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Is it Safe to Travel Africa? And other myths debunked...

Updated: Jun 27

This is a travel guide aimed at debunking myths about backpacking across the African continent. I'll answer the most commonly asked question:" "Is it Safe to Travel Africa?" and offer all sorts of practical advice on female travel in Africa, healthcare in Africa, local customs, transport, and more!


I just want to make the point quickly that I am not African. This advice comes from the perspective of a female tourist who has spent a combined total of 10 months travelling the African continent. So let's begin... Is it safe to travel to Africa?



Africa map
Africa is a large and diverse continent!

 


Types of Tourist Travel in Africa


I have been to North, East, West, Central and South Africa. For this travel guide, I am mainly talking about eastern and southern Africa, which is where the majority of tourism happens.


Most tourists in eastern and southern Africa are on safari, using chauffeurs and staying in luxury lodges that cost upwards of $1000USD per night, never leaving their own carefully curated bubbles.


Some of them are 'Overlanders' – self-driving in land-cruisers with roof tents, self-catering, making use of remote campsites and exploring the wilderness and the great National Parks, but again, not really mixing with local people.


Only a very, very small amount of tourists here are backpacking - using public transport, couch-surfing staying in hostels, and eating local food. I am not saying one way is superior to the other, do what makes you feel comfortable, as any type of responsible tourism (not trophy hunting, please) is welcome in these parts.



A scorpion in Namibia
We saw quite a few scorpions in Africa - but they were always trying to get away from us!


 


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My Most Recent Visit to Africa


Joe and I are part of the latter category of tourists, the backpackers, perhaps not favoured by the governments who like to hike up the attraction fees to extortionate amounts (I am looking at you, Kenya) – but made to feel very, very welcome by the locals.


So these questions about travelling Africa are answered from this perspective, to reassure the reader, break the bias – and offer a real-time view of what it's like to travel (IMO) the most exciting continent in the world.



Waiting for the bus with our backpacks in Botswana
Waiting for the bus with our backpacks in Botswana

 

Not sure what to pack for a trip to Africa? Check out my article:



 


Is it Safe to Travel Africa? And Other Myths Debunked...



CONTENTS




 


1. Is it Safe to Travel Africa?


Well, I'll start by getting this major fact out of the way – Africa is a continent made of 54 countries. It's really not helpful to refer to Africa as one entity, as the situation in each country is very different.


As a whole, 'deep dark Africa' gets a bad rap. When I told people of my plans to travel here, most people looked gravely concerned, or they thought I was stark raving mad. I can understand why, as Western media paints a bleak picture of Africa - with most new stories about the continent involving military coups, dictators, or famines.


Out of the 54 countries in Africa - the ones I would not currently travel to are: Niger, Mali, Central African Republic, Chad, Sudan, South Sudan, Yemen, and some parts of Ethiopia and the DRC. Some more intrepid travellers would contest this – most of whom you'll find on the FB group Every Passport Stamp (EPS).


That's only 9 countries out of 54 – because they are currently in a state of volatile conflict, and like most conflicts in the last few decades in Africa, it wouldn't be a reach to blame the meddling West and the butterfly effect of colonialism – but that's a story for another day.


I will tell you this right now. IT IS SAFE TO TRAVEL MOST OF AFRICA. You just need to take the same precautions you would in let's say, San Francisco. Do not walk alone at night, do not wear obviously expensive stuff, and don't keep things in your back pocket.


In the time I have spent in Africa I have never once felt unsafe and I have never been robbed, but I don't take silly risks like going out late and getting shit-faced. If Joe and I want to have a few beers, we do it in the lodge or hostel where we are staying. We avoid travelling after dark at all costs, don't get our phones out in big cities, and follow local advice when it comes to any safety issues.


While the UK Travel Advice Government Website has lots of information, it is a very scary read – so do inform yourself, but take it with a pinch of salt and speak to people who have actually BEEN THERE – which is where Facebook Groups like EPS are so handy.


Travelling in the majority of Africa is no less safe than travelling in the USA, anyone who has spent time here will attest to that.


So is it safe to travel Africa? Yes.



I Dream of Mangoes and the Chimps in the Mbargue Forest Cameroon
Aimee, Selma and Carla in the Mbargue Forest Cameroon

 


2. What about all the tropical diseases? And dangerous animals?


When planning a trip to the African continent - you will likely be advised about the multitude of vaccinations and medications you need to take, due to the prevalence of diseases and parasites you may come across. The same goes for the venomous snakes, spiders and scorpions underfoot, mosquitoes, tsetse flies, and not to even mention the murderous hippos, crocs, buffalo, and elephants.


