In the 1990s, I was a foreign correspondent and backpacked solo across Africa for a year. It wasn't the easiest of journeys but to me, it was the most challenging - and most rewarding - trip of my life. I kept records but the internet wasn't quite a thing yet, so I didn't 'blog' about it (although I did send an email newsletter, probably one of the first travel newsletters ever).
Back then, a woman traveling on her own across Africa was relatively rare - it still is. Africa isn't every woman's first travel choice because there is less tourism infrastructure than in Asia, for example, and you have to do a lot of figuring out on your own.
But if you make the effort, you'll be surrounded by glorious wildlife, hypnotic scenery, wonderful music and a sense of humor you won't find anywhere else.
One thing to watch out for: there is no such thing as "Africa". The continent has 54 countries (plus Somaliland and Western Sahara, which are fighting for statehood) and they range in environment from lush tropical islands to harsh desert and barren mountains. Cultures, too, are wildly diverse. The only time I feel confident calling it Africa is when I'm referring to the physical land mass itself...
This is the most common question I get about the continent: What are the safest countries to visit in Africa?
That's an impossible question. Each country has its own safety profile, and much depends on what kind of traveler you are.
In terms of health, you'll be better off in countries with comparatively good health infrastructures - say South Africa and Kenya, for example, but not exclusively. Such things as the number of doctors per inhabitants, the number of hospitals, water safety and so on are all part of the equation. While no single source of information will provide everything you need, sites like Africa Health Stats or for something in even greater depth about health, poverty and other development indicators, there's the series of Human Development Reports and index produced by the UN Development Program.
Before anything else, please make sure you get travel insurance (or click here if you're over 66): health facilities in rural Africa are often rudimentary and if something serious happens, you'll be glad you spent the few extra dollars or pounds on care or repatriation. That said, the standard of medical care for local or tropical illnesses can be quite high.
For regular ailments, you can find pharmacies in most villages but beware – fake or expired drugs do find their way to the continent, especially in their generic form. Talk to the pharmacist and make sure your drugs are from the original manufacturer. Of course, bring what you usually need, and have a decent first aid kit with you.
Other dangers to be aware of when traveling to Africa: poverty, which can lead to violence; driving and road conditions, where tiredness, overcrowding, and poorly maintained vehicles and infrastructure can mean danger; petty theft, although I've been pickpocketed more often in Europe than in Africa!
And – terrorism being the elephant in the room – yes, it does happen, most recently in Kenya but also the Boko Haram kidnappings in Nigeria or Al-Shabab in Somalia so I wouldn't venture near unsettled border areas. While there are indeed places I wouldn't go, there are many more places I WOULD go.
A last proviso: if this is your first ever solo trip, I would suggest starting outside Africa until you get your sea legs. This has nothing to do with danger and everything to do with travel savvy. Outside some of the main tourist areas in Africa, there are few Western-style facilities and you might just be pushed too far out of your comfort zone. But once you've taken a trip or two abroad as an independent traveler making your own arrangements, then yes: take a trip to Africa! It will be memorable...
Stereotypes are common enough in any interaction but when it comes to Africa, we seem to enter a land of clichés. There are so many myths, so many opinions... and then there's the reality. Here are a bunch of things gleaned from my own years of travel to 17 African countries (that's still fewer than half!) and of working professionally on issues related to Africa for two decades.
That's a bit like saying the United States are dangerous, because in some cities everyday citizens are allowed to carry guns (mind you, for this very reason, going to the US scares me more than visiting Africa) or some parts of some cities are prone to gang warfare. I can't say I feel safe walking around on my own in Johannesburg or Lagos, especially towards the end of the day, but to me, those are exceptions, not the rule.
And yes, there have been violent conflicts on the continent. A few are still ongoing, and according to the Global Peace Index, five in 10 of the world's most dangerous countries are in Africa. Perhaps, but these are countries (with one exception) that are at war. Other warring countries have found peace, and I hope these will too. Meantime, if you're traveling across the continent, you'd best avoid South Sudan, Somalia, Libya, Democratic Republic of the Congo and the Central African Republic.
Terrorism, too, has raised its ugly head on occasion. Morocco, Nigeria and Kenya have all known bombings and kidnappings, and terrorism is common in the Sahel, where islamist extremists operate. So while there is danger and violence in Africa, this doesn't mean it's dangerous and violent.
Sadly, there is no denying poverty in Africa: nearly half a billion Africans live below the poverty line, and more than two-thirds of the world's poor live in Africa.
So yes, there is much poverty in Africa, but there is also much poverty elsewhere. Many people in Africa are unbelievably wealthy, and the middle class is thriving.
Think of this: Africa leads the world in diamond exports and has plenty of the world's mineral resources, including bauxite, gold, platinum and many more. There's a lot of wealth in Africa – it just happens to be concentrated in a very few hands.
