Africa, the second largest continent, has 53 countries (not including disputed Western Sahara) — the most on any continent, and a surface area of 30,244,050 sq km (11,677,293 sq mi). Africa is bounded by the Mediterranean Sea to the north, by the Atlantic Ocean to the west, by the Red Sea to the northeast, and by the Indian Ocean to the southeast. Its highest point is Tanzania's Mt. Kilimanjaro, the world's highest free-standing mountain, which rises to 5,895 m (19,340 feet) above sea level. Africa's lowest point is Djibouti's Lake Assal, whose surface is 157 m (515 feet) below sea level. Africa has extensive mineral resources, including gold, diamonds, uranium, and copper. Its longest river, the Nile, is also the World's longest, and runs 6,650 km (4,132 miles) from Burundi to Egypt. Its largest lake is the 69,485 sq km (26,828 square mile) Lake Victoria, which is surrounded by Uganda, Tanzania, and Kenya.
Modern humans, homo sapiens, are believed to have originated in East Africa somewhere between Ethiopia and Kenya. Despite this long history of habitation, there is very little (or little known about) African history prior to the second millennium AD outside of North Africa, Sudan & Ethiopia, as most were simple hunter-gatherers similar to most cultures still found today on the continent, with no writing systems nor lasting structures, arts, or crafts (aside from some cave paintings). North Africa, on the other hand, has a recorded history dating back several millennia with bountiful structures, writings, arts, and crafts which have survived to this day. The ancient Pharonic civilization centered in modern-day Egypt is recognized as the longest-lasting and one of the, if not the, greatest ancient civilizations lasting from around 3300BC until the invasion of Persians in 343BC. Today, their legacy lives with many of their cities well-preserved and now popular tourist attractions along with a few museums hosting their artifacts. Modern Jews believe themselves to be descendants of slaves in ancient Egypt and much of the Hebrew Bible, religious texts for both Jews & Christians, was based and written in the region. The other great early civilizations on the continent were the Nubians in northern Sudan and southern Egypt who were very similar to the ancient Egyptians, leaving behind the city of Meroe in Sudan, and the Aksumite Empire from the 4th century BC until the 7st century AD in modern-day Ethiopia and eastern Sudan which was important to trade between India and the Roman Empire and an important center of early Christianity.
Meanwhile the 300s BC brought about the first (and less famous) invasions of Europeans in the continent. In 322 BC, Alexander the Great invaded Persian-occupied Egypt, establishing the famous city of Alexandria which would serve as an imortant center of scholarship and Greek culture for many centuries. Meanwhile, the Romans conquered much of the Mediterranean coastline to the west, leaving behind such ruins as Carthage and Leptis Magna. In the first centuries AD, Christianity spread to much of the region, first to Egypt, where 10% of today's population are still Christians despite over a millenia of Islamic rule, and Roman Empire.
The Muslim invasion and the beginning of the Arab Slave Trade in the 7th century AD changed the cultural landscape of North and large parts of East and West Africa. The newly-formed Arab caliphate invaded North Africa and the Horn of Africa within a few decades. In the west, Berbers would intermarry with the Arab invaders and become the Moorish population that would invade the Iberian peninsula. When the Damascus was invaded in the early eighth century, the Islamic religious and political center of the Mediterranean shifted to Kairouan in Tunisia.
As the second largest continent, there is a wide range of climates to be found. However, since the continent is nearly centered on the equator, much of the continent is quite warm/temperate with very few, small areas on the continent experiencing any temperatures that can be considered "cold". In the temperate regions (parts of northern Morocco & the Mediterranean coast as well as South Africa), temperatures generally range from the 10s C to the mid-30s C (40s-90s F)year round. Closer to the equator and on islands like Cape Verde or Mauritius, temperatures may only vary less than 20 degrees C (15-35C/65-95F) throughout the year! In the deserts and arid regions like the Sahel and Horn of Africa, temperatures routinely hit 40C+ (and even 50C+ in the heart of the Sahara) but because sand does not retain heat like most soil does, those same places can easily fall down to 15 at night. There are a few bastions of cooler weather, however. Higher elevations, such as the Atlas Mountains in Morocco & Algeria or in Lesotho, are quite cold and snowy during winter and Mount Kilimanjaro, almost on the equator, is cold year-round (cold enough to support glaciers!). Peaks on islands such as Reunion, the Canary Islands, Mount Cameroon and more are cool enough to necessitate a jacket much of the year.
