Africa

Must see locations, events and places to travel and enjoy in Africa.

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A Drive on the Wild Side – Zambia

Set off on a self-drive road trip beneath the big skies of Zambia: roaming among big game by day, pitching under the stars at night and casting off in a canoe at the road’s end

Rules 47-54 of the Zambian Highway Code concern animals. They offer considered advice like: “Do not carry animals on vehicle roof-tops”; “If you have an animal in your car… make sure it cannot disturb you”; and, most worrying of all, “Be careful around larger game animals (which) may charge your vehicle, causing damage and endangering your life.”

For further study on this last point, an excellent resource is YouTube. On YouTube, you can carefully identify hazards such as: monkeys prising windscreen wipers off a Land Rover, a rhino enthusiastically sinking its horn into a Renault Megane, an elephant flipping a minibus on its side. This is all required homework if, like me and photographer Phil Lee Harvey, you are about to set out on a 1,287km road trip across Zambia in a Toyota Land Cruiser, driving unsupervised among the big beasts of the African bush.

“The important thing is to respect all animals,” suggests Mark Geraghty, a representative of 4×4 service Safari Drive, handing me the keys to said Land Cruiser in the parking lot of Lusaka’s airport. “The animals were here before you. Remember: in the wild, anything can happen! ”

Where most safari-goers travel in the company of a knowledgeable guide – on hand to deal with difficult situations, supplying complimentary mints in times of acute crisis – on a self-drive safari, you are your own guide, driver, navigator, cook, first-aider and engineer. Some say self-driving heightens the best elements of safari: the dizzy sense of being truly alone in the wilderness; the tantalising proximity to things that can theoretically slice, stomp on and poison you in terrifying and fascinating ways. There are few places better for such an adventure than Zambia: among the most sparsely inhabited countries in Africa, with remote swathes of forest and grassland bisected by mighty rivers and arrow- straight highways that stretch to the horizon.

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We set out on one such highway, the Great East Road, bound for the wilderness country of South Luangwa National Park. Soon, the chaotic traffic jams of the capital Lusaka retreat behind us. Potholes appear in the road: big craters that jolt the car, send loose items airborne and instantly scramble any eggs stored in the on-board fridge.

These potholes are all the more difficult to dodge when you’re distracted by a landscape of exquisite loveliness. At first, low forested hills rise on all sides, growing taller as the road skirts the border with Mozambique, before lapsing into infinite green plains on the cusp of the Luangwa Valley. Homecoming schoolchildren shuffle along the roadside, bound for villages where bonfire smoke swirls about thatched roofs.

In the market town of Chipata, people sell groundnuts through the car window. A policeman flags us down at a checkpoint for a discussion on Wayne Rooney. Mostly we are alone on the road. Now and then, freight trucks from Malawi, Congo and Zimbabwe barge past (seemingly unsure if Zambians drive on the left or on the right: most going for a compromise option and driving down the middle with horn blaring).

Night descends swiftly, and soon the headlights pick the shapes of sleeping villages out of the gloom. An owl swoops into the glare of the beams. It is many hours before we arrive at the gates of the national park, and the last hiccups of tarmac give way to rusty-brown earth.

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Mosque of Hassan II – Casablanca, Morocco

With a prayer hall that can accommodate 25,000 people, the Mosque of Hassan II is the second-largest religious building in the world after the mosque in Mecca. The complex covers 96,840 sq ft (9,000 sq m), with two-thirds of it built over the sea. The minaret, the lighthouse of Islam, is 656 ft (200 m) high, and two laser beams reaching over a distance of 18.5 miles (30 km) shine in the direction of Mecca. The building was designed by Michel Pinseau and it took 35,000 craftsmen to build it. With carved stucco, zellij tile work, a painted cedarwood ceiling and marble, onyx, and travertine cladding, the mosque is a monument to Moroccan architectural virtuosity.

HASSAN II

Moulay Hassan succeeded to the throne of Morocco on the death of his father in 1961. A skillful politician, he alternated liberalizing policies with repression. He introduced the country’s first constitution in 1962 and parliamentary elections in 1963, but the road to reform was rocky. When Spain withdrew from the mineral-rich Western Sahara in 1975, Hassan initiated the Green March, in which 350,000 civilians crossed the border to assert Morocco’s claim to the region. Spain agreed to the transfer of power, but Algerian-backed Polisario Front guerrillas began a violent campaign for independence. A ceasefire was agreed to in 1991 Hassan II died in 1999.

INSIDE THE MOSQUE

The waterfront Mosque of Hassan II is the crowning glory of the king’s reign. Built for his 60th birthday, the mosque was mainly financed by donations from the Moroccan people. Inside, the massive marble-floored prayer hall sparkles in the glow of Venetian chandeliers. Cedarwood from Morocco’s Middle Atlas range has been shaped and carved to form doors and screens and the paneling of 70 cupolas. Even the sliding roof is painted and gilded. The hammam (traditional bathhouse) is below the prayer hall.

MUSLIM BELIEFS AND PRACTICES

Muslims believe in one God (Allah), and their holy book, the Koran, shares many stories and prophets with the Bible. However, Muslims hold that Jesus was just one in a line of prophets, the last being Mohammed, who brought the final revelation of God’s truth to mankind. Muslims believe that Allah communicated the texts of the Koran to Mohammed through the Archangel Gabriel. Muslims pray five times a day, wherever they may be, and the calls to prayer are broad­cast from the mosque. Those who visit a mosque to pray remove their shoes and wash their feet, head, and hands outside before entering. Inside, women and men pray in separate areas. When praying, Muslims face Mecca in Saudi Arabia.

In a prayer hall, the direction is indicated by the mihrab (a niche in the wall). Kneeling and lowering the head to the ground are gestures of humility and respect for Allah.

Marble

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Used throughout the building on the columns of the prayer hall, doorways, fountains, and stairs – marble is everywhere. It is also sometimes combined with granite and onyx.

Minbar

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The minbar, or pulpit, located at the western end of the prayer hall, is particularly ornate. It is decorated with verses from the Koran.

Prayer Hall

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The vast prayer hall measures 656 ft (200m) by 328 ft (100m). The central part of the roof can be opened to the sky.

Women’s Gallery

Above two mezzanines, and hidden from view, this gallery extends over 57,000 sq ft (5,300 sq m) and can hold up to 5,000 women.

