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17 Tips For First Timers In Africa

Travelling to Africa for the first time has a tendency to freak people out. All we seem to know about the place is that it’s a land full of war, disease, poverty and starving children.

It saddens me a lot that this often causes people to dismiss Africa as a travel destination. Such preconceptions are largely untrue and are simply embedded in our minds due to the Western media.

Africa is a beautiful continent, full of fast developing nations and incredibly rich in culture and diversity. Whether you’re going to see the gorillas in Uganda, the desert ocean in Namibia or the winding alleys of Morocco, it’s surely going to be like no other place you’ve been on earth.

I recently read The Fastest Billion, which tracks Africa’s development and it’s immensely fast growing wealth, and a lot of the things mentioned in the book I’ve seen with my own eyes over the years.

(If you’re about to visit Africa, I highly recommend reading it before you go. It will help you notice things you never would otherwise!)

There are also so many travel bloggers these days that information on most African destinations is now very accessible. 

The truth is, Africa has an energy unlike any other place on earth and the spirit of the people will blow you away. Life in Africa is about love, gratitude and community – something that we in the developed world could probably learn a thing or two about.

To me travel is about discovering and exploring a way of life you never knew existed – one that leaves an impression on you and changes you for the better. In my mind, there’s no better place than Africa to do exactly that!

With that in mind, here’s a few things you’ll need to know before you take that first trip into the motherland:

1. Take new US dollar bills

USD is widely accepted in Africa, and for many visas you are required to pay in USD. Therefore it’s a good idea to carry a good stack of fifties on you for whenever the need arises. Some countries like Liberia and Zimbabwe actually use the USD for daily business.

Make sure you take large bills no older than Series 2006. Many places in Africa will not accept older bills than this, and many places will not accept $10, $5 and $1 bills at all.

Also, to avoid carrying large amounts of cash try and use the ATM’s where possible – they’re widespread and accept credit cards and Plus cards. This will save you the anxiety of carrying large bundles of cash in your pockets.

2. Take a smartphone!

The first time I went to Africa I just took a very old brick phone, but times have changed a lot since then!

Cellphone carriers are now surprisingly good. 4G is now available in most places and cheap – you might only pay $10 or so for unlimited data for a month.

Some people think Africa is so backward that people are still sending letters by pidgeon, but nothing could be further from the truth. The “Nokia revolution” has totally transformed Africa, and in many ways they’re ahead of the western world in this regard. Even farmers living in small huts way out in the villages have cellphones and even do business over Whatsapp and receive payments in mobile money.

3. Malaria awareness

Malaria is no joke – it’s a big problem in Africa and millions die from it every year. However, don’t let the fear of this ruin your trip. Malaria is easy to prevent and with the proper precautions you’ll be fine.

Malarone and Doxycycline are the two most common anti malarials. Malarone is the more expensive option (around $7 a pill), but has the least side effects. Doxy is far cheaper (a 6 month supply may only cost $50) but it renders your skin sensitive to sunlight, meaning you’ll burn easier, and some people experience hallucinations. No big deal.

Also, since a malaria treatment was developed in 2015, it’s a less serious issue than it used to be. However, that doesn’t mean you want to catch it!

Thankfully, malaria is not easy to catch, it’s a specific species of mosquito called Anopheles that carries it and it struggles to live at altitudes above 1,500m. That means in places like Addis Ababa and Nairobi you can relax a little, however seaside towns like Zanzibar and Mombasa require extra vigilance. The obvious prevention method here is to use insect repellent whenever outdoors at night, in the bush, or wherever mosquitoes might be found. If you don’t get bitten, you’re safe!

4. Learn about HIV

To some people HIV and Africa are almost synonymous.

That’s a little bit sad.

People seem to be arrested with the fear that just spending time on the continent will put them at risk.

I was extremely poorly educated on the topic on my first trip to Africa. Turns out, HIV is a very difficult disease to contract. Don’t have unprotected sex, don’t get a blood transfusion, don’t use needles. Easy!

Also, awareness about HIV has risen dramatically in the last ten years, and in many countries sufferers are offered free treatment and are able to live long, healthy lives. Don’t let the HIV stigma stop you from enjoying the continent.

5. Take sunscreen

This can be hard to find in some African countries, simply because the local population have no need for it. When you do find it, it’ll be expensive and you’ll be lucky to find your favourite brand. Take your own from home.

6. Get the Ducharal vaccine

This is an oral vaccine that protects you from traveller’s diarrhea. Drinking it will iron plate your stomach for 3 months so you have a much lesser chance of pooping water. I had this vaccine on my first few Africa trips, ate all sorts of crap and never had diarrhea once!

However while Ducharal is great, I’ve now moved on to a more natural way of keeping my stomach healthy on these trips – probiotics.

Probiotics are the gut flora in your digestive system that help build your immune system and break down any nasties in your stomach. Studies have shown that superloading with probiotics and taking them regularly during a trip greatly decreases the risk of traveller’s diarrhea, and is also excellent for your health in general. My favourite probiotic to take is this one, which has 50 billion cultures per tablet and works amazingly.

For more information about preventing traveller’s diarrhea, I have a very thorough guide you can read here.

