Africa is a wealth of natural, historical and cultural wonders. Many travelers are familiar with the continent’s popular tourist destinations: Kruger National Park in South Africa, the Pyramids of Egypt, Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania, Masai Mara in Kenya and Victoria Falls in Zambia; which of course are amazing places to visit. But have you heard of a village built on stilts above a lake in Ghana, or 12th-century stone-hewn churches in Ethiopia, or the tallest mountain in Malawi?
If you’ve been drawn to this article, chances are you’ve already visited the continent’s most well-known attractions or are looking for a trip to Africa that’s a bit more off the beaten path.
But Africa is a vast continent, and deciding where to go and what to see can be overwhelming, so I’ve narrowed it down to my pick of 6 less traveled African destinations that deserve a spot on your to-do list.
1. Draa Valley, Morocco
1,100 km long, the Draa is the longest river in Morocco and gives its name to the Draa Valley. Old farming villages and farming communities line this river, and the area is known for its cultivation of dates and its production of grains, vegetables and henna. The valley is also famous for its ancient kasbahs, fortresses that served as defenses when cities were attacked. These kasbahs also served as homes for local rulers and were built with high protective walls. The valley extends from the city of Ouarzazate to the Sahara desert in southern Morocco.
The Draa Valley winds down near the villages of Zagora and Tinfou, where a curiously solitary sand dune stands in the middle of a vast gravel plain. Here you will find a sign that reads ‘Timbuktu 51 days’, translating to ‘Timbuktu fifty-one days’ – 51 days on camelback, that is – a measure from when Morocco controlled all the way through the Sahara Desert and into Mali.
Audley Tours offers an 8-day desert tour that you can join to visit the Draa Valley.
2. Nzulezo, Ghana
Some 350 km (about 7 hours drive) west of Ghana’s capital, Accra, lies the village of Nzulezo. Nzulezo is located on Lake Tandane, which is part of the Amasuri Wetlands, a sensitive ecosystem that is home to an impressive array of flora, fauna and countless rare birds. The town is nestled in a mangrove forest and can only be reached by canoe from the coastal town of Beyin. The approximately 600 inhabitants of Nzulezo are farmers, fishermen or brewers of the famous local alcoholic “gin” “akpeteshi”. Nzulezo is the only village in Ghana built entirely on stilts and is often called “the Venice of Ghana”.
According to legend, the ancestors of the modern inhabitants of Nzulezo were from the ancient Ghana Empire in today’s Mali. In the 15th century, after a war for fertile land and gold, they were forced to flee. Legend has it that their god appeared in the form of a snail and led them to present day Ghana. Continually forced to advance by other tribes or by slave traders, they followed their god to Lake Tandane. There they stayed, feeling that the lake would protect them from enemies and also provide them with food.
Nzulezo depends on tourism. One of the highlights of a visit to this city is the actual drive to get there. After driving as far as the unpaved road will allow, a short walk takes you to your canoe, and an hour-long canoe ride takes you through narrow, lush canals, open plains and finally out into the vast expanse from Lake Amansuri (the journey is safe and life jackets are available). If you are staying at one of the beaches in the Western region, such as Busua or Axim, visiting Nzulezo can easily be done as a day trip. Anyone who wants to “live like the villagers” can stay at the Home Stay guesthouse, but don’t expect modern standards.
Pro tip: There is a fine line between sightseeing and invading the local resident’s personal space – ask before taking photos and check behind you before posing for a selfie, in case someone scantily dressed tries to take a bathing in the lake – most of the town has no indoor running water.
Easy Track Ghana offers an 8 day tour for water lovers if you want to visit Nzulezo.
3. Mount Mulanje, Malawi
Mount Mulanje lies to the east of Blantyre, the main city in southern Malawi. Mulanje is an awe-inspiring sight to behold, and its summit, Sapitwa Peak is Malawi’s highest point at 9,850 feet.
Mount Mulanje is known locally as “the island in the sky” as it rises almost directly from the plains below. It is a truly magnificent mountain and must be seen to be appreciated. Unlike some of the world’s peaks which are obscured by the surrounding mountain ranges, here there is a real sense of wonder as you get closer to Mulanje and see it looming above its surroundings. The area is home to a variety of wildlife, including small mammals and several species of birds, including the black eagle and countless white-necked ravens.
