More to Africa Travel than Safari
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Africa's wildlife loves to steal the show, a series of experiences leaving impressions of a continent untamed. But African adventure doesn't start and end solely with safari. A continent of color and charm awaits every footstep, a fresh scene appearing with every turn in the road or flight across the savannah. 10,000 miles and more of coastline, resplendent snowy mountains, vivacious cities, indigenous tribal lifestyles far from anywhere... each destination revels in its vibrancy and authenticity, always showcasing something different from home. Some destinations are elegant additions to a safari itinerary, an iconic way to complete the journey into the wilderness. Others can take center stage, towering wonders that reveal that there's far more to Africa than safari.
Effervescently framed by nature's backdrops, African cities radiate a vitality that always pulls visitors into its rhythm. In some cities, you could call it colorful chaos, a hypnotic juxtaposition of tones blending on streets of enthusiasm and vigor. Elsewhere, you'll find a delicate exposition of harmoniously blended cultures. These cities are where Africa's major transport hubs are located, making them an unavoidable stop on many safari itineraries. Others are always worthy of a detour. Hang around in an African city and you soon peel back the layers, discovering that the sometimes jumbled facade hides an intriguing and exciting destination.
The Cities of Africa
Many Western cities seem to be coated with a gray uniformity, uncommunicative faces charging around beneath dull skies. They're often dominated by suits, glass-fronted skyscrapers, and haste. African cities are doused in paradoxical color clashes and exuberance, the unusual rainbows formed in market stalls, skylines, and streets lined with informal traders. At some angles, it appears chaotic. However, everything has its place and order. Many of these cities have mushroomed in recent years; economic success stories home to the continent's rising middle class. While some have grown skywards, most have expanded outwards, making these cities a conglomeration of dozens of villages or suburbs. While the central streets provide a vigorous and sometimes intense manifestation of the colorful charm, outlying areas still blend urban lifestyles with rural panoramas. And while there's a certain uniformity regarding vibrancy, every city creates its own style and atmosphere.
Certain African cities are impossible to avoid. As the continent's major transport hubs you're likely to spend at least a night of a safari itinerary in the city. Many people don't spend much longer than that, transferring to the hotel then rushing off the next morning. Much like a big Western city, they can look intimidating to an outsider, filling visitors with a certain trepidation. But like the continent's wildlife, they provide extremely unique experiences and encounters. City tours are a good way to garner an overview while most cities are fringed by luxury suburbs of fine dining and elegant space.
Markets are always intriguing and an atmospheric contrast to the sterility of shopping malls. Cafes and restaurants are always iconic local experiences, whether it's rooftop opulence or a working class favorite in the city. Historic colonial buildings still inhabit some cities while others are dominated by unobtrusive low-rise streets with a receptive feel. National museums and monuments are also a good introduction to a country and its history. You won't find subways or efficient public transport but chartering a private taxi for the day is very affordable. Even with just one extra day, it's possible to see many diverse sides of an African city.
African cities bear the brunt of negative stereotypes about the continent, specifically, high levels of crime and danger. Like almost all major tourist cities in the world, there is some petty crime, although such crime remains rare against tourists. A reputation for crime and danger usually stems from one or two suburbs that are far from the tourist eye. It's extremely uncommon for a tourist to stumble into one of these areas unwittingly. Tour guides and hotel staff are usually excellent in calming fears and dispelling myths, offering practical local advice on safety rather than putting visitors off leaving their hotel rooms. There's no reason to be put off an African city because of an erroneous reputation; it would be equivalent to not going on safari because lions are hungry and dangerous. With sensible precautions, Africa's cities are safe.
