A Proud Heritage
Africa’s World Heritage Sites cover a wide spectrum of natural and cultural wonders – and are definitely worth a place on anyone’s travel bucket-list.
Africa is blessed with an enviable and diverse choice of World Heritage Sites, ranging from the pyramids and rock-hewn churches of Egypt and Ethiopia, to natural phenomena such as the great herbivore migrations across the Serengeti’s savannah, the life-giving force of Lake Malawi and living history with the Nama people of the southwest. Here is an edited shortlist of sights so majestic they should be taken in once in a lifetime at least…
Forts and Castles of Ghana
The coastline of Ghana has the highest concentration of European-built forts and castles on the African continent. There are 29 in total, some more than 500 years old. They were built to serve the colonial powers of the day that used these structures to protect their trading interests – mainly gold and slaves.
The two most prominent castles open to the public are at Cape Coast and Elmina; they have undergone extensive renovations and offer some excellent displays. Well-informed guides are available to explain the context of these structures and their individual histories. Elmina overlooks a busy local fishing port with colourful canoes, while Cape Coast Castle stands on the site of what was once a Swedish fort built of wood.
Lake Malawi, Malawi
Lake Malawi contains the largest number of fish species of any lake in the world – 3 000 in all. Situated at the southern end of East Africa’s Great Rift Valley – formed by the fracturing of the African tectonic plate – Lake Malawi offers unique fish species, deep clear waters and varied habitats. The lake is large enough that a boat caught in bad weather would be hard-pressed to see land as it is 580 km long and 75 km wide. What makes the lake unique is not only the five fish species that are found only here, but the explosiveness with which its fish species develop. This phenomenon is rivalled only by the numerous finch species of the Galapagos Islands off Chile.
Memphis Necropolis and the Pyramids – Egypt
The world-famous Egyptian pyramids are the only surviving structures of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. Near Saqqara – home to the world’s earliest stone monument – the ancient capital of Memphis was built in 3 100 BC where the Nile Delta meets the river valley, symbolically uniting Upper and Lower Egypt. Today, in the vicinity of ancient Memphis (a village now) pyramids still survive. However, four separate groups of pyramids form part of the World Heritage Site. They are spread out in the desert over 30km along the west bank of the river Nile. The pyramids at Giza with the adjacent Sphinx are instantly recognisable but further south at Abu Sir, Saqqara and Dahshur there are a further 35 pyramids.
Richtersveld Cultural Landscape, South Africa
In South Africa’s Northern Cape Province, along the Orange River that forms the border with Namibia, lies a rugged, semi-desert area called the Richtersveld, where living and ancient history can be observed – both in man’s activities and the botanical landscape. Spectacular lava-formed mountains, rock art left behind by stone-age people, 30% of all South Africa’s succulent plant species and various iconic quiver trees are to be found here. Direct descendants of the country’s original Khoi-Khoi people – the Nama – migrate through this area with their livestock, build collapsible homes with reed mats and make a living where few dare to tread. A visit to the immense Ai-Ais/Richtersveld Transfrontier Park with its jaw-dropping Fish River Canyon that extends into Namibia is recommended.
The Rock-Hewn Churches of Lalibela, Ethiopia
The combination of man’s ingenuity and reverence produced the astonishing rock-hewn churches of Lalibela in northern Ethiopia that date back to the 13th Century. Eleven churches, each one carved out of mainly solid rock, stand free in individual cavernous holes. To access these architectural wonders people descend through a steep channel cut into the rock, or pass through a tunnel from a neighbouring church. They are attributed to the 13th century King Lalibela and demonstrate an extraordinary tenacity and religious fervour plus an eye for detail, symbolism, design and decoration. The churches function to this day and are a place of pilgrimage for many Ethiopians. Ancient manuscripts and religious art are guarded within these structures by priests who maintain tradition.
Rwenzori Mountains National Park – Uganda
The Rwenzori Mountains National Park in Uganda is unique because its mountains are not lava formed. They are steep, rugged and wet and came about because of the Earth’s crust thrusting up. What sets the park apart is its sheer visual beauty, reminiscent of an alpine landscape with high peaks, glaciers, snowfields and breathtaking lakes. The park covers most of the centre and eastern half of the Rwenzori mountain range, while the other side forms part of the DRC’s Virunga National Park. It includes Africa’s third, fourth and fifth highest peaks and protects many rare, endemic and endangered species and the richest mountain flora in Africa – a very unusual cloud forest of giant heathers, groundsels and lobelias draped in mosses.
Serengeti National Park – Tanzania
In the northeast of Tanzania where it borders Kenya, one of the world’s most spectacular wildlife sights occur – the annual migration of vast herds of herbivores in search of grazing, between Tanzania’s Serengeti National Park with its endless plains and the Maasai Mara National Reserve in Kenya. Where wildebeests, zebras and antelope go, predators like lion, cheetah, leopard and hyena follow and crocodiles lie in ambush; these confrontations produce naturally occurring theatre of the most dramatic kind twice a year – from May through August and again in November. The Serengeti is home to Africa’s Big Five – rhino, elephant, buffalo, lion and leopard. Thanks to the abundance of prey, over 3 000 lion and 1 000 leopard inhabit this vast ecosystem.
Sterkfontein Caves and Maropeng, South Africa
About thirty minutes northwest of the busy metropolis that is Johannesburg, near the village of Muldersdrift, lies a valley called The Cradle of Humankind, where fossil finds indicate man has been active for more than three million years. In the valley’s Sterkfontein Caves and surrounds, archaeological excavations have uncovered ancient hominid finds, among which Mrs Ples and Little Foot, indicating this is where man’s journey began – hence the name Cradle of Mankind. Seven kilometres north of the caves, the well-equipped Maropeng Visitors Centre provides a fascinating insight into the area’s rich paleontological heritage. The nearby Cradle Game Reserve houses a dozen antelope species and rare raptors such as the martial and black eagle. Good choice of accommodation and restaurants available.
The Victoria Falls in Zimbabwe and Zambia
The Victoria Falls in full flow produces the largest sheet of falling water in the world and is almost twice as high as North America’s Niagara Falls. The falls are formed by the Zambezi River plunging over a fissure in the surrounding basalt plateau into a single gorge and then splintering off into a number of others. Romantically called ‘the Smoke that Thunders’ by the local Mosi-oa-Tunya people, the first European to see it was the Scottish explorer David Livingstone in 1855. The river and the falls form the border between Zimbabwe and Zambia and are normally in flood from February till May, when a spectacular mist cloud surrounds the whole area. A fly-over, or sundowner river cruise are an unforgettable must-do on any traveller’s itinerary.