Africa Travel Guide: Overview
Containing over 20 percent of the world’s land and nearly 17 percent of the population, Africa is a hugely diverse continent composed of 54 strikingly unique countries. From its wildlife and untamed lands to its rich traditions and exciting, emerging future, Africa is a travel experience unlike anything else. Whether you want to gape at astounding natural scenery or marvel at rituals that echo back to our earliest shared ancestors, Africa is at once old and new—and never dull.
African history begins as far back as 7.5 million years ago, which was when the earliest modern humans (Homo sapiens) began to emerge in East Africa. Approximately 40,000 years ago, humans began to expand beyond Africa and into other land masses, thus representing the spread of humanity and marking the earliest human colonization. By 10,000 BC, Homo sapiens populated most of Afro-Eurasia.
Starting from around 16,000 BC, humans demonstrated food collection and the beginnings of agriculture and animal husbandry. Metallurgy emerged somewhere in the fourth millennium BC.
With the Saharan desertification, population centers clustered around the Nile Valley, leading eventually to the unification of Upper and Lower Egypt in 3,100 BC. Ancient Egypt thrived until Alexander the Great conquered the region in 332 BC.
The Middle Ages represented a time of great upheaval throughout Africa. Muslim Arabs conquered North Africa, and Islam spread—an influential conversion that can still be seen in that region today. Ghana became one of the earliest known African Kingdoms, only to fall in the 11th century to northern invaders. Representing an important European contact, Portuguese explorers reached the African coast in 1431, eventually sailing around the Cape of Good Hope in 1488.
With increased European influence and presence, the slave trade across the Atlantic began in the 16th century. Around the same time, the Turks conquered many significant posts on the northern coast of Africa, including Egypt, and the Portuguese and Dutch settled colonies in modern-day Angola, Mozambique and South Africa.
Although the slave trade came to a close in the 19th century, European colonization simultaneously increased. By the later end of the century, the French, German and British had effectively carved and divvied up all of Africa (barring Ethiopia and Liberia).
Increased education and broiling unrest led to African independence movements, and by the 1960s, most nations were free of their colonial rulers. Mozambique and Angola were last to enjoy independence, not becoming free until 1975.
Despite headline news of continuing unrest, civil wars, military coups and Ebola outbreaks, the 21st century has largely been a time of incredible growth for Africa. Economies are growing rapidly, and both tourism and investments are pouring into the continent.
With so many unique and vibrantly diverse nations under the umbrella of Africa, no single discussion of culture is going to be comprehensive or universally true. That being said, African culture is generally expressed through the realms of folklore, religion, clothing, music and art.
In the arts arena, Africa has a proud tradition of woodcarvings and works that incorporate brass and leather. Projects include pottery, sculpture, headgear (for religious and ceremonial purposes) and clothing. Jewelry is a particularly important accessory in African culture. Both jewelry and masks are often made of shells or similar material. Folklore and art both draw from the same archetypal pool, manifesting in images such as a woman with a child, a man with a weapon and an outsider.
Musical expression varies across regions, but there’s almost always a heavy emphasis on rhythm and drums. These musical themes came with slaves to the new world, and the principles were eventually incorporated and adapted into subsequent musical subgenres, such as jazz, R and B and rap.
Certain principles and mores underpin many African cultural expressions. This includes an abiding respect for elders or leaders (chiefs and kings), as well a deep personal pride in their individual cultures.
Good to Know
When traveling in Africa, keep some of the following in mind:
Africa is composed of 54 countries (as well as two disputed states with limited global recognition). Nearly each one of those nations uses its own currency. There is, however, a bloc of 14 Western and Central African countries that all use the CFA franc.
Credit cards will likely be accepted only in major cities and high-end establishments. Your best odds of using a credit card are in North Africa and South Africa. Outside of these areas, don’t rely exclusively on plastic, or you could find yourself without a way to pay.
ATMs are also readily available in large cities and airports, and it’s a good idea to pull out cash when you first arrive. African capital cities are your best bet for finding banks that’ll accept your foreign debit card.
When in Africa, you always want to have cash available, and US dollars are the easiest and most accepted currency. Some national parks, for example, will only accept US dollars for their entrance fees.
