Central Africa is mostly about wildlife. Much of this is the heart of Africa, with dense jungles and broad savannnas. This area is much more difficult to get to, since cities and airports are few and far between. However, this part of Africa can be the most rewarding for undaunted traveler, since there is no other place on earth where the diversity of life is more on exhibition. Enjoy my suggestions for the best of Central Africa, then check out the photo album which will soon follow.
1. Ngorongoro Conservation Area, Tanzania
Ngorongoro Conservation Area, Tanzania, was originally part of the Serengeti National Park (see below) which it abuts, but was given a separate designation in 1959 in order to accommodate the Masai people who still live and farm on this territory.
Its entrance is 60 kilometers (35 miles) west of Lake Manyara National Park and 145 kilometers ( 80 miles) east of the Serengeti National Park. There are great views of Mount Kilimanjaro (see below) along the route to the park.
A visitor’s first breathtaking view of the crater usually occurs at Heroes Point, at an altitude of 2,300 meters (7,000 feet). Park officials estimate that there are about 30,000 animals in the crater, which is the caldera of a volcano. Only 4-wheel drive vehicles are allowed in the crater, and these can be rented in Crater Village.
Tourist agencies and tour operators, when discussing safaris or visits to the wildlife parks of Africa frequently refer to the “Big Nine”, the animals which are on almost everyone’s wish list when in Africa. These large mammals are Buffalo, Cheetah, Elephant, Giraffe, Hippopotamus, Lion, Leopard, Rhinoceros, and Zebra. Most of these creatures are visible in this park. Others include Wildebeest, Thompson’s Gazelle, Ostrich, and flamingo.
Also within the national park, in the northwestern section, is Olduvai Gorge, the famous area where Dr Louis Leakey and his wife, Mary, made incredible anthropological discoveries of Australopithecus and Homo habilis. These are among the most important specimens of pre-historic man ever found, and the area is still being explored today.
A great excursion from Ngorongoro is east to Lake Manyara National Park. Since it is a fairly small park, it can be visited in a day. Here visitors will probably spend most of their time along the “main track”, a 35-40 kilometer (20-25 mile) one-way trip through the park with access to most of the main viewing areas.
This park contains an incredible amount of bird life in addition to the big game. Some necessary stops include Mahali pa Ngati (Place of the Buffalo) which also has, besides the herd of old buffalo bulls, zebra and impala, the Hippo Pool, and, near the Masai Bridge, an area where tree-climbing lions as well as baboons may be seen. Also in the park are Hot Springs, along the Rift Valley Escarpment.
2. Serengeti National Park, Tanzania
Serengeti National Park, is the second largest national park in Tanzania and certainly the most famous. It was established as a national park in 1951 and conjures up images in the minds of most people of an African savanna teeming with large wildlife. This park actually lives up to the expectations.
The Serengeti is famous for its animal migrations which are timed with the arrivals of the wet and dry seasons of the savanna. For instance, from the end of June to November, thousands of animals, especially wildebeest, migrate northward toward the Masai-Mara Game Reserve (see below) in Kenya, seeking water and good grazing land. They are, of course, followed and stalked by the large predators such as lions and cheetahs. It is probably the best time to visit since the few water holes that remain in the dry season are crowded with animals of all types.
One of the characteristics of these short-grass and long-grass plains is the presence of kopjes, hillocks of granite which provide hiding places for smaller creatures and thus attract other wildlife.
Several areas of interest within the park include the Retina Hippo Pool, in a section of the park known as the “western corridor”, the Lobo area, in the northeastern part of the park, which has wildlife year-round, and the Mara River where crocodiles and hippos may be seen.
3. Victoria Falls, Zambia/Zimbabwe
Victoria Falls, the world’s largest waterfalls, is located on the border between western Zimbabwe and southwestern Zambia. Here, for a distance of about 2 kilometers (1.4 miles), the Zambezi River plunges over a cliff and falls 100 meters (300 feet) into the Batoka Gorge. The town of Livingstone, Zambia allows access to the Mosi-oa-Tunya National Park where visitors can get close to the falls.
On the Zimbabwe side, the closest town is Victoria Falls and access is via Victoria Falls National Park. A pathway along the falls affords great views from the Livingstone Statue, on the western part of the walk, to Cataract View and on to Danger Point.
