Travel Tips to Sub-Saharan Africa

photography by: Raphealny

Reading time:

By far the wildest and least explored continent in the world, Africa is still waiting to be discovered. For those who opt to venture outside their comfort zone and travel across the continent, a plethora of rich cultures, authentic cuisine and exceptional wildlife is guaranteed, but not without its challenges. Still ranked as the world's poorest and most underdeveloped region, Sub-Saharan Africa is not an easy destination for even the most experienced backpackers, however, with some extra precautions, it’s perfectly accessible for virtually everyone to travel and explore.

Where to go?

The decision where to travel in Sub-Sahara Africa is as difficult as choosing a dish in a three Michelin stars restaurant, not only because of the enormous variety of destinations but also due to the diversity in both ethnic groups and natural wonders. In too many cases people around the rest of the world refer to Africa as a single culture spreading over vast Savannas with roaming lions and elephants, as it’s the case in some parts, the continent has a full spectrum of overlooked landscapes and cultures.
If you want to make a wise choice, you first have to consider 3 factors:
1. Is it your first time in Africa? For first time travelers I would definitely recommend to start with easy and painless destination that has an excellent tourist infrastructure like South-Africa or Kenya. If you are more experienced traveler, practically almost every country is an option, maybe except for war torn regions or places with health risks.
2. Are you a winter type of person? climate preferences play a crucial role in Africa, after all the continent spans over extreme temperature variations, from the hot and dry Sahara desert to the humid and warm equatorial regions down to the relatively mild weather at the south tip, hence, you must check the average temperature and likelihood of rain according to the time of year you are planning your trip.
3. Which kind of Vacation do you seek? If you are into adventurous journey it might be optimal to favor a destination which offers more than meets the eyes via tourist agencies , countries like Uganda, Rwanda and Ghana for instance are safe and have plenty of cultural heritage often ignored by travelers more focused on wildlife related attractions. In order to make the best choice you must take into account all aspects of a certain place, such as the abundance of wildlife, pre-colonial history and the ability to cover as many as interesting attractions in reasonable time frame.

Muizenberg, South Africa

photography by: GregMontani


Safety

It’s not a secret that Africa poses many safety challenges for the average traveler, but some measures can reduce dramatically the chances of any ordeal:

 

1- Try to limit your outdoor presence to day hours, whether you are on the road or not, if you want to go out at night use private Taxi for commuting.

2- Never walk with valuables in your pockets since pickpocketing is more than common in most African cities, alternatively you can have an extra wallet with small amount of cash at your disposal.

3- If a stranger in the street offers you a tempting suggestion you should politely decline, it might be a genuine expression of hospitality but also a scam designed to extract money out of you.

4- Some African cities have no-go zones which are not recommended for foreigners, always consult the reception desk at your hotel which parts of town are safe to walk.

5- It’s widely recommended to have vaccines before traveling to some African countries and check for any health hazards at the destination prior to your trip.

Kampala bus station, Uganda

photography by: Felix


Food

Until just recently most food items and national dishes across sub-Saharan Africa were rather basic and designed to fill the belly at minimum cost, however due to global trends and increasing tourism a lot has changed. Nowadays almost every major city in the continent has decent restaurants and cafes, but if you want a more unique culinary experience Africa definitely has some of the most interesting and intense cuisines to explore, hence it’s good to know few things ahead:
1. The Ethiopian Cuisine is considered by many as truly exceptional in Africa, while the most common meal usually consists of various small wat stews served on Injera, the local flatbread. It’s important to know that some Wats (Ethiopian curry) are extremely spicy, so make sure to have a glass of water nearby just in case.
2. Street food is generally not recommended to consume since sanitary and health standards are still relatively low throughout the continent, however if you want to try something make sure it’s freshly cooked in front of you.
3. South Africa has remarkable restaurants, some of which are world renowned like The Test Kitchen or Waterkloof, unlike in western countries the costs are more than affordable making it an opportunity to indulge yourselves on a world class food without bankrupt.

