Looking back at my travel experiences of the past few years, there are certainly some adventurous moments that stand out as highlights and that I would like to recommend in my African Bucket List for the Adventurous Traveller. From my heartfelt gorilla trekking experience in Uganda to visiting a Masai village and hiking on a live volcano in Reunion. These are all extraordinary experiences worth creating a savings fund for. Some you may have read about her already, if not, a summary of bests as below.
1. Take a Fly-In Safari in the Masai Mara, Kenya
As we approach for landing the light aircraft sways from side to side on the pockets of hot air. I can see the propellers through my window, giving it all they’ve got as the young pilot perfects touchdown on a dirt landing strip that appears from nowhere. The terminal building is a thatched structure offering a reprieve from the sun, next to it a row of safari vehicles with Masai clad game rangers wait to whisk us away to our respective lodges.
As far as the eye can see are the vast landscapes of the much famed African plains of the Masai Mara with scatterings of umbrella-like acacia trees dotting the land. The word Mara literally means ‘spotted’ and this is where it gets its name, as well as the colour red of the earth that pushes through the green grass.
We climb into the vehicle with our guide and head to the Olare Mara Kempinski lodge that would play home as I realised my dream of a true Kenyan safari. On the way, sun-bleached bones litter the land as wildebeest and zebra graze nearby, oblivious to the pack of lions that lie fully sated under a tree, looking deceptively domesticated. It’s instantly clear why this reserve is said to have the highest density of lions in the world. They truly are everywhere.
The Masai Mara National Park, or the Mara, as it is fondly known, is situated in south-west Kenya and is undeniably one of Africa’s greatest wildlife reserves, linking to neighbouring Tanzania’s Serengeti. Named in honour of the Masai people whose ancestral habitat it is, this is the site of the annual wildebeest migration and throughout the year holds a rich residential population of Masai lion, leopards, cheetah, zebra and Thomson’s gazelle.
You have the choice of staying within the actual park or opting for one of the private concessions, which I did, selecting the rather exclusive Olare Motorogi Conservancy. From here activities included game drives with the option of full day safari into the Mara. Bush walks, a visit to a nearby rhino sanctuary and time in a Masai village. I even got to plant a tree as part of their eco-tourism project.
The highlights were sundowners as the sky turned pink, gin and tonic in my hand and abundant game in close proximity. There really is something different about a Mara safari, the grass looking neatly mowed and the very game relaxed. And so they should be, after all this part of the world has always belonged to them.
NOTE: I recommend a private concession as opposed to staying in the actual Masai Mara Reserve, you can always visit it for a day.
2. Immerse yourself in tradition at a Masai Village, Kenya
When it was suggested at the lodge that I visit a Masai Mara village I wasn’t sure, having visited too many overly commercial and slightly forced ‘cultural experiences’ in the past. But thankfully I was persuaded that no visit to the Mara should be complete without time in a real Masai village. How right they were.
We parked the land rover outside an unassuming settlement with a makeshift fence constructed from tree branches. The middle ‘kraal’ area is where the goats are kept at night, about ten mud hut homes circled it. Greeted by a beautiful Masai Warrior, we were invited to enter the remote and untouched Intarakwa Masai village. Adorned in their red check blankets, synonymous with the culture, here we were offered insight into their lives and rich traditions.
Did you know that the Masai wear red to stand out in the bush as a precaution against wild animals? Same with their decorative jewellery which is part celebratory yet also makes a warning noise to scare off wild animals. Also and possibly most important, he who jumps the highest gets the girl.
We sat in one of the huts chatting about tradition and the need to protect theirs. There were conversations about values and truth, conservation and coexistence with nature, the balance of home and studies in the capital. Masai life for the men and for the women. A humbling extraordinary experience.
NOTE: Make sure that you get it right, and don’t visit a commercial ‘fabricated’ village.
3. Go Gorilla Trekking in Uganda’s Bwindi Forest
We’re in the Bwindi Impenetrable Forest in Uganda, where I’ve chosen to live out my life-long dream of seeing mountain gorillas in the wild. I’ve made it part of a Ugandan overland safari, one in which I have so far explored the capital, Kampala, on the back of a Boda Boda motorbike, camped on the shores of the pristine Lake Bunyonyi, and had long days driving through emerald-green landscapes, rolling hills, tea plantations and the occasional hub of consummate traders and the scattering of goats and Ankole cattle that make up the magic of this beautiful land.
