Be the First on Foot in the Serengeti
Safari expert Mark Thornton, Adventure’s top-rated outfitter in 2007 (visit ngadventure.com/ratings for a complete list), specializes in exploring wildlands so remote he’s often the only guide who knows how to get there. It’s an intrepid reputation that will earn him a remarkable reward in 2009: permission to lead the first walking safaris in Tanzania’s Serengeti National Park. "A lot of the park is zoned wilderness, which means no camps, no lodges, no game driving, no tourists period," says Thornton. "But you can do serious extended walking in there if you meet the government’s requirements, and that’s what I’ve been allowed to do." Thornton, his Tanzanian guides, and up to eight clients must travel on foot from camp to camp (a pickup truck transports luggage). It’s a singular experience even for Thornton, who scouted the trip earlier this year. "We walked up on a herd of 200 buffalo, and suddenly they split and started running in our direction," he says. "We hunkered down behind a tree and watched them go by, observing the herd composition and the way the big bulls sniffed the wind." Thornton also saw elephants and lions, stalked warthogs, and crossed paths with hyenas, but a walking safari isn’t always the best way to check animals off your life list. For that, Thornton offers an extension to the Ngorongoro Crater, where big game are corralled within the rim.
Mark Thornton Safaris; thorntonsafaris.com
Next: Kenya: Sail Animal Planet
Sail Animal Planet
Single-masted dhows are a marvel of medieval technology. For more than a millennium they’ve sailed between the Persian Gulf and the coast of East Africa, trading spices and beads for ivory, mangrove poles, and jewelry. But for Micato Safaris’ latest high-end trip, a unique land-and-sea expedition, the vessels needed an upgrade. Micato retrofitted a 65-foot craft with six cabins, then added two Zodiacs and diving and snorkeling gear—ample amenities for cruising the Indian Ocean, dropping in on Swahili villages, anchoring in four marine parks, deep-sea fishing (sailfish, striped and black marlin), and detouring to the northernmost reaches of elephant-packed Tsavo National Park. Call it Dhow 2.0. The craft sets sail from Mombasa, a city with "traditional Arab architecture mixed with a Miami Beach–like art deco aesthetic," according to Micato’s director Dennis Pinto, who grew up spending summers on the Kenyan coast. Heading north, the ship pulls into port in Kilifi, where guests share a swig of fenni, a cashew-nut liquor, with a local brewer; then Watamu, where a vast stretch of undeveloped beach serves as one of the largest turtle sanctuaries in the world. A stop at the Gedi Ruins—a 15th-century ghost town constructed out of coral stone—is followed by Tsavo’s elephants, the bustling island of Lamu, and finally the dunes of Kenya’s far north. The speed of the dhow, with just one simple sail, sets the trip’s tempo: "It’s a very leisurely, non-BlackBerry pace," says Pinto.
Micato Safaris; micato.com
Next: Benin, Burkina Faso & Togo: Headlong Into Voodooland
Benin, Burkina Faso & Togo
Headlong Into Voodooland
GAP Adventures’ cultural immersion in little-known Benin, Burkina Faso, and Togo starts with an experience straight out of Harry Potter: Travelers, fresh off the plane, plunge into the fetish market in Lomé, the capital of Togo, and bargain hunt for voodoo supplies—amulets, magic elixirs, and the ingredients for a love potion. More than 30 million West Africans practice the religion of vodun (voodoo), which can involve animism and fetishes, trances and animal sacrifice. During the initial voodoo ceremony in the lush marshland of Togo, voodoosi dancers fall into a deep trance, their bodies inhabited by a deity. "When they are taken by the god, they are no longer human," anthropologist Wade Davis wrote. "They are the god. It’s not magical, it’s very real." Crossing into the flat, arid savannas of Benin and the Yoruba kingdom of Ketou, travelers delve into the world of ancestor worship. Young voodoo initiates materialize from the forests and lurch into village streets wearing brilliant colors and masks that represent the spirits of the deceased. Led by an ethnologist, the group explores a Kpalime forest, has the chance to meet a Yoruba king, and stays in bush camps. "It’s a feeling of being in traditional Africa, where there’s no infrastructure and people are really living off the land," says GAP trip designer Maureen Atkinson. The journey ends in Burkina Faso, where tom-toms signal a war of words—a competition between storytellers, who spin enigmatic tales in the flicker of a campfire.
GAP Adventures; gapadventures.com
September, November, December
Next: Zambia & Malawi: The Next Classic Safari
Zambia & Malawi
The Next Classic Safari
Over the past decade, a perfect storm of events has transformed Zambia from a wildlife wasteland into the adventurer’s safari destination. Largely uninhabited outside the major cities, the East African nation has markedly improved its infrastructure, safari camps, and antipoaching and conservation initiatives. Ever since conservationist Norman Carr first led clients through this wilderness in 1950, Zambia has been perfecting the walking safari. All of this explains why 11-year safari guide Kent Redding of Africa Adventure Consultants is anointing Zambia "the next new place to go in Africa." AAC’s new Zambia itinerary—a journey inspired by the travels of British explorer David Livingston—begins with five days in South Luangwa National Park, where in winter the flooding Luangwa River becomes the stage for wildlife theater. "The last time I was there we followed a zebra track down through the forest to the river, where we assumed it was drinking," says Redding. "Right behind that we saw crocodile tracks, so we imagined the croc was tracking the zebra. And then we saw hyena prints tracking the croc that was tracking the zebra." South Luangwa remains far more low-key and rustic than most East African game parks (expect tented camps set up on lagoons, not on-site spa treatments). The final five days are spent kayaking and snorkeling a gigantic aquarium: Seven-million-acre Lake Malawi, the third largest in Africa, has more fish species (500-plus) than any freshwater reservoir in the world. Repair at last to Mumbo Island and an intimate retreat that visitors share with cape clawless otters, rainbow skink lizards, water monitors—and nary a human.
Africa Adventure Consultants; adventuresinafrica.com