From the great pyramids of Giza in the north to the vibrant city of Cape Town, nestled below majestic Table Mountain, in the south, Africa is a continent awash with bucket list destinations. The great Serengeti wildebeest migration, majestic dunes of the Namib, thundering waters of Victoria Falls, the list goes on and on. However, there are also very unlikely corners of the continent that hide some incredible adventures without the crowds. You may even need to add a couple of lines onto your bucket list!
Lesotho – explore the “Roof of Africa” from the saddle
One of only three Kingdoms remaining in Africa, the mountain Kingdom of Lesotho is completely surrounded by South Africa. The moniker given so often, The Roof of Africa, is quite apt. Lesotho is the only independent country in the world that lies entirely above 1,000. In fact, the lowest point in the whole country is some 1,400m above sea level, making it the highest lowest point of any country in the world.
There is no better way to explore this scenery than from the saddle. Horse riding and pony trekking have long been a favoured mode of transport in these parts. While new roads have been built and 4×4 vehicles can take you around in a fraction of the time, why would you miss out on the chance to explore at a more languid pace. Filling your lungs with the crisp air as you go. Spectacular scenery is literally around every turn and beyond every crest. You can even go skiing in winter, but that is a whole different adventure!
At these altitudes temperatures drop and agriculture takes on more of a subsistence nature. Small thatched stone huts dot the landscape and thin wisps of smoke rising into the cool mountain air from warming fires. Rugged Basotho villagers congregate, wrapped in colourful blankets and crowned with mokorotlos, conical shaped straw hats. The mokorotlo is so integral to life in Lesotho it even takes centre stage on the nation’s flag. Don’t be surprised if you get invited in for tea, and take the chance if you are, it’s one of the pleasures of taking things slowly.
What’s more the pleasure is not restricted to experienced riders. Day treks on docile mountain ponies to multi-day cross-country trails are just waiting for you.
Djibouti – into the Devil’s Cauldron
From the chilly air on the roof of Africa let’s descend into the baking heat of the lowest point in Africa. Djibouti may be diminutive, but it certainly is dramatic. Cradled in the horn of Africa, this is a land of fire, heat, salt where the very surface of the earth is being ripped apart!
Summer temperatures in parts of Djibouti creep above 50C (120F) and remain balmy even during the depths of winter. Add to this a touch of robust geological activity and you have an otherworldly landscape at every turn.
In the far west Lake Abbe’s dramatic limestone chimneys rise from the flat plains, belching sulphurous gases while flamingos grace the shallow waters. To the east Lake Assal, at 155m below sea level, is the lowest point in Africa. A vast saline lake flanked with shimmering salt flats making up the world’s largest salt reserve. For millennia the Afar people have traded the precious salt far and wide via camel trains, glimpses of which can still be seen today.
To the south east lies the Ardoukoba volcano, formed just 42 years ago, and separating the saline waters of Assal from the Ghoubet Al-Kharab, the Devil’s Cauldron or Gulf of Demons! Surrounded by towering cliffs and mountains, the secrets of the cove lie below the water’s surface. A whole new world opens up. The area is renowned for common sightings of juvenile whale sharks and a host of other fish. Here you’ll also find the famous “Djibouti Crack”, a coral encrusted fissure that separates the great African and Arabian tectonic plates. Divers can actually swim through the chasm separating the land masses.
Follow the tides out of the Ghoubet Al-Kharab and into the Gulf of Tadjoura. From here the waters of the gulf flow onwards, past the Moucha Islands into the Gulf of Aden to the east and northwards to the Red Sea where the northern shores of Djibouti are typified by endless beaches, warm seas and spectacular diving and snorkelling.
Sudan – lost in the sands
If you followed the coast northwards from Djibouti along the Red Sea for long enough you reach Sudan. Although the allure of the Red Sea coast in Sudan is great, it is another waterway that takes centre stage in this adventure, the great Nile River.
Bustling Khartoum is the starting point for most and the point at which the Blue and the White Nile Rivers meet before heading ever further north in search of the Mediterranean. The life-giving waters of the Nile allowed for settlements to flourish in the Sahara Desert, and there is so much to see.
Maybe start by exploring the vast Western Desert for a true taste of the Sahara. Here the driving is often across open desert with nothing but sand in every direction. The horizons occasionally broken by nomadic Bisharin settlements, a sure sign there is likely water nearby. Discover prehistoric rock engravings, ancient fortresses and a quintessential palm studded oasis.
Inevitably any journey will lead back to the Nile, and a trip through Sudan’s fascinating history, this is after all Nubia, the Kingdom of the Black Pharaohs. As you follow the Nile the area is littered with ancient monuments testifying to the regions glorious past. Two highlights stand out above all else though.
