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Must see locations, events and places to travel and enjoy in Africa.
Must see locations, events and places to travel and enjoy in Africa.
Sometimes you have to leave home to find the perfect house. Or more specifically, Herman House, a stylish boutique hotel in Cape Town, equal parts plush, pampering hideaway and chic city perch. With exceptional personalized service by a staff that closely guards its guests’ privacy and comfort, its the home-away-from-home of choice for discerning luxury travelers seeking an exclusive spot in the cosmopolitan Cape Town. We felt like royalty when we entered the multi-floored mansion, where we were treated with such special attention (as is everyone here), that it truly felt like we had the entire hotel to ourselves.
All amenities — including 24-hour gourmet dining, three-room spa, multimillion dollar contemporary African art gallery and spectacular 7,500-bottle wine cellar — are only accessible to guests staying in the 13 elegant rooms and the two contemporary villas. One of the premier collections of the 20th- and 21st-century African art fills the hallways, public spaces and guestrooms of the property.
Rooms with a View
Cape Town is one of the most scenic spots in the world — fronted by two oceans and framed by both Table and Lion’s Head mountains. The Ellerman House takes advantage of its enviable spot high above the beaches of fashionable Bantry Bay, offering expansive views of the city that we couldn’t get enough of, especially from the lush green lawn and sparkling pool where our gaze extended across Robben Island and onto the deep blue Atlantic Ocean.
The Cape Edwardian mansion that comprises the main hotel is filled with cozy spaces, including two plush dining rooms with large picture windows, a living room with fireplace and spacious guestrooms. Our favorite is Room No. 8, located on its own mini-floor, accessed on either side by a small staircase, with views out over the lawn, pool and the twinkling of the city lights below.
The top accommodations to book here, though, are the two contemporary glass villas filled with art and architecture that reflect both the outstanding views and the modern city. They offer the ultimate in privacy, luxury and service (Oprah recently called them one of her favorite places to stay in the world). Both villas are multi-floor residences that have their own entrances and include the services of a private chef and staff. They also have their own pools and multiple bedrooms and lounge spaces and large kitchens.
Villa 2 has a stunning hand-forged metal winding staircase (a work of art in itself) that connects the interior floors. The top floor has an open steel-and-glass kitchen (perfect for a cooking demo), which sweeps into a chic seating area with glass walls that disappear to create an open living space leading to a rooftop infinity pool and terrace. With a screening room and three large en-suite bedrooms, this villa is a great option for groups of friends traveling together.
Villa 1 is a top option for families (the rest of the property is 14 and above), with a five-bedroom configuration possible (including our favorite of the two villas — a turquoise highlighted space that seems like its floating over the ocean). It has its own elevator and a pool on the middle floor.
Some of the perks we adore here include top-tier chefs who are at guests’ disposal 24 hours a day. In the mood for curry? Want to sample local fish? Have your heart set on a springbok carpaccio? Simply chat with the chef over your perfectly poached eggs in the morning and it will materialize in the antique- and art-filled dining room for dinner. Feeling peckish between meals? The self- serve “Pantry” is open around- the-clock with freshly baked treats (try the decadent millionaires shortbread with its layers of caramel and fudge), sandwiches, and coffee and tea. Guestrooms also come stocked with wine, soft drinks and snacks (we were happy to find dried mango, gourmet chips, cashews and dark chocolate in our snack drawer to accompany a crisp glass of Chen in Blanc as we watched the Technicolor sunset from our balcony).
Note: The abundant breakfast, pantry and room snacks, and evening wine and hors d’oeuvres are included in the room price.
A wine tasting and food pairing with Ellerman’s resident wine expert Melusi Maghodi is another highlight of the property. We especially appreciated sampling a rare 2014 Arendsig Pinot Noir, of which only 2,500 bottles were produced. Tastings are offered in the unique wine cellar that houses a larger-than-life corkscrew sculpture holding 1,500 premier South African wines and a wall created from the actual terroir of the areas vineyards. This is also a spot to book a private dinner or a small dinner party for up to 12 guests.
Since all amenities are only bookable by hotel guests, clients can speak with chefs or spa technicians upon their arrival to request special services — space will always be created for them in the spa or for dinner. Ellerman House can arrange VIP wine tours of local Constantia vineyards as well as the Winelands region, approximately one-hour away, with a private guide and car, as well tours of Cape Towns art galleries.
HAD A VISITOR IN 1958 STOOD ON THE CREST OF BUMI HILLS and peered out through a pair of binoculars, they might have been distracted by the sight of a bare-chested man in a floppy hat attempting to strap an elephant to a wooden raft, Rupert Fothergill was chief game ranger of what was then Rhodesia, now northern Zimbabwe, and charged with relocating wildlife stranded by the rising waters of the newly created Lake Kariba. Grainy footage of the time shows him contending with a number of irregular predicaments: shoulder-deep in water and clutching a wriggling, rabbit-like hyrax in his arms; casually attempting to shoo away a rhino with a wave or two of his hat; and hoisting a bedraggled baboon into a boat by its shoulders.
By the time ‘Operation Noah’ was wound down in 1964, Fothergill and his team had saved over 6,000 animals. Today, horn the vantage point of Bumi, Kariba looks more sea than lake. On the shore, small herds of elephant, buffalo and hippo graze on the jewel-bright grass. Straight ahead, the crumpled, grey hills of Zambia are just visible, but there’s nothing but water to the horizon left and right; the weekly car fern? that traces a steady line through the waves east to west will take a full 24-hours to complete its journey. Over 50 years since it was created, Kariba remains the world’s largest man-made lake. And yet it is seen by some as a temporary blip, one likely to disappear before too long.
