Five cool African destinations you may not have heard of

It would be hard to put the concept of travelling in Africa into words. Bigger than the United States of America, India, China and most of Europe combined, it’s a truly vast continent synonymous with the term ‘adventure’. From the snow-tipped peaks of Morocco’s mighty Atlas Mountains to the rolling plains of Tanzania’s Serengeti, it’s a continent of superlatives, with picture-perfect beaches, mighty waterfalls and some of the planet’s most iconic species of wildlife just adding to its unique flavour.

Away from the well-trodden tourist trails and safari circuit, there are thousands upon thousands of intriguing, off-the-map destinations to discover. If you’re after a truly sensational escape, here are five cool and lesser-known African destinations to put on your radar.

Bazaruto Island, Mozambique. Image: iStock/demerzel21

For scenic seclusion: Vilanculos, Mozambique

With a coastline stretching over 2,450 kilometres in length, Mozambique beckons with its palm-fringed beaches, kaleidoscopic coral reefs and sumptuous seafood. Off-limits for much of the 20th century due to a brutal civil war, the country has completely rebranded itself as a dream holiday destination, with excellent diving opportunities, warm and friendly locals and some of the Indian Ocean’s most pristine stretches of sand on offer.

Travelling isn’t always easy here, with a significant dose of both adventure and patience required given its massive size. But the rewards for those who take the plunge are unprecedented. The tiny, coastal town of Vilanculos is a great base from which to explore one of the country’s most celebrated natural landmarks: the stunning Bazaruto Archipelago. Complete with crystal-clear waters, a time-stands-still atmosphere and a heady dose of romance, this ribbon of islands set just offshore can’t help but entice anyone and everyone to its dreamy shores. And the best part? You’re pretty much guaranteed to have it all to yourself.

Murchison Falls National Park, Uganda. Image: iStock/1001slide

For intrepid adventures: Murchison Falls National Park, Uganda

Otherwise known as ‘The Pearl of Africa’, the lush landscapes of easy-going Uganda have been attracting intrepid travellers seeking rare mountain gorillas, impressive scenery and the ‘Source of the Nile’ since the early 20th century. But there’s plenty more to this welcoming country: it may not have the rolling savannahs of the Serengeti and Maasai Mara or the vast spaces akin to Kruger National Park, but it is arguably one of East Africa’s best destinations for wildlife-spotting.

One of the country’s most famous parks is Murchison Falls, straddling the waters of the Victoria Nile and Lake Albert. Lions, elephants, hippos and crocodiles can all be seen with relative ease on a trip here, and scenic boat cruises are offered up and down the Nile. The jewel in this park’s crown are the famous namesake falls, where the whitewashed waters of the Nile surge through a narrow gorge, creating one of the most powerful waterfalls anywhere on Earth.

Damaraland, Namibia. Image: iStock/wilpunt

For dramatic landscapes: Damaraland, Namibia

Few countries on Earth can match Namibia in terms of natural beauty. Home to the oldest desert, second largest canyon and some of largest sand dunes in the world, it offers a chance at unprecedented adventures and some of the best wildlife-spotting in Africa.

One of the best regions to discover some of the country’s most dramatic scenery is in the remote Damaraland, situated just to the north of Swakopmund and Walvis Bay. With its lunar-esque rock formations, imposing desert-mountains and even a petrified forest, this is a truly rugged part of the country, home to critically endangered populations of black rhinos, desert-adapted lions and elephants, as well as spotted hyena, zebra and more. This is also one of the best places in Africa to view prehistoric rock art, with the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Twyfelfontein recording over 5,000 individual works of art from the Late Stone Age.

Wild dogs in South Luangwa National Park, Zambia. Image: iStock/paulafrench

For wildlife-watching: South Luangwa National Park, Zambia

For scenery, variety and sheer numbers of wildlife, South Luangwa is one of the best national parks in Southern Africa, if not the whole of Africa itself. Comprising over 9,000 square kilometres of unspoiled wilderness, it’s a truly vast space in the country’s wild northeastern corner, with scenic oxbow lakes, dense riverine vegetation and wide-open plains making up the bulk of the scenery here.

There’s plenty to see, with massive herds of elephants and buffalo, prides of lions, hippos, crocodiles and endangered packs of wild dogs all calling the park home. This is also reputed to be one of the best places in Africa (if not the world) to spot the elusive leopard, and there are some 400 species of bird resident here, including snake eagles, ground hornbills and carmine bee-eaters – to name but a few. Perhaps the most unique feature of this park is its role as the birthplace of the guided walking safari. Now nearly every lodge and camp in the park offers this incredible experience, which allows you to get up close and personal to the animals of the bush in a way that simply isn’t possible from a vehicle.

Valley of Desolation, Camdeboo National Park, South Africa. Image: iStock/EcoPic

For away-from-it-all escapes into nature: Camdeboo National Park and The Valley of Desolation, South Africa

South Africa is a popular choice for holidaymakers travelling to the continent, but that’s not to say you won’t find swathes of secret spots where you’ll likely be the only person around. Camdeboo National Park in the Eastern Cape is one such place. Proclaimed as South Africa’s 22nd National Park in 2005 and also known as the ‘Cathedral of the Mountains’, this peaceful spot offers breathtaking views over the vast Karoo Plains. The Valley of Desolation is a sight to behold and a true nature-lover’s dream, where unparalleled hiking, mountain biking trails as well as fishing, birding and wildlife-spotting opportunities can all be found.

If you’re looking to visit this this area, don’t miss a visit to the town of Graaff-Reinet, the fourth-oldest in the whole of South Africa and known affectionately as the Gem of the Karoo. Its hotels offer plenty of charm and tranquillity (our favourite is the five-star, colonial-style Drostdy Hotel), while its museums provide an intriguing glimpse into local history – visit the Hester Rupert Art Museum and Reinet House, before enjoying an entrancing walk through the Obesa Cacti Nursery.

Words by Sam Hopkins

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