UNESCO (The United Nation’s Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation) runs a programme to protect and maintain places that are extremely important either for conservation of the environment or culturally important sites. These places are given UNESCO World Heritage Site status in order to protect them under international law and to be able to raise funds to help secure their protection for the future. There are currently 981 sites worldwide of which 759 are cultural and 193 are natural and 29 are both.
So how many are there in Africa? Well, there are an amazing 94 UNESCO World Heritage Sites and they range from all kinds of natural environment to incredible ancient cultural sites. Unsurprisingly really considering Africa is the birthplace of mankind and also home to some of the most diverse landscapes and wildlife on the planet.
In Southern Africa there are some incredible sites all worth visiting. In Zimbabwe you have Mana Pools National Park, the Great Zimbabwe Monument and of course shared with Zambia the world famous Mosi-oa-Tunya otherwise known as Victoria Falls. In South Africa you can visit various Humanid Fossil Sites or the stunning beautiful Drakensburg region. In Namibia there is the Namib Sand Sea with its enormous sand dunes and Twyfelfontein. In neighbouring Botswana its Tsodilo makes the list and in Malawi it’s the Lake Malawi National Park and the ancient rock art of Chongoni.
In Eastern Africa there are so many UNESCO World Heritage Sites you would have to return many times over to see them all. In Ethiopia there are the famous cultural sites of Lalibela, Aksum, the Omo Valley and Fasil Ghebbi in Gondar but did you know that the stunning Simien Mountains were also a world heritage site under UNESCO’s protection? Other cultural sites include Stone Town on Zanzibar, Fort Jesus in Mombasa, Lamu’s Old Town in Kenya and the rock art sites of Kondoa in Tanzania.
Of course East Africa is famous for its stunning scenery and much of this has world heritage status including the Ngorongoro Conservation Area, Serengeti National Park, Selous Game Reserve and Kilimanjaro National Park – and that’s just Tanzania. In Kenya the Great Lake region of the Rift Valley, Lake Turkana National Park and Mount Kenya National Park are all protected with this status. Over in neighbouring Uganda the Bwindi Impenetrable Forest National Park and the Rwenzori National Park are both world heritage sites as is the Virunga National Park in Rwanda. And last but not least one of our favourite destinations in Mozambique, the island of Mozambique itself has world heritage status.
In fact Africa has so many important sites that another umbrella group was set up to run the programme. The African World Heritage Fund (AWHF) is the first regional funding initiative within the framework of the UNESCO World Heritage Convention. Created in 2006 through a joint initiative by the Government of South Africa, the African Union and UNESCO, the African World Heritage Fund is an intergovernmental organization based in South Africa whose mission is to assist African countries in: increasing the number of African sites on the UNESCO World Heritage List, conserving and managing natural and cultural heritage, rehabilitating sites on the list of World Heritage in Danger, training heritage experts and site managers, and ensuring the participation of local communities in decisions concerning their heritage and to ensure that they receive tangible benefits from World Heritage. On Friday 31 January 2014, UNESCO joined forces with the African Union Commission to raise awareness and funds for the African World Heritage Fund (AWHF) during the African Union (AU) Heads of State luncheon at the AU Headquarters in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. Participants pledged a total of three million US dollars in support of the AWHF Endowment Fund.
It is good to know that these amazing beautiful and historic places are being actively protected and that future generations will be able to enjoy them and learn from them as we have. The only problem I have is trying to decide which one to visit next……….
Robert, one of our Directors, is just back from Tanzania and writes about his experiences of the Northern National Parks – Tarangire, Lake Manyara and the Ngorongoro Crater – as they wait for the dry season to end and bring much needed rain to the land and relief to the animals.
They certainly didn’t exaggerate about the number of elephants in Tarangire. Having never been to Tanzania in October at the end of the summer dry season, it was one of the things I was looking forward to. We’d only been through the National Park entrance gate for 10 minutes or so when the first group, a family of about ten, walked past. Let by a grand matriarch, and with a couple of youngsters being hurried along in the middle of the group, we stopped to let them cross the track as they head towards the river for a drink.
Later that day, on the afternoon game drive, we saw lots more as we explored the south of the park. Mostly in smaller groups, Hashim our guide explained that the big herds had split up because of the scarcity of water. I could see what he meant. The Tarangire River was down to the size of a stream and many of its tributaries had dried up completely, large holes dotting their beds where animals had dug in the sand looking for a drink.
One larger family, with about 15-20 members, walked alongside us for a while. They turned and crossed in front of us, heading for the marsh areas of the reserve, now seemingly little more than dusty plains. The larger elephants stopped and watched us as the youngsters crossed about 30 metres away, calmly but carefully watching us. Their caution was palpable and justified. Tarangire is an unfenced Park, the elephants travelling in corridors to other Parks and reserves, leaving them exposed to poachers whose activities have increased again given the ridiculous prices paid in Asia for Ivory. At least for now they were safe.
The landscape was brown and arid, hardly any green to be seen except on the top of a few trees where the vegetation was out of reach to the giraffes. Man smaller trees and shrubs had been pushed over by elephants as they searched for food. It made the game-viewing easy, with no tall grasses or bushes to obscure your view, and the large herds of buffalo throwing up large dust clouds as they moved on in search of water and grazing.
Lake Manyara: lush forest to dry foreshore.
