The inside cover of this recent Rough Guides release includes a brief disclaimer: “First-Time Africa is not a guidebook: it’s a book to read before you go, a planning handbook.” Fair enough. But even without including specific guidebook-type recommendations for an entire continent, author Jens Finke still had a big job ahead: inspiring the reader to visit Africa, and then preparing them for the ins and outs of visas, transit, medical issues, and personal safety in a landmass that’s home to more than fifty countries, with diverse climates, landscapes, languages, political situations… That’s a lot to cover in 400 pages, and I have to admit I was a little skeptical when I picked the book up.
The book leads off with several pages of glossy, full-colour photos and descriptions of the continent’s highlight-reel attractions and landscapes. Next it includes a thumbnail sketch of each of the countries covered, to help the reader decide which areas interest them most. The sketches include a brief introduction, vital statistics, main attractions, festivals, online resources, and books for further reading. The book recommendations, as always with Rough Guides, are fantastic, ranging from travel narratives to political histories and classic post-colonial novels.
Since there probably isn’t any other part of the world that inspires as much fear in potential travelers as Africa does, I was interested to see which countries didn’t make the cut. Sudan and Zimbabwe, both of which certainly get enough scary headlines to keep most tourists away, are included, while Burundi, Chad, the Central African Republic, both Congos (the Democratic Republic and the Republic, also known as Congo-Kinshasa and Congo-Brazzaville), Ivory Coast, and Somalia are all explicitly left out, and highlighted in a boxed text as no-go zones for tourists. Sierra Leone, Liberia and Equatorial Guinea are also excluded, without an explanation. Though I was a little surprised to see Ivory Coast on the list of hot zones, overall I thought the selection of countries struck a good balance. Steering clear of Somalia or the Congo is a no-brainer for anyone but a trained aid worker, but for other countries, like Uganda or Sudan, where there may be horrible things happening but where tourists aren’t necessarily at risk, I think it’s healthy to give travelers the information they need to make their own choices.
The final section covers the nuts and bolts: visas and insurance, costs, packing, culture shock, accommodation options, medical problems, and personal safety. I appreciated the bluntness of the transportation section: “If you fancy a flawless holiday where everything runs smoothly, with no surprises, don’t go to Africa. The same goes for people who are impatient and can’t live without that watch around their wrist.” In other words, delays will happen. That much, if nothing else, is guaranteed. The health chapter shared that same blunt realism, clearly outlining the various risks to travelers without veering into paranoia. Other sections, though, showed the difficulty of covering such a vast, varied territory in one book. The chapter on costs did the best job of covering specifics, citing costs generally by region and then listing the cheapest and most expensive countries within each area. On the other hand, the chapter on what to pack was probably the least useful, since the gear needed for bazaar-shopping in Morocco, hiking Mt. Kilimanjaro in Tanzania, or surfing in South Africa couldn’t be more different. The chapter dealing with personal safety, again, avoided alarmist warnings about violent crime and instead focused sensibly on theft, scams, and bribery. However, I was surprised to find that there was no section on women travelers, and what kind of reception we might expect, particularly if traveling solo.
The only real disappointment was the chapter on responsible tourism. I said above that I was glad to see places like Sudan and Zimbabwe included in the book, but there’s a caveat to that. I don’t think it’s right to encourage visits to those countries without including at least some discussion of what the governments there are up to: both are supervising, in different ways, the destruction of large swaths of their populations. I would have hoped to see some tough questions – for example, can we travel to Sudan without our dollars winding up in the hands of the janjaweed? is it right to stay in a nice hotel in Harare when millions of Zimbabweans are facing starvation? – addressed in this section. Instead, it focused on eco-tourism tours and on supporting local economies over foreign-owned companies – both good things, but not the whole picture in a place like Khartoum.
Responsible tourism concerns aside, though, I’d say Finke has lived up to the book’s purpose: to inspire travelers to visit Africa for the first time, and to give us the basic tools to prepare for our trip. Throughout, though he is blunt about the realities of travel in Africa, Finke always makes clear that delays, touts, and bureaucratic hassles, all should be viewed as part of the adventure. I can’t wait to use his advice, and to experience that adventure myself.