Overlander’s guide to sights in Africa

Labelling Africa as a mere tourist destination is grossly misleading: not because tourists are not allowed, which of course they are, and in their millions, but because contrary to popular belief, Africa does not consist only of the Sahara Desert and Sub-Saharan Africa. Amazingly, even some Africans, especially those in Central Africa, share this myopic First-world view of Africa but these people could probably be forgive, since they often spend their entire lives confined to an area of a few square kms around their villages- because there are virtually no roads in this region.

Nevertheless, the 54 countries of Africa fall into widely differing climatic, political, religious, geographical, and cultural regions, and collectively they offer off-road tourists in Africa an almost unlimited choice of destinations and experiences, but it is important at this point to emphasize the fact that not all of the countries of Africa are accessible to all tourists all of the time. For example, Tunisia will not issue visas to tourists who have Israeli passports, or Israeli visas in their passports regardless of the country of issue, while wars, political upheaval, and diplomatic ructions can cause some countries to close their borders to their neighbors, or to tourists who merely happened to pass through the territories of their enemies: very much a case of “The friend of my enemy is my enemy.”

Although it is considerably more difficult to reach some of the spectacular attractions that Africa offers due to the poor road infrastructure than it is reaching the attractions of other continents with better-developed road systems, it is no more dangerous to tour Africa than it is touring any other continent. The only real drawbacks to sightseeing in Africa are the vast distances involved on the one hand, and the vast numbers of sights worth seeing on the other; but since the routes through Africa are destinations in themselves, we have divided the continent into its principal regions to make it easier to plan a route that will take in the most sights. However, because every region comprises several sovereign countries each, only the principal attractions of each region can be listed here. Therefore this is more an Overlander’s guide to sights in Africa, that a tourist guide. There are simply too many tourist attractions in Africa to list them all, so follow the links provided in this article for more information on the attractions specific to each country on your itinerary.

Contents:

North Africa


This region comprises the area along the Mediterranean Sea, as well as the Atlantic Coast of north-west Africa, and consists of the countries of Algeria, Egypt, Libya, Morocco, Tunisia, and those of the Western Sahara.

Sights of North Africa


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Abu Simbel:

Located nearly on the Egyptian/Sudanese border in as remote a spot as one can get, this is the site of some of the largest (and oldest) temples and statues from antiquity. Carved out of solid rock at the behest of Pharaoh Ramses II in 1275 BC, these 20 meter-high statues of the King seated amongst the Gods is a must-see destination.

Carthage:

A Phoenician colony in Tunisia and the erstwhile trade hub of the ancient world, infamously destroyed by the Romans. The remnants of this once great city that controlled much of the economy of the old world is now the centre of a must-see museum.

El-Oued:

Also known as the City of One Thousand Domes, El-Oued has the largest collection of preserved buildings in the Desert Architectural style. Temperature control in the buildings and houses is accomplished by the design of the domed roofs, which maintain air circulation inside the structures; a design feature that amounts to effective air conditioning without electricity. Nearby is Grand Erg Oriental, the second largest dune field in the Sahara.

Ghat:

This prehistoric settlement in Libya is a favourite among historians because of the rock paintings and engravings in the nearby Tadrart Acacus and Tassili N’Ajjer mountains. The surrounding area also offers some of the most challenging desert driving in the entire Sahara. This area is however best visited during winter, since average summer temperatures can exceed 46-48 degree Celsius at times, especially during June, July, and August.

High Atlas:

The Atlas Mountain range of Morocco offers some of the most spectacular scenic sights in North Africa, as well as the only skiing opportunities in the Sahara. Snow falls of up to three meters and more during winter offers excellent skiing, and the snow melt in spring turns the low lands into wild flower displays that rival even those in South Africa. The Atlas Mountains are also famous for the challenging hiking, rock climbing, and mountain biking opportunities it offers, albeit under supervision of a guide.

