Dare to visit Africa, the world's darkest continent

Nine thousand people died in Africa's recent ebola outbreak, but they weren't the only victims. The continent's tourism industry was decimated. "It was worse than September 11, worse than the Zimbabwe crisis, worse than the Kenyan bombs," says Julie McIntosh of The Classic Safari Company.

The West African countries at the heart of the epidemic – Guinea, Liberia, Sierra Leone – are a long way from Africa's tourism hot spots. Liberia, for instance, is closer to France (6300km) than it is to Kenya (7760km). 

So it's time to put Africa back on the itinerary. The only question is, where to start? With ancient tribal cultures, spectacular mountains and lakes, luxurious lodges and amazing wildlife, it's hard to narrow down the options. We asked some Africa experts to share their favourite destinations on the wild continent. Their list includes vineyards and ancient ruins, spectacular hikes and canoe trips, and of course, plenty of unforgettable wildlife encounters. 

SOUTH AFRICA: CHOOSE YOUR OWN ADVENTURE 

Some destinations come in just one flavour. In South Africa, you can choose from a bigger range than Baskin-Robbins. Whether your style is rough and ready or smoothly sophisticated, South Africa can match your mood.

Take Cape Town, the country's most colourful city. You might enjoy the city's hip urban edge: a whisky at the waterfront Bascule, dinner at one of the Cape Malay restaurants in the colourful Bo-Kaap district, and kipping at the funky Grand Daddy, where Airstream trailers have been turned into rooftop suites.

Alternatively, you may choose to explore the country's dark history on Robben Island, where Nelson Mandela was imprisoned, take the family to meet the colonies of penguins, fur seals and sea lions that make their home in Cape Town's rocky bays, or hole up in old-school luxury in one of its top hotels. 

South Africa's diversity is one of its biggest drawcards. "It has stunning coastlines, delicious wine, cosmopolitan cities, a diverse and rich array of human culture and a huge number of national parks and private game reserves," says Annelieke Huijgens, Bunnik Tours' operations manager. 

It's also remarkably easy to get around. Many visitors opt for a self-drive holiday to explore the country's dramatic landscape, from the arid Great Karoo, punctuated by the dramatic Swartberg Pass, to the scenic Garden Route lined with beaches, lagoons and ancient forests.

Alternatively, install yourself in the lovely Babylonstoren, a stylishly converted Cape Dutch farmhouse in the Cape vineyards, interspersing visits to local wineries with meals at restaurants such as Fyndraai, which blends flavours from the Afrikaner, Cape Malay and native Khoi cultures.

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A different kind of wining and dining takes place on South Africa's luxurious trains. The Blue Train covers the 27-hour journey between Cape Town and Pretoria; Rovos Rail offers a number of itineraries to destinations  including Victoria Falls and Swakopmund in Namibia.  In both cases, however, it's about the journey, not the destination. Inspired by the golden age of rail, guests enjoy double beds, en suite bathrooms complete with tubs, butler service and gourmet meals, including a stately afternoon tea and a dress-to-the-nines dinner. 

And then, of course, there is safari. "Kruger National Park is the region's most famous park and for a good reason: at about two million hectares, it's about the same size as Israel," says Jenny Gray, Africa product manager for Intrepid Travel and Peregrine Adventures.

Thanks to a favourable exchange rate, your safari dollar also goes further in South Africa. "If you are looking at top-end lodges, such as Londolozi and Singita, you will pay a lot less than you would in another country," says  McIntosh of The Classic Safari Company. 

Need to know:

- Hiring a car is a great way to discover the country's many contrasts.

- As a malaria-free destination, South Africa is good choice for families.

- For something different, join a bicycle tour of Soweto or a tour of Cape Town's microbreweries.

Try this trip: The Classic Safari Company's eight-night South Africa's Bush & Beach package includes four nights at Sabi Sabi Bush Lodge and four nights at Cape Town's Victoria and Alfred Hotel. It costs from $6990 a person, including flights to Sabi private reserve. See classicsafaricompany.com.au.

