No matter how romantic you get about traveling, there’s always a clinical side to it. Everyone wants to have unique, experiential trips when they leave home, but you’re always checking off the boxes too. You want to visit the most famous sights in the world and see first-hand the places you’ve read about. Everyone has a list and every time you see a new place, you check it off the list. There’s nothing at all wrong with this; it doesn’t sound very good, but that’s one of the main reasons we travel: to cross items off our mental lists.
So many things in the world fit this model really well, like the Pyramids or the Great Wall of China. As amazing as they are, particularly the latter, if you see it once and you take your time to really enjoy it, I think that’s sufficient. There’s more to see in the world than any of us have time in a lifetime and a lot of things don’t necessitate a repeat visit.
Africa is not a box to be checked. Because it’s not a place you go once. Part of this is just the nature of the traveling experience here. You could go on safari at the same camp 50 times and see totally different things every time. You could visit Paris or Bangkok or Sydney 50 times, and while big cities are always changing, the basics stay the same, which is why we love them. Once you’ve been to Rome, you know what you’re going to get the second time around.
But more than that, Africa is a place that just sticks with you. I first came to Africa five years ago and it would be an exaggeration to say I thought about that trip every day since then, but it has this way of remaining a conscious presence. I’ve been on a lot of awesome trips in my life, and I’ve been really lucky to see what I’ve seen this year, but Africa has a way of hanging around.
I talk about “Africa” a lot in this post and the subsequent one, and I realize trying to generalize about an entire continent is nonsensical. Northern Africa feels nothing like Eastern Africa, which feels nothing like Western Africa. For brevity purposes, I’m not going to type out “Southern Africa” every time I talk about the region as the whole, but that’s what I’m referring to. This is still a large area—South Africa, Lesotho, Swaziland, Namibia, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Zambia, and Mozambique—and of course there is incredible diversity here, but this is where you find “Disney Africa”: the savannahs teeming with wildlife, the arid expanse of the Kalahari Desert, Victoria Falls, the pathways of the great migration, and anything else you’ve seen on a David Attenborough special.
I’ll be talking about my time in Africa in two parts, and I’ll be doing this in chronological order and jumping between countries, so below is a map of my route to give you an overview.
Cape Town, South Africa
Cape Town is probably the most uninteresting element of my time in Southern Africa. Its crime is that it’s a picturesque town in a beautiful location, but even that seems rather uninteresting in comparison to the amazing sights you see in this part of the world away from civilization.
Cape Town is a place with a lot of history. The end of apartheid is hardly a distant memory in South Africa and while the deep-rooted, tangled web of problems that resulted from that policy are far from sorted, the city is lively. Progress has been made, however slowly and clumsily, and you can see the change right in front of you. If you stand in the central square in downtown Cape Town and look around, white faces are in the minority, a reality that seemed inconceivable not that long ago.
The history of apartheid requires hundreds of pages of explanation and expertise that I certainly don’t have, so I won’t get into it too extensively, but the mechanics of it didn’t look that different from segregation in the U.S. The policy of systematic segregation and discrimination was hardly new to South Africa in the 20th century, but the practice was codified in the late 1940’s that resulted in mass removals of the black population from Cape Town.
As basically everyone knows, Nelson Mandela and a cadre of other civil rights activists in South Africa—Walter Sisulu, Govan Mbeki, and Ahmed Kathrada, among others—were the ones to eventually (and most importantly, peacefully) bring an end to apartheid in South Africa in the early 1990’s. Since then, and not dissimilar to what’s happened in the U.S., a lot of progress has been made, but the problem is far from solved.
The most poignant monument to this era in Cape Town is the Robben Island prison. Like Alcatraz, it’s located on an island in the middle of the bay opposite Cape Town, across nine miles of water known for its great white sharks. Boats that once took prisoners to the island are still used today to shuttle tourists back and forth and former inmates lead the tours around the grounds.
As far as political prisons go, you could do worse than Robben Island. Because they were so cut off from the world—many people in South Africa actually thought Nelson Mandela was a myth—there wasn’t much concern among prison guards about the dissemination of political ideas among the prisoners themselves. Mandela and his close friend, Sisulu, had cells next to each other and their whole cell block had an open door policy during the day during which they could hang out, play cards, and talk about whatever—to a certain extent.
