‘Martian’ holidays in Africa
pace X founder Elon Musk will charge $100K for a ticket to Mars, without even guaranteeing that passengers will survive the trip. So, until the space race evolves to the point where we don’t end up like Matt Damon in ‘The Martian,’ best visit ‘extraterrestrial’ landscapes here on Planet Earth. In Africa, for example. The third largest continent in the world spreads out over more than 30 million square kilometres. Lush jungles coexist with deserts, mountains and vast meadows dotted with trees. Africa features every possible type of landscape, except Arctic ice shelves. The continent’s vibrant ecological diversity, extreme temperature and natural phenomena have shaped spaces that are out of this world.
The Ennedi towers pierce the Sahara, in one of the most remote locations in the planet. These sandstone pinnacles rise through the endless orange dunes, resembling a sunken wall. Only the most daredevil hikers venture into this hostile area (with no roads) to climb these legendary stone towers that have been worn away by erosion over the centuries.
Surrounded by rolling hills and deep craters, Lake Natron is just 50 centimetres deep, but the shallow water is caustic enough to burn the skin off animals that can’t bear the high alkaline levels. The sodium bicarbonate content preserves them perfectly, making the dead animals look like statues. Every year, the calmness in the dry and dusty meadow is broken by the 3 million flamingos that visit the area from June to November, during their mating season.
Africa’s incredibly lush vegetation flourishes in the 30,000 hectares of the Blyde River Canyon Nature Reserve, the third largest canyon in the world. The spectacular potholes occur where the river Treur meets the river Blyde and water has carved out intricate cylindrical basins in the canyon’s sandstone walls. Water runs in and out of the potholes that are named after Bourke, an unsuccessful prospector who hoped to find gold in the area.
Landscapes don’t get any less habitable than the sulphur springs of Dallol, in the Danakil Desert, a location often described as ‘Hell on Earth’. Dallol is one of the hottest points on earth, with temperatures above 50 ºC. It is also one of the lowest, driest and the place with the highest levels of tectonic activity. Any daredevils that make it to Dallol get to contemplate an apocalyptic landscape created by the changing combination of sulphur, iron oxide and other mineral deposits.
This ‘museum’ of whimsical sculptures is located in the Farafra depression, in a desert that is commonly known as the ‘Egyptian Alaska’ because of its chalk-white landscape. Sandstorms have created these limestone formations: huge mushroom shapes that could have been plucked out of a Star Wars set.
After crossing the arid lands inhabited by the Issa and Afar tribes, we reach the second saltiest lake in the world and the deepest point in Africa, with an altitude of 157 metres below sea level. Although the saline formations make it hard to get to and even though half the lake has evaporated into a chalky-white surface, you can still wade into the other half and float on the water.
Photographers love Namib-Naukluft National Park. Some 900 years ago, the climate dried up and cut river Tsauchab off from the valley known as Dead Vlei (dead lake). Temperatures were too hot for the trees to even dry. They simply scorched in the sun. The black skeletons of the acacias by the Big Daddy red dune, the highest in the desert (325 metres), form a barren sci-fi landscape.
This UNESCO World Heritage is called the stone forest for obvious reasons. The sharp limestone pinnacles that rise up to the sky and the karst towers have been eroded over millions of years. This impenetrable labyrinth made up of stone and deep gorges is located in a forest that can only be reached by crossing a small hanging bridge and navigating several natural pathways cut out in caves.