A far more important factor to consider when travelling to Africa is when the rain/monsoon season occurs. Timing varies a bit even in neighboring countries, so check the page of the country you are visiting for more info. In West Africa the season starts in March around Cameroon, but not until June in Senegal or the Sahel and ends around September. While rain may not be a huge factor when travelling to southern or East Africa, it is very problematic in West Africa and on islands in the Indian Ocean. In West Africa, rains will often flood and make many roads and railroads impassable and, due to poor drainage, can literally result in rivers of water flowing down streets and sewage lines to overflow. In the Sahel, it can result in flash floods in low-lying areas.
The largest weather-related dangers for travellers to Africa are lightning and tropical cyclones. The Democratic Republic of the Congo has more lighting strikes each year than any other country on earth, especially in the eastern part of the country near Goma. Lightning risk is highest from western Kenya/Tanzania and Ethiopia west to Senegal and south to Angola and Zambia. Tropical cyclones affect the islands of the Indian Oceean, with the season running from November 15-April 30 (May 15 in the Seychelles & Mauritius). Tropical cyclones also infrequently affect the horn of Africa near Djibouti & Somalia, but when they do, the arid land results in major flooding. Tropical cyclones often form off the coast of western West Africa (Guinea/Senegal) during the early part of the Atlantic Hurricane Season (June-August) and will rarely impact Cape Verde, for which these particular storms are called "Cape Verde-type hurricanes".
See also: African National Parks
Air fares to Africa can be very expensive, but there are ways to save. The best way to get great airfare to the continent is fly directly to an African country from its former colonial rulers. For example, it can easily cost hundreds of euros/dollars more to fly from London to a former French colony, or conversely from Paris to a former British colony. About the only exceptions are Egypt, which has plentiful, cheap connections with the Middle East & Europe and a handful of West African destinations (the Gambia, Cape Verde, Morocco) popular with British tourists and accessible with cheap holiday flights.
Airline consolidators can also be used for discounted air fares. If you have additional travel time, check to see how your total fare quote to Africa compares with a round-the-world fare. Don't forget to add in the extra costs of additional visas, departure taxes, ground transportation, etc. for all those places outside of Africa.
See your destination's article for more specific information on flights. Bear in mind that many African countries only offer a few international flights each day, or in some cases, each week. While it isn't hard to reach South Africa or Egypt, getting to Malawi or Togo can be quite a challenge.
There are more flights to Africa from Europe than from any other continent.
Chief among European airlines flying to Africa are:
From the Americas
The only countries with direct flights to Africa are the United States, Cuba, Venezuela, Brazil, & Argentina.
From the United States, these are routes operated as of December 2009:
Delta Air Lines had planned to begin service to several new African destinations in June 2009, but canceled several of them just weeks before they were to begin (including Sal, Malabo, Luanda, Nairobi, & Cape Town). The most anticipated new route, the thrice-weekly Atlanta-Nairobi route, was canceled the day before it was to commence by the FAA citing security shortcomings at the Nairobi airport, leaving Kenyans so outraged that the US ambassador was even summoned to answer questions. Look for new Delta routes in the coming years (especially Atlanta-Nairobi). Arik Air, which began New York-Lagos flights in November 2009, plans to expand service to Miami, Atlanta, & Houston in the near future, but no dates have been announced for these services.
Outside the peak travel times to Europe (e.g. summer) you might be able to get a good deal to London or Paris and book a fare from there to Africa separately on a European travel website. But don't book the United States to Europe portion until you get confirmed on the Europe to Africa portion first. Through fares to Africa from the United States can be quite expensive, so avoiding peak travel times to Europe can sometimes save a lot. However, since new non-stop flights to Africa have recently been added, and Europe is much more expensive than it used to be, try getting a direct quote first, then see if you can do better. Another growing option is flying through the Middle East on Emirates or Qatar, which both serve a reasonable selection of African & American cities.
