Travel Zen in Africa

Few places in the world have ever inspired as much awestruck in me as Africa. Not only is the continent huge with an incredible diversity of ecosystems and culture, it is a friendly, beautiful and otherworldly place. I have had the tremendous fortune to spend time in countries in West Africa, East Africa and North Africa and I cannot speak highly enough of the experiences.

That being said, there is a steep learning curve when it comes to travelling throughout the Great Continent, and a lot of people have at times, unfortunate misconceptions about travelling in Africa. People think that you’ll be mugged, get diseases,  be attacked or worse. It’s true that those things could happen to you there, but they could also happen to you anywhere and no pursuit in this world is without risk. Travelling in Africa can be so rewarding and awe-inspiring that I would be remiss if people missed out on experiencing it because of their fears and misconceptions.

Having travelled extensively through different regions in Africa, I’m offering up the following learnings to encourage people to visit the many wonderful and diverse countries on the African continent:

Sun setting behind the Bandiagara Escarpement in Mali
Sun setting behind the Bandiagara Escarpement in Mali

1) There is a trip for everyone

From luxury to backpacker, there are both exquisite and budget options for everyone. If the very idea of the Great Continent has you worried, then save your coin and opt for a tour organized by a well-reviewed company with a strong web presence. For the more intrepid travellers out there, local tour operators can provide excellent services at bargain basement prices and tours can be set up once you’re there.

Glamping at the base of the Rwenzori mountain range in Uganda

2) Prepare for the unexpected

Even if you hire a private vehicle instead of taking the bus, things can go wrong and you could end up stranded on the side of the road without access to food or safe drinking water for miles. Always try to bring a few key things ie: water bottle, snacks, headlamp, extra toilet paper, a light jacket if possible and a book to keep you entertain if you end up having a long wait somewhere. As long as you are prepared, none of the challenges you may face when travelling through any part of Africa are insurmountable.

Car troubles in Africa are a common experience
Car and transit breakdowns are a common occurrence. It’s best to be prepared.

3) Bring water with you everywhere

While some people can get away with drinking the local tap water, I have not been so lucky (except in Morocco). Nothing dampens a traveller’s spirits faster than a bout of turista, so it’s worth securing a safe drinking water source. I’ve written before about how much I love this Pristine water bottle that has a built in filter. It can eliminate most pathogens and accomplish all but filtering out deep sludge (you could just run the water through a a t-shirt as a prefilter to eliminate larger particles first). At the very least, stock up on bottled water before any long trip on the road just to be safe (the filter bottle is best though, because it causes less waste).

4) Don’t be afraid to meet the locals

Just like anywhere, you may run into touts while travelling in Africa. That said, so many more people that I’ve met during my travels have been genuinely curious, sublimely hospitable and unforgettably kind. From having a young man offer to carry our heavy bag for us in Uganda, to being invited to spend an afternoon with a Moroccan family in their home village, to having rooftop tea with a new friend and drinking in someone’s backyard by a donkey in Mali, sometimes the wildest and most memorable experiences are the ones you share with that person you just met. Nowhere has this been more true to me than when I’ve been travelling in Africa.

Rooftop Tea in Mali
Having rooftop tea with our new friends in Djenné, Mali

5) Watch every sunrise and sunset

I know it’s a cliché, but make no mistake, some of the most beautiful sunsets and sunrises I have ever seen were in Africa. When catching Lake Bunyonyi’s early morning blue light, seeing a bright yellow orb dip behind the Bandiagara escarpment in Mali’s Dogon Country, and witnessing the sky turn fiery orange over the Indian Ocean in Zanzibar, you realize that nature is truly at its finest in Africa. Make time to pause and watch the show, you will not be disappointed.

Sunset at Lake Bunyonyi, Uganda
Lake Bunonyi, Uganda sunsets are like no others

6) There’s more to Africa than safaris

While game drives and safaris are amazing and should not be missed, there is so much more than just that to do do in Africa. I learned to rock climb in Mali, kayaked through whitewater rapids in Uganda and hiked through majestic mountain scenery in Morocco. There are also colourful markets if shopping is your thing and relaxed seaside resorts for beachgoers. The continent offers such a wide variety of things to do and see it would be a shame to miss them because you thought it was only about safaris.

Paddling a eucalyptus canoe on Lake Bunyonyi, Uganda
Philip paddles a eucalyptus tree canoe on Lake Bunyonyi, just one of the many non-safari things to do in Africa

7) The cities are incredible

Nature often steals the limelight when discussing what to do and see in Africa, but the cities are worth visiting too. Bamako has an exciting music scene, Kampala is full of life, Casablanca has incredible restaurants and a beautiful ocean promenade, and Stonetown’s narrow passageways transport you back in time. And I haven’t even been to Cape Town yet. Skipping the cities when travelling around Africa would be missing the heartbeat of the Great Continent.

Visiting the National Mosque in exciting and diverse Kampala
Visiting the National Mosque in exciting and diverse Kampala

8) Spread the wealth around

Sometimes an unfortunate side effect of travelling to a developing country is that your tourism dollars lead to inflation in the local economy. This is why it’s important to spread your wealth around and visit multiple vendors and marketplaces, including those off the beaten track. As travellers, we owe it to the places we visit to try to give something back and one of the simplest way to do this is to shop in the local economy. Another positive side effect of this is that you get to practice your bargaining skills with the locals which can be a lot of fun!

Bargaining in the Grand Marché in Bamako
Bargaining in the Grand Marché in Bamako was a little overwhelming at times, but very fun.

9) Wear sturdy shoes on local transit

Taking local transit can be both cost effective and memorable when travelling throughout Africa, but it does have its drawbacks. One thing that I always forget and wish that I remembered is that the floors on African bush taxis get so hot that flip flops are not advisable. Despite having experienced this in Mali’s sotramas, and Kenya’s matataus,  I never learn my lesson and embark on long overland voyages with the flimsiest of footwear and have to do perform the awkward dance of constantly switching positions in the most cramped spaces. Same goes for motorcycle taxis, the foot rests can get very hot and the exhaust will give you a painful burn if it touches your skin. Learn from my mistakes people and wear sturdy shoes on these trips.

Sheep on a bus - a norm in African Public Transit
Sheep on a bus. Just one of the many things you may encounter when taking local transit

10) Give yourself a little extra time

Infrastructure can be lacking in parts of Africa and some things occur at the pace of the local rhythm so it’s best to budget for extra time. I once had to travel to the same flight office 3 times on 3 different days because they weren’t open when they said they would be or the “right” person wasn’t working. If I had left it until the last minute, I might have had to pay for a whole new flight!

There are no doubt some challenges to travelling in Africa, but with a little preparation, they are easily overcome. It is worth the effort because the majesty, diversity, colours and beauty of the Great Continent is not something you will soon forget.

You’ll never forget the colours.
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