In three weeks I’m heading back to Africa – to Rwanda this time to photograph the mountain gorillas and golden monkeys in the country’s Volcano National Park.
As I start prepping my gear for my next wildlife adventure, my thoughts wander back to my most recent three-month trip to Africa and the amount of time, work and effort it took me to prepare for that trip.
I spent hours and hours googling, phoning and wandering the high street looking for the bits and pieces I’d need for my trip (and that’s not even counting the hours of research I did into my photography gear prior to leaving! – but that’s for another post for later).
It was a daunting experience but I learnt so much about how to travel lightly, how to access cheap medical supplies and where to get the best deals. So I thought I would share some of my travel tips with you, my dear reader!
First tip – give yourself plenty of time and research, research, research. I can’t tell you how important it is to research everything from flights, accommodation, transport, vaccinations, camera gear and insurance. There is a minefield of information to absorb out there and one size doesn’t necessarily fit all.
What budget you set aside for this trip will soon grow once you realise all the extras that you need.
And remember, don’t jump at the first thing on offer. There are many options – some much cheaper than others – that you should consider. If you’re travelling for several months then keeping your costs down is essential.
I had seven flights in total to book and one train. Again, I researched online for the best options through both Skyscanner and individual airline sites. I could feel my blood pressure rising as the prices fluctuated and I couldn’t get flights to key up with the dates I had planned in each place.
And then someone suggested I speak to Travelbag. I was introduced to Neil Darby who is the best travel agent you could find. He sorted out my flights from London to Kenya (Kenyan Airways) and onwards to Namibia (South African Airways) and back to London (KLM – the best airline!) and got me an amazing deal. In fact, I’ve also booked my flight to Rwanda with him. I also made sure that I had the flexibility to change my flights so that when I decided to extend my stay in Namibia for another month, the fee only came to £150.
My internal Kenyan flights were with Safarilinks (to Samburu) and Jambo Jet (to Diani). Just be careful how much gear you take as on some of the smaller flights you’re only allowed 15kg baggage allowance which includes your carry on luggage. To get around that problem, I took a medium sized plastic laundry bag with me which I filled with half of my gear and left at the luggage deposit at the Wildebeest Hotel in Nairobi where I was staying. The laundry bag can easily scrunch up in your case so worth taking. Although I was a few kilos overweight on the flight, I only had to pay a minimum fee as the flight wasn’t that full. I have heard stories though of passengers having to buy a whole extra seat for their excess baggage so it’s worth being extra cautious!
I booked all of my accommodation before I left. For the first ten days I stayed at a friend’s place in Msambweni, coastal Kenya – www.jinchini.co.uk – with two friends from London. I’ve been to Kenya several times before and this is the best place to start an epic adventure. I spent my time acclimatising, photographing the monkeys in preparation for my work in Samburu, relaxing, swimming in the sea and pool, walking and eating well. It was the perfect start to an epic adventure!
In Nairobi I stayed at the Wildebeest Eco Camp on the outskirts of Nairobi. A gated and permanent tented camp, Wildebeest is set in beautiful surrounds with a pool, ponds, manicured lawns, sculptures of wildlife and a lovely dining area overlooking the pond. I stayed in a garden tent (shared bathroom) which was bliss and a reasonable price apart from the fact that Nairobi was so cold after the south of Kenya. I was glad to have an extra blanket on my double bed. The great thing about Wildebeest is that you can also store your belongings safely in their lockup (as long as you’re returning to the camp) while you explore the rest of the country.
From there I headed to Samburu National Reserve. In Samburu I was fortunate to stay (invitation only) at the Save The Elephants Research camp sleeping in a basic but comfortable two-man canvas tent that had two beds, power and even a container of solar-warmed water which was left outside my tent every evening so I could use the bucket shower. You can read about the camp here
At Namibia I worked as a volunteer and stayed in a large tent at the Naankuse wildlife sanctuary near Windhoek with one other volunteer (and the odd porcupine and wild baboon that tried to get into our tent). I had my own double room in Neuras – Naankuse’s research project further down south – and shared a room at the farmhouse in Kanaan – Naankuse’s other research project in the Namib desert – with other volunteers.
I also stayed one night at the Chameleon Backpackers in Windhoek – I had a lovely huge double room to myself with ensuite for only about £40. There’s also great wifi, a swimming pool, small bar, dining area and lounge with TV.
