Africa is the second-largest continent and boasts the second-highest population. Its landscapes are diverse and fantastical — bone-dry deserts, lush rainforests, mountains, grasslands, lakes, and more. The people of Africa are openhearted and enthusiastic, and their cultures are utterly unique. Yet, even the worldliest of travelers often hesitate to pay a visit to the depths of the Dark Continent.
While Egypt and Morocco remain popular vacation destinations — even as revolutions tear North Africa apart — most of the rest of the continent is forgotten by travelers looking for exceptional experiences. For those travelers looking for the most exclusive adventures, here are eight African vacations that most people never hear about.
1. Dogon Country, Mali
The Dogon people of south-central Mali moved to this dry, unforgiving region centuries ago to escape persecution by invading Muslims. Fortunately, their isolation has allowed them to develop a marvelously single religion and culture.
The easiest and best way to see Dogon Country is on foot, led by a qualified Dogon guide, who can take travelers directly into Dogon villages for a look at their beautiful lifestyle.
2. Namib Desert, Namibia
The ochre-colored sands of the Namib Desert stretch all along the western coast of Namibia, from Angola in the north to South Africa in the south, and they have done so for thousands of years. The Namib Desert is the oldest desert in the world, and it is also one of the largest. Climbing to the top of the Namib’s Sossusvlei Dunes and looking across the vast stretches of empty desert is more rewarding (and more peaceful) than overlooking the crowded dunes of the Sahara.
3. Makgadikgadi Pans, Botswana
Much of Botswana, in south-central Africa, was once covered by a great salt lake, called Makgadikgadi. Though the lake has long dried up, there remains evidence of its massive existence in the Makgadikgadi Pans, some of the largest salt pans in the world. Archaeologists have discovered plentiful evidence of prehistoric humans in and around the salt pans, suggesting the ancient lake was critical to humankind’s success.
4. Mount Mulanje, Malawi
Adventure travelers can forget about Mount Kilimanjaro; Mount Mulanje (also called Mulanje Massif by locals) offers the highest point in Central Africa with outstanding encounters with wildlife and jaw-dropping views of the surrounding valleys of Malawi. The trek to Mulanje’s summit is so inspirational that some claim it as J.R.R. Tolkien’s motivation for the Lonely Mountain of “The Hobbit.”
5. Bazaruto Archipelago, Mozambique
For white sands and crystalline surf, most travelers head to the Caribbean, but Mozambique on Africa’s east coast claims some of the world’s most pristine tropical beaches in its Bazaruto Archipelago. Called the Pearl of the Indian Ocean, the archipelago consists of five islands untouched by gaudy resorts or miles of condos; in fact, Bazaruto is protected national park land, so the coral reefs and beaches are thriving and perfect for exploration.
6. Virunga National Park, Congo
Deep in the heart of the African continent, the Virunga National Park offers a breathtaking peek at the natural diversity and wonder available to travelers. Virunga is one of the world’s last refuges for several endangered species, including the mountain gorilla and chimpanzee. Plus, the region is teeming with fascinating scenery, like active volcanoes and snow-covered peaks. However, space is constantly under threat; the award-winning documentary “Virunga” explores why Virunga may disappear entirely in the coming decades.
7. Tsingy de Bemeraha, Madagascar
Madagascar has plenty to offer world travelers besides the dancing lemurs made famous by Dreamworks’ popular movie series. Most notably, Madagascar’s extensive national parks boast some of the most unique landscapes in the world. The Tsingy de Bemeraha is perhaps the most worthy of a visit; the forests of limestone needles are certainly a wonder to behold.
8. Great Zimbabwe, Zimbabwe
While Ancient Egypt remains one of the most important empires the world has ever seen, the Egyptians were not the only great civilization on the continent. Great Zimbabwe, the most extensive collection of Africa ruins south of the Sahara, is a testament to the enterprising nature of all African nations. Long after the Egyptians bowed to Roman Caesars, more than 20,000 Africans lived and worked within Great Zimbabwe’s giant granite walls. Though the site has fallen victim to plunderers over the years, it remains as austere and awe-inspiring as the pyramids.