On returning from my Encircle Africa expedition I came up with a list of the must have kit items for self-supported travel in Africa. I wrote then that out of the 20 kilos of kit I chose (and spent five hours packing for the first time in the UK) it quickly became apparent that there were 10 pieces of kit without which the expedition would have been very difficult. And they weren’t necessarily the kit essentials I thought would be invaluable.
A couple of years on, and preparing for my next big adventure – Mahaweli Challenge – I went back to my list, and ended up editing it down to nine items. So here’s a rundown of what I still think you shouldn’t travel without.
Circumnavigating Africa I only needed to keep salt water on my right hand side for 25,000 miles, but I knew from getting hopelessly lost in myriad of labyrinthine cities before then that a compass was a useful item to keep in my pocket. During my first trip to 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. A map is all well and good but you need to ensure you are facing the right direction to start with, which is where a cheap and simple compass comes in.
2. Debit cards.
These days travellers’ cheques have pretty much died a death, and rightly so. I’ve always found them difficult to cash, needing my passport as proof of identification, and often the purchase receipt, as well as the presence of a large national bank in a capital city. Though there are associated fees with using them, debit cards cut out the risk of carrying (and losing) vast sums of cash. Taking two cards is useful for when your home bank decides to freeze your card, while newish currency cards (get one linked to Visa rather than Mastercard) are a great addition or exchange to a debit card.
3. Travel towel.
I never believed in travel towels until I bought one for myself. I thought they were just another gimmicky bit of kit sold by the outdoor market that wasn’t really much use. Though not as large as a standard fluffy cotton towel (which takes up a huge amount of bag space), and a bit like drying yourself with a shammy leather, these towels dry quickly, weigh nothing, and fit into a tiny space.
Another handy lightweight object that takes up no space in a bag is a karabina. They are fantastic little clips for holding objects to each other. I used a £1 model to attach a litre water bottle to my day bag for the entirety of Encircle Africa, and will be using the same one in Sri Lanka.
If all else fails, which invariably it might, sardines need no cooking. They are filling, cheap, last forever and freely available almost everywhere. What’s more, ‘sardines’ seems to be ‘sardines’ in the language of every country I’ve ever visited.
6. A smile.
The cheapest but perhaps most difficult piece of kit to use in a stressful situation. No one’s a fan of being shouted at, not even someone looking for an elusive bribe. Being patient, polite, and smiling a lot has got me out of all sorts of scraps. Calling everyone ‘sir’ or ‘madam’, and bowing even, in order to demonstrate supplication also works well. Like sardines, smiles translate well into all languages.
7. A good head torch.
They look a bit stupid I admit, and a good one with decent candescence isn’t cheap, but a head mounted torch makes life a hell of a lot easier when you need both hands and you’re stuck without anything better than starlight.
8. Water bottle.
Keeping hydrated is massively important, so a water bottle you can trust is also a must. Get one with some sort of handle for attaching it to the karabina you’ve just packed or slinging a finger around it. A wide neck bottle makes it easy to refill and keep clean.
9. Gaffa tape.
Sticky tape is great for simply jobs like wrapping up presents. Its stronger brother has a mass of uses, from holding up mosquito nets at night to semi-permanent fixes of tears in my rucksack. It really is surprising how much you can patch up with a bit of tape.