It was our first time in Sub-Saharan Africa. I had dreamed of traveling across Africa ever since The Lion King. However, the moment we arrived I was nervous to be in Johannesburg, South Africa. What if we were carjacked? What if I got killed by a hippo? What if I contracted a life-threatening disease no one had ever heard of? What if I were to get lost in the wild?
We arrived without a plan or clue to what we were doing. One year later, Cameron and I have driven through South Africa, Mozambique, Lesotho, Swaziland, Namibia, Botswana, Zambia, Zimbabwe, Malawi, Tanzania, Rwanda, Uganda, and Kenya in our trusty Land Cruiser.
It was only a fraction of the African continent. After all, the continent includes 54 countries all with their own history, culture, and languages. It is a fascinating place to travel and should be your next destination. Disease, wildlife, crime, poor roads these are all safety concerns that any first-timer to Africa. In our experience that should not be a deterrent to travel in Africa.
Is Traveling to Africa Safe? You’re Nervous Because…
When people are wondering if traveling to Africa is safe or not they are often curious about the malaria. Malaria is like the boogeyman of Africa. It is a life-threatening disease attributed to a parasite carried by mosquitos. Malaria is a risk throughout sub-Saharan Africa, especially in populated areas. The symptoms of malaria are flu-like (chills, fevers, nausea). We’ve been told by anyone that has had it that it pretty much feels like you’re dying. It’s a serious disease that can be deadly if left untreated and kills nearly 3000 children a day, mainly from sub-Saharan Africa.
Preventative drugs are available such as Doxycycline and Malarone. Doxycycline does not produce crazy dreams, costs less than Malarone, but does lead to sun sensitivity. Malarone is more effective in prevention, can be used as a cure, but it is more costly and leads to vivid dreams and sometimes upset stomachs. One should note that neither of these drugs can fully prevent malaria.
Here is our experience with malaria and prevention: On arrival in South Africa, Cameron went to a private doctor in Johannesburg to get a Yellow Fever jab and a doctor’s consultation. An hour later he had a full bag of prescriptions from a specialized doctor and immunization to Yellow Fever. That visit cost him $86 – yes that’s American dollars. Compare that to $260 at a dodgy public clinic in the states (or $880, which is what my doctor charged my insurance in the US). When it came a malaria cure we picked up a box of Artemether and Lumefantrine for $3 over the counter in Mozambique, just in case we were to contract the disease.
In the twelve months of travel around Africa, we only took doxycycline for 3 weeks along the shores of Lake Malawi in Malawi. We were there during the rainy season and because malaria in Malawi (known as Cerebral malaria) is the deadliest form we thought best to be careful. On average we wear long sleeves and pants at night, sleep under mosquito nets, apply bug spray when appropriate, and ask locals if the mosquitos are prevalent and have never had malaria.
With the necessary precautions you can protect yourself against malaria, and it shouldn’t be a reason to avoid traveling to Africa. It’s always worth doing your research to see if where you’re traveling to is a malaria zone and find out which season you will be traveling. Mosquitos need water to breed so dry season is generally malaria free. We’ve met tourists in Cape Town whose doctors led them to spend upwards of $2000 for medicines for Africa, and they were never in a malarial zone. Don’t be those people.
It’s true, some of the roads in Africa are downright awful. If you’re planning to self-drive in Africa then the safety and condition of the roads are a genuine concern. While we did drive on the worst roads of our lives, our journey from South Africa to Uganda was largely on paved roads. Granted, they just weren’t in the best shape.
I would say that South Africa and Rwanda had some of the best roads and Zambia, Zimbabwe, Tanzania, and even Namibia (bad corrugation) had some of the worst. If you’re nervous about driving on the roads in Africa try to download the app Maps.me for routing advice and join the Facebook group Overlanding Africa. The Facebook group is full of people who have overlanded the continent, including us, and can provide current advice on routes and the state of roads.
The People and General Safety
At first, when we looked at traveling around Africa I consulted a few friends that had been on an overland tour. “Africa isn’t safe, haven’t you heard about (fill in the blank),” they would say. Events like the Westgate Shopping Mall attack in Nairobi, the Chibok School Kidnappings in Nigeria, and UN worker kidnappings in the Congo really stick in the back of peoples heads when they are figuring out where to travel.
It doesn’t help that hearing “Rwandan Genocide” and “Idi Amin” still make many people shiver with fear in a not so distant history. Little mystery as to why so many people get nervous for their safety in Africa.
