Part V Africa and the Middle East Savannahs and sand.
But few travelers ever get to Africa and the Middle East. It takes stamina and spirit to pursue these destinations, but they are destinations that return their levy tenfold. People who venture here bring home powerful, eternal memories of these genuinely exotic places.
Where the Countries Are
It might seem odd to misplace a continent as large as Africa (the world's second largest), but a surprising number of people don't exactly know Africa's position on the globe. It seems so distant. In fact, it's directly south of Europe, across the Mediterranean Sea. Indeed, some of the countries in northern Africa can be visited as day trips from Spain, Italy, or Greece. And what of the Middle East? Though often in the headlines, this region's location is obscure to many. But there's no mystery: it's to the northeast of Africa and officially is part of Asia.
Africa and the Middle East theoretically offer many countries as options for travel. Some, however, are developing nations with meager tourist facilities. Others, because of political tensions, aren't attractive possibilities. Some are simply too small and don't offer enough places of interest. As a result, we concentrate on only those countries with which you'll most likely be dealing.
Remember, too, that things change quickly in Africa and the Middle East: today's tourist hot spot can be abandoned at the first sign of political upheaval; sleepy little countries can suddenly begin courting tourism with a vengeance.
The many nations in this area can be grouped into seven sections. The first, Northern Africa, is a region of deserts, oases, and Islamic culture. The countries we'll cover are, roughly from west to east: Morocco, Mali, Tunisia, Egypt (which is sometimes grouped with the Middle East), and Ethiopia. The second region is just northeast of Egypt: the Middle East. Leisure travelers are most interested in Israel (and the self-governing Palestinian territories) and Jordan. Certain travelers may have business that will take them to Saudi Arabia, Lebanon, Bahrain, and the United Arab Emirates--among others. Moslems may also, for religious reasons, be very interested in a trip to Saudi Arabia to visit the holy city of Mecca.
A shrine in Ethiopia claims to have the Ark of the Covenant.
A third touristic region is the massive peninsula of West Africa. Highly influenced by French culture, these countries include Senegal, the Gambia, Sierra Leone, Liberia, the Ivory Coast, Ghana, Togo, Benin, and Nigeria. The fourth area, located just to the east of these nations, is often thought of as the Central Safari Belt. Its most visited countries: Cameroon, the Democratic Republic of the Congo (formerly Zaire), Tanzania, Kenya, and Uganda. A fifth magnet for tourism is the more southerly Central Victoria Falls Region, flanked by Zambia and Zimbabwe.
A sixth prime destination is Southern Africa. South Africa dominates tourism here, but Namibia, Botswana, and the small nations of Lesotho and Swaziland are also becoming popular. The seventh and final category isn't an area at all. It comprises the many islands that lie off the shores of Africa. The best known are east of Africa in the Indian Ocean and include the Seychelles, Madagascar, and Mauritius. The others are northwest of Africa and can be stop-off points on flights between Europe and North America: the Azores, the Canary Islands, the Madeira Islands, and the Cape Verde Islands.
A Satellite View
The Sahara is the hottest, largest, and most desolate desert on earth.
From space, Africa is a distinctive-looking continent. What would be its most prominent feature? Probably the Sahara Desert, which covers most of the continent's northern third. In addition, the Kalahari Desert takes up much of southern Africa. And most of the Middle East is desert as well, notably the Sinai region. Though too many Tarzan movies lead people to think of the remainder of Africa as jungle, much of the rest of the continent is actually grassy savannah and veldt, with rivers and a few large lakes here and there. Furthermore, most of Africa consists of flat coastal and plateau regions, though some major mountains rise up in the northwest and along the continent's eastern side. And the equator splits Africa almost directly across its center.
The features of Africa and the Middle East are a major part of what makes this land so adventurous and exotic. Those same features dramatically shape the conditions travelers face when they venture here.
Bodies of Water
The Black and Caspian seas are both almost entirely surrounded by land and therefore could technically be called lakes.
Two oceans lie on either side of Africa: the Atlantic Ocean on the west and the Indian Ocean on the east. Along the northern boundary is the Mediterranean Sea, and dividing the continent in the northeast from the Middle East (which is connected to Europe and Asia) is the Red Sea.
Two large bodies of water, the Black Sea and the Caspian Sea, form partial boundaries between the Middle East and Europe. The Persian Gulf juts into the center of the Middle East and flows directly into the Arabian Sea, which in turn divides the region from western Asia. In the area separating the Middle East from Africa, you'll also notice the Suez Canal, which connects the Mediterranean with the Gulf of Suez.
Though much of the region is desert, there's quite a network of rivers. Indeed, some of the most famous rivers in the world flow here. Emptying into the Mediterranean is the mighty Nile River, which dominates northeastern Africa. The Jordan River courses through the western part of the Middle East (and runs into the Dead Sea, a popular resort area). Several major rivers flow off the west coast of Africa into the Atlantic, including the Congo and Gambia Rivers. A major rain forest surrounds the Congo River basin. And the Niger River runs through northwestern Africa. Emptying at the east coast is the Zambezi River, which begins in central Africa and flows southward, then eastward, tumbling at midpoint over mighty Victoria Falls, a major tourist destination. Victoria Falls is often visited in conjunction with stays in Zambia, Zimbabwe, or Botswana.
