Africa’s most mind-blowing natural phenomena
This continent is home to some of the world's most incredible natural spectacles. We've picked the best
Colossal lakes of lava. Rainbows that manifest only on a full moon. Epic animal migrations scientists can barely explain. The continent of Africa is home to many of the most inexplicable natural wonders, each one a bewildering, bewitching, once-in-a-lifetime spectacle. Here’s a few of our most jaw-dropping favourites.
Trust us. A rainbow – that cheerful phenomenon of sunlight refracting and reflecting off countless airborne water droplets – is even more magical when observed at night. When the conditions are right, like at Victoria falls, on a full moon and a clear night around June-August, you can marvel as moonlight does its multicoloured dance in the epic spray of the tumbling Zambezi River. Photography barely does it justice – if you must snap, choose an ISO setting of 800 and a shutter speed of ten seconds. Or just stand and watch as nature takes a bow.
We’re going to go out on a limb and say you’ve never seen a tree-climbing lion. Indeed, this unlikely behaviour – given the king of beasts can weigh anything up to 500lbs – has only really been spotted in two locations, Tanzania’s Lake Manyara National Park and Uganda’s Queen Elizabeth National Park. Why do they do it? Nobody’s sure. Perhaps to catch a breeze on a hot day, avoid mosquitos, or eyeball delicious prey at a distance. Some experts hypothesise it’s purely a matter of local custom among lions – a pride thing, if you will.
Say what now? On the seabed near the southwest coast of Mauritius, off Le Morne Peninsular, you’ll find a dramatic 4,000 metre abyssal drop-off. From the air – you need a helicopter, but that can be arranged – it appears for all the world like a waterfall under the turquoise Indian Ocean. It’s not, in fact, a waterfall. Just the fine Mauritian sand and silt catching the sunlight as its slowly washed into the deep by prevailing oceanic currents. Extraordinarily pretty, in any case.
The largest herd migration on earth – it can be seen from space! – is a year-round phenomenon, as more than a million wildebeest, 300,000 zebra and assorted gazelles amble gracefully through the Serengeti in Tanzania into the Masai Mara in Kenya in search of fresh grass and drinking water. Along the way, thousands fall victim to hungry crocs, leopards and hyenas, while thousands more are born. And the migration never ends, it just runs in a vast geographic loop. Quite the circle of life.
In the Namib desert of Southern Africa, a bizarre phenomenon has foxed naturalists for years. That is fairy circles – round, evenly-spaced patches of barren earth amid the scrubby vegetation, which range from three to 20-odd metres in diameter. What’s going on? As local folklore would have it, the polka dot landscape is a legacy of an ancient god leaving footprints in the red earth. More recent suggestions are that it’s artefact of termites waging war underground, or possibly plant roots competing for water. Although scientific consensus on these circles remains spotty at best.
When seafarers from Arabia first dropped anchor off Madagascar a millennia ago, they reported that the devil had ripped the local giant trees out of the ground and replaced them upside-down. Fair enough. Baobabs – colossal members of the Mallow family – do look like their roots are waggling around in the air. Girth-wise they can measure 18 metres around – all the better to store water in a dusty climate – and 30 metres high. Some of the specimens along the famous avenue of Route Nationale N8 are 800 years old. After which time you’d look a little wonky too, probably.
Rejoice, lovers of flamboyant get togethers. Lake Nakuru’s resident flock of flamingos has returned, after being distressingly absent for much of the last decade. Thousands of those leggy lovelies touch down here in Kenya and feast on the region’s abundant insect larvae and microscopic algae, which – fun fact – is actually what lends flamingos their distinctive fuchsia hue. Rising water levels formerly forced them to feed elsewhere, but as it stands (on one leg, naturally) our favourite bird is back in the pink.
About three million years ago, give or take, a gigantic volcano – many believe bigger even than Kilimanjaro – erupted, and then collapsed. The result, after all the heat and toxic chemistry subsided, was one of the most breathtakingly scenic, and richly fertile, regions of Africa. The local name Ngorongoro is an onomatopoeic reference to cowbells, coined by Maori pastoralists who graze their cattle here, among many thousands of itinerant wildebeest and hominid footprints that pre-date even the eruption. Truly a natural wonder.
Every year around June and July – winter, remember, in the southern hemisphere – epic numbers of sardines (specifically Sardinops sagax) gather in great shoals many miles long and up to 30 metres deep to migrate en masse up the eastern coast of South Africa. This spectacle – comparable to the great wildebeest movements, in terms of biomass – is a mystery, in that it doesn’t do much for the fish, most of which wind up picked off by dolphins, sharks and seabirds, easily visible from boats and charter planes. Scientists seem to think the sardine run only occurs when oceanic temperatures drop below 21°C – ie, when it’s too cool for school.
For a bracing illustration of the raw fury of mother nature, behold Mount Nyiragongo, looming almost 3,500 metres above Virunga National Park in the Democratic Republic of Congo. At its heart lies a brooding lava lake – the world’s largest – that varies in depth and temperature but never disappears. On the hike up, which takes about six hours, you pass through monkey-populated forests, wander across dormant lava from old eruptions, and finally get a clear view into hell. It’s so hot right now.