Into Africa

Camps in Odzala-Kokoua National Park in the Republic of the Congo let guests see lowland gorillas as well as many other animals and birds.

In our story on “Emerging Destinations” last summer, we noted that places throughout Africa have become bucket list experiences, enhanced by increased airlift that has made sites within the continent more accessible than ever before. Following up on this trend we reached out to several Africa specialists to find out which are the hot new places across the continent and what people are doing there.


Getting There

Getting to Africa is increasingly easier too. For example, South African Airways has flights departing from New York and Washington, D.C. on a regular basis and also has agreements with JetBlue Airways and United Airlines. “One of travelers’ favorite parts about SAA is that it offers premium business-class seating with seats that lay completely flat,” Laura Madrid of Resort to Laura Madrid says. “Its economy-class section even has more legroom than almost all other airlines.”

Madrid also recommends Federal Air, noting that its diverse fleet, like that of SAA, makes it easier to get to both major cities and more remote African destinations.

Owens notes that most of the big partnerships—SkyTeam, Star Alliance and Oneworld—all service East Africa. Visitors from the U.S. can get there easily through Johannesburg, or sometimes with a stopover in Europe.



Where to Go

All four of the specialists cited Zimbabwe as a notable up-and-coming destination. Karen Harris of Camelback Safaris noted the gradual progression into “unspoiled wilderness, cared for by amazingly storied people.” Laura Madrid of Resort to Laura Madrid said that the country is especially popular among honeymooners, families and groups. “The reason why is because not only is it home to one of the world’s Seven Natural Wonders [Victoria Falls], but it is also celebrated for its fantastic game viewing and award-winning accommodations.” Singita Pamushana is high on her list, she adds. “Some of the best places to visit for game viewing include Mana Pools, Hwange National Park and Matobo National Park.”

Ann Owens of The Travel Service said that “things have improved so much in the last couple of years” in Zimbabwe, and Linda Bailey of North Star Travel Group echoed Madrid’s sentiments, noting that Zimbabwe has “some of Africa’s most elite accommodations.”

Of course, there are plenty of hidden gems throughout Africa, too. Madrid recommends Grootbos Private Nature Reserve in Hermanus, South Africa, and the Skeleton Coast and Kuiseb Canyon of Namibia. “At Grootbos, visitors can witness the Big Marine Five, visit the Klipgat Caves, horseback ride, and go wine tasting, far from some of the overcrowded tourist hot spots of Cape Town and Cape Winelands. Two other hidden gems are the Skeleton Coast and Kuiseb Canyon of Namibia. Here, travelers can witness some of the world’s most remote regions, interact with local people and take photographs of stunning desert landscapes.”

Bailey, meanwhile, recommends Mnemba Island off the coast of Tanzania, which she calls “one of the most remote and romantic destinations to visit.” She also likes Madagascar: “It’s a beautiful destination that is growing in terms of exposure to the travel industry. There are beautiful beaches, stunning landscapes and a tremendous variety of endemic wildlife found on Madagascar, including all lemurs and a large variety of chameleon species, as well as birds and flora.”


Madagascar is home to a tremendous variety of endemic wildlife, including lemurs.


Owens suggests that clients visit the Kalahari Desert in Botswana, and recommends gorilla trekking in Rwanda or Uganda after they have done a traditional “Big Five” safari. The Republic of the Congo, she adds, is a notable up-and-coming destination. “Wilderness Safaris has opened two new camps in the Congo”—Lango Camp and Ngaga Camp in Odzala-Kokoua National Park —“where you can see the lowland gorillas as well as many other animals and birds.”

First-time visitors to Africa should try a safari in Zimbabwe, Madrid says, and should be sure to explore the Victoria Falls while there. She also likes South Africa for culture, beaches, wine, and, of course, wildlife. “Combining these countries on your first trip to Africa enables you to have a well-rounded experience,” she says. “For individuals on a repeat visit to Africa, I suggest visiting some of the fantastic islands off the coast of Africa, including Zanzibar, Benguerra Island and Madagascar! Madagascar is only a three-hour flight from Johannesburg, making it a perfect getaway for four or five days.”


Rwanda is a good bet for those seeking a gorilla trekking experience.


“Combining South Africa with Kenya is a great way to have a well-rounded look at Africa, if you have the time to visit both in one trip,” Bailey says. Kenya is good not only for its diverse wildlife, she says, but also for the cultural experiences and “voluntourism” opportunities in the Maasai Mara. “And after experiencing it all, you can then cater your next trip to what interested you the most in your first trip to Africa,” she says about return visits. “You could incorporate a birding safari, photography safari, horseback riding safari, wine tasting holiday, etc. into your next itinerary.”

Bailey notes that there are many islands surrounding Africa that are perfect for visitors who might have already seen The Big Five and are ready to see a different side of Africa. Of these, she recommends the Seychelles, Mauritius and Madagascar.

What to Do

“Many people don’t know you can book out the Sheldrick Elephant Orphanage in Nairobi for a private visit at a very reasonable rate,” Owens says when asked about what hidden gems she recommends. “Also, you can have lunch on a small island in the middle of the Zambezi river perched on the edge of Victoria Falls, as well as swim in ‘Devil’s Pool’ located just beside.”

Harris’ recommendations, meanwhile, cover the whole continent, from honey hunting with the last of the Bushmen in Botswana to visiting Solio, a private rhino reserve in Kenya, to river rafting on roped-together oil drums at Lemarti’s or even walking with baboons in the Simien Mountains of Ethiopia.


Kalahari Desert in Botswana
The Kalahari Desert in Botswana is home to three game reserves.


Bailey says that visitors to the Maasai Mara can partake in hot-air balloon rides over the reserve, game drives, and visits to local villages to interact with the indigenous Maasai people, who she calls “some of the world’s most fascinating and warm individuals you will ever meet,” she says.


As with any place, cultural misconceptions can be a hindrance to travel. For Africa, lack of information can cause clients to miss out on a life-changing experience. “Just because there are countries throughout Africa that are experiencing political issues, doesn’t mean they are unsafe,” Madrid says. “In fact, many of the accommodations you will be visiting are situated in remote, rural areas, far from city life. It also doesn’t mean that the general population in those countries supports the government. The people of Africa are by far some of the nicest, most genuine individuals you will ever meet in your life and, in general, they are ambitious and want to see their country prosper.”

“I wish more people understood that the countries we regularly use for safaris are no more dangerous than anywhere else in the world,” Owens says. “As long as you take normal precautions just as you would in any city such as London, Paris or New York, you should expect to be safe. Safety seems to be the biggest hurdle to overcome for many clients.”

Madrid recommends partnering with a trusted tour operator when sending clients to Africa. “Hills of Africa is often my tour operator of choice because it is incredibly competent in working with me to put custom itineraries for my clients that are within budget, yet still ticks all of its ‘must-do’ experiences. Because Hills of Africa is on the ground with my clients, it can make quick changes to an itinerary that is already in progress.”

“As some wise person said,” Harris adds, “ ‘if you visit only two countries, go to Africa twice.’ ”