Eight African Cities for Your Vacation
- Table Mountain is your compass in Cape Town, a city that's surrounded by dramatic nature and saturated with color. The city has many sides and requires many days, blending upmarket beach suburbs with vivid streets and poignant narrations of Mandela's and South Africa's past. Tucked on the southwestern tip of the continent, it's Sub-Saharan Africa's most visited tourist city, a place to indulge in both nature and city life. One day could be about kitesurfing, hiking, bathing with penguins, or diving with sharks. The next could be wine bars, food markets, sunset beach scenes, and elegance along the harbor.
- It's not quite a city, but Zanzibar's Stone Town is the finest historic urban scene in Sub-Saharan Africa. A masala of smells and smiles mix on its labyrinthine streets, enticing you past unique coral buildings that mix Arabesque and Swahili styles. From rooftops you admire the Indian Ocean, in alleyways you marvel at boutique stores, and in heritage buildings, you piece together a 1000 year history. Stone Town has taken fragments from many cultures to concoct something unique to the world.
- Nairobi is elegantly situated, built upon green hills and surrounded by wild giraffe, zebra, and elephant. From some hotels, it's possible to gaze out and see both a tower of ungulate necks and a series of city skyscrapers in the same panorama. Head into the city's heart and there's an unexpected calmness, many excellent restaurants, and hotels offering a unique glance into upmarket East Africa. While standing on Nairobi's outskirts offers a wonderful contrast between Kenya's urban and rural life, making an ideal introduction to a forthcoming safari.
- Wander through Moshi and it's as if you've stepped backward in time. Barely more than a few blocks wide, this gentle low-rise town is very much unchanged since the 50's. Think 1920's style coffee shops, wooden market stalls, and streets sprinkled with a soft layer of orange dust. Mount Kilimanjaro provides the timeless backdrop and Moshi is the base for climbing Africa's highest mountain. It's also an alternative to Arusha for a safari itinerary.
- Some cities are built beside the beach. Durban seems to rise directly from the sand, a waterfront of towers hanging over Indian Ocean waves. Cultures mix effortlessly here; excited surfers, colonial heritage, traditional Zulu, and the largest Indian population outside India. Proximity to Zululand's beaches and good air connections make this an easy addition to a South African vacation.
- With its wide boulevards and blanket of serenity, Kigali feels a league apart from other African cities. Built on seven adjacent hills, the Rwandan capital has a village-like ambiance with a sprinkling of luxurious hotels and restaurants. Some avenues feel like a Parisian suburb; others are more reminiscent of the languid enchantment from yesteryear. While the city is short on attractions, it always makes a pleasant day or two after a gorilla trekking safari.
- Mingling modern charm with colonial history, Zambia's Livingstone is an easy introduction to African city life. It offers the swirls of color and welcoming atmosphere within an easy to walk city center. Livingstone is situated beside Victoria Falls and a quaint place to soak up Central African life.
- Johannesburg always seems to be fighting an unfair world perception. It's always in the world news for something bad, rather than its ability to harmoniously epitomize all the seductive sides of an African city life; suburbs of luxury and opulent dining, great markets, streets of creativity, and the ability to bring people together. Tucked on the city's edge lie forests and country estates, while tucked into its working class heart is the only street in the world that's home to two Noble Peace Prize winners. Impossibly vibrant, Johannesburg has enough attractions for a week, so there's no need to fly straight off to the safari.
As most visitors are drawn to the continent's mammal inundated interior, the continent's beaches stand empty and mostly unexplored. Over 5,000 miles of Indian Ocean coastline curves northeast from Cape Town, delivering the revered scenes of beach escapism. So much white sand and so many hidden bays make African beaches spacious and serene. Along the continent's eastern edge they're indelibly tropical, fringed by coconut palms and postcard panoramas. Further, south you discover majestic forest and mountain backdrops as if the beaches are deliberately guarded and protected by another natural habitat.
The Beaches of Africa
Africa's soporific coastline is as inimitable as the continent's mammal-dappled interior. Accessibility and warm waters magnetically pull visitors to the Indian Ocean side, towards thousands of miles of uninterrupted sand. In South Africa, the beaches are separated by forest and cliffs, hundreds of secluded bays formed from Cape Town to Durban. Then Mozambique, Tanzania, and Kenya provide a cavernous expanse of impossibly white sand that's mostly undeveloped for tourism.
