Nan Hua Temple is the largest Buddhist temple in Africa and is in a suburb of Bronkhorstspruit, South Africa. Try saying that 10 times fast. My research group stopped here midway through our trip, which was a wonderful break from an emotionally draining trip visiting schools and clinics and studying public health programs around HIV/AIDS. It was definitely one of the most spiritual experiences of my life and I dream of doing a long retreat there one day. The architecture is incredible, the people were friendly, and the food was exquisite – even if you couldn’t talk to or face each other while eating.
2. The Devil’s Pool, Zambia
During the Zambian dry season (typically September-December), the water levels of the Zambezi River are at their lowest, revealing what is essentially a small, naturally-occurring infinity pool at the edge of Africa’s largest waterfall – the Devil’s Pool. For a small charge, you can hire a guide to take you in a boat to this magical spot and show you how and where to jump in. I guarantee it’s the biggest adrenaline rush and coolest photo-op you’ll ever have. Bonus points if, after you’ve conquered the Devil’s Pool, you cross the bridge over to the Zimbabwe side of the Falls for a wildlife trek and bungee jumping!
3. Nyungwe Forest, Rwanda
The Nyungwe Rainforest is located in the southwestern part of Rwanda, bordering Burundi to the south, and Lake Kivu and the Democratic Republic of the Congo to the west. Nyungwe’s biodiversity is astonishing by African standards, and is one of the most endemic species-rich areas in all of Africa. Nyungwe Forest is, in fact, the largest swathe of forest left in East or Central Africa. With regard to accommodation, the Nyungwe Forest Lodge effortlessly combines five star service excellence with African hospitality, ensuring a guest experience rich in local culture and history.
4. Mount Kilimanjaro, Tanzania
Summiting Mt. Kilimanjaro in Tanzania is the most rewarding and challenging hike. As Africa’s tallest mountain, and the world’s highest freestanding mountain at 19,341 feet, Kilimanjaro challenges all levels of climbers. Your surroundings change as you trek through four different climate zones (rainforest, heath and moorland, alpine desert, and ice cap) on your hike. As you gain elevation, the views become increasing spectacular: valleys engulfed in clouds, moonlight reflecting off the summit glaciers, and viewing the overall landscape of sub-Saharan Africa as far as the eye can see. Whether you are looking for a challenge, scenic views, or a way to escape everyday life, Mt. Kilimanjaro has something for you.
5. Rift Valley, Kenya
The Rift Valley in Kenya is a beautiful stretch of land that sits among extinct volcanoes. Evidence of ancient eruptions can be found all around the area in the form of lava rock, stretching for miles. As you travel through the valley, you will see the friendly smile of the pastoral Maasai tribe, clothed in bright red and tending to their livestock. In the northern regions of the valley, near Lake Turkana, beautifully beaded men, women and children may even stop to perform their tribal dances if you’re lucky.
6. Ouidah, Benin
Photo via Flickr
Benin is located on Africa’s West Coast between Togo and Nigeria and is rich in beauty, culture and history. One of the best things to do in Benin is visit the city of Ouidah, the birthplace of the Voodoo religion. Every January, Ouidah is home to the annual Voodoo festival, an amazing, vibrant celebration of Voodoo worshipers. While visiting Ouidah, enter the Temple of Pythons and take a picture with a sacred python around their necks. Or hike through the Sacred Forest of Kpassè. And while walking along the slave trade route, see the slave barracks, the auction block, and the extremely moving and emotional Gate of No Return.
I had the good fortune of spending this past Christmas in Namibia. My daughter is serving in the Peace Corp in Namibia, and lives in a region that includes the Kalahari Desert and spectacular sand dunes of Sossusvlei. A trip to Namibia can provide an opportunity to experience the majesty of the African continent, its landscapes, the “Big Five” animals and its people. We traveled to the north from her village to visit Etosha National Park, which is one of the largest game preserves in all of Africa. Traveling through Namibia is quite easy if it is your first time to the African continent. We stayed in guesthouses and shopped at the craft market in Okahandja, where artisans from around the country come to sell their handiwork. While visiting Etosha we stayed at the Etosha Village, which borders the park and provides unique accommodations in that you camp in tents with an outdoor bathroom and kitchen attached. It’s almost like being in the bush on a safari!
8. Kigali, Rwanda
Rwanda has a million things going for it. One of the most ambitious development projects in Africa (Rwanda2020), the world’s highest rate of women in the legislature (56 percent), and human and natural marvels throughout the country piece together a portrait of an astounding nation. Perhaps most astounding is exactly how accessible Rwanda has become, and the progress it has made, in just two decades after one of the world’s worst genocides tore the country apart just two decades ago. Once absolutely war-ravaged, Rwanda has become an international paragon of development and reconciliation in the years since. Today, visitors to Rwanda can enjoy breathtaking gorilla treks in Nyungwe, grasslands safaris in Akagera, thriving city life in the capital of Kigali, and powerful encounters with history at Rwanda’s profound memorials. Rwanda, more than any other country, represents the heights that Africa can soar to in spite and because of the challenges the continent faces.
Malawi is described as the “warm heart of Africa” – in my experience a perfectly true description of a beautiful people who seem to have the ability to make you feel so good about being human! They love hand-shaking and have a phrase: “chikondi chilli mamanja,” which I believe means “love is in our hands as we shake together.” A study of the speed at which people walk in cities around the world showed Malawians to be the slowest – they keep stopping to talk to people! It’s also one of the only places in the world you can eat chambo – a fish found in lake Malawi, hmmm, beautiful and sweet to the taste. So if you like a warm climate, the faint smell of woodsmoke lingering in the air, time standing still, the sound of singing everywhere, stunning scenery and the best smiles in the world – go to Malawi!
Hire a driver to take you up north to the oldest church in the world (which holds the Arc of the Covenant) and other amazing churches around Axum dug out of pure rock, or head south and stay at lake resorts in Hawassa or Lagano. Beautiful culture and people, warm year round and fun. (Just don’t go during the summer rainy season!)
If you’re looking for your next outdoor adventure, Zambia is your place to go. Filled with spectacular waterways, including 17 astonishing waterfalls (not including Victoria Falls), there’s something for everyone – from adrenaline junkies to leisurely walkers. Some of the rivers even take you into villages! In Zambia you will also find some of the most rare encounters with wildlife in the plethora of safari experiences offered within the country.
Madagascar is a thrilling place to visit for nature lovers. The island nation (the world’s 4th largest island) is home to an incredibly diverse array of landscapes – from rain forests to deserts and beaches. In fact, 5% of all plant and animal species are found only in Madagascar! Make sure to take some time on your trip to visit the Avenue of Baobabs, where you can walk amongst dozens of the majestic trees – some of which are over 800 years old.