The mountain gorillas, however, are an unparalleled highlight. Around 900 are left in the world, with 11 habituated families in Bwindi, home to half of them. Visits are capped at three groups of eight people per day and permits must be bought well in advance. In this controlled and protected environment, there are never more than 24 people on the mountain at any given time and there is always a chance that you won’t see the gorillas, although trackers go up to find them daily – as much for their protection as for our convenience.
We’ve been walking through dense vegetation for about three hours, our guide cutting away the creepers and vines ￼￼￼￼￼￼￼with his machete to clear the way. A dappled light filters through the thick canopy of trees overhead, underfoot a muddied undergrowth, ferns and fungi.
I reach for Valdi’s hand – my porter and support on the climb who knows these hills as well as he knows himself – as I start to slip down the bank. A reformed poacher, he now works to protect the precious mountain gorillas that we are here to see. Sweat drips down my back and I try to hide the breathlessness I feel when we come across the tracker, who gestures quietly towards a large female sitting in a clearing just ahead. In an instant, all but the joy of the moment is forgotten.
A reformed poacher, he now works to protect the precious mountain gorillas we are here to see. The family that we are tracking is known as Bitukura, a large group of 14 with an impressive silverback at its head. Once we are with them we follow the relaxed female as she moves to tastier bamboo shoots, oblivious to our presence.
The rest of the family comes into sight – numerous young gorillas and a baby of only a few months that plays and bounces between them, with a few females holding rank. The Silverback approaches his shoulders at least a metre in diameter. He walks by, barely adhering to the seven-metre distance rule so strictly set for visitors, confident in his position as leader of this precious, protected group. He is known as Karamuzi. There is wisdom in his expression.
Our time with the gorillas is limited to an hour. We stay with them as they move towards a clearing in the trees; I get my photographs in the first 15 minutes and then put my camera away, allowing my remaining time with them to be the entire focus. Then, just like that our time is up. We regroup for the walk down, silent in our appreciation of what we have just seen and experienced.
NOTE: Make sure that you book with a reputable operator in order to ensure a sustainable and ethical experience. As the mountain gorillas demand a bit of a trek, I recommend that you take a porter for support – and in turn support the adjoining community.
5. Take to the Namibian skies in a Hot Air Balloon
You can’t help but utter ‘up, up and away’ as you sail silently over the reddish dune sea of the Namib, something that adds an exhilarating dimension to your visit any visit to Namibia’s Sossusvlei region. The duration of the excursion is approximately 3½ hours with the Hot Air Balloon flight itself taking about one hour, and the experience ending with an exclusive Champagne Breakfast at the landing spot in scenic nature, before heading back to your lodge.
The balloon rises as the sun rises. The first light hour of the day is known to be the most spectacular, especially in the desert with the rich contrast of colour and shape on the towering sand dunes of the Sossusvlei Area, on the vast desert plains and surrounding mountain ranges
NOTE: Due to the desert temperatures, this activity is offered in the early mornings only and it is best to pre-book it when planning your trip. Learn more at Sossusvlei Lodge.
6. Go snorkelling off Madagascar’s northern shoreline
Madagascar, off Africa’s East Coast is a land of plenty with rainforests, unique wildlife, iconic Baobab avenues and a capital city – Antananarivo, that shimmers golden in the evening light. Yet it’s the islands off Nosy Be that hold the magic for the water lovers like me. Easily reached by Airlink flight from Johannesburg, I recommend that to maximise on your visit, that you book a 4, 5 or 7 day catamaran charter with MadagasCaT, hopping between the remote islands to visit a lemur sanctuary, spend time in local fishing villages, eat fruit just harvested in the wild and take guided walks in the forests. That is when you’re not scuba diving or snorkelling off the boat of course.
After your time onboard you may consider a few nights on one of the bigger islands as you acclimatise back to land. Sakatia Lodge is good for this, run by South Africans, it offers beginner and advanced scuba diving courses for a much better price than you would find at home. They are renowned for snorkelling with sea turtles, who come to eat the sea grass just offshore, an experience that I’ll always hold dear. And if indulgence is your want, take a few nights on the speck of land that jets out of the blue, Constance Tsarabanjina Lodge, for a couple of nights or more.
NOTE: The whole experience with pre and post island hopping can be booked through MadagasCat, who will design an itinerary to suit any budget or interest. The snorkelling that I had in the area, is truly some of the best I’ve experienced in the world.
