Becoming an 'Africa travel expert' is something that takes time. Neither myself nor my colleagues at Bench Africa were born Africa travel experts. Our knowledge comes from years of experience and is continually expanding through the many trips we take to the continent. In fact, just like becoming great at playing a sport or mastering an instrument, becoming great at crafting the best African travel experiences comes with lots of time, practice, and even some mistakes along the way.
So, what is it that makes for the best African adventures? How do you start planning without making too many 'mistakes' on your first trip to Africa? Truth be told, the answer is different for everyone. There are, however, a few common mistakes that most people (including myself) make when they take their first trip to Africa. So, let's take a look at what I'd do differently if I could redo my first time visiting.
I must also declare that I use the term 'mistake' very loosely. After all, on my first trip to Africa, I spent 6 weeks exploring some of the wildest, remote and distinctive corners of our planet. So really, there's nothing I did that was 'wrong'. It is just that now both having travelled to and learned so much about Africa, there are a few things that I would do differently.
'A once in a lifetime trip'
Africa was a trip I had on my bucket list before I even knew what travelling was. I guess you could blame this on the Lion King like many fellow Disney fans, but a safari was something that I had always dreamed of. With this, I found myself putting the trip in a different bucket to other trips I had taken. At the time to me, it was a 'dream trip', a 'once in a lifetime' experience that I took quite literally and so tried to do everything, all at once. After looking through no more than 2 brochures, I had found the tour I wanted, purely because it included all of the "highlights". I had decided to start my trip with a few days in Cape Town, South Africa and then take a tour that departed Victoria Falls and ended in Nairobi, Kenya. Sure, my itinerary covered the 'highlights' I had heard of but also travelled a distance that is roughly the same distance of travelling from Adelaide to Singapore, all in 4-5 weeks.
Looking back, was this a bad thing? Not necessarily, it just meant VERY long drive days (sometimes around 15 hours of driving a day) and less time in each location. For example, it only allowed an afternoon game drive in some of the national parks along the way. The tour I did visited 4 or 5 countries, but it's hard to say you've experienced an entire country when only spending 2 days crossing through to get to the next country. Sure, I had the highlights ticked but at what cost? If I could do my time over, I'd think about the continent as that, an entire continent. Most people don't plan their Europe or USA trip as if they're never going back. They don't try to travel from Moscow to London in 3-4 weeks (despite being much shorter in the distance), so the same should apply for Africa. If I could turn back time, I would take things a bit slower and base myself within a region in Africa. Whether that be a country OR a couple of neighbouring countries I'd spend more time in individual locations and visiting different areas in the continent over a few various trips. After all, a flight to Southern Africa from Australia is similar in distance to that of the cities along the West Coast of the USA. The continent is no further away than Europe or the USA, continents that people return to multiple times.
Why not Africa?
Caring more about the demographic that I travelled with than the itinerary
When planning an overseas holiday, there are an array of choices. When I planned my first trip to Africa something I cared about way too much was the people I would be travelling with. I was 20, so I felt like I needed to travel alongside other youth travellers to enjoy myself in Africa. I wanted a tour that was 'fun and social'. The group I travelled with were some of the best people (and I absolutely loved it), but I look back now and think how silly that was! No matter who I had travelled with, I would've had a great time. Anyone who is travelling to some of the most remote corners of Africa to take in the wilderness and magic of the African continent is a like-minded traveller. To this day, I have never cared about what the group demographic will be like, and I have made choices purely based on the quality of the itinerary I want to see instead of the people who I'll be with and I've always made great friends in a group. If anything, the key thing I would suggest when choosing a tour is instead of thinking about the demographic of the group, think about the group size.
Less is more.
Not learning the history or customs of where I was visiting
I blame it on being young and naive, but like most people, I wanted to go to Africa for the animals. I ignorantly looked straight past the fascinating history of the African continent and the incredible people that inhabit it – even being half African myself! The many countries you will experience on a trip to Africa each have their own vibrant charm and many different cultures within. If I could rewind back the years, I'd do some study before deciding where I want to go and factor in what interests me about African history into my itinerary as well as what national parks I want to visit.