Leptis Magna:

During its glory days during the reign of Roman Emperor Septimius Severus, this town in Libya was one of the most beautiful in the entire Roman world. Many ruins of ancient warehouses, market places, houses, and temples still exist, as does almost the entire ancient (man-made) harbour with its attendant infrastructure, such as the quay, jetty, military strong points, storage facilities, and numerous temples to deities that protected maritime commerce. This is a definite must-see destination.

Matmata:

This small settlement in Tunisia is perhaps better known for the fact that much of the Star Wars saga was filmed here than for its troglodyte, or underground accommodations, which is the traditional housing for the local Berber population. Fans of the Star Wars movies will never forgive themselves if they do not spend at least one night in the Hotel Sidi Driss, which played the part of Luke Skywalker’s ancestral home on the planet Tatooine.

Merzouga and M’Hamid:

Both of these desert towns are starting points for extended camel rides through some of the most intimidating dune fields of the Sahara. However, for those who do not trust camels, the area also offers real desert 4×4 trails of up to 10 hours in duration.

Valley of the Kings:

Apart from the Pyramids and the Sphinx just outside of Cairo, the Valley of the Kings in Luxor is probably the most visited tourist attraction in all of Egypt, but the fifteen royal tombs that are open to the public is definitely worth a visit. Among the royal tombs to see are those of Thutmose III, one of the possible Pharaohs that ruled Egypt (the other possibility is Amenhotep III), during the time of Moses and the exodus, and Tutankhamun, the Boy King.

Sahel


Spanning slightly more than 3 800 km between the Atlantic- and Red Sea coasts, the countries of this region, Chad, Mali, Mauritania, Niger and Sudan, take up the region between the Sahara proper in the north, and the beginning of the wooded savannah towards the south. Mostly flat at between 200- and 400 meters ASL, the vegetation of the region consists of semi-arid grassland, savannah, scattered scrub-land, and steppes that remind one of Eastern Europe. This region has the lowest population density in Africa, and there are thus not a great variety of tourist destinations, but here are the principal ones:

Sights of the Sahel


Balleyara Market:

Starting at 10 am on Sundays, this spectacular animal and craft market just two hours from Niamey in Niger, is a heady mix of thousands of camels, cattle, goats, horses, sheep, and their owners trying to get the best prices for their animals, pitted against buyers looking for the best deal at the lowest price. Surprisingly there are no hotels or tourist accommodation for the hundreds of buyers and sellers from all over North and West Africa, but there is a fully equipped camp site only 3 kms out of town.

Dogon Country:

For the last one thousand years the people of this region of Mali have been living in villages that are dug from vertical cliff faces up to five hundred metres high- a style of architecture that gives the term “alternative living” a whole new meaning. This lifestyle came about as the direct result of the people’s refusal to convert to Islam, and during their long isolation had developed a unique culture, language, and religion. This UNESCO World Heritage Site is a must-see destination, but the use of guides is highly recommended to prevent causing offence by trespassing on holy sites, or saying the wrong thing at the wrong time.

Djenne:

Also known as the “Pious Town”, because of its great mosque built of sun-baked mud bricks, this
Town in Mali was once a world famous centre of culture, religious studies, and commerce that rivalled Timbuktu. Continuously inhabited since 250 BC, the multi-storey mud buildings, of which more than 2000 are still in daily use, are built on a series of hillocks as a safeguard against seasonal flooding. This monument to the building skill of the ancients is another must-see destination.

West Africa


West Africa consists of the western reaches of the African continent, bounded in the north by the Sahel, and the Atlantic Ocean in the west and south, and is the most densely populated region of the continent. The region is made up of Benin, Burkina Faso, Cape Verde, Cote d’Ivoire, Gambia, Ghana, Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, Liberia, Nigeria, Senegal, Sierra Leone, and Togo, and from a tourism perspective, it is the most difficult, but potentially most rewarding region to explore.

Although the region is not totally bereft of sights worth seeing, there being no big game animals or impressive ruins like those in North Africa, the real attraction of this region lies in the vast numbers of cultures, building styles, markets, languages, national dress, and of course the friendliness and hospitality of its people. Travel in West Africa involves a lot of hardship, toil, and sweat for little return as far as unforgettable sight go, but the area is definitely worth a visit, even if just for the variety of cultures and the few sights listed here.