I booked my volunteering project through The Great Projects and was looked after by the brilliant Rebecca Goewie in the Australian office (I’m based in the UK so not sure why I ended up being looked after by the Australian office but it still worked out!). Rebecca calmly answered my million of questions and was quick to respond, once even taking my call from the middle of the Namib desert despite it being 11pm Sydney time.
In Nairobi, the fee from the airport is usually around 2000khs into the city centre. I used the services of the brilliant, big-hearted and well-connected driver, John Nandi, who drove me all over Nairobi. It’s worth booking a driver for a day if you’re going to lots of different places. Send me a message on this blog if you would like John’s number. There’s also a very efficient Uber service operating in the city which I’m told is cheaper than taking a taxi but as I know and trust John I prefer to use him when I’m in Nairobi.
Don’t panic when you come to the security check point en route to the airport and your driver asks you to get out, leave your luggage in the car and walk. It’s standard practice for all drivers in Nairobi to stop so that security can check their vehicles for bombs (yes bombs although I don’t think they’ve ever found any). Your driver will be sure to pick you up on the other side.
I also took the overnight train from Mombasa to Nairobi just for the adventure and sheer thrill of it. You can book through a travel agent in Nairobi (East Africa Shuttles are great) or Mombasa for around US$60 or book when you arrive in Africa. I ended up using a local travel agency in Diani near Msambweni to book my first class train. It’s a good idea to arrive at the train station ahead of time as sometimes the trains leave earlier than advertised. Other times, they’re late. I’ll be writing a separate post about my lunatic train adventure at a later date so watch this space!
In Namibia, we did an Etosha Safari with Chameleon Backpackers in Windhoek which was absolutely brilliant. The four day/three night trip cost around £450 and was totally worth it! You get a guided tour, stunning luxurious accommodation along the way and fantastic food. In Etosha we were fortunate to spot rhino, elephants, giraffe and lots of lions and also visited the Himba, Herero and Damara people en route to Etosha as well as pink flamingos at Walvis Bay.
Because I was volunteering with wildlife and photographing wild elephants for Save The Elephants, I found it difficult to find an insurance company in the UK that would insure me. I also needed my camera gear and laptop insured for thousands of pounds and for more than 60 days. I mostly got polite letters from camera insurance companies saying have a lovely time but we can’t help you.
Fortunately The Great Projects sorted out my insurance which covered me for volunteering and working with wildlife. It was expensive – more than £250 for nearly three months – but I’m so pleased I had it as I was working with a lot of habituated but wild animals and anything could have happened. I witnessed one girl with an enormous bite mark from a baboon on her leg that required medical attention and I also got chased by an amorous Ostrich in Namibia that nearly could’ve ended in tears. So insurance was the first thing on my list!
I was also able to ensure my camera gear through my house and contents insurance by paying a bit extra so check first before you fork out hundreds of pounds for additional insurance.
If in doubt, google all your options by going to travelsupermarket.com
First tip – do not drink alcohol several hours after you’ve had your vaccinations! I had shots for diptheria, tetanus, polio and typhoid and a few hours later my arm was so sore that I could barely lift a teapot. Another few hours later I had a couple of glasses of Prosecco at a friend’s party and boom, I was completely smashed. Grinning like an idiot. The next day’s hangover was not pretty. So, that’s your first tip. Don’t drink and vaccinate!
Again, research the cheapest place to get your vaccines. Some are free through the NHS while travel clinics and even Boots offer cheaper vaccines for the most expensive shots like Yellow Fever and Hep A. I had a mixture of mine done by my doctor and at Boots so ring around and check best prices. Also google what you need and how much as you’ll be shocked by the cost of some vaccines.
If you already have an old Yellow Fever card DON’T THROW IT AWAY! You’ll be throwing away £60. I learnt the hard way as I thought my card had expired so threw it in the bin and turns out the Yellow Fever vaccines now last 35 years. So I had to get my shots again along with a new card …
I’m giving this it’s own special paragraph as the prices for Malaria fluctuate so wildly that you’ll be wondering if some stores are selling designer luxury Malarone. I found prices from £400 at Boots to £80 at Tesco. Now Malarone is Malarone right? Well yes and no. You can buy the Glaxo Kline Smith brand or you can get a generic brand (like the supermarket owned groceries) for a fraction of the price even they are both medically identical. You choose! I settled for generic malarone and managed to get two months’ worth for only £90 at Simple Online Pharmacy
*Updated (March 8, 2017) The cost of generic malarone at Simple Online has risen to £116 for two months. I researched other costs and it’s still by far the best deal alongside Asda.
