Perhaps no other continent conjures up as much mystery—or majesty—as Africa, the cradle of humanity and the world’s very own ark. It is home to masses of megafauna, including 85 percent of the world’s elephants and 99 percent of the Earth’s last lions, as well as more than a quarter of the world’s bird species. No other freshwater system contains more types of fish than Lake Malawi that reaches into Tanzania—a nation that also hosts the Serengeti that sees 750,000 zebra and 1.2 million wildebeest take part in the greatest wildlife migration on Earth each year.
Africa’s 3,000-plus protected areas include a couple of hundred marine reserves, dozens of biosphere reserves and ‘Wetlands of International Importance’, and 129 Unesco World Heritage Sites. But an abundance of Africa’s beauty also awaits away from the mainland, and so Verve takes a look at some of the continent’s most enchanting island destinations.
Recently named the happiest of all African nations by a UN report, it’s little wonder Mauritius is a firm favourite as a tourist destination—Mark Twain even went as far as to claim that heaven was copied from it! Resting in the sparkling Indian Ocean off Africa’s southeast coast, fertile, mountainous Mauritius is a hiking and birdwatching haven while white sands cascade into crystal waters that afford unmatched snorkelling. Cultural attractions include a pair of Unesco World Heritage Sites, one of the world’s oldest horseracing tracks and one of its finest botanic gardens, the Blue Penny Museum, and the Black River Gorges National Park. In the Casela Wildlife Park guests may stroll with lion cubs, and in the surrounding ocean, deep sea fishing is a must (Mauritius hosts the Marlin World Cup annually). The country’s colonial history is reflected in its rich cuisine that riffs heavily on French, Chinese and Indian influences.
Sugar sand, palm-fringed beaches abound across the tropical archipelago off the coast of Tanzania that comprises a pair of sizeable islands—Unguja, the main one, and Pemba—surrounded by several smaller landmasses. Historically under alternate Portuguese and Arabic rule, much of the region’s rich history is evident thanks to cultural sites that include mosques, bazaars and courtyards. Zanzibar is sometimes called ‘Spice Island’ owing to it producing an array of fruits, herbs, spices and rare plants, while its ancient port, Stone Town— a Unesco World Heritage Site—is laced with snaking alleyways and intricate architecture like the Sultan’s Palace, the Turkish baths and the Portuguese fort and gardens. The south coast is dominated by the Menai Bay Conservation area, home to endangered turtles, while primates such as the red colobus monkey shelter in the Jozani Forest.
A 10-strong chain of islands off Senegal on Africa’s west coast, Cape Verde (or Cabo Verde) hosts sleepy villages, sweeping beaches and towering mountains. It was first settled by the Portuguese, so European, Brazilian and African influences infuse these isles in terms of everything from fashion to food to festivities. Sal, the most popular island with tourists, is noted for its otherworldly landscape of imposing white sand dunes that tumble toward cobalt waters, complemented by terracotta tiled towns such as Santa Maria to its south. The island of Boa Vista, which translates as “beautiful view”, is thoroughly deserving of its moniker owing to its 55 kilometres of unspoilt coastline and mesmeric, shape-shifting dunes. Further highlights include the bruised, expansive—and active—volcano of Fogo, and the lustrous wilderness of Brava whose craggy coastline is lapped at by glassy seas.
Technically classed as Africa even though it’s 1,600km from Kenya’s coast, the island nation of Seychelles is a firm favourite with honeymooners as well as the rich and famous (Kate Middleton and Prince William headed there following their vows), no doubt down to its isolation as well as its jaw-dropping beauty. Granite and coral islands totalling 115 form this ancient archipelago that spills into marine reserves and harbours two Unesco World Heritage Sites (half the landmass is protected) that house mystical creatures like black parrots, coconut crabs and giant tortoises. Endemic flora like the jellyfish tree can be found nowhere else on Earth. Seychelles’ foreboding rock formations and dense, tropical rainforest contrast starkly against its white sands and turquoise seas, while its population originates from the far flung corners of Africa, Europe and Asia for a truly cosmopolitan vibe.
Charming Madagascar, the world’s fourth largest island, oozes character thanks in great part to its astounding array of wildlife—at least 80 percent of its species can be found nowhere else on Earth, including more than 300 types of reptile. Madagascar’s most famous residents are of course its cute lemurs—of which there are dozens of species—which are held in great esteem by some local tribes who believe them to be reincarnations of their ancestors. This intoxicating landscape harbours palm-lined beaches, savannahs, rainforests and the Badlands region—a Unesco World Heritage Site where towering, razor-sharp limestone karsts can be viewed via rope bridges from above. There’s much culture to complement this Edenic landscape like no other of Africa, thanks to its fusion of European, Asian and local heritage mirrored in its music, its food and its architecture.
For an entirely unique and private African island experience, consider Mumbo Island, a pristine paradise positioned in Lake Malawi, part of the Unesco-listed Lake Malawi National Park. This body of freshwater teems with life like none other as 90 percent of its 500-plus species of fish are unique to it. The sustainable camp, built from timber, thatch and canvas, accommodates a maximum of 14 guests, spread across six luxury tents with facilities including eco-toilets, hot bucket showers, private decks and hammocks, all overlooking the still lake. The island measures just a kilometre in diameter, and boasts a bar, dining area and watersport gazebo with visitors able to partake in relaxing boating excursions, bird watching and kayaking. The fish-rich calm waters and enormous underwater boulders make for unforgettable scuba diving or snorkelling, too.