Overpacking and a few too many trips to Kathmandu (the outdoor store, not the city)
I've planned my 6-week adventure based on the massive itinerary from Cape Town to Nairobi, and I'm booked in and ready to go. I'm beyond excited, but I need to pack and before I do that I need to stock up on every possible outdoor adventure item as if I am going to trek the Kokoda Trail.
Research where you're visiting and buy only new things that are going to be necessary for the kind of trip you're taking. I was doing an overland trip which included participation camping, so I did need to bring a few additional bits along with me, including a head torch, sleeping bag, and a pillow, but I didn't need all of the other extras. It is also important to remember that between all of the wild and remote areas in Africa there are towns and cities. If you're overlanding in Africa, you typically won't go more than a few days without passing a town where you can restock and pick up essentials. If you're doing a tailormade itinerary staying in lodges, you'll find your standard of living is probably even higher than that that you're used to at home. If I could talk to "past me", I'd let her know that the entire African continent is not a jungle. Do yourself a favour and lighten the load when you're packing for your African safari.
Animal encounters and 'poorism'…
I wanted to go to Africa for the animals and to see them in their wild environment. But I had also heard about rehabilitation and conservation projects across the country in which you can get up close and interact with animals. To me, this sounded like a bonus, wild animals, AND getting to cuddle a cheetah while supporting the conservation of the species, how cool! So, with a lack of proper research, there I was at a 'cheetah conservation project' having a close encounter with these special cats. What felt like such a unique and genuine moment at the time was now looking back, not ideal. Typically, most animal encounters in which you can touch, bathe, walk with, or ride animals are not at all an ethical way to interact with these animals. When you think about it, if these animals were going to be released back into the wild OR had been rescued from an unfortunate situation, there is still no need for human interaction. It's easy to see that most of these 'projects' that involve wildlife interaction are actually set up purely for human entertainment and profit, not the animals. Years have passed, and we now have much more education around animal tourism and learn from the mistakes we make along the way, but this is something to always keep front of mind when looking to be close to animals while travelling, anywhere in the world. I had also opted in for an optional 'village tour' which I thought would be really cool to get an insight into the local way of life within one of the areas we visited. It wasn't until I found myself walking through a run-down hospital walking through people in so much pain that I realised what the tour was all about and opted to stay outside and wait for the group. Not appropriate. The only people who need to be in a hospital is medical staff and patients, a hospital is no place for a tourist. I couldn't imagine what the sick people in the waiting room had felt like when they saw tourists rock up and walk through. Mingling with locals and getting to know a bit more about the areas you're visiting is great. Still, such things can be done simply by chatting at a bar, interacting with locals at markets, talking to your lodge staff etc. or on an organised tour that is appropriate rather than opting into something without realising what it entails. Be sure to do your research and be very careful of visits to orphanages, hospitals, schools etc.
Not talking to an Africa travel specialist…
Bar one or two of these points, I wouldn't necessarily call them 'mistakes'. There is by no means a right or wrong way to visit Africa but certainly, a few that I overlooked could have been avoided if I actually took the time to do some proper research to find an operator that specialised in Africa rather than pure guesswork. It sounds so simple, but you wouldn't buy a vacuum cleaner from a car salesman, then the same goes for travel really. Find a specialist (I hear Bench Africa is excellent) and use their expertise and knowledge to your advantage. Chances are they've made those mistakes in the past, many moons ago and can pass on the best advice and guide you along the way as you tailor-make your itinerary based on what's best for you and your interests.
So, that's a lot to process, right? Really, my advice to those planning their first trip to Africa is to take a moment to pause and research. Africa is the world's second-largest continent. There's a LOT to see and do, but this doesn't mean you have to do everything, all at once. Take the time to take it slow, enjoy the moments, and spend more time in wilderness areas rather than on the road trying to get everything ticked off. Africa is full of some of the world's most famous and remarkable national parks but is also home to many lesser-known, prolific wild areas, with just as great a safari as the more significant parks.
When it comes to Africa, less is more. And above all, no matter what itinerary you do or which sites you visit, you're going to have a great time. Rather than trying to 'see it all', think more about 'seeing it well'.
And lastly, you may think this is your one and only trip to Africa, but I promise you, before you even return home from your trip, you will be thinking about when you're taking your next adventure back to Africa.