Getting hold on local currency was once one of the biggest headaches when travelling overland through Africa, says Johan Badenhorst. Thankfully, things are improving, but it is still a good idea to always be prepared.
Travelling in Southern Africa seldom poses currency issues. Although Swaziland has emalangeni, Lesotho maloti and Namibia dollars, they are all linked to the South African rand. Even in Zimbabwe the rand is as welcome as the US dollar, and most transactions are made in South African rands. It is only when you travel a little further north that things start to get tricky.
Most currency issues in east Africa are solved with a handful of dollars. Beware if you travel to west Africa, however. In West African countries, few people even know what the official dollar exchange rate is. If you go west, make sure that you have euros on you. It is only in Angola, and probably Nigeria, where the US currency is still king.
Dollars and euros are helpful at border posts and at main shopping venues, but see to it that you have currencies such as meticais, kwacha, shillings, francs, pounds or birr when visiting a marketplace or re-fuelling.
A decade or so ago, there was only one way of getting hold of local currency in the various African countries – you had to trade for it at border crossings. Of course, this wasn’t especially safe. There are many tales of people being robbed and cheated out of their cash.
The money changers at the border crossings were notorious. They offered incorrect exchange rates, swearing on the Bible that they were offering the best rate available. This was especially true about the ones on the exit side of border posts. They were well aware that once you have gone through customs and passport control, it would be very difficult to get back. Easy, then, for them to get away with your money.
Many African currencies have denominations of thousands and hundreds of thousands. That obviously complicates matters. It is difficult to quickly calculate the correct exchange rate, especially if two or three money changers are shouting at the same time. They deliberately do this to confuse you. Quite often travellers only later realise that there is one zero missing from the amount of money they received. Instead of getting 50 000 kwacha, they got 5000. Instead of 20 000 shilling, they received 2000.
Money changers also know all those sleight-of-hand tricks. With a handful of notes, it is easy to fold them double, thereby fooling a traveller into counting the same notes twice.
It is obvious that one should be careful, but the fact of the matter is, border posts are chaotic places and travellers usually have a lot of things they have to keep track of. You worry about your car being searched; you worry about having all the correct documentation and the right insurance. All these issues play on your mind, and this makes it ideal for those who would like to get their hands on your cash.
Have things changed lately? Indeed it has. As communications technology spreads over Africa, so does the frequency of ATMs. Nowadays, should you need local currency, search for an ATM on your Garmin, drive to the bank, insert your Absa debit or credit card, and withdraw local money.
In South Africa, we are used to all ATMs being interconnected. This is thankfully also becoming commonplace in other parts of Africa. Most machines will accept Visa or Mastercard, but very seldom Amex or Diners Club. Mastercard machines are also few and far between. Visa seems to be the most popular.
Does this mean we are rid of the money changers? Not quite. They still lurk at the border posts, trying to give you the “best deal” possible. And they are needed at times. Recently, as we were leaving Rwanda and entering Uganda, I realised that I did not use all my Rwandan francs. The plan was to refuel with the last money left before entering Uganda. But where we believed there was a filling station, there was none. I had to get rid of the francs.
Previously I made the mistake not to exchange a local currency before I left a country. I sat with a few thousands rands worth of birr, the Ethiopian currency, and it was only four years later, when I got back to Addis Ababa, that I managed to put those notes to good use. Once though a border post, it is sometimes difficult to get rid of a neighbouring country’s currency. In Sudan it was impossible to exchange the Ethiopian birr.
At the Rwanda/Uganda border I first bought a couple of cold drinks. I asked the price in francs as well as in Ugandan shillings. Now I had an exchange rate. I then took my calculator and got an estimate of how many shillings I could expect for the francs in my back pocket. Hereby I ensured that I was not going to lose too much.
Before leaving on a trip, search for the exchange rate of all the currencies you are about to encounter, and make a printout in order to ensure that you won’t be hustled.
It is always wise to take some emergency money with on an African safari, but it is not necessary to travel with a massive wad of cash. Keep some cash squirreled away in your vehicle, but draw money from an ATM whenever possible. Using an ATM is safe, it always provides the correct exchange rate, the notes are normally crisp and new, and it won’t try to fool you with clever tricks.