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The other Africa Add to ...

One day in late January, I returned to the Exchange, my favourite bar in Nairobi, after a few fairly harrowing days reporting on the violence convulsing Kenya after disputed elections.

Ernest Hemingway used to drink here, when he came back to town from shooting up the country's wildlife, and it's a popular gathering place for both Kenyan movers and shakers and tourists, who gaze wide-eyed at the decor, a perfectly preserved evocation of the colonial era.

I was hoping I would score a leather wingback chair, or maybe the corner of the couch, but was prepared to end up on a stiff bar stool, as I have so many times before. The Exchange is usually jammed at 5 o'clock. I walked up the steps and - there was nobody.

Not only could I have a wingback chair, I could have had a whole sofa and a footstool. The one young man working behind the bar stared at me in disbelief before leaping to get me a gin and tonic. "Peanuts? Chips?" he asked as he put heaping bowls in front of me. "More ice? A double?"

This frenzy of hospitality, and the echoing halls the next day at the airport, where there was no sign of the sunburned hordes carrying bubble-wrapped wooden giraffes who usually jam the departures lounge, made me realize how hard the country's tourism industry has been hit by the political crisis.

Bookings in Kenya are down more than 80 per cent over last year. The tourism industry - normally worth $1-billion a year, the top earner of critical foreign exchange and the source of 17 per cent of the country's gross domestic product - is in ruins after governments (including Canada) issued travel warnings.

And the Exchange isn't the only place with seats to spare. When most Canadians think "holiday in Africa," they think Kenya. The very word "safari" comes from the Kiswahili for a journey. For many tourists, the country and the continent are indistinguishable; the Kenyan crisis has had an impact on the whole African travel industry.

So what does this mean for people hankering to see the elephants or keen to support African tourism?

For a start, don't necessarily rule out Kenya. There's new peace in the country - and bargain-basement prices. But if you're still skittish, take heart: There's a wealth of other vacation options on this vast continent. You can take both wildly opulent and budget safaris in South Africa. You can trek in the ancient cliff villages of Mali. Or sail a dhow in Zanzibar.

There is much more to Africa than Kenya, despite what Papa Hemingway may have led you to believe.

ZAMBIA

Let's start with the wildlife. The most intimate and enjoyable way to see the animals gets you out of the Land Rover and into that Canadian icon, the canoe.

In Zambia, you can take a four- or five-day canoe safari down the Zambezi River, paddling to within a metre of elephants chomping grass in the shallows. You will also learn to knock on the edge of the canoe so that hippos surface - you can thus paddle well clear, since the crabby and territorial river dwellers are responsible for more tourist deaths than any other species.

There is no feeling to compare with being on glassy waters in an amber dawn, gliding soundlessly up to a herd of buffalo, or past a solitary leopard lapping quickly at the water's edge.

You might also consider combining a river trip with a few days at one of the elegant but little-visited lodges in Zambia's Luangwa National Park. Zambia is incredibly safe, affordable and welcoming. And it's much less travelled than its East African counterparts.

TANZANIA

Tanzania has suffered a knock-on effect from the crisis next door in Kenya - bookings are down about 30 per cent compared with last year. But although tour operators say people spooked by the fighting tar all of East Africa with the same brush, all is calm and quiet here.

And gentle Tanzania boasts dozens of excellent tour companies offering traditional safaris: days in the Land Rover and nights in the luxurious lodge, sipping gin and tonic by the water hole. In fact, Kenya's famed Masai Mara reserve straddles the border with Tanzania, where it's called Serengeti National Park.

That means you can watch the legendary wildebeest migrations here. And trips departing from Arusha take in the astounding Ngororo Crater, the basin of an extinct volcano that teems with so much game it's like being in a cageless zoo - before plunging into the Serengeti. The Serena hotel chain, which operates many of Kenya's most alluring properties, also has lodges dotted across Tanzania.

It's also possible to combine a few days of game-viewing on the mainland with a trip to magical Zanzibar - the spice island is just a few hours away by ferry. Stay in one of the charming and affordable beachfront hotels, such as Mnarani Beach Cottages, where you can dive, snorkel, tour a plantation and learn about the island's tragic slaving history, all in easy reach.

SOUTH AFRICA

South Africa has not only the world's most luxurious lodges but also excellent options - just about the only ones in Africa - for budget safari seekers.

Take Kruger National Park. The flagship of a stellar national park system, Kruger is bigger than Wales, and visitors can cover all of it in self-drive safaris. And the park has accommodation for every taste. Want a safari tent lit by paraffin lanterns and just a thin fence between you and the lions? A cottage with a barbecue,

pool and Ping-Pong for the kids? Kruger has an abundance of those, and everything in

between.

The park is also staffed with knowledgeable guides who can take you on morning walks or evening game drives. Or try a three-day walking safari, which gets you up close to the lions and offers the chance to learn about the equally fascinating flora here - and the indigenous people whose traditional lands the park now covers.

While Kruger draws most of South Africa's guests, Addo Elephant Park is also worth considering. It's chockers with elephants, of course, but because it covers an area leading right up to the sea, it also offers a very different view of the great South African bush.

Here too, visitors can choose the lush lodge experience or book themselves into spotlessly maintained national park accommodations (which, in Addo, include charming old Cape Dutch farmhouses) and drive themselves.

The advantage of a holiday in South Africa is that you also can combine the animal adventures with other kinds - if you go to Addo, fly through Cape Town and tour Nelson Mandela's former prison cell on Robben Island and loll on the beach with the penguins at Simon's Town.

Or eat some of the world's best food in the village of Franschhoek in the Cape wine lands.

With the rand at more than seven to the dollar, a five-star dinner at Reuben's - food so good it will leave you near tears - costs about $50 these days.

MALI

If it's people, rather than animals, who draw you to Africa, think about a trip to Mali, in the heart of West Africa.

This is the home of the "desert blues," the steely sound made famous by the late Ali Farka Touré, and many of the musicians who played with him gather on Saturday nights in the bars of Bamako, jamming until the sun rises over the River Niger in a cool, mauve dawn.

From Bamako, head to the legendary cliff villages of Dogon Country. Clamber up the escarpment, called La Falaise, meander through the ancient houses carved into the rock and visit the sacred sites of the Dogon's vivid animist culture. It's easy to organize a hiking trip - of one day or a week, depending on how hardy you're feeling - through the hotels in Bandiagara, the last town before the cliffs.

When you've had your fill of Dogon dance, textiles and sculpture, you can also make the day-long, bone-shaking drive up to Timbuktu. Here, the ancient mud mosque is

undergoing painstaking

restoration, and eager librarians are happy to translate 1,000-year-old Islamic texts

for visitors.

All that said, let's not rule out Kenya.

Parliament is now debating a power-sharing deal that seems to have quelled the violence. Although hundreds of thousands of people remain displaced from their homes, transport and trade are quickly returning to normal. And in any case, as hoteliers will be at pains to tell you, not a single tourist was harmed in the fighting.

In many ways, there has never been a better time to visit: Prices have been slashed - in some cases up to 50 per cent - lodges are empty, and you may travel the lengths of the Serengeti without seeing another Land Rover.

And if you flake out in a seaside hammock in Lamu, your serenity will be marred only by the flock of eager waiters bearing cocktails - more than 30,000 Kenyans working in tourism have already lost their jobs, and those still employed are desperate to ensure that any brave tourist has a good time.

Stephanie Nolen is The Globe and Mail's Africa correspondent.

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