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Africa: Meet the people

For all its myriad natural wonders and abundant wildlife, it’s the people of Africa who are the real highlight. From a Maasai beadworker in Kenya and a Tanzanian savannah guide to a shark conservationist in South Africa, we meet some of the continent’s most charming characters

Africa: Meet the people
Shiferaw Asrat. Image: Emma Gregg

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ETHIOPIA

In 2015, the European Council on Tourism and Trade voted Ethiopia the world’s best tourism destination, citing its rich heritage and community-friendly tourism, which brings much-needed income to rural areas. In the Simien Mountains, a fragile World Heritage Site, an exciting new project is shaping up.

The eco-visionary: Shiferaw Asrat
Limalimo Lodge is the kind of grand design that would have Kevin McCloud furrowing his brows and delivering urgent pieces to camera. When I visit, it’s not yet complete. Founder Shiferaw Asrat, who runs local hillwalking company Simien Treks, and Julia Jeans, his English wife, have dozens of decisions to make: from restyling their dining room lampshades (the prototypes aren’t quite right) to making their green roofs and rammed earth walls less appetising to monkeys.

None of the construction team has built an eco-lodge before, so they’ve called in the experts. “Almost everything is hand-built by 200 local men and women, using eco-friendly techniques and technologies that are totally new to us,” says Shif. “We’ve been learning as we go.”

Undeterred by the hubbub, the first ‘test guests’ gamely pick their way past the carpenters and masons to admire the view. Limalimo’s location is superb. It’s perched like an eyrie in Ethiopia’s answer to the Grand Canyon. Below its deck, shaggy-furred gelada monkeys meander among wild Abyssinian rose bushes and nibble peacefully on rosehips. Beyond, crags recede into the distance like a tide.

Funding has come from African Wildlife Capital, which promotes nature-based tourism with conservation potential. Limalimo is the first locally owned and managed lodge it has supported. “I guided their executives in the mountains once,” says Shif. “Fortunately, they remembered me. That helped.” This is fascinating and unspoilt trekking country. “There are campsites, but they’re very basic,” he says. “This beautiful place deserves better.”

Shif seems to know everyone. As we drive through his home town of Debark, he stops every few metres to exchange greetings. “My father, who worked for the national parks authority, was somebody everyone loved and respected. He died when I was 18, and people transferred their affection onto me,” he says, modestly.

Instead of attending university, Shif cared for his mother and siblings, earning a living as a mountain guide and setting up Debark’s first internet cafe. A gentle, intelligent leader, he has helped other guides develop their careers. But it was always his dream to build an eco-lodge.

“I’ve spent time in Europe, so I know what city living is like,” he says. “When people come to a place like this, they don’t want to sleep in a hotel built of concrete blocks. They want to feel close to nature.

“The first thing I did when I was granted this land was plant hundreds of native trees. I wanted to feel that, even if Limalimo never got built, I’d have done something worthwhile.”

bigstory_Captain-Amsale-Gualu-2---credit-Ethiopian-Airlines_HRThe airline captain: Amsale Gualu Endegnanew
Ethiopia’s first female airline captain. To celebrate International Women’s Day earlier this year, she commanded an all-female crew on an Ethiopian Airlines flight from Addis Ababa to Kigali.

Who were your role models?
My parents. They encouraged me to have confidence. I was born in 1977 in Bahir Dar in northwest Ethiopia, the eldest of four children in a middle-class family. I always wanted to be a pilot. Our father would take us to the airport to see planes landing and taking off.

Is there a gender bias in Ethiopian society?
Yes, it’s deep-rooted, but I don’t feel I’ve faced any unfair competition during my career. What happened to the other candidates during selection and training, happened to me, too.

Youre a mother of three. Is it difficult to maintain a work-life balance?
It’s a matter of being psychologically prepared. I’ve learned to manage my time! Thankfully, my husband helps take care of our children.

Are you ambitious?
I didn’t set out to become Ethiopia’s first female captain — I just wanted to be a pilot. But now, I want to take my career as far as I can.

When young Ethiopian women ask your advice on how to succeed in a male-dominated industry, what do you say to them?
Keep trying. Believe that it’s possible.

How to do it: Ethiopian Airlines flies direct to Addis Ababa from Heathrow.
Cox & Kings offers an Ethiopian safari from £1,595 per person, including flights, transfers, two nights in Addis Ababa and three at Limalimo Lodge.

Scientist Meaghen McCord. Image: Nick Dimbleby

Scientist Meaghen McCord. Image: Nick Dimbleby

SOUTH AFRICA

Near the tip of South Africa, where the Atlantic and the Indian oceans meet, Emma goes snorkelling with sharks and undertakes an expedition foraging for chestnuts, mushrooms and seaweed.

