Ten Tips – Travelling in Africa

The continent of Africa is a mighty big place, absolutely rammed full of Adventure. Compared to the comfy west it can seem a wild, dangerous and exhilarating place to venture. From the packed cities to wild empty plains, rainforests and some of earth’s finest predatory creatures, it’s got everything to make the perfect adventure. Luke Gelmi decided a Royal Enfield would be his bike of choice to travel and spent a long time discovering the do’s and don’ts. These are his ten top tips for staying alive, keeping happy and having an amazing time. 



1) Chuck out ‘the rule book’…

…unless you like rules, and if you do, you’re probably not going to like reading this, so I suggest you stop now… For the rest of us, never fear; you don’t have to know everything before you start.

The internet is choc-full of opinion pieces on “the perfect bike” and all that other “perfect” stuff. You can go mad trying to find the perfect everything before you’ve even begun.

Following that, your trip will end up being like everyone else’s… And that sucks.

The alternative? Chuck out that rule book, go against the grain, and do it your own way.

I figured that out by accident, buying a Royal Enfield in England, and then getting forced out of Europe and into Africa by the weather. I ended up, accidentally, doing the whole West Coast.

Thirty thousand kilometres and more countries than I can count on my fingers and toes.

If I had of read enough on the internet before I started, I would have chickened out before I’d even begun…

Being oblivious was my greatest strength.


2) Get a Visa Card

This is the one and only piece of absolutely mandatory advice that I ever give anyone who wants to travel Africa: Get a Visa Card.

As in the credit card…

All other lessons you will learn in Africa have an added value of learning them yourself, on the job, but this one sucks…

By the time I figured out that Mastercard doesn’t work in West Africa I was up sh!t creek and out of money. A tough and expensive lesson to learn. For me it meant a few days stuck in a crappy hotel room eating nothing but street peanuts because I had no money. Hungry times… Oh, and right after my new Visa credit card arrived it got stolen… and then right after that I got food poisoning…




3) If you’re going West, you could do worse than learning a smidgin of French…

It’s the English speakers luck (or curse) that you can scrub by with speaking the Queens basically anywhere in the world you go.

But it makes you a flog traveller. Nobody likes you.


The fact that West Africa is more dense with countries than America is with states is a made up fact. But it’s gotta be close… There’s a shedload of countries, and most of those countries speak French – a colonial hangover. The upshot of that is that the bread is sensational – just as good as a Parisian baguette – and that you have a chance to do something the locals will absolutely love you for: Learn some French.

Just a little.


Honestly, even if all you can say in French is “Sorry, I don’t speak French very well, but I’m trying to learn” the locals will deadset love you forever for it, just for having a crack.

Learning French is the single most rewarding and satisfying thing I did in my year-long ride through West Africa. And that includes saving a blokes life (after I killed him first…)

Anyway… Learning French enriched the experience a hundred-fold.

Do it.

If you really want to go rockstar, you can learn some Portuguese for Guinea-Bissau and Angola…  But, yeah, too hard… Unless you’d like to date a Brazilian at some point in your life…

Hmmm. So maybe do learn Portuguese…


4) Don’t pay bribes

Counter-intuitive, right?

I assumed that I was going to be paying bribes in Africa like a faulty cash machine that’s paying out. I was sure that the Africans would be looking to pull my pants down any chance they got.

Nope. Not even close.

I never really got asked… I get the feeling that it could have smoothed out a number of situations, particularly at borders (the time that a bloke the size of a walrus was going apeshit at me comes to mind…) but it always seemed too awkward to me to bring it up; plus, I get the feeling that it had the potential to dig me even deeper into the pit…

Sure, most things that you pay for seemed to have a little bit of cream added on top but with some patience and a bit of haggling you can get things down to a reasonable, fair price. Speaking of which…



5) Haggle

For everything.


In the West (culture, that is…), we’re not too used to this idea of haggling over a price or over a deal, but in Africa it’s a way of life.

Anything that involves the exchange of money will involve an exchange of a haggle. People will look at you weird if you don’t haggle, even if it’s for street peanuts.

At first it will feel weird and alien and awkward to you, but you’ll get used to it. Have some fun with it.



6) You’re gonna get crook

Deal with it…

When I started in Africa I was hell-bent on staying healthy and avoiding food-poisoning at all costs.

Good luck, with that…

Once making my peace with the fact that the local food wasn’t the height of hygiene, and that, yeah, sometimes you’re going to be in a bathroom, wondering whether to sit or whether to kneel, it got better.

Acceptance is the last step…

Eating food from street corners with the locals quickly became one of my favourite parts of the trip.

And it’s effing delicious. Truly.

Talking French with the locals while eating the delicious food that they eat, it’s the real McCoy. There were times when I was sitting on a street corner, eating the delicious food and having a laugh with the locals that I was almost euphoric.

Check in your OCD at the door, and always carry a roll of toilet paper with you, and you won’t regret it.


7) Reputation <> Character

Reputation does not equal Character.

Character is real. Reputation is what people talk about.

Africa has a reputation. Oh yes, indeed, it has a reputation. A fearsome one.

Don’t believe it.

I scared myself sh!tless in the lead up to countries like Nigeria and Congo, amongst many others, places that common-sense told me I should be scared of. I whipped myself up into a right old frenzy over them. What happened? Nothing that I expected…

It’s character? I’ve never met friendlier people.

It’s a special place and people who will take a total stranger, a foreigner no less, and welcome them into their home with open arms.

Keep calm and carry on…



8) Solo for self-exploration, duo for plain-old exploration

Why not do both?

I had the luck of doing most of my trip solo, with a few ‘chunks’ of the trip with other riders/travellers who I happened to come across by chance.

Riding and travelling solo led to introspection; digging in my head and finding gems and treasures for myself. Riding with someone else pushed the boundaries of what I thought I could do: hitchhiking on iron-ore trains out into the Sahara desert; getting lost for days out in the glorious Guinean outback…

Travelling solo was important for my own satisfaction; to know that I did it, and that I didn’t need anything or anyone as a crutch to prop me up; I could do it myself, I did do it myself.

But travelling with others was just friggin awesome. The sense of safety in numbers really allows everyone to push themselves (and their machines) way beyond the boundaries of what they thought was possible, knowing that there’s someone there to back them up when if the proverbial hits the fan…

There are people looking for riding mates all over the internet. Go find one.


9) 95% of success is tying the shoelaces


Yes, you’ll still have to get through the rest of that 5% to success but the inertia of the 95% start should get you there…

You don’t have to have a map with a line all planned out, you don’t have to have a list of things to pack and places to see (unless you’re into that); you just have to have the bike you love, and a curiosity to explore, and you never know where you might end up…

I ended up riding from London to Cape Town, on a bloody Royal Enfield and did what I never thought was possible…



10) Be kind to your mother

It’s gonna be a lot harder on her than it will be on you. Send her flowers every-now-and-again…

Interested in reading Luke’s fantastic free book about his travels? Click here.


Still in need of some travel inspiration? With the video below.


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