The vast appeal of a continent
‘Where are the best places for wildlife? Where are the best places for culture? When’s the best time to go?'
They are so often the first questions from those planning to visit the African continent, and from them a plan can form.
Let’s start by contemplating a map of the continent.
First the north. Morocco has a seasoned touring industry — it’s rather its own kettle of fish, almost its own part of “Africa”. But, apart from Morocco, for leisure travel, the north (Egypt, Libya, Algeria) is too problematic.
Then the west. Travel restrictions have been in place in parts of west Africa because of the ebola outbreak but west Africa already has less infrastructure and generally feels more disorderly. That’s all well and good for the seasoned and adventurous traveller but not what we are talking about here, where we are looking for interest but also leisure.
That leaves east Africa and southern Africa — the areas we recommend travellers concentrate on.
In Africa, there always seems to me an immediacy of life. The continent has less filter. You can hear the big pulse of the planet, of roots, of reality — and you don’t even have to listen that closely.
TANZANIA & KENYA (Wildlife)
Travellers predominantly head to east Africa, and mainly Tanzania and Kenya, for wildlife — for the vast numbers migrating across the Serengeti plain and spread across the Masai Mara.
More than two million animals migrate from the Serengeti National Park in Tanzania to the Masai Mara National Reserve in Kenya from July to October.
Here in the Masai Mara, I stand in a comfortable four-wheel-drive safari vehicle, its roof popped up, photographing a lioness who is simply walking across the grassland. Not hunting, not stalking, just strolling.
And then towards me comes a big herd of elephants, which passes by either side of the vehicle, strangely soundless — no footfall, just the sound of them tugging grass with their trunks.
For the wildebeest and zebra migrate across these vast grass plains and Trevor Fernandes, of Wildlife Safari — founded in Nairobi but with an office in Subiaco (both the company and Trevor, come to think of it) once said to me: “The more grass eaters you are feeding, the more meat eaters you have.”
Then, in also Kenya, there are the Great Rift Valley, the flamingos of Lake Nakuru and Ngorongoro Crater — a 600m deep biosphere with the Big Five (African elephant, lion, buffalo, rhinoceros and leopard) and the result of a volcanic eruption maybe three million years ago.
In Tanzania, in Amboseli, there are herds of elephants at the foot of 5895m Mt Kilimanjaro — and the more adventurous can climb one of the three routes to the top of this, the highest mountain in Africa.
Latest figures, for the year June 2013 to June 2014, show international tourism grew by more than 12 per cent in Tanzania, earning the country almost $2.2 billion.
UGANDA, RWANDA & ETHIOPIA (Culture and primates)
The mountain gorillas and chimps which live in the Virunga Mountains between Uganda and Rwanda bring people from all over the world.
In Rwanda, only 80 people a day are allowed to trek up to spend a maximum of an hour with the gorillas, for which they pay a permit of US$750, much of which goes to the local village communities. In Uganda, the permit is US$600. It might be some nine million years since the group of primates that evolved into gorillas split from the ancestors they shared with us humans but to look them in the eye is to find an eerie recognition.
But both countries have more to offer. In Uganda there is savannah and forest landscape and wildlife but nothing like the numbers in Tanzania or Kenya. But the chimps of Kibale Forest are quite easily seen.
Rwanda is an interesting country — probably the safest in Africa, almost obsessively anti-corruption and with the highest percentage in the world of women in its national parliament (64 per cent of its parliamentarians are female).
There are good tours and operators in both countries.
Despite those opportunities to visit primates, the balance in visiting Uganda and Rwanda leans towards the cultural — and certainly that is the case in Ethiopia.
We arrive in Addis Ababa just before Timkat — the Ethiopian Orthodox church’s big epiphany festival.
It is a real spectacle, as replica arks of the covenant are brought from each church to congregate in Addis Ababa. Ethiopia was the second major country to accept Christianity as its national religion.
But it is the old city of Axum, in the north, that really catches my imagination, for its dusty market and history. Axum was the capital of the Axumite kingdom, before Ethiopia became what it is today. There is a chapel which is believed to contain the original Ark of the Covenant — the chest containing the tablets of stone on which God inscribed the 10 Commandments. There is the Queen of Sheba’s bath (there is one school of thought that, 1000 years before Christ, she ruled from here, part of an Ethiopian dynasty).
Extraordinary thoughts, extraordinary days, extraordinary places.
(Wildlife, landscape, cultures)
Botswana has been a success story for Africa — it is stable, successful and well run. It has a small population in a big country, is non-tribal, multicultural, multi-racial.
