Backpacking through Africa

Mud MosqueWe’re Empty Nesters, and with the economy caving in and nothing else to do, my wife Gwynne and I decided to backpack through Africa. We couldn’t take much with us, but I did have room for my laptop and iPhone.

A mud mosque in Djenne, Mali

I needed them to feed a serious Internet habit I had developed, but when I checked into data connections via satellite uplinks I was shocked—$3,000 per 100 megabytes seemed a little steep. I used a bandwidth measurement tool to see what kind of usage I’d need, and found that 100 megabytes was good for about one day’s worth of serious browsing. A satellite connection was out—I wondered if 3G was available anywhere in Africa.


You’ll want to install a measurement conversion utility on your iPhone before beginning your travels. Fortunately, a number of these are available on the iTunes App Store. I use iConvert to convert to and from metric. I also enjoy converting to and from the hundreds of units of measurement that I’ve never heard of before. Do you know how many “Imperial Yards” are in a mile? I do.

Be sure to bring iConvert or another conversion utility with you when you travel.

Flying into Africa

The first leg of our trip took us to Gatwick Airport in Great Britain. Both 3G and Wi-Fi were available there, but the local Wi-Fi is expensive. Next, we flew to British Gibraltar and caught a ferry from a nearby Spanish port across the straits to Morocco. 3G was available on Gibraltar and in the Spanish port, but there was no service during the ferry ride across the straits. Although part of Africa, Morocco seems much more like a Middle Eastern country with its mosques, morning prayers, and other trappings of Islamic culture.

Me Tarzan, you Jane!

It seems that I can hardly have a conversation without pulling out my iPhone to fact-check someone’s trivia. We were riding on a bus in Morocco and struck up a conversation with a movie buff who mentioned that there was a nude scene in one of the early Tarzan movies. Since we had a 3G connection, I quickly Googled “Tarzan Jane nude” and a YouTube link popped up. Right there on the bus we watched the three minute underwater swimming sequence that was eventually cut from the 1934 Tarzan and His Mate. (Maureen O’Sullivan played Jane in that movie, but Olympic swimmer Josephine McKim doubled for her in the swimming sequence.)

A deleted underwater sequence from Tarzan and His Mate can be viewed using the YouTube app.

We stopped in the parking lot of a shopping mall in Rabat, the capital of Morocco. I noticed the adjacent 3G tower and was online in a flash. I Googled a question from a fellow traveler (What year was the UN Secretary General killed in a suspicious plane crash? Answer: 1961). I read my e-mails (family feud in progress back home; I called home to smooth things over and sent a couple of follow-up e-mails). I needed a map of Mali’s capital city of Bamako (our next stop). Finally, for obvious reasons, I looked up the Berber word for “toilet” (“yup”).

A note about Maps on the iPhone: It’s a kick to use this app in a foreign city or country, especially Africa, but I found that the Find Location function only worked well if a 3G data connection was available. If you connected to a Wi-Fi hotspot, you didn’t always get accurate results. I presume that this is because many of the Wi-Fi providers are using pirated IP addresses.

Brother, can you spare a charge?

Campsite MaliWe spent two nights in a motel in Casablanca and recharged all of our mobile devices. All other nights were spent at one campground or another, in a tent or under the stars. Our primary consideration for the campgrounds was whether or not it had electrical outlets. Many of the backpackers we met had iPods, and it was not uncommon to simply plug your device into the closest charger, no matter who it belonged to. I’d also charge my iPhone from the USB port of my laptop.

We spent most of our nights at campgrounds with other travelers, sharing electrical outlets and power converters.

We had technical difficulties in the Western Sahara and I was offline for three days. There was coverage in the area (I could see the cell towers), and a couple of service providers were listed on the iPhone’s Carriers screen. One of these providers clearly indicated that it provided 3G data capability, but every time I tried to connect, I’d get a “restricted service” message. After going without service for a few days, I contacted AT&T through a local Internet café. They told me to reboot the iPhone and that fixed the problem.

Cell phone coverage good; data service not so much

Our next destination was Mauritania, a poor, bleak, windswept country with excellent cell phone coverage but no data service. I heard there were Internet cafés, but we never found one. There’s hardly any food there, either, so you might want to skip it if you visit Africa.

