Q: We are planning a three- to four-week backpacking journey through Africa in March. Any thoughts on where to go to get a good general impression of Africa? What about destinations preferred by typical backpackers?
Cosima Blasy, Bremen, Germany
A: It's a darn big continent down there. Getting an impression of the whole thing would take a whole lot more than four weeks. Your first move should be narrowing down your focus to one region. This time of year I'd go with East Africa, where you'll catch the very end of the dry season. Conveniently enough, this area happens to be home to some of Africa's best-known outdoor destinations, with a hit list that includes the Serengeti, Masai Mara, and Mount Kilimanjaro.
Since the most famous places tend to be priced accordingly (you won't get to touch Uhuru Peak for less than $500), plan on hunting for backpacker-friendly alternatives. At Masai Mara, for instance, the lodges cater to high-rent types, but there are several campgrounds outside the park that make an adequate and affordable home base. And if the $70 or so it will cost you to join a walking safari inside the park seems steep, you can hire guides who will take you walking around the outer edge for much less. You'll still get your fill of animal encountersthe Mara's lions, hyenas, gazelles and the like don't adhere to man-made boundaries.
Aside from the obvious glamour stops, you should consider adding some lesser-known names to your list. Western Kenya's Kakamega Forest has cheap accommodations, relatively easy bus access, and more than 300 species of birds. The 4.3-mile Isiukhu Trail takes you through primary tropical rainforest to a small waterfall. You can hire a guide for next to nothing and the park has no entry fee. And to recoup from the unavoidable exhaustion that comes with independent African travel, I'd recommend a few days on Buggala Island, on the northwest side of Lake Victoria. Here you can take walks in the forest, go for lake swims, or sit on the beach and stare at the 80-plus other islands that make up the beautiful Ssese chain. Considering that you can live comfortably here for less than $10 a day, you could very well find yourself putting off a return to the mainland.