Africa is full of incredible secret destinations that are just waiting to be discovered. Based on our extensive travels across the continent since 2001, these are our top picks of hidden gems in East and Southern Africa.
1. Mahale Mountains - Tanzania
Lake Tanganyika is a massive freshwater lake hemmed in by the mountains of Africa’s Great Rift Valley. On the eastern bank of the lake, the Mahale Mountains National Park in Tanzania comprises golden sand beaches and lush tropical forests. Due to the size and remoteness of the park, it is home to one of the largest remaining populations of wild chimpanzees, and is the only place where chimpanzees and lions cohabitate. Mahale can only be reached by boat, and it is one of the few national parks in Africa that permits guided nature walks within park boundaries. Other adventures include kayaking, birding, waterfalls and deep-water swims.
2. Volcanoes National Park - Rwanda
While Rwanda’s Volcanoes National Park is well known for offering Africa’s easiest gorilla trekking, this destination remains an under-explored gem where you definitely won’t have to contend with any crowds. The park, and indeed the country, has come leaps and bounds in the last two decades when it comes to sustainable tourism – not only has the park grown significantly in size and succeeded in bolstering its gorilla population from 254 to over 600, local communities are also benefitting directly through a revenue-sharing scheme, as well as multiple projects that provide both infrastructure and opportunity.
Where to stay Bookings are open for Rwanda’s newest luxury offering, Bisate Lodge. This unique and eco-friendly lodge is located within easy driving distance from park headquarters and looks out over Bisoke and Karisimbi volcano peaks. Volcanoes Virungas Lodge puts you in the middle of Gorillas in the Mistcountry and Sabyinyo Silverback Lodge has views of the lush rainforest that cover the Virunga mountains.
Read more on our beginner’s guide to gorilla trekking.
3. Lewa Wildlife Conservancy - Kenya
Forming part of the Mount Kenya World Heritage Site, Lewa Wildlife Conservancy is a frontrunner in community-based conservation in northern Kenya. Testimony to this, local communities act as a first line of defence against poaching, supplying crucial information to park rangers before any potential poachers are able to set foot in the reserve.
The snow-capped peak of Mount Kenya is visible in the north, and the Big 5 conservancy has a diverse range of habitats including forest, acacia woodland, extensive natural springs and fertile grasslands. (PS Prince William has often been spotted in Lewa, very occasionally with wife Kate Middleton.)
Read more What to expect in Lewa Wildlife Conservancy, the 'rhino capital' of Kenya.
4. Kalahari Desert - South Africa & Botswana
The Kalahari Desert is as fascinating as it is vast - extending into South Africa, Botswana and connecting with the Namib Desert in Namibia. It is a semi-arid landscape where you will find iconic red sands, and so much more: black-maned Kalahari lions and other big game like oryx, habituated meerkats, hot-air ballooning at Tswalu, dazzling night skies experienced on desert sleepouts, an annual zebra migration through the Savute in Botswana, horse-riding safaris, San rock art and fantastic off-the-grid accommodation.
Where to stay Jack's Camp and San Camp are beautiful Bedouin-style lodges in Botswana. Leroo La Tau, also located in Botswana, is where you can go to see the Zebra Migration. In South Africa, The Motse at Tswalu is a good place to see rare pangolin as well as black-maned lion.
Read more about ‘red sand safaris’ at Tswalu.
5. South Luangwa - Zambia
Home of the original walking safari, South Luangwa is an untapped premier wildlife destination, and another of the few national parks in Africa where you are permitted to explore on foot. It is known for having the continent’s best safari guides, many of whom grew up in the area, so you are guaranteed to learn a lot and have a highly personalised experience. When it comes to walking expeditions, this is big game viewing at its most adventurous and you may have to forgo some modern luxuries like Wi-Fi or air conditioning. That said, tented camps are fully furnished and equipped, and you will be rewarded with possibly the most authentic safari experience in Africa.
For non-walkers, here are six other amazing things to see and do in South Luangwa.
6. Damaraland - Namibia
Damaraland in Namibia is best-known for its incredible rock art, some of which dates back 10 000 years. You will be equally mesmerised, if not astonished, at the region’s soaring mountains, bottomless gorges and ancient calderas as far as the eye can see. As featured in the BBC series Earth II, desert lion can be found in the northern Palmwag region of Damaraland. Elephants here are physiologically and behaviourally adapted to life in the desert – they have longer legs to travel greater distances, a lighter mass, and are extremely sensitive when feeding on the scarce vegetation (as opposed to their savannah cousins that are very destructive when feeding, thinking nothing of knocking over a tree or gouging baobab bark).
7. La Digue Island - Seychelles
Expect a laid-back and unhurried way of life – you won't see many cars, malls or highways on La Digue! Hop onto an 'ox taxi' or a bicycle and explore this immaculate island, said to be one of the most unspoiled in the Seychelles. Discover gorgeous, private coves and enjoy the sublime turquoise waters of the warm Indian Ocean. Experience the caster-sugar sand and massive granite boulders of Anse Source d’Argent – renowned for being the most photographed beach in the world.
Where to stay Le Domaine de L'Orangeraie is a cosy and private getaway, located a mere two minutes' walk from the beach. It features two restaurants, each offering signature dishes with Creole and Asian influences. Le Repaire is a chic beachfront hotel with comfortable and modern suites. The owners are famed for their superb service, attention to detail, and sharing insider tips and local secrets with their guests.
Congo is the newest and most exciting destination in Africa. The country has opened access to Africa's equatorial rainforests, giving intrepid adventurers the opportunity to experience this pristine and unexplored environment. Known as the second lung of the world, this emerald paradise is home to more than 100 species of mammals like western lowland gorillas, forest elephant and buffalo, hyena, rare bongo antelope and much more.
Where to stay Ngaga Camp offers a tranquil forest setting on the edge of Odzala National Park, with breath-taking 360-degree views of the surrounding rainforest. Combine it with Ngaga's sister lodge, Lango Camp – its blockbuster attraction being a marshy ‘bais’ that draws forest buffalo and other rare animals to drink. Mboko Camp is situated in a grassy clearing next to a river, regularly visited by forest buffalo and elephant, bushbuck and putty-nose monkeys.
9. Quirimbas Archipelago - Mozambique
This little-explored archipelago off the coast of Mozambique consists of 27 coral islands, many of which are uninhabited. Accommodation in the Quirimbas is limited to a handful of lodges so you won’t be hard-pressed to find your own private slice of Indian Ocean beach bliss.
Where to stay For total seclusion, Anantara Medjumbe and Azura Quilalea are ultra-luxe lodges located on their own private islands. Vamizi Private Island has a collection of luxury villas for exclusive family and group getaways. At Ibo Island Lodge, you can enjoy the rich culture of Mozambique, as well as exquisite natural wonder including one Africa’s largest mangrove forests.
10. Rubondo Island - Tanzania
Unspoilt and remote, Rubondo Island is a floating rainforest on the south-western corner of Lake Victoria in Tanzania. Except for a handful of park wardens and staff at Rubondo Island Lodge, the island is uninhabited by humans, making it an important refuge for chimpanzees, forest elephants, giraffe and rare sitatunga antelope.
Where to stay Rubondo Island Camp is the only lodge on the island and offer activities like guided nature walks, game drives and boat cruises on the lake. For a very limited time, guests can join a conservation team's project to habituate chimpanzees to humans.