I'll start with the non-human animals because while they are technically dangerous, they are normally trying to get away from you! People definitely do get killed by hippos and buffalo all of the time, but these are risks you do not need to take.


Do not go near the water if crocs live there when hiking always stay on the footpath so you don't accidentally step on a snake, and wear closed shoes when it's windy, because that's when the scorpions are blown around. If there are elephants and buffalo around, you really should be in a car anyway.


There are certainly diseases in Africa that you can't catch in Europe. You can minimise your risk of contracting these by getting your vaccinations in check and always keeping anti-bacterial gel on hand.


As far as tropical diseases go, you are in much better hands in African hospitals (big ones in cities, not village Witch Doctors) as they have the capacity to diagnose you immediately.


After spending 6 months in Cameroon, my comrade Kathy, on the return home to the USA, took almost a year to get diagnosed with having the Loa-Loa worm, simply because no one in the States had heard of it. If she had had symptoms in Central Africa, I am sure the doctors there would have recognised them quickly (small worms visibly moving under her forearm skin) and treated her.


I am not here to scare you, Loa-Loa is a VERY rare parasite – and we were in the simplest terms: deep in the jungle, playing with chimps, and having their poo thrown at us, you name it. I am lucky I came away unscathed!


So I guess to cap it off, with 10 months of combined experience in all corners of Africa, I have never gotten sick past a mild upset stomach. So while the risk is there, it is not as common as you may believe. Malaria is a whole other topic, covered in the next section.



Camping in the mountains overlooking Lake Malawi
Camping in the mountains overlooking Lake Malawi

 


3. Do I need to take antimalarials?


I am not a doctor and this is not medical advice. I am speaking from my personal experience.


If you are travelling to the Malaria belt for a couple of weeks, yes, your doctor may suggest getting a prescription for an anti-malarial like Malarone or Doxycycline.


Truth be told, both of these medications made me feel like shit. Upset stomach, tiredness and headaches are all things I have experienced every day. I have also been told that if you take these medications long-term they do more harm than good – so most travellers in Africa I know do not take anti-malarials.


When I plan to spend a few months or more on the African continent – I do not take them, and rather take other precautions. During the evening, night and early morning I wear long sleeves and trousers, and I use DEET or a locally branded spray or cream like 'Peaceful Sleep' (available in all big town supermarkets).


I have never got malaria, but I know plenty of people who have, some of them three times over.


IF YOU GET SYMPTOMS go to a doctor immediately. There are four types of Malaria, some worse than others, and you need to get treated straight away. You will feel like crap for a short while, get treated, and recover, do not wait.


The risk is higher in the rainy season, so act accordingly. But the answer is no, I will never take antimalarials again... but I won't wear shorts at dusk either.



I Dream of Mangoes hiking in the forests around Ngzoi Crater Lake, Tanzania
Hiking in the forests around Ngzoi Crater Lake, Tanzania

 


4. Will I have to pay loads of bribes?


Everyone has surely heard the stories of the prolific corruption in Africa. The great thing is, it is in plain sight. No one is secretly using your taxes to fund war crimes, they are literally asking you for $10 for some breakfast in exchange for making your passage easier.


I have only ever paid a bribe once, when I was young and naïve and a Cameroonian police officer had put a log in the middle of the jungle path, telling my moto-driver that I had to pay £5 because 'it's Sunday'.


The log was so small I could have stepped over it, but not wanting to waste my one day off and not wanting to get Boris my driver in trouble, I paid. Since then I have never, ever paid a bribe in Africa.


Not only that, but in these last 3 months travelling East and Southern Africa by public transport I have only been asked for a bribe once, when a Zambian police officer asked for 10p for a bottle of water. I completely ignored him and drove off.


Being propositioned for bribes is not as common as you think - and if it does happen, staying stern and having a little bit of patience has always made it go away for me. Know your position, be firm, and hopefully, they will lose patience with you and you can carry on your way.



I Dream of Mangoes and Boris driving around Eastern Cameroon in style
Me and Boris driving around Eastern Cameroon in style

 

FOR TRAVEL INSURANCE for Africa, do what I do and have a browse on Travel Supermarket - choosing a cheap policy with a high Defaqto rating.


 


5. Is it expensive to travel Africa?


I have heard many times that travelling Africa is more expensive than you think... but in my experience, it is as costly as you choose it to be.


You can take private transfers or scenic flights between locations stay in gorgeous luxury lodges, and easily spend thousands of pounds per day. But many people in Africa live below the poverty line of $2 a day – so surely it is possible to travel cheaply?