In the mythology of the region’s Tonga people, the Zambezi is home to the river god Nyami Nyami. A giant dragon, with the body of a serpent and the head of a fish, Nyami Nyami provides for the Tonga when times are hard. In 1957 and 1958, Zimbabwe suffered the worst floods it had seen in recorded history, twice sweeping away the wall being built to create Lake Kariba. Nyami Nyami is angry, said the Tonga, he does not want the dam. Sightings of a 200-metre-long beast weaving through the lake are still reported in the local papers, and the region’s earthquakes are attributed to the monster crashing against the dam, attempting to reach his wife stranded on the other side.
Local guide Student Muroyiwa grew up with these stories. In clothes with which Fothergill would be well familiar (crisply ironed safari shorts and shirt), he steers his boat among the treetops. Their blackened branches poking out of the water like macabre fingers, the trees are all that re main of a mopane forest that once carpeted the Kariba gorge, lost when the Zambezi was dammed. Cormoran ts settle on their branches, taking to the air only to dip suddenly beneath the surface, while swallows fresh from their summer breaks in Europe hoover up insects above it. Student points to an island named after the last human to leave the valley as the waters rose around him. ‘Mola believed in Nyami Nyami and he knew he didn’t want the dam.
“There’s noway the water will get to my doorstep,” said Mola. But the water started carrying and coming and it came right into his house,’ explains Student. ‘In the end, he just got into his canoe and paddled away.’ Student’s mother Unarie was another who left when the lake was formed, walking 12 miles inland to the resettlement village that was to be the Tongas’ new home. She sits in the shade of her mud-brick house, its roof thatched with bluegrass, tin pots drying in the sun outside. Tomatoes, sweet potatoes, okra and maize grow in the small plots tended by her family. At the edge of their cluster of huts, a look-out tower stands empty; as soon as night falls, one of her grandchildren will climb up and keep watch for marauding lions, hyenas and elephants. ‘I am too old to go to the lake now’, says Unarie, hut my life in the old village was perfect. I never saw Nyami Nyami but I would be more than happy if he wanted to break the wall.’
My hunch that Mfuwe Lodge would suit a first-timer of a certain age is proving correct. Famous for the elephants that, in mango season, parade through reception to feast beneath the tree beyond, it’s also highly professional, with thoughtful staff, a beautiful, unfussy spa and comfortable vehicles — invaluable for anyone with creaky joints or a bad back. After a couple of days of superb wildlife-watching, we agree we’d like to learn more about life out side the park. Bushcamp’s imaginative approach to community engagement earned it a National Geographic World Legacy Award in 2016, but it’s the villagers who are the real winners.
Operations manager Mtimba Zulu guides us around the scattered settlement of Mfuwe, home to secondhand clothes traders — their wares spread on the ground — and businesses with colourful names: Captain Biggie General Dealers, God Is Able Phone Accessories, Pillar of Cloud Restaurant. On a back lane, we chat to women using a borehole funded by the Luangwa Conservation and Community Fund, created by Bushcamp’s director, Andy Hogg. “The pump is a big time-saver, as well as a life-saver,” says Martha Njobvu. “It used to take me three hours a day to bring water from the river.” As we prepare to visit Mfuwe Secondary School, I check how my mother’s holding up, but she’s not flagging. A retired university dental school administrator, she enjoys the company of young people, and smiles with approval as scholarship pupils discuss their favourite subjects.
On another day, we get creative at Mfuwe’s successful social enterprise Tribal Textiles. Workshop manager Moses Musa gives us a guided tour of the batik and sewing studios, then we settle down with paints and brushes to spend a blissful couple of hours decorating cushion covers. “By creating jobs for local men and women, we’re helping conservation,” says Moses. “With money coming in, people are less inclined to set snares to trap wildlife. But tourism in Zambia dropped last year, and that hit us hard.”
A sour trip unfolds, my mot her delights in the little surprises that safari companies love to spring on their guests, from brunches in the bush to sundowners on the banks of the Kapamba River, a shallow tributary of the Luangwa —its crocodile-free water cooling our feet. Meanwhile, the wildlife continues to wow her. Familiar with Africa from a lifetime of watching nature documentaries, she’s fascinated by the subtleties that film-makers rarely show — tiny harvester termite mounds, for example, and the abstract patterns traced by larvae onto rain tree leaves. Some phenomena are definitely best appreciated in 3D — how an elephant can disappear into a wall of green foliage, why zebra stripes provide perfect camouflage and how similar South Luangwa looks, at certain times of day, to an English pastoral scene.
Encountering everything from excitable hornbills to endangered wild dogs on the prowl, her beginner’s luck is soon proving something of a lucky streak. One evening, near Chindeni — one of the seasonal hideaways that give The Bushcamp Company its name — we spot an aardvark in plain view, a sighting so rare that afterwards we all laugh at the magic of it. It’s as if we’re ticking off the entire safari alphabet, from A to Z. To continue our trip, we fly south to the Lower Zambezi National Park, swooping along the Zambezi itself on our descent. Below, the purple-brown, Paisley-shaped outlines of hippos pattern the shallows. If protected, hippos can live to 50 years of age and on this stretch of river, flanked by national parks, they’re prolific. At our first stop, Chongwe River Camp, they make their presence felt through a round-the-clock chorus of chuckles and honks, like louche old men telling jokes in the bar.
Our other neighbours, to our delight, are a colony of white-fronted bee-eaters, whose aerial ballet plays out over the bank near our glamorous tented suite. Even they deliver something unexpected — when a monitor lizard appears, they switch into battle formation, mobbing it so fiercely it buries its head in an old burrow to escape. With fresh water at its feet, graceful mahogany and winter thorn trees shading its banks and russet hills at its back, Lower Zambezi is one of the most beautiful swathes of wilderness in the region and indeed in Africa. Once the private hunting reserve of Zambia’s first president, Kenneth Kaunda, it’s now a conservation powerhouse; as of 2016, it’s also Africa’s first carbon neutral national park. The engine behind its success is Conservation Lower Zambezi (CLZ), which runs educational workshops for local school children and helps villagers tackle the challenges of living alongside elephants and predators. CEO Ian Stevenson chats to us about its latest project: a programme to train local dog handlers who’ll be deployed on wildlife protection patrols.