While islands like the Maldives and Seychelles stand as international indicators of Indian Ocean bliss, Africa's has so many beaches and destinations it's sometimes impossible knowing where to start. Luxury resorts can be found all the way down the coast, although most countries' beach tourism is centered on just one or two destinations. Resort destinations aren't on the same scale of elsewhere in the world. You'll usually find a small handful of upmarket accommodation options carefully spaced along the sand. Private villa rentals also regularly feature on itineraries. Africa's rhythm is always tranquil and relaxed. Visiting the beaches, this is magnified to a point of hibernation. Take off the watch and you'll quickly escape into this gentle cadence.
After a multi-day safari journeying into the wilderness, most people are ready for a tranquil few days of doing nothing but lounging on the sand. Beach breaks are the popular culmination to an African safari, allowing the body and mind to reenergize after the adventure. Unsurprisingly, the promise of seclusion makes them sought-after by couples, with a series of luxurious white sand islets and resorts excellent for honeymooners. While the beach is the obvious attraction, many destinations also offer an easy glimpse at African village life. It's never obtrusive on your own sunbathing, but an enchanting welcome of smiles and local lifestyles.
Five Beach Escapes for Your Vacation
- An evocative series of sandbanks and uninhabited islets form Mozambique's Bazaruto Archipelago, a World Heritage site of marine importance and encompassing tranquility. A series of exclusive beach destinations give the impression of lost island escapism with a varnish of luxury service and accommodation. Kick off the shoes, watch the dolphins swim past, and indulge in the silence. You don't have to go off shore to enjoy Mozambique's sand; there's also a series of towns and resorts offering a mainland getaway.
- Zanzibar Island is fringed by a somnolent loop of coastal villages, the majority of them standing on vast expanses of white sand. With their warm and shallow sapphire waters, most of the beaches come directly from a postcard, occasionally enhanced by a wooden dhow sailing past or a line of overhanging palms. An increase in direct flights is making Zanzibar's beaches the popular way to complete an East Africa safari.
- Towering cliffs and rolling hills stand above the ocean on South Africa's Wild Coast. Villages of circular huts mark the horizon while sangomas – traditional witch doctors – perform ceremonies on the sand with surfers looking on. There are dozens of small bays along the coastline, each offering a quiet beach break with an alluring look at local Xhosa life. South Africa has hundreds of appealing destinations, but ask the locals for their favorite vacation destination and it's often the Wild Coast.
- Kenya's coastline is dotted with three or five or ten mile long strips of gaping white sand. Destinations like Diani Beach and Malindi have been escapism favorites for decades, offering a wide choice of luxury resorts and cocktails with your feet in soft white. Those like Kilifi and Watamu are more low-key, idyllic getaways for romance and creating the only footsteps on the beach.
- Along South Africa's Garden Route you find indigenous forests and lagoons cascading into dolphin and whale-filled waters. This 400-mile stretch has a hearty handful of potential coastal stops; the surf breaks of Jeffreys Bay; breaching whales in Hermanus; sandy serenity in Wilderness; or the majestic cliffs of Knysna and Tsitsikamma. With each of them besides the main N2 highway, it's easy to see a lot of Garden's Route's coast in just a few days.
From Mount Kilimanjaro to the wild trails of the Great Rift Valley, Africa is crisscrossed by a series of inimitable mountains and hiking expeditions. Kilimanjaro is one in a series of extinct and dormant volcanic cones that are now amongst the world's highest free-standing mountains, each offering exciting but challenging summits. Elsewhere, the mountains rise above high-altitude plateaus, forming the basis to multi-day walking safaris and excursions into a distinctly lush African wilderness. Most of Africa's popular countries feature mountains, offering everything from one-day excursions with primates to ten-day treks into the clouds.
