In December 2018, my partner Oscar and I set off on a ten month long journey from Ireland to South Africa (although we didn’t know we would get that far at the time). This is just some of what we learned.
When it comes to long-term traveling through West and Central Africa, there are a few things that will almost certainly happen to you. You will get used to waiting for things, you will see big red sunsets, you will come to view Laughing Cow Cheese as an exquisite delicacy rather than the assault on cheese that it really is, and you will never, ever, be bored.
But there are plenty of other things that aren’t so certain, things that people who’ve never stepped foot on the continent might have you believe. The journey my partner and I recently finished from Ireland to South Africa took us through many little-explored countries like Mauritania, Nigeria, Cameroon and the Democratic Republic of Congo. Before we left we were informed, often and passionately of the unspeakable dangers that awaited us upon our arrival.
Speaking of the Congo, a colleague imparted these sage words over the top of a cup-a-soup:
“They don’t value human life in those parts of the world.”
“They’ll just kill you.”
People don’t tell you things like this if you’re planning a trip to Italy or the Rocky Mountains, so hearing enough of it from enough people is all it takes to turn even the most level-headed individual into a paranoid racist.
Since finishing the trip, we’ve received heaps of questions from anxious travellers, ranging from the perfectly reasonable to the ridiculous: “should I cut my trip short to avoid getting a disease?”, “how much should I pay in bribes?” and ,”should I bring a gun?”.
If you’re planning a trip to West/Central Africa or even just lightly penciling it on the bucketlist, it might help to know which commonly-held opinions have a nugget of truth in them, and what is unapologetic bollocks. Here are just a few commonly perceived myths about traveling in Africa which deserve to be challenged:
You will get very sick
It’s true that a flick through your Health Guide for International Travelers brochure will reveal a dearth of alarming ailments commonly contracted in Africa. Your travel doctor will probably want to immunize you against every single one of these alarming ailments. Your travel doctor may even let out a theatrical sigh for each new country you point out on your itinerary, but that doesn’t mean you need to wrap yourself in an anti-bacterial poncho and tiptoe your way through the continent.
While it might seem like every second person who’s been to Africa has a harrowing malaria story, it’s entirely possible to travel the length of the continent without so much as a symptom. Neither my partner or I took malaria pills for the length of our journey, and despite being bitten literally thousands of times, we were totally fine. My legs are permanently scarred from mosquito bites, at one point my feet were so swollen with bites they looked like infected Christmas hams with toenails, and still, no malaria. Many Africans who’ve lived their whole lives there have only contracted malaria once or twice.
That’s not to say you shouldn’t take precautions, malaria can be incredibly serious if you get it, and you should cover up, wear mosquito repellant and bring enough anti-malarial pills for a few emergency doses* but it’s by no means a given that you’ll get it.
Same goes for bilharzia, dengue fever and other scary illnesses, take precautions and you’ll be fine. You’re only likely to get Ebola if you deliberately go to to the heart of an outbreak zone, which is a) silly, and b) very easily avoided.
Your travel doctor may advise you not to eat street food in Africa to avoid diarrhea and hepatitis. This is ridiculous. To cut out street food is to deprive yourself of the tastiest and most authentic fare in West Africa, not to mention the price and the fact that it’s literally all that’s available in many places. We ate street food almost everyday for most of our trip and got moderately sick once each in ten months. In comparison, we were sick much more often and more violently during a not particularly intrepid five week trip in Thailand and Vietnam.
*all of the African-based doctors we met advised against taking our Malarone pills long-term as they are so hard on the body. An emergency dose is four pills a day for three days.
Many people’s ideas of Africa are still heavily influenced by the World Vision ads of yore, movies about endless civil war, and bleak news stories about famine and disease. It’s the images of Blood Diamond’s camo-clad warlords and people dying of Ebola that stick in people’s minds. For many foreigners, Africa represents an amorphous blob of violence and poverty rather than 54 unique countries with distinctly different cultures and ways of life. Given the amount of negative verses positive media coverage of most African nations, that’s somewhat understandable. What’s important to remember is that, if you go, your lasting impression of any West/Central African country is unlikely to be linked to poverty or war or disease. There’ll be colour and noise and intensity, but not nearly as many forest-dwelling guerrillas as you might expect.
Think abut the amount of danger you might face walking around Paris, London, or Berlin. Statistically, it’s higher, it’s just that those cities are so large, populated and full of tourists, not much gets in the way of day to day business. Just days after deadly terror attacks in major European cities, things are generally back to normal – tourists wander the streets, workers dodge cordons to get back into the office. Compare that to the deaths of four French tourists in Mauritania in 2007, which led to Air France cancelling its flights from Paris to Atar, crippling tourism in the Adrar region for no less than seven years.
The amount of ‘danger’ in Africa is hard to quantify because the idea is so vague. What I can tell you is that the only time we felt genuinely unsafe was in our dealings with law and order officials. The everyday people we met were – like people at home – far too busy living their lives to bother with hassling us. On the contrary, in places like Guinea and Nigeria, people are so pleased to see foreign visitors, they go out of their way to make you feel welcome. We were helped out of ditches and welcomed into homes all the way down the continent. Many people are also hyper-aware of the consequences of messing with tourists in countries which are trying desperately to attract tourists. Our pockets weren’t picked, we weren’t threatened by civilians (not sober ones anyway), and the only sour patch was a break-in of our truck in Senegal, which looked to have been carried out by a bunch of kids.
