Top UNESCO sites in Africa
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Top UNESCO site visits: Southern Africa and East Africa
Africa is blessed with a whopping 98 UNESCO World Heritage sites – a seemingly sizeable number, and yet this represents just under a fifth of the total number of UNESCO sites in Europe and around a third of the number awarded to the APAC region. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the country with the most UNESCO sites in the world is Italy, and in Africa, this title goes to South Africa with 10 sites, including the beautiful floral region surrounding the Cape, Table Mountain and Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens. South Africa is followed closely by Ethiopia and Morocco, each with nine.
Aside from statistics which do little to add to the awe and wonder of gazing up at or being within a UNESCO World Heritage site, Africa is fortunate to have some of the most spectacular natural sites – 39 in total. Some of these, the Namib Desert (Sand Sea), and of course Tanzania’s Serengeti, contain many other natural wonders within them, and are just some of the experiences you will likely want to weave into your next safari holiday.
We’ve picked out some must-see UNESCO sites in South Africa and East Africa, choosing a natural and cultural World Heritage site for each country, bar Tanzania, who has slightly stolen our focus with three natural sites as well as the old Swahili coastal trading town of Zanzibar.
Natural: Cape Floral Region in the Eastern and Western Cape
Recognised as one of the world’s most special places for plants, largely due to diversity, density and endemic species, the Cape Floral Region consists of nine protected areas including reserves, wilderness areas and mountains. A gentle stroll through the beautiful Kirstenbosch National Botanical Garden is a good place to start on arrival into Africa, to ease away any lingering jetlag. And with a spectacular backdrop of Cape Town’s Table Mountain, and a hike to the top of it if you’re feeling fit, you’ll be getting two for one, as Table Mountain is now one of the great Wonders of the World.
Where to stay: Ellerman House surrounded by Cape Floral beauty.
Cultural: Robben Island, Western Cape
A few kilometres off the coast or 30-minute boat ride, Robben Island (taken from the Dutch word for seals), was fortified and used as a prison until 1996, after the end of apartheid. Nelson Mandela spent 18 of his 27 years of imprisonment here, along with many other influential political prisoners. Tours of the Robben Island Museum (RIM) depart from the Nelson Mandela Gateway at the V&A Waterfront. Guides are incredibly knowledgeable, and the tour is a truly humbling experience.
Where to stay: The Silo Hotel right by the buzzy V&A Waterfront.
Natural: Namib Sand Sea
The sheer vastness of the Namib Desert, as it’s also known, really puts things into perspective. Part of the Namib-Naukluft Park, the Namib is the oldest desert on the planet and a photographer’s dream, especially just before sunrise or at sunset. The dramatic rust-red dunes of Sossusvlei, the contrasting blocks of colour of Deadvlei dotted by pitch-black 900-year-old trees, and the narrow gorge of Sesriem Canyon. Your eyes will become wider and your mind a little calmer after spending a few days staring into this enormous stretch of nothingness.
Where to stay: Sossusvlei Lodge – you can’t get any closer to the entrance of the Park.
Located in the north-west of Namibia, Twyfelfontein is a sacred site and worth a visit to see the rock paintings and engravings believed to be up to 10,000 years old and carved during worship and shamanic rituals. Twyfelfontein translates to “Fountain of Doubt”, which perhaps it was, given that the farmers who settled here in 1947, found the fountain to be unreliable and with little water and subsequently left. There’s a visitor centre and a guided walk among the 180-million-year-old sandstone rocks.
Where to stay: A good stop-off on the way to or from the Skeleton Coast.
Natural: Okavango Delta
The best way to experience this UNESCO site is to paddle peacefully along the meandering waterways by mokoro (the traditional dug-out wooden canoe), and spy wildlife from a fresh perspective. This serene inland delta is home to some of the most endangered species, such as the white and black rhino, cheetah, African wild dog and lion.
