Having travelled extensively for more than 25 years in 21 African countries, from Namibia to Nigeria, Cape Town-based guide book author Lizzie Williams has enjoyed a full range of experiences. Above all, she’s learnt some secrets for getting the best out of Africa, and they’re largely a question of attitude. Here’s her advice to help you prepare for your next safari.
Celebrate Africa’s diversity
Most people want to visit Africa for the quintessential safari experience, to see and learn more about its wildlife. Many first-time travellers’ impressions are of sun-baked grassy plains dotted with flat-topped acacia trees and trampled by thousands of animals, which of course is very real in lots of locations.
But Africa also offers myriad beautiful landscapes, as well as intriguing cultures, ideas, customs and traditions that are unique to each country.
Mix it up a little. And don’t forget to allocate some time to immerse yourselves in the cities too – even though the traffic might be crazy or the crammed streets may feel intimidating. Take it easy and relax on a nice beach, or climb a mountain simply because you can. For every mainstream tourist attraction that’s listed as a must-do, there is also a hidden gem to be discovered.
Engage with people
Most of Africa’s people are amazingly welcoming and friendly, and, as with anywhere you travel, it’s always important to interact with those who are effectively your hosts.
They are generally inquisitive to. On all my travels I have found that everyone always wants to talk about where I am from and how I got to where I was. They ask me how I am enjoying my trip, share a laugh and a joke and have a good old conversation that is enjoyable on both sides. I always immediately feel a bond with them, love how they take life so pragmatically and make lots of friends. Above all, it’s an ideal way to learn from one another.
But, also, don’t be uneasy by spans of silence during African conversations. When there’s something to be said, it will be said; when there’s nothing to be said, silence is perfectly fine. Just enjoy the presence of others.
Always be sensitive to local etiquette
Never forget that you are a guest in someone else’s home, and remember that Africans are extremely gracious and caring people, ready to go the extra mile to respect and be helpful to others. Here, cultural values are based on a foundation of the past and present.
In many places where there may be religious or cultural etiquettes, always adhere to them to avoid showing disrespect. Just because some other silly tourist is wearing a bikini while strolling around an Islamic village on Zanzibar, or giving sweets out randomly to children in Ethiopia, or being rude and demanding to an older person in Uganda, it doesn’t mean that you should — do some research and behave correctly.
Additionally, if we do not publicly show anger, frustration or impatience, and if we understand African cultural values as they are, we can make a positive impression to our hosts.
Do not underestimate the weather
Back to those sun-baked grassy plains again. It’s not all like that, and in fact most travellers are surprised at the extremes of temperature, seasonal variables and climates that are as varied as Africa’s diverse geography.
Did you realise that it drops below freezing at night in Namibia’s deserts and Morocco’s Atlas Mountains during the winter months; or that in Kenya, despite it straddling the equator, much of the country is at an elevation (temperatures drop by about 6°C for every 1000-metres you climb) so the highlands receive a great deal of rain and are very cold in the evening and morning; or that Cape Town’s climate can change three or four times in a single day simply because there’s an amazing mountain in the middle of the city?
If you want to be assured of a sunny holiday, choose your time of year correctly, otherwise go with the flow and enjoy the seasonal and geographical characteristics that make Africa so special.
Acknowledge and embrace ‘African Time’
Despite the use of clocks to tell us what the time is, African time works differently, and generally things fall into place as they unfold — a perfect example is in South Africa where the terms “just now” and “now-now” mean entirely different scopes of time (look them up).
Future scheduled times and itineraries can’t always be relied on or rushed, and thinking so will only make you frustrated — and there’s no need to be as, believe me, Africa will teach you to be flexible and, hopefully, to not get stressed about it.
If a plan gets shut down or changes drastically — from a cancelled flight or hotel reservation to a washed out road or political insecurity — there’s not always anything you can do about it. Instead, just accept it, continue with a positive attitude and make it part of an adventure you’ll tell your friends and family about for years.
Think about costs and choices
Yes, safaris can be expensive, and there’s an amazing choice of top-end luxury lodges in the mainstream parks from Tanzania’s Serengeti and Kenya’s Masai Mara to the private game reserves around South Africa’s Kruger or Botswana’s concessions in the Okavango Delta.
But I’ve written countless times about how to do it cheaper. Don’t assume that you need a ton of cash to visit Africa’s wild places. Other options include self-drive and camping or using the cheaper lodges on the peripherals of parks and game reserves, utilising public transport, opting for local tour operators or even buying/renting your own overland vehicle if you have the luxury of time.
The point is, don’t just Google ‘African safaris’ and be blinded by the super-expensive options. Find something that suits your own requirements and make it your own choice.
Don’t expect every park or game reserve to deliver the same experience
I recently visited the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park. On the way in, I met some German visitors coming out. They told me they were terribly disappointed as they had not seen ‘the Big Five’. Yet the Kgalagadi is not a Big Five park (there are no elephant, buffalo or rhino). It is, however, a wonderful, vast stretch of the Kalahari Desert that is famously known for its predators — lion, hyena, cheetah and many species of birds of prey. It is rightly an absolute favourite with southern African travellers, but these overseas tourists’ expectations were a little askew as they expected to see all the animals on just one safari.
It just doesn’t happen. And even if you were to go to a Big Five park like Kruger, it’s still all about luck in a short time and many other factors like seasonal variables. Think about different safari areas and how much you can fit in in the time you have available. And remember that one trip to Africa will never be enough…
And finally, unless you’re using it as a camera, leave the smart phone alone
How much press has there been worldwide recently about how much time we spend looking down at our phones? Doing this in Africa, and especially on safari or travelling through the many stunning locations, you’ll miss a moment you’ll regret — perhaps a cheetah running after an impala, a glimpse of the mist rising above a rainforest, a raptor in flight, an animated group of villagers on the side of a road, a lion nuzzling his partner in affection, a city street full of colour and buzz, or the sun taking mere seconds to sink in a ball of orange. In short: watch now and post later… Don’t miss a single thing about Africa that will etch on your memory forever.