THE PLACES THAT DEFINE THIS INCREDIBLE CONTINENT
Renowned writer David Bristow and award-winning photographers Roger and Pat de la Harpe have pooled their talents and visited Africa’s must-see places to share their insights with the world in their new book African Icons. This is a small selection of iconic destinations with images and extracts from the book in which they document the 21 most iconic places on the most beguiling continent on earth.
The Zambezi, the fourth longest river in Africa, has been one of the principle arteries for trade and exploration in the region. However, this conduit has one main stricture, the Victoria Falls, and two lesser ones, the Kariba and Cahora Bassa gorges. Like embolisms in a blood vessel they have prevented the Zambezi from reaching its full potential as a major channel of human activity.
Flying over this mighty river, the massive gorge that forms the Victoria Falls appears to have been cleft by the axe of some huge ancient deity. If that were so, it must have been a battle of the Titans because there are seven vertical, interconnected incisions zig-zagging this way and that, each about 100 metres deep and up to one kilometre wide.
What they really represent is evidence of the river’s incredible erosive power, cutting into the basaltic bedrock over several millions of years as it follows its current course. The start of the next great incision can be seen where it is currently eroding a new defile at the Eastern Cataract.
But water alone cannot cut rock, no matter how long it tries. The actual work is being done by sand particles carried in the river from erosion upstream, working tirelessly like sandpaper. The earth’s crust is perpetually being uplifted in places and then ground down in others; one process following the other, while major geological plates push up against one another or are torn apart.
The Serengeti migration – The greatest show on earth
You could think of the Serengeti ecosystem as being the world’s most expansive restaurant. Vegetarians are the “regulars”: first the wildebeest in their millions, gazelles and zebras in their hundreds of thousands, buffaloes in their tens of thousands, elephants in their thousands. This is probably the only game reserve in Africa where people come to see, primarily, the herbivores rather than the carnivores.
When the annual migration is on the move, you can stop just about anywhere on the serengit (a Maasai word meaning “endless plains”) and in every direction the landscape will be a moving mass of animals, dominated by the nasal sounds of the wildebeest that go aaaah, naaah, aaaah, naaah all day and all night long.
These vast plains are book-ended by hills, the remnants of volcanoes that line the Great Rift Valley (see below) and which blew their tops between 10 and 5 million years ago. Successive ash clouds settled to create a thick mantle of deep, rich, soil with only occasional granite koppies, or heads, protruding.
The Great Rift Valley
The Great Rift Valley is a perplexing place, and always has been. People have lived here since there were people, and pre-humans (as well as the ancestors of the great apes) before that. The rifting created great troughs where water collected, and the volcanoes that accompanied the faulting spewed out wonderfully fertile soils. It was all anyone, or any animal, could ask for and life has consequently thrived there.
But the Great Rift Valley is not one thing, rather it is a confounding geological phenomenon; it has been described as “lots of rifts” but even that does not adequately define the interconnecting complex of faults and grabens that dice up much of East Africa.
There are two main systems of deep earth trenches in East Africa: the main, Eastern or Gregory Rift, and the Western or Albertine Rift. The two branches look like upstretched arms separated by the 1,300-kilometre wide East African Plateau on which lies the largest of Africa’s great lakes, Lake Victoria.
The Albertine Rift is flanked by some of the highest mountains in Africa including the glacier-chiseled Ruwenzori, or Mountains of the Moon, and holds most of the biggest lakes including Lake Tanganyika, the longest and second deepest freshwater body on the planet. Other significant lakes of this system include Edward, Albert and Kivu. Being discrete, deep and freshwater systems these great lakes are home to an extraordinary number and diversity of freshwater fishes. There are around 1,500 species of cichlids and another eight major fish families, which together with the cichlids represent the backbone of the world’s freshwater aquarium trade today.
However, it is the Gregory Rift that is the more extensive and the one most associated with the concept of a “great rift valley”.
The Namib sand sea
The sun rises suddenly in the desert: within an hour its rays are beating hammer blows down onto the Namib’s surface. It is hard to believe anything could survive out here. Flying over the Namib sand sea that surrounds Sossusvlei you can only marvel at the sheer extent of this arid vastness.
It is a wind driven system, one created by wind and maintained by wind. The sand comes from erosion deep in the southern African interior, from where it is carried by the Gariep, or Great River, to the Atlantic coastline. The sand, along with an untold wealth in diamonds, has been dispersed along the coastline by the relentless, icy cold Benguela current. When it makes landfall the prevailing southwest wind is there to welcome it and usher it inland and ever northwards on its way.
