It’s now one week since I returned from my first trip to Africa, following the East African Safari Classic Rally with Tuthill Porsche as their photographer/media person. It was a brilliant experience: the team won the rally with Blomqvist, but even better stuff happened en route.
Pre-trip advice from friends who had visited Africa many times before was not positive. Guaranteed to be robbed, suffer food poisoning or worse, heatstroke or worse, malaria or worse, Ebola or worse: bring your own doctor and touch nothing would be a fair summary of their shared insights. Well, we did bring our own doctor (take a bow, paramedic and all-round good bloke, John Jones) but I didn’t require his attention. It was all smooth sailing once we found our rhythm.
I followed the doc’s advice and drank at least two litres of water a day, then added some simple precautions – no salads, kept my mouth closed while showering and brushed my teeth with bottled water, used antiseptic wipes to clean my hands and mouth a few times daily, brought some magic Avon mosquito repellent – and, while some of the guys I was travelling with had problems, I survived mostly intact. I wouldn’t do anything differently next time regarding keeping things clean, but I would look to sleep more, and spend more time talking with locals where possible. The best times in East Africa came from the people.
My ten bits of African travel advice (Kenya & Tanzania) for a first-timer virgin like me are as follows:
- It will take you at least three days to get used to the heat, especially in humid parts like Mombasa
- You will never get used to the heat, just endure it for longer. More altitude means you burn faster
- Sleep is your very best friend. Get sleep and all will be well
- Pack half the clothes you think you need, then get rid of half of them and bring a tube of travelwash
- Come home with less than you brought (give shoes & clothes away at the end)
- Pack plenty of earplugs, a decent sunhat and spare sunglasses
- All shorts must have a front zip pocket for your passport: do not let it out of your sight. Be aware of who is around and keep cameras etc on your person
- Neutrogena factor 60 sunblock is rubbish. Nivea 50 worked well for this blue-skinned European
- Malaria is real. Take the drugs
- Make sure your mobile/cellphone can roam in the countries you plan to travel to, and any country on their borders
- Say hello to everyone – you will get the biggest smile back
There are eleven bits of advice there. Another tip from Africa is limits are for Westerners. There are mostly no rules: do whatever fits the bill and talk/smile your way out of trouble with officials. If you’re struggling with red tape, directions, airport check-in or whatnot, let a local help you. Even if they are no help (sometimes happens), chances are they will bore whatever officialdom is delaying your progress into returning your paperwork and sending you on your way. But mostly they are helpful, as long as you’re not in a rush. So don’t be in a rush. Also don’t be afraid to gatecrash VIP queues: it usually works.
Everything you carry is currency, be it local money, clothing, US dollars or just a bottle of water, even if it is empty. You will get by quite nicely if you’re ready to spend some time and play the game of “hey boss, take my picture and give me five dollars”. Obviously you’re not giving anyone five dollars to take their picture, but ask for permission to take a pic if that’s what you want. Then ask what people are doing, find out what happens in town, talk to people and soak up the experience. They soon understand there is no money coming and the people I met didn’t mind. That said, I have read a few horror stories so be prepared to make excuses and leave: “let me get you some lunch from my friends over there” or “I’ll just go and talk to my boss and get you something”.
Good advice from Richard was don’t give kids money, or anything else. Giving a kid money just means a bigger kid will beat them up and take it, then someone bigger than him will take it. Donate to community organisations if you feel so inclined – your accomodation manager knows who to talk to. In hotels or lodges, tip the luggage guys a few hundred shillings, buy a drink for the barman (chances are they will drink it and chat for a while), give your hotel chef a t-shirt, do all that stuff. But remember rules are for Westerners, so don’t follow my rules.