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7 Reasons Why East Africa is The Best Place to Start

Africa is on the Bucket List of every traveller, whether it’s exploring the temples of Egypt, experiencing the power of Victoria Falls, or even venturing to Timbuktu.

It is a region that evokes the adventurous spirit of travel like no other, ‘a veritable ocean, a separate planet, a varied, immensely rich cosmos,’ according to the late Polish journalist Ryszard Kapuściński.

For many travellers, the perceived dangers, difficulty, and unpredictability of travelling in Africa often act as deterrents. It is easy to understand how these doubts manifest, given that much of the travel writing on Africa, past and present, reinforces negative stereotypes.

However, having spent more than 3 years of my life in Africa, travelling, living, working, and even marrying – I can reassure you that, while Africa has its challenges, it is one of, if not the greatest travel destination on earth.

In the words of Richard Mullins, ‘the only man I envy is the man who has not yet been to Africa – for he has so much to look forward to.’

If you are inspired to finally cross Africa off your Bucket List, there are seven reasons why East Africa is the best place to start.

All across East Africa, English is widely spoken. This makes life much easier than in West Africa, where you’ll need French, English or Arabic, depending on which country you’re in.

In saying that, learning languages is a great part of travelling, and conveniently, Swahili is also widely spoken across East Africa, and as a phonetic language, is easy to learn.

While it is most prevalent in Tanzania and Kenya, you will be able to use your Swahili skills in Uganda, Burundi and Rwanda, and even as far as Eastern DRC or South Sudan, if you venture that far.

The East African Tourist Visa

The EATV is a recent initiative and agreement between Kenya, Uganda and Rwanda. Costing $US100, it allows for multiple entries across the 3 countries for 90 days. If you also want to visit Tanzania, you will need a separate visa, which should be able to obtain at the border.

Applications for the EATV are completed online, through any of the participating countries, and importantly, the country that issues it must be the first country you visit.

nungwi-beach-zanzibar-diversity-of-activities

Tourism Infrastructure

East Africa is well set up for tourism, which makes it great for first-time African travellers.

Moreover, there are options to suit every kind of traveller, from budget-conscious backpackers to high-end luxury tourists. There are many tour companies to choose from, and most tours, including safaris and hikes, can be arranged once you arrive.

Trains, buses, and local forms of transport are plentiful and run regularly, though not always to a timetable – African time is real! In recent years, foreign investment, mainly from China, has seen upgrades to highways and metropolitan thoroughfares, including the modernisation of the Nairobi to Mombasa railway.

Diversity of Activities

East Africa boasts the most diverse range of tourist activities anywhere on the continent. Wildlife safaris in Tanzania and Kenya provide an opportunity to see the ‘Big 5’ – lion, leopard, rhinoceros, elephant, and buffalo, while both countries also offer unforgettable mountain climbing and the luxury of relaxing on white sandy beaches, in Zanzibar, Lamu, and Mombasa.

In Uganda, you can try white water rafting in Jinja, hike in the Rwenzori mountains, or head west and spot gorillas. Over the border in Rwanda, gorilla treks are also popular, while Kigali is one of the most rapidly developing cities on the entire continent.

If you’re feeling adventurous, Burundi is the hidden gem of East Africa. Less travelled, for obvious reasons, Burundi offers a rich musical culture, wildlife and hiking tours, and even a beach a short ride from the centre of Bujumbura.

Food

Ok, let’s be honest, the food in East Africa is not the best on the continent. The North and West Africans have them well covered, however, there are still some tasty dishes to sample.

matoke-in-kampala-uganda-food.
matoke in Kampala uganda food.

My personal favourite is chipsi mayai, the ubiquitous street food of Tanzania. Chipsi mayai is a simple mix of chips and eggs, mayai in Swahili. Chipsi mayai is often accompanied by coleslaw, ketchup, or pili-pili fresh, and IMHO is a proper meal for any time of day.

Elsewhere in Tanzania, you can snack on chapatis, nyama choma (barbecued meat), tilapia, vitumbua (spongy rice cakes), and wash it all down with a glass of milk tea, chai maziwa. In Uganda, a couple of favourites are Rolex, an omelette wrapped in a chapati (genius!), and matoke, cooked green bananas with fish and sauce.

Finally, no trip to East Africa is complete without Ugali. Made from maize, ugali is the staple of most East African diets, and if you ever visit someone’s home you will likely be served it. Ugali is ok, I mean it’s edible, but that’s about the best compliment I can offer. Ugali is best eaten with fish and greens, which will sit heavily in your stomach afterwards. The term food coma is apt after a big serving of ugali.

Political stability

Political instability is one of the main deterrents for travellers to Africa, and the continent does have more than its fair share of turmoil. However, East Africa is, for the most part, stable and safe to travel.

Rwanda has recovered from the 1994 genocide and is developing as one of the most prosperous and safest nations in the region, while Uganda, Kenya, and Tanzania, all function relatively well. While there are regional stoushes and posturing by Big Man leaders, travellers should be able to avoid any difficulties, and guides will keep you safe and informed if trouble does arise.

Sadly, Burundi remains the outlier, unable to shake itself free of corruption and violence, although, since the death of former President Pierre Nkurunziza in 2020, progress is being made. It is always wise to have an eye on the political situation of any country you visit, though in general East Africa is ok.

Friendliness

The people of East Africa are incredibly friendly and will ensure your trip is enjoyable and memorable. Karibu, welcome, is one of the most commonly used words in Swahili, and you will hear and feel it throughout your travels.

East Africans appreciate visitors, are always curious to learn about travellers to their respective countries and are open to sharing their own cultures. It is not unusual to be welcomed to someone’s home, and if so, I would recommend you take the opportunity.

kampala uganda friendliness of the people
Kampala Uganda friendliness of the people

Any chance to look behind the tourist curtain is always valuable, and you will gain an insight into the real lives of people there.

Conclusion

Africa is a place that is often frustrating, sometimes heartbreaking and even now and then, wonderfully infuriating.

However, like nowhere else, Africa has a way of getting under your skin. You will experience moments of joy, awe, and wonder, that will wash away all your worries, and reign you back in again.

Your travels in Africa will be like nowhere you have ever been or will ever go. You will be challenged and grow, as a traveller and a person.

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