The very mention of Africa evokes images of a setting sun over a dusty savannah dotted with lions, zebra and wildebeest. But there is so much more to this vast and varied continent than the fantastic wildlife and safari options. The birthplace of humanity, Africa is home to 54 United Nations-recognised countries, and from Algeria to Zimbabwe, each nation holds its own wonders and surprises.
Of course some countries in Africa will be more appealing to gap year travellers than others. Clearly the continent has had more than its fair share of political upheaval over the last few decades, but there are an increasing number of stable and safe countries to visit. South Africa tops the list for many visitors to Africa, but countries as diverse as Morocco, Ghana, Namibia and Sierra Leone, to name just a few, are also great options for those with a sense of adventure.
Africa grants a wealth of opportunities to gap year travellers and volunteers with a dizzying array of options available in many of the countries there. Education is viewed by many as the key to helping alleviate the poverty that still afflicts many African nations, and whether you are interested in teaching or building schools, you can lend your assistance and make a positive impact.
If you are seeking to get involved in environmental or zoological projects, your options are profuse. There are lots of well-organised and adequately funded wildlife conservation projects all over the continent that welcome gap year volunteers with open arms. If you ever fancied a close encounter with gorillas, the mightiest of primates, Rwanda and Uganda are the places for you. If helping to protect orphaned zebra or giraffes appeals, wildlife sanctuaries in South Africa are a great choice.
There are hundreds of options for medical and community based projects if you are so inclined, as well as countless enthralling cities and myriad adventure travel possibilities such as rafting, trekking and climbing.
There are thought to be around 2,000 distinct languages spoken in Africa today but the good news for travellers to the continent is that English or French are largely spoken and understood in many of the countries.
Getting around in Africa can be anything from extremely easy, cheap and efficient, to painfully slow and uncomfortable. Clearly there isn’t a monorail that zips you up to the middle of the Bwindi Impenetrable Forest to check out the local gorilla population. As long as you do your research and know what to expect, you can plan accordingly: if you don’t fancy trekking through the jungle, maybe give the gorilla projects a miss.
Travellers to Africa, more than any continent, should seek UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office travel advice well in advance of any proposed trip. Many countries are relatively safe and basic common sense (not flashing large bundles of cash or expensive gadgets around at night and so on) will suffice to ensure a trouble-free trip. However, some countries are less stable than others and it pays to know in advance about any potential flashpoints or areas to avoid, especially around elections which can sometimes pre-empt political unrest.
In terms of health, it is likely you will require vaccinations of some sort, often including Hepatitis A, Tetanus, Typhoid and Yellow Fever, while anti-malarial medication is likely to be advised. Always ensure you check in good time with you GP or local travel clinic.
The key to enjoying any trip to Africa is to prepare before you go, and that goes for understanding at least a little about the local customs and culture as well as the other practicalities. Whether you want to go to South Africa, Botswana or all the way to Timbuktu, you are sure to find something to interest you in Africa.