Doors

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Seen from the exterior, these are double doors in the shape of pointed arches framed by column s. Many are clad in incised bronze.

Minaret

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Its vast size it is thetall est minaret in the world – and exquisite decoration make this an exceptional building.

Fountains

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These are decorated with zellij tile work and framed with marble arches and columns.

Windows

Wooden latticework mashrabiya screenwork at tile windows protects those within from prying eyes.

Stairway to tile Women’s Gallery

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The stairway features decorative woodcarving, multiple arches, and marble, granite, and onyx columns, arranged in a harmonious ensemble.

Royal Door

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This is decorated with traditional motifs engraved on brass and titanium.

Dome

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The cedarwood-paneled interior of the dome, over the prayer hall, glistens with carved and painted decoration.

VISITING A MOSQUE

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Unusually in Morocco, the Mosque of Hassan II is open to non- Muslims on guided tours. It is Important for both sexes to dress modestly when visiting the mosque. Shoes should be removed, and shoulders and knees covered . Men must take off their hats and women are asked to cover their hair with a headscarf.

KEY DATES

1980: King Hassan II declares his intention to build a landmark mosque.
1986: Construction begins on the Mosque of Hassan II.
1993: The mosque is finished, four years after the king’s 60th aniversary.

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INVITATION TO EDEN – Okavango Delta

You have to experience the Okavango Delta at least once in your life. Except Botswana is fast moving beyond the ordinary traveller’s pocket. Here’s one trip that makes it a possible dream.

I am lying half-naked swathed in damp hand towels, the journalists’ voices drifting to my tent on a non-existent breeze. ‘Of course there will be a pool/ the burly one had scoffed while we sat sweating outside Maun airport in the 40-degree shade, waiting for our open-topped vehicle. Ha! Trust a travel journalist not to bother with the research. He’s hitting the bottle now, and hard.

Press trips are a far cry from travelling with someone you love. There’s always one you end up hating. Or as I used to say to my daughter before she got old enough to roll her eyes, strongly dislike. The loud, inconsiderate, aggressive, perpetually drunk one. Which could be me at times, so right now I’m keeping to myself, half- nauseous with heat, wondering whether I’m the only one who feels like we’re in some kind of reality TV show; a Surobor for travel journalists, only with no audience to watch us forge allegiances or spectacularly fall out.

Seven journalists – two of them editors – is a fairly large contingency. That’s because no one says no to an invitation to Eden. The 15 000-square-kilometre alluvial fan of water that seeps away into the Kalahari sands is one of the world’s greatest natural phenomena; a wonderland of crystal-clear channels, papyrus-fringed lagoons and lush islands striated with streams on which flowering lilies float like some kitsch jigsaw-puzzle cover.

The landscape is drawcard enough, but the Delta gilds this with an astonishing diversity of species: 1061 plants, 89 fish, 64 reptiles, 482 birds and 130 mammals.

And finally there is the delicate matter of cost: with the Botswana government vigorously pursuing a high-income low-volume tourism policy since the 1990s, the only way to get your bum in the limited beds available is with a wallet stuffed with US dollars. Unless you self-drive and camp (and bookings for public campsites can sell out up to 11 months in advance), a trip to the Delta has slipped beyond middle-class South Africa’s grasp. Which is exactly the gap that Wildside Africa identified.

Having successfully established Bundox Safari Lodge, a fabulous budget camp just outside Hoedspruit, Marinus and Ida Smit expanded their affordable safari concept into Botswana, opening Xobega Island Camp in Moremi Game Reserve and Tuskers Wilderness Camp in a decommissioned hunting concession in April last year.

Tuskers, the only camp in the vast 365 000-hectare NG43 ‘Kwatale’ concession, is our first stop: just six tents in a mind-bogglingly vast and fenceless tract of land between Moremi and Nxai Pan national parks. But with a fairly monotonous mopane-dominated terrain the game viewing – particularly in the November heat – is challenging. Both nights we are periodically woken by lions so close I have to check the zipper on my tent, but we see nothing of them other than the fresh tracks they leave metres from our camp. What we do see plenty of is elephants. Our guide, Pilot Manga, voices the growing conservation concerns around their high numbers: according to the 2016 Great Elephant Census, Botswana is home to 130 451, more than a third of the continent’s elephant. Even without the worst drought in 30 years, an arid country such as Botswana would struggle to sustain such a large population. He stops next to a fine specimen taking a bath in a small pan. The young bull is a natural model – posing mid-motion for the Cruiser-load of travel writers, cameras clicking away like cicadas. We are joking about his modelling fees when we sense movement to our left: a large herd approaching at speed, the smell of water in their trunks. One by one they splash into the pan to drink with intent, low rumbles of contentment drifting towards us over the baked earth.

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An aerial view of Okavango Delta

Prior to Botswana’s 2014 ban on sport and trophy hunting, NG43 was a hunting concession, and Pilot takes us to the site where tuskless elephant corpses were dumped in their hundreds, the large circular tracks in the dust surrounding the forest of bones poignant proof that the living still come to pay their respects to the dead. What kind, what kind…’ our sensitive Sunday Times correspondent mutters, visibly distressed, and there is a bonding of sorts as we wander the killing field, united in our repulsion for humanity’s more macabre pleasures.

Later, we raise our G&Ts to the fact that NG43 will never see another hunter, our faces bathed in the final light of a spectacular sunset. And by the time we reach the giant baobab under which our dinner table is lit with paraffin lanterns, we are well oiled and happy, a small glowing hub in the vast wilderness, laughing under a waning super moon.

It’s a 3.30am wake-up call and the journalist dubbed ‘last-man-standing’ knocks back a double Bacardi and orange juice, then tucks a full bottle of red wine into the pocket traditionally reserved for water. Respect. This is a man to put some welcome perspective on one’s own drinking proclivities. It takes about 90 minutes to reach Moremi Game Reserve, and as the sun rises the landscape becomes increasingly verdant. We stop periodically to gaze across savannah filled with plains game; reed-lined streams plundered by egrets and kingfishers, storks and jacanas, a polyglot of birdsong sweetening the air. We see buffaloes – hunkered together like old disgruntled ladies whose comic ­book hairstyles are hopelessly out of date, but yet again cats prove elusive. This is when you appreciate being on safari with South Africans, and seasoned travel writers at that – there is no whiff of disappointment to sour the pleasure, no desperate charge to tick off some specialist list.