I'm not sure where this came from – perhaps because the continent is full of developing countries... It's actually an expensive continent, although there are exceptions - Morocco, for example, or local transport, which is indeed cheap. If you eat in a Western restaurant, you'll feel the sting, as you will in hotels. Safaris are expensive, as is entrance to parks and reserves (and trekking with gorillas can cost anywhere from US$ 600-1500 just for the permit). If anything, Africa costs more than other continents, even Europe, because it's hard to find anything in the middle range.
You may have to bribe a few people but in the past decades, things have dramatically changed. Gone are the days when you had to systematically bribe immigration officers just to stamp your passport or get it back from them! Yes, it still happens, but it's rare. In fact, in a year of full-time travel in Africa, I was asked for a 'little extra' less than a handful of times...
True, there are life-threatening diseases in Africa, although they're more often than not in remote areas with little access to health care or even vaccinations for children; there's a good chance these won't be the areas you're visiting. But take basic health precautions, get your vaccinations, and keep an eye on your health (and get health insurance no matter what!)
What does that even mean? Backwards compared to what? In fact, there's better cell coverage in Africa than in many other parts of the world. Because of its strong rural culture and the huge distances, such commodities as electricity and running water have taken time to reach the hinterland. However, local people are often ingenious in harnessing wind, sun and manpower for their devices, and while many Africans don't yet have a landline, most have leapfrogged and have cellphones instead. In fact, mobile subscriptions are growing faster in Africa than anywhere else.
Africa has SOME bad roads. It also has some pristine highways that are a delight (apart from the occasional meandering animal or herd). Where the roads do get bad, as is the case everywhere it rains volumes, is in the interior, where roads are often made of dirt. When heavy rains come, those roads may get washed out so it's best not to travel on them too often when it rains. Those roads are disappearing as roadworks spread between towns and cities.
Yes it is. And cold. And rainy. And windy. The Sahara can be stifling during the day and freezing at night. Rainforests and tropical areas can just about melt you, true, but head north or south and you'll be in climates probably similar to those you have at home. (As an aside, the coldest I've probably EVER been was in South Africa, when I arrived in mid-winter dressed for summer.
Some are, indeed. Of the world's 10 largest cities, only one, Lagos, is in Africa. If you look by population, Africa doesn't even make the list. Most of these mega-cities are in... China, with South Asia in second place.
The fertility rate in Africa is higher than anywhere else: women in Africa have an average of 4.5 children each, Asia has less than half with 2.1 and Latin America 2 (in Europe, that figure is 1.6). What this hides is that these figures have dropped, from 5.5 children just nine years ago. In urban areas, where social and economic services have improved and where family planning is available, numbers are even further down. With better health services, fewer children die, and families don't feel the urge to have as many. And where women have access to education, birth rates fall: women often have jobs and want fewer children; and education means they are better able to bargain with husbands for smaller families. That said, Africa, like the Middle East, has an extended definition of family, which includes not only the immediate family but distant cousins and even friends, who mutually support one another when times are tough.
Family is considered paramount. As I traveled solo across Africa, I was often an object of pity for not having a husband, and spent much time explaining, to everyone's consternation, that it was a matter of choice, not of rejection!
Let's just say I wouldn't be too open about it.
In some places, there is a death penalty for homosexuality, although I suspect it's used more for men than women. For now, these include Mauritania, Somalia, Somaliland, Sudan and northern Nigeria. Uganda has often threatened to make homosexuality a capital offence but for now, along with Tanzania (and to a certain extent Sierra Leone), being gay is punishable by life in prison.
All in all, homosexual acts are considered criminal in 34 countries BUT − they've never been a crime in 11 countries, and an additional 9 have decriminalized them. You can see the map here.
This one seems to come from people who believe history began with European colonialism and that little of importance has come out of Africa. Anyone with even the slightest knowledge of African history will know about the great cultures and empires which once ruled here, the salt caravans, hieroglyphics, the use of healing plants, inventions involving numerals and geometry, advanced astronomy, oh - and yes - the fact that humanity probably originated in Africa. That's not history... it's PREhistory.
This is a tricky one for me, having spent half my life working in global development. There's no question that some development assistance has helped - for example in the medical field, where primary health care has been boosted and vaccinations and health care improved. Sadly, there's still a belief that things European and American are somehow "better", ignoring the tremendous talents and skills available locally. Most aid these days is tied and designed to benefit the giving country; as a result, the aid may not be needed, or may actually do damage. And while there is finally an effort to include local people in decision making, many decisions are still made by foreigners, who drop in briefly and leave again. So no, we don't have to help Africa develop but we could do a lot more by visiting Africa, buying African goods or encouraging policies that contribute to a better standard of living.
I've gone into this above but... some things deserve being mentioned more than once! Africa is Not. One. Country. It is 54 countries, many radically different from one another: you cannot compare Morocco with Ethiopia with Malawi, even if they are on the same continent. It's a bit like going to Spain, Scotland and Bulgaria and assuming they are identical because they are, well, in Europe.
Of course I can only recommend places I've visited myself, so this list will lack such popular destinations as Cabo Verde or Namibia or Botswana. When I do get there, I'll make sure to tell you all about it! Meantime, here are the places I loved the most. (And if you love reading books about a place before you go, here's my travel book review section for Africa.)
