I travelled independently in East Africa for two months. It was completely different to any other experience I'd had travelling – the challenges are immense, but the rewards are worth it. Here is what I learnt.
1. Patience grasshopper
Get used to waiting. For a naturally impatient person such as myself, "African time" was a challenge. Even my partner, who is usually so relaxed he is horizontal, would get annoyed at waiting anything up to two hours for a meal in a local eatery for example. Or transport taking longer than the advertised time to get to your destination. But honestly it's a waste of energy. Take a deep breath and make your travels much easier – go with the African time.
2. If it feels dodgy...
I will preface what I am about to say with the observation that the majority of locals we met were friendly and helpful. But, every place has a bad side, and it was no different in east Africa. We were warned that in many towns and cities it wasn't safe for travellers to walk at night and taxis were preferable. We heeded this advice when we arrived four hours later than scheduled (there's that patience thing again!) at night in the coastal Tanzanian city of Dar es Salaam. We took a taxi and unfortunately it took us. We were hijacked by a group of thieves not long after leaving the bus station and held hostage for three hours while our captors used our cards to rob us of hundreds of dollars from our savings accounts. We got away unharmed (although our friend mourned the loss of a very expensive camera), but we should have listened to our instincts. Something was not right when we got into the cab and the driver and his passenger insisted we three take the back seat. But we were tired from a 10-hour bus ride, hungry and in desperate need of a shower – so we went along. Lesson learned: heed that little voice.
3. Put down the camera
Everyone wants that perfect shot of animals in the wild, if for nothing else than to prove they were there. But, occasionally, it pays to put the camera down and see these animals with the best camera of all – your eyes. Watching a baby gorilla playing in the trees in Uganda, the stately procession of a group of giraffes or young elephants mucking around with a tree branch is etched into my brain.
4. Checklists cause stress
If you go to Africa with a list of "must-see" animals, disappointment is sure to follow. They may be in national parks, but these are still wild creatures who will do what they do regardless of how many people are trying to gawk at them. Leopards, for example, are notoriously difficult to spot. We were lucky to spot two asleep in a tree. And rhinos? Forget about it – we saw a couple from a distance from behind. But, to me, it was a privilege just to be able to observe whatever wildlife I could in their natural habitat.
5. Try local food
On our first safari, our chef Vincent, a Zimbabwean, introduced us to ugali – a white mashed potato-like substance, variations of which are eaten throughout east and southern Africa and called by different names. It was not to our taste, but this is what Africans eat everyday and sampling the local cuisine is a great way to learn about cultures and how other people live day to day. The best food we discovered was in the local night market in Stone Town, Zanzibar, where a yummy kebab and chips could be had for about $1.50, and seafood abounded.
6. Learn some basic language
We journeyed in mostly Swahili-speaking areas and endeavoured to learn basic phrases such as thank you (asante), yes (ndiyo), no (hapana) and no worries (hakuna matata, thank you Lion King), you're welcome (karibu) and toilet (choo), even though many locals spoke good English. It was particularly useful when dealing with unwelcome touts (who abounded). A firm no thank you (hapana asante) was heeded more than simply ignoring someone or being rude.
7. It's not just about the animals
African wildlife is spectacular, as evidenced by the recent David Attenborough series, but there are many other treasures to be found on this vast continent. In Kampala, Uganda, we visited the World Heritage-listed Kasubi royal tombs and received a fascinating insight into the history of the country. In Zanzibar, the former slave market and the national museum were also worth a visit. In Kenya and Tanzania, tours of Masai villages are a must. And, of course, there are natural wonders such as Kilimanjaro and Victoria Falls.
8. Be prepared to pay for the big ticket items
Much travel in Africa can be done on a tight budget if you stay in hostels or lodges. But safaris are expensive even when camping. Our five-day camping journey through the Serengeti was $800 each, while the seven-day climb of Kilimanjaro set us back $2000 (including gear hire and tips). We were glad that we only booked one tour from Australia (the wait for a gorilla trekking permit can take months) and then went with local companies recommended from here or, in the case of the Serengeti, on the ground. You don't have to go five-star but if you go for really cheap, you will get really cheap and an experience you may regret instead of cherish.
9. Tipping is mandatory
This is self-explanatory but worth keeping in mind as often this is a major supplement to a meagre wage, or in many cases it is their wage. We were advised anywhere between 10 and 15 per cent was sufficient, but in the case of the Kilimanjaro crew, who were exceptional, we went higher. It's up to you.
10. It's worth it
Finally, just go. Travelling in Africa, whether independently or on a tour, can be challenging, frustrating, beautiful and heartbreaking all in one day, but it is definitely worth it. The chance to see animals in the wild and also experience cultures and lives utterly alien to one's own makes you appreciate the diversity of the world.