I occasionally get asked by friends and family what my top choices would be for a first time traveler to Africa and to be honest I find it a massively daunting question. Not least is Africa a huge continent; but people’s expectations of the ‘Africa experience’, their propensity for luxury vs. budget and their general travel styles vary so greatly. That said, and having been lucky enough to sample a mere 18 of the 54 fully recognized countries that comprise the African continent, I enjoy the challenge and excitement of planning trips to Africa (both for myself and friends) and often plan trips just to add to my ‘future trips’ list. With that in mind I decided to put together a go-to list of my preferred destinations, by category, for first-time visitors. Disclaimer: I’ve based the list only on places I’ve traveled to; which means that it’s limited to my own experience. So, don’t blame me if your favourite isn’t on there yet! I’ve also failed to include any countries in West Africa (yet!). Make sure you also check out Part 1 of the post covering budget travelers and those looking for the best wildlife opportunities!
I would suggest this is probably the go-to for anyone seeking a true adrenaline rush in Africa. Not only does SA provide a smorgasbord of high-octane options but it also provides a bit more surety on the health and safety front (after all, I’m sure most places are ‘safe’ but the odd story like THIS one does seem to surface from time-to-time). Putting aside safety fears, you could try shark cage diving in Gansbaai, the highest bungee jump in the world from Bloukrans Bridge in the Western Cape, abseiling from Table Mountain or the more common skydiving option. If you’re thinking of South Africa then you’ll also get the benefit of lower prices than other safari destinations, great wildlife, beaches, wine country….and penguins (those at Boulders Beach just outside of Cape Town seemingly the most visited)! Of all of the African options South Africa is also probably the easiest to arrange independently if that is what you’re trying to achieve.
Namibia’s capital of extreme sports is Swakopmund which lies on the coast and is a fairly easy drive from the capital (Windhoek) on tarred road or a short flight. I find Namibia, along with South Africa, two of the easiest countries in Africa in which to arrange your own itinerary and go it alone (even for the first-timer). This means that you might even want to self-drive (maybe a little bit of a push if this is your first time, but hey, who doesn’t love an adventure) around the country. Getting back to Swakopmund (because I could rattle on for ages about Namibia’s virtues), you’ll find a huge number of adventure companies through which you can book activities including: sandboarding; sea kayaking with seals and dolphins; sky diving; sand dune buggying; quad biking through the desert; and shark fishing. You’ll probably want to spend a couple of days here before heading elsewhere in the country including the highlights of Etosha National Park, Soussusvlei and Damaraland.
I’ve included Tanzania in the adrenaline category for one reason; Kilimanjaro. Admittedly, climbing the world’s highest free-standing mountain (5,895 m) may not be everybody’s cup of tea; but there is no denying that it’s an extreme activity and is massively rewarding (after you kick the altitude sickness). The climb can take anywhere between 4-9 days (I took 5 on the coca-cola route) depending on your route, acclimatization time, and which tour operator you use. After successfully (hopefully) completing the climb you can go on safari in the Serengeti or hit the beaches in Zanzibar.
My only North African pick is Morocco. This is mostly because current security concerns put me off adding Egypt to the list at the moment (although that’s starting to change again). If you’re looking for culture then Morocco is a definite must. Of course, by picking North Africa you’re ruling out the big-game experience, but you’re definitely going to lower your costs (on both flights and accommodation). Some of the key sights and activities to make sure you fit in are Kasbah Ait Benhaddou, Marrakesh, traversing the High Atlas and camel riding through the Sahara with an overnight in a Bedouin camp.
The highlight of any trip to Ethiopia is undoubtedly the rock-hewn churches of Lalibela, but Ethiopia has a huge amount of cultural options including those in Axum, Gondar, Harar (which is also a great place to get up close and personal with Hyenas for those of you who recently saw it on Planet Earth II) and the Simien Mountains National Park; which is a World Heritage Site. All of that can be topped off with food options like Wat and Tibs washed down by an Ethiopian coffee ceremony (which is a sign of friendship and hospitality). The Bale Mountains National Park and Simien Mountain range are also great places to spot rare wildlife including Ethiopian wolves, the Walia ibex and the Gelada monkey. So whilst Ethiopia might not be your usual African adventure for the first time visitor it’ll undoubtedly be a rewarding one.
Malawi really sits off of the radar for most tourists primarily because, until 2012, it lacked a ‘big 5’ park. That’s where the good news lies. With Majete National Park, Malawi now has its first ‘big 5’ park back but the numbers of visiting tourists is still remarkably low; meaning that you can have a more exclusive, wilderness feel to your safari. You’ll also have the benefit of visiting Lake Malawi for a few days, whose underwater diversity has meant it has been granted World Heritage site status. The lake is a great place to snorkel and dive (you’ll probably want to try and avoid bilharzia and take the appropriate medication afterwards where necessary!) as well as kayak and windsurf.
I’m giving Uganda an honorable mention here but not suggesting that your first time in Africa should solely consist of it. If you’re looking at an overland trip that takes in, for example, Kenya, Uganda and Rwanda over a two week period then it’s worth trying to make sure that Jinja in Uganda is on the itinerary if you’re an extreme sports fanatic. It’s a great place to white water raft the Nile (I can personally attest that the rapids are high grade and terrifying if you fall out of the raft) and you can also bungee jump (they claim to New Zealand safety standards), white water kayak, and horseback ride.
Just remember, if you’re looking to go on safari then wildlife is easier to view during the dry season but costs are lower in the wet season. If both are key to you then try to seek out the shoulder season when some lodges and hotels offer low season prices before the wet season truly kicks in!