7. Dress down

Remember that poverty is still a big problem here, and you’ll come across many people who struggle day to day, including an abundance of homeless people and street kids. While they don’t present any particular danger in most cases, it helps to not flaunt your expensive things and draw attention to yourself.

Another thing you should be mindful of is the culture. While short shorts and low cut blouses and tank tops might be normal wear back home, they’re not here. That means easy on the bling bling and no flashy clothes. For the ladies, try and stay covered up as best as possible.

8. Take a torch

Powercuts are widespread and frequent, and many areas don’t have electricity. While the torch on your phone is usually sufficient, I’d highly recommend taking a headlamp, especially if you’re going hiking, camping, on safari, or visiting rural areas. Trust me, you’ll thank me later!

I use this headlamp and highly recommend it.

Also, take a good powerbank. I use this one and it has saved my butt on many occassions!

9. Don’t pack a lot of white clothing

One thing you’ll notice about many African cities is not all the roads and footpaths are paved.

This leads to a lot of dust and dirt in the air.

For this reason, I always avoid taking white clothes, especially socks! They get brown very quickly, and you’ll probably end up hand-washing them as washing machines are non-existent outside the big cities.

Also, take a pair of sunglasses for when you’re wandering around. Your eyes will thank you.

10. Careful with your camera

You’re going to come across some amazing photo opportunities of local people doing things you’ve never seen before.

While your first inclination may be to pull out the camera and snap, try to refrain from doing so as local people will often take offense at you taking photos of them.

In fact, many people will approach you and ask you for money if they catch you.

Use your zoom and take your snaps from afar or just be discreet. If you wish to get up close and take your perfect photo, ask permission first. Alternatively, take the photo and then offer a “tip” afterwards (one small bill will suffice – usually just a few cents).

It’ll keep the peace and they’ll appreciate your respect.

11. Hand sanitiser

If you’re planning a few trips off the beaten track you’re bound to be touching all sorts of dirty things and have local children jumping all over you. Keeping a bottle of this handy is a lifesaver. Hard to find in some places, so take your own from home.

12. Carry a pack of baby wipes

Especially if going on safari, camping, hiking, or any outdoors activity. Trust me, they’ll come in handy.

13. Use a VPN!

Most places in Africa have wifi now but security isn’t quite up to the level that we’re used to.

I’d highly recommend getting a VPN before you go if you plan on connecting to wifi networks in hotels/cafes/restaurants etc. This will encrypt all your connections and ensure your activity is secure, which is particularly important if you’ll be accessing bank details online, Paypal, or any other sensitive information.

I use Private Internet Access and have been for many years, and recommend them highly.

If you’re new to this stuff I’ve got an article about internet security while travelling here!

14. Be smart with the hustlers

While walking around the streets you’ll get some unwanted attention. Guys will try to sell you arts and crafts or lure you to souvenir stores in an effort to earn a commission. That’s fine if you’re interested, but chances are you’re not. If any case these people are harmless and are just an annoyance more than anything else, so the trick is to just be cool and relaxed rather than hostile.

When they ask if it’s your first time visiting just say “No, I come every year, my brother lives here” or something like that. Once they realise you’re not a clueless tourist they’ll most likely chit chat with you for 10 more seconds before moving on to a more promising target.

I remember getting off the bus in Tanzania one year and before my feet have even touched the ground some dude has his hand on my shoulder screaming “Taxi my friend? My friend? Taxi!?”

I ignore him and he goes on, “Your first time in Africa, my friend?”

I shake my head. “My family lives here.”

“Oh! You have African wife?”

I start laughing and turn to him and nod seriously. “Ndiyo, kaka” (yes, my brother).

He smiles with that knowing look in his eyes, and then disappears so fast that even I’m surprised. I turn my head to nod him off and he’s already back at the bus door, hassling someone else.

The two lessons here are to never say it’s your first time here, and learn a little bit of the local language. Both are more effective than you’d think!

15. Get a driver

Once you land in the country, get the phone number of a reliable taxi driver. If your hotel sends a driver to the airport and you get to your hotel alive, get his number. Otherwise ask the hotel staff for a reliable taxi. Keep his number in your cellphone or even better, memorise it. You can call him whenever you’re in a fix, especially if you’re stuck somewhere after dark, making sure you’ll never be stuck behind enemy lines.

Also, in many of the major cities they now have Uber, so make sure you download it! It’s cheap and has been extremely useful for me, especially as you can avoid the whole haggling part of getting a taxi.

16. Pack a first aid kit

A standard first aid kit can come in handy in a place where ambulances are scarce and hospital helicopters don’t exist. That means bandages, antiseptics, prescription antibiotics, a pocketknife, sterile needles (some hospitals don’t have these), DEET, anti diarrheals and painkillers.

17. Use common sense and stay safe

Despite what people think Africa is not a wild, lawless place. Of course there’s crime, but common sense will be sufficient to keep you safe. Don’t go out alone at night – take a local male with you. When you arrive in the country, ask someone you can trust such as a tour guide or hotel staff about the danger spots in the city. If you always have an escort at night and don’t go wandering, you’ll be in no more danger than you would be in your home country.

I’ve been to every continent and Africa is by far my favourite! Go, explore, discover, enjoy.

Happy travels!

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