Safety is on every traveller’s mind – more so it seems in these turbulent times. Many travel companies stay away from addressing the issues around safety directly. We believe that the more informed our travellers are, the safer, better prepared and happier their vacation will be, so we gathered together our top safety tips for travellers coming to Africa.
For starters, it makes sense to adopt the same safety precautions that you have at home – the precautions you take whether visiting Venice or Vladivostok. Avoid ostentatious displays of wealth and keep use of your digital gadgets to a minimum in crowded public places. Stay out of the busy downtown areas in cities and the industrial or business areas afer dark. When in doubt, ask your concierge or tour guide and listen to their advice. Always make copies of your travel documents and store these separately. Keep money in a belt that deters pickpockets and turn down offers of friendly assistance when it comes to exchanging money.
When travelling in Africa - as with any exotic destination - there are a handful of less obvious considerations: you may be going on safari, which means the possibility of malaria and the presence of large, dangerous creatures such as lions. There are specific cultural considerations and logistics to consider too - here are our tip tips to consider when planning your next African safari.
Internet research. Traveller forums like TripAdvisor, the US and UK government advisories and popular Africa travel blogs (like this one!) make it quick and easy to find out what’s happening where.
Contextualise the headlines. High crime rates can taint an entire country but iconic destinations like Cape Town and the Masai Mara are among the safest places to visit: take a stroll along Cape Town’s Atlantic promenade one summer’s evening and you’ll see what I mean.
Be sensible: Don’t take photographs at border crossings or of government buildings and adopt a positive attitude when dealing with uniformed authorities. Take advantage of on-the-ground information - your hotel concierge and tour guide are there to help.
Be respectful: Treat places with religious or cultural sensitivities, such as Zanzibar or the Maasai homelands, with the same respect you expect of tourists in your neighbourhood. Avoid taking intrusive photographs of people and dress appropriately in religious settings. Appropriate dress for men and woman in these religious regions is clothing that covers the knees and elbows, closes up to the collarbone. For woman with long hair, it's often considered appropriate to tie your hair back or simply tuck it into a hat.
Ask a healthcare professional for advice on country-specific inoculations and vaccines. For travel to East Africa, you may be required to provide proof of your yellow fever inoculation. Vaccinations, or boosters of your childhood vaccines, are highly recommended, especially for typhoid, tetanus, meningitis, hepatitis A and B, and rabies. Don't leave these to the last minute as some vaccines can make you feel unwell for a day or two.
Take anti-malarial precautions. The best defence against malaria is to avoid being bitten by mosquitoes. In the evenings, cover your legs, arms and feet and apply insect repellant liberally. Speak to your healthcare professional about the malarial prophylactics available to you - this is strong medication with many contra-indications and can be unsettling. Be aware of common side effects and remember that you may need to take the prophylactics before and after your safari. If you want to take the risk out of the equation, there are a number of malaria-free destinations in Southern Africa and the Indian Ocean islands.
Drink bottled water – it’s cheap and readily available. Most lodges serve complementary bottled water on game drives and in your room. Tap water is fine in South Africa and in many lodges where the wilderness setting means the pure spring water runs through the taps. However, many illness are waterborne making it inadvisable in urban areas outside South Africa to: drink tap water, take ice cubes in your drinks, or eat raw fruit and vegetables that may have been washed in tap water.
Dehydration. This is one of the most common causes of upset on vacation. Over heating, over exerting yourself, and not drinking enough fluids can all cause dehydration. According to the Mayo Clinic, early symptoms include headaches, fatigue, nausea, constipation, being very thirsty, having noticeably dry skin and feeling light headed or dizzy. It's not enough just to drink lots of water, you also need to replace the electrolytes you lose in sweat (much like athletes do). Speak to your healthcare professional about electrolyte replacements that you can add to bottled water if you suspect you are dehydrating and make sure you add these to your safari first aid kit.
Your personal first aid kit. Always bring enough of any prescription medication you take regularly - never assume that you can obtain the same medication in Africa. It's a good idea to carry a small first aid kit when you travel - chat to your travel clinic or healthcare professional and pack regular non-prescription medication that you use at home for minor medical needs.
Inform your agent and guide. Always alert your agent of any chronic illness so that both your lodge and guide are informed of any special needs you may have. If you feel unwell while you travel, always alert your guide, hotel concierge or lodge host. These individuals are best placed to get you to professional medical care, or simply to adjust your itinerary with regard to how much time you spend exposed to the elements or how much distance there is between bathrooms.
Familiarise yourself with how you’ll get from A to B. Visitors to Kenya land at Nairobi’s Jomo Kenyatta International but transfer to Wilson Airport , which is an hour and a half drive away, to catch their flight into the country's legendary safari areas. Knowing where to go and how to do it reduces nasty surprises midway through your itinerary.
Organise airport transfers before you travel. Airports and other travel hubs are points where a traveller's ignorance makes them most vulnerable to being taken advantage of - rather begin your holiday being greeted with your name on a clipboard and a smile of welcome rather than a clamouring scrum of taxi drivers. An African Safari Expert pre-arranges all your logistics ahead of time.
Stick to South Africa and Namibia for self-drive holidays. Both are ideal destinations in terms of roads, signage, accommodation and attractions. The rest of Africa isn’t suited to self-drive touring - you need exceptional 4X4 driving skills, a sensibility for wandering livestock and a very thorough knowledge of where you are heading as signage and maps can be outdated or simply incorrect. If you prefer travelling by road, a private guide is an excellent option in Africa.
Take careful note of your safety briefing on arrival. Many safari lodges are unfenced and wildlife wanders onto the property. Always remember that the creatures you encounter are entirely wild and will react defensively if you appear to be a threat, or aggresively if you act like an easy meal - never approach a wild animal or attempt to touch one.
Be malaria savvy: use your room’s mosquito nets and ceiling fans and apply insect repellent to exposed skin in the early mornings and late afternoons (before your game drives) and again in the evenings before dinner.
Always listen to your guide: he knows how to keep you safe, but he can only do that if you listen to his instructions. The great beauty of an African safari is experiencing the wilderness as naturally as possible. Be mindful and realistic about encountering potentially dangerous animals, bugs and exposure to the elements.
Travelling safely in Africa relies on making the same good choices you would apply in any other destination. Inform yourself well before you arrive by consulting health care professionals and by working with a great travel partner - a professional safari travel company should tailor your itinerary using current knowledge and local on-the-ground expertise.
My own travels have taken me from the predator-packed grasslands of the Kalahari to downtown Johannesburg, and the deep waters of the Okavango Delta, and I can't recall an unpleasant travel experience. Combine good-old fashioned common sense with destination-specific advice and you have all you need to travel safely in Africa.