Africa and the Middle East have few lakes, but Lake Victoria is quite large and stands out in eastern Africa. Below it are a couple of long, thin lakes: Lake Tanganyika and Lake Malawi. In the north, just south of the Sahara, is Lake Chad. One warning: Water in Africa is generally for viewing, not swimming. As picturesque and even pure as the water may seem, bacteria and who knows what other unfamiliar creatures usually lurk there. They may be harmless to locals (who often are resistant) but not to tourists. Ocean water is usually safe, but pollution and sharks can, in some places, be a danger.
If you were to traverse Africa and the Middle East, it would become clear that they're not as mountainous as, say, Europe or Asia. Though much of Africa is very hilly or has plateaus, only two major ranges interrupt its surface: the Atlas Mountains in the northwest corner and the many mountains (most are volcanoes) of the eastern regions. Indeed, lofty Mt. Kilimanjaro, the highest mountain in Africa, rises more than 19,000 feet above sea level. One other prominent feature stands out: the Great Rift Valley, which begins in the Middle East and continues down to east-central Africa.
The Great Rift Valley is a treasure trove of early human artifacts.
To fully describe the climate of Africa and the Middle East is a challenge. First of all, since the equator bisects Africa, the region has two seasonal patterns. North of the equator, the seasons are those that Americans are used to: winter is December through March; and summer is June through September. South of the equator, winter starts in June, summer in December. What about temperatures? Winters in the desert areas of northern Africa and the Middle East, as well as in southern Africa, are warm to cool, with chilly temperatures especially at night. Summers in the north can be broiling, though southern Africa's summers are relatively pleasant. As you get closer to the equator, however, temperatures tend to be warmer year-round, with only minor temperature fluctuations between summer and winter.
Depending on the criteria, Djibouti may be the hottest inhabited place in the world; Aswan, Egypt, the driest.
But altitude is a component of this, too. The plateau and mountainous areas of southern and eastern Africa tend to be cooler in general than land closer to sea level. (There are even snow-capped African mountains on or near the equator.) The Atlas Mountain region can also be quite cold in the winter, hence the ski resorts there. And what of rain? Northern Africa tends to be dry year-round, as is Namibia, on the southwestern coast. On the other hand, the coastal areas of western and central Africa are very rainy (here are the rain forests and jungles). The rest of Africa has moderate rainfall patterns. One final point: Rainy seasons vary widely from place to place in Africa. Certain countries near the equator, like sons vary widely from place to place to place in Africa. Certain countries near the equator, like Kenya, even have two distinct rainy seasons.
Spanish is the official language of only one African nation: Equatorial Guinea.
The Middle East attracts many more visitors than does Africa. Among Americans, Israel is the most popular destination, with South Africa a distant second.
Political turmoil or a well-publicized crime against tourists in the Middle East or Africa usually impacts tourism intensely--not only in the immediate area of unrest, but thousands of miles away. For example, the 1990 crisis in Kuwait caused a 50 percent drop in tourism in Cairo, which is more than 800 miles away. Even Morocco suffered a major downturn, though it was thousands of miles distant from the Middle Eastern turmoil.
African and Middle Eastern Distances
The part of Africa that sticks out on its east coast and includes Somalia and Ethiopia is called the "African Horn."
Africa and the Middle East span a vast distance. Africa alone is larger than South America and Europe combined. That, by itself, is enough to make point-to-point travel a major undertaking. Adding to the challenge is that, overall, the transportation networks here aren't among the world's finest. This is still a developing region, and even the most progressive of the nations discussed in this section haven't reached the standards to which most American tourists are accustomed. Finally, the politically delicate climate in many of the countries may necessitate roundabout travel plans. (Some governments, for instance, don't allow visitors to enter directly into their country from another rival nation; visitors have to reroute through a third, neutral country. Be sure to check government advisories on this.)
In short, traveling through Africa and the Middle East is adventurous. Traveling times can be easily miscalculated: A short direct road may be washed out or in poor condition. A seemingly simple flight between countries can become a circus of connections. In Africa and the Middle East, anything can change on a moment's notice.
Most public transportation (specifically, buses and trains) should be viewed with healthy skepticism. The vehicles can be uncomfortably crowded; in many cases English won't be spoken. Taxis are a better bet, but the fares can be quite slippery. Rental cars are widely available. However, a car rental can present challenges, especially because road conditions are so uncertain; some areas might not even be safe to drive through or are poorly marked. Zimbabwe, Namibia, and, especially, South Africa are the only places where car rentals are a prudent option. A popular way for tourists to get around is by hiring a car and driver for the day, perhaps through their hotel's concierge, or by setting things up via a reputable tour operator.