By the time we reach our last camp, it’s hard not to brag about how much we’ve experienced. But Chiawa Camp is a place that makes you feel refreshed, it’s as if we’re starting our trip all over again. Grant Cumings, a co-founder of CLZ, launched Chiawa with his father, Dave, and brother, Kevin, in 1991, when Lower Zambezi was st ill in shock from the loss of many of its black rhinos and many of its elephants to poachers. Originally pretty basic, now its luxurious tents are full of pleasingly old-fashioned touches. Conservation informs everything Grant’s team does. “For years, we’ve been working towards bringing back rhinos to Lower Zambezi. It’ll take a high degree of collaboration, but we’ve proved that’s feasible. I’m hopeful the time will come,” he says.
We enjoy gentle drives and serene boat trips, watching elephants inch down the riverbank to drink. Finally, it’s our last evening with head guide Daniel Susiku, and we’re conscious we have a record to maintain — a leopard a day. Sure enough, we encounter a beautiful female, reclining like a sphinx beside the track. As Daniel turns the vehicle to leave, our tracker urges him to stop. In an instant, the leopard has sprinted across the clearing and pounced on a male impala considerably bigger than her. Astonished at her strength, we watch her bring him down, only for a pair of thieving hyenas to barge in. We drive away, railing at the injustice of life in the bush. But there’s a post script to this. Word later reaches us that a nearby herd of elephants, fearful for their young, came thundering up, scaring the hyenas away from the kill and allowing the leopard a chance to return. My mother, who likes a happy ending, is delighted. And so, I have to admit, am I.
On safari, every day brings fresh discoveries. Elephants as bulky as ambulances file silently through the bush. Hippos wallow in weed-covered pools, clumped together like dumplings in soup. Rival impalas clash horns with shocking force, while others pronk and stare. Fish eagles screech, starlings shimmer in the glare and lions stagger into the shade to snooze. But the best things of all? They happen when you least expect them to. It’s an hour or so past sunset, the last rays have ebbed away and we’re motoring slowly back to our lodge.
Beyond the sandy track, the visible world has shrunk to a patchwork of shadows, swept by the beam of our spotlight. Occasionally, we pick out a glimmer of eye shine: a wakeful antelope, or a scrub hare quivering in the grass. Frogs clink and quoip from a nearby lagoon and our noses twitch, alert to the cool, damp aromas of night. Suddenly, there’s a flash of movement. Like lightning, a trio of zebra dash across our path, lit first by the beam, then by our headlights.
Manda Chisanga, our driver and guide from The Bushcamp Company, brakes swiftly. “There must be a cat on their tail!” he whispers. The zebra are in tight formation: a mare, a stallion and between them, sprinting for dear life, a tiny youngster. In a split second, their pursuer appears, a blur of sinew, muscle and spots. It’s a leopard. The stallion kicks out and the cat, foiled, stalls. “That baby could have been born today,” says Manda. “Welcome to the world, little zebra! Looks like you’ve passed your first test.” My mother, who’s in the front beside Manda, is beyond excited. Her eyes are out on stalks. We’re exploring the world-class South Luangwa National Park, where leopards thrive. But we hadn’t dared hope to see one on our first evening, let alone in such dramatic circumstances. Sightings oft his calibre don’t happen every day, even here.
“Trust you to have world-class beginner’s luck!” I say. I’m fortunate to have been on safari many times, but for my mother, aged 73, this is a first — her first safari, her first visit to Africa, her first journey south of the equator. You wouldn’t guess it, though. Fascinated by everything, she’s in her element, chatting knowledgeably with Manda and revelling in every experience.
For me, our adventure is a first in a different way. My mother and I have travelled together before, lapping up art exhibitions and lingering in cafes in European cities. But this is my first chance to show her a different world, one I love with a passion. In the process, I’m hitting refresh on an experience I know well. By sharing a safari with someone I’ve known all my life, I’m seeing Africa with new eyes.
Zambia offers its visitors two of Africa’s mightiest rivers, the Zambezi and its tributary the Luangwa. Back in the 1990s, when The Bushcamp Company started running safaris beside the Luangwa and two of Africa’s best riverbank camps, Chiawa Camp and Chongwe River Camp, opened in the Lower Zambezi National Park, Zambia wasn’t an obvious destination for first-timers. Most stuck to Kenya and Tanzania; the adventurous few who travelled further south typically chose Zimbabwe or, if they had deep pockets, Botswana and South Africa. It was only when Zimbabwe’s tourism industry collapsed in the early 2000s that neighbouring Zambia stepped into the spotlight with a safe, competitive alternative. These days, its best safari hideouts are classics in their own right — rustic, intimate and committed to excellence in guiding and conservation.
Unlike many African countries, Zambia allows night drives in its national parks — a treat if you’re intrigued by the dark and its pungent, velvety mysteries. Zambian safari operators have a knack for bringing tourists and locals together through sensitive, effective development projects. I’m aware that, although reasonably fit, my mother isn’t interested in Zambia’s more famous speciality, walking safaris — pioneered by legendary local guides like Norman Carr, Phil Berry and Robin Pope.
An eager traveller, my mother took to our pre-departure preparations with minimal fuss — getting jabs, asking neighbours to water her plants, buying anti-malarials at Asda and insurance from her bank. Once you’re over 65, travelling carries hidden costs. Even with a loyalty discount, my mother’s single-trip policy was well over twice the price of my annual premium. Undaunted, she paid up and worked through our packing list. The promise of same-day laundry meant we didn’t need much, but on safari, clothes in neutral tones are best. Blue and black attract tsetse flies and bright or pale colours stand out too much, even if you’re not going walking. “That’s my entire summer wardrobe out, then,” said my mother. A shopping trip ensued.
