Mchinji to Lilongwe. Cape Maclear, Nkhata Bay, Chizumulu Island. Mzuzu to Songwe
Life corresponds to the rhythms of Lake Malawi (1). Fishermen board their rickety vessels (2) at night to catch usipa, tiny freshwater sardines that are attracted to the beams of paraffin lamps. The fish are dried or smoked, and they’re a staple of the Malawian diet. Eggs, cell phone minutes, and bottles of used cooking oil can be bought from this philosophically sound grocery store in Nkhata Bay (3). Around the corner, yards of chitenje fabric are transformed into designs from Lilongwe’s catwalks (4) – Malawi launched its first Fashion Week in 2013. The country’s favorite (and only) brewery isn’t as homegrown. Ask for a “green” and you’ll get a Danish lager (5), or if boozy porridge sounds appealing, try a carton of the self-explanatory “Shake Shake.” Most of the cargo on weekday steamers bound for Chizimulu Island consists of fermented maize (6); return vessels make the five-hour journey loaded down with usipa. The two items make up the economy of this tiny, isolated community. Fisherman return home at 5 a.m. to start their night while tarps of their catch reflect silvery sunlight (7). Nsima, made from maize and cassava flour, chambo fish, and usipa are eaten for breakfast, lunch and dinner (8). Everyone takes part in their production (9). Overfishing threatens Malawi’s future, and responsible tourism can be an avenue for growth. Japanese musician Charu Yusuke shares lessons with Ellina Yassin and her family (10), some of the island’s 4,000 residents. Baobob trees and cassava plantations cover the hills (11), there are no roads, and visitors are an unusual sight. “Take me a picture!” kids call out when they spot one, shrieking with delight over the image. “Take me a picture!” (12)
Livingstone to Lusaka. Kabwe, Serenje. Kasanka National Park. Chipata
Behold the world’s most spectacular border: Victoria Falls (1) divides Zimbabwe and Zambia, a line that’s often clouded by thundering fog. Migrant workers make a daily trek across the Zambezi River (2) to search for economic opportunity. Poverty comes with environmental challenges, too – because electricity is too expensive to buy, many rural Zambians make charcoal from harvested trees, leading to mass deforestation. Nonprofit Greenpop engages communities (3) and replants trees, teaching sustainability. On the T2 highway north of Lusaka, tomato farmers (4) hawk their fruits, while in Serenje, women sell beans and dried kapenta sardines (5). Just past town, Kasanka National Park sustains healthy populations of puku (6), sable antelopes and marsh-dwelling sitatungas. In October, it’s the endpoint for the world’s largest mammal migration, and for two months up to 10 million tawny fruit bats roost in its trees. Sunrise over Lake Wasa (7) is quiet the rest of the year. To protect this remote patch of wilderness from raging forest fires, park workers burn calculated swaths of miombo each year (8). Local economies are specialized: Women run banana plantations in Nyimba, where the creamy little fruits are as fragrant as perfume (9). Chipata, in the Eastern Province, supports a massive market that resells cookware and clothing donations from the West (10). Long walks connect rural villages (11).
Stone Town, Michamvi Kae, Bwejuu, Kizimbani, Jozani Forest
Zanzibar’s palette is both weathered and saturated. Along the island’s north shores (1), Stone Town’s complex history emerges like hidden coats of paint on its Islamic-style buildings (2). Five times a day, a call to prayer tumbles from minaret loudspeakers with the urgency of a fire alarm, the reverberations settling into corners of dark, twisted streets. Uniformed children hurry to school (3) while a man sleeps under the watchful eye of Allah (4). Persian merchants used Zanzibar’s shores (5) as a trading base between the Middle East, India and the Swahili Coast. Portugal seized it and was driven out by sultans from Oman. A former palace houses Zanzibar’s National Museum (6), where stories from slaves, merchants and invaders come to life. Today’s trade still centers on spices – aromas of cloves, nutmeg and black pepper fill the market (7) – and residents still rail against foreign control. The semi-autonomous island is governed by Tanzania, 50 to miles to the west (8), and politics sometimes turn violent. Michamvi’s placid beaches (9), however, are deserted and still, lined with miles of tropical wilderness (10). Inland, one of Africa’s rarest primates makes its home in the branches of Indian almond and mango trees in Jozani National Forest (11, 12). The Zanzibar red colobus population is about 1,000, and it is the flagship species of the island’s conservation efforts.
Chobe National Park, Serondela
The African Fish Eagle’s primal shriek brands the memory of anyone who hears it. This female (1) is poised to take flight over the Chobe River (2), a major watering hole for Botswana’s giants. Water lilies (3) litter its shallows and nourish an underwater ecosystem. Above the rhizome, hippos chomp on tangled stalks and crocodiles (4) lurk in camouflage. Chobe National Park is best known for its Kalahari elephants (5, 6) – an estimated 50,000 live here, the highest concentration in Africa. Serondela’s floodplains (7) used to feed the timber industry before the park became one of the continent’s greatest conservation success stories.