ZAMBIA: UP CLOSE AND PERSONAL 

Setting off on foot in the African veld is both intoxicating and terrifying. Your nerves are taut, every passing shadow a potential predator, every rustle your death padding up behind you. 

A walking safari is about more than just understanding your place in the food chain, however. It offers a new perspective on the bush, allowing you to discover the delights of the small stuff. Following animal trails through the long grass, you might come across matted-down grass revealing an animal den, or a buffalo skull bearing the marks of the kill. 

The walking safari was invented in Zambia, and is still an essential part of any visit. Abercrombie & Kent's Sujata Rahman describes Zambia as  "wild Africa at its best": a place that is still under the radar, an experience that is less about five-star trappings and more about getting to know the locals who own the camps, sharing their insights into the land they love. 

A typical example is Tafika Camp, run for the past 20 years by John and Carol Coppinger. The six chalets are made of reed and thatch, but all have en suite bathrooms. As well as game drives and walking safaris, you can join a mountain bike safari or take a dawn tour in John's microlight plane.

Zambia's don't-miss wilderness areas include the 9000-square-kilometre South Luangwa National Park, a beautiful landscape filled with elephant, giraffe, antelope, and big cats. If you want to spot a leopard – notoriously elusive in many parts of Africa – Zambia is one of your best bets. 

On the Lower Zambezi, by contrast, canoeing safaris amid the crocs and hippos are a popular activity. Just remember rule No.1. If you capsize, move away from the canoe: the crocs will attack the largest thing first. 

And speaking of the Zambezi, a visit to Victoria Falls is a must for many. While you are there, enjoy the falls from a different perspective. Instead of just walking past, try a helicopter flight or – if it's the dry season – ask about taking a swim at the top of them. Yes, we're serious. It is an experience you won't forget.

Need to know:

- Fewer tourists let you view wildlife without the crowds.

- Ready for a safari with a twist? Try a canoe safari down the Zambezi river.

- Take in Victoria Falls from a different angle: try flying over it or swimming above it. 

Try this trip: Abercrombie & Kent's 12-day private journey, Best of Zambia and Botswana, includes three nights at Sanctuary Puku Ridge and two nights at Sanctuary Sussi & Chuma. It costs from $11,270 a person. See abercrombiekent.com.au.

KENYA: WARRIORS AND WILDLIFE

One point five million wildebeest. That's how many animals make the annual migration from Tanzania to Kenya's Masai Mara, searching for shoots of sweet red-oat grass. It is a big number, but it is not until they are all around you, packed across the plain all the way to the horizon, that you realise what an immense amount of wildlife this really is.

It's not just wildebeest, either. Thousands of zebra and antelope, also with a taste for fresh grass, tag along. They are not the only ones after a good meal. Large numbers of top-of-the-food chain predators tag along, following this mobile food source. 

In most of Africa, big cats tend to look slightly scrawny, always on the lookout for their next meal. Not the lions that accompany the migration. These ones loll around, bellies distended, cubs listlessly toying with partly-eaten corpses. You can almost imagine their expressions when the lionesses present the next kill: "Not wildebeest again!"

A trip to the Masai Mara for the migration should be on everyone's African to-do list. However, Kenya's delights do not end there. Its diverse geography is one of the reasons Kenya remains, in the words of McIntosh, "absolutely one of the best wildlife experiences". Sampling a number of different camps not only exposes you to different wildlife experiences – Amboseli National Park, for instance, is a favourite with birdwatchers – but also lets you escape the crowds that inevitably accompany the migration.

The wildlife is only one of Kenya's attractions. The people are another. The red-clad Maasai continue to fascinate visitors; you may visit a village, or choose to stay in a camp co-owned by the tribe. Small family-owned camps also offer fascinating insights into the country and its people. 

"In Kenya, you still get these genuine personalities running their own safaris: salt of the earth people with wonderful stories," says McIntosh. Try Safaris Unlimited, run by Gordie Church, which offers riding and photographic safaris, or the Dyer family's Borana Lodge, a property which combines a working farm with an active conservancy programme, including anti-poacher patrols.

Need to know: 

- Don't just visit the Maasai Mara; explore some of Kenya's other, less-crowded, safari destinations. 

