By Robin Esrock
Millennia ago, when our ancestors wandered the plains, natural selection took its course. The nervous Nelly who worried that every shadow was a lion was rewarded by being able to remain in the gene pool. Today, our DNA is hard coded to pay far more attention to that which might harm us, as opposed to that which probably won’t. All this might explain why good news from Africa is so hard to come by. The problems plaguing the world’s second largest continent often drown out the remarkable, the incredible, the magnificent and many once-in-a-lifetimes. Rest assured that Africa, a true traveler’s destination, offers all of this in abundance.
The Wildlife – Put yourself in a nature documentary
Most people closely associate Africa with wildlife, and for good reason. Over 3,000 protected areas provide sanctuary for a stunning diversity of animals. Few experiences match an encounter with the mighty Big Five: elephants, lions, leopards, rhinos and buffalo. Outstanding luxury, budget and self-catering lodges allow you to watch millions of zebras and wildebeests migrate between the Serengeti and Masai Mara, attracting thousands of predators in their wake. Catering largely to international clientele, hearing a lion roar in the distance while you gather around a camp fire – or swim in an infinity pool – is pure bucket list. Hunt big game with your cameras on walking safaris in renowned national parks found in Zambia, Namibia, Kenya and Tanzania. South Africa’s Kruger National Park is the size of Wales, with more mammals than anywhere else. Africa has 99% of the world’s lion population, 25% of the world’s bird life, and is the only place you’ll see hippos, giraffes, wildebeests, zebras, chimpanzees, gorillas and many other animals in the wild.
The Culture – Use a little Hakuna Matata
For North American visitors, the deep wealth of traditional culture in Africa is exotic, strange, and alluring. For many, tribal encounters are highlights throughout the continent. In Kenya, I spent a day with a local Masai tribe, learning about their daily life, their co-existence with lions, and how jumping is a direct measure of a man’s attractiveness. Despite my efforts, the Masai guys had nothing to worry about! In Ethiopia, old priests showed me around stunning 11th century rock churches in Lalibela, which was followed by an unforgettable journey into the Omo Valley, home to 53 distinct tribes. A visit to the humble former home of Nelson Mandela on a Soweto Tour in Johannesburg leaves many a visitor inspired. Meanwhile, Africa’s modern cities crackle with energy, offering nightlife, performances, museums and dollar–friendly shopping. Tourists quickly find that Africans have big hearts, and bigger smiles. And though it takes a while to acclimatize to the slower pace of Africa Time, repeat this Swahili phrase like a mantra: Hakuna matata. It translates roughly as “No Worries Mate” and with a sense of humor, will see you through. Home to over one billion people speaking 1,500 distinct languages (with more French speakers than in France), each region of Africa is a cultural treasure box waiting to be opened.
The Views – Discover another world
Mountains, waterfalls, canyons, beaches, jungles, islands — the scenery of Africa is rugged, wild and something to behold. South Africa packs in a stunning array of eco-systems, including the magnificent coastline and sandy beaches along the famed Garden Route, the grand and accessible Drakensburg Mountains, and the semi-arid Karoo region which gets blanketed in wildflowers. Adjacent, one finds the otherworldly red sand dunes of Namibia’s Sossusvlei, standing hundreds of feet high and protected by sprawling salt and clay pans. Victoria Falls, straddling the border of Zimbabwe and Zambia, is twice the height and width of Niagara Falls. More water crashes into this chasm than anywhere else in the world. In Botswana’s Okavango Delta, motorboats take guests along the expansive river channels where wildlife and birdlife have gathered en masse. There are few mountains that allow you to summit without ropes at 19,341 feet, and fewer still with the storied history and incredible views of Tanzania’s Mount Kilimanjaro. Aided by porters and guides, a trek to the top delivers one of the world’s most spectacular (and well-earned) sunrises.
The History – Illuminate the Dark Continent
Europe does not hold the monopoly on history. Africa is the birthplace of humanity. Historical wonders extend all the way from dinosaur fossils and human evolution in southern Africa to the Great Pyramids and Roman cities of North Africa. The so-called “Dark Continent” was illuminated by a number of sophisticated African kingdoms, from Ghana and Senegal to Ethiopia and Great Zimbabwe. Later on, a small, exotic island off the coast of Tanzania became the United States' most favored trading nation. Zanzibar, once the sordid center of the spice and slave trade, transports you to another world. Walk among Gothic churches and mosques in the narrow streets of Stone Town, or explore the Sultan’s House of Wonders. Hard to believe Freddy Mercury was born in one of Stone Town’s ash-blackened houses, protected by mighty wooden doors. Modern history is on display in Johannesburg’s outstanding Apartheid Museum, a deeply moving tribute to the political triumph of South Africa’s turbulent past.
The Food – A Taste for the Exotic
Ever tried a Dawa cocktail? A popular drink throughout the continent, honey is added to vodka and mixed with a pestle-like stick, creating a perfectly balanced drink named for the Swahili word for “medicine.” In Ethiopia, rich meat and vegetable stews are blended with distinctive berbere spice and eaten with a sourdough flat bread that is spongy and delicious. Meals are followed by a spiced coffee ceremony, for Ethiopia is also the birthplace of the Arabica coffee bean. Grilled meats dominate the menu in South Africa, accompanied by outstanding New World wine that has swept the planet for good reason. Portuguese settlers made peri-peri, derived from the African Birds-Eye Chili and found throughout Mozambique and Angola, another global staple. Once you try the popular East African dish mogo, you’ll quickly realize why many Africans prefer cassava over potato. Fresh squeezed sugar-cane juice? Lean and tender ostrich steak? From Arabic-inspired mezze platters to a smorgasbord of game meats, African cuisine is deliciously full of surprises.
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