Hiking the Rift Valley, Tanzania (sociate)
Article Words : Philip Briggs | 14 April

A beginner's guide to East Africa

Philip Briggs guides you through the charms of Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda, Ethiopia and Malawi

Home to the world’s greatest variety and concentrations of large mammals, 1,500 bird species and thousands of colourful insects and reptiles, East Africa is the ultimate safari destination. But there is more than wildlife. 

Bisected by the magnificent Great Rift Valley, this landscape encompasses lakes large enough to swallow a small European country, extinct volcanoes whose snow-capped peaks tower kilometres above the surrounding plains, and a pristine Indian Ocean coastline stretching more than 2,000km between Somalia and Mozambique

The variety of East Africa’s cultures and the depth of its history are often overlooked by visitors. The plains of the East African interior are regarded as the cradle of mankind, while the ruined medieval cities of the coast were once the great centres of maritime trade and the source of most of the world’s gold. Little-visited rock-hewn churches and stelae dot the Ethiopian Highlands, an area with a history as absorbing as it is obscure. 

East Africa has something for every taste and budget: five-star game lodges and remote jungle campsites; vibrant modern cities and traditional Swahili trading towns; scuba diving on coral reefs and camel safaris in arid northern Kenya; game walks on the Serengeti plains and gorilla tracking in the rainforests of Uganda; wild mountain trails and the perfect palm-lined beaches. It is a region of inexhaustible fascination and variety.

Planning a trip

When to go

There is no bad time to visit, but there are definite advantages to being there during the dry season when game viewing is at its best, dirt roads are less likely to be rained out, and malaria-carrying mosquitoes are relatively inactive.

Getting there

Nairobi, the capital of Kenya, has the region’s busiest international airport, and is the normal point of entry for people visiting several countries in the region, largely because it is easier to get discounted tickets from Europe to Nairobi than elsewhere in East Africa. However, several airlines fly to all the other capital cities in the region, and cheap charter flights are sometimes available to Mombasa and on the Kenya coast. The best place for discounted fares to East Africa is London.

Health

Malaria is the overwhelming concern. Take prophylactic drugs, make every effort to avoid being bitten by mosquitoes, and – bearing in mind that prophylactic-resistant strains are widespread – consider carrying a cure in your medical kit. A travel clinic can advise you about the most effective drugs. 

Bilharzia can be caught by swimming in fresh water, particularly lakes or slow-running rivers. You are unlikely to catch bilharzia if you spend less than ten minutes in the water and dry off vigorously immediately afterwards.

You may be asked to show an International Vaccination Certificate for yellow fever when you arrive. No other vaccinations are mandatory, but it is wise to have shots for polio, typhoid, tetanus and arguably hepatitis A, meningitis and rabies.

Uganda lies at the epicentre of the AIDs pandemic, and HIV infection rates are high throughout the region. This should not affect visitors, providing they don’t have unprotected sex with new friends.

Safety

Crime is only a serious concern in a few specific places, and violent crime against tourists is fairly unusual, though inevitably on the increase. The crime capital of East Africa is undoubtedly Nairobi – liberal use of taxis is advised. Other places with bad reputations include parts of the Kenya coast; Bagamayo and Dar es Salaam in Tanzania; Nkhata Bay in Malawi; and Addis Ababa in Ethiopia. Elsewhere, there is always a risk of casual theft at markets and bus stations, but this can be countered by keeping valuables hidden.

MalawiTanzania and Kenya have all enjoyed a high level of political stability since the 1960s. Most parts of Uganda and Ethiopia have also been stable in recent years. There may be a security risk attached to travelling in the remote northern half of Kenya, parts of Uganda north of the Nile, the Somali border area of eastern Ethiopia and the Rwandan border areas of Tanzania and Uganda. Few travellers visit these areas, but those who do should seek advice.

Visas

Nationals of the UK and most Commonwealth and EC countries don’t require visas to spend up to three months in KenyaMalawi or Uganda. British nationals must obtain a visa in advance to enter Tanzania or Ethiopia. Other nationals should check visa requirements at the appropriate embassy or high commission.

Time

GMT +3, except Malawi (GMT +2).

Languages

Hundreds of languages are spoken in the region. The lingua franca of TanzaniaKenya and to a lesser degree Uganda is Swahili, a Bantu language that spread from the coast to the interior along 19th century caravan routes. Swahili is replaced by Amharic in Ethiopia and Chichewa in Malawi. English is widely spoken in all but the most remote areas.