7. Hike a Live Volcano on Reunion Island
Reunion Island is found off the coast of Africa, with Madagascar its closest neighbour. A Department of France, the island falls under French rule with the citizens holding mainland residency. They refer fondly to the Metropol when talking about France, as though it were just up the road and not a continent away. French is spoken, the Euro is used. The food is very good too. Found in a region that encourages a focus on the environment, as well as responsible and sustainable tourism, Reunion Island feels different. More authentic, as though this island first and foremost belongs to its proud people.
Reunion Island is known for the spectacular Piton de la Fournaise, an active basaltic volcano. When not erupting, the landscape is popular for hiking to view the crater and open volcanic plains. Locals celebrate the Piton de la Fournaise’s eruptions and are seen at viewpoints just savouring the force of it. The Piton de la Fournaise has erupted three times so far this year, offering a dramatic show to lucky visitors and presents no danger to the island.
For the best views visit the Grand Brûlé region, a rugged stretch of coast. Or drive to the viewing point in Le Pas de Bellecombe through typical Reunion mountainsides that winds through rain forest, over hills and barren landscape, taking on endless hairpin bends.
Some Facts about the Volcano on Reunion Island: Piton de la Fournaise’s highest point is 2632m above sea level. The Volcano is located inside the Reunion National Park and is also a World Heritage Site. Reunion was initially one giant volcano and is about 3 million years old. Le Volcan is one of the most active volcanos in the world with more than 150 eruptions since the 17th Century. This volcano is actually one of two on the island and is an estimated to be 530 000 years old.
Visitors can walk the island from head to toe; from the waves lapping at its base to the clouds caressing its summit and even though walking around the main crater, known as Dolomieu, is no longer possible since its collapse in 2,007, alternative routes are just as attractive. They include the inside of the Enclos Fouqué, the heart of the volcano or around the outside. There are also routes starting close to the volcano’s forest path, on the marked-out paths of Mont Langevin, Piton de l’Eau and the Oratoire Sainte-Thérèse. The best part is that there is no entrance fee to any parts of the national park and anyone can camp anywhere in the parks or around the island.
NOTE: You’d do well to get more information about Reunion and the hiking trails from their official tourism site. I’d recommend a guide or joining a small group. Be prepared for all seasons, and take plenty of water.
8. Get soaked at Victoria Falls in Livingstone
Founded in 1905 and named after the renowned Scottish explorer Dr David Livingstone, Livingstone owes its existence primarily to Victoria Falls, or Mosi-oa-Tunya – the Smoke that Thunders, as it is aptly known. Victoria Falls is the primary draw card to this frontier town and in every sense lives up to its title as one of the Seven Natural Wonders of the World. With a width of 1688m and height of 108m, in season it sends more than five hundred million cubic meters of water plummeting over the edge each minute with sprays visible for miles reaching up to 400m and higher into the air.
Nothing quite prepares you though for the sheer exhilaration of actually being there. Walking along the pathway that hugs the crevice, taking in the full force of the spray, soaked and excited as you gaze into the deep crevice and cascading waters below. The force of nature will astound you and this is certainly one of the more dramatic places to visit in Southern Africa. Be prepared to get soaked.
NOTE: This is perhaps not your classic adventure experience, although while there go kayaking on the Zambezi and consider white water rafting for an extra push of adrenalin too.
9. Take a road trip across Morocco with a friend
In my case, this trip began rather whimsically with a text with the words ‘Meet me in Morocco?’ Fingers crossed, I hoped my friend would be up for a madcap adventure, road tripping in a faraway place that had long been calling my name. And meet we did, in Casablanca, a city that exudes history and romance. There we picked up our rather tinny, rather tiny green car, lugged our bags into the boot, wound down the windows to breathe in the North African fumes, and set off into the unknown.
We divided our time between Casablanca and Marrakesh, with a side trip into the Atlas Mountains and a spell on the Essaouira coast. It seemed simple enough. We were equipped with excellent connectivity thanks to the local sim card I’d been handed on arrival and had Google Maps on our side – except for that one time it sent us into the ever narrowing maze-like streets of the medina. Plus we had a few dog-eared printouts we’d collected to direct us to our Airbnbs and to the best restaurants, and a pocket guide to Marrakesh.
But, back to the beginning. There we were in Casablanca on day one and after a walk along the Atlantic seaboard, we visited the country’s largest mosque, Hassan II, which overlooks the water and which can accommodate 25 000 people. It is intricately detailed with a minaret that rises 210 m into the sky. It was there that we abandoned conventional timekeeping and aimed to have our days marked out by the melodic calls to prayer of the muezzin.
