“All I wanted to do now was get back to Africa,” Hemingway once wrote. “We had not left it yet, but when I would wake in the night I would lie, listening, homesick for it already.” This longing is common among visitors to the dark continent. Scarred by poverty, war, disease, and other maladies, the real Africa is a paradox: All that is sad and beautiful meet there. It’s a destination said to be so vast and varied that it keeps luring tourists back for more. On a recent trip to the southern portion of the motherland I set out to discover why.
My first stop was Lesotho, which is landlocked by South Africa and unknown to most travelers. Its biggest resource is its people, the Basotho, who mostly reside in thatched huts and tend the land. They always have a smile to give and are willing to share the beauty of their slowly developing country. I set off on horseback to explore the mostly rural, rugged terrain characterized by breathtaking peaks and valleys, where I felt like I was trekking through uncharted territory. In the Jurassic period this open landscape was inhabited by the Lesothosaurus, whose footprints are among the country’s attractions.
Next I visited the monarchy of Swaziland, the smallest country in the Southern Hemisphere. There, life revolves around King Mswati III, who has 11 wives. I bumped into one of them at the local Pick ‘n’ Pay supermarket; her Mercedes was conveniently stationed outside. This proximity to royalty was evident at the annual Reed Dance for married women—an outdoor ceremony in which ladies attired in traditional dresses, carrying reeds, pay homage to his highness, who arrived on foot surrounded by his subjects. I waved coquettishly at him as he dashed by. Though he flashed me an equally flirtatious smile, the idea of being wife number 12 was a bit troubling, especially after I heard a strangely sensible explanation for polygamy from a local. “It makes for better service,” he said matter-of-factly. It was time to move on.
In Mozambique, along the Indian Ocean, I found miles of pristine beaches and waters that appear turquoise or jade depending on the ocean’s mood. This image of tranquility is deceiving, though. Mo, as residents call it, is still rebuilding after a devastating civil war that lasted from 1975 to 1992. But—judging from the Europeans who flock to the coastline to dive, snorkel, or simply relax—word of the country’s beauty is already out. The beach town Ponta do Ouro, on the southernmost tip of the country, proved to be an excellent starting point. There I rode over amazing sand dunes on a quad bike, melting the clutch in the process. As a consolation prize, I went dolphin watching on a rubber duck boat (a soft-bottomed inflatable boat great for riding waves) during high tide and saw a dozen dolphins swimming alongside. While I didn’t see elephants on my journey, this animal encounter proved memorable enough.
And although it’s been two months since my visit, much like Papa I still think about Africa every day and assure myself that I’ll return—someday.
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on September 13, 2005