Primed for strict luggage limits, my mot her proved expert at packing light. Before we checked in at Heathrow, she pulled out a few items to ask my advice. I’d recommended a sun hat that wouldn’t blow off in an open vehicle, so she’d sewn ribbons onto hers. “Brilliant,” I said, feeling like a teacher checking my pupil’s coursework. She t hen produced three types of insect repellent, bought in a rare wobble of indecision. “Let’s just take them all,” I said, feeling a sudden need to preserve all my mental energy for the journey ahead.
I needn’t have worried. My mother coped patiently with our three flights, despite her artificial hip causing a frenzy of beeping at each security check. She loved people-watching at the airport in Nairobi, her first taste of real-life, modern-day Africa — a mishmash of travellers in smart heels, showy trainers, urban sportswear and elaborate traditional gowns. By the time we arrived at Mfuwe Lodge and Manda greeted us like old friends, I knew everything was going to be fine.
Manda had a suggestion. One of the local schools that Bushcamp sponsors had won a music and dance competition and was holding an impromptu concert to celebrate. Would we like to drop in? Tired but keen, we said yes. So we found ourselves in the schoolyard of Chiwawatala Primary School among ranks of radiant children, their faces glowing as their friends and teachers sang and danced. It was the best welcome we could have imagined.
Several strands of Kenya’s past meet at Mombasa’s Fort Jesus junction. On one side is the entrance to the medieval Arab town, and on the other the colonial-style members-only Mombasa Club. Oddly, the statue in the traffic island here immortalises not some great historic Kenyan figure, but the local tradition of roadside coffee or kahawa, with a giant golden coffee pot.
Mombasa was settled by the Swahili people nearly 2,000 years ago, but its customs have been shaped by the monsoon winds that brought maritime traders from near and far. Kenya’s second-largest city after Nairobi bears the cosmopolitan influence of its Bantu, Arab, Indian, Persian, Portuguese, and British inhabitants. Today, people are still drawn to Mombasa from all over the world, for its bounteous beaches, the warm waters of the Indian Ocean, and its access to some of the world’s best national parks teeming with wildlife.
I rendezvous with Taibali Hamzali, an architect with a yen for heritage conservation, who has been working towards preserving the buildings and ethos of old Mombasa. A friend of a friend, Taibali grew up in the Old Town and couldn’t be a better guide to its intimate alleyways. We convene at Fort Jesus, a 16th-century citadel and a UNESCO World Heritage Site built by the Portuguese and a popular meeting point for walking tours. The Old Town Tourist Guides Association, with its reliable registered guides is located here.
A map of the Old Town at the entrance to Ndia Kuu, or Main Street, indicates various walking routes. I marvel at the dainty single-storey houses with balconies and balustrades, ornately carved doors, and even some art deco architecture. The scene is reminiscent of small-town colonial India. Taibali tells me that indeed this waterfront settlement is a rich amalgam of the Arab-Omani, Indian, and British cultures that touched these shores, and left their mark on the country. Though mostly privately owned, the residential buildings are bound by heritage conservation laws. Still, some have been sold to unscrupulous builders and demolished. I am awed by the fretwork balconies and the teak doors with brass studs. Adorned with inscriptions of Koranic calligraphy and floral vines, these were the handiwork of the Kutchi craftsmen who were early immigrants from India.
Meandering through lanes flanked by heritage homes, we come across the 16th-century Mandhry Mosque, believed to be the oldest mosque still in use in the city. Its obelisk-like minaret once served as a beacon to medieval Arab dhows, guiding them into the Old Port. “Old Town Mombasa grew as an Islamic trading post,” says Taibali, “and by the 1900s, finely-crafted stone buildings had been constructed along the main streets.”
The Old Post Office was constructed in 1899, in the British colonial style of arched windows and rich plasterwork decoration. It is from here that Indian indentured labourers sent news and money to their families. The post office is at Government Square, one of Old Town’s few open spaces and the perfect vantage from which to watch boats dotting the harbour. According to a plaque, such “small coastal trading vessels” sailed up and down Africa for thousands of years. I am intrigued by an unmarked door on a periphery wall abutting the ocean and Taibali reveals a darker side to the old port’s history: It was a departure point for slaves being sent to Zanzibar, East Africa’s main slave market.
Further north stands majestic Leven House, seat of the erstwhile British colonial administration, where missionaries such as Johann Ludwig Krapf, and 19th-century explorers John Speke and Richard Burton once stayed. Named after a British ship which ran anti-slaving patrols off the coast of the city, the renovated building now houses the Mombasa Old Town Conservation Office.
Outside, in the narrow lanes, Swahili women in loose floor-length buibui gowns or boldly floral patterned khangas (sarongs) and men wearing kikois (lungis) and kanzus (long white tunics) sell souvenirs to tourists. Most of the buildings have curio shops on the ground floor. Though kitschy, many of these shops or dukas have good local handicrafts and items such as brass coffee pots.
I mull over my day while sipping kahawa by a painted glass window in the Jahazi Coffee House. More than a café, Jahazi is a cultural meeting ground. Like other words in Swahili which have been borrowed from Persian, Arabic, or Hindustani, jahaz is a familiar term meaning ship. With its carved wooden benches and tables from Lamu, Persian carpets and settees, it offers the ideal setting from which to watch the world go by. Make sure you get a plate of crisp Swahili samosas and kahawa, the signature spice and ginger-laced coffee. I imagine a traditional coffee seller with his trademark brass coffee pot and brazier full of coals peddling the strong brew to the idlers unwinding by the ocean.
AN EVENING IN FORT JESUS
Amid coconut palms and almond trees, boys in red jerseys play football by the four-century-old Fort Jesus. Fought over by the Omani Arabs and the Portuguese—the latter aided by men from their colony of Goa—the fort eventually fell to the British. It stands testament to the violent history of Mombasa, once called the “island of war.” In the late 19th century, after the city became the headquarters of the East Africa Protectorate, the British took control of the place and transformed it into a prison and it retained that avatar up until 1958 when it was designated a national park. Kenya gained independence in 1963 and Fort Jesus finally became a protected national monument. It was deemed a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2011. I watch the ocean waves crash against its walls as the retreating sun freezes the moment into a perfect picture.