Cape Town. Johannesburg. West Coast to Vioolsdrif. Garden Route to Stormsrivier. Karoo. Pretoria to Beitbridge
For a more accurate first impression of South Africa, don’t head straight to a game preserve or ritzy hotel. Start in the townships, where the majority of residents, like this mama in Cape Town’s Langa (1), live in informal settlements without the infrastructure to support them (2, 3). During apartheid, races other than white were relocated to barren lands called the Cape Flats, and economic inequality keeps dividing lines intact. Cape Malay musicians (4) rock the train from Mitchells Plain, which can be seen in a smoggy haze atop Devil’s Peak (5). On the other side of Table Mountain, impossible affluence and beauty converge at the Atlantic (6). It’s common to see Porches in driveways along Bantry Bay (7). Progress is slow, but it’s happening: more people have HIV/AIDS in South Africa than in any other country, but thanks to organizations like Kidzpositive (8), new infections are on the decline. These are some of the heroes (9). Meanwhile, grassroots education initiatives work to help the next generation create change. Children at a crèche supported by the South African Education and Environment Project wouldn’t have otherwise been prepared for school (although this little playground bully (10) developed his skills of influence early on). Xhosa tradition knows Table Mountain as the great giant Umlindi Wemingizimu, protector of the south. Its peaks are shrouded in fog, myths and legends (11), a landscape as intoxicating and complex as the nation itself. Nelson Mandela led South Africa to freedom, and his presence is everlasting (12).
Caledonspoort to Butha-Buthe. Tsehlanyane National Park. Malealea to Maseru
Snow in Africa? It’s one of Lesotho’s eccentricities. The Maluti Mountains (1) are second in altitude only to Mount Kilimanjaro, so winters here are harsh. In February, however, valleys erupt with fields of maize, sorghum and sunflowers (2). A boy surveys the lush patchwork of crops he will one day harvest (3). Agriculture is the main source of income for residents of this small, isolated kingdom, but it’s hard to grow things in the mountains – the national poverty rate hovers near 60 percent, and its economy relies heavily on South Africa, which surrounds it. In Malealea, a conscious-minded lodge brings tourism to a remote village, where guests can contribute to community growth (4). “Off the beaten path” implies that there is a path – jagged ruts are often the only indication of a road, but the landscape feels like a postcard from God (5).
Noordoewer to Sesriem. Namib-Naukluft National Park. Sossusvlei. Swakopmund. Windhoek to Ai-Ais
It takes two hours to slog to the top of Sosslusvlei’s great dune. Brave the late-afternoon heat to watch a panorama of iron oxide-filled hills turn molten (1, 2) or set an alarm for 4:30 a.m. – sunrise shifts from purple to gold, coaxing a valley of fossilized camelthorn trees from the shadows (3, 4). Tiny creatures make these five-million-year-old sands their home (5), but few people do. The nomadic San were the first to inhabit Namibia, followed by various tribes and colonizers. Outside the cities, intrepid settlements (6) rise like mirages from alien landscapes. Some seem actually alien – Welwitschia’s barren plains (7), carved from the granite by an ancient incarnation of the Swakop River, look like they could have hosted the Moon landing. Humans should take a cue from the sociable weaver, whose giant community nests (8) are a rarity in the avian world – in this desolate, wind-swept land, it’s best to stick together.
Nairobi. Naivasha, Nakuru, Nyahururu. Hell's Gate National Park. Longonot National Park
It is possible to visit modern-day Kenya and forget that the British left. Karen, an affluent suburb of Nairobi, is named after Karen Blixen, whose memoir Out of Africa recounts her 17 years of running a coffee plantation at the height of colonial rule. Also in the Ngong Hills is the Giraffe Manor (1), a guesthouse on the grounds of a giraffe breeding sanctuary. The long-necked residents like Eddie (2, 3) are Rothchild’s giraffes, and there are only a few hundred of them left in the wild. Development threatened the last of Kenya’s population until the Giraffe Centre stepped in in 1979; since then, more than 50 have been bred and released. Further into the Rift Valley, lava rocks from shifting tectonic plates line the streambeds (4). Millennia of geological history etch striations into the winding sandstone gorges of Hell’s Gate National Park (5). In Nakuru, a home-cooked meal (6) accompanies accommodations with a view of the town’s computer repairman (7), while in Nairobi, jacaranda trees brighten a smoggy horizon. The most sweeping perspective of southern Kenya comes from the rim of Mount Longonot, a stratovolcano that last erupted in the 1860s. Parting clouds shed light on a changing landscape (8).