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A lion spotted at Moremi Game Reserve

In fact, there is an audible exhale when we finally reach Mboma Boat Station, and not just because we are reunited with a cooler box full of wine. We are now physically entering the Delta’s otherworldly waterscape: lowered between narrow channels lined with ferns, reeds and papyrus, the tips of each fine hair threaded with seeds that nod like gigantic pompoms, their roots filtering the clear waters we trail our fingers in. As we set off for Xobega Island Camp, two pied kingfishers swoop ahead disturbing a squacco heron who keeps apace with the boat – a most elegant herald.

It is mercifully cool on the water, and tranquil, and when we alight at Xobega, somewhat zoned out, we are serenaded by a crew that are clearly – and quite understandably – happy to be in paradise. We are too. I no longer keep to myself; in fact, I am completely enamoured with my travelling companions, and on our last boat trip I bring the enamel jug from my tent and insist on anointing every member of the tribe with the pure waters of the Delta.

We tool along the waterways, speeding up to avoid hippos that plunge ominously below the surface, disturbing Docks of red-billed queleas that rise like columns of smoke into the sky. And what a sky it is, the kind that artists have for centuries painted in an attempt to capture the presence of God. As we slowly drift into a large lake, it is reflected in the mirror-still waters, and for a perfect moment we find ourselves afloat between two heavens.

Plan your trip

Getting There

Airlink operates direct daily flights from Joburg to Maun and five flights a week from Cape Town. flyairlink.com For those self-driving from Joburg, Maun is best reached by entering Botswana through the Stockpoort border and then the A14 and A3 northwest through Makgadikgadi Pans. Allow three days – it’s about 1 200km in total. Camps can arrange your transfers from Maun, but if you have a 4×4 and want to drive, exit Maun to the northeast towards Mababe. This will get you into the Delta from the west (the only real way in for self-drivers) and up to Moremi South Gate and NG43 (because NG43 is a private concession, self-drivers will need to inform the camp in advance, when booking).

When to Go

Press trips tend to be arranged at times when no one else wants to go, so ours coincided with the two hottest months of the year: October and November. The winter months (May – August) are best: it’s generally drier so you’ll see larger concentrations of game around water sources and more of the Delta is accessible than in the wetter (and hotter) summer months when many roads become too muddy and water crossings unsafe. Camps may also close around this time for maintenance.

Need to Know

South Africans don’t need a visa but you will need your passport, and if you’re driving, vehicle papers and cash to pay for entry and road tax at the border.

Stay Here

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Tuskers Bush Camp, located inside NG43 (also known as Kwatale Concession) to the east of Moremi, comprises six slightly shabby twin-bed Meru-style tents with an en-suite bucket shower and flushing toilet. There is a lounge area, lounge- bar tent and dining tent. Lions and ellies are regular visitors to the area and it makes for a nice precursor to Xobega but is too arid and the terrain too monotonous to be considered Delta proper.

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Xobega Island Camp, inside Moremi Game Reserve, comprises 10 new twin-bed Meru- style tents located undertrees, each with an outdoor ‘bush bathroom’ (delightful bucket shower and unpleasant chemical toilet, though the latter is due to be replaced with a flushing toilet in the first half of 2017).

It’s not luxury but very comfortable, with two lovely lounge areas, a dining tent and fire pit area. Camp manager Innocent Modise runs a tight ship, and it’s a relative bargain. Park fees for self-drivers aren’t included.

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Camp Moremi is one of my favourites inside Moremi Game Reserve, it has 11 enormous, very private Meru-style en-suite tents, each with a great location overlooking Xakanaxa Lagoon. It has the additional benefit of being able to offer its guests game drives and boat trips, and the small plunge pool is another boon.

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Mombo Camp offers an interesting comparison on Delta prices. Admittedly its location on Chief’s island is the best in the Delta, with high concentrations of game, and just nine over- the-top luxury tents. Despite this, it’s perennially popular and you’ll struggle to find space in peak season.

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Road Trip – Southern African Routes Worth Taking

Did you know trees can talk? Okay, maybe not in the conventional sense like you and I, but they can certainly communicate. If a giraffe munches on an acacia tree, it releases chemicals warning nearby trees of the hungry herbivore, so the trees can fend it off by producing strong, unpalatable tannins.

Driving through the arid scenery of the northernmost parts of South Africa, I can’t help but wonder what the baobab trees would have to say about Mapungubwe. Perhaps I can catch them whispering in the wind with my window down. Many of them would have witnessed the rise and fall of South Africa’s first sophisticated empire. Or spotted Jan Smuts walking about, most likely examining the veld for different grass types (he was adamant this region needed to be protected). Or heard the thump of mining machinery at work before the land was finally left to return to its natural state – save for a few visiting cows that cross over from Zimbabwe. Now they watch tourists, visiting since its official reopening in 2004.

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Mapungubwe National Park – South Africa

More than 10 years later, I’m driving the roads that wind their way between the eastern and western sections of this park, separated by private land, and they vary from lazy gravel loops to rocky 4×4 tracks.

There are several theories about what the word ‘Mapungubwe’ means, but my favourite by far is ‘place of the stone of wisdom’ – this is surely a place of spirit. There’s a true wildness about South Africa’s northernmost national park. It’s remote and untamed, on the brink of feeling menacing, but there’s a palpable ancient presence here that is equally peaceful.

It’s an enchanting feeling and I found it most stirring when quietly walking along the Treetop Boardwalk beside the Limpopo riverbank. Home to nearly 400 bird species, I reckon the trees whisper to the flying folk too. Creeping gently, I could get close enough to a pair of golden-tailed woodpeckers to feel the vibrations as they worked away at the wood of towering Ana trees, and through my binocs I spotted a broad-billed roller perching in the heights of a leadwood. Even in the parking lot beside the boardwalk, trees tower above the car enforcing their impressive scale.

I wake at dawn after a night spent at Leokwe Rest Camp and while driving up dirt tracks to find the best sunrise spot, I find my road trip is blessed with baobabs in flower. What a lucky encounter because the heavy, drooping white bulbs last just one night and sometimes a small part of the day. They are pollinated by fruit bats who can better locate them by their bright colour against the darkness of night.

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Leokwe Rest Camp

Once the sun is properly up, it’s a steady climb up Mapungubwe Hill (you cannot drive yourself to this site) and then I’m walking where royalty once lived, who played games and grew crops. But now it’s time to follow the birds, baobabs and the lazy Limpopo River east, towards the Kruger National Park and another late Iron Age stone site called Thulamela.