The answer is that if you're willing to give up basic comfort and travel in crummy over-packed mini-buses, then backpacking in Africa can be as cheap as travelling in Asia. It's also very handy to have your own tent and become a member of the Couch Surfing community, especially for less-travelled corners that don't have hostels.


In West Africa, it's quite normal to arrive at a random village, gift a bag of sugar or something similar, and ask the Chief for permission to pitch your tent and provide a bucket of bathing water. My friends Fiona and Sandra of ADV TravelBug have been travelling Africa on a motorbike and have been in this situation countless times. They are two females and have been doing this for almost 2 years, and attest that they have never felt unsafe. So again, Is it safe to travel Africa? Would you do this in the Western World?


It's the main attractions and activities whilst backpacking Africa that are going to set you back - such as Gorilla trekking permits for £1000, entrance to the Maasai Mara, which will be $200 PER DAY from the end of 2024, not including a driver and guide!


Joe and I choose to do really low-key stuff for the most part, and then splash out on an activity that we want to experience, like staying with the Maasai in Kenya, or Snorkelling with seals in South Africa. For us, 'hanging with the locals' and hiking through beautiful landscapes are two of our favourite things to do whilst travelling, and both of those are free!


You can find local food in a small restaurant for under 50p a meal, or you can spend Western prices in a fancy steak restaurant... it's all about choices. For full clarity, we spent £5000 for 3 months in Africa including flights in and out (for two people).


Joe drinking blood from a goat with some young Maasai warriors in Kenya
Joe drinking blood from a goat with some young Maasai warriors in Kenya

 


6. Isn't the food rubbish in Africa?


Again, I revert to the 54 countries in Africa fact. The simmering tagines of Morocco will not be found in the villages of Zambia. For this answer, I am mainly talking about East and Southern Africa.


The food is not rubbish in Africa. It can get samey, and it's not the most healthy, but meals always tend to have flavour and seasoning (unlike in Colombia - eek, sorry!)


You will definitely come across PAP. This is a staple across most of Africa and is known as couscous in Cameroon, Ugali in Kenya, Nshima in Malawi, and Pap in Namibia (I could go on).


It's normally made from Cassava or Maize, and it's kind of like a big, stodgy ball of sticky dough that you eat with your hands, alongside greens or a beef stew for example. At first, it's quite hard to get down, the portions are humongous, but it is strangely addictive!


You will find a lot of this, meat stews, fresh fruits, and fried stuff. Not rubbish, but I really craved refrigerated foods after a while! Things you won't find easily: Cheese, Yoghurt, Butter... You see a pattern here right?!



I Dream of Mangoes eating Nshima and Beef Stew in a Petrol Station in Zambia, price: 75p
A hearty meal of Nshima and Beef Stew in a Petrol Station in Zambia, price: 75p

 


7. Is everyone poor in Africa?


Forgive the crassness of this question - but I would not be exaggerating when I say a lot of people in the West when they imagine Africa, are envisioning the starving children with swollen bellies and flies in their eyes from the 'Band-Aid' video.


There is a lot of wealth in Africa - but there is a huge amount of disparity too, just like in India, Mexico and the USA etc. Some countries have very little infrastructure, like Malawi, and some countries feel very affluent in places, like Ghana.


The truth is that Africa is the richest continent in the world, in terms of land fertility and natural resources, but all of the profits are being siphoned out by Europe, the USA, and China, through dodgy contracts that only benefit the top dogs.


All this aid seems to be going in, but not doing anything. In the capital of Malawi, Lilongwe, for example, the foreign CEOs of the NGOs are on six figures, while the people of Malawi don't seem to be getting any less poor.


There is certainly destitution, and you can help by educating yourself on how you can be valuable whilst travelling. We never gave money to children, but we did volunteer at a community centre in Nairobi and sponsored two at-risk slum kids through school. We handed out water in drought-affected areas of Namibia and offered lifts to local hitchhikers who had been walking on the roads for days.


I am not here to rattle off a list of my good deeds, these are only little things I am using as examples to show you can travel through places and give a little too, not just take.


I Dream of Mangoes and children from Nairobi
Liz and Beth - two girls from the Soweto Youth Initiative in Nairobi we are now sponsoring through school

 


8. What about hygiene?


The level of hygiene you may be used to in the West is not upheld in many African countries. I honestly don't really mind, but I know some people are funny about that. Picking your nose is just normal, and someone may just do it while they are facing you having a conversation with no shame.