It was diamonds that drew German colonists to these shores in the late 1800s, but it was the wind-driven sand that finally was their undoing along the Skeleton Coast. Today if you visit the abandoned old diamond mining settlements at Kolmanskop, Elizabeth Bay or Conception Bay you will find buildings eaten away by driven sand, rooms piled high with sand, machinery rotten with salt and sand. Those who still live in and around the sand sea at places like Lüderitz and Walvis Bay say you eventually get to enjoy the taste and texture of sand in everything you eat.
When the sand, driven by the relentless wind, reaches the Kuiseb River canyon inland of Walvis Bay, it is captured there and slowly returned to the sea, where the cycle continues. North of the Kuiseb is an endless plain of volcanic rock, the gravel plains, that stretch all the way to Angola.
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Table Mountain and Cape Point
Cape Town and Table Mountain are among the most fashionable tourist destinations of late. Cape Point should be added to that grouping, standing as it does like a defiant exclamation mark at the southwestern tip of the African continent. When a South-Easter is roaring and swells and wind-maddened spume batter that prow-like promontory, and cormorants wheel clumsily about in the roaring wind, you feel sensationally elemental. You can imagine that if the weather would clear you could see all the way to the Antarctic. Or maybe spot the Flying Dutchman, fated to try forever to steer a course around the stormy Cape.
For sailors wind has always defined the experience of arriving in Table Bay and rounding Cape Point, but it is the one thing the tourism literature will not tell you about. Sure, lots of places are windy, but this one can get very windy. A good day in Cape Town is like a glass of crispy Chablis, a bad one like a box of Chateau Plonk.
For most of winter (May to October) a cold, blustery North-Wester brings driving rain, sometimes for weeks at a time. But in-between these anti-cyclonic cold fronts lie days so perfect you are led to believe you have woken in some kind of earthly paradise. For much of summer, a dry, searing South-Easter blows away the blues, and blows away anything else left lying about. Locals call the wind the Cape Doctor, because it scrubs up the atmosphere. In days of old many Europeans “weak of lung” were sent here to recuperate.
The first Portuguese who spied Table Mountain and rounded the fabled Cape in the 1480s named it Cabo da Tormentosa – the Cape of torment, or storms. The legend of the Flying Dutchman tells the story of Dutch Captain Van Der Dencken who, would try, try and try again, to punch through a juggernaut southeaster to round Cape Point. He ended up cursing God for his poor fortune. The Lord returned the favour and now the captain spends eternity in that pursuit. The strangest thing about this story, though, is how many people, from ship’s pilots to royalty, have claimed to see the fated ship plying the wind-whipped spray.
The stone churches of Lalibela
Flying from Addis Ababa via Gondar to Lalibela the landscape resembles a finely quilted patchwork of gold and green fields, the plains geometric and the mountains all curlicue. Over them are appliqued zigzagging blue-green rivers. Ethiopia is a veritable breadbasket; it has always had enough food. It is just that sometimes food has been used as a political weapon in this country of many tribes.
Approaching the fabled holy town of Lalibela, things appear much more typically African than the rest of the region. Firstly it is noticeably drier, with thorn trees strewn about and mountains that crowd the horizon.
In the valleys on the sides of the lower foothills there are cattle, maize fields and circular wattle-and-daub huts. As the terrain climbs sharply, wheat replaces maize, stone huts replace mud and thatch, and sheep and donkeys replace the cattle. Where the valleys and spurs begin to steepen, fields become stonewalled terraces, much like you will see in the foothills of Nepal. Here a similarity between these two spiritual lands becomes apparent.
Once you enter the town of Lalibela it becomes evident that this was once a much more prosperous town. King Lalibela of the Zagwe dynasty came to power in the mid-1200s, around when the famous stone churches were built. However, in the mid-1600s following civil war the power shifted to Gondar when Lalibela went into a devout state of isolated meditation until modern times.
The Okavango Delta
The Okavango River rises in the central Angolan highlands where it is swelled by thunderous summer rainstorms. From there floodwaters take several months to reach Botswana. Once upon a time the Okavango was joined by the upper Zambezi River but over time the Okavango pursued its own course southwards to inland annihilation, first into the Delta and from there into the vast necklace of salt pans in central Ngamiland, Botswana’s northern province.
The Okavango Delta has been described as a sea of land, a land of water. The fall of land from one end to the other, across some 300 kilometres, is a scant 45 metres. The Delta is a shifting tableau of reed-lined channels, swampy stagnant expanses, lediba or lagoons, forest-fringed islands and a bewildering network of interconnecting, fluctuating backwaters.
