Safaris and Sunsets under African Skies

Africa changes people. It’s a continent that has been luring and seducing visitors since the days of the great explorers Mungo Park and David Livingstone, and continues to inspire.

The savanna, and the regions that Westerners still romantically refer to as “jungle”, are the prime fascination. The light, the forest, and the wildlife have inspired countless romantic fictions.

It’s no great mystery why most visitors return from Africa with the first stirrings of a lifelong love affair. It is just so deliciously enjoyable. Many travel packages to the continent put an emphasis on luxury, with safari camps characterized by a certain elegant colonial charm.

Tourist life pursues a leisurely rhythm. Visitors are gently awakened in their four-poster beds strung with mosquito nets, and revived with hot coffee, before embarking on the first game drive of the day, a bumpy 4×4 ride along dusty trails in search of the elusive “big five”.

The five in question are the bush elephant, black rhino, Cape buffalo, lion, and leopard. If they remain elusive, it is because so many Westerners in the past came armed with rifles and took them back as trophies. Safaris these days are about conservation, about knowledgeable guides offering whispered commentary on habitats and hunting rituals. Animals are shot by high-powered lenses rather than firearms.

Safari is addictive and beguiling, because the days follow a familiar pattern. Dawn and dusk game drives are interspersed with meals on a verandah or under an awning, tales of wildlife wonders glimpsed that day, and the comforting ritual of a “sundowner” cocktail on the river, watching the hippos surface in a froth of bubbles and mud.

Several African nations have come around to the idea that conservation, and consequent tourism, can be a valuable source of revenue. National parks have proliferated on the continent. Where South Africa and Kenya led the way, other nations such as Namibia, Zambia, Rwanda, Uganda, and Tanzania have followed their example.

Many visitors combine a safari with a beach trip or sightseeing excursions. Few sites can have a more dramatic impact than Victoria Falls, on the Zambezi, straddling the border between Zambia and Zimbabwe. It’s a natural phenomenon that was regarded by the locals as a mystical place, and also inspired an awestruck response from the cool Scot Livingstone when he first laid eyes on it in the 19th century. Visitors stand, drenched and deafened by the power of the cataract’s spray, taking in the vistas over the gorge below.

In recent years, Africa has become a popular beach destination, with sensitive development of stretches of spectacular coastline. Indian Ocean and Atlantic options each have their loyal following, and the continent is a superb option for watersports, snorkeling, diving, or just enjoying the feel of silver sands underfoot.

In Kenya, Watamu beach is attached to the Malindi Marine Reserve, a protected area that offers great opportunities for divers to explore the turquoise waters and coral reefs. It is also possible to view green and hawksbill turtles in close proximity.

For romantics, Zanzibar exerts a magical allure. The tropical island off the coast of East Africa has minarets, dilapidated palaces, Moorish architecture, and fabulous beaches. Nungwi is a palm-fringed paradise, where local fishermen still head out to sea in their white-sailed dhows.

Hikers will love the cliff trails and beach walks of Coffee Bay on South Africa’s Indian Ocean Wild Coast. Rock formations, caves, and a scenic backdrop of rolling hills add romance to this wilderness.

The thrills of safari and glamor of a beach escape do not come cheap, and for many, Africa is a high-end, luxury destination. That’s not to say that the continent is inaccessible to the budget traveler.  Choosing destinations and lodgings carefully, it is still possible to see Africa without maxing out the credit card.

Cape Town is a vibrant and scenic city where there is no shortage of cheap restaurants and bars. Budget accommodation is scarce, but it is possible to find competitively-priced hotels. Beaches and tourist attractions are usually free, and first-time visitors will be impressed by the inexpensive and excellent South African wine.

The Gambia, on the Atlantic coast, is an African destination that offers numerous facilities for budget travelers. Even ocean-facing hotel rooms can be booked for a reasonable price. The Gambia has a vibrant music and nightlife scene. For a chastening reminder of this coast’s dark past, visitors can see the stark remains of the old slaving towns.

That contrast between an optimistic present and horrifying history is all part of the mystery of Africa. It’s a destination that offers luxury, romance, stark beauty, and amazing wildlife, but enlightened visitors should also be aware of the continent’s troubled past, its present struggles, and a future that depends so much on conservation and careful management of its abundant resources.

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