village has its own surprises, from the sprawling Fon’s (king’s) palace in Bafut to homestays in Belo village and some of Africa’s finest mangos and avocados. You can buy a bicycle locally and have any streetside metalwork shop build you carriers for your bags.
Botswana: Okavango Delta
Northern Botswana’s serenely beautiful wilderness areas attract relatively few first-time travellers as you need deep pockets to enjoy them to the full. But if you’re keen to splurge, this is a great place to choose. Treat yourself to a few days in the Moremi Game Reserve or other areas of the Inner Delta during flood season and you can glide along its pristine, reed-lined channels in a mokoro – the Batswana answer to an Oxbridge punt – for low-level views of elephants, hippos, crocodiles and birds. When the seasonal waters recede, game drives take over from mokoro trips.
Namibia: Namib Desert
The mighty, shifting dunes southwest of Windhoek are so iconic that they’re a travel-brochure cliché. Don’t let that put you off – the majesty of this many-hued landscape more than justifies the hype. At Sossusvlei you can climb some of the biggest dunes – harder than you might think, thanks to the softness of the sand – for wraparound views. You can then have the fun of bounding down the steepest incline, whooping your head off. Sublime desert lodges are an added attraction.
South Africa: Cape Town
Energetic and accessible, South Africa is a great place to start or finish your trip. Set against Table Mountain, Cape Town is a striking city, and the locals claim its good looks beat any harbour city in the world. Time here can happily be lost in a social whirl, whether enjoying music festivals, Africa’s most out-there alternative events, or the surfeit of trendy shops, restaurants, beaches and comedy clubs. To put all the glitz in perspective, you can take a tour of the townships and squatter camps, visit the District Six Museum or hop across the water to Robben Island.
Mozambique: Indian Ocean
If you’re keen on marine wildlife and eco-tourism, you may want to make Mozambique’s superb coastline a primary focus of your travels. Around its archipelagos, the diving and snorkelling is remarkable, with immaculate coral reefs patrolled by turtles, manta rays, dolphins and myriad reef fish. Out in the open waters, humpback whales and whale sharks cruise serenely by. Tofo, near Inhambane, makes a good target, with Praia do Tofo being a key stop on the southern African backpacker trail. Lodges that deftly mix rustic luxury with community-benefiting responsible tourism are popping up in the remoter regions.
Tanzania: climbing Kilimanjaro
Its snowy cap may have receded somewhat in recent decades, but this grand old triple-coned volcano is still a striking sight. Uhuru Peak (5893m) is Africa’s highest, and the one that everyone wants to conquer. It’s achievable without special skills or training, but it’s important not to rush (you should allow seven days) or skimp on the preparation. Even if altitude sickness ultimately keeps you from the top, your rewards will include fine scenery, clear air and close-up views of some remarkable vegetation – the giant lobelias and groundsels, which thrive halfway up are particularly intriguing.
While the Masai Mara, with its magnificent annual migration, is the obvious wildlife attraction in Kenya, it comes at a price: thousands of other visitors. The much larger Laikipia ecosystem, northwest of Mount Kenya, has all the wildlife but none of the crowds. Some of the country’s very best eco-lodges are located on this rolling, 8000-square-kilometre plateau of savannah, seasonal streams and bush. Roads are few and public transport is very limited, but the rewards include rhinos, wild dogs, elephants, lions, leopards and cheetahs aplenty and the opportunity to walk or ride with expert guides.
Egypt: the Nile
If you’re keen to soak up the atmosphere of Ancient Egypt, then the idea of trooping from tomb to temple by air-conditioned coach or minibus may seem rather jarring. For a more serene experience, you could take to the water as Egypt’s great river takes on a new beauty and significance when seen from the decks of a slow-moving cruiser, felucca or dahabiya (luxury house boat). The classic Nile cruise takes you from Aswan to Luxor or vice versa, and, if you so choose, back again; four to seven days gives you plenty of time to adjust to the languid rhythm of the river on this meander through history.
First time Africa factfile
Most Africans are bilingual; many are multilingual. English will get you a long way, but in most of West and Central Africa and much of North Africa you’ll have a much better time if your conversational French is up to scratch. Other useful languages include Arabic (in North Africa) and Portuguese (in Angola, Cape Verde, Guinea-Bissau, Mozambique and São Tomé and Príncipe). Some African languages are very localised: learn a few greetings and you’ll definitely raise some warm smiles.
GMT-1 (Cape Verde) to GMT+4 (Mauritius)
Well over half the countries in Africa require visitors to pay for a visa. These typically cost £20-£40; exceptions include visas for Cameroon, Mali and Nigeria, which are pricier. While some countries allow tourists to buy visas on arrival, others insist you apply in advance. All visas are of limited validity and turnaround times vary considerably, so you should plan ahead. On extensive overland journeys, you’ll need to work out which consulates to visit along the way.
Family doctors and travel clinics have access to a database of current advice on vaccinations and anti-malaria options. Make an appointment at least six or seven weeks prior to your trip.
When planning your route, take note of official government travel advice concerning troubled nations, regions and borders. This sometimes errs on the side of caution, but at least you’ll get some perspective. Back this up with objective, up-to-date information from reliable local sources. While petty theft and corruption are a fact of life in many parts of Africa, the vast majority of sensible, well-informed travellers encounter few problems.
In most African countries, credit cards are of limited use except in larger shops, hotels and car rental agencies. ATMs offering cash advances in local currency are becoming more and more widespread but it’s still worth bringing as much cash as you feel you can afford to lose. US dollars are accepted everywhere; euros are straightforward to exchange, though pounds sterling slightly less so.
Travellers who limit themselves to the most basic food, lodging and transport options can get by in many countries for £20 per day, or £30 between two. Tourist-class hotels, car hire, guided trips and other activities can easily bump your daily budget up to £100-150. For all but the most basic safari experiences, you’ll want to allow £150-£400 per day depending on the location.
Every African capital is served by direct flights from the UK, Europe or both. From other continents, the options are more limited: Johannesburg, Nairobi, Cairo and Lagos are the most useful hubs. Brussels Airlines (www.brusselsairlines.com), Kenya Airways (www.kenya-airways.com) and South African Airways (www.flysaa.com) have extensive Africa networks. British Airways (www.ba.com) and Virgin Atlantic (www.virgin-atlantic.com) fly direct from London to several destinations. By far the cheapest way to fly to Africa, though, is to pick up a holiday charter or low-cost flight from the UK or Europe to Morocco, Egypt, The Gambia or Kenya. If you’re bringing your own vehicle into Africa, your best bet is the ferry from Algeciras in Spain to Ceuta.
Travelling by road – whether by bus, shared car or minibus, self-drive vehicle or bicycle – allows you to engage with your surroundings to the full. In poorer regions public transport can be cramped and slow, but in most countries the roads are better than you might expect. Africa’s railway system is creaky and fragmented, but includes some classic routes. Budget airlines have yet to get much of a foothold in Africa, while national airlines link major cities and private charters, though pricey, are widespread in safari areas.
For solid in-depth guidance on the road, invest in the single-country guides published by Bradt, Lonely Planet or Rough Guides. Michelin maps are invaluable for long distance route planning.
Find out more
First-Time Africa by Emma Gregg and Richard Trillo is a trip-planning handbook to read before you go. Packed with advice on destinations, practicalities and resources, it’s out in April 2011, published by Rough Guides.
First published in Travel Africa magazine, Issue 54