Planning a visit to Central and Western Africa

By Hugh Randall
This item appears on page 12 of the December 2020 issue.
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As part of my continuing quest to “see the world,” during four trips taken from July 2018 to March 2020, I visited the many countries in Western and Central Africa that I had previously missed, leaving only the Central African Republic and South Sudan.

Except for being one of 10 members on a group tour of Niger and Burkina Faso (organized by UK-based Lupine Travel [phone +44 1942 497 209, lupinetravel.co.uk]), I planned and arranged all of these trips myself. Based on what I learned, I offer the following tips for anyone interested in visiting some of these countries.

Begin by selecting countries to visit in a specific trip itinerary. Some of these African countries do not have well-developed tourist infrastructure, and a few — according to the US Department of State (travel.state.gov [click on “Travel Advisories”]) and the UK’s Foreign & Commonwealth Office (fco.gov.uk [click on “Travel Advice”]) — are dangerous.

To reduce your travel risk, eliminate from further consideration countries the State Department has rated Level 4 (“Do Not Travel”).

Next, carry out additional online research on sites like tripadvisor.com, wikipedia.com, wikitravel.com, worldnomads.com and tours bylocals.com to identify countries that appear most interesting in terms of things to see and do and ease of visiting (e.g., quality of hotels and availability of guides/tours).

Through this process, select specific countries you’d like to visit, then check the Centers for Disease Control’s website (cdc.gov) to see which shots and pills would be needed for a visit (e.g., malaria pills or a vaccination for yellow fever or Hepatitis A and B).

If some of your desired destinations are considered Level 3 by the State Department in terms of risk (“Reconsider Travel”), do some more digging to reach your own conclusions, but it might be best to delete those from your list.

Once you have selected countries to visit, plan on your modes of travel to/from/between them.

Within Africa, air transport is usually easier than navigating border crossings by bus or car, which can involve bribes, the possibility of long delays and varying quality of roads.

For getting to and from Africa, frequent-flyer-award trips at “savings” rates are usually available. Arranging needed air transportation within Africa can be complicated, however.

There often are routes that are not flown daily, and there will be small regional airlines you’ve never heard of providing services only between countries speaking the same language (e.g., French, Arabic, English). Because of that, at times I had to fly several thousand miles to go between countries that were only 100 miles apart but spoke different languages.

Airlines like Royal Air Maroc, Ethiopian Airlines and Kenya Airways have decent inter-country networks, but they’re more expensive than region-based airlines.

With these complexities, it can be difficult to put together an itinerary that, on an African map, appears logical. It’s like solving a complex puzzle. Using websites like www.momondo.com and www.kayak.com, it could take several hours to figure out an itinerary covering all of the countries you’d like to visit. Do not buy your first air ticket until you’ve put together the entire itinerary.

Fortunately, it’s fairly easy to buy the air tickets you need. Kayak and Momondo can connect you with an array of ticket-broker sites, with ticket prices for given flights varying considerably between brokers.

I’ve learned not to worry after buying an e-ticket from a broker I’ve never heard of. Having purchased more than 100 such air tickets for travel, I’ve never had a problem.

Finally, don’t put together too tight a schedule. Things WILL go wrong (bad weather, flight cancellations, etc.), and recovery options will be much fewer than you’d find in more heavily trafficked regions of the world. I have never taken a trip to remote countries where the cost and difficulty of getting back on an itinerary after incurring an unanticipated airline problem weren’t high.

Plan how best to make your arrangements.

Most travel agents and tour companies do not have much knowledge of, or interest in, West and Central Africa. For “off the grid” locations, consider using companies like Lupine Travel and Spiekermann Travel (www.mideasttrvl.com). Lupine offers relatively inexpensive trips. Spiekermann’s trips are more expensive but include more services.

You can also plan the trips yourself. I’ve done this with almost all of my trips and have found it much cheaper and more effective than using an agent.

To plan a trip yourself, first go to the website for the consulate in the US for each country you want to visit in order to understand the visa requirements. For more and more countries, a visa authorization can be secured online, and then you actually obtain the visa upon arriving at the airport of entry.