The drive is easy, but a little potholed on the tarred section between Mapungubwe and Musina. I drive past farms and southern yellow-billed hornbills float in the wake of the wind thrown off by the brief sections that permit 120 kilometres per hour. I pass villages and roadside markets, then drive slowly between kraals (careful not to kick up dust) to reach Pafuri River Camp. Home for the night is a treehouse, nestled beneath an expansive nyala tree.

It offers a thick block of shade against the summer heat and an exceptionally perfect life-sighting of a narina trogon showing off its unmistakable red breast in the golden morning glow.

The northern part of Kruger National Park is equally breathtaking and although it shares the same river as Mapungubwe, it’s not nearly as rugged. Instead, there are more jungley riverine forests of fever trees, jackalberries and thick, yellow-trunked sycamore figs heaving with birdsong. Driving along the river bends, I expect an elephant lurking behind each expansive trunk and I never reach third gear.

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Elephants drinking water at Kruger National Park

After an early breakfast at Luvuvhu picnic site, local Shangaan guides Carel Nkuna and Daniel Shibambu lead a group of us around the Thulamela Ruins. They have been faithfully reconstructed by local masons and are heavily reminiscent of the Great Zimbabwe Ruins further north. The guides are an absolute delight – passionate, easy conversationalists, they’re happy to offer as much insight as they can, telling the story about ‘the Leopard King and the lady who measured 1,7 metres in height’.

Thulamela forms part of what is referred to as Zimbabwe culture, which is believed to have started at Mapungubwe then moved to the Great Ruins before relocating here in northern Kruger. I am interested to hear that Carel and Daniel are scheduled to visit Mapungubwe and the Zim Ruins to learn more about the heritage of the area, courtesy of SAN Parks.

The two-hour Thulamela Trail is over quickly and after taking in a lofty view of the Luvuvhu River (you won’t find another public viewpoint of it elsewhere in the park).

I bid Carel and Daniel goodbye and make my way to the mopane-veld south, leaving the baobabs behind. Along the way, I scan the last lower branches of the forest for sleeping Verraux’s eagle-owls, and listen out for the Tarzan-like calls of African green pigeons, who can’t resist the delectable figs along the river.

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Luvuvhu River

I stick to the tar for the most part, until I branch off on the riverside loops around Sirheni Bushveld Camp – they are more productive in terms of seeing game than the mopane flats. At Sirheni, the camp groundsman tells me about a nesting site and I’m treated to the sight of a trio of fluffy southern white-faced owls at sunset.

My plan was to return to Johannesburg via Punda Maria Gate, but feeling dispirited at the thought of having to leave, I decide to drive a little longer and exit at Phalaborwa Gate, adding two more hours to the trip.

I wind down the window and cruise slowly south… maybe I’ll catch more of what those trees have to say.

Need to know

A 4×4 or high-clearance vehicle is best to explore Mapungubwe property and it’s ideal to have height for game viewing in Kruger Park. However, Mapungubwe’s camps are accessible by normal sedan vehicles. There is no filling station or ATM available here, so you need to fill up in Musina or Punda Maria and stock upon self-catering supplies and wood before you leave town.

Heritage Trail

Day 1: Joburg to Mapungubwe

Distance 600km

Allow 5-6 hours

From Joburg, take the N1 north all the way to Makhado (roughly 440km) and turn left on the R522 (towards Leshiba Wilderness) to Vivo and then right onto the R521 to Alldays (you can see the beautiful Blouberg in the distance if you look left). Fill up at the Alldays fuel station – both your tummy and the car (the card machine didn’t work when I was there, so carry cash in case). Drive the remaining 80km to the main Mapungubwe Gate and then on to Leokwe Rest Camp. Be sure to visit the Treetop Boardwalk at sunset.

Day 2: Mapungubwe to Pafuri

Distance Around 200km (depending on how much driving you do in Mapungubwe)

Allow 2 hours (Mapungubwe Gate to Pafuri River Camp)

Take a flask of coffee to the confluence point and then explore Mapungubwe on the heritage tour before it gets too hot. Leave Mapungubwe on the R572 heading east, then right on the N1 into Musina. Stop at the Engen to refuel and then take the shortcut (R50S) towards Tshipise. At the T-junction 40km later, turn left onto the R525 which goes straight to Pafuri Gate to enter Kruger, but just before the gate turn right up a gravel road and follow the signs for four kilometres to reach Pafuri River Camp.

Day 3: Pafuri to Sirheni

Distance 100km

Allow 7 hours

Leave Pafuri River Camp as early as you can, depending on when the gate into Kruger opens (this varies), and spend sunrise at the Luvuvhu Bridge for the best birding. Then have breakfast at Luvuvhu picnic site before starting the Thulamela Trail. While in the area spend time at Crooks Corner, before heading south on the tarred H1-8 and H1-7 to Sirheni Bushveld Camp. There are gravel loops around Sirheni that take you along the riverbed for game drives.

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Botswana – Beauty and the Beasts

Our helicopter hovered noisily over a grassy clearing beside the Okavango River, but the pilot—gripping the throttle to level us—couldn’t land. We’d taken off 30 minutes earlier from the dusty frontier town of Maun, the start­ing point for nearly all Botswana safaris, and had flown north to spend a few nights at the Moremi Game Reserve, where the Okavango fans into one of the earth’s great delta systems before draining into the Kalahari Desert. As we curled in closer to our target, the surface of the river rippled with a prowling crocodile, while impalas and zebras scattered beneath us. There we hung in the air, waiting for the elephants grazing peacefully in the papy­rus to lumber out of our way.

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A lion spotted at Moremi Game Reserve

If Botswana has a fault, it is a perverse one for modern Africa: So boun­tiful is the wildlife, it can feel like a zoo. There are reasons you can point to for the conservation success of this country that has converted nearly 30 percent of its land to protected park or game reserve. A British protec­torate until 50 years ago, Botswana has the most enduring democracy on the continent; it’s led by a conservationist president (who banned com­mercial hunting in 2014) and bankrolled by a lucrative stash of diamonds. Admittedly, the headline-grabbing recent killing of 26 elephants in the country’s north is a sign that it’s hardly immune to the wave of poaching currently engulfing the continent. But Botswana’s got more of these giants than any other African nation—130,451, according to the massive new Great Elephant Census, a two-year aerial survey of 18 countries paid for by Microsoft co-founder Paul G. Allen (price tag: $7 million).