Between cell blocks, prisoners passed coded messages to one another and while punishment for misbehavior was constant and torture not unheard of, political prisoners in other parts of the world have definitely had it far, far worse. My guide around the prison, who was there for several years while he was a teenager as a political dissident, said prisoners incessantly misbehaved as an intentional protest, which leads me to believe that the punishment wasn’t completely horrific. From what I understand, discipline for bad behavior usually meant you had to go live away from your friends in your cellblock and you lost some of your privileges.
I don’t say this to somehow minimize what was going on here. These guys were imprisoned for being politically active in their own country and for being black (or Jewish—Denis Goldberg was arrested and tried at the same proceedings as Mandela and was held at a different prison in Pretoria). The fact that they were treated okay doesn’t forgive that, but I thought it was interesting that they were treated the way they were given that they were considered terrorists.
Getting back to the city itself, the vibe is part Australian beachy suburb, part Old World town. The Cape Dutch and British architecture in the central business area and along the waterfront are a study in what a European city would like in a near-tropical climate. The colonial influence is strong, the same kind of exotic meets buttoned-up British aesthetic that’s common in India as well.
Just outside the city proper are several small beach town suburbs that look like they were imported from Down Under. Every other waterfront townhouse has an elevated pool with glass sides and on a weekday afternoon, the streets were still packed.
Towering over Cape Town is Table Mountain, one of the coolest natural features in a city anywhere. The flora and fauna are incredible diverse and unique in this area; of the six floral kingdoms in the world, the Cape Floral Region is one on its own.
Table Mountain is part of a larger national park that wraps around the entire cape region and includes the Cape of Good Hope, the southwestern-most point on the African continent (it is technically not the southernmost). The area, notoriously treacherous for its incredibly high winds and rough waters, was formerly known as the Cape of Storms by the Portuguese, who later renamed it when they realized no explorer wanted to head to the end of the known world to navigate something called the Cape of Storms.
Nearby is Boulders Beach, something of a natural mystery in South Africa. Seemingly out of nowhere in 1982, two breeding pairs of endangered African penguins nested there and since then, the population has boomed and now exceeds 3,000 birds. Amazingly, this is the most visited tourist destination in South Africa—somehow this is possible despite the fact that one of the best safari parks in the world is in South Africa.
For an American, Cape Town is not the kind of city you fly 18 hours to get to. It’s beautiful and probably an awesome place to live, but if you came all the way down here for Cape Town, you’ve mismanaged your time. Assuming you’re in Africa to go on safari, Cape Town is a great last glimpse of civilization before a serious change of scenery.
Sossusvlei Desert Lodge: Namib Desert, Namibia
If you’ve ever looked at a slideshow with a headline like “15 Places You Won’t Believe Are Real,” then you’ve already seen a picture of the Namib Desert.
As far as African countries go, Namibia has a decent situation. The country is manageable size—about as big as Turkey—and has a population of 2.3 million, so there’s not an overpopulation issue or an intense strain on natural resources like in many countries further north. The government isn’t amazing, but it’s stable and not particularly corrupt, which is a raging success compared to much of the rest of the continent.
Sossusvlei isn’t even the biggest desert in Southern Africa—the Kalahari is larger—but it holds the distinction of being the oldest desert in the world. At first glance, it doesn’t look like there’s a living thing for miles and when it’s 90+ degrees and the sun is at its zenith, you wonder how it could be otherwise. But for a place that seems so completely inhospitable to life, there’s an amazing amount going on.
This is a great area to see oryx, one of the many types of antelope in Southern Africa and not only are they incredibly well adapted to the environment—the only water they need to survive comes from the plants they eat—but they also look fantastic despite the oppressive heat and midday sun. Springbok, another, smaller type of antelope, also do amazingly well in the desert, as well as ostrich and a smattering of birds. Though not exactly in abundance, jackals, mongoose, foxes, aardwolf, and even zebra somehow manage to survive in what seems like a graveyard of any form of life.
Still, you’d never come to this part of the Namibia for the wildlife spotting, but you won’t find yourself bored by the landscape anyway. The dunes are a rusty red color and surrounded by barren flatlands, rocky mountains, and an eternally cloudless blue sky, the effect is totally surreal. It looks like a Dalí painting because the colors are so saturated and there’s so little vegetation that the different colors in the landscape look like giant brushstrokes of unadulterated color.