The Mountains of Africa
Two distinct mountain paradigms cross the African continent. The Great Rift Valley surges from north to south, leaving a trail of precipitous cliffs, gaping valleys, and high-altitude plateaus. Running east to west is a volcanic band of cones and exploded summits, free-standing mountains like Kilimanjaro and Kenya towering thousands of meters above the grasslands. Both offer multi-day hiking trails and towering vistas over the continent. Some entire countries can be engulfed by this mountainous spell, nothing straight or flat as you cross places like Lesotho or Rwanda. In other places, there's immersion in intriguing indigenous lifestyles when you ascend to altitude.
Especially in East Africa, these mountains offer a timeless backdrop to a safari; head deeper towards their crevasses and peaks and it's impossible to separate the safari and mountain experience. Like most of the continent, many of these mountains are patrolled by wildlife, high-altitude specialists that benefit from the landscape's increased fertility. Mountain gorillas and chimpanzees are the most famous residents, found in East Africa's thick montane forests. But it's not unusual to also find elephants, leopards, and various antelopes at over 6,000 feet. With their canopies of shade and fresh streams, many multi-day walking safaris are found on a range's rolling escarpments.
Africa doesn't have a long chain of peaks like the Alps or the Andes. High volcanic mountains seem to dot the continent; their telltale cones the focus of summit expeditions that can take anything from one day to one week. Regarded as the roof of Africa, Mount Kilimanjaro is the most famous of these, taking you to 5,895meters (19,341'). A dozen shorter climbs can also be incorporated into an African itinerary. Accommodation is often in basic huts or camping, and you'll need a team of porters to bring food and water. But what an adventure!
Seven Mountains for Your Vacation
- Tanzania's Mount Kilimanjaro is one of the continent's most famous images, its snowy peak standing above elephant-dappled grasslands. This is the world's highest free-standing mountain, and it's over 4,000meters of vertical climbing to the summit, an expedition that takes six to nine days dependent on the route. You rise through the exotic forest, rugged moorland, an alpine moonscape, then onto the snowline and the feeling of standing above the entire African continent. In essence, there's no actual climbing, you're just walking uphill for a long time, something that makes Kilimanjaro accessible to a wide range of ages and fitness levels.
- A few thousand feet lower than Kilimanjaro, Mount Kenya, and Mount Meru are East Africa's other famous climbs. Both have hut style accommodation and can be climbed in four days. Like Kilimanjaro, there are phenomenal views over the plains and dramatic monuments circling the volcanic cone. But there's just a tiny fraction of the tourists and you'll have most of the trail to yourself.
- South Africa's Drakensberg Mountains mark the start of the Great Rift Valley, a cathedral of summits rising precipitously from a green valley floor. Single and multi-day hiking trails wind in multiple directions, with the highlight being the world's largest gallery of indigenous rock art. The inscriptions tell stories, nomadic San bushmen leaving messages for others. You can make out leopards that lurked nearby, successful hunts, and the arrival of strange white men with guns.
- Namibia's Damaraland is dry and dusty, a remarkable expanse of canyons and peculiar rocks that are amongst the least inhabited places on earth. Occasionally an elephant wanders past, or a nomadic giraffe searching for water, but mostly it's just you and the rugged slopes of a breathtakingly silent region.
- Uganda's Rwenzori Mountains mix green with white, taking you from luxuriant forests to rugged peaks sprinkling with snow. Tourism is still in its infancy, and there's a real sense of crossing mountains that rarely see human footprints. Mount Stanley's 5,109 meter (16,762') summit is the obvious goal for many hikers, but there's also a wide range of lower altitude peaks and craters for single and multi-day hiking.
