You’ve finally taken the plunge and booked that ticket for an epic African adventure, you’ve
planned a rough itinerary, picked your safari, and soon you’ll be on your way – hooray!
From the incredible natural environment to the rich cultural history, the friendly locals to the
vibrant markets, Africa has everything, sometimes all at once. There’s just something about this
fascinating continent that pulls you in and keeps you wanting to return over and over again. But
there’s no denying that it can also be a daunting place to travel for even the hardiest of explorers!
We recently spent 4 months travelling through southern and central Africa, and we compiled all
the things we either learnt along the way (through misfortune or trial and error!), or wish we’d
known before we left for you, so you can focus on having the stress-free African adventure of
your dreams!
How to speak the language
If you’re worried you’re going to get stuck at the airport in Tanzania forever because you can’t
direct your taxi driver in fluent swahili, stay calm.
You’ll be mighty relieved to discover that despite the 1,500-2,000 local languages spoken
in Africa, English is actually an official language in many countries (along with German or French
in a few countries!).
Don’t miss out by being lazy and relying solely on English though; learn some key phrases. The
locals will appreciate it and you’ll have a much richer experience for it – like the time a friendly
Malawian fruit stall owner threw in a few extra pieces because we attempted our best Chichewa
with him!
What the locals are like
Forget what you’ve seen in the movies; collectively, Africans are some of the friendliest people
on the planet. It’s common to be greeted with a huge smile and hello, and most are keen to learn
your name, where you’re from and why you’re visiting.
You’ll probably encounter the phrase ‘Mzungu’ being thrown your way – often by locals smiling
as they wave out of car windows or pass you on the street. The literal translation from Swahili is
‘person who wanders without purpose’, though these days it’s used to describe any white
foreigner. It’s mostly said in a friendly, joking way – so try not to take offence.
It’s also important to remember that Africa as a whole is very religious (Christianity and Islam are
widely practiced) and quite conservative so be respectful of this in your speech and dress.
How to avoid border hassles
Unfortunately corrupt border processes are one aspect of African travel that can be seriously
frustrating for travellers.
Most of the time you’ll pass with no issue, other times you may have to wait hours for your
passport to be processed without explanation, or be asked to pay a corrupt official a bribe. Then
there are the touts offering to exchange your money at rates that are totally ridiculous, or trying to
sell you anything from bangles to samosas (side note: always buy the samosas, guys).
Thankfully, we managed to make it through eight different border controls with minimal hassle,
and you can too, by following these tips:
Be informed: Know your visa requirements before visiting any country in Africa. Get in touch with
your local embassy before travelling, or pay a visit to Project Visa for answers to all your visarelated questions.
Be organised: While you can get most visas at the individual points of entry, arranging them
ahead of time saves a tonne of hassle (and sometimes, money!) later.
Be money smart: Always carry spare US dollars just in case. If you need to change money on the
border, always know the exchange rate before you get there and bargain hard.
Be stubborn – if someone looks like they’re deliberately holding things up to make you pay to
“rush it through” firmly (and politely!) ask to have your passport back. If you’re certain that your
visa meets all the requirements but you’re being asked to pay more to get it approved, decline
and ask to speak to another official.
Above all else: approach the process with a smile and have a laugh. It’s easier that way!
How to travel around
One of the best things about travelling in Africa is no matter where you are or where you want to
go, getting from A-to-B is always possible. How you get from A-B however, is another story
Taxis, tuk tuks, mopeds, rickshaws, you name it… If it has wheels and appears capable of
travelling some distance, you can probably travel on it. You might find yourself sitting on a flight
or bus, crammed into a local mini bus with 25 other people (and the odd goat or chicken!), or
hitching a ride in the back of a pick-up with half a village heading home from the markets.
For the record: travelling by mini-bus is an African rite of passage and we totally recommend
embracing the uncomfortable seat and cramped conditions for this insight to how the locals live!
For a journey you can relax into, our tips are:
Always travel by day. Always.
Always wear your seatbelt
Don’t expect to leave or arrive on time – things run on Africa time here!
You may, or may not, get a seat. You may sit in the aisle of the bus for 5 hours with a chicken
pecking at your head. Roll with it – it’s all part of the adventure!
For most mini bus journeys, you can negotiate your fare
Never pay a “bag storage fee” on large buses. It’s a scam – your ticket price includes your
From tailor-made luxury safari tents where you can live like Prince Harry, through to your
standard backpacker dorms where snore-proof earplugs are a must – the options of where to lay
your head in Africa are many and varied.
Many travellers actually choose to camp their way through Africa (we often did!), because the
camping facilities are accessible, safe, full of good amenities, and super cheap. Plus, what better
way to make new friends than by sitting round the campfire swapping stories about your day?!
Larger cities have all the usual accommodation options, the further into the countryside you
venture, the less options are available. Don’t fear though, you’ll ALWAYS find somewhere to rest
up after a hard day’s adventuring!
Things to consider:
Always book accommodation well in advance during peak season (May – October). Places like
Namibia are extremely popular, with very limited accommodation in desert areas.
Use guide books, online reviews or local recommendations. Does it get good reviews?!
Does your accommodation have a safe, lockers or locks?
Is there a night watchman/security to make sure you and your belongings are safe overnight?
How to stay healthy
Medication & health: Check with your GP about what vaccinations and medication you’ll need
before you depart.
Hot tip: Most countries require Yellow Fever vaccination proof just to enter the country.
We also packed the following to keep us fighting adventure-fit on the road:
Anti malarial medication
Iodine tablets
Hydrocortisone cream
Insect repellent: DEET is your new best friend!
* Sadly, though the lakes in Africa look inviting, many are home to a horrible parasite called Bilha