All this water, located in the centre of the arid Kalahari Basin that is otherwise devoid of permanent water, attracts one of Africa’s greatest concentrations of wildlife and wild birds. The Okavango is Africa’s most abundant oasis and, as a result, one of its most rewarding safari destinations. While the Serengeti ecosystem has its hordes of wildebeest and zebras, as well as the fattened predators in attendance, a safari on those even grasslands is to some extent a one-dimensional experience. Plan your trip wrong, sometimes by just a few days, and you could miss the wildlife show.
The Okavango, on the other hand, is a place of constant abundance, where the water levels fluctuate and the animals and birds move to and fro like a living tide, where there is always an overwhelming opulence of natural elements forever altering, inter-acting, transforming, ebbing and flowing. It is a place where painted reed frogs and nesting water birds, barred owlets and tabby-cat sized Pel’s fishing owls, are as visible and intriguing as a leopard in a kigelia tree or a herd of elephants wading through the papyrus beds.
The water lilies in the lediba (lagoons) are works of beauty in their own right; or as Buddha described perfection – the soul in the heart of the lotus flower. That is the kind of beauty of the Delta; it is as nature wanted it.
For devotees of the African bush, the Okavango is more prolific and more active at every level than any other big game destination on the continent. Names said aloud like Xakanaxa and Moremi, Mombo and Chief’s Island, will bring a flood of memories and intense passions to people who know them.
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The Atlas Mountains
The ties between Morocco and the rest of north Africa have long been as strong as with western Europe. The country fell into the Roman Empire for several decades until conquered by Muslim forces in the late 6th century. From 711 until around 1300 people from Morocco, called Moors, ruled the Iberian Peninsula, the two cultures greatly informing one another. This influence survives today in what is known as the Andalusan style of architecture.
Most of Morocco consists of the Magreb, the great unknown that is the Sahara Desert. However, it is scoured west to east by parallel ranges of mountains that include the highest peaks in north Africa. The very highest, Jebel Toubkal, is 4.167 metres high, starkly barren and blisteringly hot in summer, while entirely ice-bound through winter. The peak is extremely prominent and when white with snow resembles a somewhat smaller Mount Everest. It lies almost in the middle of the country about 63 kilometres south of Marrakech.
We all have a sense of who Atlas was, a figure from classical literature that held up the earth on his shoulders. The story begins with Homerian legend and the convoluted stories of immortals at the dawn of humankind. According to the legend the primordial creators were Uranus and Gaia. By the third generation Atlas was the dominant of the Titans and Zeus the most senior of the Olympian gods. There ensued a 10-year battle between them, the Titanomachy Wars, which was finally won by Zeus and his merry band.
Kruger National Park
In the last few decades of the 19th century, gold in unimaginable quantities was discovered in the Zuid-Afrikaansche Republiek (later called the Transvaal). The first major diggings were located in the Lydenburg district, around Pilgrim’s Rest. At that time the small Boer Republic had virtually no infrastructure and the Boers were either farmers or hunters. The gold diggings were worked almost exclusively by foreign fortune seekers and black African labourers.
The Boer economy was based largely on hunting “free” game. When they had arrived in the area north of the Vaal River, the Highveld teemed with herds of plains game comparable with the Serengeti today. It took only 50 years to virtually wipe them out. From there they turned their rifle sights to the Lowveld, an area of big rivers and massive trees – huge leadwoods and jackalberries, tamboti and appleleaf, spreading wild figs and, in the north, Brobdingnagian baobabs. There were mammals, birds, reptiles and insects of just about every kind imaginable, including huge herds of elephants, rhinos (the Kruger Park is today the last stronghold of the white rhino species) and buffaloes, as well as lions, leopards, cheetahs, wild dogs and hyenas.
At that (Anglo Boer) war’s conclusion in 1902 a new kind of order came to the Lowveld with the establishment of the Sabi Game Reserve, forerunner of the Kruger National Park. Its first warden was a feisty Anglo-Irishman, Colonel James Stevenson-Hamilton.
When the retired army officer arrived in the park he had two sensations, he recalls in his memoirs. One was that of reaching an earthly paradise (he called his autobiography A South African Eden and the park was his Cinderella that became a princess).
The second was, where game should have been teeming, he found the area almost entirely denuded of wild animals. It took some decades for the game to return, but it did, and today the park is the crowning glory of African conservation. However, when he arrived the new warden had no idea what to do with all that wilderness; the idea of conserving game for its own sake was so novel it struck many as an abomination.
Nevertheless, the warden and his staff went about their task with great zeal if not always by standards we would today approve. In the first two decades he and his rangers spent most of their time shooting large predators, which killed the “royal game” or antelope. Only later did the idea of a functioning wild ecosystem with all predators and prey in balance begin to develop.
