Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage on

7 things every first-time Africa traveler should know

By Karen Bowerman, for CNN
updated 9:49 AM EDT, Thu October 3, 2013
No, it's not the Alps. It's Mt. Kilimanjaro, in Tanzania.
No, it's not the Alps. It's Mt. Kilimanjaro, in Tanzania.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • What should every new Africa traveler ditch first? Their preconceptions
  • It's not scorching everywhere -- there are glaciers
  • Crocs and lions aren't the most lethal animals
  • And you needn't have every virus shot in the book

(CNN) -- At the risk of propagating a dodgy cliché, Africa remains one of the last frontiers of travel.

Non-air-conditioned travel, that is, i.e. the kind where you risk stubbing your toe occasionally or getting genuinely lost.

From gorilla sighting in the Ugandan highlands to skiing -- yes, skiing -- in Morocco, it promises untold travel wonders.

But new Africa hands should worry less about stocking up on viral jabs and safari suits than ditching their preconceptions.

For a start ...

Africa can be very cold indeed

It might straddle the equator but not everywhere in Africa is scorching.

Mt Kilimanjaro (Tanzania) and Mt Kenya both have glaciers and nights can be dangerously chilly in the desert, with temperatures dropping to as low as -10C.

It snows in places, too.

You can go skiing in the Atlas Mountains in Morocco, the Maloti Mountains, Lesotho and in the Eastern Cape Highlands, South Africa.

A gorilla in its Ugandan rainforest home ... Who you telling Africa\'s all desert?
A gorilla in its Ugandan rainforest home ... Who you telling Africa's all desert?

Alongside desert, there are mountains and rainforests

Africa does have vast swathes of desert and flat savanna but also mountainous and exceptionally green parts.

There are the sprawling rainforests of Uganda, Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of Congo (Zaire) and the soft green hill country of Senegal, Guinea and Tanzania.

For more cultivated greenness, South Africa's garden route, on the south-east coast, is so-named because of its lush vegetation and lakes.

And not every desert is a stretch of barren wilderness.

The Kalahari is known for its spring flowers, while the Namib, the oldest desert in the world, is home to desert-adapted elephant, rhino, giraffe and lion.

More on CNN: Touring Nelson Mandela's South Africa

This colonial artist had it (more or less) right ... Hippos are big killers in Africa.
This colonial artist had it (more or less) right ... Hippos are big killers in Africa.

Hippos are the big killers

You should worry less about lions and Nile crocodiles and instead keep an eye out for hippos.

They're the biggest people-killers on the continent.

Found in sub-Saharan Africa, the animal is aggressive, unpredictable and can charge at 28kph.

If you're in a boat (where many people will encounter them) hit the sides to signal your position.

If on foot, keep your distance and never get between a mother and her calf.

Hippos are most aggressive in the dry season when water levels are low and food supplies limited.

Listen out for oxpeckers since the birds issue warning calls if hippo are around.

You won't need every shot in the book

Your childhood vaccines should be up to date for an Africa trip but you don't need prevention against every disease going.

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.

Consult with your doctor about your specific travel plans and medical history. Find out more about virus protection while traveling at the Center for Disease Control and Prevention website.

Parlez-vous Français? The African variety helps.
Parlez-vous Français? The African variety helps.

French is useful -- African French even better

Africa's countless ethnic groups mean there are several hundred languages, many with distinct dialects, you could come across.

Former colonial languages -- English, French and Portuguese -- are common, but English may not be as widely spoken as you think.

French is almost essential in West or Central Africa and will probably come in useful in Algeria, Burundi, Djibouti, Rwanda and Tunisia.

African French, however, is very different from what you were probably taught at school -- while you should be able to make yourself understood, you might find it harder understanding others.

The informal "tu" is used much more frequently in Africa than it would be in France, but if you're dealing with officials it's perhaps safer to stick with "vous."

More on CNN: 10 of the best golf courses in Africa

Africa cross-border travel\'s not quite as easy as in the EU but you can cut corners.
Africa cross-border travel's not quite as easy as in the EU but you can cut corners.

You don't need countless visas ...

If you're traveling in West Africa, consider getting a Visa Touristique Entente (VTE) which covers Benin, Burkina Faso, Niger, Togo and Cote d'Ivoire all in the one document.

It costs around $50, is valid for up to two consecutive months and should save you time and money.

Embassies of Benin seem to issue these with the least amount of hassle, although theoretically they're available from any of the countries' embassies.

... But your car will need papers

If you plan to drive a hire car through Africa you may well need a carnet de passage or a triptyque (the former is for entry to multiple countries, the latter to one), although neither is required for Morocca, Algeria and Tunisia.

Carnets are issued by national motoring organizations and act as a guarantee that import duties will be paid if a vehicle is taken into a country and remains there.

Hire companies won't issue you with a carnet unless they have proof you can afford any duties, so you'll need insurance to cover this.

Some southern African countries don't demand a carnet, although they'll insist you buy a Temporary Import Permit at the border.

Find out more about vehicle documentation at the Fédération Internationale de l'Automobile website (page in English).

Karen Bowerman is a travel writer and former BBC broadcaster who specializes in conservation issues and adventure travel.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 4:42 PM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
From Maastricht to Melbourne, these itineraries make bookish travelers look stylish.
updated 4:58 AM EDT, Tue July 29, 2014
Good cocktails combine with spectacular views across rivers, cityscapes and oceans at these bird-level drinkeries.
updated 2:09 PM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
A California homeowner's nightmare has become a cautionary tale for those who rent their homes to strangers.
updated 10:26 PM EDT, Sun July 20, 2014
Cinema loves portraying the lives of expats. Sometimes it gets it right. Sometimes it casts Nick Nolte as a jungle king.
updated 9:17 PM EDT, Tue July 22, 2014
Don't be intimidated, says a local expert. Here's how to do China without the hassles
updated 8:33 AM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
When your city has an unenviable reputation for insulting tourists and fleecing them for every cent, inviting hotel guests to pay what they want could be a risky move.
updated 3:10 AM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
1937 Auto Union V16 Streamliner, Audi Museum, Germany
With factory tours and collections of stunning vintage prototypes, southern Germany is petrolhead paradise.
updated 9:44 AM EDT, Tue July 22, 2014
Every tourist destination has a flip side, a season when prices go down and savvy, flexible travelers can score big savings.
updated 3:11 AM EDT, Wed July 23, 2014
A Marrakech lamp bazaar
Morocco's Red City is crammed with stunning gardens, shaded souks and steamy bath houses.
updated 12:52 PM EDT, Wed July 23, 2014
Santo Stefano Island, Italy
Pristine beaches, unspoiled nature and few tourists -- a stretch on these former penal colonies is no longer a punishment.
updated 5:23 AM EDT, Tue July 22, 2014
Life in Joburg can be stressful. Luckily there are some exceedingly non-stressful places close by.
updated 5:07 AM EDT, Mon July 21, 2014
Istanbul skyline
CNN's Ivan Watson pays homage to the city he's called home for the past 12 years.
China notches up another superlative achievement as a Nanjing-based artist creates the world's largest and longest anamorphic painting.
updated 4:02 PM EDT, Sun July 20, 2014
In what is undoubtedly the world's "coolest" surf video, photographer Chris Burkhard endures freezing temperatures, blizzards and injury to capture Arctic waves and their riders.
updated 11:39 PM EDT, Wed July 16, 2014
Few airline routes are as cutthroat as the one that travels between London and New York. It is the world's busiest route and there are few lengths airlines won't go to in the hopes of getting a piece of the action.
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT