These Countries Need Love Too!
Take Photos, Leave Footprints
By Scott Dicken
These Countries Need Love Too!
Travel bucket lists are my ultimate clickbait. Nothing is more likely to have me feverishly reaching for my mouse than ‘The Top destinations to Visit in 2021’ or ‘The Most Surprising Must-Visit Locations’. I’m also a hard numbers man – which naturally attracts me to hard data rather than the subjective travel lists and personal preferences you so often see. From an unapologetically British perspective that means all roads lead me to the masters of British data; the Office of National Statistics (or the ONS for those in the know). By now you might well be thinking that you don’t like the sounds of where this article is going, but stick with me, it gets more interesting, I promise. You see, the ONS, in addition to publishing its more traditional (and mind-numbing) labor market and economic analyses, also publishes an annual travel trends analysis which delves deep in to the travel proclivities of the British populous. In addition to highlighting the obvious (for example, that the British like to holiday in Spain) the data also highlights those countries least visited by the good people of the UK. At no time in history is that kind of information more useful than right now, when avoiding mass tourist destinations for the foreseeable future is highly advisable! In this article I’ve picked five previously listed ONS destinations that I’ve visited and that definitely deserve more attention from my tourist brethren at this time of social distancing.
If you visit my website (takephotosleavefootprints.com) with any regularity, then you’ll have noticed my affinity for Namibia. As a result, you could hardly expect me to ignore the fact that it has consistently been a least visited destination. Stunning scenery, abundant wildlife, and plenty of adventure; Namibia has it all. Having spent around three months there I can still say I haven’t seen even half of what Namibia has to offer. It’s also one of the easiest and safest of the African safari destinations to self-drive; meaning that companies catering to visitors who want to ‘go it alone’ are becoming ever more prevalent and cater to everything from budget camping to 5-star luxury. So what are Namibia’s highlights?
Etosha National Park: Spanning 8,600 square miles, and dominated by the Etosha Salt Pan, Etosha National Park in the north of Nambia is an wildlife-lovers paradise. The park hosts big cats, the endangered black rhino and is a breeding ground for flamingoes on the park’s salt pan in January and February.
Soussusvlei: In case you were wondering, a vlei, , is the Afrikaans word for a marsh. Namibia’s vleis are salt and clay pans surrounded by high red sand dunes and they represent one of the country’s key tourist attractions. Most notably they are a photographers dream; the contrast of the dead blackened camel thorn trees against the red dunes and white pan floor provide a postcard picture every time.
Damaraland: Damaraland is probably one of the most scenic areas of Namibia and isn’t exactly your typical safari destination. It’s a vast wilderness area that plays host to populations of desert-adapted elephant and Rhino.
Swakopmund: Namibia’s capital of extreme sports provides ample opportunity to try your hand at sandboarding; sea kayaking with seals and dolphins; sky diving; dune buggying; quad biking through the desert; and shark fishing.
Sitting wedged between Mexico and Guatemala, Belize is fast becoming one of the most popular eco-tourism destinations in Central America alongside Costa Rica. Together with its pristine white-sand beaches and tropical jungles Belize offers some of the best scuba diving and snorkeling opportunities in the world; largely thanks to it being the home of longest barrier reef in the Western Hemisphere. Throw in a whole host of Mayan archeological sites and Belize has a fascinating allure for anyone with a sense for adventure.
Archeological Sites: For budding Indiana Jones’ Belize has an abundance of Mayan archeological sites including Lamanai archeological Reserve, San Ignacio, Altun Ha and Caracol Natural Monument Reservation. Belize’s Mayan culture was at its height from 300 to 900 AD and despite their age a number of large Mayan temples remain largely intact and ready to explore in their jungle setting.
Ocean Habitats: Where to start?! Belize is one of the best spots on earth to be a scuba diver or snorkeling fanatic. With sites such as the Hol Chan Marine Reserve, the Blue Hole and Turneffe Islands Atoll it’s no wonder that divers from around the world visit Belize. The Belize Barrier Reef spans an incredible 185 miles of the country’s coastline and the world-famous “Blue Hole” is visible from space.
Cockscomb Basin Wildlife Sanctuary and Jaguar Reserve: Recognized as the World’s first jaguar preserve, the Cockscomb Basin Wildlife Sanctuary (CBWS) is a stunning place for a day of hiking amongst crystal-clear waterfalls, mountain rainforests and an abundance of wildlife. Although the jaguars are predictably difficult to spot (they’re nocturnal after all) you’ll stand a chance of spotting puma, margay, jaguarundi, ocelot, wildcats, tapir and deer.
