Taking to the great African continent in your own vehicle is a very liberating experience. But it always helps if you have some insider knowledge from those in the know who have been doing this for years.
Here are the top 10 practical tips to 4x4ing through Africa.
1. The biggest mistake travellers make is to over pack. There is no need to pack 6 months supply of shampoo, toilet paper and soap; nor 3 months supply of dehydrated army rations. Yes Africans use toiletries and they also eat. OK so your 6 ply extra soft toilet paper may not be available everywhere but surely you can survive with 2 ply!
2. Africa is not like home. So don’t expect it to be as such and don’t complain and make stupid comments about it being different. Of course it is different that is why you chose to travel through Africa.
3. “You white people have a watch; we Africans have time” This statement was made to me years ago in Dar es Salaam by a very wise old man. If you are told something will take 10 minutes, put the kettle on and make a cup of tea; it will be at least an hour.
4. “It is just down the road” can mean anything from 3kms to 300kms in African distance. Whenever asking for directions get a second and third opinion and then you may actually be lucky enough to find where you want to go. Most places do not have street names nor numbers but are described in terms of landmarks. Don’t bother asking a local in a village the directions to a place 200kms away – chances are he has never been there but to save face will convincingly tell you how to get there (sending you off in the wrong direction).
5. Police check points are the norm all over Africa (as is the weaponry); it is not uncommon for police to stop you simply to say hello. Like everywhere in the world the police can be very friendly or very grumpy. When a policeman asks for some money for Chai (cup of tea) he does not really want a cup of tea but wants some money from you. Unless you know you have done something wrong and want to get out of it do not pay bribes to the police.
6. Coming from Europe, Australia or the USA we assume that service stations are the ideal place to stop for a quick toilet stop. Unless it is Southern Africa don’t bother; even if you don’t pass out from the smell 10 metres before reaching the toilet the mess in and around the toilet will surely bring on some kind of seizure. Do your business in the bush; is the best advice I can give. But if you do this there is one golden rule; stop the car and immediately get out, go behind the bush and do your business. The reason; there are always tens of kids intrigued by Mzungus (white people) and they are not shy in coming right up to you and watch while you do your business. The longer it takes you to get out the vehicle the greater the chances you will have a crowd of onlookers.
7. Maps bought locally are not always accurate. A few months ago I bought the new edition map of Nairobi (capital of Kenya) only to discover that either half the roads had not been built yet or simply did not exist. Another trap is quite often roads will change names but the new edition map still has the old names on it.
8. Put it on Visa. Credit cards should only be seen as emergency backup only. Most places between Cairo and Cape do not accept credit card. Actually you will be met with very blank stares if you ask to pay for fuel with Visa/MasterCard. Travellers’ cheques are also only good as emergency backup and, regardless what Thomas Cook or AMEX tells you, they do attract hefty fees. A couple of years ago I was leading a West Africa Trans when one of my clients in Cameroon went to the bank to change up USD$50 into CFAs. The teller took a good 5 minutes punching away on his calculator buttons before turning to my client and saying “I can change this USD$50 traveller’s cheque but to do so will cost you USD$56 in fees and charges!” Cash is King.
9. Never believe everything you read. In 2000 I left my home in Australia armed with a backpack and lonely planet guide to South America. It was not long before I discovered that although a handy guide book it was not always accurate. The route I wanted to take this particular day seemed too easy (according to the Lonely Planet) and should have been 1 bus ride and ferry but turned into 7 modes of transport (bus, back of a truck with farm animals, hiring a leaky boat, ferry, donkey cart, back of a pickup and the final 2kms by foot). Reality is the writers cannot possibly visit all the places in the guide book and in this case the service referred to in the LP stopped 5 years prior to me arriving.
10. “Shorts and T-shirts all the way”. A poor virgin traveller arrived in Nairobi to embark on her 8 week journey to Cape Town in August dressed in only shorts and T-shorts. I asked if she was cold. “Freezing” was her response but an agent in the UK had told her Africa was hot and she didn’t need any warm clothes. That day it was raining, windy and no more than 13 degrees Celsius!
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