On day two, I head to 3, modern Mombasa’s top-rated attraction. An emerald oasis sprung out of the derelict landscape of a spent limestone quarry, the park was mooted four decades ago by Swiss naturalist Dr. Rene Haller as part of the Bamburi Cement Company’s philanthropic efforts. The 200 hectares include a modest game sanctuary which is home to giraffes, cape buffalo, elands, and hippopotamuses, most of which are orphans or have been rescued. Arrive early to comfortably walk through the park.
While it is possible to explore on your own, it’s not a bad idea to hire a guide if you want to manage your time more efficiently and still discover interesting things. One of the highlights of this park is the giraffe feeding. On cue, the tall animals amble from the thicket towards a spectator gallery. Visitors feed them food pellets provided by the park for a nominal charge, and are kissed by the lanky ungulates in turn.
BOMBOLULU AND AKAMBA
The best shopping experience in Mombasa is at Akamba Handicrafts, a co-operative of craftsmen from the Akamba tribe. The craftspeople work in tiny shacks behind the main shop and visitors can watch them carve intricate masks. The shop is chock-a-block with every conceivable type of Kenyan craft: ebony and rosewood masks, life-size sculptures of Maasai and Samburu warriors, soapstone curios, batiks of African landscapes, beadwork baskets and jewellery. (Off Port-Reitz Road, Changamwe; +254 41 3432241; www. akambahandicraftcoop.com.)
The non-profit Bombolulu Workshops and Cultural Centre runs a smaller set-up than Akamba, where physically challenged people make jewellery and woodcarvings. The cultural centre showcases folk dances and recreated homesteads of diverse Kenyan tribes. Some may find it a tad gimmicky, however, the organization’s social and charity work makes it worth a visit.
THE IRON SNAKE
The British East Africa Company inaugurated their ambitious plan to extend their power across Africa with the building of the Kenya-Uganda Railway in the 1890s. The unimaginable scale of this project led to monikers like the “Lunatic Express,” while the Africans called it the “Iron Snake” that crept across their land. Construction started in Mombasa and the line gradually extended across the country all the way to Kampala in Uganda. Mombasa due to its importance as a port was where the first station was built. It is also interesting that the large Indian diaspora in Mombasa and Kenya owes it existence to this railway as Indian labourers were brought in by the British to work on this line.
Though not on the tourist track, Mombasa’s old station is an interesting pit stop for the die-hard romantic who wants to hark back to the glory days of colonial rail travel. Charles Miller’s book The Lunatic Express: An Entertainment in Imperialism fills in the gaps where the old railway station falls short. For those looking for an immersive experience, a classic overnight sleeper train called the Jambo Kenya Deluxe runs from this station to Nairobi twice a week. The journey is a throwback to the style of the colonial elite as they travelled between the two cities.
North Mombasa is full of hotels sitting smack on the beach. In the evening, places like Sarova Whitesands, Serena, Florida Nightclub & Casino and Bamburi become prime nightlife destinations for live shows and parties. On a night out, try the Kenyan favourite, Tusker beer, or pick from a range of South African wines. A more romantic night out can be had on a Tamarind Dhow Dinner Cruise. The Tamarind Dhow is a floating restaurant with excellent seafood. Imagine the view from an immigrant or trader’s perspective centuries ago, and soak in the skyline, the modern melding with the old.
The oldest surviving building in South Africa, the Castle of Good Hope was built by the Dutch East India Company between 1666 and 1679, replacing an earlier clay and timber fort erected by Commander Jan van Riebeeck in 1652. The castle overlooks Cape Town’s Grand Parade and is now home to a military museum, an art collection, and a banqueting hall; it is also the headquarters for Cape Army regiments.
The castle houses the famous William Fehr Collection of paintings, decorative arts, and furniture. Dr. Fehr (1892-1968) was a local businessman who started collecting colonial pictures and objects at a time when the practice was unusual. His collection now forms an invaluable record of many aspects of social and political life in the Cape, from the early days of the Dutch East India Company (VOC in Dutch) to the end of the 19th century. In addition to landscape paintings by the English artists Thomas Baines and William Huggins, there is 17th-century Japanese porcelain and 18th-century Indonesian furniture
In April 1652, the Dutchman Jan van Riebeeck arrived at the Cape with about 80 men and women to establish a staging post for the Dutch East India Company This was needed to provision the Dutch ships plying the lucrative trade route between Europe and Asia. Despite setbacks (20 men died during that first winter), the station eventually flourished and began to provide ships with meat, milk, and vegetables. However, rivalry with the indigenous Khoina people over water and grazing soon turned into open hostility and bitter wars followed.
The design of the castle was influenced by the work of the French military engineer Vauban, who was employed at the court of King Louis XIV. Pentagonal in shape, it has five defensive bastions from which the outside walls could be defended by cross-fire. The original entrance faced the sea, but it was moved to its present position in 1684. From the beginning, the castle was intended as a base for the Dutch East India Company in the Cape. Over the years, buildings were erected inside the courtyard, and a defensive 39-ft (12-m) high inner wall was built across it. Today, this area is the site of the William Fehr Collection. The castle also housed facilities to support a community, with living quarters, a church, a bakery, offices, and a jail with a torture chamber. In the 1930s, a new banqueting hall was created from a series of rooms on an upper floor.
The original bell, cast in Amsterdam in 1697, still hangs in the belfry . The coat of arms of the United Netherlands can be seen on the pediment above the gate.
Slate was taken from a quarry on Robben Island in the 17th century and used as paving material inside the castle.
Below the Nassau Bastion was the site where prisoners were tortured, in accordance with the Dutch law that required a confession before sentencing.
