For intrepid and adventurous backpackers, the enigmatic African continent will always possess a particular allure. But Africa is not for the faint-hearted, and even more seasoned travellers will undoubtedly face a steep learning curve during their time here.
From dealing with deadly fauna to falling foul of dodgy juice, here are some of the things you need to know before you embark on the adventure of backpacking Africa.
1. Africa is not a country
Contrary to common stereotypes, Africa is an immensely diverse continent of 54 countries, a billion people and 2000 languages. Don’t be that person that walks off the plane in Johannesburg already decked out in your safari overalls. And don’t be fooled into thinking that you’ll ever really “backpack Africa” – at best, you’ll probably see a small fraction.
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2. Patience is a virtue
Throughout most of Africa, public transport runs on a very different timetable from what you might be used to. The buses and trains don’t always leave when they’re scheduled to – they generally leave when enough people fill them. That can often take a very long time.
3. Anything that moves faster than you could be public transport
If you’re using public transport to get around, you may well need to expand your concept of what this means. Minivans, trucks, motorbikes, bicycles, steamboats, horses and carts, donkeys and camels all form part of Africa’s informal public transport networks.
4. There are lots of things that can kill you
Africa’s astonishing flora and fauna is one of the main draw cards for many visitors, but both are to be treated with the utmost respect if you want to come home alive and in one piece.
When a marauding lion or elephant wanders through your campsite, you’ll realize just how vulnerable most of us are outside of our comfort zones. Listen to the locals and respect the rules.
5. Your sense of time and distance will change drastically
Africa absolutely dwarfs Europe. In ten hours, you can get from London to the south of France; 10 hours driving in South Africa will barely get you across a single province.
Also, in many parts of Africa “main road” is a very subjective term, making the already long distances an even more epic undertaking.
6. Dust does not respect personal boundaries
Most people choose to backpack through Africa during the cooler, drier winter months. But in so doing they unwittingly accept that fine red dust will enter every corner of their luggage, and every orifice of their being.
7. Vegetarianism does not exclude chicken
“I’m a vegetarian” is not a phrase that exists in many African languages. Meat and maize porridge are the two main staples for most Africans, and apparently chicken is actually a vegetable.
8. You get what you pay for
However tight your budget, you’ll soon learn not to stoop too low when booking your Kilimanjaro trek, Maasai Mara safari or Cape Town township tour. Unfortunately, there are a number of cowboy operators willing to throw ethics and professionalism out of the window in the name of cutting costs – invest in reliable operators and you’ll be rewarded with incredible experiences.
9. You probably shouldn’t drink the juice
In many restaurants and diners across Africa, if you order juice what you will actually get is some kind of concentrate diluted with tap water. This is something many learn only when making a mad dash for the toilet clutching their stomachs.
10. Some of the expats belong in a Victorian novel
Even in the most remote corners of the continent, you will probably find a few red-faced Europeans who continue to defy the changing world around them in their incongruous outpost of colonial grandeur, whilst subsisting entirely on a diet of stiff gin and tonics.
11. Beer is never far away
In many of small and remote towns and villages across the continent, you may find more (often unlicensed) bars, known as sheebeens in South Africa, than inhabitants. Beer is sometimes cheaper and more readily available than bottled water.
12. Don't believe everything you read
The media tends to paint a picture of Africa as entirely and perpetually consumed by war and overrun by mad despots and machete-wielding militias. But most Africans are too busy getting on with their lives to join in with all that nonsense. You’re probably more likely to encounter violence on a Friday night back home.
13. A campfire is the best type of TV
There is something truly mesmerizing about a good campfire. With obligatory sundowner in hand and the sounds of the African bush reverberating all around you, you’ll find yourself staring into the fire for hours on end, thinking about nothing in particular.
14. Africa is never boring
Backpacking in Africa can be exhausting, frustrating, taxing and occasionally risky. But one thing it can never be is boring. There is always something happening here, whether it’s a mesmerising African sunset, or a small group of children materializing out of nowhere and flocking towards the side of your vehicle screaming “SWEEEEEEEEETS!”
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