Visitors should note that clouds of spray from the falls soar up to 500 meters (1,500 feet) and obscure much of the scenery, so that the best time to visit is from September to November, the dry season when the volume of water is less, so there is less spray.
4. Zanzibar, Tanzania
Zanzibar, Tanzania, is a city which people tend to associate with exotic images. It was always famous as a trading location for its spices, especially cloves, and was actually a separate country until 1964 when it merged with Tanganyika to form the modern country of Tanzania. The area that is called Zanzibar is actually made up of two coral islands, Umguja and Pemba. It is on the island of Umguja that the famous Stone Town, recognized as a World Heritage Site, is found.
Stone Town, in its heyday in the 19th century, was an important center for international trade and the most important city in East Africa. It has managed to preserve much of its charm and architecture, probably because the end of the slave trade caused a shift in focus to other cities with more important commodities.
Walking through the city’s narrow streets and alleyways reveals much of what Zanzibar was, in the past. Some of the important attractions include Beit-el-Ajaib (House of Wonders) which served as the Sultan’s palace when first built in 1883 and still stands out as the tallest building in town. The Old Fort dates to about the year 1700 AD. Beit-al-Sahel (People’s Palace) was the home of most of the sultans till the revolution of 1964. It is now a museum. A popular stop for tourists is the Livingstone House where the famous doctor made preparations for his excursions into the interior of Africa. The Anglican Church of Christ, built in 1887 to commemorate the end of the slave trade, has impressive marble pillars and beautiful stained glass windows.
Other sights that might be included on a walking tour are the ornate City Hall, the Central Market, on Creek Road, and Mambo Msiige, a house on the western end of town which once belonged to a wealthy slave trader.
Zanzibar Island can be reached by fast ferry from Dar es Salaam, the capital and largest city of Tanzania, or by air from various cities in Africa.
5. Madagascar Island
Madagascar Island has long been a region of great mystery. Because of its isolation, several hundred kilometers (about 125 miles) off the African coast, evolution produced a diverse and unique set of wildlife. Many of the creatures on the island are found nowhere else in world. Examples of these animals include about 50 species of lemurs, chameleons, and an incredible variety of birds.
The capital of the country is Antananarivo, located in the central highlands section of the island. Its narrow, cobblestone streets and interesting architecture make it an attractive place to spend a day or two. Sights in the city include Rova (Queen’s Palace) which is now in ruins because of a fire in 1995, but which dominates the city at the top of its highest hill, the daily Zoma Market, and Lac Anosy, a lake within the city which has an interesting island in the middle containing the Monument to the Dead.
But a trip to Madagascar is all about the wildlife, so visitors tend to travel to at least one of the country’s national parks.
Parc National de Ranomafana boasts 12 species of lemurs. The most popular section of the park is known as Talatakely. Walk the Ala Mando Trail (about 2 hours) for some great wildlife viewing.
Another park, the Parc National de L’Isalo is located in the southern part of the island. This park has some of Madagascar’s best scenery, with erosion-sculpted rocks and canyons.
6. Mount Kilimanjaro National Park, Tanzania
Mount Kilimanjaro National Park, Tanzania, preserves the highest mountain in Africa, at almost 5900 meters (18,000 feet), and an icon of the African continent. It can be seen from many of the national parks in the “Northern Circuit” such as, Ngorongoro Crater (see above), Serengeti National Park (see above) and Lake Manyara National Park as well as the roads which lead to them.
But for those who would like to climb the mountain, the village of Marangu sits at the park entrance and is equipped to service would-be climbers. The best times are probably January to February and September to October because there is usually a cloud obscuring the mountain at other times of the year.
7. Masai Mara Game Reserve, Kenya
Masai Mara Game Reserve, Kenya, located about 275 kilometers (150 miles) west of Nairobi and abutting the Serengeti National Park (see above) of Tanzania, is the most popular wildlife park in Kenya. As mentioned above, it is contiguous with the Serengeti and temporarily receives much of its game during the annual migration. All of the “Big Nine” are potentially visible here. Probably the best place to see animals is at Oloololo, the escarpment on the western edge of the reserve.