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African elephants in Botswana

In the Okavango Delta, where the animals drink up the annual floodwaters with the lazy air of creatures that have known neither hunger nor thirst, the densities are so convincing it can feel as if you’ve stepped into the field where Noah’s cargo dispersed and multiplied after the rains.

And it’s not just the elephants that are doing okay. On Chiefs Island in the Okavango Delta, I’ve walked with rare wild African dogs before breakfast.

In the Selinda Spillway—a channel linking the delta with the Chobe and Linyati rivers—I’ve lis­tened to an impala cry as another pack of dogs made their kill right outside my tent. For three days, I’ve paddled a canoe 83 miles down the Okavango through pods of hippos so numerous that the animals looked like stepping stones in the water, their nickel backs glinting in the sun. Back in Moremi, I’ve tracked rhinos, stood under an outdoor shower with a bull elephant grazing near enough that I worried he’d try to drink from its stream, and been kept awake at night by the low rumble of a nearby lion. I will never forget slipping through a grove of jackalberry trees at dusk and hearing a Pel’s fishing owl—among the largest of its species in the world, with a call like a crying baby. When I finally spotted the bird in the canopy, its round eyes as black as obsidian, it stood almost two feet tall.

That’s why I tell friends to come to Botswana first. More than any of the 13 sub-Saharan coun­tries I’ve visited, it works—for the hungry first- timer, the impatient executive, the teenager whose attention has been depleted by the dig­ital scourge, and the honeymooner who wants to drop a safari into a ten-day-long tour of Cape Town’s top restaurants and Zimbabwe’s roar­ing Victoria Falls. The delta can be experienced on foot, by four-wheel drive, in a motorboat or canoe, or on the back of an elephant—variety that is impossible elsewhere in Africa.

There are caveats, of course. Would I do a horse­back safari in the long grass of the delta, where a lion can jump out of nowhere? Probably not, though my sister does it year after year. Do I prefer the rolling savannas and low-scudding clouds of Tanzania’s Serengeti? Probably yes. The parched, wide-open East African landscape feels more ancient and soulful; its rocky kopjes, like the standing stones of my native English moorland, reverberate with the origins of man. But then I fly up the delta in a helicopter during the seasonal flood in May and look down on an explosion of emerald that announces Botswana’s fecundity, its thrust and burst, its greens and golds redolent of Benozzo Gozzoli’s painting of the Magi in the Palazzo Medici’s chapel. Which isn’t as strange an analogy as it sounds. Botswana’s richness and ease make the delta the Florence of Africa, while Tanzania, under its pale, bleached- out light, is its Puglia.

In spite of (or probably because of) its advan­tages, Botswana is one of the more expensive destinations in Safari land, with suites at an Abu Camp in the delta or Mombo on Chief’s Island costing upwards of $1,600 per person per night.

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Abu Camp – Botswana

Of course, the country’s top-tier lodgings are done with infinite good taste, in Ralph Lauren-style khakis, creams, and leathers, with copper roll-top baths and often with air-conditioning that floats over skeins of cotton voile draping four-poster beds. Before turndown, staff deflect bugs with military precision. Over at Zarafa Camp in the Selinda Reserve, gluten-free meals are a first-class feast of salads and river fish, while wooden decks with roaring campfires over­look the crush of passing wildlife.

dining-at-zarafa-camp

Dining at Zarafa Camp

For my part—because I feel connected to Africa’s wildest places—I will always prefer camping more simply under star-pricked nights. But let it be said: If I’m offered a bed at the deliciously intimate Little Mombo for a second honeymoon, I’m in. Botswana shows the rest of Africa how luxury in the bush is really done.

Botswana is also just the start, the gateway to an enduring Africa habit. I have never known it to fail. Come here once and awe will become obses­sion, mounting as quickly and inevitably as the waters of the annual Okavango flood

There’s that moment when you real­ize you’re in the belly of the African backcountry and there are no fences. “We woke up the first morning to big-cat prints—leopard, the guides said—all over the ground outside our tents,” said former competitive surfer Lee Meirowitz after his first trip to Botswana, organized by travel specialists Cox & Kings for Conde Nast Traveler Voyages. “It was a remin­der of just how out of our element we were.”

But no matter how you get there, you’ll be hooked right away, Barnes says, “on the rush of hearing a radio call about zebras, then zooming off to see them.”

WHEN TO GO

botswana-in-summer

Botswana in winter (our summer)— after the rains, when the delta floods and springs to life—is the best time to see the north: The savanna’s grasses are low, while growth along the waterways attracts tons of wildlife. Central Botswana is at its best in Africa’s summer, when the region’s desert and salt pans turn to grass­land, drawing parades of animals.

FLYING IN  

The town of Maun (typically reached via a connection from Johannesburg or Cape Town) is the safari starting point for north and central Botswana. If you’re headed to the former, consider flying into Victoria Falls International in Zimbabwe, a one-hour flight from Maun, and adding a day to your trip to see the epic cascade.

THE LODGING SITUATION

savuti-camp

Safari outfitters typically transport you via small plane between two or more of the country’s dozens of luxury out­posts, such as Savuti Camp and Abu Camp (where our group stayed). It all depends on the time of year and what you want to see.

PLANNING YOUR TRIP

Most Botswana safaris combine land- based activities with boat trips, and helicopters for thrill-seekers. The ideal mix is your call.

babylonstoren-south-africa

Hotel Breakfast – Babylonstoren, South Africa

At Babel, the hotel’s cowshed-turned-restaurant, the question “What’s for breakfast?” is best answered by taking a look at the eight-acre garden. Your dou­ble-cream yogurt might come loaded with guava and cape gooseberries; nut, fennel, and curry powder granola; and a spoonful of blue gum honey from on-site hives.

 babel-breakfast

The breakfast menu at Babel – South Africa

Top the wood-fired country loaf—made with wheat from the farm— with heaps of salty Serrano-style ham and Gorgonzola (or just a slab of hand-churned butter). And if you had a glass too many of the Babel red the night before, a shot of ginger in your fresh-pressed beetroot and blood orange juice should do the trick.