Sights of West Africa


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Bijagos Islands:

A spectacularly beautiful collection of around twenty tropical islands in Guinea Bissau; almost all equipped with French-owned fishing camps with varying degrees of luxury and levels of accommodation and facilities.

Ganvie:

Also known as the “Venice of Africa,”, this town with 20 000 or so souls in Benin souls is the closest thing to the towns on stilts of South-East Asia you are likely to get. Built in the centre of Lake Nokoué, a short distance from the largest city in Benin, Cotonou, this town offers some of the best photography opportunities in all of West Africa.

Niokolo-Koba:

At 900 km², this park is the largest national park in Senegal, with a wide variety of eco-systems, such as gallery forests, savannah, rocky outcrops, bushveld, and extensive wetlands. The best way to explore this almost pristine area is by 4×4, although the park is only open from 15 December to 30 April, because of extensive flooding by the Gambia River during the wet season.

Tamberma Valley:

This valley in Togo, which is this country’s equivalent to the Dogon Country of Mali, has for some reason escaped the tourist hordes, and remains one of West Africa’s best kept secrets. If anything, the hill-side villages are more surreal and improbable than those in Mali, as is the spectacularly scenic mountain vistas. This is a definite must-see destination.

Game Parks:

West Africa has a whole slew of game parks, and although the majority of them are in dire financial straits, with poorly developed infrastructure and a dismal record of failed conservation attempts. Nevertheless, there are a few that stand out, and are definitely worth a visit.

W National Park:

This major, Transfrontier Park derives its improbable name from a distinctive “W”-shaped kink in the Niger River, but the nearly 10 000 sq kms almost uninhabited area of the park falls within Niger, Benin, and Burkina Faso, and is administered by the governments of all three countries.
The W park is famous for its large animals, including the rare West African elephant, large hippo pods, lions, leopards, and buffalo, among others. The park is also the home of some of the exceedingly rare Northwest African cheetahs, of which there is an estimated population of about 25 animals. However, with around 350 recorded bird species, the W area has been declared an Important Bird Area by Birdlife International.

Yankari National Park:

At 2,244 sq. km in extent, this park is the largest in Nigeria, and one of the most visited eco-tourism spots in West Africa. Consisting mostly of savannah grassland, this park offers almost unparalleled game viewing opportunities, and is considered by many as being equal to the great Parks of Southern Africa.

Taï National Park:

This park consists of the largest intact tract of the erstwhile Great Upper Guinea Rainforest left in Africa, and is home to (hopefully) millions of rarely seen monkeys, chimpanzees, birds, and reptiles. The forest is also the last stronghold of a viable pygmy hippopotamus population, and forest elephants that are more difficult to view than even those in the famous Knysna Forest in South Africa.

Central Africa


The greatest attraction of this region of Africa that consists of the countries of Angola, Cameroon, Central African Republic, Republic of the Congo, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Equatorial Guinea, Gabon, São Tomé and Príncipe, and South Sudan, is definitely not the sights, because there are none that are worth the trouble of slogging through vast stretches of rainforest on two-wheel tracks that resemble mud pits. Unless the purpose of a tour of this region is to visit the casinos and gambling houses in the larger centres, the average tourist is left with a collection of game parks to see and explore. However, the game parks in this region are almost all underdeveloped, under stocked, and often very difficult to reach on the poorly developed and maintained road system, which makes Central Africa the perfect destination for lots of extreme off-road driving.

Central African roads are a worthwhile destination in themselves, but for those who need to catch their breath in between 4×4 recovery attempts, below are some of the better developed game parks, although their main attraction lays in how difficult it is to reach them, especially during the wet season!

Sights/Game Parks of Central Africa


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Dzanga Sangha National Reserve:

Located on the Sangha River in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, this is one of the largest rain forest parks in Africa.

