I was in Africa for 13 months, circumnavigating the continent by public transport for the Encircle Africa expedition. Solo and unsupported, this was the first time such an expedition was completed.
I was dependent upon two things: the local populous, and the 20 kilograms of kit I had chosen back in Britain. It quickly became apparent that there were 10 pieces of kit without which Encircle Africa would have been very difficult. They weren’t the kit essentials I had thought would be invaluable.
If all else fails, sardines need no cooking, are filling, cheap, last forever and freely available all over Africa. What’s more, forget struggling with the local language, ‘sardines’ seems to be ‘sardines’ in every country I visited.
Circumnavigating Africa I only needed to keep salt water on my right hand side, but I knew from experience a compass was a handy item to have in my pocket. Several years ago in Ghana I came to a particularly complicated road junction I couldn’t get my head around. The map I had showed the road I wanted due north, only I didn’t know where north was. I wandered around not finding what I was looking for quite some time. Since then, I’ve always carried a simple compass. A map is all well and good but you need to ensure you are facing the right direction to start with.
3. Debit cards
Travellers cheques were difficult to cash, and needed identification and purchase receipts. Some cash was vital, but I wasn’t interested in carrying 13 months’ worth of US dollars with me – the currency of choice across the continent. Though debit cards often meant paying an international usage fee, ATMs are found across Africa, and are a safe method of carrying large amounts. Take two cards, in case your bank decides to freeze your account, as happened to me several times.
4. Travel towel
A towel is a must for budget travellers but standard towels take up huge amounts of space. Wandering around Malaysia most of my bag was towel. Travel towels take very little space. Though not as large as a towel I would normally choose to use at home, and more like drying myself with a shammy leather, it did the job, dried quickly, and fit into a side pocket.
A handy lightweight object that took up no space in a bag when not used, my karabina was fantastic for holding objects to each other.
I used a £1 model to attach my water bottle (see number 8) to my tiny day bag.
6. A Smile
No one likes being shouted at. Be patient, be polite, and smile. Call everyone ‘sir’ or ‘madame’. Bow even. Smiling got me out of all sorts of scraps and stopped me having to pay a few bribes. Like sardines, smiles translate well into all languages.
7. Wind-up torch
No need to hunt out those batteries; cheap to buy, lightweight, and melted far less in my bag than my candles.
8. Water bottle
More a necessity than anything in much of Africa, a 1 litre water bottle wasn’t too heavy to put me off carrying it around every day. My model was coated in white. It helped reflect the heat away from the liquid inside, but gradually scrapped away leaving small bits of paint about my person and my kit. Get one with some sort of handle for attaching to a karabina and easier carrying by hand. A wide neck made it easy to refill and clean.
9. Camera tripod stand
One of the problems of solo travel was managing to get photographs of myself. A small tripod – I used a Joby Gorillapod flexible tripod – was a useful answer to the problem. My model didn’t allow portrait shots, which I found to be key. Most of the time my arm did just as well.
10. Sticky tape and Gaffa tape
Sticky tape was great for simply jobs like wrapping up presents to protect them. Its stronger brother had a mass of uses, from holding up mosquito nets to fixing tears in my rucksack. Not a particularly eco-friendly idea, but don’t bother with the small rolls sold in travel shops. Go to a DIY store, pay half the price, and throw half of it away (or give it to your dad on a toilet roll tube). And remember not to pack anything that can’t be stuck back together with some tape.