Habits of highly effective intrepid travellers

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If you’re plotting on venturing into relatively unexplored territory (and there’s plenty of that in Africa), here are the four skills you’ll need to make it as rewarding as it should be. By Jim O’Brien.

As intrepid travellers increasingly look further afield across Africa’s vast landscape, beyond the traditional safari attractions, a wealth of opportunity beckons… not only is there the intrigue of venturing into different and diverse environments, but most enticing is the prospect of getting to know and understand Africa’s people, and their rich cultural heritage, away from the relative sophistication of a tourist economy.

For me, travel into Africa’s hinterland has always held strong appeal. I find myself drawn to less-visited countries and regions in search of ‘real life’ encounters. Such travel is not easy, and of course it will not appeal to everyone.

Many places are difficult to travel through. Some travellers are discouraged by the idea of long days on dusty roads, or several nights of camping, or the other, often necessary, elements of travelling in remote regions. Mostly, nothing works as you are used to at home. There may be problems with infrastructure; attitudes may be different; and maintenance may not be to as high a standard as we would always like. For me, however, this is part of the appeal.

More than 20 years of taking such trips has taught me there are four particular behaviours that will help anyone looking to travel further off the beaten track:

Be patient
When you’re stuck at a roadblock in Gabon, having your documents checked for the umpteenth time by a young soldier holding your passport upside down, getting annoyed is probably the least productive thing you can do. Sure, it’s frustrating, but remember that the man in front of you probably hasn’t seen a western tourist on this road for several weeks and, for the moment, you’re providing some light entertainment.

Losing your temper because you’re hungry and really want to get to the restaurant for dinner isn’t going to help – quite the opposite. My recommendation? Smile, co-operate, and if it looks like it’s going to take a while, find a nearby restaurant or bar, have a beer, talk with the locals, and make it all part of the experience.

Be prepared
It might sound obvious, but reading up on where you’re going beforehand makes a world of difference. Some understanding of the politics, culture and history of a country not only adds to your appreciation of it, but helps you avoid any unpleasant surprises. Why has that man just decapitated a chicken in front of me? Oh yes, it’s perfectly normal in Benin…

Forget conventional sightseeing
If you’re travelling to somewhere like Nigeria, then don’t expect it to be full of jaw dropping monuments like the Taj Mahal, or carefully polished experiences designed to wow tourists. Often the reward from such destinations isn’t so much the UNESCO sites or stunning museums, but about experiencing the best of local culture, without the presence of mass tourism. This is usually spontaneous, and often unstructured.

Sometimes the best experiences consist of wandering into an old quarter of the city, meeting the residents, exploring the markets and getting to grips with local life, rather than being shepherded from one ‘sight’ to another. Think of those attractions as part of the trip, rather than its raison d’etre, and you’ll have a better time.

Manage your expectations
The nature of remote destinations means that it’s not possible to absolutely guarantee that something will happen as anticipated. In countries where the tourist footfall is light, this can manifest itself in many different ways. Perhaps the museum won’t be open when it should be – despite the fact that you’ve phoned ahead to tell them you’re coming. What if there’s no fuel available for the boat trip because the boy who was supposed to get it hasn’t come back yet? Maybe a bereavement in the village where you’re supposed to see fascinating traditional buildings has meant they won’t be welcoming visitors after all.

The beauty of travelling in places that receive very few tourists is that your encounters and experiences are authentic – but that can often mean things don’t go as planned. The tourism infrastructure in these places is not polished and, despite best efforts, services can be unreliable. You soon appreciate this as part of the charm.

Travelling in intrepid destinations can be tough and frustrating. But the experiences are real – not plastic representations of local culture, or manufactured encounters. You see them as they are, warts and all, and in the process learn about the world’s cultures (including your own) in all their glorious diversity.

Jim O’Brien set up Native Eye, which helps intrepid travellers explore some of Africa’s less obvious destinations, often attending particular festivals or ceremonies. For more, visit www.nativeeyetravel.com

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