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First Time to Africa

Just mentioning Africa as a vacation spot can bring horror to the faces of those who have never explored this astounding continent for themselves.

Now is the time to forget everything you think you know about Africa. Behind the headlines is an incredible bounty of treasures. For every easily-avoided trouble spot, there are one hundred beauty spots. For every beauty spot, there are a dozen intriguing cultural traditions, internationally-important landmarks, and welcoming locals.

Africa offers a fantastic array of possibilities. The Great Pyramids of Giza in Egypt in the north lead to savannahs prowled by lions in the south. Meanwhile, the relics of ancient empires in the west stretch to the beaches and diving destinations of the east.

The only real trouble is knowing where to go and when so as not to waste a single second of your first steps on the continent.

Africa 101

Welcome to the oldest and most diverse continent on Earth, with a coastline that has hardly changed in millions of years. And a continent is what Africa is, not a single country.

Straddling the tropics, and split almost exactly into two halves by the equator, this giant landmass is where we took our first steps as a species. It stretches 5,000 miles from north to south, and a similar distance from the furthest reaches of the west to its easternmost point.

More than three times larger than the total area of all 50 states of the Union, Africa is home to 1.3 billion people. They come from some 3,000 individual ethnicities and speak an estimated 2,000 different languages. Together, they form a block of 54 separate sovereign nations, 48 of which are on mainland Africa. The remaining six are island nations geographically or politically linked to Africa.

Contextualizing Africa

Africa was never a blank on the map, as European-leaning histories might have you believe. Instead, the continent has been home to some of the greatest empires the world has ever seen, for which both modern nations and tribes are rightly proud.

Far from being isolated and backward, these were major trading empires, controlling trade routes that reached ancient Rome and the Middle East. Equal to anything that could be found in Europe at the same point in history, they were also some of the earliest converts to both Christianity and Islam.

As a demonstration of their power and wealth, when the Mali Empire was ruled by Mansa Musa in the early 1300s, it gave away so much gold as gifts that the price of the precious metal collapsed and remained low for another decade.

But it’s rare to hear of this side of African history. Modern views of Africa continue to follow the views put forward by conquering powers that the continent’s people were in need of saving. When a British expeditionary force discovered the Benin bronzes in the late 1800s, they simply could not believe they were the work of native hands and put them down to a long forgotten European connection.

The lasting effect of slavery

What’s harder to deny is the lasting effect of the transatlantic slave trade on Africa. Prisoners of war were often made slaves, but it took outside forces in the guide of European traders to turn it into an industry. It saw up to 12 million black Africans shipped across the Atlantic to Brazil, the Caribbean, and United States as slaves in little more than two centuries.

This equates to somewhere in the region of 10% of the entire human population of the continent at this time, consistent with shipping every single person in present day Texas and New Mexico to another continent as slave labor.

Anti-slavery campaigners began to win the argument at the beginning of the 1800s. From one of the most ardent slaving states, Britain directed its navy to intercept slave ships. It ‘rescued’ an estimated 150,000 people, who were largely resettled in today’s Sierra Leone in West Africa.

European nations instead turned to goods, including gold, which still lay in large deposits despite the best efforts of Mansa Musa six hundred years earlier. Competition between European countries led to the colonization of the continent in what has become known as the scramble for Africa.

Resistance was sporadic, building after the end of the Second World War in 1945. Ghana became the first black African nation to gain its independence in 1957. Most of the continent would follow in the next decade, although South Africa didn’t see majority rule until the end of apartheid in the early 1990s. Meaning ‘separateness’, apartheid was akin to the racial segregation of the American South before the civil rights movement.

Top vacation spots in Africa

Africa’s huge size, geographic diversity, and long history mean there is a massive range of potential vacation destinations to consider. Those seeking to discover some of their own ancestries are best served by visiting the states of coastal west or central Africa, from where the majority of slaves were shipped.

If it’s a love of wildlife documentaries that is taking you to Africa, the best safaris on the continent are to be had in southern and eastern Africa. The warm waters of the Indian Ocean of Africa’s east coast also make this the best place to head for beach and diving escapes. At the same time, few can argue with north Africa’s Egyptian and ancient Roman remains when it comes to historic relics.

Here we will explore Africa’s top destinations in a little more detail, so you can get the most out of your vacation.

On the Slave Trail

slave trail

Not only was Ghana the first black African nation to regain its independence, but it is also one of the easiest African nations for vacations. Laidback and little troubled by political turmoil, its populace is well-educated, and English is the official language, spoken by a large proportion of the country. About the size of Minnesota, it is small enough to explore in a few days, with a good road network making this even simpler to achieve.

Ghana, along with neighboring Togo and Benin, witnessed one of the earliest incursions by European forces. Its Atlantic coastline is dotted with more than 20 centuries-old forts and castles that were built by everyone from the Danes to the Portuguese and British. Together they form a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

The most important of these are undoubtedly Elmina and Cape Coast castles. Major gathering and departure point for slaves from the interior of the country, Elmina is the earliest surviving European structure in sub-Saharan Africa. It was built in 1482, ten years before Christopher Columbus discovered the Americas. In a similar period, Cape Coast castle’s ‘door of no return’, from where slaves were escorted onto ships waiting offshore, was visited by President Obama in 2009.