TAAG Angolan Airlines offers flights from Luanda to the Brazilian cities Rio de Janeiro, Sao Paulo, Salvador de Bahia (seasonal), & Recife (seasonal) as well as a weekly flight to Havana via Sal.
South African Airways offers flights from Johannesburg to Sao Paulo & Buenos Aires. There are seasonal flights from Caracas to Tenerife-North in the Canary Islands. Malaysian Airlines flies Buenos Aires to Johannesburg. Turkish Airlines and Emirates both have flights from Sao Paulo to the Middle East which make stops in West Africa (Dakar or Lagos).
From Asia & the Middle East
If you're flying to a small African country, Africa's major airlines all have extensive coverage in Africa and fly to a handful of Asian destinations:
Nearly all North African countries along with Sudan, Eritrea, Djibouti, & Somaliland have extensive connections with the Middle East. And similarly, countries with large Muslim populations are likely to have a connection to Jedda/Mecca either year-round or seasonal (e.g. during hajj). North African destinations aside, connections with the Middle East include:
Other flights from East and South Asia include the following: Cathay Pacific flights to Hong Kong. Furthermore, due to increased Chinese investment many cities have service from Beijing, cities with direct flights to Beijing-Capital include Luanda, Algiers, Lagos, Khartoum, Addis Ababa, & Harare. Malaysian Airlines serves Johannesburg from Kuala Lumpor. Korean Air serves Cairo from Seoul. Air Austral flies to Bangkok seasonally from Reunion. Air Seychelles flies to Singapore and Male from Mahe. Air Madagascar flies from Antananarivo to Bangkok & Guangzhou.Air Mauritius flies from Mauritius to Bangalore, Chennai, Hong Kong, Kuala Lumpur, Mumbai, & Singapore.
The best option to fly from East or South Asia is likely on Emirates or Qatar, both of which have a decent selection of destinations in Asia & Africa, or via Europe on airlines such as British Airways, Air France, or Lufthansa which all offer an extensive number of destinations across Africa.
There are only a handful of connections to Australia, primarily to Johannesburg. Flights from Johannesburg include: Perth (South African Airways), Melbourne (V Australia, begins March 2010), & Sydney (Quantas).
There are also flights to the Indian Ocean islands of Reunion & Mauritius, including: Air Austral (Saint Denis-Sydney), Air Mauritius (Mauritius-Perth, Mauritius-Melbourne, and Mauritius-Sydney [beginning 5 July 2010]).
The only land connection to another continent is the 163km-wide Isthmus of Suez, which is found in Egypt (although the Sinai peninsula is sometimes considered a part of Africa for geopolitical reasons). Thus the only way to drive into Africa is to drive through Egypt. Many people driving from the Middle East to Africa travel through Jordan and take a short car ferry to Egypt to avoid transiting Israel, since Egypt's two African neighbors (Sudan & Libya) deny entry for persons with Israeli stamps or Egyptian/Jordanian stamps indicating travel to Israel.
Despite there being just one, narrow land crossing into the continent, there are other ways to bring vehicles into Africa by short car ferries. The short crossing of the Strait of Gibraltar between Spain and Morocco is very common and relatively inexpensive. There is also a short ferry crossing between Yemen and Djibouti. This is used mainly by people travelling from the Middle East to Africa and wishing to avoid Egypt (because of the extremely high import taxes) or Sudan (as the Ethiopian-Sudan border is prone to banditry). The same can be said about the longer Port Said-Jeddah car ferry. Other car ferries include: Italy-Tunisia, Spain-Algeria, & Lebanon-Egypt.
Mediterranean cruises commonly stop in North African ports such as Tunis, Alexandria, Tripoli, & in Morocco. Some ocean liners will stop in the Canary or Cape Verde Islands on trans-Atlantic crossings or in South Africa, Madagascar, the Seychelles, or Mauritius on round-the-world trips. A truly unique experience is to take the RMS St Helena  from the UK to Cape Town via St Helena-one of the world's most remote islands!
