It’s the most important thing to take to Africa, apart from your passport, malaria pills and sense of adventure: a notebook. If you don’t scribble down notes as you travel around, you will find it hard to remember all those first impressions and surreal encounters when you get home. If you want to do justice to the sights, sounds and smells of the markets and medinas you visit, record that sensory input in your notebook. Whether you collect ‘word photos’ in a dog-eared jotter, keep a more coherent travel diary or do both, when you switch on your computer and stare at the blank page, you will thank yourself for collecting that raw writer’s material. Rumours of gold have long attracted travellers to Africa, and the confidence, authority and detail that thorough notes give your writing is literary gold.
Of course, technology supplements pen and paper: using your digital camera or phone camera gives your writing hand a break. There are also lots of useful apps, including recorders (make voice notes or simply record the sub-Saharan hustle bustle) and note-making tools such as GoodNotes. Technology is handy for backing up your notes and photos too, for example on the Cloud or Dropbox.
However, I still rely heavily on my trusty, ultra-portable notebook, as it has less of a tendency to get broken or stolen or run out of batteries. It’s also a valuable exercise to try and describe places and people as you encounter them, often producing the most vivid prose. I’m certainly not the only travel writer who prefers ink and page – the late Bruce Chatwin was obsessive about Moleskines. My final tip is to pack small, palm-sized notebooks for jotting down notes when you’re out and about; they’re less conspicuous and, if you’re planning to interview people, considerably less intimidating than a bulky A4 pad.
Learn travel writing tips from expert James Bainbridge, who runs travel writing courses in South Africa. James covers Africa for publications including Lonely Planet, Rough Guides, the UK Guardian, AFKTravel and SafariBookings.com.