With hundreds of different ethnicities, Africa is blessed not only with mesmerizing landscapes and wildlife but with an extraordinarily rich tapestry of cultural heritage. For most travellers, the wildlife takes centre stage with many overlooking this continent’s intriguing history and fascinating heritage. Great empires have left their mark with crumbling ruins and many of Africa’s architecture and languages have been influenced by colonizers and traders who visited its shores. More and more we are seeing the trend towards sustainable travel with many of our clients wanting to combine a safari or beach holiday with an authentic, ‘unstaged’ cultural interaction that also benefits the local community that they are visiting. Moving, real and easily accessible, these are three cultural encounters which will give you a deeper insight into some of Africa’s fascinating cultures.
Meet The Masai And Visit The Katiya Cave
If you are planning a trip to Kenya’s Masai Mara, then you should definitely consider visiting the Mara Bushtops Conservatory and the fascinating Katiya Cave.
The Masai are synonymous with East Africa and have inhabited its plains with its vast herds and plentiful predators for centuries. With their distinctive flame-coloured blankets and beautiful beadwork, the Masai are a fascinating people with a rich heritage worth discovering. There are a number of guided walks available (depending on where you are staying) with a local Masai as your guide who will lead you through local villages where you have the opportunity of immersing yourself in their daily lives. Smell the distinctive wood smoke from the cooking fires or touch the prickly thorn-bush walls that keep the cattle safe from prowling predators such as lions. You may even be able to witness the jumping dance performed by the morani (young warriors) to attract a bride.
The Katiya Cave is a historic Masai place which has been used as a centre of worship for traditional rituals, such as the fort night-long feasts (ample water can be found in a nearby spring), as well as a place where medicines are mixed using locally gathered herbs. Meaning ‘place of eating and drinking’, the cave is situated on the Mara Bushtops Conservatory, a mere 15 minutes drive away from the Mara Bushtops Camp. For a unique glimpse into Masai life, take a guided walk through picturesque valleys with a Masai guide by your side who will share the cave’s fascinating history, cave art and its continued use in tribal life.
Where To Stay
The best place from which to explore the Katiya Cave is obviously the Mara Bushtops Camp, although we can recommend any of the other Bushtops Camps. Less than 5 kilometres to the Mara National Park and within easy reach of daily direct flights from Nairobi via two nearby airstrips, Mara Bushtops Camp is perfectly placed for the ultimate Kenyan bush safari.
Set within a private Conservatory, this five-star luxury camp comprises of twelve exquisitely decorated tented suits, all with scenic 360-degree views across the valley best enjoyed from your 100 square meter private deck. The camp also features a luxurious Spa, world-class cuisine and your own butler service, not to mention the incredible variety of wildlife that congregates directly in front of the restaurant on a daily basis to savour the minerals from a salt lick.
Meet The Bushmen Of The Western Kalahari
Botswana is one of those magical must-see destinations known for its pristine wilderness and unsurpassed variety of wildlife. There are many breathtaking areas to explore, but amongst them, the Kalahari and Madgadikgadi Salt Pans rates amongst its most extraordinary. Think vast grasslands and red sands that stretch out as far as the eye can see, with just the ‘nothingness’ and eerie silence in the air. It’s both a peaceful and deeply spiritual place and the perfect destination for those seeking reprieve from their busy lives. But its uniqueness extends further to its people, the Bushmen, who have survived in this harsh environment for centuries because of their incredible survival skills and knowledge of plants and animals.
They are a fascinating people and much can be learnt from their ways of respecting Mother Earth and living with her in harmony. Arguably one of this continent’s greatest cultural experiences (that combines both culture and wildlife) is the thrill of experiencing a bushmen hunt. We recommend going on Unchartered Africa’s initiation hunt led by Ralph Bausfield which allows visitors to respectfully observe the ancient traditions and rituals of the Bushmen. Observe as the men prepare their poison and hunting sets, follow the Bushmen trackers through vast desert terrain as they seek out animal tracks using their ancient tracking skills, observe the ritual ceremony of the successful hunters as they receive their first tattoo from their elders to mark their passage into manhood, and be a part of the traditional bushmen feast and deeply spiritual trance dance in celebration of the hunt. There are also several other cultural interactions available, such as visiting a Bushmen village to learn more about their interesting culture and history, as well as visits to the nearby Tsodilo Hills to see their exquisite rock paintings.
Where To Stay
For one of Africa’s most romantic camps that is perfectly placed to meet the Bushmen, we recommend staying at San Camp.
Situated on the edge of the mysterious Madgadikgadi Salt Pans (the remnants of a now extinct super lake) San Camp is the ideal place to unwind and get away from it all. Stay in classically-styled white tents protected by desert palms that combine old-world safari elegance with spectacular vistas, incredible game viewing, unique desert species, expert guiding, attentive service and superb cuisine. The camp has been designed to impact the environment as little as possible and is almost entirely run on solar energy.
Meet The Himba People Of Namibia’s Kaokoland
The landscape of Northern Namibia is both stark and achingly beautiful; imagine a place where shifting sands and vast plains, hardy vegetation and rocks sculptured by unrelenting winds are common place. It’s not the sort of environment where you would expect humans to thrive, and yet the semi-nomadic Himba people have made the seemingly uninhabitable northern Etosha plains their home.
A striking looking people and the descendants of Herero herders who were displaced to north-west Namibia, the Himba have survived against all odds in an inhospitable environment, colonial efforts at genocide, and a 1980s drought that nearly destroyed all their cattle. Their homes are built using mud, cattle dung and palm leaves and they are pastoral, always on the move between various settlements in search of prime grazing lands. One of our best-loved cultural encounters (which can easily be combined with a visit to the world’s highest dunes in Sossusvlei and the incredible game-rich Etosha National Park) is going on a guided tour to one of the Himba villages. These visits are sensitively organized, not only to respect the Himba who are not used to foreign travellers, but also to conserve the Kaokoland, one of the continent’s last wild frontiers.
Listen to their stories (through a translator) and marvel at the striking ochre appearance of the women who have come of age and apply a mixture of ochre (known as otjize) and butter fat to their hair and skin to protect it from the sun and biting insects, observe as they create intricate jewelry out of iron, ostrich shells, and sometimes even PVC pipes, and be awed by their ritual fires (which can only be ignited by ritual fire-sticks kept by each lineage-head) that form an important part of their ancestor worship.
Where To Stay
For one of Southern Africa’s most remote and conveniently located camps to experience the captivating Himba, we suggest booking into the Serra Cafema Camp located in Namibia’s extreme north-west, on the banks of the Kunene River.
Inspired by the Himba, this intimate camp consists of eight villas made exclusively out of wood, thatch, canvas and glass. The spacious interiors feature a mix of earthy and luxurious elements with spectacular views that can be seen from the comfort of your private elevated deck. Explore this fascinating landscape by quad bike and marvel at the incredible variety of desert-adapted animals, or simply enjoy the surreal desert experience of rushing rapids that can be found just below the camp.