Next door to Mauritania and extending below it is Mali, which also has cell coverage but no data service. Fortunately, there were plenty of Internet cafés. Mali is the first African country that met some of my preconceptions about the continent. It’s all bustle, with thousands of people riding bicycles, crazy traffic, and beautifully dressed women carrying enormous packages on their heads.


Hut with tv

We also visited Timbuktu, which is located in central Mali along the Niger River. We spent three days in a large, rough-hewed wooden canoe traveling up the river to the city. It was strange to see grass huts along the river, sporting beat-up TV antennas tied to crooked poles. We stopped a couple of times, and I got a closer look at how they powered their appliances. One hut has a bank of solar panels charging an old car battery, which in turn powered the TV. Everything was connected with a hodgepodge of cables and adapters. A cute young girl from one of the huts sold us some freshly caught fish. She took a picture of me with her cell phone; I smiled! Then I took a picture of her with my iPhone; she smiled!

We saw primitive huts with TV antennas; a young girl took my picture with her cell phone, and I took hers with my iPhone.


A Mask Dance in a Dogon villageAll in all, cell phone coverage in Africa is pretty good. With the exception of some mountain passes, the only place I experienced poor coverage is in the Dogon Valley in Mali. Fortunately, the valley’s majestic beauty and the fantasy-like nature of the villages and people occupy your attention. We hiked 40 kilometers through the valley, up and down secretive passages. Still, it was a pleasure to break out the iPhone again when we got out of the valley.

A Mask Dance in a Dogon village

Below Mali is the small nation of Burkina Faso, supposedly one of the poorest nations on earth. It also had a cellular phone network, but no data service. We were encouraged by our visit to its capital, Ouagadougou. We saw plenty of commerce, beautiful landscaping, and an active people filled with optimism. There was free Wi-Fi at the campground where we stayed.

Ghana’s dark history

Our next stop was Ghana, a country formally known as the “Gold Coast” by European colonists. Starting with the Portuguese in 1530, vast riches were extracted from the country in the over 400 years it was occupied by one European nation or another. One of the main sources of this wealth was the slave trade. Captured natives from all over Africa were marched to the peninsular forts of Elmina and Cape Coast, and packed into dark stone cells for months at a time. Those who survived the cells were herded through “The Gate of No Return” and packed like sardines into transport ships—the beginning of their New World diaspora. Over 12 million men, women, and children were sold into slavery, with 10 percent of that number going to the United States.

We visited a slave dungeon in Ghana. Our guide crowded 50 of us into a cramped cell, locked the door, and turned out the lights. It was educational for a lily-white guy like me—and very creepy. A pilgrimage to the Gold Coast and those slave castles is probably a must for African Americans interested in their heritage.

Ghana has excellent cell phone coverage that includes data service but no 3G. There’s a service provider war going on in Ghana: MTN, tiGO, Zain, and Vodaphone are climbing all over each other to attract new subscribers.

When I’m traveling, Maps is one of my most-used iPhone apps. Unfortunately, it only displayed major roads and highways in Ghana, and the satellite view was too low-res to be useful. I did use it to check out local businesses in every city along the breathtaking coastline. Some of the business names were, shall we say, unusual. For example, I saw God’s Glory Refrigeration and Air Conditioning, Jesus Love Latex Foam, and Virgin Children Jr. High. My personal favorite—a business I’ll probably never patronize—was The Wicked Must Die Taxi Service.

Beware of phone charges

If you travel in Africa, beware of per-minute phone charges and roaming fees—they can be astronomical! You can reduce the U.S. carrier (AT&T) portion of your bill significantly by adding the “travel services” option for less than $10 per month. You should also get a megabytes-per-month plan that works for you. (Tip: It’s better to buy too much bandwidth than not enough; the per-kilobyte fees for bandwidth above your plan’s limit will kill you.) Also, it’s best that you continue the travel services option for at least one month after you get back home to pick up any delayed billings.

Cellular networks were widespread in northwest Africa, but data service was harder to find.
Summer 2009
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