Independent Travel in Africa
Africa is extremely misunderstood—particularly, I’m embarrassed to admit, among my own countrymen and women. I’ve lost count of how many high-ranking public officials have referred to the massive continent as a “country.” And how could I ever forget 2014, just before my safari in Tanzania, when friends and family worried about the danger I would face from Ebola, a threat that was actually a shorter distance from them than it was from me?
On the other hand, as much effort as I’ve made to understand Africa—I’ve just returned from my fourth trip to the continent—I feel like my own progress has been limited. Among other reasons, Africa is a difficult destination to penetrate because of how difficult it is to explore independently.
Below, I’ll discuss why I think this is and how I think—and hope—it might improve in the near and not-so-near future. Scroll even further down to explore my Africa travel guides, who ranks I hope to increase over time.
Africa’s Travel Chasm
As is the case in many parts of the developing world, Africa is home to a new and growing middle class. Unfortunately, both by my own estimations and those of experts, the rate of growth for Africa’s middle class is much slower than it is elsewhere in the world, which means that the omnipresent chasm between rich and poor is especially deep and wide in Africa.
For travelers, this presents itself—and, frankly, has long done so—as a dramatic lack of choice: Extreme budget travel, which usually takes the form of long-term volunteer stays; or high-luxury travel, such as the Tanzanian safari I mentioned earlier.
Timing is Everything
I present the idea of Africa budget travel in the context of long-term volunteering less because of the volunteering (much of Africa is not especially poor these days—I want to do whatever I can to shatter that extremely outdated perception) and more because of the length of the term: If you want to travel in Africa (especially East Africa) without spending lots of money, you need to have a lot of time.
That’s because infrastructure in Africa, while improving quickly and largely as a result of Chinese intervention, is mostly awful. And unless you can pay hundreds of dollars per day (yes, you read that right) for your own private 4×4 vehicle, driver and guide, you’re going to be crammed into rickety old vehicles that sometimes travel more slowly than you walk.
Safety, Security and Health
Another big misconception people have about Africa is that it’s dangerous, or that people there are violent. In fact, I’ve almost never felt unsafe anywhere on the African continent, although there definitely are safety concerns, even if many of them come from the dilapidation of the aforementioned infrastructure and (justified) fear of accidents therein.
With this being said, Africa has been and continues to be a hotbed for political instability. My recent foray into Ethiopia’s Danakil Depression required a military escort (translation: $$$$$) thanks to Eritrea’s batshit government, while my past adventures in Egypt’s Sinai peninsula are now improbable due to the threat of ISIS in the region.
Then, of course, there’s health. Malaria and dengue notwithstanding, travel in Africa can literally (and very easily!) kill you. Did you know, for example, that Africa has a “Meningitis Belt,” or that polio is still endemic in some places here? On the other hand, get vaccinated for yellow fever, but do not read about what it does to your body.
Really—ebola is the least of your health worries traveling in Africa.
The Future of Independent Travel in Africa
This article, in spite of my positive intentions in having written it, has probably painted a less than rosy picture of independent travel in Africa. The fact is, however, that bright spots already exist, and I do imagine that as Africa’s aforementioned middle class begins to grow (and, thus, African travelers begin exploring their own continent on a deeper level), mid-range travel in Africa will become easier for everyone.
For now, backpacking and boutique-y travel is easiest on the periphery of Africa: In Morocco; in Egypt; in South Africa. And sort of in Ethiopia, thanks to the network comprehensiveness and affordability* of Ethiopian Airlines, although there are some caveats associated with that.
Anyway, I’ll end this article how I started it: With my sincerest hopes that reading my website helps change people’s minds and hearts about Africa; that it inspires them to attempt to explore the continent independently; and that eventually, it’s as easy to backpack in Africa as it is to do in Southeast Asia or South America.
*In order to access the cheapest Ethiopian Airlines fares, you need to book them through a travel agency, i.e. the antithesis to independent travel