Lately, people like Judith Miller and Jeb Bush have appeared on TV acting as though the war in Iraq was some kind of natural disaster, as though they (and their friends) had nothing to do with maintaining a post-9/11 climate of fear in America – as though a climate of fear isn’t something simple humans like them could influence. Miller, Bush, and a few others have already been rightfully taken to task by others in the media (so I don’t need to), and yet they, and their friends, are still creating climates of fear.
My Exhibit A is the Ebola scare of seven months ago. If that wasn’t hyped up by Republicans, then why did Ebola disappear from the front pages the day after the November midterm elections? No more calls to restrict flights to/from Africa? No more blaming U.S. hospitals for treating Ebola-stricken patients? Why not? Certainly not because the problem went away.
Yes, Ebola is a horrible disease far more actual than Saddam Hussein’s WMD. And yes, thanks to the work of many persistent doctors and aides, some severely afflicted countries have now been declared Ebola-free. But the climate of fear has taken its toll. Tourists aren’t going to Africa now. The great savanna safaris are mostly sans visitors. An entire continent has been made to suffer for a scourge visitied on the western, equatorial part of it. It would be like skipping your trip to Walt Disney World in Florida because you’d heard about nuclear radiation in Nevada.
Eastern and Southern Africa are entirely untouched by Ebola, or for that matter by the civil wars in Congo and Sudan, the corruption in Angola, the search for Joseph Kony, or the increasing Muslim radicalization in places like Mali and Mauritania. Many parts of North Africa are also nice, but I don’t feel I need to sing their praises; Europeans and Muslims can be relied upon to continue to travel to Morocco, Tunisia, Ethiopia, and Egypt (the latter despite its many problems). It’s Blacker Africa that suffers from irrational Ebola bias. I’d love to promote West Africa, but during this Ebola recovery period, realistically, that’s a future post…right now, we just need people to go to Africa at all.
Where some see crisis, dear reader, you might see opportunity. For one thing, you won’t have to wait in long tourist queues…for anything. Hotel managers will treat you as though you just stepped off Air Force One. And on a quieter safari, animals will pop out of the bush that you might well have missed otherwise. And as you may have heard, if you want to see elephants in the wild, you probably have less than a decade to get your ass to Africa.
But hey, what about getting ripped off? Sure, a few places may try to increase their fees to make up for all the Ebola-lost business. And let’s face it, you could probably afford a couple of extra dollars in a few cases. Nonetheless, this is a good time to make arrangements well in advance of your African arrival. It’s also a good time to comparison shop, whether online or on-the-ground. If A demands X, head over to B and tell them about A and X and say you’re ready to pay right now, but you want to pay $100 less than X.
And that leads to the fact that this is a probably a good time to stick to sub-Saharan Africa’s greatest hits, the sorts of activities that have a wide variety of tour operators, including several who take credit cards. (Carrying a lot of cash isn’t a good idea anywhere you go, including ten blocks from your house, unless you’re prepared to lose it.) You might just want to book a Western-organized tour, for example at www.gadventures.com. But if you like ordering things a little more a la carte, what’s the Top 15 you should be thinking about right now? Thanks for asking, and remember that watching wildlife varies greatly with the seasons, so plan accordingly:
TOP 15 SUB-SAHARAN AFRICA MUST-SEES
Bazaruto National Sea Park is like nowhere else in Africa, or the world really: the continent’s only officially protected marine reserve is hardly over-touristed like the Red Sea or the Great Barrier Reef, so you’ll be underwater looking 100 feet ahead of you at dolphins, whales, mantas, rays, turtles, and thinking, okay, this is the marine paradise I’ve been trying to find for my whole life.
Cape Town is sometimes called the Paris of Africa, and the food (like peri-peri chicken) is terrific and one-of-a-kind, but Cape Town is unmissable because of its stupendous geographical features. It’s the southwestern tip of the hemisphere, with all the wild bird and fish migration that implies. Plus you have to day-trip to Robben Island and see the closet where Nelson Mandela was imprisoned for decades, and think about why that kind of thing is still happening.
The Kalahari Desert. The Okavango Delta. Come on, just saying you’ve been to either such place makes you sound like you’ve out-adventured Teddy Roosevelt. Turns out one is inside the other – the delta winds through the desert in Botswana – so when you go, you get two bucket-list items for the price of one, and besides the staggering wildlife (a lot of hippos and rhinos) you see more types of trees than anywhere else on Earth.
