When the winter chill feels relentless, there are plenty of warm and balmy escapes in Africa where you can thaw out – and pretend it’s already summer. Story by Keri Harvey
Spanning both hemispheres, there is always somewhere warm to go in Africa. You don’t even need to go far, with plenty of options south of the equator that you can even drive to – thus dodging any travel bans which may still be in place. Here are 10 escapes to consider when winter gets a little too cold for comfort.
South Africa’s Kgalagadi red dunes and desert wildlife
The Kalahari desert is beautiful, but mostly inaccessible unless you visit magnificent Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park. The park straddles the border between South Africa and Botswana, just 250km north of Upington. It’s magnificent big sky country, all 38 000km² of it, and home to iconic black-maned lions, quirky meerkats, regal oryx and comic wildebeest, amongst other species.
Winter in the Kalahari is warm and comforting, compared to the blazing summers, so it’s an ideal time to visit. The main rest camps of Twee Rivieren, just inside the main gate, Nossob in the north and Mata Mata in the north-west offer different perspectives of the park – and there are also other tented and bush camps, camping, as well as evocative !Xaus community lodge. There’s something unforgettable about seeing lions lying on red sand dunes, oryx duelling for territory or cheetah standing on ridges surveying for prey. Kgalagadi is the real deal, an unspoiled corner of South Africa that is also home to some of our country’s oldest historic residents: the Mier and Khomani San Bushmen communities.
Zimbabwe’s mighty Victoria Falls
It’s one of the great wonders of the natural world, a massive expanse of gushing, leaping, crashing water: Victoria Falls. Named after his queen back in England, David Livingstone was the first to document the mighty waterfall in the far northwest corner of Zimbabwe – though of course slave traders and local tribes knew about it long before. Today a bronze statue of the intrepid Livingstone still gazes intently over Victoria Falls, which is known as Mosi oa Tunya or ‘The Smoke that Thunders’.
At 1 708m wide and about 100m high, the thundering falls have created their own surrounding garden of blood lilies, ferns, orchids and sunbirds in a fairytale misty rainforest. Rainbows regularly arch over the tumultuous Devil’s Cataract section and the perpetual spray that rises from the gorge gives the falls an ethereal feel – that is the very ‘smoke’ that thunders. Admirers from all over the globe come to see the falls, which are fullest in late autumn and winter when the balmy Zambezi Valley is also still comfortably warm.
Mozambique’s Quirimbas Archipelago
In the far north of Mozambique, the Quirimbas Archipelago is all you imagine a tropical island paradise to be. It’s idyllic, lazy, seemingly lost in time, and it’s balmy all year round. Some islands have evocative, crumbling colonial towns, others are sprinkled with traditional working fishing villages, many are completely deserted but for waving palm trees. There are mangroves, abundant marine and bird life and turtles lay their eggs on the beaches here too. The Quirimbas Archipelago is a natural paradise that follows the rhythms of the sea and savours simplicity.
Ibo is a working fishing island with stately Ibo Island Lodge at the water’s edge. The coastline is peppered with mangroves and dhows ply the tepid turquoise waters on fishing sortees. Medjumbe Island is a sliver of landmarked by a derelict lighthouse. It’s uninhabited but for the discreet Anantara Medjumbe Island Resort at the water’s edge. The dramatic tidal range here means the ocean gently laps close to your front door at high tide and recedes into the middle distance at low tide. But the island is all yours to walk, explore, swim, snorkel or kick back in the sun. Or you could visit a few different islands on an organised dhow safari from Ibo Island, snorkelling and swimming en route and overnighting in comfortable camps on deserted islands – as Robinson Crusoe wished he did.
Madagascar’s Big Island
It’s just the central highlands of Madagascar that can get chilly in winter, the coastline and islands are toasty throughout the year. Nosy Be – which means Big Island – off the northern coast of Madagascar, is a modern-day Garden of Eden. It’s lush and aromatic with vanilla and gnawled ylang ylang plantations between tiny settlements and stilted villages; colourful bouganvilla is everywhere too.
If you love unusual wildlife and culture, Nosy Be makes an ideal base to explore the surrounding islands too. Head up to Mount Passot, the highest point on Nosy Be. Though it’s just 300m above sea level, it’s a great vantage point to see nearby islands and the sacred crocodile lakes. These eight deep blue crater lakes are believed to be home to ancestral spirits. Locals may not fish in the lakes that are said to be home to crocodiles, and foreigners may not walk on the lake shores. Amparihimirahavavy and Antsahamanavaka are two of the long-named lakes – but remembering their names is not important.
If you take a 15-minute boat ride to nearby Nosy Komba island, you can commune with black lemurs very personally. Decades ago the local chief proclaimed the lemurs sacred, so they are fed and protected by locals. Lokombe Reserve on Nosy Be also protects black lemurs and nocturnal sportif lemurs in the last bit of island forest. Boa constrictors, chameleons and about 40 bird species also live in tiny Lokombe. Or you could also just laze on the beach, swim and eat seafood all day if you choose.
Deserts are good places to thaw out in winter; they’re toasty by day, but can get cold at night, so camping is not a great idea. But getting up early to see the sunrise over the dunes of Sossusvlei or taking a hot-air balloon ride over the dune field is a fine idea.
