Come for the wildlife. Stay for everything else.
Mention Africa travel to most folks and the response you get will likely include the word “safari.” No surprise, since Africa is the birthplace of safari travel.
In its terrain, its climates and its wildlife, there is no more varied place anywhere. But there is so much more than that to the land I like to call “the Mother Continent” than flora and fauna.
The heart and soul of Africa are found in her people. Or more accurately, her peoples — all 1.2 billion of them, divided into 55 sovereign nations and 3,000-plus ethnic groups speaking roughly 2,000 languages.
Each of those languages tells a story that reaches back millennia, long before anyone in the “developed world” ever set foot here. It’s a history the rest of the world only beginning to discover — or acknowledge.
At the same time, Africa may well be the youngest of continents. The median age of its peoples is 19.7 years old. The majority of its nations only received — or won — their independence from European colonizers less than a century ago.
And if you are African-American, your whole life story begins here.
What’s it all mean? It means that Africa offers a world of experiences for the traveler that have nothing at all to do with wildlife. A world of food, music, art, dance, fashion, history and heritage.
The Nile River tells a story of ancient Egypt. Visitors still flock to the Giza pyramids, the Great Sphinx, Abu Simbel, Luxor, the Valley of the Kings, the Egyptian Museum.
But just outside its vast and sprawling ancient capital, Cairo, a whole new capital city is rising out of the desert, being built from scratch, in much the same way that Brazil erected its ultra-modern planned capital, Brasilia, n the middle of the Amazon.
And further north, where the Nile Delta meets the Mediterranean, the port city of Alexandria is home to one of the world’s grand libraries and one of Africa’s architectural marvels, the Bibliotheca Alexandrina.
To the south of Egypt, the Nile has another, less well-known story to tell. It’s the story of the ancient civilizations of Kush, whose warriors conquered Egypt and produced its Black pharaohs.
You probably know about Tutankhamen. Do you know about Tarharqa? His story, and that of the other Black pharaohs, is told in the ancient temples and pyramids of Meroë and Jebel Barkal in what is now Sudan.
The trans-Atlantic slave trade was born on the shores of what is now Ghana. The first slave ships sailed from dock at Elmina Castle, one of more than 40 commercial forts that lined the West African coast from Senegal to Angola, the site of the original “Door of No Return.” Not far from Elmina stands Cape Coast Castle, the largest slave fort ever built. Both still stand in Ghana as UNESCO World Heritage Sites.
But there’s more here than just history. West Africa is the cradle of modern African music — from Afrobeat to zouglou. Modern African dance thrives here — including modern Africans dance traditions that look ancient, like zaouli in the Cote d’Ivoire (Ivory Coast) And Lagos, Nigeria has become one of the high-fashion and film capitals of the world.
It’s also where you can see ancient and modern Africa function in tandem as traditional kings, including those of the once-mighty Ashanti kingdom in Ghana, still have roles to play in today’s society.
Meanwhile, tourists annually flock to Benin for its annual Voodoo Festival to see what that long miscast and misunderstood religion is really about.
The safari capital of the world is also home to the remarkable Maasai, herdsmen and warriors straddling the ancient and the modern world in Kenya. Off the Kenyan coast on Lamu Island, craftsmen are building traditional Arab sailboats called dhows entirely out of recycled plastic waste, much of it washing ashore from the Indian Ocean.
Ethiopia has more UNESCO World Heritage Sites than any other African country. They include the complex of ancient palaces at Gondar, and the city of Axum, where an Ethiopian orthodox church is said to house the Ark of the Covenant. Most famous of all are the 11 rock churches of Lalibela, each carved out of — and into — a dormant volcano nine centuries ago.
Uganda share vigilant care of the region’s endangered mountain gorillas with its neighbor, Rwanda, which in the space of a generation, has emerged from the shadow of a horrific genocide to become a growing African success story.
South Africa has some of the continent’s largest cities — and one of them, Cape Town, is world-famous for its beauty and multicultural attractions. It’s also one of three African countries where you can find penguins, Angola and Namibia being the other two.
The story of South Africa is also the story of Nelson Mandela, who outlasted 27 of solitary confinement on Robben Island to lead his homeland out of apartheid. But a visit to one of its impoverished and racially segregated townships will show just how much of Mandela’s work remains to be done.
For rail travel enthusiasts, South Africa also boasts two of the most luxurious tourist trains on the planet, Rovos Rail and world-famous Blue Train, which can give the Simplon-Orient Express a run for its (considerable) money.
Off West Africa’s Atlantic coast, the island nation of Cape Verde is home to communities that have maintained their traditions down through the ages. Their very isolation has both deprived them of and shielded them from modernization. This former Portuguese colony also celebrates its own version of Rio’s famous Carnaval.
Farther down the coast, Namibia’s Shark Island is the site of the world’s first concentration camp, built in 1900 by Germany to punish two African tribes for the “crime” of refusing to be colonized.
Off the coast of East Africa, the island nations of Madagascar, Mauritius and the Seychelles are great places to chill in postcard-gorgeous Indian Ocean settings. This is especially true in the Seychelles, which is diligent about keeping its 115 islands clean and beautiful.
When not kicking back at one of its all-inclusive beach resorts, you can explore the spice markets and narrow streets of the small towns of Zanzibar, which is part of Tanzania, making it a good spot to recuperate from the rigors of one of those safaris.