Each year, millions of travelers arrive in various African countries for one of the most sought-after travel experiences: the safari. They go to a national park like Kruger, the Masai Mara, or the Serengeti to see the wonders of the wildlife they grew up reading about in storybooks, they gain a new appreciation for the circle of life, and then they fly home.
This emphasis on safari is understandable, but if you really want to get to know Africa, your exploration should not stop there. With 54 countries and a correspondingly diverse mix of cultures, landscapes, people, and possibilities, the continent is more well-rounded than you might think. Popular alternatives to safari include rafting the Zambezi and visiting Victoria Falls, but there are also hundreds of national parks in less-visited parts of Africa’s many countries. Here are a few of these beautiful spaces that go beyond the safari and are calling your name:
In the wet season, the rivers that feed Lake Malawi teem with crocodiles. But when the rivers disappear in the dry season, so too do these ancient reptiles, leaving it safe for visitors to swim with the lake’s other notable inhabitants: African cichlids.
Snorkeling with these tiny fish in Lake Malawi is extra special because they are one of the world’s most diverse species. There are 1,000 subspecies of African cichlid fish, all of which descended from a common ancestor. It is considered one of the greatest evolutionary successes in the world, and because of this, the lake was designated a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1984. Scientists continue to pick apart “the secrets of evolution” from the cichlids, but despite much research, the reasons behind this inordinate diversification remain a mystery. Barely bigger than your finger, each variety has its own unique pattern, some boasting an entire rainbow of colors. The “Blue Zebra” is the lake’s most well-known cichlid and is named for its color and stripes.
Lake Malawi spans 365 miles north to south and 52 miles east to west and contains several islands. Take a guided snorkeling or scuba diving tour to see the cichlids, or opt for a boat trip out on the lake with one of the many local operators to spot a variety of wildlife in and around the lake’s shores, including African fish eagles, hippos, and monkeys.
When to Go: Dry season is May to October.
Hell’s Gate National Park is unique in its shape and layout—much of the park is a tall, narrow valley flanked by sheer canyon walls and rolling foothills. This terrain is not hospitable to predators like lions or bigger animals like elephants, so Hell’s Gate (despite its fiery name) is actually a very peaceful place. Visitors can rent bikes from vendors at the Elsa Gate entrance or walk the trails of the park without a guide, using common sense to keep a safe distance away from the herds of zebras, giraffes, warthogs, and buffalo. Rock climbing at Fischer’s Tower is also a highlight. There are many scenic first-come, first-served car camping sites in the park that offer small shelters and fire rings.
Just adjacent to Hell’s Gate is Mount Longonot National Park, an old volcanic crater filled with thick forest. Visitors can hike around the rim and are rewarded with views of the Great Rift Valley and Lake Naivasha.
When to Go: Dry season is June through February.
Going to see the Pyramids in Egypt is a travel experience on everyone’s radar, as is a cruise down the historic Nile (and if they’re not, they should be). But many commit a true travel crime when they finally make it to the country—they don’t do anything else while they are there. With about 20 national parks and protected areas, Egypt has more to offer than history, including impressive landscapes in Saint Catherine National Park.
But at the top of that list is Ras Mohammed National Park, with world-renowned diving. Whether it’s via a live-aboard dive boat or from a PADI-backed dive resort in the vacation hub of Sharm El-Sheikh, “underwater Egypt” will reveal its fair share of secrets. The warm, clear water (between 70 and 85 degrees) is home to historic shipwrecks like the S.S. Thistlegorm; colorful, healthy reefs; and abundant wildlife that includes whale sharks, the oceanic whitetip, and manta rays.
When to Go: Diving is possible year-round due to the warm water, but topside temperatures soar in the summer, making winter (November to March) the most comfortable season to visit.
The huge landmass off the coast of Mozambique, Madagascar is the fourth largest island in the world, and its biodiversity is unparalleled. According to the World Wildlife Fund, 95 percent of its reptiles, 89 percent of its plant life, and 92 percent of its mammals exist nowhere else, leading some ecologists to refer to it as the “eighth continent.”
But the modern world has put pressure on these ecosystems and many species have suffered population decline. This makes Marojejy National Park especially interesting. Designated a UNESCO World Heritage site for its biodiversity, the park is home to the critically endangered Silky Sifaka, a small (and adorable) white lemur. Referred to as “the angel of the forest” for its white fur, the Silky Sifaka was the subject of a recent documentary, Trouble in Lemur Land, which tracked the species and brought to light the illegal logging that threatens its habitat.
Whether you have conservation or adventure in mind, head out to see the Silky Sifaka on the Simpona Trek—a multi-day, shelter-to-shelter jaunt into the areas the lemur inhabits. Guides are available for hire to help you track down a Silky responsibly and take you through the park’s lush landscape of dense jungle, flowing rivers, and mountaintop cloud forests.
When to Visit: April to October, when there is less rain.
The name Namib-Naukluft comes from the park’s two merging landscapes, the Namib Desert and the Naukluft mountain range. “Namib” translates to “vast place,” an accurate if simplified way to describe the 2,000-mile-long desert that stretches down the coast from Angola, through Namibia, and into South Africa. It is considered one of the oldest deserts in the world, and its sand dunes soar to heights approaching 1,000 feet. The cliffs of the Naukluft range offer mountainous hiking and camping; try Naukluft Camp, where you can rent a room at the lodge or tent camp and explore the area’s many hikes, such as the Olive Trail, which winds through wild olive groves.
The sunbaked landscape harbors some life, but not much: mostly small reptiles, rodents, and insects. Here, it’s all about the landscape and geological formations. The park’s main attraction is the area of Sossusvlei, a white salt flat surrounded by red sand dunes. Get your kicks climbing the sand dunes: Head to the top of Dune 45 to watch the sunrise, and for a greater challenge tackle “Big Daddy” and its 1,066-foot summit. ATV tours provide access to other vleis, or shallow seasonal lakes, like Deadvlei and Hiddenvlei.
If, after a few days, you crave water, hike through Sesriem Canyon, the only area in the park with year-round pools; Sandwich Harbor on the coast is a good place to spot flamingos. Whatever you do, don’t go to bed too early—the middle of the desert is a great place to stargaze.
When to Go: The lack of rain makes visiting any time of year possible, but the dry months of May to October are the safest bet.