Mbeya to Dar es Salaam. Zanzibar. Bagamoyo. Moshi, Arusha. Tarangire National Park. Ngorongoro Conservation Area
The eastbound TAZARA Express is one of Africa’s best train rides, although “express” is open to debate. Eighteen hours behind schedule, the locomotive sputters to a stop just past Iringa’s green hills to be greeted by villagers hawking cashew nuts and fresh fruit (1). At the end of the line is Dar es Salaam, where the chaotic Kivukoni fish market (2) and overloaded trawlers (3) line the shores. About 40 miles north on the Nunge coast, salt is extracted from seawater (4, 5) and traditional Swahili medicine (6) promises quick cures. It’s Tuesday afternoon, and Bagamoyo’s beaches (7) are still. In the 19th century, they would have been filled with ivory traders and slave merchants, and the shackled souls who took their last steps in Africa here are reputed to have given the town its name: “Lay down your heart.” Further west, the superb starling (8) is a common sight along dusty back roads. So are overflowing vegetable stands (9) – there was an abundant harvest this year. At a junction deep in Maasai country (10), a rush hour crowd waits for passing matatu buses. The Maasai follow the movements of their cattle and are known to be proud warriors. It used to be a rite of passage for young men to slay a lion to prove their courage, but in 2008 a group of elders advocated to end the practice out of concern for the endangered animal. These boys (11) will likely compete in a “Maasai Olympics” competition instead. Lions, in turn, have forged an energetic understanding with herders to leave the cattle alone. Other beasts aren’t so lucky – although pairs of zebras look cuddlish (12), they’re actually watching each other’s backs.
San José. Tortuguero. Sarapiqui, Arenal, Monteverde. Manuel Antonio National Park
Costa Rica proves that freedom from fossil fuels is possible: In 2015, 99 percent of its energy came from renewable sources, and the country plans to be completely carbon neutral by 2021. Hydropower provides most of it, along with wind, solar and geothermal energy. Volcanic minerals give Río Sucio (1) its copper hue. In Tortuguero (2, 3), an isolated town on the Caribbean coast, life centers on another goal – protecting three species of endangered sea turtles, which return to specific beaches each year to lay eggs. The Sea Turtle Conservancy runs nightly patrols to monitor nest activity and teaches conservation at the local school (4). Filmmaker Céline Cousteau (5) learns how children are influencing their parents to end illegal poaching. Conservation-based tourism is Costa Rica’s lifeblood: Nearly a third of the country is protected, including Monteverde’s Selvatura Park, where suspension bridges and zip-lines cut through swaths of virgin cloud forest (6). At the base of Chato volcano, icy water tumbles into a deep pool surrounded by trees (7). More than half a million animal species live in Costa Rica, including the white-headed capuchin (8) and the big-jawed spider (9). Arenal (10) last erupted in 2010, and coffee and sugarcane plantations thrive in its fertile foothills. Eli Molina (11) cooks a homemade meal for guests at her family’s estate, Casona Río Fortuna. A mural in San José (12) depicts life in the rural heartland.
Peñas Blancas to Rivas. Ometepe. Granada
Santa María, protector of cities (1). On Ometepe Island, whose name is Nahuatl for “two mountains,” the Blessed Virgin appeases a pair of volcanoes for the agrarian communities that live in their shadows (2). Meanwhile in Granada, a Palm Sunday procession (3, 4) swells with each block. Holy Week is Nicaragua’s top holiday: Far-flung relatives arrive to celebrate, and visits spill into the cool night air (5). Overworked hairdressers rest (6) as the bells of Granada’s cathedral (7) echo in cobblestoned streets. Ripe mangoes (8) and plantains fried by street vendors steep sweetness into the humid air. Nearby, the world is silent –weavers at the not-for-profit Tío Antonio Centro Social are deaf, and their trade supports independence (9). The hammock workshop is part of Café de las Sonrisas, the first coffee shop in the Americas run entirely by deaf people. How do you ask for sugar? Sign language lessons (10) bridge cultural divides.
Saint-Martin, Sint Maarten, Antigua
Four miles and a world away from the cruise ships, casinos and rum cocktails of Dutch Sint Maarten, the island’s French-controlled side is quietly urbane. Weathered villas and sailing vessels line the shore (1, 2), and Cupecoy Beach’s grottoes (3) encourage private sunbathing. Chanson Française tints the salty breeze in Marigot, where languorous expats linger in open-air cafés (4). Ras Bushman (5) and his wife run a vegan “ital shack” on the Dutch side. Each day they pick organic veggies from their backyard garden to make food that’s soulful and served with a helping of Rasta wisdom. Plantation farms (6) used to fuel St. Martin’s economy, but now that distinction belongs to tourism – the island’s beaches are second only to Anguilla (7), a 30-minute ferry ride from Marigot.