You may have also seen a movie or two about Africa that depicts lawlessness and extreme danger. While there are countries across the continent that are not safe to travel at the moment, this certainly isn’t true for all of 54 countries in Africa. Actually, for the most part, we felt safer in Africa than parts of the United States and Europe.
Don’t believe me? Visions of Humanity can agree with me! They list Botswana, Namibia, Zambia, and Tanzania as more peaceful than the United States. While there are some nations that I would not advise traveling to it’s important to realize the whole continent is not some giant war-zone as depicted by the mainstream media.
We always felt welcomed in Africa by the people of each and every country. Children greet us with waves and smile and we’ve had mothers run to us with their babies in tow smiling. Usually, people are very curious about us, especially in rural villages. In cities, we are always treated as friends, and in general, locals are just very happy that we chose to visit their country.
The internet in Africa shouldn’t scare anyone from coming, but for those that need to be online for business purposes – I understand. Before landing on the continent my expectations for the internet speeds in Africa were low. I wasn’t sure if we would be able to stay connected outside of major cities.
I’ve touched more on the internet situation in Africa here. If you are just coming to Africa for a two to three week holiday you will be more than fine with the internet speeds. We’ve only stayed in a few lodges in Africa that didn’t have any access to internet. Most holiday goers will have the connection abilities to check email, post to Facebook, and Skype call home. If you are doing more of the overland and camping thing like we did, I would advise picking up a local sim card at the airport and loading it with data so you can stay connected on the go.
Sometimes, it’s hard to understand why anyone would want to head to Africa when there are just so many animals that can kill humans. Lions are not exactly friendly and although elephants are considered “gentle giants” they can and do squash a human in an instant. Some may read about lion attacks and elephant encounters and swear off the continent as a whole.
The reality of these wildlife interactions usually has some aspect of human error. Don’t go swimming or hang out on the banks of the Zambezi River, respect animals personal space, and don’t walk around wildlife areas alone without a torch at night. At the end of the day, animals attack when they feel threatened.
It’s worth noting that the majority of human deaths caused by animals occurs to locals. Sadly, it is the people that live with the African wildlife every day that are more susceptible to hippo attacks, snake bites, and elephant confrontations. The chance of a tourist getting hurt by a wild animal is slim. Most tour operators and lodges take safety measures to ensure a safe trip to Africa for their guests.
It’s always hot in Africa, right? Not exactly. Africa is diverse with tall mountain ranges, vast savannah, coastal regions, and lush rainforests. There are also two main seasons in Africa – dry and rainy. No matter the terrain or season the African heat is no reason to avoid traveling Africa.
We’ve spent cold nights in Tanzania only to be sweating off 10 lbs out in the sun the very next day. We’ve hiked high into the jungle for gorilla trekking only to find ourselves reaching for our jackets. The dry season is generally hotter than the rainy season, but we have found that in many parts of Africa the rainy season, although cooler, is humid. It’s important to research beforehand about what to wear. It should be based on where you are headed and season.
Generally, any trip to Africa should be accompanied by a jacket for early mornings and night time. Layers are great so that you can get adjust to rapid shifts in temperature by midday.
Planning your trip to Africa may seem overwhelming, but rest assured that Africa is ready for you. Are you ready for it?
What to Pack for Africa
Overland Tour in Africa
Traveling Africa on your own can be daunting to many travelers. However, there is no need to fear with overland tour companies who will show the ropes and a great time. You can check out some of them here to compare the different companies and possibly score a discount.
Travel Water Bottle
Plastic pollution is a problem in Africa so it’s best not to contribute to the problem of buying plastic water bottles everywhere. The tap water around Africa is generally not safe to drink, but a water purifier, like the Grayl waterbottle, works well!
Chances are you’ll want a camera for your trip to Africa. Our favorite pocket-sized point and shoot camera for quick trips are the Sony RX100V. It takes fantastic photos and video and is the size of your palm.
For more professional photographs we use our Fuji XT-3, and LOVE IT.
A good hat is both stylish and functional. In peak dry season there is little to provide shade, UV rays are intense and can easily burn the unsuspecting traveler. Check out our full break down of the best safari hats here!
Lightweight pants that are made from synthetic material are tremendous to have in your pack. It’s what we wear most days when traveling around Africa as they’re comfortable, antibacterial, and protect our legs from mosquitos (malaria).
You’ll want a safari shirt while on safari. They are lightweight and keep the bugs away. Plus they look ideal in photos and blend into the environment around you!
Sometimes it’s nice just to have a real book in your hands when traveling. We recommend picking up a Lonely Planet to get you through the wireless nights. Are you going on safari? We always carry our Robert’s Southern Africa Bird Book and a good mammal guide.