The most famous dunes in the Namib Desert are the dunes in Namib-Naukluft National Park and the biggest is inventively named Big Daddy. Climbing it is utterly unpleasant, but the views at the top are worth it. And you get to run the whole way down.
At the bottom is Deadvlei, an English-Afrikaans hybrid word meaning “dead marsh.” In the now dried up clay pans are several trees, burned under the sun for 600 years and unable to decompose because of the intense dry heat. The juxtaposition of the always cloudless sky with the orange-red sand and the blinding white pans almost looks like a drawing.
What amazed me about Sossusvlei is how much there is to do given how little there is around. The dunes don’t change that much due to lack of wind and the weather is pretty damn constant, so there’s not a lot of variation in the landscape. You have to work hard to see animals other than oryx and springbok, which makes you appreciate the concentration and diversity of the wildlife in other parts of Africa. But it is never boring and utterly beautiful in its starkness.
Jack’s Camp: Makgadikgadi Pans, Kalahari Desert, Botswana
Welcome to 1925.
Jack’s Camp is not a safari camp in the style of 2016. There’s no electricity in the rooms and no electricity at all after dark. Meals are served at one enormous wooden table in middle of an open-air tent with skulls of every animal variety displayed haphazardly in antique glass-front cabinets. The décor screams British hunting lodge in the pre-war era and when you show up on a 95-degree day in a place with no A/C, the squishy, chartreuse velvet couch opposite the ancient billiards table doesn’t look like the most comfortable place to sit.
Everything about Jack’s is a total throwback and the idea of no A/C on a hot day in the Makgadikgadi is enough to give anyone pause, but there’s something kind of cool about it. You have to be willing to go along with the “Downton Abbey goes to Botswana” aesthetic, but the experience is nothing if not unique. Safari lodges in Africa tend to be surprisingly great, especially given their remote locations, but there’s a bit of a formula to most of them. Jack’s is the holdout from a different era.
Only when you’re coming from Namibia does this area seem lush. The Makgadikgadi is a 6,200-square-mile salt pan in the Kalahari Desert that stretches out into a dauntingly empty abyss with oases interspersed throughout with pockets of wildlife. The little vegetation and select water holes that are here are particularly barren at the moment given the drought in all of Southern Africa and as hard as it is for animals to survive in the bush anywhere, the conditions here make it particularly brutal.
The highlight of Jack’s is the habituated meerkats. Meerkats are not easy to see on safari; they’re small, so you can’t see them from the truck, and they’re very shy, so you can’t really track them on foot. To deal with this, Jack’s Camp has a guy that literally hangs out with the meerkats all day so they become accustomed to human presence, enabling you to walk among them like you’re at a petting zoo or something. It’s hard to call them truly wild animals, but they do almost entirely ignore you, going about their day around you and walking around you and between your legs like you’re just another part of the scenery.
Jack’s also has a group of bushmen living at the camp that take guests out on walks around the desert and show them how they use various plants for things. Bushmen are the traditional nomadic tribes from the area who still live in small clans around Botswana and Jack’s hires them from a village several hours away to serve as guides. On the surface, this seems super cheesy and vaguely exploitative, but I came around to the idea. It provides an income for these people and their families and it’s a pretty unique experience to see the world through their eyes, as they have ridiculously acute senses about their environment.
One final note: this area used to be home to a 5,000-year-old baobab tree, known as Chapman’s Baobab named after the explorer James Chapman. Naturally, it split down the middle six weeks before I arrived. It survived all of recorded human history, but it couldn’t make it to the end of February. Obviously this was big and sad news in Southern Africa, and we’ll now have to settle for baobabs that are only a few thousand years old. Before its sad demise, the tree had seven distinct trunks.
In both Sossusvlei and in the Makgadikgadi, you have to work really hard to see animals because of the scarcity, and it makes you appreciate the abundance of wildlife in the more traditional safari camps around Southern Africa. The Makgadikgadi is probably not going to fulfill anyone’s idea of a typical African safari, but there’s something intriguing about it in its own way, even if you aren’t going to get your Lion King, hundreds-of-animals-at-the-watering-hole photo op moment. Still, a worthy stop on a tour of Southern Africa and definitely unlike anywhere else.
Big waterfalls and bigger game to come in part II.