For countries where this is not an option, you’ll need to use a visa service. You can find visa services online, but be sure to check their references. A few countries also require a letter of invitation, which you can usually secure from your hotel. Note: visas can cost $200-$500 per country!

Use sites like booking.com, hotels.com and expedia.com to book your hotels. Since plans often change, I always try to secure a hotel booking that can be canceled on relatively short notice.

In some cases, you may want to arrange for an in-country guide or tour. While some may be available in locations like Luanda (Angola), Dakar (Senegal), Accra (Ghana) and a few other locations through ToursByLocals, your only option in most countries may be to work with your hotel to hire a car and driver to see the major sights.

TripAdvisor has good information about “best sights,” based on reviews submitted by previous travelers.

Here are some travel tips and notes.

• Before you go, tell your bank when and where you’ll be traveling. Otherwise, they’ll shut off your ATM card the first time you try to use it. ATMs are available in most big cities, but take enough cash (American dollars and euros) so you can still pay when ATMs are not available.

Notify your credit card company as well. Otherwise, despite what they tell you about their card being good everywhere, your first charge in Africa will probably be denied, and it’s not always easy to reach the card company to tell them the charge is OK.

• In the taxi “scrums” that exist outside many African airports, some of the most aggressive men seeking to provide you with a “taxi” do not actually own or even drive a car. Instead, they want to help you find a car and driver, usually someone who gives them the biggest kickback, after which you pay the man and then pay the driver of the taxi or, usually, private car, who may or may not know the area and probably speaks little English.

I found it was best to look for older, less assertive drivers, who often were quietly standing in the rear. They were more likely to have a car, be decent drivers and have some idea where my hotel was located.

Also, don’t give your luggage to anybody other than your driver. (Ignoring the aggressive touts, I would hold tightly to my luggage and loudly say, “No. No. No.”)

• Apps like Google Translate will help you communicate with people in different countries. WhatsApp will enable free international communications in locations where there is decent internet availability.

• Be prepared for horrendous traffic congestion. Just endure it; it’s part of the experience.

Also, if you’re new to traveling in far-flung countries, be prepared for poverty like you’ve never seen before and bathroom conditions far worse than you’re used to. Always carry toilet paper with you.

• Never drink anything that doesn’t come from a sealed bottle, and never eat uncooked vegetables or fruit. Despite precautions, be prepared for stomach upset. Always travel with Imodium (antidiarrheal) pills in your pocket or travel bag, as well as high-concentration DEET mosquito repellent for rural areas (Ultrathon works well for me).

• Always carry copies of your prescriptions.

Prepare for the unexpected! All of the incidents listed below occurred at least once during my visits to Central and West Africa.

• Airport check-in overwhelmed by the number of passengers boarding a large plane.

• Due to power failure, boarding passes had to be prepared by hand.

• Planes delayed by arrival of foreign dignitaries.

• While changing planes (in Libreville, Gabon), I was held by Immigration for seven daylight hours because I had no hotel reservation.

• Detained by Immigration officials (in Algeria) who thought I was a political organizer, as I arrived the day before an antigovernment demonstration.

• Taxi stuck for 45 minutes in the midst of a crowd of people walking to/from a busy market (in Accra).

• Water in the gas in my taxi.

• Brakes failed in a taxi.

• Closed roads.

• After a bus broke down in “the middle of nowhere” (in southeastern Niger), we were rescued by several decrepit “bush taxis,” one of which broke down and had to be replaced.

• Paid local tour company for hotel bookings that were, in fact, not made.

• Elevator stopped dead between floors, with no emergency light.

• No water in the bathroom of a 5-star hotel (in Kinshasa).

• Public toilets not working.

• None of the items on a fancy menu in a 4-star hotel’s restaurant were available, only a steak not listed.

• Stomach upset.

Is it worth the effort to visit West and Central Africa? Absolutely!

People are universally friendly. If you’re like me, you’re going to look different than 99% of the people you see, and many will be curious about you and want to have their picture taken with you.

You’ll learn a lot about the wonders of the world we live in. While challenging, it’s fun and rewarding to do the planning and visit these areas. The stories and adventures you have will stay with you forever.

