Where can you find the world’s tallest land animal, the world’s longest river and the world’s most expansive desert as well as world-class historic sites, ancient cultures, superlative wine tasting and mind-blowing wildlife spectacles? Only in Africa…
Africa is a continent of superlatives. Its forests and savannahs are home to the world’s largest and tallest land animals, as well as man’s closest genetic relatives in the form of chimpanzees and gorillas. It was on this continent, in ancient Egypt, that the most enduring civilisation of all time thrived for millennia on the banks of the Nile, the world’s longest river, which runs through the sands of the Sahara, the world’s most expansive desert. Further south, Kilimanjaro, the world’s highest freestanding mountain, lies in close proximity to the site of a unique migration involving up to two million wildebeest and other ungulates. Elsewhere, a host of unique experiences and landmarks – ranging from the glory of Victoria Falls to the mysterious rock-hewn churches of Ethiopia – warrant the epithet ‘Only in Africa’…
Descend… by jeep into Tanzania’s game-rich Ngorongoro Crater
The view over Ngorongoro Crater from its forested rim is simply enormous. A 260-square-kilometre bowl of fertile savannah enclosed by steep, jungle-clad 600m-tall cliffs, Ngorongoro is the world’s largest intact caldera, the relict of a volcano that once stood taller than Kilimanjaro does today.
Ngorongoro is best known for the incredible volume of wildlife that thrives on its fertile floor. Here, the world’s densest populations of lion and spotted hyena wage an endless battle against each other for predatorial supremacy. Massive old elephant bulls, weighed down by tusks of a stature elsewhere sacrificed to the ivory trade, haunt fever tree groves and perennial swamps. Elsewhere, the open grassland supports some of Tanzania’s few remaining black rhino, while saline Lake Magadi is crowded with pink-tinged flamingos. Day-in day-out, in every direction, countless herds of zebra, wildebeest, gazelle and buffalo sweep across the crater floor. In short, it’s the ultimate one-stop safari experience.
• Fly KQ To Kilimanjaro
Soak… in the spray of Victoria Falls
Victoria Falls – where the mile-wide Zambezi River crashes over a 108-metre-high cliff as it flows along the border of Zambia and Zimbabwe – is the most impressive phenomenon of its type in the world. Double the height and almost 50 per cent broader than Niagara Falls, Victoria Falls has the added X-factor of being so much more wild and uncommercialised than its North American counterpart.
Having gawped at the waterfall from several different viewpoints (ideally at sunrise, when the light is simply stunning) adventurous travellers can paddle along a sluggish stretch of the Zambezi alive with hippo and elephant, go white water rafting in the spectacular gorge below the Falls, or hurl themselves off the bridge facing the Falls on Africa’s most immense bungee jump!
• Fly KQ To Livingstone
Experience… the Pageantry of Ancient Ashanti
Kumasi, the largest city in the Ghanian interior, is the traditional capital of Ashanti, a fabulously wealthy empire founded in the late 17th century on the back of gold ore extracted from the surrounding rainforests. More than three centuries later, the hereditary ruler of Ashanti, Asantehene (King) Osei Tutu II, remains Ghana’s second most powerful political figure after the president.
A colourful highlight of the Ashanti calendar, held every sixth Sunday at Kumasi’s Manhyia Palace, is the Akwasidae Festival, when Osei Tutu II holds court before his subjects. It’s an overwhelming occasion, rich in pomp and pageantry, but also welcoming to outsiders. Gold artefacts are on display everywhere, as an assemblage of subsidiary chiefs come to pay tribute to their king. The Akwasidae’s sense of place is underscored by a vibrant aural backdrop of traditional drumming and blaring horns.
• Fly KQ To Accra
Discover… the ruins of Great Zimbabwe
The most impressive historical site in subequatorial Africa, Great Zimbabwe is a peerless architectural creation. The focal point of this abandoned city is the so-called Great Enclosure, whose mortar-free outer wall – five metres thick, eleven metres high, and topped with intricate double-chevron patterning – was constructed over the course of a century using almost a million stone blocks.
Between 1270 and 1450 AD, the immense stone city housed up to 20,000 people and formed the lynchpin of an empire whose economic mainstay was the export of gold and ivory to the Swahili ports of the Indian Ocean. Archaeological evidence suggests that Great Zimbabwe – whose contemporaneous name is a matter of conjecture – was abandoned abruptly in the mid-15th century. But its massive stonewall enclosures and mysterious hilltop palaces, not to mention the iconic series of soapstone carvings of raptor-like birds now displayed in the site museum, pay testament to one of the world’s least understood, yet most intriguing, lost civilisations.
• Fly KQ To Harare
Track… gorillas on the slopes of Volcanoes National Park
Tracking mountain gorillas in the Virungas – the magnificent series of forest-clad volcanic mountains that straddle the borders of Rwanda, Uganda and the DR Congo – is probably the world’s most breathtaking wildlife experience. Literally so, since the hike to the gorillas’ misty montane home often entails following steep, slippery footpaths through a tangle of wild vegetation at oxygen-sapping altitudes of 3000-plus metres. But also, more importantly, in a figurative sense. Indeed, it is difficult to describe the sheer exhilaration attached to first setting eyes on these enormous animals, whose inherent bulk – up to three times as heavy as the average man – is exaggerated by their shaggily luxuriant black coats. Yet despite their fearsome size and appearance, gorillas are remarkably peaceful creatures, gentle giants who frequently take a break from chomping on bamboo to study their human visitors with soft brown eyes that seem to seek out a connection. The poignancy of the encounter is only heightened by the realisation that fewer than 900 of these magnificent apes still survive, divided between the slopes of the Virungas and Uganda’s Bwindi Impenetrable National Park.