As I was writing this article, and trying to whittle down the list of destinations to five that I wanted to write about I found myself making tough choices between Botswana, Rwanda and Swaziland; all of which offer world-class wildlife opportunities. In the end it all came down to my shock that Botswana was on the list in the first place. With both Chobe National Park and the Okavango Delta within its borders I found it impossible not to write about Botswana. Both parks also offer a unique water-based safari experience that can be offered barely anywhere else on earth. So, what does Botswana have to offer I hear you ask:
The Okavanga Delta: The Delta provided me with one of the most memorable ‘get your hands dirty’ safaris I’ve ever been on. Joining the safari from Maun, we took (led by a local guide) a dug-out tree canoe three hours in to the delta for a three day safari experience (including digging out our own toilet) in the wilderness on one of the thousands of ‘islands’ that grow and then shrink (or disappear) across the delta during the wet and dry seasons. It truly is one of the best safari destinations in Africa.
Chobe National Park: One of my favorite safari destinations is Chobe. Located in the north of Botswana with the north-eastern section of the park bordering Zambia, Zimbabwe and Namibia, it is probably best known for having one of the highest concentrations of African Elephant anywhere on the continent. With easy access from Kasane International Airport and Livingstone Airport, it’s one of the most accessible wilderness areas in Africa. The park also offers a great chance for ‘multi-modal’ safari by land, boat or houseboat.
Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park: The Park is a vast wildlife preserve in the Kalahari Desert region of Botswana and South Africa, bordering Namibia to the west. Its stunning red dunes and dry rivers support a diverse array of wildlife including migrating herds of wildebeest and springbok, as well as predators like raptors and black-maned Kalahari lions.
One of the biggest benefits of visiting Kyrgyzstan is that as a destination it still isn’t really in the eye line of most tourists. Now whilst this might mean you won’t reap the ‘benefits’ of an established tourist trail and infrastructure, it does mean that your experience is more likely to be genuine, immersive and representative of life in the country. I spent two weeks hiking in the country’s Tien Shan mountain range and soon found myself being invited into yurts to sample the family’s fermented sheep milk balls (otherwise known as Kurut and not as ominous a story as it initially sounds). So what exactly does Kyrgyzstan have to offer tourists?
Lake Issyk Kul: This lake is by far the most popular tourist attraction in Kyrgyzstan. Located slap bang in the middle of the Tien Shan mountains it’s also the world’s 2nd largest saline lake (the largest being the Caspian Sea) and the 2nd largest alpine lake (the largest being Lake Titicaca). In addition to lounging on the lake’s many beaches the area is a gateway for hiking and skiing in the spectacular surrounding mountains.
Karakol: Hot springs (Ak-Suu and Altyn Arashan), trekking, mountain climbing, horseback riding and skiing (Karakol Ski Base) are all on offer in Karakol, which is located at the far end of Lake Issy Kul. Of all of the hotspots in Kyrgyzstan Karakol is probably the town with the most tourist appeal. Once all of the adventure activities have you tired out Karakol offers a wealth of cultural attractions such as the Karakol Historical Museum, Dungan Mosque and Slavyonski Bazar.
Adventure Sports and Activities: A somewhat ridiculous 94% of Kyrgyzstan is covered in mountains, so it’s no wonder that the country has been given the slogan “the Switzerland of Central Asia” (admittedly, I never said that it was a particularly catchy slogan). Anyhow, with so much undulation and stunning scenery it’s hardly a surprise that adventure activities play a prominent role in the country’s fledgling tourism industry. In addition to an abundance of trekking companies you’ll find plenty of options for white water rafting, skiing, mountain biking and horse riding. It’s an adventure lovers paradise!
Benin probably isn’t at the top of your bucket list! For myself, having visited too many times to count for work, I’ve had the chance to dig a little deeper into what the country has to offer. I can say with certainty that this tiny francophone country, sandwiched between Togo (west), Nigeria (east), Burkina Faso and Niger (north), is well worth a visit – particularly for the experienced Africa traveler looking to get off the beaten track. Benin’s highlights include:
Cotonou and Ganvié: Cotonou is Benin’s largest city, economic capital and seat of government (although the official capital is Porto-Novo). It’s also home to the country’s only international airport. Cotonou is also a great base from which to explore Ganvié, lovingly referred to as the ‘Venice of Africa’, which is the largest stilted water settlement in Africa and has been a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1996.
Pendjari and ‘W’ National Parks: They may not have the tourism infrastructure (or indeed the ease of access) of the big east or southern African national parks, but if you’re looking for a high-adventure safari in West Africa then you should look no further than Pendjari and W which support healthy populations of elephant, West African lions, African leopards, spotted hyena and North-West African cheetah as well as a similarly healthy dose of savannah-dwelling herbivores.
Ouidah: Ouidah is central to the history and culture of Benin for two reasons. The first is its central role in the slave trade between the 17th and 19th centuries. Over the course of that time it has been estimated that over 1,000,000 people were transported across the Atlantic originating from Oudiah beach. Ouidah is also notorious as the center of the Vodun (Voodoo) religion; making it the perfect place to visit for the annual Festival of Vodun every January. In summary, if you want to visit a voodoo temple filled with pythons then this is the place to do it!
Want to learn more about the countries featured in this month’s article? Be sure to head don over to takephotosleavefootprints.com!