HUGH RANDALL
Jacksonville, FL

Please login or subscribe to ITN to read the entire post.

As part of my continuing quest to “see the world,” during four trips taken from July 2018 to March 2020, I visited the many countries in Western and Central Africa that I had previously missed, leaving only the Central African Republic and South Sudan.

Except for being one of 10 members on a group tour of Niger and Burkina Faso (organized by UK-based Lupine Travel [phone +44 1942 497 209, lupinetravel.co.uk]), I planned and arranged all of these trips myself. Based on what I learned, I offer the following tips for anyone interested in visiting some of these countries.

Begin by selecting countries to visit in a specific trip itinerary. Some of these African countries do not have well-developed tourist infrastructure, and a few — according to the US Department of State (travel.state.gov [click on “Travel Advisories”]) and the UK’s Foreign & Commonwealth Office (fco.gov.uk [click on “Travel Advice”]) — are dangerous.

To reduce your travel risk, eliminate from further consideration countries the State Department has rated Level 4 (“Do Not Travel”).

Next, carry out additional online research on sites like tripadvisor.com, wikipedia.com, wikitravel.com, worldnomads.com and tours bylocals.com to identify countries that appear most interesting in terms of things to see and do and ease of visiting (e.g., quality of hotels and availability of guides/tours).

Through this process, select specific countries you’d like to visit, then check the Centers for Disease Control’s website (cdc.gov) to see which shots and pills would be needed for a visit (e.g., malaria pills or a vaccination for yellow fever or Hepatitis A and B).

If some of your desired destinations are considered Level 3 by the State Department in terms of risk (“Reconsider Travel”), do some more digging to reach your own conclusions, but it might be best to delete those from your list.

Once you have selected countries to visit, plan on your modes of travel to/from/between them.

Within Africa, air transport is usually easier than navigating border crossings by bus or car, which can involve bribes, the possibility of long delays and varying quality of roads.

For getting to and from Africa, frequent-flyer-award trips at “savings” rates are usually available. Arranging needed air transportation within Africa can be complicated, however.

There often are routes that are not flown daily, and there will be small regional airlines you’ve never heard of providing services only between countries speaking the same language (e.g., French, Arabic, English). Because of that, at times I had to fly several thousand miles to go between countries that were only 100 miles apart but spoke different languages.

Airlines like Royal Air Maroc, Ethiopian Airlines and Kenya Airways have decent inter-country networks, but they’re more expensive than region-based airlines.

With these complexities, it can be difficult to put together an itinerary that, on an African map, appears logical. It’s like solving a complex puzzle. Using websites like www.momondo.com and www.kayak.com, it could take several hours to figure out an itinerary covering all of the countries you’d like to visit. Do not buy your first air ticket until you’ve put together the entire itinerary.

Fortunately, it’s fairly easy to buy the air tickets you need. Kayak and Momondo can connect you with an array of ticket-broker sites, with ticket prices for given flights varying considerably between brokers.

I’ve learned not to worry after buying an e-ticket from a broker I’ve never heard of. Having purchased more than 100 such air tickets for travel, I’ve never had a problem.

Finally, don’t put together too tight a schedule. Things WILL go wrong (bad weather, flight cancellations, etc.), and recovery options will be much fewer than you’d find in more heavily trafficked regions of the world. I have never taken a trip to remote countries where the cost and difficulty of getting back on an itinerary after incurring an unanticipated airline problem weren’t high.

Plan how best to make your arrangements.

Most travel agents and tour companies do not have much knowledge of, or interest in, West and Central Africa. For “off the grid” locations, consider using companies like Lupine Travel and Spiekermann Travel (www.mideasttrvl.com). Lupine offers relatively inexpensive trips. Spiekermann’s trips are more expensive but include more services.

You can also plan the trips yourself. I’ve done this with almost all of my trips and have found it much cheaper and more effective than using an agent.

To plan a trip yourself, first go to the website for the consulate in the US for each country you want to visit in order to understand the visa requirements. For more and more countries, a visa authorization can be secured online, and then you actually obtain the visa upon arriving at the airport of entry.

