In this post, we share a few safety and general travel tips for your visit to Africa, with an emphasis on Safari related travel. Our travel notes on Egypt and North Africa are described in other posts. We’ve been to Africa only a dozen times, so we aren’t Africanophiles, and have no African expertise beyond those trips. But rest assured, the tips on this page are based on desire to share our personal experience and not on as a scheme to show affiliate links for apparel, luggage or tour guide recommendations. In other words, we won’t recommend the ‘best travel shoes’ and bait you into clicking on affiliate links for those shoes.
Mfuwe Airport (Zambia), ready for any weather…
In Africa’s cities, from Casablanca to Cape Town, we’ve seen the same cultural richness and mayhem that is found in most cities on every continent. Africa has many cities worth visiting (Cairo, Marrakesh, Tunis, etc), but it’s outside the cities that we’ve truly experienced the magnificent landscapes and wildlife rarely found elsewhere.
Here is a list of some of the cities that you may fly in to or connect in, and you will sometimes need to overnight in before transferring to a safari destination. Some cities are reputed to be safe while others have a worse reputation. Having been to each one of these cities, they are as safe as anything we experienced in New York, Cairo or Kolkata, possibly with the exception of Nairobi.
Regardless of whether a city is described as ‘less safe’ by a tour operator, you should search online before planning any city tours. The cities with the worst reputation are Nairobi and Johannesburg. We were in Nairobi in 2004, and were advised not to leave our hotel un-escorted. We did drive around the city and environs with our friend and native Nairobian, who later that year experienced her own carjacking. Nairobi endured terrorist bombings in 1998 and 2013, and carjackings and kidnappings are frequently reported. But if you’re just connecting or overnighting before a safari, then the choice of hotel will be more important than the city itself.
On Roads – Driving or walking
When driving or being driven, some borders are fragile and bureaucratic inefficiencies can increase your blood pressure sometimes, but a good tour company will minimize that.
For car rentals enthusiasts, you might be targeted after picking up your rental car at some airports, and bandits sometimes slash tires and rob the occupants who stop to change the tire. Theft from vehicles is common, and even locals drive with doors locked and windows up, even when stopped at intersections (many locals treat red traffic lights as amber (yellow). As a tourist driving a rental car, you will be quite obvious and a target for some bandits.
Regardless of which city you think might be dangerous (or safe), you’ll have already read many times not to wear flashy jewelry, watches or carry your big camera on the street. We recommend against packing any ostentatious valuables on your vacation.
We have described safety tips for a safari in a separate post. To recap, malaria kills more humans than wild animals (in 2018, over 200 million cases worldwide resulting in about 400,000 deaths). Deaths due to wild animals are uncommon but tourists are killed or injured every year, usually by a tourist’s unsafe behavior. Read more details and safety tips while in the bush on safari, detailed here.
Clothing and packing tips
Africa is usually associated with extreme heat, especially when referring to safari vacations, but there are areas where days are scorching and nights are very chilly. And clothing (along with repellent) is a primary defense against biting insects. The combination of wide temperature swings, malaria areas and restricted baggage requirements for fly-in safaris, is a challenge for packing the right clothes especially if you also want to remain a bit fashionable.
An obvious solution is to create a number of outfits with a handful of select items; never bring an article of clothing unless it can be paired with at least two other pieces.
Tsetse flies deserve special mention because they are vectors for sleeping sickness (Trypanosoma brucei rhodesiense), which no vaccine or drug can prevent. The following are tips to best avoid them:
- wear long-sleeved shirts and pants, of medium-weight material because tsetse flies can bite through thin fabrics;
- Wear neutral-colored clothing, avoiding bright or very dark colors, metallic fabric, and the color blue;
- check your jeep before getting in, but regardless, the flies are attracted to moving vehicles;
- tsetse flies are less active during the hottest period of the day;
- insect repellents have not proven effective in preventing tsetse fly bites, so don’t rely on them;
- if bitten by a tsetse fly watch for symptoms like high fever, a sore at the site of the infective bite, skin rash, headache, muscle aches.
Adopting bush etiquette means avoiding bright colours as they do not blend into the environment. During dry season, wear khakis, browns and tans, and during rainy season, the foliage is greener and therefore colours such as greens and browns will blend better. Wearing white would make you stand out, and camouflage colours in many African countries are associated with the military or guerrillas and not permitted.