Backroads Pro Tip
Some Bureau de Changes will refuse any US dollars issued before 2003. Additionally, many banks and hotels will only accept these newer bills. US dollars became much more difficult to forge after that date. Before you leave, get new, crisp bills from your bank to avoid trouble, and when in Africa, don’t accept torn or old US bills as change as you probably can’t use them again on the continent.
In Africa, tips can actually represent a significant portion of a worker’s salary, so this is an important facet of Africa travel to get right. Remember, because of the economic stress many workers endure, tipping too much poses less of a problem than tipping too little.
In restaurants, tipping 10 to 15 percent is customary, but in some more upscale eateries, a service charge will already be added to the check.
Porters should generally get about $1 per bag, and professional guides or drivers who accompany you all day typically get about $10 per day.
For professional hiking excursions, such as on Mount Kilimanjaro, budget around 10 percent of the total trip cost for tips (to split between your guides, cooks and other trip helpers).
BackRoads Pro Tip
Some African children are taken out of school in order to spend time on the streets picking up tips (and/or handouts). Tipping them only perpetuates this cycle. If a child has done something particularly helpful or nice for you, consider rewarding him or her with a meal, a cold drink or school supplies rather than cash.
What’s considered acceptable public behavior will vary from African country to country, but generally err on the side of conservative dress, speech and manners. Especially in countries where traditions are based in Islam (Senegal, Chad, Mali and more), etiquette should reflect how you might conduct yourself in the Middle East. Be particularly careful to avoid overly revealing clothing.
Greetings are quite important throughout Africa. To avoid seeming rude, take the time to wave or to ask how someone’s day is going. Elders and people in positions of authority should be given particular respect and deference in all interactions.
The dress, jewelry and customs of many Africans can be markedly different than Westerners are used to, but if you want to take a picture of anyone, always ask permission first.
In general, Africans give a lot of leeway to tourists. If you conduct yourself with good manners and modesty, any minor faux pas will likely only be a source of amusement to locals.
Most African countries operate on 220 or 230 volt, and across the continent, you’ll encounter many different plug types. If you’re traveling from the United States, make sure to pack both a converter and universal adapter. This is especially important if you’ll be visiting multiple African countries in one trip.
Squat toilets (essentially holes in the ground you squat over to use) are commonplace in Africa, especially in predominantly Muslim countries, such as Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia. For travelers who have never encountered them before, they definitely take some getting used to. There’s usually a bowl that can be filled from a small water spigot for cleaning yourself, but if this is too much of a culture shock, always make sure to carry a spare roll of toilet paper in your bag. A bottle of hand sanitizer is also a good idea. It’s unlikely you’ll be finding facilities with hot water and sinks.
If you’re set on using a sit-down flushing toilet, look for midrange to upscale or Western-style restaurants. You’re more likely to find the commode style you’re used to at these establishments.
It’s no secret that access to clean, safe drinking water is a major issue throughout Africa. While the quality varies from African nation to African nation, it’s best to avoid the tap water altogether. Opt instead for bottled, filtered or sanitized water at all times.
In some places, such as South Africa, many locals drink the water without any ill effect, but a traveler who isn’t accustomed to the bacteria could become ill. When it comes to drinking water, it’s always better to be safe than sorry.
When To Visit
The dry season primarily occurs from May to October in the southern regions of Africa, and this window presents the best chance for animal viewing in many national park reserves. The hottest, driest months are great for game watching. Watering holes fill with thirsty animals, and vegetation and tree leaves are minimal—all of which improve your chance of spotting animals.
If, however, you’re animal watching in large private reserves (this typically means you’re with an organized tour like Backroads), these carefully managed ecosystems allow for year-round animal watching. Animals typically feel less threatened in these reserves, meaning viewers can get particularly close. In national park reserves, travel is strictly limited to the established roads; in private reserves, tours are allowed to go wherever the animals are. Again, this increases the likelihood of having an up-close encounter with the wildlife.
In Northern Africa, aim for spring or fall. The weather will be more temperate and enjoyable during this window.
If you have your heart set on seeing or doing something specific, research the best dates in order to plan accordingly. (October to December, for example, is baby lemur season in Madagascar.)
Full Article Coming Soon!
- Africa’s total area accounts for approximately one-fifth of all the world’s land.
- Both the prime meridian and the equator cut across Africa.
- Europe and Africa are closer than you might think. At the shortest distance, it’s a mere 8.9 miles of ocean between the two continents.
