Philip Briggs is a travel writer specialising in Africa. In 1991, his Bradt Guide to South Africa was the first such guidebook to be published internationally after the release of Nelson Mandela….
Over the rest of the 1990s, he wrote a series of pioneering Bradt Guides to destinations that were then – and in some cases still are – otherwise practically uncharted by the travel publishing industry. I caught up with the Africa aficionado to ask him about a life spent trail blazing the mother continent.
1. What was your first experience of travelling in Africa?
Well, I grew up in South Africa, but my first real travel experience was backpacking from Nairobi to Cape Town on $10/day in 1986, a wonderful but challenging trip – countries like Tanzania and Zambia were a lot less developed for tourism back then – that gave me a lifelong passion for travel in general and African travel in particular.
2. How many countries have you visited in Africa? (please give names)
Starting in the south – South Africa, Swaziland, Mozambique, Zimbabwe, Botswana, Namibia, Zambia, Malawi, Tanzania, Rwanda, DR Congo, Uganda, Kenya, Ethiopia, Somaliland, Ghana, Burkina Faso, Mali, Senegal, The Gambia, Tunisia, Egypt, Madagascar… so 23, unless I’ve missed something!
3. If you had to pick your favourite country or destination in Africa what would it be and why?
I’m often asked that, and it really is an impossible question. I’ve loved East Africa since the moment I first set foot in Kenya, and I’d still rate it my favourite part of the world – the people, the scenery and the wildlife. As a safari destination, Tanzania is difficult to beat, while Uganda must come a close second thanks to its incredible birdlife. Other highlights are tracking mountain gorillas in Rwanda and the DRC, the long bumpy trip to Lake Turkana in northern Kenya, and canoeing the Zambezi.
4. Out of all of your ‘travel moments’, what stands out as the most funny?
So many, and a lot of them probably of the ‘you had to be there’ variety. But one that stands out is arguing with a caretaker in Ghana for 30 minutes to be allowed to see inside a banda-style room before we paid for it. Eventually we wore him down, the door was unlocked, and a flurry of angry chirruping drew our eyes to a hole in the ceiling occupied by maybe 100 agitated bats. Needless to say, we made another plan for the night!
5. When you’re not updating the 3rd, 4th, 5th edition of a Bradt guide, what are you doing?
The honest answer to what I do when I’m not working on guidebooks (Bradt and other publishers) or writing for magazines would be: I can’t remember. Which sounds like a workaholic existence, and probably is, but about half my time is spent travelling, which never feels like work in the same way that writing does. My non-work related enthusiasms include birding, books and most of all perhaps music – all sorts, but my current obsession is vintage blues and global recordings captured on 78rpm (a plug here for the new Dust-to-Digital CD box Opika Pende, which excavates 100 tracks recorded all over Africa in the early 20th century – fantastic and often very weird!)
6. You’ve made travel writing your career, what advice would you give to someone starting out in the industry?
Another difficult question. My wife is a photographer and we both often get asked this sort of thing. In both fields, you need to be prepared to work hard and to carve your own way and find your own niche, because there are no prescribed career paths. And – to bear in mind that the quality the majority of editors value most in a writer, beyond basic competence, is the ability to meet deadlines!
7. I’ve always dreamed of going to Ethiopia – tell me your top five must-do’s in Ethiopia?
The magnificent rock-hewn churches of Lalibela are the biggest must-see, though I’d also recommend the more remote rock-hewn churches of Tigrai – they are less accessible and architecturally spectacular than Lalibela, but soooo time-warped and atmospheric!
Other highlights are Bale National Park, home to the Ethiopian wolf and more than a dozen Ethiopian avian endemics; Simien National Park for the spectacular scenery and opportunity to see the unique grass-eating gelada monkey; the South Omo region for its collection of bizarre animist peoples; and the ancient capital Axum overlooked by the world tallest monolithic stelae (obelisks)
8. You’ve written the Ghana Bradt Guide – now Ghana isn’t exactly well-known as a traveller’s hotspot in Africa – why would you urge me to go there?
Ghana is not, in all honesty, a country of must-see highlights, but rather one that provides a good overall introduction to West Africa, It has a cross section of interesting cultures, worthwhile national parks, and scenic mountains and beaches. It is also pretty easy for independent travel, very affordable, and English is widely spoken. That said, if you only had time to visit one county in West Africa, and your main interest was cultural, I’d have to recommend Mali. It’s a more challenging country to travel in, but the rewards include legendary city of Timbuktu, the surreal adobe Djenne Mosque, the animist Dogon people of the Bandiagara Escarpment – all set to a soundscape of arguably the best music in Africa!
To find out more about Phillip Briggs please visit his website Africa Travel News