Africa is super cheap
One thing people traveling through Africa consistently underestimate is the amount of money they’ll spend – low wages = low cost right? Not always. This is the exact attitude that results in dreadlocked white tourists coming to Africa and living off $1 a day as a ‘challenge’. You should do this under zero circumstances because you won’t last long and you will also look like an absolute dick.
As a New Zealander, visa prices for various West African countries vary wildly and seemingly without reason ($2USD per person for Nigeria and $106 pp for Angola. WTF.) You’ll have to pay for visas in almost every West/Central African country you pass through, and because there are so many small countries along the West Coast, the cost racks up quickly.
Desperate to get online? Internet prices will also hit you a lot harder than you might expect. Mobile data is insanely expensive in a lot of countries, and with next to no free WiFi options, you can pay up to $10NZD/€6 per gb of data, depending on which country you’re in.
And then there’s your Pringles addiction. While street market shopping is wonderfully cheap, practically everything in African supermarkets is imported, and a big shop of packaged goods and Western treats will likely cost an absolute bomb. The key, always, is to buy local. Buy local food, stay at African-owned establishments, use local services. It’s good for the people and it’s good for you. Win bloody win.
Which brings me to:
Everyone in Africa is poorer than people in ‘the West’
While there are plenty of people in Africa who live on next to nothing, extreme poverty of nineties NGO commercial proportions is now largely limited to inland, drought-stricken countries like Niger and the Central African Republic. The vast majority of people you’ll meet in West/Central Africa will be well fed, and dressed much more sharply than you.
Presentation is important in Africa, and even people in remote villages won’t drive their motorbikes or battered late model cars unless they’re gleaming. You’ll regularly spot people trudging down orange dirt roads in immaculate white outfits. How do they keep them so clean? It’s one of the great mysteries of our time.
And that’s just in the regions, you’ll be staggered by the amount of glamour and wealth in cities like Lagos, Abidjan, Brazzaville and Luanda. We’re talking cigar cases and $200NZD Pictionary sets in the supermarket wealth. Ferrari, Lamborghini and Sunday brunch at the yacht club wealth. That’s not to say that the money always trickles down, but once you add in West Africa’s growing middle class, you can see why ‘the poor African’ stereotype is starting to become a lot less relevant.
You have to pay bribes
Almost as widespread as the malaria horror story is the exorbitant bribe story, and while it’s true you’ll be asked for money and gifts a lot by police and military in West Africa, that doesn’t mean you have to give them a cent. Answering a request for a bribe with a fistful of cash isn’t doing you, other travellers, or African society at large any favours, so unless you have absolutely no other option (unlikely), don’t pay it. I’d budgeted hundreds of dollars for bribe-paying based on other people’s stories before the trip, but we ended our African adventure having only paid one small bribe to a Congolese cop who had threatened to destroy our car and was in the midst of shuffling Oscar into an overcrowded prison cell when he demanded it.
All the roads are terrible
Think of an African road and what comes to mind, a rutted dirt track with potholes bigger than dump trucks, or a shiny and unblemished highway? The reality (on main trunklines at least) is increasingly, the latter. A staggering amount of Chinese investment in West Africa means brand new highways, bridges and other infrastructure are popping up at an astonishing rate. While it’s an awful lot more fun to take the truck-swallowing back roads, you could drive into the depths of the Mauritanian desert or almost the entire length of the Congo without ever leaving brand new tarseal. Tackling the wet season on four wheels, even on the dirt roads, is also totally manageable. You’ll need recovery gear (we had a high-lift jack and sand tracks but no winch) and as long as you don’t mind doing a bit of superficial damage to your wagon, you’ll be fine.
You’ll be killed by a hippo/lion/gorilla/crocodile/snake/rabid dog etc
While Southern and Eastern Africa are the home of many a beautiful and potentially deadly creature, the sad reality is there are so few lions, gorillas and elephants living wild in West and Central, it would practically be a miracle if you were killed by one. Deforestation and illegal hunting have decimated wildlife populations in West Africa, and even snakes are hard to spot outside of sanctuaries. After ten months of barefoot and be-jandled trudging through desert and jungle, neither of us were nibbled, stung or otherwise molested by a scorpion, spider, snake, or anything else. Even in Southern Africa, where big hungry creatures are much more plentiful, it’s highly unlikely you’ll be attacked. We camped metres away from hippos, lions and elephants in Namibia, but generally wild animals are too scared of humans to venture too close.
To conclude, the main point here is that travel in general is dangerous. Leaving your house is dangerous, eating three day old leftover chow mein is dangerous, but there’s absolutely no point in writing off an entire continent because it’s a bit unfamiliar.
In my years of traveling, I’ve been closer to being killed in a terror attack in central Barcelona, more sexually molested in the historic Japanese city of Kyoto and have had more stuff stolen in my home country of New Zealand than during my time in Africa.
Almost nowhere else in the world offers the opportunity for adventure like West Africa, widely considered one of the last frontiers of travel. The experiences you’ll have there are so genuine and so uninfluenced by mass tourism, you’ll wonder why you ever queued to get into a museum or battled a sea of selfie sticks to get a glimpse at a fountain, statue or ‘gram-friendly landmark. At times it’s bite-your-nails-to-bloody-stumps frustrating, but the rewards outweigh the misery ten to one.
There are plenty of myths about traveling Africa, but one absolute truth: you’ll have the time of your life.
If you want to see what West Africa is like with your very own eyeballs, check out our adventure on Youtube here.
Want more tips on visa costs, borders and all that niggly stuff? Check out our guide to West Africa here.