Accommodation

Tourist-class hotels or game lodges charging international rates are found in the capitals of all countries and at most major tourist sites in Kenya and Tanzania. Upmarket accommodation in the other countries is limited – there are probably less than ten quality hotels in each of Uganda and Malawi, while Ethiopia’s nominally tourist-class hotels would struggle to get a one-star rating elsewhere – though they’re generally clean and reasonably priced.

Budget travellers are well catered for throughout – even the smallest towns often have fine or six basic lodgings with rooms costing from £1-3. In most East African towns of any size you can find a mid-range hotel with self-contained rooms for around £10-15.

It’s worth thinking about carrying a tent in Kenya, UgandaMalawi or northern Tanzania, less so in Ethiopia or southern Tanzania. People on organised camping safaris in any country should be supplied with equipment.

Money

Carry the bulk of your money in travellers cheques, though some cash will be useful if you need to change money outside of banking hours. Cash should be US dollars; travellers cheques in any major currency. Credit cards are accepted at most upmarket hotels, by safari companies and similar organisations.

Current Rates: £1 = 131 Kenya Shillings; 2176 Tanzania Shillings; 3420 Uganda Shillings; 19 Ethiopian Birr; 239 Malawi Kwacha.

A regional overview

Kenya

Area: 580,000 sq km. The north of the country is arid and thinly populated, while the south offers one of the most varied landscapes in Africa.

Population: Approximately 39million, concentrated in the southern half of the country, especially in the highlands around Nairobi and the lush Uganda border area.

People: Kenya is a culturally diverse nation. The dominant linguistic groups are the Kikuyu of the highlands around Nairobi and the Luo of the lake Victoria region. The Swahili people of the Kenyan and Tanzanian coast are a loosely affiliated group of Bantu-speakers with a strong religious, linguistic and genetic input from the Islamic world. The Maasai of the Rift Valley and Samburu of the north are pastoralists whose ancestors probably migrated from Ethiopia in the 17th century. 

Climate: Kenya is a country of enormous climatic variations. The coast and lake Victoria hinterland are hot and humid throughout the day, the Rift Valley is hot and dry cooling down significantly at night, while highland areas can be downright chilly in the evening. The rainy season is broadly between October and April, though December and January are often fairly dry.

Getting Around: Buses and minibuses cover all main roads south of Kitale and west of Nairobi.  There is plenty of road transport between Nairobi and Mombasa, and along the coast as far north as Lamu. Several good rail services exist, including the near-legendary run between Nairobi and Mombasa. Car hire is cheaper than in neighbouring countries, though you will need to pay extra for a 4x4 to visit most game reserves. 

Highlights: Kenya’s most popular game reserve, the Maasai Mara, is a small and relatively congested extension of Tanzania’s superior Serengeti National Park. The Samburu Complex north of Mount Kenya is a good place to see ‘northern specials’ such as Grevy’s zebra, reticulated giraffe and gerenuk antelope. Amboseli National Park is the place to see elephants swaggering in the shadow of Kilimanjaro, while the famous Treetops-style hotels of the Aberdares, Mount Kenya and Shimba Hills National Parks offer the chance to see forest animals at close proximity.

The highlight of the coast is Lamu, a richly atmospheric and remarkably laid-back Swahili city that has barely changed in shape over the last few centuries. The old town of Mombasa, too, has plenty of atmosphere, and the resorts and hotels on nearby Diani Beach are the country’s prime destination for sunbathing addicts. The Watamu and Malindi area is a haven for snorkellers, divers and game fishermen, and offers good access to the jungle-bound medieval ruins at Gede.

To the west of Nairobi, the string of lakes lining the Rift Valley floor offer wonderful birdwatching and many opportunities to see wildlife on foot, particularly around Lake Naivasha.

Closer to the Uganda border, the Lake Victoria hinterland and western highlands have some scintillating off-the-beaten-track options: notably the superlative and pedestrian-friendly Kakamega Forest and Saiwa Swamp National Parks, the rolling tea plantations that cover the hills around Kisii, remote lakeshore ports such as Kendu Bay, and the fine hiking country of the Cherangani Hills and Mount Elgon. 

Ignore anybody who tells you that Kenya is too ‘touristy’ – they simply haven’t made the effort. If you don’t believe me, try a few nights at Olorgasailie, only two hours by bus from the capital, but one of the last places where a sweeping view of the Rift Valley floor might encompass a Maasai herdsman tending his cattle within a few hundred metres of a giraffe; or pitch a tent on the rim of Lake Chala, a startlingly beautiful crater lake on the Tanzania border beneath the shadow of Kilimanjaro – or just spend an evening chatting, drinking and dancing in any local bar.