Fabrics: function follows form
Besides colour considerations, lightweight breathable fabrics are a must. When worn in single layers, these fabrics can keep you cool and protected from bugs and sun rays during the heat of the day, and when layered, they really keep you warm during chilly nights, and protected from mosquitoes. An ultra lightweight and pack-able windbreaker jacket helps for the cold mornings, although every lodge we visited had insulated ponchos when needed for colder early morning drives.
In Botswana’s Okavango Delta in May and June, the temperature can range between 40 degrees F in the mornings to 80 degrees F in the afternoons. We even packed ultra-light long-johns following other travelers’ advice, and they were useful for some cold nights.
The lightweight travel vest and knapsack both reign supreme: extra pockets are extremely useful, especially if you are carrying camera gear in a jeep that you want to quickly access, or lip balm or a bandanna, or scarf, etc. And when travelling through small airports, in and out of small planes or across land borders, a vest with secure pockets will be handy so that passports, wallets, cell phone, and cash always get stored in the same location, not in some random place or in luggage.
A scarf is another must-have, and Safari scarves have evolved over the years. A scarf serves as an extra layer for cold mornings but really helps during dusty jeep travels. You can now buy high tech cool fabrics that protect you from UV rays as well as regulate your body’s temperature. Some scarves are big enough to use as a wrap around your waist at poolside. I would not recommend these as they are cumbersome and too large to put into a small knapsack. I prefer a neck scarf that is small, long enough to cover my mouth and nose and light enough not to become too hot. I bring at least two or three as they are used daily and you can mix and match with your other clothing.
A knapsack that can be used for daytime during the safari drive is one of the most convenient items to bring. It should be of very thin material, optionally with at least one mesh pocket on the side for a water bottle. It does not need to have inside compartments, except one small zippered pouch on the inside for your phone or room key. It should fold small and fit in a tiny compartment in your luggage. A regular travel knapsack like the one worn by the guide in the photo above is not that convenient for guests to use on safari because they weigh more and usually have too many pockets and inside compartments. When you are in a jeep with other guests, a large cumbersome knapsack is not what you want to fumble with.
Shorts can be worn on drives and by the campfire at night. However, I would not waste valuable space in my luggage by including shorts. Lightweight long pants are more functional, offering more protection both from sun and bugs. The key is comfort and breath-ability.
Rugged African terrain requires sturdy footwear. Although a comfortable sandal can probably be worn on game drives, as long as you are certain that no walking will take place, a sturdy pair of comfortable hiking shoes or high quality sneakers are more useful. They could be waterproof but that impedes breath-ability, and should protect the ankles.
The right hat/visor is essential. I have brought hats that I have never worn, mostly because they were uncomfortable, hot and the neck strap that was supposed to stop it from coming off drove me crazy. Also, if you are taking snapshots, a wide brimmed hat impedes working with your camera. A hat made with breathable material with the correct sized brim is best, but some hats, like the one in the photo below, fail to impress in photos. Plus, I have never found a chin strap that I could tolerate, so now I take a risk.
A visor works best for me, although it offers no sun protection. Also, a visor without a chin strap can blow away, as mine did once during a fast moving jeep ride following wildlife. I bring at least two visors.
Luggage – avoid the lugging
Packing light for a month in Africa takes a bit of planning. Some blogs will suggest you can bring your normal (oversized) luggage on your vacation and leave your big suitcases behind in a city by repacking just essential items in a small bag before flying to safari lodges. There are too many disadvantages to that approach to be practical for us.
We always travel with small carry-on luggage plus a travel knapsack for him and an oversized handbag for me. We’ve been around the world with this combo a few times; once you experience the speed and efficiency of this approach, you’ll wonder why you every dragged big bags around on your trips.
MONDISTI TIP TRIPS FOR SAFE TRAVEL
- Pack efficiently with light and practical clothes.
- Leave at home your Vacheron and Patek watches, your Harry Winston diamonds and Mikimoto pearls. But bring a camera or two.
- Don’t bring clothes around that you’ll only wear once. All lodges we visited have laundry services.
- Lightweight layers protect against insects wide temperature swings in parts of Africa