 

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Travel Destinations For An Unforgettable Vacation

Canada – Bolstered by the wave of positivity unleashed by its energetic new prime minister, Justin Trudeau, and with dynamic cities that dominate global livability indexes – plus its reputation for inclusiveness and impeccable politeness – the world’s second-largest country will usher in its sesquicentennial in 2017 in rollicking good health. Marking 150 years since confederation, the birthday party promises to be heavy on bonhomie and highly welcoming to international gate-crashers. The weak Canadian dollar means visitors should have plenty of pocket money to spend on Canada’s exciting fusion food and mysteriously undeerrated wine.

Colombia – Decades of civil war and violent crime meant Colombian passport stamps were once for hardcore travellers only. Fast-forward to the present day, and the lost years seem but a dust speck in Colombia’s rear-view mirror. There are no world wonders here, but the country’s mix of vibrant culture, nature and hospitality is a rich tapestry woven by welcoming arms. More than a decade into its dramatic about-face, this South American jewel is even expecting a visit from the world’s No. 1 Catholic. When Pope Francis kisses Colombian soil in 2017, it will mark the Andean nation’s first papal visit in 30 years.

Cartagena, Colombia

Cartagena, Colombia

Finland – Long fought over by Russia and Sweden, Finland finally gained independence in 1917, The Finns will celebrate their centenary with gusto: expect everything from outdoor concerts and communal culinary experiences to sauna evenings and vintage travel poster exhibitions. There’s even anew national park: 27,000 acres around the village of Hossa, studded with pine forests and crisscrossed with rivers. With the country also playing host to the World Figure Skating Championships and the Nordic World Ski Championships in 2017, there’s never been a better time to discover Finland’s proudly unique culture and landscapes.

Dominica – Locals joke that if Christopher Columbus rose from the grave and returned to the Caribbean, Dominica is the only island he would still recognise. One glimpse of its prehistoric ferns and deserted shores, and you’ll see what they mean. For decades, an absence of shiny white beaches has helped keep at bay the resort development that has swept through other parts of the Caribbean, Coconut palms are the only skyscrapers you’ll see here. Visit before Dominica gets its first large-scale chain resorts in 2018, which will pave the way for anew era of tourism.

Nepal – Even natural disasters can’t keep Nepal down for long. The 2015 earthquakes caused devastation, but what is most striking from a traveller’s perspective is not how much was lost but how much remains. Landmark temples crumbled, but others came through with just the odd tile out of place, and whole swathes of the country escaped serious damage, including most of the popular hiking trails, Nepal has all the skills required to repair monuments and infrastructure, but what it does need is income. By visiting Nepal now and supporting local culture and people, you could help a nation rebuild and bounce back even stronger.

Nepal

Nepal

Mongolia – In 2017 Mongolia will raise the curtain on a b rand- new capital – city airport, a state-of-the-art facility that symbolises the rapid modernisation of this country of steppe nomads. Ulaanbaatar has been the biggest beneficiary of an economic boom – the capital’s transformed skyline bristles with glass and steel towers. At the centre of this development is a £380 million Shangri-La hotel complex, to be completed by 2017. Beyond the city lies Mongolia’s stunning and sparsely populated countryside. Lake Khovsgol, known as the Blue Pearl of Asia, is an undoubted highlight. In 2015 the lake was connected to Ulaanbaatar by paved road, cutting driving time by 10 hours.

Mynmar – Change has been a long time coming in the nation also known as Burma, but the election of the first civilian government in half a century has all eyes on the future. No-one is pretending that all of Myanmar’s problems have gone away, but things are moving in the right direction, and Southeast Asia’s most secretive country is now poised to receive an influx of travellers. Visiting comes with challenges, but the reward is a window onto a vanishing Asia, where the difficulties of travel are part of the appeal. You’ll find a land with more stupas than office towers, where life moves to the timeless rhythms of chanting monks and monastery bells.

Ethiopia – With its own calendar (where else can you get 13 months of sunshine?), timekeeping, script, language, cuisine, church and coffee, Ethiopia is as exotic as countries come. And whether you’re hiking through the Simien Mountains to see wildlife that roams nowhere else on Earth, climbing to a church carved into a remote cliff face in Tigray, or boating across the waters of Lake Tana to visit an age-old monastery, you’ll be overwhelmed by the beauty of the landscape. In 2017, new airline links will make the country more accessible than ever; be one of the first to get on board.

Temple of Luxor: Ancient Luxury And Breathtaking Beauty

My journey to Egypt began over a decade ago when I laid hands on Amitav Ghosh’s in an Antique Land. I was a master’s student of architecture in France, working in Western Africa, struggling and enthralled at the same time with diverse cultures and geographies. Ghosh’s expansive tale starts from a little note he finds in an ancient library that suggests to him the journey of an individual from the Malabar coast to Europe via Egypt. Ghosh writes about ancient trade routes and present-day settings, that Luxor-Templeof a doctoral student studying an ancient form of Arabic under a scholar in rural Alexandria, and the Kuwait war forcing Egyptians to return home, painting Egypt as a civilisation both frozen in time as well as grappling with contemporary realities.

Recently, my vicarious journey culminated in a real one. I am finally in Cairo. Still dazed from my red-eye flight, we meet our guide, who has the detailed articulation of someone who is aware that we find his accent challenging. He seems Francophone and I mentally name him ‘El Monsieur’. My hotel is situated at the junction of a bridge across the storied Nile; the view from the small balcony is stunning, the river majestic and shimmering in the early morning light. A 1961 tower, designed by the architect Naoum Shebib, and easily one of the most beautiful I have seen, defines the skyline.

But there is no time for lingering on this intensive tour, time for sightseeing. Coptic Cairo, our first pitstop, has a record of sorts for ‘the oldest’ everything: oldest church, oldest mosque, oldest synagogue and, well, the oldest part of Cairo. The Hanging Church is a quiet place. The pastor is in conversation with a gentleman at the entrance passage, the pastor nods to people and blesses them as they pass by. The entrance to this gentle building has large photographs of all past and present presidents of Egypt— seeking the blessings of the Coptic Church is customary. The interiors are beautiful, the walls covered with embroidered curtains, decorated doors, wooden wall panels with inlay work—all set in the warm yellow light from chandeliers giving it an immersive devotional feel.