Sections of the moat were rebuilt in 1992 as part of an extensive restoration program.
Descriptions and sketches made by Lady Anne Barnard in the 1790s enabled the reconstruction of the Dolphin Pool more than 200 years.
William Fehr Collection
Reached via the De Kat Balcony, this includes historical paintings and period furniture. Other works give an insight into the lives of early settlers.
A teak copy of the original VOC gable features martial symbols: a banner, flags, drums, and cannon balls.
The bastions are named after the main titles held by Prince William III of Orange-Nassau-Leedram, Catzenellenbogen, Burren, Oranje, and Nassau.
De Kat Balcony
Built in 1695 as a part of the inner wall, this has a bas-relief sculpture by Anton Anreith. During the Dutch colonial era, it was the site for greetings visitors and reading out judicial sentences.
Castle Military Museum
On display is an array of military artifacts, including weapons and uniforms from the VOC and British periods in the Cape.
In 1602, the Dutch East India Company (Verenigde Oostindische Compagnie, or VOC) was founded to trade with Asia, mainly for its prized spices. Hugely successful and powerful, by 1669 the company had a fleet of 150 merchant ships and 40 warships.
1652: The first Dutch settlers, under the command of Jan van Riebeeck, land on the Cape.
1666-79: The settlers build a stone castle to replace van Riebeeck’s earlier timber fort.
1795: Rule by the Dutch East India Company (VOC) en ds an d British forces occupy the Cape.
1952: Part of the William Fehr art collection moves to t he Castle of Good Hope.
With its striking facade and unique architectural style, the Djenne Mosque ranks among the most unusual and beautiful buildings in the world. This large, mud-brick structure is typical of the special African-lslamic “marriage” found on the continent, in which African societies have molded Islam to fit their own traditional beliefs, values, and concerns.
A mosque is usually constructed with the finest materials available, but the Djenn6 Mosque is made with sun-baked mud (also known as adobe or pisé), which, in the skilled hands of the Mali master- masons, has resulted in one of the most remarkable expressions of faith in Africa.
Djenne’s first mosque was built in 1280 by Koi Konboro, the 26th king of Djenne, following his conversion to Islam. As a demonstration of his allegiance to his new faith, the king had his royal palace knocked down and the mosque constructed on its site Konboro’s mosque survived until the early 19th century, when the fundamentalist Islamic king, Cheikou Amadou, eager to reinforce local Islamic religious practices, allowed it to fall into disrepair. He built a more austere mosque close by (now the site of an Islamic religious school). In 1907, the French administration in the town arranged for the original mosque to be rebuilt into the mud- brick structure seen today.
With its thick, battlemented walls and towers, and the peculiar “spiked” appearance of the projecting wooden beams, the mosque looks more like a fortress than a religious building. Its imposing exterior is made up of three sloping minarets, which stand over 33 ft (10 m) high, some towers, and a large base, accessible via a number of stepped entrances The interior is not accessible to non-Muslims, but views of it can be had from the roofs of nearby houses. The art and skills of the masons have been handed down from generation to generation since the 15th century. The master-masons still mix the mud mortar by foot, and shape the mud bricks by hand. A simple iron trowel is their only tool, and is used for cutting the bricks and levelling the walls.
Founded in 1250 on one of the ancient trans-Saharan trade routes, Djenne quickly grew into a thriving center of commerce, attracting merchants from across Africa. Textiles, brass, ceramics, and copperware were exchanged for Sahel gold, ivory, and precious Saharan salt. By the end of the 13th century, Islam had also arrived, brought to Djenne by Muslim merchants from Worth Africa, and the first mosque was built. By the 14th century, Djenne had become an important center of Islamic learning, and also one of the wealthiest and most cosmopolitan towns in sub-Saharan Africa.
Giving the mosque its distinctive “spiked” appearance, the palm beams not only support the mud walls, but also serve as a kind of permanent scaffolding for the annual repairs. Visually, they also relieve the solidity of the structure.
A colorful market is set up in front of the Djenne Mosque every Monday, attracting traders from the surrounding area. Djenne and its region are famous for the mud cloth sold here, known as bogolan.
Three Sloping Minarets
These are used by the muezzin (mosque official) to call the faithful to prayer. Staircases inside each minaret lead directly to the roof.
The annual restoration of the mosque is a communal concern, with up to 4,000 townspeople taking part in the work. Specialized masons called bareys (a builder-magician caste dating back to the 15th century) carefully oversee the work.
Pillars and Roof
A forest of 90 wooden pillars supports the roof, which is perforated with small vents to allow light and air to penetrate. In the rainy season, the holes are covered with ceramic caps.
The large base on which the mosque sits raises it some 10ft (3 m) above the market area, and separates it both physically and symbolically from the pedestrian and profane activities of the marketplace.
Inside the mosque, the impressive prayer hall, with its sandy floor, is covered by a wooden roof supported by nearly 100 pillars.
The elements cause damage to the Djenne Mosque. Rainwater erodes the walls and damp can weaken the structure. Extreme temperatures and humidity also cause stress to the building. However, a yearly replastering helps keep the mosque in good shape.
c. 1250—1300: Djenne town is founded on the Bani River and the first mosque is built.
1300-1468: Djenne resists attacks by the M ali empire, remaining an independent city-state.
1468: The Song hay empire, one of the lar gest in Africa’s history, captures and annexes Djenne.
1591: Djenne is taken by Morocco as part of its campaign to drive the Song hay empire out of the region.
1819: Cheikou Amadou abandons the old mosque and builts a new one on a different site.
1907: A third mosque is built on the foundations of the 13th century original.
