“Ex Africa,” said Pliny the Elder, “semper aliquid novi.” Or, as conveniently translated by Karen Blixen and brought to our screens via Meryl Streep: “Out of Africa, always something new.” Really? Tell that to the tourism industry.
Think “holiday in Africa” and what springs to mind? Chances are, it involves lions, elephants or giraffes. Fair enough: Africa’s wildlife is, after all, pretty impressive. But how much do we hear about other options? Exploring the 11th-century stone ruins of Great Zimbabwe, say, or catching the glittering pan-African musical extravaganza at Malawi’s Festival of Stars?
There is, surely, no other continent so relentlessly defined – in tourism terms – by a single product. OK, so Antarctica means penguins and icebergs but, realistically, what else is there? Africa, meanwhile, has culture, history, architecture, cuisine, festivals, adventure sports, you name it. Yet every brochure cover or home page remains emblazoned with some combination of the “Big Five” and endless plains, with perhaps the odd photogenic tribal community thrown in.
Lions are to Africa what the Taj Mahal is to India. It’s a standard chicken-and-egg conundrum. Does wildlife dominate tourism in Africa simply because we’re obsessed with it? Or does our obsession reflect what the industry feeds us?
The allure of safari is understandable. Africa’s animals and landscapes embody the untamed – a primal quality now largely expunged from daily life but still tugging at our inner psyche. What’s more, they are emblematic of the past: a bygone age of pith helmets, mounted heads and, er, Robert Redford. Hence the sepia-tinting of much of today’s safari industry, from lodge decor to sundowners.
And what’s wrong with romanticising the past? Travel is, after all, about escape. Think American Wild West or Parisian Left Bank. Why should people on a hard-earned holiday have to endure warts-and-all expositions of modern reality? Especially as in Africa, this reality can be particularly troubling. But Africa is no more defined exclusively by famine and civil war than it is by lions and elephants.
This enormous, diverse continent comprises 54 countries, each one different. It is far too complex to capture in a single glib characterisation. In Europe, after all, we don’t conflate St Paul’s with the Danube or the Cotswolds with Barcelona.
And that’s the danger: because lions chasing zebras across the savanna looks pretty much the same, from Tanzania’s Serengeti to Botswana’s Okavango, we assume these destinations are much of a muchness. The emphasis on safari brings a tendency to homogenise Africa. If it’s Monday, it must be Namibia, or perhaps Zambia. Narnia, maybe.
Until we can see these countries as individual destinations offering more than just safari – put down our G&T, if you like, and step away from the campfire – then out of Africa, it seems, we can expect always something pretty much the same.