Africa was on my mind for many years before I visited. I had a romantic notion of climbing Kilimanjaro and seeing wild animals on Safari, but beyond that, had not really grasped the logistics for traveling there until I was on my way. I’m a pretty seasoned traveler and the adventure that comes with traveling doesn’t seem to faze me. One of my strongest attributes is the ability to handle chaos and even thrive and excel amidst turmoil. The most daunting thing facing me in Africa, in my opinion, was the fact that I would be seen as a Western traveler and worse, a Western, woman traveler. There are many places in this world where I feel safe enough as a woman to venture out, explore and enjoy the
destination but Africa is not a place I would describe as carefree to take lightly to these kinds of leisures. I’ve travelled alone in Vietnam from Cat Ba to Hanoi, bartering my own scooter taxi and walking the streets braving traffic and marketplaces, but even still, Africa is a whole other beast. Here are my observations, tips and things you should know from my perspective before taking a journey there. I am certain I will miss things, but that’s why there is the Internet, forums and of course books you can reference. Hopefully there is something in here that will answer some questions for you that you may not readily find in those places. Whether you are adventurous or not, Africa is a life changing experience, if you let it in…lush, green, vivid, lively, raging, dusty, dirty, beastly, savage, rich, poor, protective, hopeful, needy, grateful, beautiful, pure, corrupt, abundant and expansive. I only have 1 thing to say above anything else, GO.
When the opportunity came to climb Kilimanjaro, the highest peak in all of Africa, I looked over my finances and explored ways to get to Africa the cheapest. For me, I would be traveling Europe after, therefore, it made sense for me to use my airline miles to get myself to Europe, then find a cheap hub to fly out of from there. Vienna was the recommendation from a friend, and that’s where I made my hub, which worked well for my airline choices to Tanzania. I found an inexpensive ticket (around $850) to Nairobi and settled on taking a shuttle to Arusha from there. My boyfriend would fly on a different airline and meet me in Nairobi. I wanted an airline I would like for the long travels and opted for Swiss Airlines through Zurich. I suggest depending on when you go and where you are traveling from, consider the hubs, changeovers, layovers and fly zones. I wanted to stay as far from anything in the Middle East and knowing how finicky I am with food, didn’t want to trust myself to an African airline at the start. There is no particular reason but my experience of different airlines and their style for food and accommodations. Also, Swiss had one of the best fares so for me, this was a great start.
Tip: look at Europe as an initial destination and find cheap flights from Europe to Africa rather than from N. America to Africa directly. Further, look at neighboring big cities to see if it is cheaper and if you can manage a shuttle between rather than flying to a more expensive port.
There is an airport in Moshi that is more convenient but it costs a bit more and I needed the savings if I would be traveling for a little while after. There is a 6 hour shuttle from Nairobi to Arusha and with some coordination with the shuttle company, we were able to book our seats when we wanted and have them pick us up at our hotel. We had one night in Nairobi and left for Arusha the following morning. On our way back, there is a hub where the shuttle meets and it was no problem to get there and get our seats. One thing to note, if you are flying, and your journey has some close times, you may want to pay the extra money to be sure you make your flight. A shuttle, even though 6 hours away, can be delayed for a long time if anything happens along the way. For instance, on our return, we had to detour for road construction that put us on a bumpy dirt road for a ways. Then, the closer we got to Nairobi, entering in the evening, the more thick pedestrian and vehicle traffic became. We were inching our way for well over an hour, when I heard someone call to tell their friend we were close (maybe within an hour, which turned into well over an hour in actuality). Also, it appeared that the road to the airport was closed when we departed but by the time we got near, it had reopened. The shuttle took us straight to our departing terminal, no problem. We arrived around 8pm with our flights leaving around 11/11:30pm. One terminal had no congestion to check in, but my terminal was queued out of the terminal and a long way down the street. I stood there for a long time content because I knew I had the time to spare and it would not take me 2 hours to get checked in, though, it is Africa and you just never really know…
Tip: Allow plenty of time for transit (even a day ahead of time if you are traveling between countries in Africa). Expect delays and be grateful if you encounter none. Things go slower there. Border traffic, passport checks, traffic in general, road construction or demonstrations, long queues, etc. Stay aware of what is happening along your journey to be best prepared.