In 1905 Stevenson-Hamilton became aware of the new American parks system, particularly Yellowstone, about which he read everything he could find. That was when he had, what we today would call his light-bulb moment: “his” game reserve was being protected for its natural beauty and its intrinsic worth as a natural system, but it was a hard road to convince others who could not understand why the government should spend thousands of pounds each year to protect game.
Like the American parks, he realised, it was also for other people to enjoy, that they too might see that inherent value and come to love and protect it. And so it came to pass. Along that road he made many powerful enemies, from policemen to politicians, whose trigger fingers itched at the chance to go hunting there. Stevenson-Hamilton even succeeded in convicting one very influential poacher.
Then, after two decades of hard toil, the tide began to turn. In 1923 the South African Railways hit on the plan of running a tourist train through what was then the Transvaal province. It originally planned to pass through the park at night, but the wily warden found a way to divert the train there during daylight. Nobody was more surprised than the systems manager of the railways when the game reserve turned out to be the highlight of the nine-day tour. So much so that over the years overnight stays were included, with roaring campfires, sing-alongs and talks by rangers.
Finally the park had found a following of people who were content to watch animals in the wilds rather than wanting to shoot them. This did much to push through plans to gazette the Kruger Park as South Africa’s first national park in 1926.
The Congo basin
Flying over the mist-shrouded green expanse of the Congo Basin our pilot dogged billowing storm clouds. “It’s so green down there because it rains a lot,” he quipped. For us the flight re-enforced the fact that we were entering a kind of dream realm. Descending towards the dense textured forest of Odzala-Kokoua National Park (where gorillas hide), I experienced the kind of travel jitters I have not felt for decades, the jungle is after all so much more mysterious than the African savanna.
We were headed to Congo Conservation Company’s Ngaga Forest and Lango Bai camps, the first of their kind in the Republic of Congo (Brazzaville). They are not easy to get to, and you have to work for your pudding, so to say. But this surely must be the future of conservation and safaris in Africa, far more intriguing, revealing and fulfilling than any other on this continent.
The Congo Basin is the richest area in Africa for animal diversity; it has 409 mammal species and 1,000 bird species. The forest receives up to 1.5 metres of rainfall a year and plays host to about 10,000 varieties of plants. There are four seasons: long wet, short dry, short wet and long dry. The area can become oppressively humid in the wet seasons and as one writer rather aptly put it “Hiking through this claustrophobic hothouse is like being passed through the guts of the forest and being slowly digested.”
This is a place where you have to walk to find out what the jungle shelters: small duiker antelope of exuberant variety, as well as massive bongos, gorillas and many kinds of monkeys, forest elephants and red forest buffaloes, forest hogs, pottos and anomalures (flying squirrels), bushbuck and fanged deer (water chevrotain), distinct from a deer mouse. Of the approximately 30 primate species found in the central African forests, the putty-nosed monkey is surely one that only a putty-nosed mother could love.
But it is the western lowland gorillas that are the undoubted stars of the show. This is the only place where you will find habituated troops, a result of years of tireless work by the local researchers and their trackers, and where sightings are virtually guaranteed. Even if it means traipsing for several hours through the humid, tangled forest as your trackers cut a trail.
This represents a faction of the icons and information you will find in the African Icons book. Click here to order your copy.
About the Authors
WRITER DAVID BRISTOW has degrees in journalism from Rhodes University and environmental sciences from the University of Cape Town, and has been a nature and travel writer for most of his working life. With a special focus on Africa, he has written or edited nearly 30 books on the region. His travels have taken him across the length and breadth of Africa, as well as to places as far-flung as Antarctica, Alaska and the Himalayas – as the writer/photographer of the first official Mountain Club of South Africa expedition there. He has also climbed all of the highest peaks in Africa.
David’s abiding passion is wildlife, and the conservation of Africa’s wild places and wild creatures (with a strong belief that factoring in their future depends on safari-community partnerships).
PHOTOGRAPHERS ROGER & PAT DEL LA HARPE share careers in photography and writing spanning some 28 years, starting when Roger was appointed as the photographer for Natal Parks Board (now Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife) in 1986. He held this post for 16 years before leaving to freelance in the wildlife, travel and tourism sectors. Pat has a degree in social sciences from the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg and followed a career in commerce and local government before joining Roger on his many trips and commissions in Africa.
They are not new to book publishing having written and/or photographed some 26 books between them. In addition their work has appeared in many local and international publications, most notably Getaway Magazine, Africa Geographic, German GEO and BBC Wildlife.
Roger and Pat work as a team and share a passion for natural history, wild places and different cultures.