- Lesotho is completely in the clouds, the world's highest country towering above the South Africa that surrounds it. Cut off from the world, it's a deeply traditional place of shepherds and glorious mountain panoramas. Just getting here is part of the adventure with the eight-mile Sani Pass zigzagging up to Africa's highest pub.
- The slopes of Volcanoes National Park are thick with green, bountiful forest flourishing on a bed of orange mud. Such a unique mountain range is home to a very unique primate, these slopes one of two final havens for wild mountain gorillas. While everyone anticipates the unforgettable memories of visiting these primates, few predict the beauty of the actual hike when you go gorilla trekking.
Welcome to a land of 3000 tribes and over 1000 languages, a patchwork of cultures that have evolved in disparate habitats and continue to preserve traditions. Within a single country, these tribes range from those painted their skin with butterfat and ochre to nomadic hunters with poisoned arrows. Experiencing iconic customs and traditions is what most excites visitors, but every trip to Africa will encounter a series of different tribes. An African safari is also always a cultural journey into distinct lifestyles. Even if the tribe isn't famous, there are still many evocative tales to hear and discover. Then a series of extremely traditional tribes make for unique experiences across the continent.
The Tribes of Africa
There's a widespread popularized image of an African tribe, one that pulls disparate customs from across the continent into one homogenized idea. It mixes the iconic images, taking little pieces of disparate cultures to create an idolized image; Maasai, Samburu, San Bushmen, Himba, Chagga, Hadzabe, and another dozen of distinct tribal traditions rolled into one. But there are similarities between a hunter-gatherer tribe from a Southern desert and the herders of a mountain plateau. There is no single image, and it's impossible to simplify the tribes of Africa. How about the farming communities of Kilimanjaro's slopes or Swahili fishermen along the coast? Or take South Africa, the Rainbow Nation with 11 official languages and a diverse fabric of faces and traditions. One of the great highlights of an African vacation is hearing the tales from such contrasting people and meeting people from various tribal groups, even if they're not the internationally famous ones.
Every trip to Africa will include experiences with tribes as standard. Everyone you encounter will come from a particular tribe, often with its own language and customs. Journeys will travel through different homelands, connecting you to different groups of people. Modern influence has had a profound effect on many of these, and it's sometimes hard to spot their inimitability from the outside. But ask questions, delve a little deeper, and the multiplicity of Africa becomes a lasting cultural experience.
The tribes that most capture the imagination are those maintaining very distinct traditional customs and lifestyles, encompassing everything from dress, diet, houses, community structures, hairstyles, ceremonies, and music. Less influenced by modernity, these tribes have a complex web of customs and history that is being stoically preserved, often in the face of land loss and “re-education” programs. It's these that form the basis of cultural tours, with their inaccessibility part of the appeal.
Seven Experiences for your Vacation
- You're met at the airport by a guide and driver. For the first couple of days, you're convivial but bashful, not wanting to ask personal questions. As the friendship builds you begin to hear tales of childhood and a village back home, stories that kindle passion and a unique snapshot of local life. While the unusual customs of vibrantly dressed tribes stand out from afar, visiting Africa is filled with intriguing tribal encounters even when you don't realize it. Every tribe has tales to share, and everyone you encounter remains rooted to a tribal ancestry.
- With their vibrantly-checked blankets and distinct elongated faces, the Maasai are one of Africa's most iconic tribes. They're herders, living in close-knit communities but also spending many months in the bush with their animals. The Maasai inhabit the grasslands of East Africa, mainly in areas famous for wildlife – killing a lion is a right of passage, and part of the transformation from boy to warrior involves living in big cat inhabited wilderness. On many classic Kenyan and Tanzanian safaris you'll pass their traditional bomas (homesteads) and have a chance to visit a Maasai community. Maasai are also used extensively as guards at camps and lodges in parks like the Serengeti and Maasai Mara, their intimate wildlife knowledge a huge asset in the wild.