- Consider a special-interest safari, focusing on a hobby such as riding or photography.

- Volunteer safaris allow you to combine animal encounters with conservation activities and teaching in local schools.

Try this trip: Bunnik  Tours' 19-day Kenya and Tanzania tour includes game drives in the Masai Mara and Amboseli national parks, as well as visits to a Masai village and Ngorongoro Crater. It costs from $9880, including flights ex Australia. See bunniktours.com.au

MOROCCO: FROM THE SAHARA TO THE SOUK 

Don't let those whitewashed walls fool you. From afar, Morocco's cities present a tranquil picture, the white houses jumbled together like a cubist painting. Step inside their streets, however, and you will find a raucous scene of clashing cultures, where mule cart drivers wield mobile phones and stallholders in the souks cheerfully harangue passersby. 

Get lost in the lively, crowded streets of Fez's medina, the world's oldest existing medieval Islamic cities. And we do mean that literally – the narrow winding lanes constantly confound you, opening unexpectedly to bustling souks or residential squares. If you can't find you way back to the main thoroughfare by following the crowds, a local will do the job for a small payment.

Or head to Marrakech's main square, Djemma al-Fnaa, as night falls and it is transformed into the ultimate alfresco diner, where 100 numbered stalls offer everything from lamb sausages to escargots. Adding to the din are snake charmers, acrobats and water carriers with their leather bags; and that's before the after-show entertainment, a giant musical jam session, kicks off.

That's not to say it is all noise, all the time. Both Marrakech and Fez have lovely old medersas, or Islamic schools, tranquil retreats with elaborate mosaics and carved plaster and wood and interiors. And then there are the riads, gorgeous Moorish residences that function like an oasis in the city. Behind high walls, these peaceful enclaves are centred around soothing, intricately decorated courtyards.

"Vibrant, colourful and exotic" is how Abercrombie & Kent's Rahman describes Morocco. She encourages visitors to move beyond the cities and discover its many landscapes. "There are spectacular deserts, a surprising coastline and dramatic mountains," she says. 

From cooking classes in the kasbah and high mountain treks to sharing a pot of tea with a Bedouin in his camel-hair tent, Morocco is full of memorable moments. For Intrepid's Grant, "a journey through Morocco is not complete without a camel ride across the golden sands of the Sahara and sleeping out under the stars at a Sahara camp". 

Need to know

- Be sure to try Morocco's spice-tinged cuisine, including tasty specialties such as bastilla, or pigeon pie.

- Sharpen up your bartering skills if you intend to go shopping – it's all part of the experience.

- After Arabic, French is the most common language. If you can master a few phrases, it will make your trip easier.

Try this trip: Abercrombie & Kent's 10-day Culinary Morocco,  in November 2015, is led by well-known cook Geoff Jansz. A maximum of 24 guests will dine with locals, explore markets and learn the secrets of Moroccan cuisine. It costs from $6895 a person. See abercrombiekent.com.au.

NAMIBIA: DESERT DRAMA 

In the searing heat of the day, the dunes of Sossusvlei look as alien as another planet – and as inhospitable. Soaring into the achingly blue sky, the rust-red dunes, the tallest in the world, appear to be devoid of life. 

Arrive in the stillness of dawn, however, and you will see tiny tracks in the sand, evidence of the many creatures, from beetles and mice to snakes, that make their home in this barren land. Within an hour or so, however, the tracks are gone, covered up by the ever-shifting sands.

Namibia is a destination for those who like to look at things a bit differently. A country largely covered by two vast deserts, the Namib and the Kalahari, may sound unappealing, but thanks to its spectacular landscapes, Namibia is "the surprise packet of Africa," as Bunnik Tour's Huijgens describes it.

Apart from the world's tallest sand dunes, it has the world's oldest desert, the second-largest canyon, and one of the last nomadic tribes in the world. 

Namibia is beautiful because of, not in spite of, its harshness. The rugged Skeleton Coast, with its rocky shores and deceiving mists, is so called in recognition of the countless ships that ran ashore here over centuries. Some of the wrecks are still visible today. In Damaraland, the small herds of desert-adapted rhino and elephants,  which can go several days without drinking, fascinate growing numbers of visitors.