- The hippopotamus is actually the deadliest animal in Africa. It accounts for more deaths than lions and crocodiles combined.
- Only two African nations weren’t ever colonized by Europeans: Liberia and Ethiopia.
Full Article Coming Soon!
Regions and Cities
If you’re looking for one of the best safari destinations on the planet, look no further than Botswana. The Okavango Delta offers up big cats, mighty elephants, diverse birdlife and seemingly apocalyptic floods. With its stretches of unbroken sand and stalking lions, the Kalahari Desert is a stark contrast to the lush delta, but it still brings its own stunning beauty.
From soaring peaks in the High Atlas range to Saharan dunes, Morocco is a land as geographically diverse as it is culturally varied. It’s a place you’re just as likely to hear a mosque’s call to prayer as the thumping beat of modern hip hop, so grab a mint tea and dive in to all Morocco has to offer.
Essaouira: Once a famed trading post, this port town provides surf-ready beaches and has historically been a haven for scientists, poets, artists and thinkers.
Marrakech: Frenetic, dazzling and overwhelming, Marrakesh is a place where fairy tale and reality collide. From intricate architectural tilework to the acrobats, conjurers and musicians of the Medina, Marrakesh is a stunning display of color, life and culture.
Ouirgane: Looking for something more laid back than bustling Marrakesh? Head about 60 kilometers southwest to Ouirgane for mountain breezes and excellent hiking.
Namibia provides otherworldly dunes and excellent wildlife viewing, but your most lasting memories here might just come from the people. After a history of oppressive colonization, interactions with the various traditional groups are refreshingly insightful, hopeful and inspiring.
Sossusvlei: Experience the iconic Namibian dunes in this surprisingly isolated gateway town. Just make sure to take your time. Stick around for at least a day, and watch how wind and light (particularly sunrise) perpetually alter, shift and change these imposing sand formations.
Twyfelfontein: A UNESCO World Heritage site, Twyfelfontein is an impressively extensive gallery of rock art. The area features over 2,500 engravings, and further exploration could reveal even more. You must visit with a guide, and please keep in mind that tips are the sole income source for these people.
Windhoek: A startling green landscape amid desert, Windhoek is either considered lovely and relaxed or overly Western. Ultimately, travelers on both sides of the debate are right. Either way, this city is undeniably modern and clean and offers up good restaurants, shopping and sites.
See the Big Five (rhino, elephant, buffalo, leopard and lion). Surf or lounge at powdery fine white-sand beaches. Rock climb Cederberg. South Africa’s dramatic landscapes and penchant for adrenaline sports make it a prime tourist destination. To ignore the history of apartheid, however, would be to gloss over a crucial part of this beautiful country’s story. Visit any number of apartheid museums for a fuller understanding of this painful era.
Cape Town: If you’re just planning on hitting Table Mountain National Park, adjust your schedule. The singularly beautiful Cape Town deserves at least a few dedicated days. With its vibrant street art culture, world-class restaurants and multicultural vibe, you’ll want to give yourself enough time to enjoy this unique metropolis.
Hazyview: A natural jumping-off point to Kruger National Park, Hazyview also offers up fine restaurants, plenty of accommodations and a relaxed atmosphere amid the banana plantations.
Johannesburg: Whether you call it Jo’burg, Jozi or Johannesburg, one thing is clear: this is the heart and soul of South Africa. After decades of decline, the city has undergone a rush of new construction and urban renewal, although a stark wealth divide lingers even today. Poverty and crime remain realities of the city, but most visitors still find it a friendly, unpretentious place to visit.
Despite internal troubles, Zimbabwe consistently makes the same impression on nearly all tourists: that of a friendly, resilient and safe nation. Whether you’re here for the wonder of Victoria Falls or the rush of spotting the Big Five on safari, Zimbabwe remains one of the most spectacular destinations in Africa.
Worth a Visit
Mashatu Game Reserve
Located near the borders between Botswana, South Africa and Zimbabwe, this game reserve offers some of the world’s unparalleled safari experiences. Between bouts of wildlife spotting, take in the tranquility of this magical place.
Mount Kilimanjaro (Tanzania)
The tallest mountain in Africa and one of the most iconic images the continent has to offer, Mount Kilimanjaro is a snow-capped beast of -19,341 feet. Featuring three volcanic cones, you can either conquer or simply admire this dormant wonder.