Before hitting the road for the three-hour drive to Marrakesh we took a delicious high-end lunch at Rick’s Café, known unequivocally as the best gin joint in town. It included their signature goats cheese and fig salad as well as an aromatic savoury and sweet Moroccan stuffed red pepper. Designed to recreate the bar made famous by Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman in the legendary 1942 movie, it has passion and political espionage imprinted on the beautifully restored courtyard-style mansion that hugs Casablanca’s old medina wall. With the scene set, our mission was in clear sight.
Off we went into a world of constant hooting, ignored road markings, and a rude awakening that the prevailing style of driving was that ‘rules are guidelines’. There is no place for sissies as you navigate highways and squeeze between livestock laden trucks and other surprise obstacles, gear down for endless dirt track hairpin bends and to dodge road workers, avoid heavily laden donkeys and children jumping out to sell herbs and crystals, and swerve to miss camels crossing the road. And as you go, be sure to keep an eye out for mad goats feeding in the upper branches of Argan trees.
There were Europeans in oversized camper vans, ancient scooters and convoys of motorcycles weaving between the traffic, not to mention the wobbly bicycles that seemed to appear from nowhere. Police roadblocks were regular and tricky things too, and it appears a bribe is what the officers have in mind, but by simply smiling broadly and saying ‘Afrique du Sud’, ‘Bafana Bafana’ and ‘Mandela’ we were always greeted warmly and sent on our way with a touch of camaraderie.
Each evening in Marrakesh we lingered on Jemaa el-Fnaa Square to witness it coming to life with hundreds of food kiosks, musicians and vendors. It was here that I fell for an age-old trick, allowing one of the henna artists to fleetingly hold my hand. Before I knew it the paintbrush was out and I was being decorated in patterned twirls and flowers, which left me feeling even more like I belonged.
We visited the newly opened Yves Saint Laurent Museum, which pays homage to the work of the great French fashion designer and his passion for Morocco, as well as the adjacent Jardin Majorelle. Today one of the most visited places in Marrakesh, it took French painter Jacques Majorelle 40 years to create this enchanting garden in the heart of the city. It was later bought and preserved by Yves Saint-Laurent and his partner Pierre Bergé.
On the sublime drive that took us towards Ouarzazate south of the High Atlas Mountains we stopped to capture the views of remote villages with their modestly tilled land, to enjoy ink-black coffee and freshly squeezed orange juice in the company of ginger kittens and hardworking donkeys and to speak to as many strangers as would indulge us. What we discovered in and around Ouarzazate were evocative kasbahs, city- fortresses, the most famous of which is the UNESCO-recognised Aït Benhaddou.
In the middle of a barren and rocky wasteland, a valley opens in the desert and weary travellers are welcomed to an oasis of palm trees and streams and the mud-brick towers of the kasbah. Established in 757, this traditional fortified village was established on an ancient caravan route between the Sahara Desert and Marrakesh. It is also where loads of movies have been shot – from Gladiator and Alexander to Game of Thrones – so it’s oddly familiar.
Our next stop was Essaouira, a North Atlantic port with 18th-century city walls. There we stayed with Hamid and Naima, a young couple with two sons whose families have lived in the heart of the medina for generations. Naima welcomed us as old friends. Our rooms opened onto a courtyard and on the table, she’d set out oranges to juice, mint for our tea, local olives and freshly baked bread. We sat with her and shared stories about the place of her birth and she recommended restaurants and activities to enjoy during our stay.
We met local artists, drank mint tea with the owner of a jewellery store where we were heartily negotiated with, shopped for baskets, fabrics and more than our fair share of Fatima’s hands. As we reluctantly headed back to Casablanca for our last night, we drove in silence, taking in the bare beauty of endless barren landscapes, the occasional scattering of cows and rural homes, getting a glimpse of how the majority of people here live. Dusty, sun-kissed, window down and wind in our hair, we reflected on how this land of imperial cities, ancient villages and welcoming people had crept into our hearts. We had arrived anticipating a road tripping gung-ho adventure; we had instead been offered a sense of timeless wonder.
NOTE: Driving in Morocco is not for the faint-hearted, but it offers the best kind of flexibility to your adventure. Always carry water, snacks and have a local sim card in case you need Google maps to show you the best way home.
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** Read my ‘Lesser Known Cities To Add To Your Bucket List‘ for some ideas of where else to live out your travel dream.
** This post is published in partnership with Nedbank and their #NedbankBucketList campaign. Most pics are mine, with some sourced on Pixabay.