While you might be someone who enjoys 'winging it' when it comes to travel (aka us), this is one place where a little bit of pre-prep actually goes a really, really, really long way when you're in this part of the world.
In fact, on our Namibian road trip a few years ago, we arrived into Sossusvlei after an 8-hour drive through the desert without phone service only to discover that the only available accommodation was a room in the super luxurious Sossusvlei Lodge... which also happened to cost about the same as our monthly budget!
If we'd been better prepared, we'd have known it was coming into high season and would have either booked one of the budget options, or organised camping gear and pitched our tent inside the park.
Before you go to Africa, spend some time researching the following and plan accordingly:
A few other things to consider
It might seem a little daunting to begin with, but trust us, having a good idea of all of the above will make your life a thousand times easier on the ground.
The whole of Africa has had a pretty bad rap as a war-and-poverty-stricken, crime-ridden, and inhospitable continent over the last few decades, but we've always found that this perception couldn't be further from the truth. The reality is that most African nations are stable, peaceful, and working towards a brighter future for everyone there. Being wary, and taking the same precautions as you'd take while travelling anywhere else in the world - of course, while not allowing yourself to become closed off or fearful of every interaction - is the key here and will help you avoid many problems throughout Africa. You'll quickly realise that most of the fears you've carried with you are unfounded!
Just as Africa is not the dangerous, backwards place it's made out to be, the diverse and wonderful people who inhabit its countries aren't waiting to rip you off at every opportunity. Hospitable and friendly folk are everywhere, and we often commented to each other that we felt safer travelling through there than we often did in our own city, or in London (where we lived for 18 months). You'll probably encounter more unfriendly people on your daily commute on the tube than you will here!
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.
We had Malawians take us under their wing on a confusing and overcrowded long bus ride, new friends help us exchange money for fair rates at a border crossing, families who took us into their homes and cooked us chicken stew while their kids played next to us, a smiley Zambian cab driver who picked us up at all hours for our various adventures, and chatted politics, football, and the best meals in Livingstone, and so many more happy encounters.
We've only ever felt welcomed in Africa; if you're open, friendly, and respectful (particularly bearing in mind that most nations are still deeply conservative), you'll always be treated as a friend.
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.
"Africa time". It's a phrase you'll come to love and hate during your travels here, but the sooner you can embrace it the better!
Life just runs differently here. Buses leave when they're full, not often when they're scheduled. A pick up time of 8am might actually mean 11am and just because you ordered your food an hour ago, doesn't mean it's any closer to arriving. Rather than getting frustrated by the relaxed attitude towards timings, roll with it - and always build time into your itineraries to account for it.
You'll soon realise it's actually nice to escape the immediacy of the west, where everything has to materialise the minute you've thought of it, and enjoy a more relaxed pace instead.
Generally when travelling, if you run out of your favourite shampoo or sunscreen you can just duck down the street and find a replacement at the local shop or pharmacy. That's not quite the case in Africa, unless you're in a large city, and even then you might struggle to find the toiletries you're used to back home.
We found good sunscreen to be a near-impossible find in most parts of Africa, along with tampons and hair ties. If there are toiletries you simply couldn't go more than a few days without, make sure to pick up some spares at home and add them to your luggage.
Witnessing people living in poverty can often be overwhelming for travellers, but as tempting as it is to give gifts, money, or good to beggars or children, try to avoid it. Handouts can actually cause more damage to local communities than you'd realise by perpetuating the idea that Africa needs 'saving' by well-meaning rich foreign tourists.
You might also be surprised to learn that begging is actually one of the most visible signs of human trafficking; encouraging kids to stay out of school and earn money instead, and organised crime gangs to drug or deliberately maim people in order to garner sympathy from tourists and more donations.
Be a responsible traveller, and avoid funding this cycle of abuse. And while we're talking about it, don't take photos of random children (for a start, it's weird - would you walk up to a kid in London and snap a photo of them without another thought?!), and avoid visiting orphanages and schools as it's both disruptive to education, leaves children vulnerable to predators, and is often hard to distinguish a good orphanage from a scam one.
We've said it once, we'll say it again (and we'll continue saying it forevermore!) - if you can afford to travel, you cannot afford to leave home without comprehensive travel insurance. Longtime readers will probably remember Mark's story of getting bitten by a snake in Malawi; the ultimate proof that the unexpected really can happen, especially on a continent like Africa!