In Africa, most places take credit cards (apart from American Express) but you need cash – kenya shillings or Namibian dollars/South African rand in Namibia for tipping, presents, buying little things like food. Rather than carry a tonne of cash, I hunted around for the best ways to withdraw money abroad without being stung by fees by researching it all on MoneySupermarket.co.uk . I ended up choosing the Halifax Clarity credit card as it offers no foreign exchange fees or cash withdrawal fees. I set up an automatic monthly payment from my savings account and used it to pay for almost everything in both Kenya and Namibia.
This is the one thing that I always get stressed about and yet most times it runs smoothly. Except for India – getting an India visa was a nightmare and although I’ve blocked most of the experience out of my mind I have vague memories of being in a dark crowded office on the outskirts of London in an enormous queue, carrying my queue number on a tiny slip of paper that was so fragile I was afraid to breath in case it disintegrated. I think I went to three different windows and there might have been a fire alarm ….
Getting a visa for Africa on the other hand is amazingly easy as long as you read the instructions carefully. I got my Kenyan visa online – for US$51 and had it within days. The process can be a little confusing when you first try but once you’re hooked into the system, it’s a doddle. You can also purchase your visa at the airport in Nairobi and Mombasa if you don’t mind queuing.
I spoke to a lovely man at the Namibian High Commission who advised me to get my volunteer visa (£65) two weeks before I left as the commission couldn’t post date it. I brought all my details, forms, passport etc into the commission in central London and the next day my passport was ready to collect with my shiny new visa. Be aware – the High Commission will not accept cash for any Visa or Consular Fees. You have to pay the fee into their back account before you apply for the Visa.
Also don’t be fooled by the friendliness of staff at the commission in London because once you get to Namibia, you’ll find the security and immigration people at the airport to be stern and just a little scary.
What to take
Most of Africa has a warm climate so you don’t need much and also you don’t want to be lugging too much gear around while you’re travelling. As I was already carrying nine kilos of camera gear on my back, I opted for a wheelie suitcase for everything else. It lasted the trip, even being dragged through the mud and across rocky surfaces, but came home battered and bruised and will now have to be retired. I will be looking for much more durable suitcase for my Rwanda trip.
As far as clothing is concerned, less is best – A swimsuit, couple of pair of shorts, tops, tee-shirts, a hat, long trousers, a scarf in case of sand, dust or in case it gets chilly at night, a sun hat, pair of walking/hiking covered shoes (in case of snakes and scorpions), pair of flip flops, for women – a dress for the beach and for the evenings (in case you go out in Nairobi) and something warm to wear on top at night is pretty much all that’s required. I also took a lightweight raincoat and a couple of pairs of work gloves. I bought a simple travel medical kit from Boots, a head torch (buy online), spare batteries, a sewing kit and a microfibre travel towel from Starwood Sports. And don’t forget insect repellent and sun screen. I went through about two bottles each of repellent and sun screen and also carried repellent wipes from Boots.
My best purchases were:
- a No Fly Zone sun hat from Kathmandu not only kept the flies off my face but also had a pull down section at the back to keep the sun off my neck. I was the envy of all the other fly-harassed volunteers in Namibia.
- I searched high and low for a good pair of cargo shorts over Winter but to no avail. However, I did manage to track down a pair of Kathmandu shorts that dried within seconds in the Namibian sun. I realise I needed two pairs so am on the hunt again for another pair of cargo or safari shorts for Rwanda. I also look for ones with deep sealable pockets so I can carry my lens caps, lens cloths in them.
- A flyweight 17l fold up day pack from The North Face that I took everywhere with me and was able to withstand the toughest elements and carry all my daily essentials including four litres of water in the Namib desert! The daypack was expensive (£40) but worth every penny.
- Packing cubes kept everything neat and tidy in my pack and made it easy to find things. I bought a pack of four Suntribe Travel cubes from Amazon for about £13.
What it roughly costs in a nutshell for a three month African trip
- Return flights from London – Nairobi – Namibia — £1000
- Internal flights to Diani and Samburu – £350
- Vaccinations and malaria tablets – £300
- Insurance – £300
- Visas (Kenya and Namibia) – £150
- Accommodation (Nairobi and Namibia – 5 nights) – £170
- Volunteering (depends on agency and location) – £350 + a week
And that’s it! The next step – is to go!