Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage on

7 things every first-time Africa traveler should know

By Karen Bowerman, for CNN
October 3, 2013 -- Updated 1349 GMT (2149 HKT)
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
September 18, 2014 -- Updated 1200 GMT (2000 HKT)
A foreign language can be the best aphrodisiac, so we traveled the world in search of the hottest accents.
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 0735 GMT (1535 HKT)
Hidden from the rest of the world for decades, Myanmar's Lethwei boxing is experiencing a revival globally.
September 17, 2014 -- Updated 1117 GMT (1917 HKT)
This aging cargo work whale makes more than 60 flights each week, carrying parts for all of the Airbus programs.
September 16, 2014 -- Updated 1132 GMT (1932 HKT)
Vikings, vicious politics and vindaloo curries -- Scotland isn't all tartan and bagpipes.
September 15, 2014 -- Updated 0026 GMT (0826 HKT)
Former brothels, public toilets and war bunkers now provide eccentric watering holes for those willing to drink deep.
September 18, 2014 -- Updated 0304 GMT (1104 HKT)
Ushaka Marine World, Durban, South Africa
Joburg is trendy, Cape Town is glamorous, but Durban has style -- and a restaurant inside a shark tank.
September 12, 2014 -- Updated 0756 GMT (1556 HKT)
Tirana's nightlife
Former Tirana stronghold of a totalitarian leader now home to a pulsing clubs and bar scene.
September 12, 2014 -- Updated 0338 GMT (1138 HKT)
Whether filled with electric blue sulfur flames or hissing lava, these mega mountains offer incredible vistas.
September 10, 2014 -- Updated 0040 GMT (0840 HKT)
This once-a-year luxury cruise visits untouched islands and never-snorkeled reefs.
September 9, 2014 -- Updated 1305 GMT (2105 HKT)
Peter J. Goutiere was just shy of 30 years old when he piloted a Douglas C-47 from Miami to Kolkata, India.
September 1, 2014 -- Updated 2247 GMT (0647 HKT)
Breathtaking scenery, championship design -- many of the courses dropped into the Canadian Rockies are among the most memorable in the world.
September 2, 2014 -- Updated 1306 GMT (2106 HKT)
A floating hippo in the Thames river designed by artist Florentijn Hofman
Why Florentijn Hofman is sending a giant beast into London's River Thames.
September 2, 2014 -- Updated 1607 GMT (0007 HKT)
Scrap all those other bucket lists you've been compiling and start saving -- these memorable-for-a-lifetime trips don't come cheap, or easy.
September 6, 2014 -- Updated 0042 GMT (0842 HKT)
A squabble over a device that limits how far a seat can recline has brought inflight etiquette into the spotlight again.
August 29, 2014 -- Updated 1023 GMT (1823 HKT)
Thirst for victory competes with thirst for booze in event where competitors raise their glasses long before they cross the finish line.
ADVERTISEMENT