Garamba National Park:

This park, also in the DRC, is extremely isolated, and visits to this area should be cleared with local authorities since the remoteness of the park makes it a favourite hangout spot for armed rebels and robbers. Apart from this though, this pristine wilderness is well worth a visit due to the vast numbers of game and bird species found here on the one hand, and the difficulty in reaching it on the other!

Lesio Louna Gorilla Reserve/Virunga National Park:

This park is wholly given over to the conservation and protection of gorillas in the DRC, and is a continuation of the gorilla conservation program in the Virunga National Park, also in the DRC. More than half of the biodiversity south of the Sahara is found in Virunga, which amongst other things, includes two of the worlds’ most active volcanoes.

Loango National Park:

This narrow, 100 km-long stretch of pristine beach and adjoining rainforest in Gabon is likely the only place outside of Japan where monkeys have adapted to a seafood diet- which they collect from the rocks and tidal pools. The rainforest part of the park is home to elephants, which occasionally wander onto the beaches, and gorillas and leopards that do not.

Manovo-Gounda St. Floris National Park:

This UNESCO World Heritage Site, and important National Park in the Central African Republic, represents the transition of the fauna between East- and West Africa, the Sahel, and the rainforests of the tropics. However, in terms of game viewing, there may not be much to see since poachers have decimated the wildlife populations in recent years.

East Africa


This region, consisting of the countries of Burundi, Comoros, Djibouti, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Kenya, Madagascar, Mauritius, Rwanda, Seychelles, Somalia, Somaliland, Tanzania, and Uganda is the best known part of Africa, with perhaps the exception of Southern Africa, and has valid claims to be the birth place of mankind although the question has not been settled to the satisfaction of Southern Africa, which has similar claims. However, although attractions like Mount Kilimanjaro, the Serengeti National Park, and the Masai Mara National Park are well known to tourists from all over the world, East Africa has a few well-kept secrets as far as off-road tourism goes, and some of them are listed below.

Sights of East Africa


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Andringitra National Park:

This is without any doubt the most bio-diverse area of Madagascar, and is well worth the effort of shipping your 4×4 across the Indian Ocean for an off-road driving experience with a difference.

Axum (Aksum):

Once the ancient capital of Ethiopia, and rightly famous for its many stelae and the extensive (and well preserved) ruins of ancient royal palaces. Although this once great commercial hub of East Africa has lost much of its former glory, it is still the cultural and religious heart of the country, and is said by many, especially from the Ethiopian Orthodox persuasion, to accommodate Christendom’s most holy relic- The Ark of the Covenant, no less.

Nyika National Park:

This vast national park in the highlands of Malawi is rightly famous for its spectacular mountain scenery, and cool climate, which is a distinct relief from the hot, muggy conditions of the lowlands.

Rwenzori National Park:

A visit to the surreal, and almost fantastical Mountains of the Moon in Uganda is a definite must-see destination, apart from completing the 5-day hike to the summit of the Rwenzori Mountain.

Simien National Park:

The spectacular mountain scenery of this park in Ethiopia is strongly reminiscent of both the Northern Cape and the equally dramatic Drakensberg Mountains in South Africa, and is home to internationally important wildlife populations, such as the Simien Wolf in the higher reaches of the Simien Mountains, and the Gelada Baboon, which is indigenous to these mountains and regular feature along the numerous hiking trails.

Southern Africa


The paths, off-road and otherwise, through Southern Africa are well trodden and the countries that make up this region, Botswana, Lesotho, Malawi, Mozambique, Namibia, South Africa, Swaziland, Zambia, and Zimbabwe, are perennial favourites among tourists from all over the world. This region offers all types of tourists thousands of experiences, sights, smells, and insights into the soul of Africa, and the only limit to what can be seen and experienced in this region is the imagination. Off-road tourists are particularly well catered for with several hundred off-road trails, many several-day-long eco-trails through vast game parks, and spectacular gravel mountain passes that frequently require specialized vehicles and technical driving skills of a very high order.

