Many Asian travellers are quick to hop on a flight to Melbourne or Paris but hesitate to book a trip to Malabo or Addis Ababa. All we seem to know about Africa is that it's a land full of war, disease, poverty, and starving children.
It bothers me a lot that this often causes people to dismiss Africa as a travel destination. Such preconceptions are often incomplete and stereotyped. By the time I was 10, I had already lived in Morocco, Sudan and Egypt — moving with my family every few years as we followed my father's work with the United Nations.
Growing up in Africa allowed me to see what the media does not share, and that is a diverse continent with an amazing variety of wildlife, habitat, climates, and cultures. Life on the African continent is about love, appreciation and community — something that we in the developed world could probably learn a thing or two about.
In the words of Anthony Bourdain, "Travelling changes you. As you move through this life and this world you change things slightly, you leave marks behind, however small. And in return, life—and travel—leaves marks on you. Most of the time, those marks—on your body or on your heart—are beautiful. Often, though, they hurt." In my mind, there's no better place than Africa to do exactly that.
With that in mind, here are a few things you need to know before you take that first trip into the cradle of humankind:
1. Always have US dollars on you
Always carry some cash with you. American dollars are probably the easiest to use throughout the continent. Credit cards are useful in major cities and luxury hotels but smaller establishments may not accept them. Carry an assortment of bills with you and take into account that many countries charge airport fees in US currency and some national parks will only accept US dollars for their entry fees. If you are on a high-end safari, it is quite common to tip using US dollars as well, but in local markets and in general, try and tip with local currency.
2. Africa can be very cold
It snows in Africa, yes it does. Both northern and southern Africa experience cold winters with frequent frost, as well as hot summers. Mt Kilimanjaro (Tanzania) and Mt Kenya both have glaciers and nights can be dangerously cold in the desert, with temperatures dropping to as low as -10 degree Celcius. You can go skiing in Lesotho, the Maloti Mountains, Atlas Mountains in Morocco, and in the Eastern Cape Highlands in South Africa.
3. Get proper vaccination before your trip
A rabies shot is advisable, but plan it in advance as it's a series of jabs, along with injections against Hepatitis A, meningococcal meningitis, and typhoid. You may need yellow fever vaccination, too. For some countries, such as South Africa, it's an entry requirement.
Malaria is no joke in Africa. I've contracted it a few times when I lived in Sudan. However, it is easy to prevent and with proper precautions, you'll be fine. The obvious prevention method here is to use insect repellent whenever you're heading outdoors at night or wherever mosquitoes might be found. Your doctor may advise you to take anti-malarial medication with you. The best vaccination advice will come from your doctor. Please schedule an appointment four to six weeks before you leave Singapore.
4. Plan your visas in advance
The majority of visas in Africa can be obtained at the border, however, it is essential that you check the visa requirements of every country. You'll find plenty of information online, but be careful — visa rules and regulations change all the time (especially in Africa!), and this information is often outdated or incorrect. For more information on visa requirements for Africa including embassy links and details for passport holders of other nationalities, please refer to Project Visa.
5. Bring and use sunscreen
This can be hard to find in some African countries, simply because we Africans don't need it. When you do find it, it'll be expensive and you'll be lucky to find your favourite brand. Bring your own from home if you can. Below are some sunscreens our beauty editor Renée Batchelor recommends:
6. Get the Dukoral vaccine
Dukoral is a raspberry flavoured vaccine that you drink before leaving on your trip. This vaccine is highly recommended if you going to try the street food in Africa. It protects against travellers' diarrhoea caused by bacteria called E. coli. Dukoral also protects people from cholera caused by the Vibrio cholera bacteria, which is commonly transmitted by contaminated food and water.
7. Dress down and be careful with your expensive gadgets
Remember that poverty is a big problem in Africa. Don't draw attention to yourself with flashy clothes and expensive cameras. Local people will often take offense at you taking photos of them without asking for permission. If you are looking for the perfect shot, ask permission first. Alternatively, take the photo and then offer some small change afterwards. It'll keep the peace and they'll appreciate your respect.
If you stick to some basic rules, there is nothing at all dangerous about traveling in a Muslim-influenced country on your own as a woman. In some countries like Egypt or Sudan, you will have to cover up to various degrees. Other countries like Morocco or Tunisia have lifestyles and a standard of living comparable to its European neighbours in Spain, Italy and Greece.
8. Be smart with the hustlers
If you're a lady, while walking around the souks of Marrakech or Cairo, you'll get some unwanted attention. Guys will try to sell you stuff or lure you to souvenir stores in an effort to earn a commission. If any case, these people are harmless and are just an annoyance more than anything else, so the trick is to just be cool and relaxed rather than hostile. Try to act like you have been to that destination before, once they realise you're not a clueless tourist they'll most likely leave you alone.
9. Use common sense and stay safe
Despite what people think Africa is not a wild, lawless place. Of course there's crime, but common sense will be sufficient to keep you safe. I felt more unsafe in some big European capitals than in Khartoum or Cairo. It is best for female travellers to avoid heading out alone at night — take a local male with you. When you arrive in the country, ask someone you can trust such as a tour guide or hotel staff about the danger spots in the city and places to avoid. If your hotel sends a driver at your arrival, get his number and memorise it. You can call him especially if you're stuck somewhere after dark.
About Mehdi Elaichouni
Always ready for his next adventure, Mehdi took his first flight to Sudan when he was three years old and stayed there for seven years with his family. Mehdi is now based in Singapore where he founded ANIA, a skincare company inspired by his childhood in Africa, with a focus to bring the highest quality natural and organic formulations from Africa. Follow his adventures with ANIA on Facebook and Instagram.