Africa holds an air of mystery in the minds of so many...
But how do you begin to plan your gap year in Africa?
Just like the stripes on two Zebras are never identical, no two trips to Africa are ever the same. I don’t know about you, but I tend to lump Africa as one country and planning your trip can be a daunting and overwhelming task!
Well the diverse continent of 54 countries need not scare you any longer. Here’s a beginners' guide to get you ready to make the journey and venture into the world’s wildlife playground…
Where Should You Go?
Africa has always appealed to me as it's one of the last frontiers of travel; that is, non-air conditioned travel. It offers the adventurer a paradise of unique cultures, landscapes, animals and climates. It appeals to my inner explorer!
Most people associate Africa with the ultimate safari and yes there are some awesome opportunities to watch the Big 5 wander up to your truck and say hello.
Although don’t underestimate the unnerving feeling of falling asleep with zebras eating outside your tent. There’s no better way to get the adrenaline pumping than thinking you’ll be eaten alive!
But Africa is so much more than just a vast plain of elephants, lions and wildebeest. Don’t forget Morocco - yes that beautiful Arabic country is part of Africa. Now with this in mind choosing where to go can be almost impossible! I’ve put together a few destinations that I think provide the variety available in Africa and cover some of the most beautiful places on Earth.
Here’s a quick geography lesson for you (don’t worry, I really will keep it brief!)
Southern Africa: South Africa, Namibia Desert, Kruger National Park and Victoria Falls
Eastern Africa: Uganda, Kenya, Safari Paradise
North Africa: Forgotten Africa, as I like to call it; Morocco, Egypt, Arabic culture.
I told you – that’s the quickest geography lesson you’ll ever have the pleasure of enduring!
Country #1: Tanzania
Home to the beautiful Serengeti, Tanzania offers the perfect Safari destination – the Serengeti National Park. This is Big 5 stomping ground. Any Lion King fans will be in heaven, I spent my time pretending I was in the movie as I sang out The Circle of Life for all the animals to hear.
This beautiful country also has a lot more to offer. It has great food every traveller should try, some vibrant cities, and of course the amazing Masai people - a fascinating culture. Spend a while living with these amazing people, learn a new way of life and embrace a completely different outlook on life.
If your still not sold, among the vast plains lies Mount Kilimanjaro. A staggering 5,895m tall this mountain can be climbed by the intrigued tourist who fancies a challenge, or admired from afar by those more inclined to spend their days with their lion pride.
Country #2: South Africa
With Kruger National Park, Table Mountain and amazing cities like Cape Town and Johannesburg this is certainly a destination not to be missed. It arguably has better infrastructure than surrounding areas and provides slightly less of a culture shock so often acts as a good starting place to ease yourself in gently.
Whilst the safari opportunities are also booming here, Kruger National Park being one of the largest game parks in Africa, there are many other highlights to be enjoyed. Hike up to Table Mountain for stunning views over the city of Cape Town, or head into main town and enjoy bars, beaches and if you're lucky you may find a show or two – there are some brilliant musicals. I mean it’s no Broadway but the entertainment value is up there!
A fan of theme parks? South Africa can offer the delights of Gold Reef City or if you fancy getting soaked Valley of the Waves is a must visit. Adrenalin junkies wanting even more will also be pleased to discover that South Africa is a world centre for extreme sports.
Country #3: Morocco
As I mentioned earlier, Morocco always falls into the area I like to call forgotten Africa. People, myself included, seem to always forget that Morocco does lie in Africa and is a fascinating destination.
It provides a completely different landscape, terrain and culture to those countries of Southern and Eastern Africa. Marrakesh, the capital is one of my favourite cities in the world!
You can wander through the Souks (although do be careful not to get lost) pick up some freshly made bread, smell the aromatic spices on the shelves of every other stall and even pick up some beautiful handicrafts. Then once you’ve found your way back out to the main square you are bombarded with snake charmers, monkey handlers and live music!
Once you’ve had your fill of the big city lights, within an easy drive you can head up to the mountains. Stop by a camel ride – an uncomfortable but unforgettable experience – and then be surrounded by the mountains, goats galore and amazing people that welcome you in open arms with the best mint tea you will ever taste!
Finally, you can get back to more familiar African landscapes by heading out to the South-Eastern parts of Morocco where you hit the Sahara. Camp under the stars and feel more at home in the Africa portrayed in the media but still with a fabulous Arabic atmosphere.
So now I’ve given you a flavour of the places on offer, you may wonder how you can travel once you’ve touched down in Arusha, Entebbe, Johannesburg or Accra. Maybe somewhat surprising but travel is fairly easy, here’s how…
How Should You Get Around and Explore?
You’ve now picked your destination(s) but how do you get around the beautiful Tanzania to explore all it has to offer?
How do you get from South Africa up towards Victoria Falls and stop off at all the places you want to on the way?
Travel Option #1: Overland Tour
The overland tour offers an opportunity to see brilliant wildlife on safari whilst getting you from A to B. It comes in all shapes and forms and offers a great way to see the variety that these amazing places have to offer.
One such type of overland tour is the Baz Bus. It offers a hop-on hop-off structure where you buy a ticket for a certain length of time you can then travel the designated routes stopping off wherever takes your fancy.
This may not provide the most authentic way to explore the continent but it takes the hassle out of logistics, provides a safe mode of travel and allows you to meet similar people that become lifelong friends.
Travel Option #2: Public Buses and Minivans
If you want to be part of other passengers’ everyday lives, join in with the laughter and conversations of the locals then these are the ones for you. Public buses are comfortable and spacious and designed for longer journeys. They are the local means of getting from one country to the next or just from one end of the country to the other. Think Megabus African style!
The minivan is lovely and cheap but designed for shorter journeys. You think you know how many people could fit in a minivan? Think again when you’re in the local town of Kamuli...
They fit as many as possible and then a couple of extra people and you bundle along to your next destination – the next village, city, wherever it may be.
Top tip: when taking a minivan jump on one that looks fairly full as then you’ll avoid waiting for it to fill up and go.
Planning Your Own Trip Sound Like Too Much Work?
If you’ve looked through this and decided that, as amazing as these places sound, the planning just sounds all too much? Or maybe you feel that you'd like to contribute to the places you’re visiting, understand the local culture a little better, and get to know local people and their way of life.
There are plenty of opportunities to travel and contribute in Africa. Volunteering programs offer an organized way to see a country and contribute to the local economy and improve the daily lives of the local communities.
The Leap offers a number of gap year programs in Africa here, all of which involve volunteering projects in tandem with more traditional backpacker activities.
Now You're an African Expert, Take Action!
As I'm sure you've seen by now, Africa has plenty to offer for all types of travel and interests. Look beyond the media portrayals and you truly will find an explorer’s paradise. I’ve given you places to think about and options of how to get around, but do you know what the most important step is to get out there and start travelling? Commit to going, and start planning! Like anything, the first step is always the hardest.
on 24 / 11 / 2015