In the shadow of the great Jebel Barkal mountain rising out of the desert sands is the ancient city of Napata. It was from here that the great Pharaoh Taharqa ruled the whole of Upper and Lower Egypt during the twenty-fifth, or Nubian dynasty. At the time this was the centre of the entire Egyptian world.
When the Nubian Dynasty was forced into retreat, the capital moved south to Meroë, now arguably the most spectacular archaeological site in all of Sudan. Over 40 pyramids rise from the desert forming part of this ancient royal city waiting to be explored. Did you know with over 200 pyramids Sudan actually has more pyramids than Egypt?
Chad – home of an almost mythical safari
We would forgive you for thinking we are taking the Mickey talking about safaris in Chad. However, amongst ardent safari goers, the Zakouma National Park in Chad has definitely become a bucket list destination. This is not a luxury safari as you have come to expect in other parts of Africa, think of it more like the place Indiana Jones would go on safari.
The little-known country of Chad sits in the heart of northern-central Africa. The north of the country lies in the middle of the Sahara Desert while the extreme south joins with the tropical rain forests of central Africa. In the transition zone between the two lies the Zakouma National Parks, administered and managed by the exceptional African Parks. African Parks took over the running of the park at the request of the Chadian government in 2010 and the results have been nothing short of spectacular.
When they took over poaching was rampant, almost every species of animal was in decline and the very ecology of the park under threat. Since then African Parks have worked tirelessly with the local communities and security forces to make Zakouma one of the most secure parks in Africa. The bush is being rehabilitated and the wildlife numbers flourishing.
Zakouma is one of the few places left in Africa where at times you can see huge herds of elephants. Buffalo herds of over 1,000 congregate, where once less than 250 remained in the whole park. 50% of the world’s Kordofan giraffe are found in Zakouma. Antelope abound. With the thriving numbers of herbivores there has been a corresponding rise in predators, including lion, leopard, cheetah, hyena and wild dog.
With the arrival of the rains in May the park closes to visitors for the wet season, only opening again in November. At the beginning of the dry season the bush is green, there is abundant water and the temperatures are cool in the hours of darkness and early morning. This is a great time for photography but not prime game viewing.
As the months progress the water dries up, and the temperatures begin to climb. By March and April the dry season is at its peak and day time temperatures frequently hover in the mid-40s centigrade (around 110 Fahrenheit), but this is when the magic happens. Masses of game flock around the remaining water and the experience can hold its own against any national park in Africa.
If the mammals are impressive, the birdlife is out of this world, frankly legendary. The park sits slap bang in the middle of migratory routes and is an essential Sahelian refuge and RAMSAR site. Flocks of more than a million red-billed queleas blacken the sky and black crowned cranes fill the pans in flocks larger than recorded anywhere else on earth. That is before we even start on the bee-eaters, hornbills, spoonbills, barbets and did we mention the largest population of red-necked ostriches in the world?
São Tomé and Príncipe – Atlantic Idyll
After all this activity, wouldn’t it be great if there was just somewhere to kick back, relax on a white sand beach, away from the crowds and soak up the African sun. Strange you should ask! We have just solution, the tiny island nation of São Tomé and Príncipe cosseted away in the Gulf of Guinea.
Two verdant tropical dots rise majestically from the deep blue ocean. São Tomé the larger of the two is the point of entry to the country, and São Tomé City is the hub of life on the islands. Please note that the terms “City” and “hub” are used loosely by Western senses. Life here happens more at the speed of the tortoise than the hare, and after a few days you will see that it is so much more rewarding that way. A riot of colour assaults the senses from the bright yellows of the taxis to the faded pastels of once grand Portuguese colonial structures. Brightly coloured houses give way to pavements strewn with a rainbow of fruit and vegetables as hawkers sell their bounty.
Inland the forest is king, dense and rich and teaming with life, shrouding the mountainous terrain. The Pico Cão, unwilling to be subjugated to the jungle surrounds rises straight up nearly 400m above the forest, dominating the views from far and wide. On the fertile lower slopes plantations produce abundant crops from the fertile soil, including the island’s celebrated cocoa trees. In the early 1900’s this tiny nation was the world’s largest producer of cocoa earning them the nickname the “Chocolate Islands”. Even today São Tomé cocoa is considered some of the finest in the world.
A short flight north east takes you to the smaller of the two islands, Príncipe. If São Tomé is laid back, Princípe is positively comatose. You may want to take an excursion deep into the forests, or maybe explore one of the cocoa plantations or even head off in search of nesting turtles, but you could just relax on one of the islands achingly beautiful beaches instead. After all, you have come here to get away from it all, and here you are just about as far away from modern life as you can get, so just revel in it.
Warwick Blow is Owner of Safari In Style. Safari In Style uses more than 50 years of personal experience to create tailor-made unique journeys through Africa’s finest safari destinations.