More than anything, Namibia appeals to adventurers. Some of them are road warriors: self-drive enthusiasts who revel in the long, straight roads running to the horizon. Others are looking for a physical challenge, such as the hike through the Fish River Canyon. One of the largest canyons in the world, it leads hikers through an everchanging landscape of rock pools, boulder fields and sulphur springs.

Although it is not primarily a wildlife destination, Namibia's vast Etosha National Park offers superb wildlife viewing. Its woodland and grassy plains surround a massive salt pan punctuated by waterholes, which offer spectacular sighting opportunities.

Need to know

- The Sossusvlei sand dunes at are at their most striking at sunrise and sunset. For the best viewing opportunities, choose a lodge close to the national park.

- The four-day hike through the Fish River Canyon is considered one of the most challenging in southern Africa.

- The waterholes in Etosha's salt pan provide rich wildlife-spotting opportunities. 

Try this trip: Intrepid Travel's 15-day Namibia Getaway includes major attractions, such as Sossusvlei and Etosha National Park, as well as opportunities to see ancient rock paintings and a Namibian ghost town. It costs  from $2990 a person. See intrepidtravel.com.

FIVE MORE AFRICAN ADVENTURES

Still want more? Here are five more enticing destinations.

Tanzania: Whether it's climbing Mount Kilimanjaro or snorkelling amid the colourful fish in Lake Tanganyika, Tanzania has plenty to offer. Its best-known attraction is the Serengeti, where you can see the annual wildebeest migration. Alternatively, the World Heritage-listed Ngorongoro Crater, an extinct volcanic caldera, also offers great wildlife spotting. 

Rwanda: One of Africa's newest destinations, Rwanda has become a hotspot thanks to treks in the Volcanoes National Park to encounter the endangered mountain gorillas. Expect to encounter ancient forests and welcoming locals determined to build a better country.  A visit to the Kigali Genocide Museum is an incredibly moving experience.

Botswana: Botswana is a blow-the-budget destination but for many the superb wildlife and boutique five-star camps justify the expense. Canoeing through the floodwaters of the Okavango Delta, where huge numbers of wildlife gather, is a highlight. Also worth checking out: Chobe National Park and the Linyanti Reserve where, at Kings Pool Camp, you can watch elephant crossing the channel from your poolside lounge. 

Ethiopia: The only African country that was never colonised, Ethiopia is rich in history, culture and natural wonders: in fact, it has no fewer than nine UNESCO World Heritage sites. From the jagged Simien Mountains and lunar landscape of the Danakil Depression to the colourful tribes of the Omo Valley and the magnificent rock churches at Lalibela, this underexplored country is a treasure. 

Zimbabwe: The country's return to popularity as a safari destination reflects not just its magnificent wildlife and a calmer political situation, but the country's diverse attractions. Hwange National Park is known for its large elephant population, while Matobo's surreal granite landscapes make for great Instagramming. Then there are the splendours of the Great Zimbabwe, sub-Saharan Africa's most magnificent ruins, and Victoria Falls. 

THE SURVIVOR'S GUIDE TO AFRICA

Concerned about the many dangers of the dark continent? Julie McIntosh, of The Classic Safari Company, helps you face your fears.

Ebola: "Not an issue in any of the popular tourist destinations, especially now that the outbreak has died down. Remember that the only Westerners who were infected were frontline workers dealing directly with theepidemic." 

Malaria: "The important thing is that there are treatments for malaria. If you don't want to take anti-malarial drugs, there are malaria-free countries you can visit, such as South Africa."

Crime: "A lot of people are concerned about safety, particularly in South Africa. Be sensible and remember you are not in Australia. Don't walk along with your wallet hanging out, and don't walk around alone at night."

Terrorism: "Another attack like the one in Nairobi could still happen, as it could happen anywhere. You will be fine on safari, so just use Nairobi as a gateway."

Poor internet access: "Some of our clients are terrified of switching off completely: but they often find that this turns out to be the greatest joy of the holiday."

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