Cultural: Tsodilo Hills
Known as the “Louvre of the Desert”, the Tsodilo Hills in north-west Botswana, has the highest concentration of rock art in the world, with over 4,500 paintings preserved in a relatively small area of the Kalahari Desert. Representing thousands of years of human habitation, some paintings are thought to be more than 20,000 years old. The area includes some lovely walking trails: the Rhino Trail, Lion Trail and Cliff Trail, so you can take in the landscape as well as the ancient artwork.
Where to stay: Nxamaseri Island Lodge is the closest and a small, exclusive camp.
Natural: National Parks of Serengeti, Ngorongoro and Kilimanjaro
All of these national parks made UNESCO World Heritage Site status, so we’ve included them all. They are unique, from the beauty and openness of the Serengeti plains which thunders to life during the Great Migration, to the astounding volcanic caldera at Ngorongoro, and the sheer greatness of Mount Kilimanjaro – one of the world’s Seven Summits. With a good itinerary, plan and guides, you can do all three, followed by a long rest in Zanzibar.
Where to stay: There are a multitude of safari lodges and tented camps in these three spots, so leave it to Nziza Hospitality to help guide you to the most appropriate accommodation for your stay.
Cultural: Stone Town of Zanzibar
The old part of Zanzibar City on the island of the same name is one of the last remaining ancient towns of Africa, and fascinating to see, given its blend of African, Indian, Arabian and European cultures. Wander through labyrinthine lanes lined with brightly painted houses, spy old colonial buildings and the exquisitely carved Zanzibari doorways and this town can’t fail to leave an impression. The strong scent of spice, sea-salty natural air-conditioning, and the daily call to prayer will have your senses a-reeling.
Where to stay: After all that safari, we recommend popping into Stone Town for a daytime visit and heading back to a beachfront property to while away a few more days in or by the water. Nziza Hospitality can recommend suitable options.
Natural: Kenya Lake System in the Great Rift Valley
Nakuru, Bogoria and Elmenteita are three shallow, inter-linked lakes, set on the floor of Kenya’s Great Rift Valley and home to some of the highest bird diversities in the world. Two iconic birds have a home here – the lesser flamingo, lighter and shorter than the greater flamingo, as well as the great white pelican. There are also black rhino, giraffe, greater kudu, lion and wild dogs in this area of outstanding natural beauty.
Cultural: Lamu Old Town, Kenya
According to UNESCO, Lamu Old Town is the “oldest and best-preserved Swahili settlement in East Africa”, having been established around 1370 and remained inhabited since that time. Characterised by its simple, symmetrical architecture in coral stone and mangrove timber with elaborately carved wood doors, Lamu feels unchanged. Inner courtyards and verandas are cooled by sea-air breezes and the waterfront bustles with traditional dhows pausing to offload their wares onto patiently waiting donkeys.
Where to stay: Talk to Nziza Hospitality for their favourite spots on Lamu.
Natural: Bwindi Impenetrable National Park
In the south-west of Uganda, Bwindi is home to more than half of the world’s population of gorillas, who no doubt detected the 160 species of tree and over 100 species of fern that also dwell here. ‘Impenetrable’ for its bamboo forests amidst the tall hardwoods and overgrown carpet of ferns and vines, making it difficult to access on foot. Full of birds and butterflies, Bwindi is a must for any gorilla-trekkers.
Where to stay: Ichumbi Gorilla Lodge is 10 minutes’ walk to Bwindi’s Rushaga Gate.
Cultural: Tombs of Buganda Kings at Kasubi, Kampala
Within Kampala City, the country’s capital, these royal tombs remain an important site historically, culturally, and spiritually, for Uganda and indeed East Africa. The former royal palace of the Kabakas (Kings) of Buganda, was converted into a burial ground in 1884, made from wood, thatch, reed, wattle and daub. Regarded as the main spiritual centre by the Bugandan people – the largest Ugandan ethnic group, the Tombs are a significant symbol of continuity and identity, and a good example of traditional architecture.
Where to stay: Nziza Hospitality can recommend places to stay in Kampala.