- Known for their painted bodies and exuberant headdresses, the Himba of Northern Namibia always excite the imagination of photographers. Their isolation in a desert landscape has helped preserve much of the tradition, and they remain semi-nomadic herders. A journey here isn't a point-and-shoot the camera experience, though; there's a great opportunity for non-intrusive social interaction.
- The Zulu have successfully blended their traditions with the pace of the 21st century. Across the northeast of South Africa, you'll spot their villages of circular huts, each spaced along a vibrant hillside. Traditional dress is worn for ceremonies and rural areas very much roll to the drumbeat of 20th-century customs, especially in the Valley of 1000 Hills.
- Related yet distinct from the Maasai, the Samburu inhabit Kenya's remote northern plateaus. The inaccessibility of their homeland has forged a cultural barrier that has ultimately preserved their identity and lifestyle. The Samburu have intimate knowledge of their landscapes and, like the Maasai, are often the people guiding you on a walking safari. Their homelands are traditionally and deliberately hard to experience, although some tour companies have access and connections to very unique experiences.
- San bushmen were once the dominant people of Southern Africa's desert, but they almost become extinct during colonial rule. This dispersed tribe has an understanding of the landscape that dates back 40,000 years; the intimate knowledge passed down through generations of hunter-gatherers. Even today you can see them tracking and stalking antelope with their traditional bows. They're generally bashful yet receptive to guests who respect their customs, making for a humbling two or three-day cultural safari.
- It's estimated that less than 1000 Hadzabe remain, the decline squarely blamed on the loss of traditional lands. These hunter-gatherers nomadically move with the rains in Northern Tanzania, foraging with a digging stick and preserving an isolated click language. Missionary Christians, colonial farmers, and local Tanzanian governments have all failed to “re-educate” or “resettle” the tribe, and they remain one of Africa's most unique cultural encounters.
Africa's rollercoaster of wildlife continues along the coast, the multiplicity of marine life mixing the big with the unusual. Thousands of miles of coastline brings unique marine adventures, from diving with great white sharks to swimming with dolphins and watching different whale species breach offshore. These oceanic greats are made accessible to almost everyone, and a diving certification isn't required for intimate moments. Scattered along the Indian Ocean coast, a series of dive sites also combine the iconic pelagic giants with tropical reefs and excellent macro sights.
The Marine World of Africa
Just as predatory cats and huge mammals dominate Africa's savannah, the surrounding oceans are patrolled by hunters and gentle giants. Multiple species of whales, dolphins, and sharks inhabit these waters, stretching their fins across the cooler Atlantic waters and the warm Indian waters of the eastern coastline. Encounters with many of these giants don't require a diving certification. Whale watching is both land based and boat based in South Africa and Mozambique while great white shark cage diving doesn't even require a snorkel. Dolphins are regularly spotted all around the coast, something that always make a welcome addition to a beach escape. These large predators collide during the Sardine Run, an annual spectacle that unfolds along the east of South Africa during June and July. The migrating sardines don't stand much chance as a flurry of fins feast.
Dive sites are found all along the coast although there's a strong feeling that much of Africa's diving potential is yet to be realized. Certainly, the abundance of dangerous predators makes large areas of the ocean inaccessible and unexplored. The majority of the continent's best-known dive sites are iconically in the Indian Ocean, offering vibrant tropical reefs and opportunities for encounters with the big stuff. These are well preserved within a series of marine parks in Kenya and Tanzania, but you can also dive into the water from various Mozambican and South African beach resort areas. Keep following the coastline north and it narrows into the Red Sea, with Egypt and Sudan offering world-famous diving.
Sailing trips provide a new angle on the oceanic life, especially the easy exploration available in Mozambique, Zanzibar, and Kenya. Traditional sail dhows and modern speedboats offer two contrasting experiences, one slow and peaceful the other exploring far into unchartered waters. Oceanic fishing trips are also a specialty, offered from the coast's bigger resort towns and exploring waters unspoiled by commercial fishing. Africa's marine world remains an unknown, and there's always a sense of exploratory adventure that comes with the experience.