Serengeti National Park (Tanzania):
When you think of an iconic African safari landscape, you’re imaging Serengeti National Park. Time your visit to coincide with the annual migration of wildebeest, zebra and gazelle. Also keep your eyes peeled for giraffe, impala, hippo, warthog, lion, leopard, elephant, rhino and much more.
Victoria Falls (Border of Zimbabwe and Zambia):
While it’s neither the tallest nor widest waterfall in the world, its combined height of 354 feet and width of 5,603 feet means it’s the world’s largest sheet of falling water. For the adventurous at heart, take a dip in Devil’s Pool. At certain times of the year, a rock barrier creates a (relatively) safe area to swim, despite being a mere few feet from where the water plummets over the edge.
Things to See and to Do
Full Article Coming Soon!
How to Get to Africa
Visa requirements vary based on your nationality and your intended destinations. Some countries (Morocco, South Africa and others) don’t require US citizens to acquire visas before entering; other countries (Kenya, Tanzania and more) either require you to secure a visa before arrival or to get one upon entering.
Always check the visa requirements for every country you intend to visit, and complete all paperwork that needs to be processed before entering a country with visa requirements. Make sure you also have at least six months of validity left on your passport before embarking on your African adventure.
Every African nation has at least one airport, so you can enter any desired country by air. The following are five of the busiest airports in Africa, according to annual passengers:
- O. R. Tambo International Airport (Johannesburg, South Africa)
- Cairo International Airport (Cairo, Egypt)
- Cape Town International Airport (Cape Town, South Africa)
- Mohammed V International Airport (Casablanca, Morocco)
- Murtala Muhammed International Airport (Lagos, Nigeria)
Most African nations also have numerous domestic airports that can get you to smaller, more remote locations.
Especially if you’re trying to get around town, shared taxis are one common mode of transport. They might be a bit more expensive than bus fare, but they usually make for a more comfortable, quicker ride. (Be aware the drivers can zip around at breakneck speeds, though!)
Minibuses are also ubiquitous, but they don’t leave until they’re full, they make frequent stops to drop off and to pick up passengers, they’re often packed past capacity, and they’re a favorite target of roadblock police looking to see paperwork and to levy “fines.”
Train lines are limited but offer amazing scenery, safe accommodations and unique cultural experiences (particularly at station stops).
If you’re looking to traverse large swaths of Africa, an overland safari tour is an organized and relatively hassle-free way to go. Food, accommodations and transport fees are usually all included in your fare. It’s not the most cultural or “authentic” African experience, but if you’re short on time and don’t mind the added expense, this could be your best bet.
Renting a car to travel around Africa is possible, but there are many factors to keep in mind:
- In many African countries, you must be at least 25 to rent a car.
- If you’re renting in Southern Africa (Botswana, Zambia, Namibia and others), opt for four-wheel drive.
- Check to see if you can take your rented car across borders. In South Africa, for example, certain cars can be taken into neighboring Botswana, Mozambique and Namibia.
- Nighttime driving is not recommended, and daytime drivers should always be cognizant of reckless cyclists, pedestrians, livestock and more.
- Check all the terms and conditions of your insurance. Some companies don’t insure against the risks of war, making insurance tricky in any place designated as a “war zone.”
- Always keep a spare gas can with you—especially in particularly remote areas. Gas sold on the roadside can be diluted, and certain types of fuel (diesel, for example) aren’t always available.
Africa is composed of 54 independent countries, and estimates put the number of distinct languages spoken on the continent at anywhere from 1,250 to 2,100. To offer a window into the breadth of language, Nigeria boasts over 500 languages alone. The totality of languages spoken in Africa can be divided into six main linguistic groups:
Some of the widely spoken and important languages in Africa include Arabic, Somali, Swahili, Fulani, Yoruba, Amharic, Hausa and many others.
Want to attempt a little bit of Swahili? As the most widely spoken language in Africa (over 100 million speakers), it might just come in handy:
- Hello: Hujambo (friendly and informal); Habari (formal and used when addressing your elders)
- How are you?: Habari gani
- I’m fine: Nzuri
- What’s your name?: Jina lako nani?