Kilimanjaro is the only highest-mountain-of-a-continent that you might realistically climb from bottom to top; crazily, most healthy people get to the top and back down in less than a week, sometimes going from sauna temps to snowy peaks. Here’s you, decades from now, on your deathbed: I climbed Mount Kilimanjaro. Think about it.
Kruger National Park is considered the best of the parks in Southern Africa, and if you go to enough of the others, you’ll start to miss the relatively paved roads and regular schedules (of humans) at Kruger. While in the neighborhood, you may also get yourself to Johannesburg for the sake of apartheid history and other fascinations, but Kruger may well be the best mild-climate safari of your life.
The Maasai Mara is Kenya’s most astonishing park/reserve; the same protected area becomes known as the Serengeti when you enter Tanzania. This is the ecosystem that inspired all those stories by Hemingway and the like. There is no possible better place to properly see the Big Five: lions, elephants, rhinos, leopards, and buffaloes. If you time your visit right, you can see the wildebeest migration, probably from a hot-air balloon; veterans of this experience swear it was among the best days of their lives.
Madagascar – whoa, you’re seriously thinking about going to Madagascar? You will get coolness points that 95% of visitors to Africa never get. Along the way you’ll see animals (famously certain lemurs, but also others) that the rest of us can’t even dream about seeing. Way to pull into the fast lane of life and never look back.
Malawi is as much a state as a state of mind; the whole country is teeming with so many friendly people, it’s known as “The Warm Heart of Africa.” Probably hang out at or near Monkey Bay, where you can swim, kayak, and enjoy what the tropics feel like up a mountain and on a massive, bigger-than-Tahoe-sized lake (which forms pretty much the country’s entire Eastern border).
Mombasa is the most popular city in Kenya, and it’s easy to see why: the coastal atmosphere, the casual integration of many faiths, and the island (Mvita) inside the river delta with the centuries-old colonial buildings and Fort Jesus. You’ve also got easy day access to things like the Sacred Mijikenda Kala Forests and Jumba la Mtwana. It’s the kind of place that will have you correcting people’s misimpressions about Africans for the rest of your life.
Ngorongoro Conservation Area is technically part of the Serengeti (covered upthread by the Masai Mara) but this three-for-one deserves its own entry: a collapsed volcano (that tapers off to a 6km salt lake) with ridges of colors you didn’t know existed; a tremendous place to view wildlife; and the apparent cradle of humanity. You’re going to hit Olduvai Gorge, and they’re not crazy enough to let you dig up things, but you’ll visit the museum and see two million year old (!!) fossils of our ancestors.
Selous Game Reserve is the largest game reserve in Africa, at over 50,000 square kilometers. It’s a more manicured setting than some, but that can be nice when you want to think less, and enjoy elephants, black rhinos, hippos, giraffes, and crocodiles more. Plus, it’s known as one of the rare parks where you are permitted to do your own nature hike (accompanied by a ranger). This or Masai/Serengeti will be your best safari, and it’s safer to plan more than one (in case animals hide from you the first time).
Swakopmund, Namibia is basically the Interlaken or Bangkok of coastal Africa (read: sporty activities), partly because of the mild desert climate (it’s south enough) that results in San Francisco-like fog, and partly because of the German buildings and culture everywhere. Excellent eateries, and perfect base to do the rest of what Namibia has to offer, and also to tell friends: I’m emailing you from NAMIBIA.
Victoria Falls is an experience that will take your breath away – for days. It’s better than Niagara and Iguaca in South America, not because it’s got more water or a steeper drop (though it looks like it!), but because unlike other big falls, Victoria is set up to do all kinds of water-based activities, from rafting to para-sailing. You haven’t ridden until you’ve ridden the Zambezi, right?
Volcanoes National Park is the best place in the world to trek into the mountains and make 1-to-1 contact with gorillas in the wild, considered by many to be a transformative experience on the level of seeing your first child born. Hmm, let’s not go too far with that analogy, eh? We can all agree that we need to spend money in Rwanda anyway, just to prove that we support them reconciling their genocide.
Zanzibar – if this is the last place on your list (like it is on this one), you’ll find the perfect (and very walkable) blend of everything human in Africa: picturesque forts, beaches, sultan palaces, former slave markets, Livingstone’s old place, Muslim culture, Swahili culture, and a warm, equatorial café-culture that will make you wish you had just one more day in Africa.