1988: Djenne Mosque is declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Hewn out of a solid cliff in the 13th century BC, the Great Temple of Abu Simbel and the smaller Temple of Hathor are a breathtaking sight. Although dedicated to the patron deities of Egypt’s great cities — Amun of Thebes, Ptah of Memphis, and Ra-Harakhty of Heliopolis — the Great Temple was built to honor Ramses II. Its 108-ft (33m) high facade, with four colossal enthroned statues of Ramses II wearing the double crown of Upper and Lower Egypt, was intended to impress and frighten, while the interior revealed the union of gods and king.
When the Aswan Dam proved too small to control the floodwaters of the Nile River, the Egyptian government built the High Dam and created Lake Nasser as a reservoir But the rising waters of the lake threatened to submerge Abu Simbel. Concern that the temples might be lost led UNESCO to back an international relief program, and in 1964 an ambitious four-year operation began, to move the two monuments to safety The temples, complete with their artifacts, were cut into 950 blocks and transferred to a higher site against the backdrop of an artificial mountain (relocated temples).
Three of the four 65-ft (20m) high statues — the Ramses II Colossi — gaze southward to deter even the most determined of the pharaoh’s enemies. Their enormous size is thought to represent Ramses’ divinity as a supreme god. The gods and Ramses’ family feature prominently among the other statues. At the feet of the colossi stand figures of the pharaoh’s mother, his wife, Queen Nefertari, and the royal children. Above the entrance to the Great Temple is the falcon-headed statue of the Sun god Ra-Harakhty Hapi, the god of the Nile flood, who is associated with fertility, is featured holding lotus and papyrus, symbols of Upper and Lower Egypt respectively.
Graphic wall paintings and reliefs found in the Great Temple of Abu Simbel and the Temple of Hathor glorify Ramses II as a divine ruler. They tell of his victories and show him fighting his enemies. In the Temple of Hathor, Nefertari’s consecration as divine queen is illustrated. Surrounding the paintings and reliefs are detailed rows of hieroglyphs. This pictorial script, thought to have developed around 3200 BC, is the world’s oldest known form of writing. The word “hieroglyph” means “sacred carved letter” and a complex system of 6,000 symbols was used by the ancient Egyptians to write their names and express their religious beliefs. Stories of the lives of Ramses and Nefertari have been engraved in this way on the wall s of Abu Simbel.
Great Temple Facade
Buried in sand for centuries, this facade was discovered in 1813 by the Swiss explorer Johann Ludwig Burckhardt.
The second statue on the left lost its head in an earthquake in 27 BC.
Ramses II Colossi
Accompanied by carved images of captives from the north and south, the four colossi on the facade boast of a unified Egypt Ramses’ name adorns the thrones in cartouche form.
The facade is topped by a frieze of 22 baboons, their arms raised, supposedly worshiping the rising Sun.
Scenes showing Ramses and Nefertari making offerings to Amun and Ra-Harakhty adorn this area.
Relocated Temples at Abu Simbel
In the 1960s, as Lake Nasser threatened to engulf the temples, UNESCO cut them from the mountain and moved them to an artificial cliff 688ft (210m) back from and 213 ft (65 m) above their original position
Ramses II sits with the gods Ra-Harakhty, Amun-Ra, and Ptah in the Inner Sanctuary of the Great Temple, which is shrouded in darkness for most of the time. On two days of the year, however, the Sun’s rays reach three of these once gold-covered statues.
Battle of Qadesh
Reliefs inside the hypostyle hall show Ramses II defeating Egypt’s enemies, including, on the right-hand wall, the defeat of the Hittites in the Battle of Qadesh c. 1275 BC.
The roof of this hall is supported by pillars with colossi in Osiride form – carrying crook and flail. Those on the southern pillars wear the Upper Egypt crown, while the northern ones wear the double crown of Upper and Lower Egypt.
These held offerings to the gods and ritual items.
Dedicated to the goddess Hathor, deity of love, pleasure, and beauty, the smaller temple at Abu Simbel was built by Ramses II to honor his favorite wife, Nefertari. The temple’s hypostyle hall has Hathor-headed pillars and is decorated with scenes or Ramses slaying Egypt’s enemies, with Nefertari looking on. The vestibule shows the royal couple making offerings to the gods.
In ancient Egypt, the Sun was considered to be the source of all life and the temple was positioned to allow a shaft of sunlight into the Inner Sanctuary twice a year – possibly at the time of Ramses’ birthday in February and his coronation day in October. The rays lit all but the statue of Ptah, god of darkness.
1257 BC: Ramses II carves out the Great Temple and Temple of Hathor.
1817: The Egyptologist Giovanni Battista Belzoni ventures inside the temples.
1822: Jean-Francois Champollion cracks the code to decipher Egyptian hieroglyphs.
1968: The work to reposition Abu Simbel is completed.
1979: Abu Simbel is declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
The facts and figures about Pharaoh Khufu’s pyramid, commonly referred to as the Great Pyramid, are staggering.
It was the tallest building in the world until the 19th century, and the precision with which it was built, using simple surveying tools, is remarkable: the greatest difference in length between the four 756-ft (230m) high sides is just 2 inches (5 cm). The construction methods and exact purpose of some of its chambers and shafts are unknown, but the architectural achievement is clear. The pyramid is estimated to contain over two million blocks of stone weighing on average 2.5 tons, with some weighing as much as 15 tons.
Dating back to 2500 BC and positioned at the entrance to the Pyramid of Khafre, the Sphinx is the earliest known ancient Egyptian sculpture. It stands 66 ft (20 m) high, with an elongated body, a royal headdress, and outstretched paws. It is carved from an outcrop of natural rock, augmented by shaped blocks around the base added during one of several renovations. It was once thought that the nose of the Sphinx was shot off by Napoleon’s French army, but in reality it was lost before the 15th century.
