Even with its abundant wildlife, stunning landscapes, precious gems and distinction as the cradle of humanity, Africa still leaves some travelers uneasy despite their fascination and longing. To dispel your fears, we caught up with Valerie Bowden, Africa travel expert, author, and blogger at BackPackingAfricaforBeginners.com. Valerie shares her personal account and love story with the continent, and how anyone — even a solo woman traveler –can explore the wilds of Africa safely.
WATCH our video interview with Valerie Bowden
Tell us about your website and what you do?
After my seven-month backpacking trip across Africa, I realized that a lot of people want to travel the continent, too, but they don’t know how. So I decided to start a blog and write an ebook, both called Backpacking Africa for Beginners, to help more travelers choose Africa as their next destination. While I share some personal stories, I mainly concentrate on providing practical how-to information to make their journey safe and fun.
How does a young woman take on the intrepid adventure of backpacking Africa alone?
I was never that adventurous growing up, but I always wanted to go to Africa for some reason. After months of searching the internet, I finally found someone who had traveled the continent and was willing to give me some advice. He didn’t say much, but he told me that I’d be safe, and that he had seen other girls traveling solo. That was enough reassurance for me, so I booked my ticket.
To be honest, my original plan was limited to visiting five countries in two months, but the more I traveled, the more comfortable I felt. Plus, I realized Africa had a lot to offer. So I just kept going and going. Eventually, my trip ended up including 13 countries and took seven months.
Africa is known for political instability, crime, and violence in some areas, but you say Africa is safer than Europe is today. Talk about that, because the big question on the minds of many travelers is, will I be safe?
Most African countries are very safe to visit. The rise of crimes against tourists in Europe along with the threat of ISIS is making enough people, including myself, reevaluate what destinations are safe to visit. For the average tourist, the biggest crime they have to worry about in Africa is getting pick-pocketed. I recommend following basic common sense (not walking alone at night, not walking off with people you don’t know, etc.) and asking locals for safety information specific to the area. For example, everybody told me in Kilagi that I could walk down a dark alley with all my valuables, and I would be fine. But in Nairobi, I was told to take a taxi once it got dark even if I was only going a few minutes away. By following suggestions like this, I never put myself in a compromising position.
I actually just met a backpacker from Colombia, and he expressed that African countries are even safer to visit than South America. He cited the kindness of locals in Africa as a big advantage.
Which areas offer beauty, wildlife, and adventure while ensuring one’s safety, particularly if you’re a woman traveling this country alone?
Ironically, as women, we feel like it’s harder to travel alone. But in some ways, it’s actually easier. Throughout my trip, locals would help me, citing, “This is how I would want someone to treat my mother (or sister, or wife, etc).” And when I hitchhiked, I felt like individuals and families were much more willing to pick up a female traveler than male. I met dozens of other girls traveling Africa solo along my trip, and they all agreed with me.
As a woman in Africa, I think you can have a great time in almost all the countries. Just be more careful not to wander off at night or drink so much that you’re unaware of your surroundings. But again, that’s basic common sense that you should follow anywhere in the world.
How would you categorize ways to experience Africa – we know safaris are a big one, but what are other options and what would one see and do?
Besides safaris, travelers can enjoy outdoor activities (hiking, climbing mountains, visiting waterfalls,), adrenaline-pumping experiences (shark cage diving, sand surfing, bungee jumping), rest & relaxation (spas, wine tastings, luxurious resorts), historical sight-seeing (the pyramids in Egypt &Sudan, the churches
in Lalibela), cultural immersion (visiting rural communities, seeing huts, going to local markets, meeting locals), animals/marine life (snorkeling, scuba diving, walking safaris, riding ostriches, petting zoos, gorilla trekking, rescued animal orphanages), festivals, shopping, and so much more!
How much time do you need to plan for a safari and how does one go about planning this type of trip?
If you’re new to Africa, I recommend going on a safari in one of the three most popular spots. This means visiting the Kruger Park region in South Africa, the Serengeti in Tanzania, or Masai Mara in Kenya. You’ll have a much smoother experience given that their tourism industries are more built up. You can explore lesser known, more rugged areas the next time.
It’s best to plan your trip around the time of year you can go, and what you want to see. Do you want to see the Big 5 game (African lion, African elephant, Cape buffalo, African leopard, and rhinoceros), the Great Wildebeest Migration, etc.? As far as which resort or tour guide to pick, check out reviews online from other travelers. They’ll give you the latest and most specific up-to- date information. Resorts will prefer you pay online before you come. But it’s not necessary. Once you arrive in the country, you’ll find dozens of tour agencies and resorts willing to help you make your trip spectacular.
Obviously, different types of explorers and demographics will come at Africa in vastly different ways. For a younger person with limited resources, what’s the shoestring approach to getting to Africa and which country would you recommend as a starting point for first timers?
For the shoestring budget, I recommend bringing a tent and sleeping in the camping section at backpacker lodges. Frugal travelers can also save money by taking local buses and eating at cheap local restaurants.
Malawi and Mozambique were two of the cheapest countries I found. But for someone who is really apprehensive, start in South Africa. It’s the most developed and easiest country to travel in Africa. Go there first. Travel around until you get the hang of backpacking. After that, you can explore cheaper countries.
What about the more mature traveler who has more disposable income and may want to experience a wildlife adventure, but on a gentler scale?
There are many beautiful and luxurious resorts in Africa– especially in safari areas. They offer international comforts with a taste of Africa. It’s great for someone who wants to see animals and experience Africa, without the typical discomforts and annoyances that budget travelers will no doubt face.
This kind of traveler will find Africa a joy to travel. I think they’ll even be surprised how comfortable and extravagant it can be. My only warning is that at times some roads and paths may be uneven. Just make sure you’re in good walking shape, and you shouldn’t have a problem.
What is your favorite African destination and why?
I love Malawi. It’s cheap, locals are friendly, and Lake Malawi is unbelievably gorgeous. Uganda is a great destination for an adrenaline junkie. When I was there, I trekked gorillas and went white water rafting on the Nile.
When is the best time to visit Africa?
Right now! But practically speaking, it’s best to look up weather information per country so you travel at the right time. For example, in Ethiopia, I would avoid coming during the rainy season (July-September) because it’s a lot harder to travel then. But sometimes coming off-season has its advantages. Visiting Kruger Park in South Africa is actually better in the off-season because it’s cheaper and the colder weather brings more animals out of the shade. So do your research before you come based on the specific area you want to visit. And keep in mind some of the countries are so big that rainy season will occur at different times depending on which part of the country you’re visiting at that time.
Any final thoughts or advice for our viewers/readers?
Just come! I know it’s hard to believe that Africa can be so magical and safe to visit. But it is! According to the Africa Tourism Monitor, over 65 million international tourists came to the continent in 2014 alone. While the media might pick up on the few cases that something bad happened, the majority of people who come will have amazing, lifelong memories.