Lions roam in South Africa's Kruger National Park.
Soaring in a hot-air balloon high above the vast Masai Mara, you sip Kenyan tea and peer down at elephants, gazelles, wildebeests and zebras as the sun rises over the plains. “It’s the absolute thrill,” says safari expert Chip Cooper. “You can’t believe you’re seeing these animals in their natural setting. And being that high off the ground, taking in the landscape, is simply amazing.”
No other travel destination stirs the senses quite like Africa. It begins with your sixth sense, an inexorable urge to explore the continent—the wildlife, the limitless expanses, the vibrant people.
For those who’ve felt the pull of a safari adventure, Kenya and Tanzania are the destinations, says Cooper, who designed General Tours’ small-group, 12-day journey to these two countries.
“There’s an intimate,elegant feel to the Lemala camps on this trip,” he explains. “Hardwood floors, Persian rugs and chandeliers are a great contrast to the environment.”
East Africa assails all of your senses. The spine-tingling sight of Kilimanjaro, the aroma of the plains and the crunch of your boots as you scale the Ngorongoro Crater envelop you in the unmistakable sensory impressions of Africa. When your flight hovers over 2 million herbivores thundering through the grasslands of the Serengeti on the Great Migration, you’ll feel small and mighty.
If a mix of wildlife and nightlife is more to your taste, South Africa offers a combination of “Big Five” animals and five-star accommodations in glittering Cape Town.
Visitors to Africa expect to be awed and dwarfed by nature. But they might not fully anticipate the impact of these transcendent experiences. Nothing can prepare you for the tremors reverberating beneath your feet at Victoria Falls. As the earth shudders, you hear what Africans call “the smoke that thunders” and feel the droplets of mist that cling to your skin.
“There’s also a sense of history, when you think about someone discovering this for the very first time,” says Cooper. “Along with the astounding rush of water, it’s an evocative combination.”
In contrast to unharnessed nature, the Winelands show Africa’s tamer side. You can raise a toast to the continent with a glass of one of South Africa’s finest vintages harvested from its seemingly endless vineyards. At Le Franschhoek Hotel & Spa, a solar-heated swimming pool soothes your clenched muscles after exhilarating wildlife viewing at Thornybush, an esteemed private game reserve adjacent to Kruger National Park. Farther south, Cape fur seals and penguins offer yet another glimpse of Africa.
Enhancing your sensory experiences are local guides who grew up with an innate understanding of the land and its inhabitants. Cooper recalls one game drive in East Africa where the guide came across a male elephant and could tell just by the animal’s movements that there had been a recent birth. Sure enough, the guide led his group through the bush to a herd of elephants standing in a circle to protect a new baby elephant.
“Every game drive reveals something new,” he says. “Once we spent almost an hour watching a dung beetle, because the guide was able to point out how they impress their mates and fit into this massive ecosystem.”
It doesn’t take a guide to point out some gifts Africa bestows on those who take notice. The pure air intensifies the scent of grasses and acacia trees. And under a canopy of ink-black sky, piercing stars illuminate the continent—as well as the universe.
Please contact your AAA Travel Counselor or go to AAA.com/offices to find one near you.
Photography by Demosh/Wikipedia (wildebeests); Chris vd Merwe (lion)
This article was first published in January 2012 in Traveler. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.