Tip: Shuttles, taxis, busses, intra-African flights, these are all inexpensive ways to get around the continent. Some methods are pricier than others, some more reliable than others, but don’t forget to check them all. On the shuttle ride, I met some other climbers and saw a lot more of the African countryside, as well as got to visit another city during my stay, all of which was part of the adventure I was seeking.
Always check the visa requirements online with the embassy of the country you would like to visit. Find out if there is a difference for one-time entry/exit versus multiple entry/exit. Also, it might save you a little money if you buy an entrance visa and an exit visa separately. I bought a multiple entry visa to Kenya since I would be entering when I got off the flight and re-entering when I took the shuttle at the end of the trip back for the airport in Nairobi. I paid $50 for the visa. However, Luke paid for an entrance visa when he arrived at the same airport and bought another one at the Tanzania/Kenya border and paid only $40, $20 each entry fee. It may not be possible at all borders, but it’s something to look at. It did not save much time at the border patrol, either. I may have exited 1 minute faster, all in all, but again, consider if for some reason they decided on the spot to not give him an entrance visa…that would not have been good. Remember, this is Africa–anything is possible.
Africa takes American money, currency post 2007. One tip that was not revealed to me until I was already in the country was to bring an envelope of $100 single dollar bills. I kept having to tip $5 because $1’s were rare to come by and I ran out of them quickly from my personal stash. Also, bring cash. Do not rely on your credit card. You tip everyone for everything and internet is not that reliable or available. If you have cash, you can barter more, too.
Tip: Bring $100 single dollar bills for tipping
Tip: Bring cash for all expenses, do not rely on your credit card
Tip: Keep some cash on you, the rest hidden, stashed or distributed to protect from theft
Tip: When using the ATMs, you will get the local currency and may be asked if you want to pay a flat fee right there or defer to your bank to denote the fee. Always defer. Your bank will most likely give you a better rate than the fee the ATM is suggesting you pay.
Tip: Barter for everything. Very little in Africa is fixed, especially street vendors, marketplaces (flea markets), souvenir shops, etc. If someone wants to show you around somewhere, negotiate their ‘tip’ up front. Taxis are the same. Always negotiate up front before getting into the cab and only pay what you negotiated.
Tip: Don’t be afraid of losing an opportunity because you wouldn’t pay what they asked. For sure you will find the marketplace coffee in a shop down the street, most likely for less than the market person is trying to sell it to you. Taxis will come along, there will be someone who will take your rate and if not, you will find quickly what the reasonable rate really is.
Tip: If you are a westerner traveling, be prepared to be swindled. Maybe not dramatically, but you may find you pay higher exchange rates, are offered items at more cost than someone else, etc. If you are not willing to shop around, accept this and negotiate perhaps a photo or other trinket as part of the deal.
Tip: Be nice. I don’t like feeling taken advantage of or seen as a walking cash machine, but Africa is needy and corrupt. It is what it is and you can do what you can to protect yourself, but in the end, remember the life you get to go back to and the life you leave them with. One young boy (12 yrs) said on a walking tour with him in his village that Western people are blessed. Keep that in mind as you tip that scale more in your favor.
Tip: Donate. If you can, plan to bring extra cash or items to donate. At the end of the Kilimanjaro climb, we left trashbags of things for the guide and his crew. Gloves, socks, hats, ipods, phones, earbuds, jackets, shoes, etc. Seriously, everything will help, even if they sell it. Consider your tip, too. $200-$300 is standard, and they will go out of their way to make you feel like this journey is special for you. Tip them for that experience and more if they go above and beyond. One couple in our group got engaged at the summit. They arranged for a cake at our last camp to celebrate and went out of their way to make sure the couple both summited to have that experience there.
Tip: If you can, visit an orphanage. Better if you can plan a day to volunteer in one. We visited one in a nearby village and if I could, I would have adopted every single one of them. I felt so many things, overwhelmed by their situation. We donated at every school we saw and one in particular, they have a tax ID if anyone wants to donate. Later on our journey we saw one of the school masters walking from the shops. Talk about instant realization that your money is helping.
Africa has a lot of needs. It is overwhelming to think of all that is necessary to help the people there. Giving money while there is one way to ensure the money goes to what you want it to go to. Donating to a reputable organization is another. With my bleeding heart syndrome, I could’ve stayed and would’ve given everything to help them, but I know that they would take all I had and it would still not be enough. Therefore, the solution must be bigger and longer standing than that. And, as a traveler keep this in mind. They have no boundaries. They don’t know when to stop taking or asking. You could easily find yourself lost in that place and if you were on the wrong side of luck, destitute or worse. Be generous, but be mindful.