For many decades Botswana had the highest rate of per-capita growth of any country in the world, though it is still working to end its dependence on diamond mining and diversify its economy. As part of that, it continues working to develop tourism.
It is said that there are more than 100,000 African elephants in Chobe National Park — and over the past couple of days, I seem to have seen most of them. But I am here in November — right at the hot end of the dry season.
The advantage to that is that wildlife congregates around any water it can find and viewing is brilliant. The disadvantage is that, as soon as it rains, they vanish. (One guide tells me: “Overnight! Gone!”)
The birdlife is brilliant, and we stop to watch lions with their cubs.
The Chobe River is one of Botswana’s jewels, and the Okavango Delta is the other.
It is the world’s biggest inland delta, the product of the Okavango River flowing in to the Kalahari Desert — being in an arid zone, this means a high density of wildlife, and makes for a great safari location.
Botswana has set aside more than 30 per cent of its land for wildlife.
It looks like 1.2 million international visitors will visit Zambia this year. This is interesting as Zambia isn’t about ticking the Big Five off the list. Although there is good wildlife viewing, it is better known for the quality of its guides, who give a deep insight into landscape and ecology. It specialises in small eco safari camps, where there is real wilderness appreciation — and, of course, the chance to see Victoria Falls, staying in the town of Livingstone. The best time for this is between July and September, when the Zambezi River is pumping.
Zambia is also keenly promoting tourism in its Northern Province, bordering Tanzania. Kasaba Bay, on Lake Tanganyika, could become a significant destination.
Wildlife watchers head to South Luangwa National Park.
The journey in Namibia stretches from the Chobe River, in the east of the country, facing Botswana, elephant populations and intense birdlife, across the floodplain.
But this country is perhaps better known for the dry lands where “Bushmen”, Damara and Namaqua tribes have lived since early times, and for the Kalahari Desert and the Namib Desert.
This is believed to be the world’s oldest desert region.
Between them, they attract just over a million visitors a year — in a country with a population of two million, and a multi-party parliamentary democracy that has been remarkably stable since independence in 1990. Political and social peace remain.
This is the world’s second-least densely populated country (behind Mongolia) and most people still depend on subsistence agriculture, though there’s mining for diamonds and precious metals. But it is thought that about 20 per cent of Namibia’s formal jobs are in tourism.
Yet in the Bushmen villages, many of which welcome visitors, the traditional hunting techniques of tracking and stalking are alive, people still used indigenous plants for their contraceptive qualities, and fire is started with sticks.
For travellers these days, Zimbabwe is mostly about visiting Victoria Falls, standing by David Livingstone’s statues, staying in high-quality accommodation, and watching wildlife come to water sources.
It’s certainly worth three nights as part of a trip through southern Africa.
Its biggest game reserve is Hwange National Park, between Victoria Falls and Bulawayo, and there are lions, leopards and successful elephant herds, despite poaching.
South Africa has old history and a contemporary story, and it is these that help to draw visitors.
If I was asked to put a percentage to it, I might guess that only 15 per cent of the attraction is wildlife — and that is mostly Kruger National Park, which offers good viewing and a range of quality accommodation.
Then it’s culture, good accommodation and dining, world-class wine-growing regions and one of the world’s best luxury trains, the Rovos.
Johannesburg is the usual place of arrival (my advice is to stay only in the suburb of Sandton), and it’s a five-hour drive to Kruger, though most people will fly 45 minutes to Nelspruit.
Durban is the launch point for a trip up through the Zulu Wars battlefields and up to the Drakensberg Mountains.
But most visitors will head for Cape Town. On the Cape Peninsula, Table Mountain looks out over the city and ocean towards Robben Island, where Nelson Mandela and other apartheid opposition leaders were held, and it is still an extraordinary place to visit. But while in Cape Town, you might consider joining a tour to Langa Township, the oldest township in Cape Town.
It was there that I met local Luvuyo Tokwe. He introduced himself in a mouthful of vowels far more complicated than it looks written here.
“Luvuyo tells me the immaculate, short-sleeved khaki safari jacket was a boiler suit he was given years ago. He kept it immaculately until it fitted, then re-tailored it himself. He has tied the belt in a stylish knot. He has a bright turquoise shirt underneath, a little white hat, rolled back at the front, cheap sunglasses which look good, long shorts and little canvas shoes. It’s a good look from the simplest ingredients. It says something about the man.”
I once wouldn’t have been safe here. Langa was created by apartheid. Black people were first driven into this township to in the 1900s after being blamed by the new whites for an outbreak of bubonic plague.
But now I am safe, and glad to have met Luvuyo in a country that’s still writing its new story, day by day.
© The West Australian
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