Beyond safaris, Africa offers myriad novel experiences for the traveller, whether it is flying over the Victoria Falls or standing in the hottest spot on earth with geysers. Some war-torn areas, which were previously no-go zones, are now peaceful enough to visit. These include the fiery lava lake of Mount Nyiragongo, in the far east of the Democratic Republic of Congo. You can climb to the top of the 3,470m active volcano in 51/2 hours and, from the mountain’s rim, look into the bubbling lake.
This itinerary is offered by travel company A2A Safaris, which started sending Asian travellers to Africa in 2002. Its co-founder Jose Cortes, who is based in Cape Town, says he has been crafting “ethnocentric” journeys and will roll out more next year.
“We supplement wildlife and nature-based safaris with exposure to tribes and, more recently, war-torn or ravaged areas which are once again peaceful and amazing places to visit,” he adds.
Another former place of conflict that has achieved stability is north-east Ethiopia, which is near the border with Eritrea. The area was a no-go zone during the Ethiopia-Eritrea war, which ended in 2000. Now, people go there to see the Danakhil Depression, which is billed as the hottest place on earth. The average year-round temperature is about 34.4 deg C and can go up to 50 deg C. The landscape, which lies about 125m below sea level, looks like an alien plain from another planet, dotted as it is with lava lakes, little geysers and salt pans.
Next year is a good time to visit because Singapore Airlines and Ethiopian Airlines expanded their codeshare agreement in April this year and there are now daily flights to the Ethiopian capital of Addis Ababa. From there, you can take a domestic flight to Mekele airport and drive to the Depression. Tour operator Lightfoot Travel, which recommends Ethiopia as one of the places to go in 2018, will tailor itineraries featuring attractions in Ethiopia, such as visits with the bull-jumping Hamer villagers, the underground churches in the town of Lalibela and opportunities to encounter rare Ethiopian wolves in Bale Mountain National Park. But if you must go on an African safari, there are more niche itineraries than ever. New tours are springing up that move beyond the touristy Big Five. For example, you could go to places such as Rwanda and Uganda to see up to 15 primate species – golden, blue and colobus monkeys included – in one safari.
Conservation-minded safaris are also gaining greater attention. For example, A2A Safaris runs “secret” tours to undisclosed areas in South Africa where rhinos are being studied and tagged. Clients will know where they are going only when they arrive in the country, to prevent illegal poachers from abusing the knowledge.
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The country is easy to love, with its wildlife, wines and inspiring reputation as a “rainbow nation” of many cultures seeking to be one people. Next year is the centenary of the anti-apartheid visionary Nelson Mandela, so there will be a celebratory air with two years of events from sports to the arts to honour his legacy. From March 26, Singapore Airlines will launch daily services to Cape Town, up from four weekly flights now.
The island is set in scintillating blue waters and combines historical interest with great natural beauty. It was on the spice and slave routes for traders from the African Great Lakes, Arabian Peninsula and India, which explains its fusion cuisine and mix of religions. Stone Town is a rueful reminder of slavery, with a church built on a former slave market. As for exploring nature, you will be spoilt for choice. Travellers can sail on a traditional dhow to capture the sunset and spy rare Zanzibar red colobus monkeys.
#5: Exotic Experiences
Fancy visiting the Titanic shipwreck in the middle of the North Atlantic Ocean? Well, do you have more than $100,000 to spare? Because you could technically dive there in a submersible, an underwater boat. You make the journey from the nearest town, which is St John’s on the Canadian island of Newfoundland, more than 600km from the wreck.
The trip from Singapore – which includes a submersible dive to the Titanic and a cabin on the dive support ship – will set you back $141,650, which is, apparently, the inflation-adjusted price of a first-class ticket on the doomed vessel which sank in 1912. When money is no object, travellers with deep pockets are chasing ever more adventurous itineraries. In fact, there is “nowhere too exotic or remote” for Singapore’s richest and most avid travellers, says Mr Chang Theng Hwee, founder of luxury travel company Country Holidays, which is behind the Titanic trip.
“They are looking for the ultimate or ‘wow’ experience in the most remote corners on Earth.”
His company started in 1994 by organising trips for students, mostly to Nepal. By 1996, he was sending clients on dreamy Antarctica cruises and soon started crafting bespoke itineraries for wealthy travellers that have included seven-continent odysseys and private jets. He is running another tour to southern Kazakhstan, to watch a rocket launch at an old Soviet cosmodrome. The six-day trip costs $4,880 and includes watching the spaceship launch from an observation platform, and sightseeing in Almaty, the largest Kazakh city. Exotic winter adventures include venturing deep into the Arctic Circle in search of the polar bear, or, on the higher end, cruising in a private superyacht with only family or friends, breaking through ice sheets and dining in the company of whales in Antarctica.
Eyos Expeditions, which creates bespoke cruises, led a party of 12 on a seven-day cruise on a chartered superyacht to Antarctica in January. Among the group of travellers was Ms Bernadette Rankine, the Singapore director for Bonhams, the fine art auctioneers and valuers.
She says: “A small group of friends and family onshore means that the feeling of wilderness is greater than when you share a beach and penguin colony with 100 people. We were the only people there.”
London-based luxury travel agent Scott Dunn, which has a Singapore office, also purveys bespoke experiences. The company’s recommendations include flying over New Zealand’s West Coast in a helicopter and gliding down to forage for lobsters, to be cooked on the spot.
Travel company Trafalgar has Italian itineraries that include a private dinner in a garden in the Vatican City after hours. It embeds insider food experiences with its guided holidays.
Or look for local experiences online. From the Airbnb Experiences site, you can book a swordplay lesson from a descendant of samurais for $88 in Japan, discover the world of Thai sacred tattoos (sakyant) for $81 and look for other experiences designed and led by local hosts.
If your budget is limited and you want intimate travel experiences, one way is to be friendly and tap local connections once there.
On a road trip to Sichuan, I asked a Tibetan villager if I could have tea at her traditional home. I was speaking to her as I was asking for directions. In the end, our party of three spent a lovely half-hour there as she fired up a wood-burning stove and filled our bowls with tea mixed with rich yak butter. She added doughy, yogurt-like grains, singing snatches of a Tibetan tune while we seemed to drift into a different country.