For countries where this is not an option, you’ll need to use a visa service. You can find visa services online, but be sure to check their references. A few countries also require a letter of invitation, which you can usually secure from your hotel. Note: visas can cost $200-$500 per country!

Use sites like booking.com, hotels.com and expedia.com to book your hotels. Since plans often change, I always try to secure a hotel booking that can be canceled on relatively short notice.

In some cases, you may want to arrange for an in-country guide or tour. While some may be available in locations like Luanda (Angola), Dakar (Senegal), Accra (Ghana) and a few other locations through ToursByLocals, your only option in most countries may be to work with your hotel to hire a car and driver to see the major sights.

TripAdvisor has good information about “best sights,” based on reviews submitted by previous travelers.

Here are some travel tips and notes.

• Before you go, tell your bank when and where you’ll be traveling. Otherwise, they’ll shut off your ATM card the first time you try to use it. ATMs are available in most big cities, but take enough cash (American dollars and euros) so you can still pay when ATMs are not available.

Notify your credit card company as well. Otherwise, despite what they tell you about their card being good everywhere, your first charge in Africa will probably be denied, and it’s not always easy to reach the card company to tell them the charge is OK.

• In the taxi “scrums” that exist outside many African airports, some of the most aggressive men seeking to provide you with a “taxi” do not actually own or even drive a car. Instead, they want to help you find a car and driver, usually someone who gives them the biggest kickback, after which you pay the man and then pay the driver of the taxi or, usually, private car, who may or may not know the area and probably speaks little English.

I found it was best to look for older, less assertive drivers, who often were quietly standing in the rear. They were more likely to have a car, be decent drivers and have some idea where my hotel was located.

Also, don’t give your luggage to anybody other than your driver. (Ignoring the aggressive touts, I would hold tightly to my luggage and loudly say, “No. No. No.”)

• Apps like Google Translate will help you communicate with people in different countries. WhatsApp will enable free international communications in locations where there is decent internet availability.

• Be prepared for horrendous traffic congestion. Just endure it; it’s part of the experience.

Also, if you’re new to traveling in far-flung countries, be prepared for poverty like you’ve never seen before and bathroom conditions far worse than you’re used to. Always carry toilet paper with you.

• Never drink anything that doesn’t come from a sealed bottle, and never eat uncooked vegetables or fruit. Despite precautions, be prepared for stomach upset. Always travel with Imodium (antidiarrheal) pills in your pocket or travel bag, as well as high-concentration DEET mosquito repellent for rural areas (Ultrathon works well for me).

• Always carry copies of your prescriptions.

Prepare for the unexpected! All of the incidents listed below occurred at least once during my visits to Central and West Africa.

• Airport check-in overwhelmed by the number of passengers boarding a large plane.

• Due to power failure, boarding passes had to be prepared by hand.

• Planes delayed by arrival of foreign dignitaries.

• While changing planes (in Libreville, Gabon), I was held by Immigration for seven daylight hours because I had no hotel reservation.

• Detained by Immigration officials (in Algeria) who thought I was a political organizer, as I arrived the day before an antigovernment demonstration.

• Taxi stuck for 45 minutes in the midst of a crowd of people walking to/from a busy market (in Accra).

• Water in the gas in my taxi.

• Brakes failed in a taxi.

• Closed roads.

• After a bus broke down in “the middle of nowhere” (in southeastern Niger), we were rescued by several decrepit “bush taxis,” one of which broke down and had to be replaced.

• Paid local tour company for hotel bookings that were, in fact, not made.

• Elevator stopped dead between floors, with no emergency light.

• No water in the bathroom of a 5-star hotel (in Kinshasa).

• Public toilets not working.

• None of the items on a fancy menu in a 4-star hotel’s restaurant were available, only a steak not listed.

• Stomach upset.

Is it worth the effort to visit West and Central Africa? Absolutely!

People are universally friendly. If you’re like me, you’re going to look different than 99% of the people you see, and many will be curious about you and want to have their picture taken with you.

You’ll learn a lot about the wonders of the world we live in. While challenging, it’s fun and rewarding to do the planning and visit these areas. The stories and adventures you have will stay with you forever.

HUGH RANDALL
Jacksonville, FL