- My name is…: Jina langu ni…
- Good-bye: Kwa heri (to one person); Kwa herini (to multiple people)
- Please: Tafadhali
- Thank you: Asante
- You’re welcome: Starehe
- Yes: Ndiyo
- No: Hapana (to avoid being rude, don’t say this forcefully)
Backroads Pro Tip
Although Swahili is considered the lingua franca of many East African nations, if you find yourself in Burundi or Rwanda, French is going to get you a lot further.
Food and Drink
Africa is a continent of considerable size and diversity, and cuisine is definitely not homogenous across the land. In general, however, cuisine styles can be broken down into regions:
- Central Africa: Noted for its traditional ingredients and cooking methods, this region relies heavily on cassava and plantains. Other common ingredients are grilled meats, okra, peanuts, peppers and more.
- Horn of Africa: This region is most known for tsebhis, or stews, served alongside injera (flatbread) and hilbet (lentil or fava bean paste). Common spice arrays include cinnamon, cardamom, cloves, cumin and sage.
- North Africa: One of the most diverse culinary regions, North Africa’s food represents facets of its history: olives from the Mediterranean influence, Egyptian dishes that date back to antiquity, couscous from the Berbers and more. Don’t miss this region’s many variations on tajine, a stew prepared and cooked overnight in an urn.
- Southern Africa: Taking from indigenous tribes, Europeans and Asians, this region’s food is another highly diverse affair. Prime ingredients include seafood, meats, grains, apples, papaya, avocado and more. Check out their European-style beers as well.
- East Africa: Cuisine here relies heavily on maize, millet, sorghum and other cereals, as well as meat and vegetables. Especially in coastal regions, such as Tanzania, spicy foods are prevalent.
- West Africa: Soups, stews, starch-based ingredients (yams, cassava and cocoyams) and meat are all hallmarks of West African cuisine. Palm wine and millet beer are common beverages, but due to the ritual significance of water, it’s typically the first beverage offered to a guest.
Food in Africa: What to Know and to Eat—Full Article Coming Soon!
Africa is a massively large continent, and safety concerns naturally vary from region to region. Many popular tourist areas and attractions lie outside active conflict zones, meaning many travelers return from Africa having experienced no significant problems.
That being said, any African travel guide must mention that there are nations with travel advisories. These federally issued warnings can be in place due to terrorism, health and safety concerns, civil war, crime or social and political unrest. Tourists should note that these travel advisories are not light suggestions. Recommendations not to travel (Level 3, “reconsider travel,” and Level 4, “do not travel”) are serious and should be heeded.
Especially in Africa, however, these advisories are always shifting as the social and political landscapes change. Before traveling, make sure to check your specific itinerary against all current advisories. The most up-to-date and official list can be found here: https://travel.state.gov/content/travel/en/traveladvisories/traveladvisories.html.
While pickpocketing and petty theft are the most common crimes, there’s always the potential for violent muggings. Take common-sense precautions to avoid becoming a target. Don’t wear ostentatious or flashy jewelry, and keep all essentials on your person. Scams are also a possibility (being invited to someone’s house only to have your belongings ransacked while you’re away at dinner), but these tactics are more prevalent in cities. In rural locations, most travelers find any offered hospitality is genuine.
In emergency situations, understand there’ll likely be some notable differences in available services and response times compared to home. For example, if you’re robbed, police might respond slowly (or not at all) to your call. Go to a police station to report the incident, and expect long hours of filling out forms. If you’re suddenly struck ill, forego the ambulance. Take a taxi directly to the hospital instead.
Backroads Pro Tip
If you want or require an English-speaking doctor, ask for guidance and directions at a high-end hotel or embassy.
Emergency numbers will vary from country to country, but here’s a small cross section of numbers to call in different emergency situations:
- Botswana: 911 (police, fire and ambulance)
- Morocco: 19 (police); 15 (fire and ambulance)
- Namibia: 10 111 (police); fire and ambulance numbers depend on city or town
- South Africa: 10 111 (police); 10 177 (fire and ambulance)
- Zimbabwe: 999 (police, fire and ambulance)
WHAT IS BACKROADS
Established in 1979, Backroads is a pioneer in active, immersive and off-the-beaten-path travel. Now operating adventure tours in over 50 countries, our passion for discovery and our desire to experience the world in original ways continue to inspire our pursuit of new adventures. We hope this guide will be enlightening to you as you plan your next great Africa adventure!