South Africa is a country I've visited a number of times, from end to end, and I loved it – stunning nature, delicious food, fascinating history and culture, brilliant music... you can't go wrong. It's a huge country with a massive population, but poverty and joblessness are common and that can breed violence, especially towards those more fortunate (wealthy). But by far the scariest issue in South Africa for me was the driving... too fast and too unpredictable. That said, I'm told it's improving daily.
Morocco is very much part of Africa, even though a part of the country looks northward to the Mediterranean and to Europe, in part because of its colonial heritage (Morocco was a French protectorate from 1912-1956 with parts under Spanish rule that remain so today). With other Maghreb countries (especially Algeria and Tunisia) these cultures have more in common with the Arabic cultures of the Middle East than with countries further south. The exquisite food, fascinating history, glorious architecture and beaches set this country apart from many others.
Like Morocco, Tunisia was a French protectorate for years. It may be the smallest country in North Africa, but it packs a punch. Even without visiting the rest of the country, the capital, Tunis, has so much to see. The city itself has a world-class museum, the Bardo, filled with Roman mosaics from nearby Carthage, another nearby site. Along the coast, still only a few minutes of the city, is the blue and white village of Sidi Bou Said, an absolute feast for the eyes.
Malawi has always been one of my favorite countries when traveling to Africa alone - it's a modest-sized country and people are welcoming. It's not quite the tourist draw yet although there is plenty to see and the government (and private industry) are doing plenty to attract visitors. The friendliness here is contagious - it does call itself the "Warm Heart of Africa" after all.
Kenya is a country I keep returning to, mostly for work but also because I love the country and its people. Of course there's the Maasai Mara and all the wildlife (which is also fabulous in neighboring Tanzania, by the way), the beach along the coast, and the capital, Nairobi, which I always enjoy for a bunch of reasons (mainly because it has a national park filled with wildlife right in the middle of town).
Sometimes, during my trip to Africa, something would catch my attention and I'd write about it, not a fully-formed article but snippets, glimpses of what backpacking Africa was like back when I spent a year criss-crossing the continent as a journalist. Here are some of those Africa travel stories.
I am absolutely NOT the expert when it comes to Africa weather - I'm the one who landed in South Africa in shorts and a T-shirt in July, ready for summer (having completely forgotten that the seasons in the Southern Hemisphere are reversed!)
Of course I've learned my lesson since then and have dressed accordingly...
Let me divide Africa into regions.
Avoid summer, unless you're going to the beach, where you'll get cooled by the sea winds. Otherwise, it can be stifling. Winter can be nice along the coast (I've had some glorious winter weather) but it's not warm enough to swim and in the mountains, you'll run into snow and cold.
The best season for North Africa is the shoulder season, around April-May and September-early November. You'll have plenty of sun, mild enough temperatures, not too much rain - and far fewer crowds.
My overall favorite time to visit North Africa: April and September
The best time to go to West Africa is outside the rainy season (when it rains, roads can become impassable, flights are delayed, and it's all-round less than pleasant). That said, the rains tend to be short and powerful, heavily pelting down and then stopping for a bit.
In the northern part of the region, the dry season tends to go from around November to March or April, although you may have to contend with the harmattan winds blowing south from the Sahara. In the south, get ready for two rainy seasons, one from April-July and another from September-October.
Let's also not forget that countries in this region can be huge, and what goes for the coast may not apply inland.
My overall favorite time to visit West Africa: January and February
The climate in East Africa is quite diverse but if you're heading on safari, from January to early March is the best game viewing season. If you want to experience the Great Migration (mostly but not only wildebeest - 1.5 million of them!) between Tanzania and Kenya, July-September is wise, although you can still experience it at other times of year. It's a migration, so it moves.
For gorilla trekking, try between June and September. Before then, you could run into downpours, which makes trekking impossible.
Heading for the beach? December to February is ideal.
My overall favorite time to visit East Africa: I like November! The weather is still good, the crowds have gone, and prices are low.
As I learned, June and July can be freezing, especially in the far south. Between March-May is ideal weather in the south, but as you head north, summers (as in December-February) are hot and I've witnessed some spectacular electrical storms in Pretoria. Winters on the other hand are cool, cold sometimes, but without the showers.
May to September is better for Zimbabwe and you can stretch it out a bit in Mozambique, July to October in Namibia.
My overall favorite time to visit Southern Africa: August-September.
As you saw from that brief weather report, Africa is extremely diverse - so packing will completely depend on where you're going, what you're doing, and when. If you're headed to the central band of the continent, this tropical packing list should help, and if you're headed across the continent for some long-term travel of several months or more, this long-term travel packing list should do the trick!
Perhaps the most important decision you'll have to make concerns your own adaptability and whether this type of travel - independent, at times demanding and often unexpected - is something you will enjoy. Ultimately that's what counts: whether you can enjoy your visit to Africa, and bring to that journey as much as you take away. If you can do that, you'll never forget your weeks or months wherever you decide to go.