The number of tourists to Southern Africa exceed that for the other regions of Africa combined, which translates into often crowded National Parks and other facilities, which sometimes resembles traffic jams around game viewing spots, especially in the Kruger National Park in South Africa, and particularly during holiday periods. However, Southern Africa is vast, and it is still possible to escape the madding crowd, especially with a 4×4- which allows the enterprising tourist to venture off the beaten track almost as far as it is possible to go. So with that thought, below are some of the Game parks that are either too far off the normal tourist routes for the tourist with limited time, or too big for large numbers of tourists to be visible to those seeking peace and solitude.

Sights of Southern Africa


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Chobe National Park:

This Park, in north-eastern Botswana, is said to accommodate the highest numbers of game of any Park in Africa, if not the world. It is also home to an estimated 50 000 Kalahari elephants, which is the largest in the world. The park also consists of 4 distinctly different eco-systems, from wetland along the Chobe River, to savannah in the central regions, and Kalahari desert conditions in the south and south-western reaches. This Park is one of the best places in Africa in which to lose the crowd.

Etosha National Park:

This nearly 23 000 km² Park in northern Namibia is without doubt one of Africa’s top 5 game parks, and is home to the Big 5 as well as almost all the game species that occur in Southern Africa. Of particular interest is the many thousands of flamingos that congregate on the 5 000 km² salt pan after heavy rain, turning the entire surface of the pan into a pink carpet. Note however that motorcycles are not allowed in the park.

Fish River Canyon Park:

This 160 km-long, and at places 27 km-wide canyon in Southern Namibia, which forms part of the equally spectacular Ai-Ais Richtersveld Transfrontier Park, is reputedly the second biggest canyon in the world, after the Grand Canyon in the USA. At 500 million years old, this breathtaking landscape is also one of the oldest in Southern Africa, and worth a visit for this reason alone.

Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park:

This huge park straddles the border between Botswana and South Africa, and includes most of the Kalahari Desert, which makes it far too big to feel crowded. In fact, visitors to campsites are strictly controlled, and even the length of stays at any one campsite is restricted in order to preserve the “wild” feel of the Park. This park is a definite must-see destination, and especially so because of the challenging off-road driving it offers.

Okavango Delta:

This magnificent wetland in northern Botswana is a singularly unique geological formation, whereby the delta that is formed by the Okavango River disappears into the Kalahari Desert, instead of emptying into the Atlantic Ocean. The Moremi National Park forms part of the delta, and collectively they offer the off-road tourist one of the most rewarding experiences to be had anywhere in Africa.

South Luangwa National Park:

There are very good reasons why internationally renowned conservation experts consider this Park in Zambia to be among the greatest and best-managed game reserves in the world. The Luangwa River that flows through the Park is the least disrupted river system in all of Africa, and the wildlife concentrations around the oxbow lakes in this park are among the highest in the world. The quintessential African “walking safari” had its birth in this Park, and it still remains one of the best ways to observe Africa from up close.

South Africa:

South Africa is regarded among travel experts as the sixth most geologically diverse country in the world, out of a field of fifteen. Apart from the magnificent Kruger National Park(which can feel crowded at certain times), South Africa has thousands of tourist attractions, and the best advice the owners of this site can offer tourists of any persuasion is to dedicate at least 60 days of their year-long trip through Africa to explore just South Africa. Game parks by the hundred, eco-trails and 4×4 trails in similar numbers, dozens of scenic drives and cultural routes offer virtually unlimited opportunities to see, hear, experience, and absorb something new every day; in a country that has been described as an entire world in one country.

So much to see, and so little time


This article has barely scratched the surface of the subject of sights in Africa; there is just too much of Africa to fit into one lifetime, and several return visits are needed to even begin to understand the wondrous complexities of this continent. Most of the one billion people who live here have not seen much more of Africa than their immediately surrounding areas, but with sufficient time, a good reliable 4×4, some good company, and the willingness to accept the sights of Africa on African terms, almost anybody else can explore the sights of a continent in which Mankind was born, which is an experience that will never be forgotten by those who have completed one of the last great pilgrimages.

… just get out there and be your own author of: an Overlander’s guide to sights in Africa…

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