During the Egyptian 4th dynasty (2613-2498 BC), the Giza Plateau became the royal burial ground for Memphis, capital of Egypt. In less than 100 years, the ancient Egyptians built three pyramid complexes to serve as tombs for their kings. These consisted of the Great Pyramid, the Pyramid of Khafre (r. 2558-2532), and the Pyramid of Menkaure (r. 2532-2530). The Sphinx was added to guard the pyramids, while each king’s close family and royal court were buried in satellite pyramids and mastaba tombs nearby. Of these, one of the most noteworthy is the 6th-dynasty (2345-2181 BC) tomb of Qar, a high-ranking official in charge of maintaining the Giza pyramids. His tomb is decorated with fine reliefs.
The second pharaoh of the 4th dynasty, Khufu (also known as Cheops) probably came to the throne in his 20s and reigned for about 24 years. The Greek historian Herodotus portrayed Khufu as a cruel and oppressive ruler, but this was belied by his posthumous reputation in Egypt as a wise king. Khufu is generally accepted as being the builder of the Great Pyramid — one of the seven wonders of the ancient world. Contrary to popular belief, this massive monument was not built by slaves, but by a conscripted workforce, and its enormous scale is a testament to the pharaoh’s skills in harnessing the material and human resources of his country. Khufu’s tomb was robbed long before archeologists discovered it, and his only likeness is a small ivory statue (statue of Khufu) found at Abydos, to the south of Giza.
This probably served as an escape route for the workers.
The chamber was probably emptied 600 years after being built, but, despite holding only a lidless sarcophagus, it was often broken into by treasure seekers.
These may have been symbolic paths for the king’ s soul to ascend to the stars.
This probably held a statue representing the ka, or life force, of the king.
These three small pyramids were built for members of the king’s family, although the actual identity of their occupants is unknown.
The original entrance is blocked, and a lower opening made by the Caliph Maamun in AD 820 is now used.
Soaring nearly 30 ft (9 m) high, this is thought to have been used as a slipway for the huge blocks that sealed the passageway.
This museum near the Great Pyramid houses a reconstructed solar boat that might have been a funerary barque for Khufu. Discovered in 1954, the boat’s 1, 200 individual pieces took archeologists 14 years to put back together.
2589-2566 BC: Pharaoh Khufu builds the Great Pyramid during his reign.
2555-2530 BC: Construction of the pyramids of Khafre and Menkaure on the Giza Plateau.
1400 BC: The Sphinx is restored for the first time; four more conservation phases follow.
1979: The Giza Plateau is i rise ri bed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
The location of some of the world’s finest Roman remains, Leptis Magna attests to the prosperity and status of the Roman Empire in North Africa. Leptis Magna benefited greatly when Septimius Severus, a native of the city, became Roman emperor in AD 193. During his reign, the population grew to some 70,000 people, and buildings were raised to glorify his name. In the 6th century, attacks by nomadic tribes eventually led to the city’s abandonment, at which point sand dunes engulfed it, presenting the site that is still being excavated today.
A promontory protects the harbor at the mouth of the Wadi Lebdah at Leptis Magna, and it is here that the Phoenicians settled in the 7th century BC. They exploited the fertile hinterland and traded olive oil, ivory, and animal skins throughout the Carthaginian empire and around the Mediterranean. During the early 3rd century AD, under the Roman emperor Septimius Severus, the harbor was rebuilt and enlarged. New quays, half-a-mile (1 km) long, were constructed, with warehouses, a temple, and a watchtower, and a lighthouse was built on the promontory. The mooring blocks on the quay, which were covered in sand soon after completion, have been well preserved.
The Roman ruler Lucius Septimius Severus was born in Leptis Magna in Roman North Africa in AD 146. Regarded as an outstanding soldier, Severus rose to the rank of consul and by 190 he was in command of the legions in Pannonia. Soon after the murder of Emperor Pertinax in 193, Severus was proclaimed emperor, but he had to fight off two rivals to secure his position. He was a strong but popular ruler, who was known for his lavish entertaining. His final campaign was to England in 208 to secure the Roman Empire’s northern border at Hadrian’s Wall. Severus died in York in 211, while preparing to invade Scotland.
Leptis Magna prospered under Roman rule as a major commercial center, but at the beginning of the 3rd century, after the appointment of Septirnius Severus as Roman emperor, the city underwent a transformation. Marble was imported from Asia Minor, Greece, and Italy, granite columns from Egypt, and the limestone buildings took on a grand appearance. In AD 200, Severus built a fine new Severan Forum. At the northeastern end, he constructed the three-aisled Severan Basilica. Its marble pilasters were carved with scenes from the lives of Hercules and Dionysus, his family’s patron gods. The mighty four-sided Arch of Septimius Severus, constructed in white marble, was raised for his visit to the city.
like the market, this vast structure was given to the city by Annobal Rufus. The lower, wider stone steps would have held chairs for distinguished visitors. From the top, the panoramic view of the ancient city is magnificent
This massive double-apsed building, begun during the reign of Severus to house the law courts, was converted into a church by Justinian I in the 6th century, although part of it appears to have served as a synagogue from the 5th century.
A series of vast reliefs of the mythological Greek Gorgon Medusa once adorned the arcade of the Severan Forum.
Once surrounded by arcades and centered on two beautiful kiosks, this grand trading place was endowed by one wealthy citizen, Annobal Rufus, in 9-8 BC.
This baths complex includes an outdoor sports ground (palaestra), hot and warm baths (caldarium and tepidarium), once heated by underfloor fires, and a huge cold bath (frigidarium) with two plunge pools, one still containing water.
This shows the many magnificent buildings erected during the reigns of successive emperors, up to and including Septimius Severus.
To the west of the city lies a group of well-preserved, small domed buildings. Wall paintings indicate they belonged to the hunters who supplied the amphitheaters of the Roman Empire with wild animals.
600 BC: A Phoenician trading post is founded on the site of Leptis Magna.
23 BC: Leptis Magna forms part of the new Roman province of Africa.
523: The city is sacked by Berber Arabs, and by 650 it has been abandoned.
1982: Leptis Magna becomes a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
1994: A new archeological program begins at Leptis Magna.