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African Travel Rewards Patience, Preparation

November 11, 1990|JAMES T. YENCKEL | WASHINGTON POST

Travel to and within Africa is seldom easy. Patience and flexibility are essential in any African itinerary. So, too, is up-to-date information about the political situation in individual countries and any other factors that may affect personal security. As was evident not so long ago, even popular tourist destinations such as Kenya are not immune to occasional problems.

Specifically, the experts in African travel advise, those bound for Africa can spare themselves needless worry and disappointment if they keep in mind that:

--In Africa, the best-laid plans can easily go awry. Travelers should build flexibility into their schedules, along with a bit--and sometimes a lot--of patience. It is useless to get angry if your takeoff is delayed for hours or the day's flight is canceled entirely, a not uncommon occurrence.

--Africa should never be thought of as a unified whole; it definitely isn't. Africa is more than 50 individual countries, each pursuing its own path. Some are politically stable and others are not. If one erupts in internal conflict, don't conclude that the entire continent is in turmoil. "You've got to take Africa country by country," says John Shields, co-director of Arlington, Va.-based Safariworld, a tour organizer specializing in escorted wildlife safaris in East Africa.

By State Department estimates, fewer than 100,000 Americans a year travel to Africa, compared to more than 6 million who head for Europe. On the whole, however, they tend to be experienced travelers--fully aware of the inconveniences of exploring the Third World, but intrigued by the beauty of the landscape, the diversity of cultures and the opportunity to see exotic wildlife in abundance.

Among the most popular destinations are Kenya and Tanzania for their game parks, Zimbabwe for Victoria Falls, and Togo, Ghana, Senegal and Gambia in West Africa for their scenic and cultural attractions. Ghana especially is noted for its colorful festivals.

Africa draws people "who have done London and Paris," says Shields, "and are looking for something more exotic than driving around Scotland." Many sign up for a camera safari. But more seasoned travelers often opt for independence, planning sightseeing itineraries of their own.

A number of black Americans journey to Africa for "a taste of the culture" or as a pilgrimage in search of their roots, says Boniface Kwesi Cobbina, who heads Africa-U.S. Travel of Washington, D.C., a travel agency specializing in African travel. A primary destination is Senegal, an appealing country that also has the advantage of being convenient. It is just a 6 1/2-hour overnight flight from New York City, and the cost for a weeklong trip, including air fare from New York, is about $1,000 per person.

"Your trip to Africa will be an adventure off the beaten path," says the State Department's Bureau of Consular Affairs in a booklet, "Tips for Travelers to Sub-Saharan Africa." The statement is made to encourage travel, but the booklet also warns that conditions and customs "can contrast sharply with what you are used to."

One primary problem is that air travel can be hectic within Africa. Overbooking, airport chaos, inoperative facilities and bad scheduling are prevalent in many countries, according to a special report in the February issue of Business Traveler magazine. On some African airlines, passengers have to scramble aggressively for seats even though they hold confirmed reservations. (Travelers on escorted tours tend to encounter fewer hassles than those on independent itineraries.)

Among other factors that may prove frustrating to Americans: unusual visa requirements, strict currency regulations, restrictions on the use of cameras, security checks on city streets and country roads, dress codes, destinations placed off-limits, curfews, inadequate medical facilities and risk of disease. Malaria, for example, is found in almost all the countries of sub-Saharan Africa.

Personal safety is of concern to almost any traveler going abroad these days, but especially so in Africa, where tribal strife, border skirmishes and violent coups are not uncommon. However, such incidents are rarely directed at tourists. Street crime, though, is a problem in many African cities, as it is in much of the world, and foreign tourists are a primary target because they represent wealth. Leave expensive jewelry and keepsakes at home and hang onto purses and cameras.

State Department travel advisories are currently in effect for 22 African countries. Several advisories cite high crime in urban areas. The latest, however, advises Americans to defer travel to Rwanda, where an armed force, reportedly made up of Rwanda exiles in Uganda, has engaged in hostilities with the government. Rwanda is a popular wildlife destination because of the free-roaming mountain gorillas in Parc des Volcans. Some American tour companies are temporarily canceling treks to see the gorillas in their natural habitat.

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