Tip: As in Vietnam, watch your currency closely. Africa has huge money laundering problems and therefore, be sure to check all change you receive to make sure it is good. They will check your money when you give it to them, scrutinize them as well. They are not above slipping a bad note into your fold to rid it from their registers and once you are stuck with it, you are stuck.
Get them. All or as many as you can before your trip. Some of them like Hepatitis needs 3 shots over a period of time so plan accordingly. I like to travel and got mine some time ago. Even so, keep a record and make sure all boosters are up to date. I let my tetanus lapse and got a lacerated leg in the middle of Patagonia in nowhere Argentina. I got the booster as soon as I got home, but had there been any problem, I might not have had that leisure.
Malaria – I took the pills for the entire time I was in Africa, even though I didn’t see but maybe a handful of mosquitos. I also didn’t travel to mosquito prone regions. Still, it was a short enough trip to not risk it and simply take the pills.
Dymoxin – altitude sickness medication. This one had a lot of debate in our group. I took one pill on the first high altitude day, or just before and had to pee constantly. I hated it. I didn’t take another one until just before summit day. Then, I took half of the dosage. I didn’t have any problems with altitude and the half dosage didn’t make me pee as much. It’s a personal preference or trial and error kind of thing.
Antibiotics – take some. I have heard of people contracting severe diarrhea after ingesting something or the food not settling right. Worse could be that you get injured like I did in Argentina or any other reason that you might need them. Have them. I never travel without. Up on a mountain like Kilimanjaro, you don’t want to leave yourself at risk with the hope that your guide company has them or that another traveler has some for you.
Kiliimanjaro gear is like any other mountain. Expect extreme conditions and temperatures and you will be fine. Layers work well. Bring antibacterial soap or wipes, for everything. I brought a backpackers small towel and folding bowl (doubles as a plate). I used these and the hot water found at camp to wash every day. This made me feel a lot better and fresh for each day’s long hike.
I saw a lot of different companies up there, some with the same offering or similar to the one I was traveling with. Cost is one differentiator but so is the max number of people they will allow in a group. The food was amazing. They even set up a camp toilet for us, which was really awesome. Our company, Climb Kili, was simply amazing. I fell in love with the guides and the crew. They spent time talking to each of us. I worked on learning Swahili to make the most of the long hikes and they humored me by teaching and testing me along the way. Our group was small enough to feel intimate, yet big enough to keep our characters fresh. We never got lost in numbers and everyone had the patience for everyone else. We went at our own pace, waited for those that struggled and encouraged one another as needed. Our mess tent discussions were engaging. Card games were fun and all in all, the experience became life transforming. I am not sure I would have had such a deep connection or impactful time in a larger company. For me, this was perfect. I felt special, I felt included, I was recognized, I was challenged, I was encouraged, I was taken care of, I was looked after…
I would say, look across them all and see what others have to say. Find out how many people will likely be in your group and understand what matters to you. If you are on a mission to climb that mountain, make sure they know it so you are with a team of like-minded individuals. Then, look at the cost. Food and accommodations are essential, but the quality of each can vary dramatically. I can’t speak for all of the companies, but I can say that Climb Kili exceeded my expectations across the board.
Climb Kili set us up for the entire experience while we were there. We were with Kilima Valley for the safari and coming from Kilimanjaro, the experience is a stark contrast. You still sleep in a tent, but the tent is more like a hotel. Be aware that while it looks and sleeps luxuriously, you are still in the jungle. We had a guide with a bow and arrow who would be there in the night in case animals ventured near. If we wanted to walk about at night, he was always at our side.
The same words of advice from the Kilimanjaro guide experience to the Safari guides applies. Price, food, accommodations, all make a difference. The guides are each very knowledgeable about the landscape and the animals. If you want to learn a lot about the animals, they are a book. You can tell him the kinds of things you are interested in as well and surprisingly, he will help make it happen. Well, within reason. I mean, you cannot get out of the truck for instance and he is not going to change that for you.
Kilima Valley tents are amazing, btw. The beds were the best I’ve ever slept in and it was sad that I couldn’t just take a day to sleep in one.
Don’t drink the tap and always make sure the water you buy is sealed.
That’s all I recall, now. Look for updates if I think of anything else.
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