Further west, Sierra Leone was created as a homeland for rescued slaves, with the first arriving at Freetown’s so-called Portuguese steps in 1787. There’s no doubting tourism to the country remains in its infancy, but Sierra Leone offers some incredible attractions for the more intrepid traveler.

These include Bunce Island, from where thousands of slaves were shipped to South Carolina and Georgia. It’s a short boat trip from the capital, which also boasts St John Maroon Church and traditional Krio culture. One of Africa’s oldest churches, St John Maroon’s woodwork includes timber from former slave shipping.

On Safari


It is the great plains of southern and eastern Africa that offer the very best safaris. South Africa’s Kruger National Park is perhaps the continent’s most famous protected area – one of some 3,000 that span the continent.

Situated in South Africa’s northeastern corner, it is one of Africa’s largest too, at roughly the same size as New Jersey. More importantly, its range of camps and private lodges provide a safari experience that’s difficult to match.

All of Africa’s most iconic species can be found within the borders of this country-sized reserve. Boasting more large mammal species than any other game park, Kruger is one of the few places in the world where it’s still possible to observe the Big Five species in their natural habitat. Lion, leopard, cheetah, elephant, and highly-endangered rhino share the plains and spotted woodland with hippo, antelope, and more than 500 different species of bird.

Lesser-visited Zambia is rapidly catching up with South Africa’s reputation as the safari destination of choice. Roughly a third of the country provides protected land for Africa’s wildlife, of which the most significant is probably South Luangwa National Park. The park is named after the River Luangwa, which is such an important source of water in this arid climate that it attracts one of the densest populations of wildlife anywhere on the continent.

What’s more, the mighty Victoria Falls lies on Zambia’s southern border with Zimbabwe. The largest waterfall in the world is a sight that shouldn’t be missed. But for Africa’s most unique safari experience head for Botswana’s Okavango Delta. Covering a huge area, this water world is best explored by traditional mokoro canoe to spot big game species wade through lily-strewn lakes.

Delving back in time

The landmarks of Egypt, including the Great Pyramids of Giza and the mysterious Sphinx, date back more than 5,000 years. The Nile Valley which cleaves the desert into eastern and western sections is dotted with sublime relics from the age of the Pharaohs. The golden mask and tomb of Tutankhamun at the Valley of the Kings are only just the start.

Elsewhere along the Mediterranean Sea coast of North Africa, Tunisia has a stunning selection of ancient Roman remains, including the city of Bulla Regis and the fine example of an amphitheater at El Jem. Morocco meanwhile has an extraordinary array of points of interest amid atmospheric streets largely unchanged since the medieval period. Its four imperial cities are a real-life movie set of bazaars, ancient mosques, and traditional riad homes.

city of Bulla Regis
City of Bulla Regis

Further south in sub-Saharan Africa, Ethiopia’s historic sites are equally mesmerizing. Join the northern circuit route and you’ll be able to explore the UNESCO World Heritage Site castle complex at Gondar, the ancient monasteries of Lake Tana, and the rock-cut churches of Lalibela, a true wonder of the world.

Best all-round destinations

Africa has around 25,000 miles of coastline. But when it comes to picture perfect beach destinations, east African neighbors Kenya and Tanzania are top of the wish list. Facing out into the Indian Ocean, their coastlines are warm and crystal clear, while their sands are so soft it’s hard to believe.

paje beach
Paje Beach

In Kenya, it’s an area of the central coast around Malindi and Watamu that have the best shores. Well set up as resorts, their protected waters also make them a formidable scuba diving destination, with the tropical corals here a rainbow of colors.

Drift south into Tanzania and the ambiance becomes even more laid back and relaxed. Although there are some very decent beaches on the mainland, most first-time visitors instead prefer to cross the narrow straits to the semi-autonomous islands of the Zanzibar archipelago. The north of Unguja (Zanzibar) Island offers luxurious world-class resorts.

islands of the Zanzibar
Islands of the Zanzibar

Kenya and Tanzania are also great choices of vacation destinations because you can easily combine a beach stay with a safari and even a hiking expedition to the summits of Africa’s highest peaks. Between them, these two nations maintain one of the most important ecosystems on the planet. The Maasai Mara/Serengeti is world renowned. Lying on the unfenced border, the Maasai Mara/Serengeti is another Big Five destination and also home to the annual Great Wildebeest Migration. The largest mass migration of antelope in the world, two million individual animals are chased all the way by the region’s big cats.

The Maasai Mara/Serengeti
The Maasai Mara

For hikers and adventure seekers, there is no greater challenge on the continent than climbing either Mount Kilimanjaro or Mount Kenya. ‘Kilimanjaro’s Uhuru Peak lies just shy of Mount Denali’s height at 19,300 feet, with Mount Kenya following close behind at just over 17,000 feet. Reaching either summit is a phenomenal achievement and one which you’ll remember for a lifetime to come.

Mount Kilimanjaro
Mount Kilimanjaro