Traveling to Africa and the Middle East, however, is becoming easier. Though most itineraries must be built via European gateways, a few nonstop jets do fly from U.S. cities. For example, Senegal is only a six-and-a-half-hour flight from New York City.
About one-tenth of the world's population lives in Africa.
Perhaps the best option is an escorted tour. Africa and the Middle East lend themselves ideally to such a mode of transportation, and even independent spirits may greatly appreciate how much easier their trips are when someone else handles the logistics. And what about air travel? Service is fairly good between major cities; however, scheduling can be uncertain. And though the region is large, many of the individual nations aren't; thus, flying may be unnecessary at best and a waste at worst.
Trains are a viable way of getting around in Egypt and South Africa. Indeed, South Africa's "Blue Train" is legendary. Cruises are even more reliable. Three cruise itineraries dominate: Morocco, Tunisia, and the Atlantic islands, often out of Spain; a routing that features Kenya and the Indian Ocean islands, often in combination with South Africa or, occasionally, India; and the highly popular Nile cruises.
One last thing to remember when setting up schedules: the weather can play an important part in transportation. Rainy seasons can wash out roads, hurricanes brush along Africa's eastern coast, and desert dust storms can make traveling difficult or dangerous.
Some Miscellaneous Considerations
People usually have a clear notion of only the most obvious destinations in this part of the world--the pyramids, for example, or Jerusalem. As for the rest--well that's another matter. Some situations you should be most aware of are:
* Health conditions here are far below the standards to which many people are accustomed. Tourists should visit their physician before leaving on their trip.
* By American standards, Africa and most of the Middle East are a bargain. Costs in Israel and certain Middle Eastern countries are somewhat higher.
* Crime and theft are a definite problem in some countries, decidedly not in others. The normal precautions should be taken. Begging, often by little children, is aggressive and common.
* AIDS has reached epidemic proportions in Africa (but not in the Middle East). Unsafe sex here is a potentially deadly mistake.
* Many tourists hear of wonderful exchange rates on the local black markets and decide to take advantage of the prices. But many of the nations here look down with grave severity on the practice. Indeed, the person offering that terrific exchange rate may be an undercover police officer.
* Similarly, drug use in many of these countries is a terribly serious crime. These destinations are informal. Yet tourists shouldn't dress too casually, especially when visiting temples and mosques. Shorts or sleeveless dresses are often a no-no.
* Bargaining at shops is usually lively and expected. But not always. Hotel personnel can clarify the situation.
* Africa and the Middle East can be very hot; insects are everywhere; malaria is a problem, especially in West Africa. Sunscreen and insect repellent are essential.
* Outbreaks of lawlessness or political fighting sporadically occur across much of Africa. Keep abreast of travel advisories.
* Taking photographs is one of the great pleasures for many travelers. In many of these nations, however, certain sites (such as some government buildings or a special place of worship) may be off-limits. Visitors should ask about any restrictions when they reach their destination or consult a tour operator in advance.
* When booking a safari, find out how many vehicles are used per voyage. A safari should have at least two vehicles, in case one breaks down, or should have a two-way radio to call another for help.
* Travelers should reconfirm their next flight, if practical, immediately on arrival--and in person, not by phone. They must arrive for flights very early so they'll be at the front when boarding occurs. (Seat reservations are sometimes ignored.)
* The hotel chains with the largest presence in Africa and the Middle East include: Hilton, Sheraton, Inter-Continental, Le Meridien, and Holiday Inn.
The first beers were brewed in Ancient Egypt and Babylon. Until a few thousand years ago, lions, elephants, and other large animals lived in North Africa. Because the Roman Empire captured them for its spectacles and because the area became drier, these animals disappeared from the area. TRAVEL TRIVIA What They Said * "Everything in Africa bites, but the safari bug is worst of all." --Brian Jackman * "In the winter, Venice is like an abandoned theater. The play is finished, but the echoes remain." --Arbit Blatas * "Russia is the only country in the world you can be homesick for while you're still in it." --John Updike * "Prague is like a vertical Venice--steps everywhere." --Penelope Gilliat * "Whether you go to Heaven or Hell, you still have to change in Atlanta." --old saying * "I'm leaving because the weather's too good. I hate London when it's not raining." --Groucho Marx * "Rome was a poem pressed into service as a city." --Anatole Broyard * "He who rides the sea of the Nile must have sails woven of patience." --William Golding
NAME -- DATE --
CREATIVE ACTIVITY You won the state lottery! You can now indulge in your lifelong fantasy: to visit all seven touristic regions of Africa during a month-long trip. You have to plan your packing. What 10 special items do you think you'll need to bring, other than essentials (for example, don't list shirts, a toothbrush, and so on), for this African holiday? Item Reason (1) Binoculars (1) To see distant animals at wildlife reserves (2) (2) (3) (3) (4) (4) (5) (5) (6) (6) (7) (7) (8) (8) (9) (9) (10) (10)
Marc Mancini, PhD
Department of Travel
West Los Angeles College
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|Publication:||Selling Destinations, Geography for the Travel Professional, 4th ed.|
|Date:||Jan 1, 2004|
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