1. Decide on what you are interested in
In a previous post in this blog, I mentioned five of the main Africa holiday activities, among them adventure travel, sightseeing tours, and wildlife safaris. If you are like most people, you may not have the time to do all of them in one visit. Which is why the first thing to do is to decide on want to see in Africa. This will help you narrow down on a few destinations.
For many first time visitors, the choice is easy: wildlife safaris, especially to see the big five in the wild. In this case, some of the most obvious options are East Africa (Kenya and Tanzania), and Southern Africa (South Africa, Namibia, Botswana, and Zambia). However if your interest is to see rare and unique animals and plant species, you’ll definitely want to consider destinations like Madagascar.
If you are interested in cultural and historical sites in Africa, Egypt and Ethiopia are some of the possible destinations. Likewise, for a relaxing beach holiday, you may have to choose from among the Indian Ocean islands like Seychelles, Mauritius, Zanzibar, and Comoros. Sometimes, you may want to have a little bit of everything, in which case you may have to go on a multi-country tour, or pick a destination like Kenya which offers most of these attractions.
2. Research on the possible destinations, then pick one (or a few)
After prioritizing on your main area of interest, you should then compare each possible destination against others. For example, you may want to compare between East Africa or Southern African destinations for a wildlife safari. Botswana is ideal for exclusive safaris, because they deliberately regulate the number of visitors in their game reserves. This means that it will be more expensive than Kenya for example, but you have more privacy and probably a more satisfying safari experience. Another example, the beaches of Seychelles islands may be more pristine than those in Zanzibar, but you may not have the same cultural experience as you’ll find in Zanzibar or Lamu. Again, a beach holiday in Seychelles will be more expensive than in Zanzibar.
For multi-country tours, you need to find out how easy or hectic it will be to travel from country A to country B. Unless you have a lot of time (and money), it may be easier to combine Egypt, Kenya, and Zanzibar in one tour than, say, combining Ethiopia, South Africa, and Seychelles.
3. Find out more about the chosen destination
Once you have settled on a destination, you need to collect some essential information about traveling to the chosen country. Things like visa requirements and mandatory vaccinations are important. Some countries require you to be vaccinated against yellow fever, hepatitis B, etc before going there. And for your own health, knowledge of the prevalent diseases (e.g. malaria and Bilharzia) in your destination will help you take necessary preventive measures, including consulting a doctor prior to traveling if necessary.
You will also need to know about the weather patterns in your preferred destination, to determine the best time to go there. Obviously, you wouldn’t want to be in Zanzibar for a beach holiday during the heavy rains season.
Information on the culture and language of the people is also important. If traveling to East Africa for example, knowing a word or two of the Swahili language would do you more good than harm. Likewise, understanding the Muslim culture in Morocco will help you know how to conduct yourself in relation to alcohol and cross-gender relations.
4. Consult with reputable organizations in your chosen destination
This is especially true if you are traveling to Africa for the first time. You have probably heard the saying that “without a travel agent, you are on your own”. Much as some people dislike travel agents, you are better off dealing with an agent based in the country you are traveling to, than doing it all by yourself. It is a well known fact that for lodges and hotel bookings, you are likely to get better rates through a travel agent, than if you approach the hotel directly.
Perhaps you want to plan your own unique trip instead of going for a holiday package. Even that way, you should still work with reputable agents for the specific services like renting a car, flight reservations, hotel booking etc. If anything should go wrong in the course of your trip, your travel agent is better placed than you to follow up with hotels, airlines and other service providers. The trick therefore is in identifying the reputable agents because, like in any other continent, Africa has its fair share of scammers.
5. Gather as much information as possible on the planned holiday activities
Any reputable travel agent will give you full information about the activities and places they have booked for you. Before you finally travel, make sure you have received all the booking vouchers (for hotels and lodges), airline tickets, and receipts for any payments you have made. Where possible, the travel agent should furnish you with photos of the places you will be staying, or the contact addresses or website links to those places. You’ll not be acting paranoid if you insist to see these, and a travel agent of good reputation would not mind providing you with the same.
6. What to pack: strike a balance
You will have to compromise between traveling light, and carrying all the essential items for your safari. Africa will give you many amazing photo opportunities. You don’t want to miss those, which is why a camera is essential. But you don’t have to carry a bulky professional camera where a smaller high resolution amateur camera would do, unless of course you are a professional photographer. The water in some parts of Africa may not be very safe for drinking untreated, but again, you don’t have to carry a big water filter when water-treating tablets or bottled water would suffice. My point is strike a balance. If there are things you can buy cheaply in the destination country if and when you need them, there is no need to carry them from home.
Go2africa.com has some great tips on what to carry on most safaris.
7. No matter what, do not throw caution to the wind
Some basic dos and don’ts apply universally. In any city for example, whether Johannesburg-South Africa or Paris-France, you would not walk in some streets alone past certain hours of the night. You also know that engaging in indiscriminate and unprotected sex increases your chances of contracting HIV/AIDS, whether in Amsterdam’s red light district, or deep in the Masai Mara game reserve with a Maasai warrior you’ve just met and fallen in love with. Regardless of how friendly a person appears, if you have no professional or personal relationship, you would not entrust them with your stuff or sensitive information like your credit card details. In short, apply common sense on matters pertaining your personal safety, and the safety of your property.
8. Be polite, be courteous, fit in, but do not go overboard
In the course of your travels, you are likely to interact with many locals, from the airline crew, to tour drivers and travel guides, hotel staff, entertainers etc. Treat them with due respect, do not be patronizing, and you will have a memorable trip. Show respect to the local cultures.
I read some Africa travel tips that advise you to carry some goodies (sweets, used books, used toys, used clothes, etc) to give to the less fortunate; I totally disagree. Unless philanthropy is a key part of your travel plans, just stick to your mission: enjoy your safari. In any case, genuine philanthropy will only give donations that make a real change in the recipient’s life.
It is OK to dress and look like a tourist if you are one, especially in the resorts or lodges where you will stay. However, if you need to fit in when you step out of the safari schedule to get a local feel, do not go overboard in your dressing. For example, you’ll look ridiculous dressed in a Masai shuka in the center of Nairobi, unless you are a Moran. In most African cities, you will still be fine in any attire that you can wear in your home city.
9. Step out and have fun
There’s more to Africa than what your safari package may cover. In your travel plan, you should spare one or two free days to step out and get a local feel of things. Move out and interact with the local people away from the confines of safari vans. Most African people are genuinely friendly and easy going, and you may learn a lot just by interacting with them. In the cities, it’s OK to sample the nightlife if you feel like it. But bear in mind point no. 7: do not throw caution to the wind