• Fly KQ To Kigali
Boat… through Botswana’s lush Okavango Swamp
Botswana’s Okavango is a unique game viewing destination. Centred on the 12,000 sq km inland delta formed by the Kavango River as it is swallowed by the sands of the Kalahari, this vast, swampy wilderness is best explored in a mokoro, a type of traditional dugout canoe that local polers navigate, gondola-like, through the narrow, shallow channels.
Large mammals are prolific. Exciting close-up encounters with crocs and hippos are all but guaranteed, and the swamps also host large elephant and buffalo herds, while the larger islands and surrounding bush provide refuge to lions, African wild dogs and other large predators. The birdlife is a treat: tiny jewel-like malachite kingfishers, gargantuan goliath herons, mixed flocks of ibis and stork, as well as the near-endemic slaty egret, to name but a few. But, above all, perhaps, it is the peaceful, almost other-worldly atmosphere of this near-pristine, aquatic paradise that makes this vast inland delta so memorable and unique.
• Fly KQ To Gabarone
Step… back in time in historic Ethiopia
A quartet of venerable towns inscribed as UNESCO World Heritage Sites form the core of Ethiopia’s historic circuit. There’s ancient Axum, where engraved ten-storey-high obelisks tower above the fourth-century church that legendarily houses the lost Ark of the Covenant. There’s medieval Lalibela and its labyrinthine complex of thirteen rock-hewn churches and chapels, excavated in the 12th century, and still active shrines of worship today. There’s Gondar, the so-called ‘Camelot of Africa’, with its majestic 17th-century stone castles set below the 4500-plus- metre peaks of the Simien Mountains. Last, but not least, there’s the bustling walled citadel of Harar, whose Arabic name Madinat al-Awilya – ‘City of Saints’ – reflects its status as the fourth-holiest city of the Islamic world after Mecca, Medina and Jerusalem.
• Fly KQ To Addis Ababa
Explore… the exotic Spice Island of Zanzibar and the Swahili Coast
East Africa’s Swahili Coast has been one of the world’s great cultural melting pots since the Pharaonic Era, when Egyptian boats sailed there regularly to barter for gold, ivory, frankincense and other goods. Today, the mystique of the Swahili Coast is encapsulated by Zanzibar, the evocatively named ‘spice island’ whose timeworn Stone Town is a knot of narrow, winding, aromatic alleys lined by traditional Arabia-meets-Africa Swahili facades.
The Indian Ocean coastline is dotted with many other, though less well known, enclaves of traditional Swahili culture. The laid-back, labyrinthine port of Lamu, practically unchanged in shape or appearance for centuries, is possessed of an architectural and cultural integrity that borders on the spiritual. There are lost cities such as Kilwa or Gedi, whose crumbling jungle-swathed mosques and palaces are all that survive of ports that thrived on a maritime trade with Arabia and Asia prior to the 16th-century arrival of the Portuguese.
• Fly KQ To Zanzibar
Witness… the annual wildebeest migration in Kenya’s Masai Mara
The Masai Mara is Kenya’s most celebrated safari destination, supporting high densities of lion, cheetah, leopard and hyena throughout the year, along with an all-star cast of ungulates ranging from giraffe and zebra to buffalo and eland. But game viewing peaks between August and October, when up to two million wildebeest stream into Kenya from Tanzania. The wildebeest migration culminates with a series of hazardous but spectacular crossings of the Mara River. Prior to a crossing, tens of thousands of wildebeest might congregate on the river bank, vacillating noisily for several days until one impulsive individual takes the plunge, triggering an adrenalin-charged lemming-like stampede. The drama of the crossing is heightened by the realisation that this truly is a life or death experience. Every year, something like 3000 individual wildebeest perish during the crossings, trampled or trapped in deep water, or picked off by an orgiastic frenzy of gape-mouthed crocodiles. Fortunately, numbers are quickly replenished over the calving season of January and February, when some 400,000-plus wildebeest are born annually.
• Fly KQ To Nairobi
Raise… a glass to South Africa’s scenic Cape Winelands
Studded with historic towns and fertile cultivated valleys enclosed by craggy sandstone peaks, the Boland (literally ‘Upland’), inland of Cape Town, ranks among the most beautiful parts of South Africa. It also lies at the heart of a burgeoning viniculture industry renowned for offering world-class wines at pocket-friendly prices. Literally hundreds of different wine estates open their gates daily for wine-tasting sessions, and many are serviced by world-class restaurants specialising in succulent, free-range lamb from the nearby Karoo, or seafood from the nearby West Coast. Perennial favourites include the family friendly Spier Estate, or historic Vergelegen and Boschendal, both founded in the late 17th century and set around gracious old-world Cape Dutch manors. Wherever you stop, treat yourself to a Pinotage, a uniquely South African grape that produces a deep, fruity, purple wine typical of the Cape.
• Fly KQ/Kulula To Cape Town