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"Is an African Safari Safe?"

by Ian Proctor

African safaris are one of the fastest growing segments of the travel market. However most travellers are unfamiliar with the African continent - a vast and often untamed land. Many people ask "Is it safe to visit Africa?" The answer is a resounding "Yes - if you know where to go!"

From the world's oldest desert in Namibia to the world's largest freestanding mountain - Mount Kilimanjaro, Africa is enormous and diverse - 53 countries in total. Some countries or regions (such as the Congo) are best avoided. These areas may be very unstable, have high rates of communicable disease, poor infrastructure and little wildlife. On the other end of the spectrum Botswana, in southern Africa, has a peacefully elected government, a vibrant economy (over US $5 billion cash surplus), a healthy climate and abundant wildlife.

As travellers are often unfamiliar with African geography, negative news reports from one region in Africa will often scare would be travellers away from perfectly safe safari destinations such as Botswana, Namibia, Tanzania, and Zambia. It must be understood that travel safety concerns arising from a negative event in one African country do not apply to Africa in total - they are generally isolated to specific geographical pockets. As an example travel safety concerns relating to 1996 Los Angeles riots did not apply to a trip to Lake Tahoe at the same time.

Africans do not run through the forest chanting and carrying spears, nor do they boil foreigners in large kettles. Africans are generally friendly to and interested in meeting foreigners, and Americans tend to have an exceptionally good reputation in rural Africa. The people of Africa have a gentleness, humbleness and optimism that we could all learn from.

When planning an African safari, it is best to work with a company that has intimate knowledge of each country - not just its wildlife and attractions but also its unique cultures, economy and government as safety issues often stem from these areas.

For most travellers a safari to Africa raises a number of red flags regarding health issues. People often ask "Won't I get sick?" You may be surprised to learn that for southern Africa (South Africa, Namibia, Botswana, and Zimbabwe) there are no required inoculations and health concerns are the same as those for travel to Eastern Europe or the Caribbean. For east Africa health concerns and inoculations are the same as those for travel to South America or east Asia.

The chance of contracting a disease while travelling is slight and with proper precautions most diseases are easy to avoid.

The most serious disease a traveller should be aware of is malaria. The risk varies widely by location and season - during the rains the risk is much higher (in some areas) while during the dry season travellers typically experience far fewer mosquitoes than a summer camping trip to a national park in the United States. Regardless of the time of year you intend to travel to Africa effective preventative drugs should be taken. Secondly, by wearing long sleeve shirts, long pants, shoes, socks and insect repellent in the evening the risk of being bitten is greatly reduced. Lastly all travellers should sleep in fully enclosed rooms or under a mosquito net (nearly all lodges, camps and hotels have either sealed rooms or mosquito nets over the beds). Many travellers ask about the risk of contracting AIDS while on safari. Remember that AIDS is primarily a lifestyle disease. If you live a
healthy lifestyle you will stay healthy. Also note that hospitals in Africa screen blood for this disease - in fact Zimbabwe was screening its blood for AIDS even before Britain!

The two most common health problems travellers experience while on safari are colds caught on airplanes and sun related problems. Although there may be little we can do to avoid contracting a cold, exposure to sun can be controlled.

While on safari you will spend a lot of time in the sun - on morning walks, while canoeing, or simply relaxing by the pool with a cool drink! Sunburns and heat exhaustion can occur however by following a few simple "rules of thumb" you can help to ensure that your safari memories are filled with nothing but sunshine!  Most people look forward to getting "some colour" but remember - tanning is a gradual process. A good sun hat is a MUST on safari as is plenty of high SPF sunblock. If you forget to pack your own, most safari lodges and camps have a supply for sale.

Other necessities include lip balm with sunscreen to avoid sun-chapped lips and a good pair of sunglasses with travel case!

Professional guides who spend extended periods in the sun know several secrets - In addition to drinking large amounts of water they will take sodium tablets. These tablets go a long way in helping replenish your bodies salts and keep you feeling well. It also helps to avoid large amounts of alcohol.

In the end most travellers, after enjoying good regular exercise, eating fresh foods including lots of tropical fruits and vegetables, sleeping well at night and being away from the stress of their Western lifestyles, return from Africa healthier than when they left.

(This article was written by Ian Proctor, managing director of Ultimate Africa Safaris)