Planning the Africa Leg of the Trip

I’ve finally finished my perusal of Lonely Planet’s Africa on a Shoestring, which I was using to get an idea of places worth visiting. Actually, I’ve been done for a while, but I was holding out on posting, hoping Jeff would finish the Asia guidebook and we could also post about that region. Unfortunately, Jeff has been swamped with work as he tries to get everything done in time to graduate with his PhD early next summer, so Asia will have to wait a bit.

Anyhow, on to Africa. While others might think of South Pacific islands, in my mind Africa is the definition of exotic. It’s a place so entirely different from my “ordinary.” As we’ve talked about this trip and slowly begun to turn it into reality, Africa has always been my goal, the one place I most wanted to go. I’m pulled to this continent by its stunning natural beauty, its awesome wildlife, and its unique culture. I think I could spend our entire year here, so narrowing places down was hard, and there is still much decision making to do. There will certainly be some wonderful places that end up on the cutting room floor.

So why don’t I then begin with the places that we will not be going.

West Africa: Because Africa is such an enormous place, we had to first narrow possible destinations down by location, and when it came to East versus West, East won. The Serengeti, Victoria Falls, and Mt. Kilimanjaro just held too much sway. Perhaps on RTW Take 2, we’ll do West Africa.

Countries We’ve Already Been To: So that’s only Egypt. Africa is very much a land of unknowns to us. If Egypt is at all a taste of the continent, we’ll both be very happy. I don’t think either Jeff or I would have any resistance to going back, but this trip is about the places we haven’t been, not the ones, no matter how cool, that we’ve already experienced.

Unsafe Spots: Yes, life is about taking risks, but not unnecessary ones. So we will be avoiding Sudan, Congo (Zaire), Burundi, Somalia, and Angola.

And now for the exciting part, the countries that interest us. Yes, I know this is way too much, but for this go-round, I was being open to the possibilities, noting everything that captured my imagination.

Rwanda: I can see the radars going off already. For most of us, our defining image of Rwanda is that of the merciless civil war that pitted Hutus against Tutsis and led to what can only be called genocide. However, the country has moved on from the atrocities of 1994, and it is now a safe place to visit. Highlights of Rwanda are the Parc National Nyungwe Forest, where you can see chimpanzees in the wild, and Parc National des Volcans, where you can go on gorilla treks and explore the volcano.

Uganda: Like Rwanda, Uganda has the gorilla thing going on. We’ll obviously only go see them once (it’s not cheap!), but where, I’m not yet certain. The bad news with the Uganda gorillas is that they live in an area right near the border of Congo and sometimes cross over, which then means you are out of luck, since you can’t follow into Congo (and don’t really want to). Also, apparently, Uganda is the more popular destination, making it harder to get a spot on a trek. Other cool things in Uganda include Queen Elizabeth National Park–which was wildlife walks and drives and has hippos(!), Ssese Islands–a lovely beach area, and Jinja–the source of the Nile and a hot spot for whitewater rafting.

Tanzania: If there’s one country that really has it going on, Tanzania might be it. You’ve got Serengeti National Park and the Ngorongoro Crater, Mt. Kilimanjaro, and Zanzibar. So crazy wildlife, amazing mountain trekking, and great beaches and scuba diving. There’s also the Usambara Mountains, which are known as “Africa’s Switzerland,” and are great for hiking. What’s not to love?

Kenya: Often thought of as the traditional land of the safari, Kenya is home to the Masai Mara, famous for the annual wildebeest migration, and Tsavo National Park. Tsavo just happens to be the name of the lion that resided at the Louisville Zoo when I worked there (and may have been the lion that was thought to have escaped one Halloween although it turned out he was just doing a very good job of hiding). Interesting trivia, huh? Kenya also offers an opportunity to mountain bike at Lake Naivasha and & Hell’s Gate National Park. Seriously, a park named Hell’s Gate, how can you not want to see that?

Ethiopa: This isn’t your mother’s Ethiopia, no longer the image associated with the “There’s starving children in Africa” ploy to get you to eat your vegetables. These days there is plenty of injera to go around, t hough I can’t say that I’m much of a fan of this spongy bread. But I am intrigued by the city of Addis Ababa and it’s markets, the ancient sites of Aksum, and the rock churches of Lalibela.

Madagascar: I don’t know about you but I associate Madagascar with lemurs, and I think it would be awesome, although potentially deafening, to be in a forest full of lemurs. From my days at the LZ, I can recall the piercing noise just a few of those creatures could make. It was insane. The Parc National de Ranomafana is the place to spot some of these endangered critters. For great hiking and waterfall exploring, there’s Parc National de I’Isalo, and for swimming with the whales and sharks (eek), there’s the lovely waterfront town of Ifaty. Main problem here is that Madagascar is pretty darn far away from the mainland and not so easy or cheap to access.

Mozambique: Africa with some Latin flavor thanks to its Portuguese colonizers. The diving is good at Bazaruto Archipelago National Park, and the dhow trips around the Querimba Archipelago sound enticing. But I’m not completely sold yet.

Zambia: Sharing Victoria Falls with Zimbabwe, Zambia is an adventure lover’s paradise. There’s gorge swinging, microlight flights, white water rafting, riverboarding…

Zimbabwe: This country offers up the same Victoria Falls adventures as Zambia, but also has a few other things peaking my interest. The canoe safaris at Mana Pools National Park sound pretty cool and the hiking at Chimanimani sounds top-notch. The issue here though is whether I want, through my tourist dollars, to support the out-of-control President Robert Mugabe.

Botswana: You know those cool National Geographic pictures of rivers just teeming with hippos, so many that it seems you could walk across the water on their backs, that’s Botswana, specifically the Okavango Delta. Want to explore that in a dugout canoe? Yeah, me too. Unfortunately, I’m not sure that’s going to happen. Botswana is expensive, the land of luxury safaris, and fancy resorts. So most likely, unless we win the lottery prior to this trip, Botswana will be a no-go.

Namibia: German is one of the languages officially spoken here, so I think that means that I better go. It might just be the only place on this trip where I could put my language skills and college degree to work. And it’s a happening country, so it’s worth a visit with sandboarding in Swakopmund, wildlife watching in Etosha National Park, and red sand dunes exploring in Namib-Naukluft Park. The only trick here is that it’s not an easy country to get around, but I think I’m willing to work a little harder for this one.

South Africa: There’s lots going on in this popular African destination. Just in Cape Town alone, you can revisit history at Robben Island, get a peek at penguins on Cape Peninsula National Park, and take a hike up Table Mountain. Then you’ve got the Winelands, the coastal town of Cintsa which is like a summer camp for grownups, the ancient rainforests of Hogsback, and Kruger National Park, where I’m psyched about the exciting and affordable walking safaris.

Wow, that’s a lot. Africa just oozes excitement. There are so many unique things to see and do. But if you’ve actually read through all of my descriptions, you’ll have noticed that there is also a fair bit of overlap with the main themes of safaris and adventure sports. Obviously, we’re not going to do the same activities over and over while just simply switching countries. We have to narrow things down, figure out what’s best, where we can get the most bang for our buck, and what places really capture the authenticity and awesomeness that we’re looking for. This isn’t the Amazing Race (they’ve rejected me twice, damn it), so we’d like to actually spend time in the countries we ultimately end up choosing to see, not just breeze through, checking off sites. The planning is underway, but there’s still a lot to do.