'A fantastic place to visit'
It is less frequented by gappers than other parts of the world, but East Africa has much to offer, says Zoe Flood
Tuesday 18 August 2009
Who goes there?
Anyone looking for a slightly more unusual gap-year destination, offering everything you could want and more. Conservationists, backpackers and people looking to do voluntary work will find accessible and rewarding destinations in Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda and Rwanda.
Although popular among tourists, East Africa has a less well-trodden gap-year path. But volunteering opportunities are plentiful and worthwhile, and further travel possibilities are varied and exciting.
What gap years can you do there?
A region of extraordinary natural beauty, East Africa offers a host of different gap years. From coastal conservation work to adventure travel and trekking; from orphanage volunteering to teaching, you should be able to tailor the perfect gap-year experience.
Global Vision International offers the opportunity to work with rescued turtles at a community-run centre in Zanzibar ( www.gvi.org.uk), while Camp Kenya and Camp Tanzania ( www.campsinternational.com) offer programmes of varying lengths with a wildlife, ocean or community focus – and some play, as well as work. With locations on Kenya's stunning coast and the foothills of Mount Kilimanjaro, you'll be grateful for the time off.
East Africa contains four of the least developed countries in the world, so community projects warmly welcome volunteers. Nyumbani Children's Home in Nairobi cares for HIV-positive children, and invites volunteers who contribute about £90 a month ( www.nyumbani.org); while Africa and Asia Venture places people in schools and orphanages across Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda ( www.aventure.co.uk).
Many gappers set off to explore the region on an overland truck, joining like-minded adventurers in this special corner of the continent. Experienced guides lead these tours on well-equipped trucks. Or, if you want to do your own thing, several agencies cater to the budget traveller – including Gametrackers ( www.gametrackersafaris. com) and Matoke Tours Agency ( www.matoketours.nl/agency).
In addition to enjoying affordable safari packages, adrenalin junkies can raft the white-water rapids at the source of the Nile in Uganda, or bounce through the Chalbi Desert to Lake Turkana in northern Kenya, where some of The Constant Gardener was filmed.
What opportunities are there for further travel?
More than you could imagine. After several months of hard work, you might want to relax on an Indian Ocean beach. From Lamu in northern Kenya to the Kilwa Masoko in southern Tanzania, these pristine beaches are among the most beautiful in the world. And in low season, they can be practically empty. Wend your way down from Kenya to Tanzania before finishing up on the mythical island of Zanzibar, where you can explore its history at the heart of the spice, slave and ivory trade.
For the more active, pick one of many trekking options – Mount Kenya and Kilimanjaro are there to be climbed, as are the Rwenzori Mountains in Uganda and then there is Rwanda's Volcanoes National Park. This is a haven for the mountain gorilla, and there are limited permits available for visitors.
You might choose to visit some of Rwanda's memorials to those killed in the 1994 genocide, and appreciate just how far the country has come as you walk Kigali's neat and ordered streets. The region abounds with history – political, cultural and archaeological. Don't forget that the first humans are believed to have originated in East Africa.
How much will the trip cost me?
East Africa does not rank as highly as south-east Asia or Latin America with budget travellers, in part due to the cost. But if you plan carefully, regional travel shouldn't set you back too much, and it's possible to live on a low budget. Flights from London to East Africa's Nairobi hub are available for under £400, provided you are flexible with dates. Travel within the region is good value: a Nairobi-Kampala bus ticket costs about £16. There are many excellent backpacker hostels and guesthouses in the region, although at £6-£7 per night rather than the usual sub-£2 bracket. Local food is very cheap.
Gap-year packages reflect the higher costs of the region, particularly as many of the activities involved – such as adventure sports or safaris – are reasonably pricey. A day's rafting costs about £75; park entry fees for the Masai Mara are around £25. The main companies will charge you from about £3,000 for a four-month project, excluding flights, insurance and visas, but usually covering some kind of safari. And don't forget to budget some extra spending money to cover the beautiful Masai handicrafts.
Are there any risks?
Yes, as in any part of the world. But keep your wits about you and you'll find East Africa a comfortable and friendly region in which to work or travel. Aside from the usual risks, Nairobi has a difficult reputation, but is a vibrant and rewarding city if approached with due caution. Remoter parts of Uganda and Kenya sometimes receive Foreign and Commonwealth Office travel advisories, so keep an eye on the website for any updates ( www.fco.gov.uk). Parts of western Rwanda can also be affected by insecurity in the neighbouring Democratic Republic of Congo. But overall, East Africa is a safe and peaceful region for visitors.
Malaria can be a problem, although the risks vary by season and altitude. Ensure you have appropriate prophylaxis and try to avoid getting bitten. Check with locals if lakes and rivers are bilharzia-affected before swimming in them.
What they say
Matthew Alagiah, 18, spent three months of his gap year in East Africa. He volunteered in Rwanda before travelling through the region. "I wanted to get some experience and develop my skills, so looked for placements in Kigali. But East Africa is also great for travelling, offering everything from beaches in Zanzibar to mountain treks and rafting on the Nile," he says.
"You quickly realise the futility of planning too far ahead, as so much is unpredictable. But if you're relaxed about your itinerary, it's a fantastic place to visit. People are usually really interested in knowing your story and eager to help out. East Africa is also great for travelling on a budget – I managed to keep my total costs below £10 a day."
What we say
"The wildlife? The scenery? The coastline? Sure, all of these are spectacular in East Africa: from Kenya's Masai Mara, via the Ruwenzori Mountains of Uganda, to the shores of Zanzibar, I have been lucky enough to experience some of the highlights of this multi-faceted region. But my strongest memory is of the warmth and friendliness of the people," says Simon Calder, senior travel editor of The Independent.
So should I be on the next flight out?
*East Africa's wide-ranging landscapes and experiences are in a fairly compact area, making travel easy and cheap.
*Swahili is widely spoken in the region, so you can pick up some of the continent's second most prevalent language.
*A less common destination on the gap-year trail, if you want to do things a little differently.
*The region doesn't attract hordes of backpackers if you're looking for a full-moon party experience.
*Safety concerns in one or two places mean you have to rely on taxis for nocturnal adventures.
*Although it is possible to live fairly cheaply, it's not the spot if you want to travel on an extremely tight budget.
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