Ghanian woman preparing rice

photography by: Louis Stippel


Money and costs

Rightfully or not Africa has a reputation of being a poor continent, so when people think about traveling there it often comes with the notion that it’s a cheap destination due to the average low income of most Africans, but this couldn’t be furthest from the truth. It’s accurate that if you opt the local living standards in many places you can save a fortune, but that means you’ll probably skip shower and have no air conditioning since vast regions across Africa still don’t have running water and electricity. Hence, traveling in Sub-Saharan Africa, maybe with the exception of few countries is usually very expensive, especially if you include national parks and outdoor accommodation in the wilderness. One way of minimizing costs is bargaining, it’s not uncommon for travel agencies to overprice safari trips so it’s always recommended to check more than one offer at different agency and ask for a lower price.
Regarding money handling, ATMs became relatively widespread in big urban areas at recent years, but if you plan a journey to the deep countryside, bring sufficient amount of cash.
It’s advisable to exchange money at banks since it’s where you’ll find the best rates, but if for example you desperately need cash at the airport, take just as little as possible before you reach a place with more reasonable options.

Ballooning over Masai Mara reserve, Kenya

photography by: Wajahatmr


Transportation

During traveling, reaching your destination roughly on time might seems like a trivial thing, especially in today’s world where high speed trains and well maintained highways dominate the landscape in many countries across the world. While a lot of progress has been made in some African nations in recent years, it’s still common to spend a full day travelling a relatively short distance between two major cities on a muddy unpaved road full of potholes.
It’s true that traveling under those harsh conditions might be challenging, nevertheless, when you have a chance to converse with two African ladies with colorful garment about the history of their country accompanied by a live rooster scamper between your legs, it’s more than enough to distract your mind and make the ride far more enjoyable and unique.
Commuting in Africa as mentioned before is often not a simple task, but if the right measures are being taken, most of its unpleasant aspects can be mitigated dramatically:
1. Plan your journey in advance by extensive online research even if you want to keep a room for flexibility while traveling, it will probably save you a lot of money and spare you of extra waiting time at buses and terminals.
2. Choose your method of transportation according to your preferences, budget and time limitations. Almost every African country has countless means of transportation, making it easy for you to adjust your plans accordingly. While a luxury bus with spacious seats and complimentary meals is for no doubt delightful for some, it won’t be satisfying for people who want to experience a bit of authenticity.
3. In many African cities road congestion and poor infrastructure can cause gigantic traffic jams resulting in very frustrating and slow commute. One efficient way to overcome an ordeal is to take a ride on a motorcycle taxi, also known as Boda-Boda, Okada and various others, beside time saving it’s a fascinating way to explore Africa’s chaotic urban scene.
4. Another experience, almost solely unique to Africa, are the dozens of local street hawkers knocking on your window at traffic jams, red lights or bus stops trying to sell you everything from local snacks like tasty samosas and plantain chips to souvenirs, accessories and even small electrical appliances.

Boda Boda taxi

photography by: Daryona


Border Crossing

All over the world traveling is becoming easier by the day, governments aiming at increasing revenues from the tourism industry are exempting a growing number of citizens of other countries from any visa requirements, while in Europe borders are being eliminated all together.
However, Africa is a completely different story, not only most African nations still require a travel visa from the majority of other countries citizens, including Africans themselves, but crossing international borders within Africa is not a simple task and may demand a lot of patience and resourcefulness.
Before your journey even starts, it’s essential to make sure you have all documents needed at the border control, including some extra blank papers in your passport, yellow fever certificate, passport photos and any other paper which might be required by the officials.
Suffice to say that ATMs around border crossings are quite a rare scene in most places, and since some countries issue visa upon arrival it’s important to carry a sufficient amount of cash, preferably US dollars, which have better rates in both payment for visa and currency exchange at the border.
Visa policy tends to change frequently, therefore you must confirm your admissibility to the country you travel to, otherwise you theoretically can find yourself stranded at the border between the two countries in the case of your passport with a single entry visa being stamped just to find out you must obtain a pre-issued visa for your destination country.

The Liberian-Ivorian border

photography by: DFID - UK Department for International Development