Tanzania

Area: 945,166 sq km. In addition to a long Indian Ocean coastline, it is the only country with access to all three of Africa’s great lakes (Victoria, Tanganyika and Malawi). The 5,895m Mount Kilimanjaro on the Kenyan border is the highest peak in Africa. The offshore islands of Zanzibar and Pemba form the separate state of Zanzibar.

Population: About 41 million.

Climate: Broadly similar to Kenya.

Getting around: The main north-south road connecting Arusha to Mbeya via Dar es Salaam is in good condition and express buses are reasonably quick. Elsewhere, road transport is slow and overcrowded, and pretexts are found for stopping every couple of kilometres – it once took me 14 hours to bus the 200km between Iringa and Dodoma! The best way to get between the east and west is the rail service connecting Dar es Salaam to Kigoma and Mwanza. Boats connect Dar es Salaam to Zanzibar and Mtwara, and there are regular ferry services on all three great lakes.



Highlights: The map of north-eastern Tanzania reads like a litany of Africa’s most evocative place names. The Serengeti and Ngorongoro Crater live up to expectation – the former is quite simply Africa’s finest game reserve! The island of Zanzibar, too, rarely disappoints, with its combination of crumbling Omani ruins, an atmospheric old town, and numerous perfect beaches. Kilimanjaro is rightly regarded as one of Africa’s most breathtaking sights – on the rare occasions when the peak emerges from the clouds. 

Not surprisingly, tourism is concentrated in the north. But the southern reserves of Ruaha and Selous are among the most highly-rated and underdeveloped in Africa, while birders and hikers will find plenty to occupy them in the forested Udzungwa, Usambara and Poroto Mountains. The strongly-traditional coast south of Dar es Salaam boasts Tanzania’s most alluring off-the-beaten-track destination: the impressive ruins of the medieval gold trading centre of Kilwa. 

Highlights in the remote west include Gombe Stream National Park, where Jane Goodall undertook her famous chimpanzee study, and the grand two-night ferry trip down Lake Tanganyika on the 80-year-old German vessel, MV Liemba.

Uganda

Area: 235,796 sq km. It is a lush country, some 25% of which is covered in water – notably Lakes Victoria, Edward, Albert, George and Kyoga. The official source of the White Nile, the world’s longest river, rises from the Lake Victoria at Jinja, roughly 100km east of Kampala.

Population: Uganda is densely populated with 32 million people, most of whom are concentrated in the south and west.

People: Uganda has a long history of centralised societies. Oral tradition and archaeological evidence in the form of vast earthworks near Ntusi suggest that the first kingdoms emerged around AD 1100 and that the extant kingdoms of Buganda, Banyoro and Banyankole have been in existence for around 500 years.

Climate: Uganda’s equatorial climate is tempered by high altitude. Maximum daily temperatures are generally between 25-30ºC. The Nile and Lake Victoria hinterlands tend to be hotter than elsewhere, and uncomfortably humid at times. Most parts of the country have an annual rainfall of between 1000 and 2000mm. Rainfall patterns vary regionally, but the wettest months are generally October, November, and March to May.



Getting Around: Most main roads have been resurfaced since the civil war ended and so public transport is relatively nippy. Buses cover all main routes, leaving at scheduled times. A non-stop flow of minibuses leave when they fill up. Car hire is expensive and a 4x4 is required to get to most reserves.

Highlights: Uganda’s most popular tourist attraction is mountain gorilla tracking in Bwindi National Park or the Virunga range on the border with Rwanda and Zaire. But while mountain gorillas have helped dispel the notion that Uganda is unsafe, they have also obscured the other attractions of the country’s extensive rainforests. Several forests offer cheap, well-organised chimpanzee tracking walks. Kibale Forest alone protects some 13 monkey species including the beautiful black-and-white colobus and red colobus.

Uganda is the East African country for bird-watchers. More than 1000 species have been recorded in an area similar to Britain, including roughly 150 West African species at the eastern limit of their range. Forests like Semuliki, Kibale and Budongo provide the focal point of ornithological visits, but the whole of Uganda is one giant bird sanctuary, with several exciting species to be seen even in the capital. Uganda is too compact to have reserves on the scale of Kenya and Tanzania, but large mammal populations are slowly recovering after heavy poaching during the war. 

The launch trips in Queen Elizabeth and Murchison Falls National Parks rank with the most memorable game viewing experiences available in East Africa. For hikers, prime destinations are the Ruwenzori Mountains and Mount Elgon. There are limitless opportunities for more sedate walking in the field of 30-odd crater lakes around Fort Portal and on the forested Ssese Islands in Lake Victoria.

Ethiopia

Area: 1,104,300 sq km. The country is dominated by an elevated plateau roughly twice as large as Britain and with an average altitude of around 2000m. Contrary to popular perceptions, the Ethiopian highlands are the largest fertile region in East Africa.

