Despite its proximity to Europe and the Middle East – just 8.5 miles separate Tarifa in Spain from the Moroccan coast – Africa is far less popular with travellers than faraway lands in the US, Latin America and Australasia. The reasons are complex, from the heat of the Sahara to the politics of Zimbabwe, to famines and droughts, civil wars and crime. But the continent is vast and there are many fabulous and thrilling countries where tourism is easy and as safe as in any of the more obvious, mass-tourism destinations.
In North Africa, choose between Fes in Morocco and Leptis Magna in Libya. The former has a wonderful, labyrinthine medieval souk and, being far less touristy than Marrakech, is sometimes described as the ‘real Morocco’. The city is famous for its Arabesque architecture, and the city’s medina of Old Fes (Fes el Bali), a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is thought to be the world’s largest contiguous car-free urban area. You’ll probably want to get behind those glorious Arabesque façades: the recent conversion of many of the smarter traditional houses (riads) into hotels means you can recharge your batteries in luxurious comfort before heading out into the whirl of people, goods and overburdened donkeys thronging the centre.
A trip to Libya should definitely take in Tripoli, with its world-class Jamahiriya Museum – one of the finest collections of classical art in the Mediterranean – and impressive medina. Out of town, see the rock carvings of Wadi Methkandoush, and Akakus, a mountain range known for its gorgeous red sand and extraordinary rock formations. There are Roman archaeological sites all over Libya but Leptis Magna is the best preserved Roman city in North Africa, with a stunning location on the shores of the Mediterranean.
In the Sahara, world music fans are already flocking to Mali for the annual Festival au Desert, a three-day celebration of song and dance (www.festival-au-desert.org) that takes place in Essakane. If you’re after a real outthere experience, travel along the Niger River to Timbuktu and visit Dogon villages that have remained unchanged for centuries.
In West Africa, the Anglophone Gambia and its French-speaking neighbour Senegal (which is wrapped around the border of the Gambia like a glove round a finger) are popular repeat destinations for many holidaymakers. The Gambia is a great destination for a winter-sun holiday, and is good value for money. The country’s small size and the friendliness of its people are strong draws, and visitors can choose between a blissful do-nothing-at-all beach holiday and exploring the culture. There are many tribes – the main ones are Mandinka, Wolof, Fula and Jola – and it’s common to receive an invitation to visit a Gambian settlement or ‘compound’.
Senegal, between Guinea-Bissau and Mauritania, is Africa’s most westerly point. It boasts three mighty rivers, which provide plenty of fertile land and some shimmering coastal lagoons, and support a variety of waders and birds of prey as well as hyenas, monkeys, baboons, manatees and dolphins.
Ghana is another great option. US president Obama chose it in July 2009 as the first African country worthy of a presidential visit, praising its democratic traditions since independence in 1957. Accra, the capital, is vibrant, swinging to the music of Highlife and the more recent hip-hop fusion Hiplife; it’s more modern than many people expect (Time Out even publishes a Visitors Guide there). The interior is varied and ideal for voluntourists and adventure travellers: visit Ho and its game park to see kobs, duikers and baboons, go mountain biking to the villages of Biakpa and Amedzofe, and hike through the Kulugu canyons to the Mountain Paradise ecolodge (www.mountainparadisebiakpa.com).
You can see gorillas in the mist, hippos surfing the waves and whales in the same day on a holiday to Gabon. This small West African country on the Gulf of Guinea is blessed with some of the most diverse tropical forest in the world – ancient jungles straddling the equator that are believed to contain more than 8,000 plant species, 600 different types of bird and 20 species of primate. Outsiders and locals hope Gabon will become the ‘Costa Rica of Africa’, attracting wildlife and adventure tourists to its 13 new national parks: some 85 per cent of the country is covered in tropical forest, and away from the few small population hubs are savannahs, mangroves, lagoons and beaches. There are thought to be about 20,000 western lowland gorillas and 60,000 forest elephants – the largest population in Africa.
The archipelago of Cabo Verde is the thinking traveller’s Canaries. The bonewhite, empty beaches, soaring volcanoes and lush tropical vegetation on these ten islands were kept a secret for years (although Cabo Verde always attracted a few Portuguese holidaymakers, thanks to the colonial connection), but now the year-round sun and unique blend of African, Portuguese and Brazilian cultures is even attracting package tourists.
The archipelago – ten islands and eight islets – is located 604 kilometres off the coast of West Africa. Visit Sal, famous for its 350 days of sunshine, one of the most popular resort hubs thanks to the lovely beaches of Santa Maria; on Boa Vista you can climb stunning dunes and dive to see marine turtles, and explore the ‘tropical Lisbon’ of Sal Rei, with its cobbled streets. Santo Antão is developing rural tourism, great if you want to meet locals and get away from the beaches. Santiago, in the leeward island chain to the south, is best known as the island where Darwin made landfall during his epic Beagle voyage.
For wildlife, southern Africa reigns supreme. Namibia is wonderful for lion-, cheetah-, rhino- and leopard-spotting, and has the world’s highest dunes and second deepest canyon. It’s a country with huge geographical variety, containing a large part of the Kalahari Desert in the east of the country. In the north is the Etosha Pan, a verdant, game-rich area with a huge range of species. The Namib Desert and Skeleton Coast lie along the western seaboard, while the Caprivi Strip is a dramatic, 280-milelong sliver of Namibia between Botswana on the south and Angola and Zambia to the north that provides access to the Zambezi and the habitat of the endangered Wild African Dog.
South Africa offers the opportunity to see the Big Five (lion, leopard, elephant, buffalo and rhino), as well as the chance to sample excellent wines in the Cape regions of Stellenbosch, Paarl and Constantia.