We walk into the ninth-century Ben Ezra Synagogue through an extra layer of security. It was here in 1890 that over 250,000 historic papers known as the Cairo Genizah documents covering the life and times of North African Jews of the 11th—13th centuries were unearthed. It was the mention of an Indian fisherman working for a Jewish merchant in one of these documents that Ghosh picked up and which eventually inspired his novel. The Museum of Egyptian Antiquities occupies pride of place at the famous Tahrir Square. Despite decades of pillage, the museum retains some of the most important ancient artefacts.

Travellers who are used to the superbly lit and perfectly arranged museums of the West are likely to find this museum confusing and even overwhelming. If all you have are a few hours I would recommend the Rosetta Stone. Carved in 196 BC, it is a large sandstone panel inscribed in three languages—official hieroglyphics, popular demotic and classical Greek—and served as the linguistic key to deciphering hieroglyphics. The Tutankhamun Galleries have a collection of over 1700 objects. The Ancient Egyptian Jewellery room is astounding, even to those who consider jewellery the surest way of frittering away large amounts of hard (or dubiously) earned money.

Cairo, Egypt

Cairo, Egypt

All the while that we are in Cairo we see innumerable pyramids—in the form of key chains, paperweights, decorative pieces in alabaster, and so on. “All are China made,” is the dry advice of El Monsieur. We are going to the real one. Located at Giza at what once must have been a distance from Cairo but is now within city limits. We approach the pyramids on foot—they are massive, nothing like one imagines them and impossible to frame in my lens. Camel-and horse-ride offers abound and we negotiate our way to the pyramid base. For me, used to the idea of heritage as opulent, intricately carved sculptures, the pyramids are as modern a form as they can get—perfect geometry on a gigantic scale. Endless steps of hum an-height stone cubes taper off to form a pyramid.

The Giza complex is made up of three big pyramids; a number of smaller ones arc more or less lost. A small portion at the top of the second pyramid is still clad smooth and sharp, and one gets a glimpse of what the pyramids must have looked like 4,000 years ago—perfect trapezoids emerging from the deep sands, reaching the sky, gleaming in the desert sun in communion with the gods. Moving further down, we encounter the Sphinx with his nose ravaged by invaders and time. We barely manage to enter the complex before it closes for the day. As the sun sets on the Giza complex, for a brief few seconds the clock turns back and I am witness to a timeless moment of returning camels silhouetted against the pyramids, a sight all the more precious because everybody seems engrossed in their respective selfie projects and so few seem to be seeing beyond themselves.

No trip to Cairo can be complete without a visit to the old quarter, Khan el-Khalili, famous for its cafes and trinket shops. Nobel winner Naguib Mahfouz frequented a coffee shop by the name El Fishawy. It is visited by Cairo gentry, all of them comfortably there as if they’ve owned the place forever. El Fishawy is an animated animal. Waiters work efficiently; each tabletop is no larger than a large dining pi ate, just sufficient for cups of coffee or chai; trinket sellers peddle their wares; an Oud musician is invited by a table to play his stringed instrument and everyone sings what are probably some popular old songs of Umm Kulthum, a legendary Egyptian singer.

The Nile in Aswan

The Nile in Aswan

Next stop, Alexandria! We are rushing through the desert. This is the northernmost tip of the mightiest desert in the world, the Sahara. At our first stop, the presence of security guards marks it as a heritage site. “Catacomb,” our guide tells us; “claustrophobia,” I respond. But I decide to peep inside. It turns out to be a lovely well with a staircase descending along its walls like aspirai. The Catacombs of Kom ash- Suqqafa are cool and at a certain depth, the staircase opens into a series of chambers and antechambers.

This is all limestone—easy to carve, but also easy to lose due to the action of water, time and exposure. We emerge and finally I can glimpse the sea through the building-lined streets. We drive along the marina to reach an impressive looking citadel called Fort Qaitbey. The Mediterranean, in full view now, is a deep, mesmerising blue. From here we can see a long stretch of the Alexandrian coastline and on that the unusual profile of the Grand Library of Alexandria.

Enjoying The Relaxing Beauty Of Kenyan Nature

It is no problem, my friend. You just jump,” declares the snorkelling guide, gesticulating wildly towards the ocean. We are about a kilometre from the Watamu coastline in Kenya and he has forgotten the life jackets. I stare at him through the smudgy snorkel ling mask, and try to grimace. But my mouth is already twisted awkwardly on the breathing piece, through which I hear myself breathing hard. I have flippered, cold feet. I am not sure if it’s the rocking of the anchored boat on the choppy waters that is making me giddy or his absurd suggestion. But I had, in an impulsive airport purchase, bought the latest Go Pro eMasaispecially for this underwater event and I have to make it look good. The tiny camera is at the ready, encased in its waterproof housing, stringed tightly around my right wrist.

“Are you going or what?” he says with a hint of irritation. I take the proffered ring buoy and descend into the Indian Ocean. Hanging on to that buoy for dear life with one hand, the other clinching the GoPro, I keep my head down for over an hour until the guide wriggles up with the creatures of the ocean and coerces me back aboard. It isn’t as if I had not been surprised before in Africa. Five years ago, I had made an impulsive trip to Zanzibar from Tanzania with my fiance. I had read about the archipelago’s ancient trade routes that ferried slaves and spices but no one had told me about the dazzling beaches, the centenarian giant tortoises and other marine life. Indeed, when most people think of Africa and its wildlife, few think beyond the ‘Big Five’, or the marauding wildebeest and zebra herds.

Africa as the place of pristine, soft-sand beaches and turquoise waters that hide incredible marine life, or Africa as a place of humanity’s very origin, is lost in the mad, touristy’ ticking-the-animals-off-the-list game. The continent’s spectacular terrestrial creatures overwhelm the senses and anything else is just a bonus. Just a few days earlier, in Maasai Mara and Lewa Downs, we had had our moments with the Big Five in the brief drive to the airstrip. But there were no herds. It’s awful to visit the savannas when the herds arc gone. It was late December and, having grazed up the Mara plains, the wildebeest and zebras had swept across to the wider expanse of the Serengeti. And, as if to make up for the missing zebras, the Watamu reef below me bubbles with zebra fish, named for their black and white stripes.

With every morsel of bread that the boatman chucks into the ocean—not recommended, since this interferes with the fishes’ regular feeding patterns—schools of zebra fish appear from nowhere to greedily gobble up the morsels. The Indian Ocean, stretching from Southeast Asia to East Africa, is an astonishing cornucopia of marine life. Apparently, there hasn’t been adequate research on its array of species, many of which scientists believe still lie undiscovered and many that could simply be vanishing without documentation in the havoc caused by climate change.