The shark expert: Meaghen McCord
It’s rare for a snorkeller to be torn between looking up and looking down. But that’s exactly how I feel as I bob around in the indigo waters of the Indian Ocean on a grey day in July. Beneath me, bronze whaler sharks are circling. Meanwhile, in a boat a few metres away, something just as exciting is playing out.

I’m taking part in Land Rover’s Shoals of Agulhas Expedition, an overland adventure led by broadcaster Monty Halls along South Africa’s Wild Coast, following the famous Sardine Run. Every year, from May to July, gigantic sardine shoals up to nine miles in length and 131ft deep travel north from the cold southern oceans off South Africa’s Cape Point, to the warmer waters in the north.

Equipped with rugged vehicles and high-speed boats, we’re exploring the rolling seas where dolphins race, seals tumble and gannets dive like torpedoes as they feast on the seasonal abundance of fish.

Scientist Meaghen McCord (above), a member of the team, is aiming to capture, tag and release as many sharks as possible in order to analyse their behaviour. She’s been unlucky so far, but today, a bronze whaler — or copper shark — takes the bait.

“Very little is known about the movements of predators before, during and after the Sardine Run,” she says. Detailed information will help promote better management of shark species along this coast. “Most South Africans accept that, by swimming in the ocean, they’re visiting the homes of amazing animals. But some still have archaic views, like those who insist on deploying bather protection nets in KwaZulu Natal, for example.” Controversially, these nets take a heavy toll on marine life.

Meaghen runs the South Africa Shark Conservancy, which studies various aspects of marine ecology. She advises anyone hoping to dive the Sardine Run to do their research. “Look for responsible dive companies which help fund conservation,” she says. “[Sadly] some just regard shark tourism as a way to make money.”

How to do it: British Airways and South African Airways fly direct to South Africa from Heathrow. The next Land Rover Shoals of Agulhas Expedition will be in April/May 2017. Charlie Standing runs foraging tours in partnership with the Table Bay Hotel.

bigstory_EGREGG-SA-CPT-0123_HRThe urban forager: Charlie Standing
“I take people foraging in my home city, Cape Town. It’s an idea which grew out of my love of cooking and the outdoors. Some of my earliest memories are of collecting mussels off the rocks and fishing in tidal pools using makeshift rods with my dad. I also remember picking berries on my walk home from school and balancing in a loquat tree, gorging myself until my stomach hurt. I think foraging comes naturally to all of us, but in today’s urbanised world we seem to have lost touch with nature.

“Foraging gets easier with experience, but it’s also getting more competitive. A few years ago I might have overlooked a delight that’s everywhere in town because I didn’t know it was edible. These days, other foragers sometimes beat me to the chestnuts and porcini mushrooms [on offer].

“September is a good time to gather Cape pondweed for waterblommetjiebredie, a classic lamb stew. Our spring is also excellent for seaweed. I make kelp lasagne, using kelp instead of pasta. It’s mind-blowing how yummy it is.

“I’d love Cape Town to put more resources into encouraging people to grow their own produce. I know it seems idealistic, but we need more projects like Abalimi Bezekhaya Harvest of Hope, which empowers shack dwellers to grow organic vegetables, and Oranjezicht, a non-profit city farm established on a disused bowling green. It’s distressing to see local vegetable plots replaced with yet more shopping malls.

“Cape Town has a European feel, with a vibrant edge that’s very African. It’s a hub for creatives, dreamers and alternative thinkers. I’m a former stunt man and rigger; I used to make performing artists fly, Cirque du Soleil-style. My other lifelong passions are rock climbing and surfing. Nothing beats eating a delicious fully foraged (or homegrown) meal after a day in the mountains or on the sea.”

Gamnqoa Kukama. Image: Kuru Art

Gamnqoa Kukama. Image: Kuru Art

BOTSWANA

The contemporary artists
The San Bushmen have a heritage that can be traced back over 40,000 years. The rock paintings of their ancestors are the last traces of a way of life which no longer exists. Founded in 1990 in a remote village west of the Central Kalahari Game Reserve, Kuru Art is a grassroots project which nurtures the cultural identity of Naro San artists and helps them sell their work. Collectively, they use art to express their responses to the pressures of modern life and their respect for the natural world.

Gamnqoa Kukama
“I led a hunter-gatherer lifestyle and worked as a farm labourer before becoming an artist. My art enlivens the memories that I’d otherwise have lost.”

Ncaote Thama
“I don’t really know what art is; I just do it and find I like it. My late husband’s beautiful paintings intrigued and inspired me. My work tells of my love for the Kalahari.”

Coexae Bob (Enni)
“I was born in the 1930s, strongly rooted in the traditions and beliefs of the Kalahari San. Through my paintings, I share my knowledge of wildlife, domestic animals and medicinal plants.”

Kuru Art is in D’Kar, near Ghanzi. Companies which arrange trips to the Kalahari include Rainbow Tours and Botswana Specialists

Read more in the September 2016 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)