We had fun sliding down the sand dunes to make them roar – (we’d never heard of that happening before) and the visit to the Himba village was an eye opener and also quite humbling to see how other people live and survive.
When the last cork’s popped, the turkey sandwiches are all eaten, and the door’s finally closed on the last member of your family, it’s time to get away. Away from demanding teenagers with endless Christmas wishlists, away from awkward conversations with cousins you only see once a year, and away from other people’s children who are charming but so very, very noisy. And if you travel far away enough, you get to the sort of places where they can’t call you, even if they try.
If you need to switch off and tune out, this is where to go in Africa:
Greystoke Mahale (Western Tanzania). There’s a reason that tycoons’ wives whisk them off here when they really, really, need a break from their Blackberries. Greystoke isn’t a place for the intrusions of the outside world even if there were phone reception. When you’re sitting around the campfire late at night, the only dim glow (or blazing fireball) you need is from the shooting stars up above. In fact, from the minute you step onto the dhow – and look down at the hippos swimming in the water below you- you’ll be ready to hurl your phone overboard and stay forever.
Serra Cafema– Namibia- This oasis on the shores of the Kunene River is a remote safari camp, even by Namibian standards. Most guests come here for the chance to meet the Himba community (though not all that long ago, two nomadic Himba ladies walked for a couple of days to come have a look at the tourists), and chances are, they’re far more fascinating than whoever you might be talking to from home…
Mwaleshi, North Luangwa, Zambia- At Mwaleshi it’s challenge enough to even charge your phone, let alone getting enough reception to take a call on it. Far better to immerse yourself in the timeless world of North Luangwa, rising with the morning sun, wandering by elephants in the woods and cooling your feet in the river at the end of the day.
Old Mondoro Lower Zambezi, Zambia- The sort of place where a ringing phone would sound frankly aggressive, if not downright rude to the poor old hippos singing in the river outside. So if, let’s say, your phone sadly “fell overboard” on the way to the lodge, you’d have the perfect excuse for not chatting to your family
Now- we wouldn’t guarantee that if you climbed a tree and held your phone at precisely the right angle, you wouldn’t get a flash of reception at some of these lodges, but you’d have to work pretty hard indeed. And a holiday’s not really about work is it?
Sorting through some old photos I found a series from my road trip around Namibia. In a fit of extreme modesty, I thought “Wow- I am a great photographer”. And then I remembered that it’s probably not my astonishing photographic skills, it’s just Namibia.
Without a shadow of a doubt, Namibia’s the most beautiful country I’ve ever visited. (Honourable mention for Mauritania though, which has the same amazing clear light, and a rugged coastline where the Atlantic meets the desert).
Though I’m not yet giving David Bailey a run for his money, I thought I’d share a few shots to show just how spectacular Namibia is, from the endless roads of Namibia’s Central Highlands via the sand dunes and petrified trees at Sossusvlei, to the parched Etosha pan. I think it might actually be impossible to take a bad photo there. Of the landscape at least…
There’s something about spotting a leopard on safari that sets people’s pulses racing. It’s often men that fall passionately for this slinky cat (sorry boys!)- it’s the ultimate predator, perfectly designed for the silent stalk, the stealthy hunt and the efficient kill.
It’s possible to spot leopards on safari all over Africa, but they’re notoriously elusive. Stories abound about leopards successfully disguising themselves, even amongst large human populations. Legend holds that when a lone leopard was spotted on Nairobi railway station, the storyteller was rubbished. 3 years later, the bones of a recently deceased leopardess was spotted under a rarely used platform… Well, so the story goes.
For those who want more reliable leopard sightings there are a number of places to visit in Africa where a safari of two or three days should give you a very reliable chance of seeing a leopard. We’ve put some effort into personally checking these out, so do ask us if you have any questions.
3. Okonjima, Central Highlands, Namibia
The AfriCat Foundation at Okonjima is utterly absorbing for anyone who’s ever been fascinated by the big cats. It’s important to stress- these cats aren’t wild. They’ve been collared and are closely monitored by the research team. This makes it possible to get up close to leopard (also cheetah and wild dog) in a way that’s just not possible elsewhere, and learn more about hands on research and conservation than you would in 10 safaris.
I’ve had phenomenal sightings in the South Luangwa and a colleague who (though good at rather tall tales) claims to have spotted 7 leopard in one night drive. The leopard here are often spotted on night game drives with spotlights- this is the time of day when leopard are most active, as they’re on the hunt for fresh food. By day, look for the flicker of a tail up in the sausage trees, where leopards like to lounge on long flat branches.
Without a shadow of a doubt, of all the places I’ve done safari in Africa (and there have been a few) the Sabi Sands has been by far and away the best place to spot leopards. I’ve tracked adults through the grasses at Lion Sands, watched leopards lounging in trees from Nottens, and most satisfyingly of all, clocked a spotted face stalking me through the reeds over breakfast at Singita Ebony. If you’re a leopard lover, go tomorrow, take my camera, and never look back.
Think of African landscapes and the chances are you’ll be imagining an endless golden savannah, broken only with twisted and parched acacia trees. The wildebeest are cantering frantically in search of water and fresh grass (this is the main driver of the Great Migration) and vultures float on the thermals hoping to spot a lion kill.
There’s another Africa however, the Africa that blossoms with life in and around the rains. The green season (sometimes rather optimistically known as the “emerald season”) transforms the landscape. Rivers burst with life and grasses and trees seem to glow in almost implausibly bright hues. Under thunderous storm clouds young animals learn to stand on shaking legs within minutes of their births, and predators look sleek and happy with a bellyful of food. This is the time when you’ll take the most spectacular photographs and see the bush at its very best (and sometimes at half the price of the peak periods).
Beyond that, the parks are largely deserted, and if you’ve done several safaris it’s utterly fascinating seeing the game reserves in a new light. Birding in particular is utterly glorious- if you’ve never seen a fish eagle swoop for its kill or a finfoot skiddle-skaddle across the water’s surface- this is your moment.
Green season safaris are at their best in Kenya and Tanzania in March and June (catch the savannah with its spring colours) or in Zambia between January and April. The ultimate experience is a boat safari in the South Luangwa– thanks to our friends at Norman Carr for the amazing selection of photos above. Elsewhere, watch the desert spring to life in Namibia, the mighty flood at the Victoria Falls or catch the mini Migration in the Kalahari.
A few years ago I used to work in a large office of safari experts, all passionate Africa lovers. Our favourite game on a quiet Friday afternoon was to plan our fantasy African adventure. We discussed the safaris that we’d sell our souls to get to, the remote beaches that our bones ached for, and the game reserves we lost afternoons dreaming of. We talked about lodges, camps, and game reserves that made coming to work worthwhile, if only because it meant each paycheque brought us closer to another African adventure.
Time and again, the same names came up, the places that were so magical we all adored them. And here they are, our ultimate African experiences.