Africa Outside Safari

Posted by on May 15th, 2021

Most people dreaming of a trip to Africa instantly think of a safari: the Big 5, wildebeests dodging crocodiles as they cross rivers, gorillas in the mist, and hot air balloons over endless savannahs. While these are all exceptional, bucket-list-worthy experiences, there are a few destinations that are often overlooked, which can add so much to any trip to Africa. Here are our top five options for Africa outside the typical safari:

1) Ethiopia

Gelada Baboons in Semien Mountains National Park, Ethiopia

Gelada Baboons in Semien Mountains National Park, Ethiopia

This incredibly diverse country has traditionally fallen under the travel radar, but it is home to ancient civilizations and some of Africa’s most dramatic landscapes.  As a major airline hub and a gateway to safaris further south, a stopover in Ethiopia is well worth it.

Africa’s second-most populous country, home to the African Union and one of the original founding members of the United Nations, Ethiopia is a political and cultural powerhouse. Its rugged mountains and remote stone churches appeal to a more adventurous traveler, but there is enough history here to suit anyone’s interests.

Never colonized, Ethiopia has maintained the fabric of its rich cultural heritage over millennia and is home to hundreds of diverse peoples.  The Omo Valley in the south-western corner of the country is alone home to more than 40 distinct tribes, each with its own unique dress, customs, and beliefs.

In the north, the power and history of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church are most evident in Lalibela, where the famous rock-hewn churches are cut some 40 feet down, an endless network of underground devotion and a sight to behold. The castles of Gondor will make you feel as if you have gone back in time to the age of kings and knights, and the monoliths and ancient ruins of Axum are filled with ancient secrets.

Gondar Castles in the Amhara Region of Ethiopia

Gondar Castles in the Amhara Region of Ethiopia

The craggy peaks and vast plateaus of the Simien Mountains are an amazing place for hiking and trekking and are home to much of Ethiopia’s wildlife, including the endangered Walia ibex, the fierce Gelada Baboons, and the elusive Ethiopian wolf.

Further South, the Danakil Depression is one of the lowest, hottest, and driest places on earth, and home to the Agar people, who have learned to live in this harsh environment. It is as if you have set foot on another planet as you take in the bubbling lava lakes, hydrothermal fields in vibrant shades of green, red, and yellow, and vast salt pans of this bizarre landscape.

2) Madagascar

Mesmerizing landscapes along the National Route 7 between Ambalavao and Isalo, Madagascar

Mesmerizing landscapes along the National Route 7 between Ambalavao and Isalo, Madagascar

The world’s second-largest island nation is home to an abundance of wildlife and natural landscapes not found anywhere else on our planet – it is utterly unique. From crystal clear turquoise waters and white sand beaches to dense rainforest, mammoth glacial rock formations, and high grazing plateaus, Madagascar has more diversity of landscape than you would ever imagine finding on an island.

Situated in the Indian Ocean, Madagascar’s strategic position along ancient trade routes has led to a melting pot of Austronesian, Arab, European and African cultures. This is the only place in the world where you will find native lemurs, and an incredible 90 percent of its flora and fauna are also endemic.

Beautiful Baobab trees at sunset at the avenue of the baobabs in Madagascar

Sunset at the Alley of the Baobabs in Madagascar

Home to the iconic Alley of the Baobabs, the red and grey rock forests of Tsingy, over 100 species of lemurs with new ones still being discovered, whale sharks and a plethora of other marine wildlife, spiny forests, rainforests, and picturesque villages surrounded by rice paddies, this is an island you will want to explore in its entirety.

3) Mozambique

Villa Santorini

Villa Santorini, a beach resort in Mozambique

Although traditionally known for its long coastline of pristine white sand beaches, remote archipelagos, and marine reserves, Mozambique has much more to offer.

An abundance of natural resources and fertile land has contributed to a difficult history in this scenic country, but sweeping changes and cutting-edge conservation projects are leading to a bright future for this under-the-radar destination.

The more famous national parks of Gonarezhou in Zimbabwe and Kruger in South Africa both spill liberally into Mozambique, forming the massive Great Limpopo Transfrontier Park. Further north, Gorongosa National Park is perhaps Africa’s greatest wildlife restoration project of all time, combining modern conservation techniques, sustainable tourism, and a respectful human-focused approach to revive one of Africa’s great historical parks.

Be among the first to explore a safari in its remote national parks or lounge in extreme luxury on a remote beach in Mozambique.

4) Malawi

Lake Malawi

Lake Malawi

Although technically landlocked, the peaceful and vibrant nation of Malawi houses the third largest lake in Africa and the southernmost lake of the dramatic Great Rift Valley system. Scuba diving or snorkeling in the fresh, crystal-clear waters is like swimming in your own personal fish tank. Home to at least 850 brightly-colored species of cichlids, this surprising beach destination is a hidden gem and an incredible add-on to a safari in Southern Africa. Select luxury lodges on remote sandy beaches or tranquil islands allow you to relax in comfort as you enjoy the warm waters of this unique lake. For those looking for something a little different, hop aboard a yacht and explore hidden coves and islands.

While not known as a premier safari destination, Malawi has 11 burgeoning national parks, or you can easily be out on the best of the bush in neighboring Zambia in the morning and on the beach in Malawi the same afternoon.

For those who are more interested in active adventure, hiking and trekking options abound in Malawi.  The Zomba Plateau rises to a height of 1,800 meters (6,000 feet) and has several easy hikes in a lush forested landscape with incredible panoramic views and excellent bird-watching. Further south, Mount Mulanje, a huge granite massif, provides several peaks to explore. A further option is the Nyika Plateau, with its beautiful rolling hills and grasslands speckled with zebra, antelope, orchids, and butterflies.

5) Sudan

Meroe Pyramids in the Sahara Desert, Sudan

Fun fact: there are more pyramids in Sudan than there are in Egypt. This fact goes a long way to illuminate some of the mysteries of Sudan and highlights a huge reason to travel to this off-the-beaten-path destination.

Steeped in the history of the Pharaohs, this huge country was once home to the Nubians. Architectural remnants of their powerful ancient civilization – such as the antiquities of Meroe and Karima – are found along the valley of the Nile in the never-ending Sahara Desert.

Visitors here can immerse themselves in Sudan’s many archaeological riches in relative tranquility, far removed from the crowds that characterize similar sites on the other side of the border in Egypt.

Journey in search of history through the Bayuda, Nubian and Western Deserts and discover their ancient histories. With the stability of recent years, it will not be long until word gets out on this much under-visited destination, where African and Arabic culture intersect in the welcoming faces of the modern Sudanese people.

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