Seven Marine Experiences for your Vacation
- Tentatively step into a cage and peer into the murky water near Gansbaai, South Africa, where great white sharks swim past at astonishing proximity. Hold your arm out and you could touch them. But that wouldn't be wise. On a single excursion, you can see anything from a couple to a dozen different great white sharks, with the boats moving to different spots dependent on the location of seals that support such an abundant shark collection.
- Spend a couple of days diving the Mnemba Atoll, Zanzibar's premier dive destination. A collection of reef walls provide the highlight, each drifting into the depths with vivacious tones and curious residents, including whales and sharks. Zanzibar's warm waters and eclectic appeal also make it a popular spot for a PADI scuba diving course, with the days in the water contrasted by beautiful evenings along the beach.
- Watamu National Marine Park blends the appeal of Africa's waters, mixing magnificent corals with regular visits from giant turtles, whale sharks, and manta rays. Snorkeling and dive trips are a regular addition to Kenyan coastal vacations, especially for anyone staying in the nearby beach resort town of Malindi.
- Three different whale species migrate to the Hermanus bay from May to October, the ten meter plus giants using the calm, cold waters to calve. Using a kelp horn, the town's crier alerts visitors to a whale off shore, an easy way to ensure you don't miss out on their breaching. A coastal walkway can get you within 20 meters and whale watching safaris enjoy even greater proximity to this South African town.
- Further offshore but off most radars, Madagascar's inimitable wildlife extends from the forests to the tropical waters. Expect vivid reefs and an eclectic menagerie of sharks and large fish, the country's dive sites accessed from the shore and longer liveaboard diving trips.
- Dolphins are a constant to many Zanzibar vacations, their playful fins almost as common as the white sand they're spotted from. On the island's northern tip it's possible to swim with pods of dolphins that come into the shallow waters to feed each morning. It's a hectic yet spellbinding experience, sonar sounds flickering through the water as you try to keep pace with the pod.
- Every June and July, tens of millions of sardines migrate along the South African coastline, moving from the cooler spawning grounds of the Cape area to the sub-tropical warmth of the Wild Coast and Zululand. They bunch together in huge schools, picked off in their millions by a great myriad of predators, including great white sharks, hammerheads, bottlenose dolphins, and bronze whalers. Snorkeling and diving trips provide insane underwater views while the coastline vistas are regularly marked by a flurry of giant fins. Like the wildebeest of East Africa, the sardine run is an incredible annual phenomenon.
Africa's landscapes dance with surreal wonders mostly unnoticed and unknown to the world. Valleys scar distant deserts, sand dunes rise uninhibited for thousands of miles; waterfalls tumble with a thunderous echo, and then there's the calm rurality of historic wine lands. Famous lakes provide serene days while tumultuous rivers offer unique adventure. These unique destinations are regular parts of an African itinerary, natural highlights that continue the continent's promise of color and enchantment.
Africa's wine industry is almost exclusively centered on the Cape Winelands of South Africa. For almost three centuries, the whitewashed towns of Stellenbosch and Franschoek have flourished around valleys of vines. Rugged mountains stand proudly in the distance, casting their daily shadows over the country estates and 500 wineries. South Africa's famous exports come from this region, but you'll also find hundreds of boutique farms that have been in a single family for over a century. Idyllic growing conditions and mixed soils make these regions good for a variety of grapes. The Cape Winelands is also home to Africa's premier fine-dining industry, ensuring a culinary compliment that has a keen focused on exceptional game meat. While the Cape Winelands can be explored on day trips from Cape Town, many choose to lounge at a country estate to soak up the atmosphere.