Unless you're in a fancy venue, toilets are not the most pleasant places, but just hold your nose and get on with it.


For information on having your period in places like this, read my post: Backpacking on your Period.


I always keep baby wipes and anti-bac gel with me, I always eat street food and stay in local places, and as I said, I have a mild upset tummy a couple of times, and that's always from eating meat! The answer for this one is you basically just need to get over it.



I Dream of Mangoes drinking water from a banana tree
Banana tree trunks hold loads of clean fresh drinking water!

 


9. Are there any local customs I should be aware of?


Every country in Africa is different when it comes to local customs, so check the travel advice for each country.


Generally, though, Africans don't have the impatience that Westerners have - so nothing needs to be done quickly, and kind-of-on-time is the same as on time.


It is really important to do the “Hello, How are you?” part before anything else, even if it is just buying a bottle of water. Getting straight to the point is seen as rude.


For women, with a few exceptions, legs should generally be covered. In East and Southern Africa having your boobs out is not even a thing - women breast-feed everywhere with no coverings, so cleavage or a wandering nipple is no big deal. But to see knees? You may as well be naked!


Learning the words for Hello and Thank you will get you a long way, especially if it's in a local language, rather than the national (and normally coloniser's) language.



I Dream of Mangoes and desert elephants in Namibia
We bumped into some Desert Elephants whilst walking Namibia and so quickly climbed some rocks to watch them for a safe place!

 


10. Can I travel with public transport in Africa?


Except in some countries (Namibia, I am looking at you) you can find cheap public transport in Africa. Shared mini-buses are very popular, they are normally falling apart and stuffed to the gullet - with little planks of wood placed across seats so more people can squeeze their bums. They are called Chapas, Combis, or Matatus. The Kenyan Matatus always being fantastically decorated and a real experience!


People will tell you they are a death trap, but these same people will tell you it is not safe to travel Africa, so it's up to you who you listen to. You will not get a seatbelt that's for sure, but there will be so many of you packed in to cushion you if you crash you may be OK!


We took public transport all the way from Kenya to Cape Town, with the exception of Namibia, and we found it to be uncomfortable, but very easy and cheap. It's a great way to experience real life here and remember, you are part of the few privileged who can actually afford to take public transport, as opposed to being confined to your village, so enjoy the ride!



One of the many trucks we hitch-hiked with in Zambia and Botswana
One of the many trucks we hitch-hiked with in Zambia and Botswana

 


11. Advice for females when travelling Africa?


I have been to Africa without my husband, and with, and the experience was very different. When travelling with Joe, there were no cat-calls, no marriage proposals, and everyone was friendly and nice to me.


Travelling without Joe I was accosted constantly. In Egypt it was unbearable, men would grope me on the street, and I would never go back. In Cameroon, it was a little annoying but if I told people to leave me alone they did.


Men will never understand what this is like, and it is so much harder for women to travel solo. My advice would be to cover up your legs and take no shit. You can be assertive and tell them to go away without the fear of being impolite. Do it loudly so they feel shame, as they need to get the message quickly so you can continue enjoying your day.


When travelling I always carry my Empowered by Ashley Personal Alarm - I have never had to use it but having it on my keychain makes me feel more comfortable.



I Dream of Mangoes hiking in Plettenberg Bay
Hiking in Plettenberg Bay - South Africa - where you are encouraged to carry Pepper Spray (I never had to use it)

 


So in short...


  • Is it safe to travel Africa? Yes!

  • There are risks of diseases but it's not as common as you may think.

  • Listen to local advice, not just your government's travel website.

  • The food is not that varied, but you can find really tasty stuff.

  • It is more difficult for women to travel without men, but not impossible.

  • It can be as cheap as travelling Asia.

  • You will get sticky and dusty.

  • Spending time with the locals will be just as amazing as the big attractions.



 


Thank you for reading my article: Is it safe to travel Africa? And other myths debunked. If you enjoyed the read, please consider subscribing to my blog where I post articles every week about mine and Joe's current travels.


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Happy Travels

xx



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Disclosure:
I Dream of Mangoes is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to Amazon.com and affiliated sites. That being said, I only link to products I use and love.

댓글 2개


Candida Bristow
Candida Bristow
2023년 12월 08일

So interesting Amiee, I'm very tempted, but don't think back packing is me me anymore 👵🏻. Happy travels to you both...I wonder where will you'll be for Christmas 🎄? Xxx

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IDreamofMangoes
IDreamofMangoes
2023년 12월 14일
답글 상대:

Thanks Candida :) I will be in India for Christmas this year x

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