Let's be honest, it's been something of an annus horribilis for Africa. Kenya, Mali and Algeria (and others) face ongoing security concerns and the Ebola virus has dominated headlines, while the Oscar Pistorius trial became another negative media circus, all making 2014 a year Africa would like to forget in a hurry.
Looking up in 2015?
While we all hope 2015 goes better for the continent, it's a sad but irrefutable fact that Africa has developed, of late, a predominantly negative aura. Am I going to launch into a blind faith defence of all things African? Absolutely not - we place our clients' safety above all else and would never, ever try to gloss over inherent issues in a destination. In fact, I'll even go further and say that some of Africa's current problems are self-inflicted. For instance, the South African government recently announced that parents travelling with children would now have to produce the child's birth certificate at customs - hardly the progressive policy of a country with a huge amount of attractions for families. After an outcry from travel companies and individuals the government are furiously backtracking, but it showed a remarkable short-sightedness on their behalf in the first place when tourist income is such a key economic factor.
Elsewhere the very importance of tourism itself has been part of the problem, a case in point being Somali Al-Shabaab terrorists who know perfectly well that in targeting tourist destinations in Nairobi and along Kenya's coast they are hitting the country's economy where it hurts most.
So do the problems of individual countries and regions mean the continent as a whole should be off limits? Of course not, but Africa does seem to suffer more than most from guilt by association. An example: we've had clients recently cancel trips to Cape Town in response to the Ebola virus, which is centred in parts of West Africa some 3,500 miles away. By comparison, when the SARS virus was at its height in Asia in 2003, we didn't have people refusing to travel to India, or to Japan, because of an outbreak in Hong Kong, a destination considerably closer and better connected to those other parts of the continent.
So what's to be done? Well, we're not going to single-handedly change perceptions overnight, but what we can do is point out the many magical and mercifully untroubled (fingers firmly crossed at this point) parts of a continent that has been Original Travel's favourite since we launched back in 2003.
Where to start?
Well, Kenya's tribulations have been to Tanzania's advantage. The other great East African destination is booming as people continue to enjoy the classic 'bush and beach' combination of superlative safari experiences dovetailing with stays on some of the greatest beaches and islands. Even Kenya itself received some good news this week with the removal of the Foreign & Commonwealth Office (FCO) advice against travel to parts of Nairobi hopefully signalling a welcome normalisation of the situation in the country.
Another nailed-on destination from which we receive invariably glowing feedback is Botswana - possibly the best honeymoon destination anywhere on the planet. This resolutely stable country is home to the natural miracle that is the Okavango Delta, the wetlands where lucky visitors get to see extraordinary wildlife while staying in incredibly luxurious lodges. By delicious and startling contrast, the stark Kalahari Desert can be explored with expert guides and there's the possibility of learning about, and from, some of the last surviving bushmen.
Neighbouring Namibia is another of Original Travel's all-time favourite destinations for many reasons but mainly because it's just that - original. This is the place to enjoy landscape - rather than wildlife - safaris in places like the Namib Desert, home to gigantic (by which I mean several hundred metres tall), vivid red sand dunes. A light aircraft safari along the Skeleton Coast (so-called because of the many bleached shipwrecks littering the beaches) with the famous Schoeman family is at the very brim of my own personal bucket list.
And then there's Zimbabwe, home to an arch-scumbag of a leader, but somewhere enjoying something of a rebirth. We take care not to work with anyone too closely connected to Mugabe, but in a country that has had a brutally hard time of it, staying in lodges that provide desperately needed local employment can only be a good thing. Not that we recommend Zimbabwe for purely charitable reasons - the country is home to arguably the very best safari guides in all Africa, sharing their knowledge on some of the finest national parks, such as Hwange and the incomparable Mana Pools on the banks of the Zambezi River. This is also the place to enjoy canoe safaris, one of the most exhilarating and adventurous of all African adventures.
On the other side of the river lies Zambia, somewhere we believe still remains criminally under-rated. This charming and beautiful country is the spiritual home of walking safaris, the best way to get up close (not too close, obvs) and personal with the wildlife that makes Africa, in the truest sense, unique. Zambia is also enjoying a raft of new luxury lodge openings that make it, for us, the African destination to watch in 2015.
The list goes on
There are trip of a lifetime opportunities to see gorillas and chimps in Uganda, Rwanda and Congo, and South Africa is just one of the world's greatest places to visit, with overnight flights and minimal time difference even making Cape Town a feasible (if extravagant) Big Short Break option. The malaria-free game reserves of the north are also unbeatable for families wanting to experience safari for the first time. Meanwhile, north eastern neighbour Mozambique is riding high since the civil war that ended in the early 90s. The hundreds of miles of white sand, beach-bordered coastline and islands are home to ridiculously romantic lodges and some spectacular dive sites. Across the water from Mozambique lies the brilliant (and slightly bonkers) island of Madagascar which is becoming one of the big destinations for us, and which again fits the 'original' bill in spades.
This, all before we even start on the magical Mediterranean destination of Morocco, possibly THE most popular Original Travel destination of them all. The North African experience is vastly different from the safari destinations of the East and South, but no less memorable. The sheer short haul exoticism of Fez and Marrakech, the expansive beauty of the Atlas Mountains and the wild and woolly coastal regions make for, quite simply, one of the most rewarding holiday experiences imaginable.
There are incredible new lodges opening, new flights into previously hard-to-reach places and new adventures to enjoy, so we encourage you to go to Africa. Not everywhere, nor without caution, but to the many and varied parts of the continent not affected by one misfortune or other, and which have provided more happy memories for Original Travel clients than anywhere else since we started the company.