Africa is the cradle of humankind: That alone warrants a visit of deep exploration. But the continent is more than just the ancestral homeland of everyone on the planet. It’s a place of incredibly varied, incredibly complex modern human culture, as well as some of the most incredible topographic splendor and wildlife spectacle to be found anywhere. Here are ten of the best ways to sample this unforgettable place.
- Take in Africa’s incredible wildlife. Innumerable nature documentaries set on the Serengeti or the scrub of Kruger can’t dull our senses: Africa remains one of the world’s premier destinations for wildlife-watching. The big creatures get most of the attention: lions, leopards, cheetahs, elephants, rhinos, hippos, Nile crocodiles, wildebeest, zebra, giraffe, eland, buffalo, gorillas, chimpanzees and many other stunning species. But don’t neglect the smaller wonders: A safari along a muddy river might turn up a bee-eater colony, while one along the Rift escarpments could reveal the exquisite soaring of a white-necked raven.
- Bask in some of the world’s great mountains. Africa includes many iconic mountains, most notably the great Kilimanjaro, a gigantic landmark of the tectonically volatile Rift Valley. This 19,341-foot composite volcano can be seen from as far away as the Indian Ocean 160 miles away, and its remnant glaciers and snowfields, celebrated by Hemingway, persist. Mount Kenya, at 17,057 feet, is the next-highest—another Rift volcano with a more gnarled and rugged crown. There are other great peaks and ranges, though: the Rwenzori Mountains, with their gnarled, snowcapped crowns rising above tropical forest; the Atlas Mountains of North Africa, once the home of unique races of lion and brown bear; and the Drakensberg Mountains of South Africa and Lesotho, with their tawny, lava-banded heights.
- See the Pyramids of Egypt. Possibly Africa’s most famous destination, the Pyramids of Ancient Egypt never fail to dazzle: partly because they represent such rich and evocative human history, partly because their sheer physical presence is so overwhelming. Once a portal between the physical realm and the underworld, these architectural marvels still exude power and transcendent beauty.
- Appreciate other cultural traditions, festivals, and monuments. The cultural heritage of Africa is concerned with far more than simply Ancient Egypt, however. Visit the Dogon people of Mali, with their tremendous masks and sculptures, and the sandstone architecture of the Bandiagara Escarpment. The Maasai are only among the most well-known of many partly nomadic pastoral societies for whom Africa’s windblown grasslands have been pasture for thousands for years. For an entirely different experience, consider the coffee ceremony of Ethiopia, one of the world’s leading growers of coffee beans. Meanwhile, in parts of southern Africa like Namibia’s Brandberg massif, travelers can admire the vintage, evocative rock-art of the San, or “Bushman,” a culture of deep roots and a still-vibrant spirit.
- Consider the deepest origins of humankind. Africa fostered the very development of the human species, and a variety of archaeological sites showcase some of the staggering richness of this deep-time heritage. Among the most famous is the Olduvai Gorge in Tanzania. Here, Lewis Leakey, Mary Leakey, and other researchers uncovered evidence of habitation from some of our earliest ancestors and relatives, including Homo habilis and Paranthropus boisei.
- Sample Africa’s energetic music scene. So much Western music claims its roots in an African stew, it’s sometimes difficult to wrap your head around it. Regardless, the continent continues to nurture tremendous musicians who draw upon both ancient and contemporary influences—producing sounds as diverse as Africa’s cultural palette itself. Mali, in West Africa, is famously fertile musical ground: The innovative guitarist and singer Ali Farka Toure, the kora master Toumani Diabate, the ngoni virtuoso Bassekou Kouyate, and the Tuareg rockers Tinariwen are only a few of the musicians for which the country is internationally renowned.
- Explore some of the world’s great rivers. Africa is watered by rivers drenched in head-spinning dimensions of human history, not to mention unique ecology and geology. The Nile is widely considered the longest of the world’s rivers; rising in the vicinity of Lake Victoria, its course northward to the Mediterranean spans over 4,000 miles, and encompasses striking places like the Sudd swamp and the heartland of Ancient Egypt. Meanwhile, a vast swath of tropical Africa is drained by the Congo River, including some of the world’s largest, wildest, and most wildlife-rich rainforests.
- Savor some of the planet’s most impressive landscapes. Africa’s terrain is as dazzling as its human history and wildlife roster. The continent claims one of the world’s largest waterfalls, Victoria Falls on the Zambezi River, and gorge systems, in the form of Namibia’s Fish River Canyon—a rugged defile somewhat reminiscent of the great canyonlands of the southwestern U.S., but with a magic all its own.
- Eat the food. Along with listening to its music and appreciating its ceremonies, there’s no better way to get a feel for one of Africa’s multivariate cultures than through its cuisine. The continent features a whole host of food traditions and wide-ranging flavors. You’ve got the starchy fufu of West Africa, for example, or the injera flatbread of Ethiopia and Eritrea. Tropical fruits like guavas, bananas, mangoes, and papayas enliven many dishes, as does seafood harvested from lakes, rivers, and coastal marine waters.
- Take in a football match. Africa is passionate about its football, with many countries actively engaged in the Confederation of African Football. You won’t soon forget the roar of the crowd—nor the athleticism of the players.
Africa’s vastness makes it impossible to generalize about the continent’s character, but rest assured that a clear-eyed, adventurous exploration of any of its corners will be a rewarding one.
This post was submitted by Andrea.