So too is visiting the coastline from rugged Lüderitz in the south to popular Germanic Swakopmund, and all the way up the deserted Skeleton Coast. Mist is prevalent along the coast in winter, which can make it cool until the sun breaks through.
Etosha Pan has magnificent game viewing and has milder daytime temperatures in winter, and then there’s still the vast Namib to explore and dramatically beautiful Damaraland. Searching for the elusive desert elephants that live there is a bucket list wildlife experience, plus there are unusual rock art, mysterious rock formations and unique cultures to visit. Namibia may be sparsely populated, but it has uniquely beautiful landscapes and a smorgasbord of natural attractions, many of which are just too hot to visit in summer.
South Africa’s iconic Kruger Park
World-renowned as one of Africa’s great wildlife reserves, the Kruger National Park is easily accessible and has something special to offer in every season. But winter is the best time overall for game viewing and cooler daytime temperatures. The mercury still averages 26C by day and the winter bush is drier, so wildlife can be seen more easily.
At 20 000km², Kruger has lots of space and plenty of variety too. Lion are widespread throughout the park, but chances of seeing them are even better in the east and south. Leopards are mainly seen at night and prefer thick bush, hilly terrain and trees, while cheetah like open areas. To see elephant, check along river courses, while buffalo are often close to the rest camps. Birding is brilliant in the park, with over 500 species to see.
The excellent road network makes access to the different areas very easy, and you can stop at a designated picnic spot en route for lunch. When you consider that the park is the size of Israel, there’s a lot of breathing space to enjoy in winter sunshine, though game viewing is always best around sunrise and sunset.
Uganda’s clean green charm
Churchill called Uganda ‘the Pearl of Africa’ and it’s easy to see why. This is a heart-stoppingly beautiful corner of the continent. It’s home to the White Nile, a section of the Great Rift Valley, the towering Rwenzoris or ‘Mountains of the Moon’, lush verdant landscapes, and wildlife diversity that will take your breath away. And with the equator running through the middle of it, Uganda is temperate and warm all year.
Go for the unusual wildlife, to trek endangered mountain gorillas in Bwindi Impenetrable Forest and chimps in Kibale National Park. See the gushing Murchison Falls, the lazy Rift Valley lakes, meet Pygmies, boat on the White Nile and go birding.
With over 1 000 bird species, including rare shoebills in the Nile delta, Uganda is highly underrated. And you can straddle the equator by simply standing with your feet apart. In so many ways Uganda is a living example of ‘Africa gone right’ – safe, clean, green and so just so friendly and beautiful.
Life on Zanzibar island is simple, yet at the same time very ornate. Elaborate Arabic architecture, Swahili women swathed in black and others in brightly-coloured prints, spicy food and sumptuous seafood, carefully crafted dhows and vibrantly friendly people make the island an interesting fusion of East meets West meets Africa.
It takes just 45-minutes to drive across from Zanzibar, and the road traverses the Jozani Forest, which is home to the endangered and endemic red colobus monkeys. And there are giant Aldabra tortoises to be seen on Prison Island off Stonetown. If you don’t go any further than Stonetown, that’s also just fine. There is more than enough to experience in this old quarter with its tangle of narrow alleyways and tiny eclectic shops. Taste the delicious street food and get happily lost in the maze-like streets. A friendly local will point you ‘home’ when you are ready.
Reunion’s extreme attractions
Not just a hotspot for adventure lovers, year-round hot weather is what you’ll also find everywhere in Reunion. The volcanic scenery is dramatically beautiful with black sand beaches and others that are pure white; and the three cirques – Salazie, Cilaos and Mafate – that make up the island are ideal for hikers, climbers and abseilers looking for somewhere different to explore. Piton de la Fournaise dominates the island and is a very active volcano. But between eruptions, the otherworldly landscape is another favourite hiking area.
Parts of Reunion are bleak and barren, parts are chocolate-box pretty and vibrantly colourful, everywhere is enchanting. From the unusual culture that mixes French, Creole and a dose of Voodoo and plenty of Catholicism, to the hot curries and range of Madonna statues that dot the island, Reunion is captivating. Markets are vibrant, towns are quirky and the folklore and tales you’ll hear en route are riveting.
Mauritius’s mild lifestyle
An old and eternal favourite amongst sun worshippers, watersport lovers and loafers, Mauritius is a safe and easy bet for couples or families. Here the sun is always warm and so is the ocean, making for an ideal winter escape. Hotels and Air BnB options are abundant, food is spicy and delicious and fresh fish and seafood can be enjoyed across the island. Excursions through the rolling sugarcane fields offer great views over the island, or head to the colourful markets to buy local food, tropical flowers or an array of colourful raffia wares.
The waters around Mauritius are calm and safe, so swimming is easy, as is windsurfing or an array of other watersports. Or take a boat ride to another part of the island for a fish braai or to go snorkelling or deepsea fishing for marlin. Heading to this Mascarene island is about as easy as a tropical holiday can get. It’s stress-free, there’s something for the whole family, land and sea is safe, and the sun is always shining. What more could anyone ask for, when winter is cooling your mood at home.