South Africa has a series of smaller wine regions, notably in the cooler climate found around Cape Town. Although none of these rise to international fame, their distinct soil makes them an alternative or addition for wine lovers visiting the Cape Winelands. Colonial rulers attempted but largely failed to cultivate wine in other African countries, often finding the climate too challenging for widespread wine production. You can certainly find drinkable wine produced in countries like Kenya and Tanzania, but its invisibility on the world stage isn't unfair.
The world's highest sand dunes are found in Africa, and they're not in the Sahara. While the world's biggest desert spans 11 African countries, its inaccessibility makes it largely unexplored by tourism, other than the dunes found in Eastern Morocco. Camel trekking for one day or one week is a big attraction in this mystical North African country while the intrepid can also consider journeys north from Mali. Much further south, a spine of dunes runs uninhibited along Namibia's Atlantic coastline, most of it protected in the continent's largest national park: the Namib-Naukluft. Some rise over 400meters, the curved dunes moving through a kaleidoscope of colors as the sun crosses the sky. They continue to grow, something that's best demonstrated along the Skeleton Coast, where the remains of grounded ships poke above the relentlessly expanding sand. Namibia's sand dunes are best portrayed on aerial safaris, thousands of square miles of desert shimmering beneath the wingtips. But go by land and there's also a sublime impression of scale and desolate beauty.
Africa's landscape is controlled by its great rivers. For many millennia, these rivers have dictated human settlements and animal evolution, allowing tribes and herds to flourish in otherwise desert lands. They continue to ignite the imagination and impress the senses. The Nile runs north from Uganda, stimulating rural life and providing white water rafting adventures. The Zambezi rushes towards Victoria Falls, another destination for admiring local wildlife and heading out onto the white water. Many safari destinations are dominated by their rivers, desolate savannah flourishing into lush forest beside the rivers' curves. The Limpopo River feeding Kruger, the Cuando and Chobe nourishing Northern Namibia and Botswana, and most famously, the Okavango spreading its fluid into the magnificent Okavango Delta. Tailored adventures can follow any of these rivers and more, the journeys by water revealing an unmarred ecosystem.
Some of Africa's rivers no longer provide a wildlife haven. Fish River Canyon is the world's second largest, a vast scar that cuts through the desert of Southern Namibia. Close to South Africa's Kruger National Park, Blyde River Canyon is widely considered to be the largest green canyon in the world. Red sandstone slopes are coated in a blanket of forests, with a panoramic sightseeing route running along its precipitous cliffs and escarpments. Both these canyons and a selection of others across the continent form the basis of unique hiking adventures. They're also a remarkable stop on a safari focused itinerary.
Victoria Falls is always heard before it's seen, a mile-wide sheet of water thundering into the Zambezi River chasm. Explore the falls during the high water season and it's impossible to stay dry, the spray cascading out of the abyss. This is the world's most powerful waterfall and another of Africa's well-known natural wonders. While the reverberant falls grab the attention, the Zambezi River that feeds them is equally hypnotic. Dotted across the continent there's are dozens of others to discover, including the world's second highest, 948meter Tugela Falls found in South Africa's Drakensberg Mountains. The roaring Murchison Falls gives its name to a sublime safari destination in Uganda while northeastern South Africa is dappled with hidden cascades of water.
Africa's lakes are calming figures on the continent, immense expanses that imbue a serenity and stillness. Victoria is the world's second largest, a reservoir for the Nile that divides three countries and is home to a series of luxury island retreats. Lake Malawi dominates the country it names, its calm blue casting a tranquil spell across Malawi and its people. Curved mountain peaks rise above Kivu and Tanganyika, lakes that bestride East Africa and Central Africa. These monumental lakes can be explored on traditional canoes or large boats, but they're far from the only gentle expanses. Lakes dot the continent, important congregation points for wildlife and villages. While the water is calm, the surroundings are hives of life. Some lakes are patrolled by grunting hippos; others are surrounded by migratory ungulate herds. Lakes become an epicenter, a fabulously abundant marker of a continent's natural wealth. They feature on almost all safari itineraries.