On the Zambezi River and the border between Zimbabwe and Zambia, Victoria Falls was named by the explorer David Livingstone for Queen Victoria. But its native African name is much more expressive, Mosi-oa-Tunya, the ‘Smoke that Thunders’, is a reference to the immense spray and rumbling that the Falls generate. With a width of 1,700 meters and a depth of 108 meters, the Falls are twice the height of Niagara Falls. And they’re surrounded by the savannah, which is full of rhinos, hippos and lions.
Victoria Falls, Zambia +263 77 343 0221
We sometimes overlook how extraordinary the Pyramids of Giza are because the image of them is commonplace today. The work of thousands and thousands of laborers, the Pyramids and the Sphinx at Giza is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and they were known to the ancients as a Wonder of the World. The Giza Complex just outside Cairo on the fringes of the Libyan Desert is sublime and mysterious, built to house the dead pharaohs and all the items they would need to rule the afterlife.
Sidi Bou Said is the gloriously pretty village in Tunisia on the Mediterranean coast that has drawn great painters and writers for over a century. Once it was a local religious site looking out onto the azure waters of the ocean, before the French artist Baron Rodolphe D’Erlanger instigated a color scheme of whitewash and light blue that now covers the whole village. The buildings are famous too for their great studded doors, with crescent patterns on many. Matisse, Klee, and Auguste Macke all came here to paint, and Andre Gide and Simone de Beauvoir came to write.
You might not have heard of the Sossusvlei, but its iconic landscape is often seen in film. It lies in Namibia in the southern Namib Desert, a region of dry lake, clay pan and orange and red sand dunes. Its name combines the Afrikaans word ‘vlei’ meaning ‘marsh’, and the local Nama word meaning ‘of-no-return’. The area has a remarkably spare, clean beauty, dead acacia trees, the deep blue of the sky, and the shifting, burnished red of the sands make for a stunning vision.
Djenné in Mali is a remarkable site, composed up of thousands of adobe buildings made from earth baked hard in the African sun and reinforced with palm fronds. The ancient town dates back to the 3rd century and beyond, but it really grew with the Saharan trade routes when slaves, gold and salt were transported across the desert to the Levant. The unspoiled earth buildings, particularly the Great Mosque built in 1907 by the French colonial authorities, make Djenné a unique place to explore and to see. The Old Town is, of course, another UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Table Mountain looms over Cape Town at the southern tip of the continent at the Cape of Good Hope. Along with the peaks of Signal Hill, Devil’s Peak, and Lion’s Head, it forms a huge natural amphitheater in which the Dutch settlers of the 17th century first established what would become Cape Town. With its flat top well over a thousand meters above sea level at its highest point at Maclear’s Beacon, Table Mountain is often obscured by clouds from ground level. But you can take the famous cable car up to the top.
The furthest south of the African Great Lakes straddles Malawi, Mozambique and Tanzania. With its clear waters, unspoiled beaches and the backdrop of mountain on all sides, it forms a spectacular natural site. When David Livingstone came here he coined the name ‘Lake of Stars’ due to the lamps of the fishermen he saw out on the lake in the darkness. The Lake is also home to many rare fish types of exceptional scientific value, along with the crocodiles and hippos that skulk along the shores.
The Zanzibar Archipelago is a tropical paradise off the coast of Tanzania in the Indian Ocean. Golden beaches, cerulean waters, and swaying palm trees make for an amazingly beautiful place. There are four main islands, Unguja, Pemba, Mafia and the uninhabited Latham Islands, along with many smaller islands that surround them. You’ll find Zanzibar City, famous for its historic Stone Town area and its connection to the spice and slave trades in the 19th century, on Unguja Island.
The Sahara stretches from Egypt in the east, all the way across North Africa to Morocco in the west. It’s at its most spectacular and romantic in Morocco, close to the border with Algeria, where you’ll find the Erg Chebbi, a sand sea made up of undulating dunes formed by the blowing of the winds, which has been much photographed and filmed. The ideal base to explore the sands is at the village of Merzouga from which groups head out on the backs of camels to see the unspoiled desert sands.
The Rwenzori Mountains are found in western Uganda and part of the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Often overlooked, they boast a climate that combines the Alpine with the tropical. You’ll find heather along with rare plants like lobelias and spectacular mountain peaks topped with snow, and glaciers, waterfalls and lakes. Africa’s third highest mountain, Mount Stanley, is in the Rwenzori range, as is the highest and most permanent source of the Nile. The first European to set eyes on the mountains was Henry Morton Stanley in 1889.
Gondar, often known as the ‘Camelot of Ethiopia’, is known for its massive historical remains. The Emperor Fasilides and his successors built the picturesque royal enclosure known as the Fasil Ghebbi in the 17th century. It’s a place full of palaces, libraries, banqueting halls and castles for the Ethiopian aristocracy, built under the influence of the European Baroque brought here by Portuguese missionaries.