Ocean currents circulate in labyrinthine coils across the expanse of the Indian Ocean. Therefore, any rubbish thrown off the Indian coast could wash up on the beaches of East Africa and vice versa. “We have been doing some research. We haven’t so far got any rubbish from India but we have from Malaysia and Thailand. It’s really interesting how the currents work,” says Steve Trott, a marine zoologist and chairman of the Watamu Marine Association. The water is nutrient-deficient in the tropics, which is bad for the ocean, but great for underwater viewing. In Watamu, you can’t just wade into the ocean from the beach and find the corals in the shallow, as you can off the beaches of Indonesia or the Maldives. Here you have to take a boat a kilometre or two into the ocean to hit a reef.

Maasai Mara

Maasai Mara

The reef I hover around mainly has boulder brain corals. These, as the name suggests, are brain-shaped with many tiny rifts, ridges and valleys in which tiny fish play hide and seek. Because of their slow growth and sturdy shape, they arc relatively resistant to coral bleaching compared to the other delicate corals. Coral bleaching is a phenomenon triggered by global warming. Warm water forces the coral to expel the algae living on it. The corals then look white or bleached. The El Nino event in 1998 bleached almost 70 per cent of the coral in East Africa, save the boulder brain coral.

The marine wildlife to really look out for in the Watamu waters are the green and hawksbill turtles. But, as elsewhere in the world, rampant development is encroaching on their traditional nesting sites on Watamu’s beaches. Evolution has designed the hatchlings to make for the ocean as fast as possible using the light of the horizon as a beacon. But the bright lights of the resorts confuse them—they then waddle the wrong way, becoming easy prey for predators. A visit to Watamu is incomplete without exploring Mida Creek, a 32 sq km tidal inlet that comprises a mangrove forest. A boardwalk takes you through this forest. But don’t expect the sort of polished, primed boardwalk you have at Sentosa in Singapore: here, wooden planks are strung together in a rough and ready way, many of them missing and others rotting.

Some of the heavier members in our group worry about the planks crashing beneath them as they wobble along nervously. At the end of the boardwalk is a bird-viewing platform from where one can feast one’s eyes on a host of migratory birds fleeing the European winter. Flamingoes congregate in huge numbers in the vast mudflats fringing the creek. However, in the midday sun we see only a smattering of birds. “If you come one hour before high tide you can see a great aggregation of sea birds. They say it’s the largest aggregation of sea birds in East Africa. They number over 10,000. September to April is the best time to come. You just need to time the tide,” says John, our guide. We descend to the mudflats and reach our dugout boats anchored in the shallows.

Lewa Downs

Lewa Downs

The walk forms a fascinating 20-minute study in marine biology. Every now and then, John swoops down to dig out or point at an invertebrate. He scoops up a triangle-shaped organism. It’s a razorfish and, like most organisms here, it’s a mollusc with a razor-sharp shell. “They say one square metre of this mudflat has the same energy as a full chocolate bar. I mean there are so many organisms living here,” John says, patting the loamy earth where we see nothing. But he scoops up the earth from right under and points to some squiggly, squirming organisms, exclaiming excitedly, “See, it’s so full of life. See!”

The dugout boat is made of the hollowed-out trunk of a baobab, a bottle-shaped tree that liberally dots the coast. You sit one behind the other in the narrow hold with the boatman rowing with a long pole behind you. And as our boats move, the boatmen sing. There may yet be a lot to sing about in this part of Africa, comparatively serene and unpolluted. But it isn’t fully protected from the scourge of over development. Apart from climate change, the biggest danger to the marine biosphere in Watamu, as elsewhere, is overfishing.

For example, the overfishing of predator fish and molluscs often leads to the proliferation of sea urchins here. The sea urchins then feed on sea grass unchecked. This destabilises the sea bed leading to more wave action. With no buffer, the waves erode the beaches. And so it goes. Marine conservation organisations such as the Watamu Marine Association have stepped up to the challenge and, from waste management to recycling to educating fishermen, they are fighting to protect the unique marine biosphere of East Africa. Let us hope they succeed.

Tunisia – Sun, Adventure And Open Country Discoveries

It’s easy to feel energised when you’re surrounded by breathtaking wildlife, vibrant North African culture and enchanting ancient heritage. It’s even easier when you have clear blue skies, beating sun and perfect Mediterranean weather on your side. A brilliant balance of exotic adventure and unadtunisia-cultureulterated relaxation, Tunisia is elegant, inspiring and full of incredible secrets. From its miles of lush, wildlife-packed national parks and mountains to the picturesque rolling dunes of the Sahara Desert, the
country is a playground for active adventures and the perfect place for inquistive explorers.

Starting in the incredibly beautiful southern stretch of the country, you’ll find the perfect place to get a taste of the vibrant Tunisian culture and explore the vast open country at the gateway to the Sahara.

After wandering the bustling souks and dining on local bites in the city of Douz, you can take an epic 60-mile camel trek into the desert, stopping only to search for addexes, rare birds and pitch camp romantically beneath the stars. Of course, if you’re after something a little more adrenaline-fuelled and high-flying you can wheel a quad bike or 4×4 around the fringes of the Sahara, or even take in the most exciting rolling dunes in North Africa from the comfort of a hot air balloon hundreds of feet in the air. Back up north, there’s far more to see than just the beautiful ruins of Carthage and El Djem or the country’s bustling capital, Tunis.

Exploring beyond these enchanting sites of ancient heritage in the country’s famous northeast, intrepid travellers will delight in jaw-dropping panoramic views from the top of the Kroumirie mountains, setting sights on vast species of majestic fauna as they climb. Meanwhile, cyclists of all abilities will relish the opportunity to take a spin on secluded, stunning and dependable cycle routes out of the major cities into the tranquil countryside and the eastern foothills of the Atlas mountains.

Tunisia, Africa

Tunisia, Africa

Tucked among these rolling hills and the lush Ichkeul National Park further afield, you’ll be able to take in some of the world’s most incredible bird-life – from wild flamingos and rare forest dwellers to the 300,000 migrants that nest around the national park’s tranquil lakes and flora-filled valleys each year. From the vibrant, buzzing towns that sit at the edge of the Sahara to the majestic mountain summits in the temperate northwest, everywhere in Tunisia is an inspiring adventure, and one that’s just waiting to be discovered.