Population: 85 million. 90% live in the highlands.

People: The people of the Ethiopian highlands have enjoyed a long but spasmodic history of contact with the Judaeo-Christian world, giving them a unique cultural and religious heritage. The dominant religion is the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, founded in Axum in the fourth century AD and peppered with rituals that were outlawed by other churches soon after. Muslims have been present in eastern Ethiopia since the 14th century. The Omo Valley in the far south contains some of Africa’s most idiosyncratic and isolated animist cultures.

Climate: Most visitors stick to the highlands, which has a very pleasant climate – warm to hot by day, and cool to chilly at night. During the main rainy season (roughly mid-June to mid-October) Addis Ababa can be as damp and miserable as London. The Rift Valley is markedly warmer than the highlands, though not unpleasantly so. Outlying parts of the country are generally hot and dry.

Getting Around: Buses in Ethiopia are reasonably swift and uncrowded, but the long distances between towns mean that you will regularly spend whole days on the road. With limited time, the best option is to fly; internal flights are inexpensive. Car hire options are limited, expensive, and vehicles generally come with a driver.

Highlights: Ethiopia is the one sub-Saharan African country where tourism revolves around culture and history rather than wildlife. Few would want to miss the so-called ‘historical route’. Highlights are the subterranean complex of ten rock-hewn churches at Lalibela, the myriad ruins and stelaes surrounding the 2500 year old city of Axum, and the royal compound enclosing five 16th century castles at the former capital of Gonder. 

Not far south of Gonder, the Blue Nile exits Lake Tana at the town of Bahar Dar, a popular base for day trips to one of the lake’s many ancient island monasteries (note that some are forbidden to women) and to the spectacular Tississat Blue Nile Falls.

In the far eastern highlands, Harar is regarded by Muslims as the world’s fourth most holy city, with 99 mosques inside its high walls. Harar also hosts one of the most eerie semi-natural spectacles in Africa: the so-called hyena men, who feed by hand (and sometimes mouth-to-mouth) the wild hyenas that scavenge on the city’s outskirts.

Ethiopia has much to offer natural history enthusiasts. In addition to its dramatic scenery, the country boasts more endemic bird species than any African country except South Africa. Endemic mammals such as the mountain nyala, Simien fox (the world’s rarest candid), gelada baboon and walia ibex are best seen in the montane national parks of Bale in the south and Simien in the north.

The rest of the country is little visited and rich in off-the-beaten-track possibilities – the churches at Lalibela, for instance, are merely the apex of a chiselling tradition that probably predates Christianity and which has resulted in more than 300 rock-hewn churches scattered around the country.

Of great interest for birds and scenery is a string of Rift Valley lakes that mirror those in Kenya. And those who cling to the idea that Ethiopia is nothing but desert can enjoy dispelling the myth by undertaking a loop through the rainforests of the western highlands to the river port of Gambela – a steamy, remote former British free port that looks more like a setting from the Heart of Darkness than Lawrence of Arabia.

Malawi

Area: Malawi is a sliver of a country covering only 118,484 sq km, roughly following the Rift Valley from north to south. It is dominated by the 585km long Lake Malawi.

Population: Malawi is one of the most densely populated countries in Africa, with a population of approximately 14million.

Getting Around: Short distances, good roads and excellent bus services make getting around a pleasure – for example, an express bus covering the 311km between Lilongwe and Blantyre takes a mere four hours. Car hire is cheaper than elsewhere in the region and you can reach most places in an ordinary saloon.

Climate: The lakeshore and other parts of the Rift Valley are very hot and humid, particularly in the summer months between November and April. The majority of the country, however, has a pleasant highland climate, if slightly humid in the summer. The rainy season coincides with the summer months.

Highlights: Lake Malawi is the third-largest lake in Africa. Hemmed in by the 1000m-high Rift Valley escarpment, it is also the most beautiful. Lakeside resorts like Cape Maclear and Nkhata Bay rank among the most popular backpacker meccas in Africa, but there are dozens of quieter spots for those who want to get away from it all.

Elsewhere, Zomba Mountain and the Nulanje Massif are popular with hikers, while several less-publicised forest reserves offer excellent walking in beautiful surrounds. The outstanding game reserve is Liwonde National park, where a boat trip down the Shire River allows you to see hippos, elephants and birds in a setting that evokes every cliché of tropical Africa.

Malawi has been described as ‘Africa for beginners’ – not only is it cheap, safe, scenic and easy to get around, but Malawians must be serious contenders for the title of the most friendly, laid-back, goofed-out people in the world.