Spoiler alert: This material is mostly directed at Americans who may be considering traveling to Africa. Of course, all others may read it as well!
Why travel to Africa?
For the naturalist Africa has much to offer that is not found in other parts of the world. Best known are the large herds of mammals to be seen, especially in reserves in eastern and southern Africa. But there is much more. Birds are diverse and include Hornbills, Weavers, and many vultures. Reptiles include large tortoises and monitor lizards. There is an astounding variety of succulent plants in South Africa with the iconic Baobabs present across much of tropical Africa.
Africa, and why Americans don’t tend to travel there
This page describes why we feel that travel to Africa is valuable for the Nature-oriented traveler. Much of what we discuss here will be apparent to foreigners from Europe or other parts of the world, but our audience in this section is mostly people from the USA who are contemplating travel to Africa. Our experience has shown us that relatively few Americans travel to Africa compared with Europeans or those from some other parts of the world. Those Americans we have seen in Africa tend to be those on religious/mission trips, or business travelers.
While some Americans do travel to see nature in Africa but their numbers are a relatively small fraction compared with those coming from Europe (western Europe and the US have, very roughly, similar total populations and levels of wealth). There are some historical reasons for Europeans traveling to, for example, southern Africa as the Dutch, English and Germans have colonial ties of sorts to this region. However, our personal perception (reinforced by comments from other travelers and from Africans) is that Americans are afraid of Africa. African stories are rarely “good news” in the US media. There are famines, conflicts, political instability, poverty and unfortunately, often more than a tad of racial stereotypes about “black” Africa.
We have had the fortune to travel to a number of countries in Africa since 2002. Work-related activities took us to southern Africa in 2002, 2004 and 2007 and then personal travel in 2013, 2015 and in 2018. We traveled to Senegal, Mali, Mauritania (and for Mike to the Cape Verde Islands) for field activities in 2006 and to Ghana in 2008 and 2010. Madagascar was visited in 2015. While hardly a comprehensive coverage of Africa, our accumulated time in Africa has been approximately one year in something like 10 trips so we have some experience on which to make limited generalizations.
Africa is a large continent, spanning more than 70 degrees of latitude. Geographically speaking it is commonly broken up into the major regions of North Africa – everything north of the Saharan Desert, West, East, Central and Southern Africa. The figure below shows these approximate subdivisions. Very roughly, these regions culturally relate to Arab influences (North Africa), French colonial domination (West Africa with a few exceptions like Ghana and Nigeria), Central Africa (primarily near-equatorial countries with moist forest environments) and Southern African countries that occur south of the equatorial tropical forests. East Africa includes areas east of the central African rain forests, both north and south of the Equator, with the well-known countries of Kenya and Tanzania.
Sub-Saharan Africa refers, not surprisingly, to the countries south of the Saharan Desert. This is what Americans think of as the “real Africa”. Poverty, disease, all the usual stereotypes. In rural Africa, away from major cities, this can very definitely be true. But like much of the world, large differences are found between the cities and the countryside.
British colonial rule extended over large parts of east Africa and extended down to South Africa. The former colonies tend to have a better infrastructure and governance than many other countries in Africa. South Africa, Botswana and Namibia are in many ways countries that have first-world infrastructure grafted onto relatively undeveloped countrysides and indigenous cultures. Kenya and Tanzania likewise. In many urban areas of South Africa the malls, highways, and general organization of the cities are similar to what one might find in parts of Europe or North America. Many Americans have little idea of what modern South Africa looks like. And, even many Africans from other parts of Africa will state that South Africa is not the “real-Africa” – it is a hybrid between European and African cultures.
Travel to South Africa
Our travel to Africa was work-related (with South African Weather Service) so our first opportunity was not necessarily our first choice. But because of our interest in succulent plants we were well-acquainted with the rich succulent plant flora of South Africa. We were also familiar with the wildlife of the region, if only through the usual nature TV programs, books and some of Rosario’s biology courses. Had we not traveled to South Africa initially for work we might not have taken the plunge to explore the region on our own. But, once we were there we saw that traveling around the country without guides was quite feasible. Since that first time we have returned 7 times, and have improved our procedures for making the most of our time. The material in the following section attempts to summarize some of our strategies for seeing the most of the natural environments in South Africa with the least inconvenience and the most efficient use of your time (and money).
South African travel for the naturalist
It is a long flight from the US to South Africa – approximately 16+ hours from Atlanta to Johannesburg (and you must get to Atlanta first!). While a flight from Europe can also be long – about 11 hours (Frankfurt to Johannesburg), there is only a 1 hour time difference between much of western Europe and South Africa – compared with a 6 hour (east coast) to 9 hour (west coast) difference between the US and South Africa. Thus Americans will be jet-lagged more than European travelers. For these two reasons alone it is relatively impractical for Americans, unlike Europeans, to plan for a one-week trip to South Africa. Americans should budget at least two weeks, and ideally more for any travel to South Africa. Unfortunately, this eliminates many working individuals, except for those like teachers and students with free summers or others with extended breaks during the Christmas period. Not surprisingly, retired individuals or those who are self-employed will have the greatest possibilities for longer periods of travel.
We recommend to travel as early in your life as possible to South Africa. If you wait until much later in life you may regret having not visited earlier. Restating what Brian Jackman, a well-known nature/safari writer for the Sunday Times for many years said: “Everything in Africa bites, but the safari bug is worst of all.”
While considering travel to South Africa you should consider the following aspects of your travel:
What do you want to see?
National Parks and their restrictions
Big 5 or the Little 5? Or something entirely different.
The Cape Town area or the eastern parts of South Africa?
How much time and money can you afford to spend?
Lodging: in bed and breakfasts, guesthouse or in self catering cottages?