There are a number of reliable airlines that ply the African Continent. Chief among them are certainly:
There are also many airlines which are noteworthy in particular regions, such as TAAG Angola Airlines (South/Central Africa), Arik Air(Nigeria), Afriqiyah Airways (Central/West Africa, but their hub is in Tripoli), Royal Air Maroc (West/Central/North Africa, but hub is in Morocco), Air Mali (West Africa), Air Burkina (West Africa), Air Austral (Indian Ocean), Air Mauritius (Indian Ocean), Tunis Air (North Africa), and more. Many other African carriers offer flights to more remote locations.
If you want to drive your own car around Africa see also Carnet de Passage
For sightseeing trips, it may be less expensive to hire a taxi than to rent a car, but be sure to negotiate taxi fares beforehand. Travel on rural roads can be slow and difficult in the dry season and disrupted by floods in the rainy season. If you plan on traveling in rural areas of sub-Saharan Africa, avoid the rainy months of May through October above the equator and the rainy months of November through April below the equator. Some roads may be flooded or washed out during these months.
Travel by car outside large towns can be dangerous. Major roads are generally well maintained but there are few divided highways in Africa. In addition, rural auto accidents are fairly common because of high speed limits and the presence of wildlife in these areas. Night driving, especially in rural areas, is not recommended, and visitors are encouraged to hire reputable tour operators for safaris or other game viewing expeditions.
Many locals hitchhike in countries throughout Africa, often paying a small fee to the driver. It is best to check the political and social climate of each region before traveling.
In the whole of Africa it is possible to flag down cars and pay them a required fee and get a lift in return. That is just the way public transport works in this part of the world - he who has a means of transportation, that is a car or minibus, is automatically expected to give lifts to others and of course charge them a small amount of money for the favor. The idea of it has nothing to do with the Western idea of hitchhiking.
If you are of European descent, it may sometimes work by waiting alongside a road where bush taxis also go that you can stop a NGO driver, tourists or someone rich in their Mercedes and thereby go quicker and free of charge, but there are so few of these around that this is not something you can usually bank on.
Some people with limited amounts of time or who would prefer not to make their own arrangements opt for the "overlander" experience. Many operators run tours in large trucks that are comfortable and equipped with facilities for around 8-30 persons. They're generally run on a pretty tight schedule and cover a lot of distance, such as "Nairobi to Johannesburg in six weeks". These tours are run throughout the whole continent but East and Southern Africa are the most popular destinations. Accommodation is mostly camping. Most meals are arranged, and free time (like everything else) is scheduled. However, there is plenty of time to participate in the adventure activities that certain areas of Africa are famous for such as Victoria Falls, Swakopmund, Zanzibar, and Serengeti National Park. Some people really enjoy these tours, especially when they do not have enough time to organize all travel arrangements themselves. Others loathe the very thought of traveling in a group and think that they keep you way out of touch with the "real" Africa and liken them to MTV's Road Rules. Whatever the case, they're a very different way to travel through Africa. THe people that go on these tours tend to be young at heart and slightly adventurous; these tours are not luxury trips.
Flora & Fauna
Africa has a bad reputation for genocidal dictators and while most of Africa is safe for travel and nearly all tourist attractions on the continent are far from conflict, there are a few regions which should be considered no-go areas for even the most seasoned of travellers. While there are corrupt police in a large number, most just want a little change or a drink; references to "corrupt police" below, however, are the type that will steal, threaten imprisonment (or actually put you in jail), or even cause physical harm. As of December 2009 (and these won't change much in the foreseeable future), they are:
A couple areas that should not be visited as of writing (Dec 2009) largely for political and stability reasons (hopefully temporary) are:
Africa can certainly be a dangerous continent. Check the "stay safe" areas of the individual countries you are going to.
Sub-Saharan Africa has the highest rates of HIV and AIDS infection on Earth. A 2005 UN Report says over 25 million infected, over 7% of adults, for the continent as a whole. Be extremely cautious about any sexual activity in Africa. Especially note that the rates of HIV infection among sex workers is phenomenally high.