A lot of travelers tell us that they come to Africa the first time for the animals – and return for the people. That’s a testament to the warm, genuine hospitality on offer – but also the many different, but equally fascinating, cultures that can be experienced in Africa. This is a continent of storytellers, where myths and legends are passed down from generation to generation. We’ve drawn up a list of our favorite cultural experiences and historical sites in Africa, where you can encounter the wit, wisdom and living cultures of Africa at first hand.
The Himba people of northern Namibia (pictured above) have proudly retained their traditional way of life in a changing world. Despite being fiercely independent, they give a warm welcome to visitors. The Himba are some of the most distinctive people of southern Africa, with their clothing and hairstyles designed to suit their semi-nomadic, cattle-rearing lifestyle in arid areas. The Himba are best known for covering their skin in a paste made from butterfat and ochre, which protects them from the sun and gives their skin an unmistakable reddish tinge. A visit to a Himba village is certain to be an eye-opening experience – and could be eye-watering too if you witness a shamanic ritual around a smoky fire!
Samburu and Singing Wells, Kenya
The Samburu people are closely allied to the Maasai but are found in Kenya’s drier northern region where they are the most visible grouping in and around the National Park named after them. The Samburu are renowned both as cattle herders and as warriors, but these days their spears and short swords are more about cultural identity than looking for a fight. The small mirrors they carry (to admire their own beads and headdresses) see far more use! Finding water for their cattle is a Samburu preoccupation, and they call their cows to drink at hand-dug wells in dry river beds using hypnotic family songs that each herd seems to recognize.
San and Twyfelfontein Engravings, Namibia
Twyfelfontein, in Namibia’s Kunene Region, is home to one of Africa’s most remarkable collections of ancient rock engravings. The carvings, which are remarkably well-preserved, are estimated to be up to 6 000 years old, although there are also more recent carvings created by San Bushmen. The name ‘Twyfelfontein’ means ‘doubtful spring’ and despite the uncertain water supply, this area has been inhabited for millennia. The carvings (or petroglyphs) depict animals (perhaps for luck with hunting) and people – and mysterious figures that seem to be half-human, half-lion. There are even some surprising carvings, such as a penguin, which must mean that these early rock artists traveled as far as the Skeleton Coast.
Tanzania’s Hadzabe people are one of the last tribes in Africa still practicing a traditional hunter-gatherer lifestyle. Which is not to say that they’re primitive – far from it. Their hunting techniques are very advanced and enable them to live in areas that at first glance, seem rather inhospitable. If you get the chance to go on a hunt with the Hadzabe, you’ll need to be fit to keep up as everything happens at a fast jog. The way they use every part of what they find or catch – and share it out amongst the group – could teach us all a great deal about living more sustainably.
Maasai, Kenya & Tanzania
The tall, red-robed Maasai are perhaps the most familiar African tribespeople and are as much a part of the landscape of the Masai Mara and Serengeti as the vast migrating herds. It’s not uncommon to encounter a Maasai herdsman with his cattle in the Ngorongoro Crater, where they seem unperturbed by the presence of lions and other predators. Interaction with tourists has brought a great deal of change to the Maasai – not all of it positive. It’s important to choose carefully if you want to add a Maasai cultural experience to your African safari itinerary, but a cup of sweet, milky tea in a traditional Maasai manyatta is not to be missed!
The Berber people (of whom the nomadic Tuareg in the Sahara are perhaps the best-known example) have a long history in Morocco and other parts of North Africa. Their music and cuisine (think tajines and couscous) have had an influence far beyond their native lands, and they have succeeded in maintaining their traditions while still participating actively in trade with their fellow Moroccans and visitors from overseas. Berber jewelry and traditional, woven kilim carpets make wonderful souvenirs – and sharing a moment or two with the craftspeople who made them add an extra dimension to the bargaining experience. You could even return home with an intricate Berber henna ‘tattoo’.
Olduvai Gorge, Tanzania
Olduvai Gorge in Tanzania is one of the places where mankind began, in the sense that remarkable fossils of early humans – dating back almost two million years – have been found there. The fossil record suggests that modern humans and their predecessors have been living in this area almost continuously since then. Olduvai Gorge was first studied by the famous Leakey family, who found the well-known ‘Nutcracker Man’ skull (named for its strong teeth and jaws) amongst other fossils. Today you can visit the gorge to walk in the footsteps of our distant ancestors and view their stone tools in the small museum at the site.
Nswatugi Cave, Zimbabwe
Concealed within the beautiful Matobo Hills, Nswatugi Cave is one of several that contain an incredible array of Khoisan rock art. Perhaps the most famous illustration is the Hidden Lady, who can only be seen when a shadow is cast over her. Giraffes and different species of antelope are depicted in remarkable detail – a walk through the cave is like a game drive frozen in time! Not far away is World’s View, which as its names suggests, commands remarkable vistas. It’s where the famous (and nowadays, controversial) colonialist Cecil Rhodes (who founded De Beers and established the Rhodes Scholarship) is buried; he chose the spot himself.
Cradle of Humankind, South Africa
The Cradle of Humankind is just on the outskirts of Johannesburg, in South Africa’s Gauteng Province. It’s close to Lanseria airport, which means that you can enjoy the slightly surreal experience of descending into caves where early humans lived, while jets come into land overhead. The Cradle of Humankind is where the first recorded use of fire happened, and it’s still giving up its secrets, albeit gradually. In 2013, fossils of Homo Naledi, a previously unknown hominin, were discovered in the wonderfully named Rising Star Cave. The Maropeng Visitor Centre in the ‘Cradle’ is definitely worth a visit; children especially will find it fascinating.
Bushmans Kloof Rock Art
Bushmans Kloof is a wonderful nature reserve in South Africa’s Western Cape offering luxury accommodation, incredible stargazing, and the opportunity to explore the unique fynbos biome and look for rare Cape Mountain Zebra. Night drives in search of nocturnal wildlife are a specialty and as if that weren’t enough, you can also view one of the world’s largest galleries of rock art. The amazing images of San Bushman (who created them) and the animals and experiences that were most important to them are the equivalents of the Louvre or MOMA, and it’s impossible not to be impressed by the detail and artistic skill – and the fact that these delicate images have survived for thousands of years.
Looking for an immersive cultural experience in Africa? Reach out to us to begin designing your custom itinerary.