Next stop was Lake Manyara National Park, only a couple of hours away along a good tarmac road. Its entrance is near the small town of Mto wa Mbu which appears out of the dusty plains like an oasis in the desert. Watered by streams that flow from the tall escarpment that dominate it, its fields and plantations grow maize, cereals, bananas, mangoes and many other crops that are sold in the nearby market.
We stopped and I was joined by a local guide, a young woman called Helen who was from the village and had just qualified from University as a guide. We wandered off into the fields, passing hamlets and houses, talking to women in the fields and children on their way back from school. I’m not a big one for cultural tours but this was excellent, a relaxed unobtrusive insight into the everyday life of these people. I ate a red banana, drank some banana beer and bought some mangoes in the market.
Entering into Manyara, the whole landscape was immediately different from Tarangire. Similarly to Mto wa Mbu, it lie on the floor of the Great Rift Valley, tucked up under the escarpment whose springs provide water even at the end of the dry season. I had the feel of a lush, tropical forest, with the birdsong to match. The track crossed numerous streams, each running through thick, green foliage and with a myriad of butterflies darting through the sunlight.
Spotting game is harder. We saw a small herd of buffalo carefully watching us from a safe distance. Some tiny dik-dik, a small antelope, grazed beside the waters, their bodies trembling with a nervous energy generated from being the bottom of the food chain. The bird life was spectacular, from eagles to bee eaters.
Stopping at a National Park picnic stop we ate our picnic lunch with a great view of the Lake in the distance and an array of small, colourful birds chirping enthusiastically for crumbs we ma drop (In Tanzania, unlike Kenya, vehicles have to stay on tracks n the National Parks and only stop a designated picnic spots. They are usually well sited, with tables provided and clean toilets.)
When we reached its shore, much of Lake Manyara looked like a white, salt pan. Its soda waters had receded to about a quarter of its normal size as it awaited the small rains of late October/early November. A line of wildebeest walked in single file along its shoreline, with a couple of giraffe standing out in the wide, open spaces alone, like solitary trees. Dust devils twisted their way across the landscape, pulling dust high into the sky. Behind it all rose the escarpment, the end of the Great Rift Valley in which we were standing, and the start of the Ngorongoro Highlands.
We returned to the gate via the lush forest, a contrast that makes Manyara, in my opinion, one of the most diverse. We forded a small river, waved enthusiastically as a bus load of local school children on a school outing, their shrieks of excitement as they hung from windows competing with the noise of the park and started the climb out of the Rift valley.
The Ngorongoro Crater: Brown grass and no shade for the panting game.
My last stop was the Ngorongoro Crater, no more than an Hour and a half from Manyara. At the entrance to the National Park is where the tarmac runs out. This is the road to the Serengeti and on to the Kenyan border and the Masai Mara. It’s a track the whole way, well maintained and graded, but slower than on the tarmac roads enjoyed to this point.
The weather had closed in, a thick cloud obscuring the sun and a light rain had fallen. We started the climb from the Park entrance towards the rim of the crater but came to a sharp stop in a traffic jam. I’m used to these on the motorways of the UK but half-way up an extinct volcano I rural Tanzania, it came as a bit of a surprise. We got out of our 4×4 safari vehicle and walked p the queue, meeting a large group of Masai, all carrying bags, coming towards us. It was their bus, they informed us. The rain had made the track too slippery for its worn tyres to grip on and it had slid into the gutter at the side of the road.
Looking up at the sound of excited voices, we saw their bus heading towards us, pushed by an enthusiastic crowd as it bumped its way along the raised bank. Lucky for them, Hashim remarked, that they were stuck on the uphill side of the road. The drop on the other was enough to get your eyes watering. It bounced past us, disappearing into the mist, and we resumed our journey.
At the edge of the Crater we turned back eastwards, driving in the mist around the rim until we found a less used access road in. It’s a 2,000 descent to the floor of the crater, and within moments of starting we dropped from the mist and had the whole Ngorongoro Crater before us. The cloud we’d been in sat on the southern edge, the rest was in brilliant sunshine. It was spectacular.
On the far side was the lake and the fertile marshlands watered by a spring and still green. It is this spring hat gives the crater its name. Used by the Masai to water their herds in the dry season, the long climb down and back up made the rough bells that the cattle wear constantly ring. The word “Ngorongoro” means this, roughly translated as “always ring and ring”. We passed German Hill, the location of ranch established by early settlers but long since vanished. Lions got up and stretched in front of us, distant rhino grassed in the northern marsh. As the heat grew, the animals slowed and stopped. With hardly any shade in the Crater they had nowhere to retreat to, so simply stopped moving. Wildebeest stood in groups, a hyena lay beside the track asleep, lions did what they did best – nothing at all.
A safari in Tanzania in October?
So, was it good to visit Tanzania on a safari holiday in October? It was excellent, different from my other trips. It was dry and dusty, rivers were low or dry, lake shrunken and the landscape brown. It was the image of a parched Africa and the game-viewing, unobstructed by foliage and grasses was excellent. I like rainy seasons normally, a couple of hours rain a small price to pay for experiencing the fresh, verdant landscapes as the plains spring to life. Game-viewing is more difficult, tracks become impassable, but I like the colour. Now I like this landscape too. And the elephants in Tarangire were worth the journey in themselves.