Visitors can drive around the base of the massif in a day, but it’s even better to walk, hike, hike, and camp on the mountain. There is an extensive network of paths and trails and choices between fairly gentle walking and serious climbing. Visitors can spend a few hours strolling through river basins and waterfalls or spend several days exploring the entire massif.
Artisanal Africa offers an excellent 9-night ‘Walk Malawi’ tour which includes Mount Mulanje and a number of other places in this beautiful country. Alternatively, the town of Mulanje at the foot of the mountain has shops and services, as well as a colonial-era ‘sports club’ (with golf course) and a handful of hotels and guesthouses. hosts, the best of which is Africa Wild Truck Camp & Lodge, which offer a variety of accommodation, in a converted colonial building, and can also arrange Mulanje treks with local guides and porters. Half an hour’s drive from Mulanje, beautiful accommodation is offered at Huntingdon House on the tea plantations of Thyolo.
Pro tip: Unsurprisingly for a vast, eerie and sometimes unforgiving mountain, local myths and legends abound around Mulanje, and visitors are well advised to keep the mountain spirits ‘appeased’ in hopes of a successful ascent!
4. Lalibela, Ethiopia
Lalibela in northern Ethiopia is known for its rock-hewn churches dating from the 12th and 13th centuries. These churches are ancient places of pilgrimage for Coptic Christians and are still used today for services. Carved into the rock there are eleven medieval churches, many of which are connected by underground tunnels and trenches and some contain bas-reliefs and colorful frescoes. These unique churches include the majestic Bete Medhane Alem, which houses the cross of Lalibela, and the cross-shaped Bete Giyorgis, the last of 11 churches to be built. It is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Pro tip: Lalibela is currently involved in fighting between government and rebel forces in Ethiopia’s northern Tigray region; the rebels took the town, abandoned it, retook it and returned it again. While this amazing place should definitely be on your list of places to visit, maybe wait a bit before planning your trip.
5. Valley of Desolation, South Africa
Located in South Africa’s Camdeboo National Park, the Valley of Desolation, sometimes referred to as the “Cathedral of the Mountains”, is a hauntingly beautiful place of gaping chasms flanked by stunning rock formations, giant dolomite rocks in precarious balance and suddenly falling pillars. by 400 feet to the bottom of the valley below. From the rocky peaks that were formed more than 100 million years ago by violent volcanic shifting, all that is seen seems to be a vast land of nothingness, and where even the quietest of whispers echoes through the still air of the Karoo.
The Valley of Desolation is a paradise for campers and hikers, and is home to a variety of plant and animal life, including 220 species of birds, 336 plants and 43 mammals, highlights include the Cape Mountain zebra on the way of extinction, the majestic black eagle and the heaviest flying bird in the world, the Kori bustard.
All of this incredible natural wonder is just 9 miles drive from South Africa’s fourth oldest town, Graaff-Reinet, in the Eastern Cape. There are scenic picnic spots to choose from and, for those with a bit more energy, there are three hiking trails ranging from one hour to overnight hikes. Be sure to bring your camera!
Pro tip: Those who want to maximize their experience can try the Crag Lizard Trail, a well-marked walk starting in the parking lot and taking around 45 minutes.
6. Gorilla Trekking In Congo
The Republic of Congo, not to be confused with the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), which shares a similar name and border, is a safe place to travel. It’s certainly not as well-known as other countries in Africa, but its pristine rainforests make it a one-of-a-kind destination.
The beautiful Odzala-Kokoua National Park sits right in the heart of the Congo Basin and is one of West Africa’s most remarkable gems. Once home to nearly 20,000 gorillas, poaching has unfortunately greatly reduced their numbers, but Odzala-Kokoua is still home to the largest gorilla population on the continent. The park has around 100 species of mammals and is home to one of the most diverse primate populations on the continent. For a 9-day gorilla experience, contact Primate Safari Experiences.
There you have my take on some of the most beautiful, yet often overlooked, places to visit in Africa. It’s time to start planning your visit.