Below are some of the major travel highlights for Nile and Rift Valleys. For more in-depth attractions of each country on this route, click on the country names below or select a route to see the highlights on this section of the journey. Click on the icons below to focus on specific types of features (click again to return to all).
|In-depth highlights: Egypt, Sudan, Ethiopia, Kenya|
Highlights of Cairo - Nairobi
Cairo is Egypt's capital and Africa's largest city, with a population of over 15 million. Cairo is one of the world's oldest Islamic cities, founded initially in the 7th century after Arab armies entered Egypt. Cairo thrived in the following centuries under various dynasties and rulers including the Fatimids, Saladin, the Mamelukes and the Ottomans. Amidst the vast urban landscape of modern Cairo, much of this historical heritage remains with over 600 classified monuments. These include the 9th century Great Mosque of Ibn-Tulun, the 10th century Mosque of al-Azhar, Saldin's Citadel, the City of the Dead cemetery and the Ottoman Mosque of Mohammed Ali. The Egyptian Museum of Antiquities is a must-see - an incredible collection of relics and artefacts from Egypt's rich history dating back to 4000 BC, including the amazing Tutankhamen treasures.
UNESCO World Heritage Site: Historic Cairo
|The Egyptian Pyramids|
The Pyramids at Giza are without doubt one of the most extraordinary sights in the world, the only surviving of the Seven Ancient Wonders of the World. Built as tombs for the pharaohs of the Old Kingdom of Egypt, they served as a necropolis for Memphis, the capital in the 3rd millennium BC, and are a testament to the brilliance of its civilisation. The first stone pyramids were built at Saqqara for the pharaoh Djoser who ruled from around 2668 BC and at Maidum by Huni, the last pharaoh of the Third Dynasty. These are the oldest step pyramids in the world. The necropolis at Dahshur to the south was used by the pharaoh Snefru who founded the Fourth Dynasty and ruled from 2613 BC. He introduced the square-based pyramid seen at Giza and built the Red Pyramid and the Rhomboid (or Bent) Pyramid. At Giza, just south of Cairo, the pyramids reached their pinnacle - the Great Pyramid of Cheops, Snefru's son, is the largest at 145 metres high with a base of 232 metres while his successors built the Pyramids of Chephren and Mycerinus. Together with the Sphinx, a lion with a human head carved from rock, they form an astonishing and must-see site.
UNESCO World Heritage Site: Memphis and its Necropolis – the Pyramid Fields from Giza to Dahshur
|Temples at Dendara and Abydos|
North of Luxor are the impressive temples at Dendara and Abydos. The Temple of Hathor at Dendara is dedicated to the cow goddess of joy and sexual love. This beautifully preserved temple displays a Ptolemaic architectural style. Abydoa Temple is a shrine to Osiris, the god of the afterlife, and was an important place of pilgrimage for Egyptians. The temple displays many fine carved bas-reliefs.
Luxor, or Thebes as it was known then, was capital of Egypt during the Middle and New Kingdoms between 2134 and 1070 BC during the height of Egyptian power. What has been left behind are the most magnificent series of buildings, temples and relics in Egypt and some of the finest historical monuments in the world. On the west bank of the Nile at Luxor is 'Thebes of the Dead' where funerary temples and tombs of pharaohs and other dignitaries were built over 15 centuries. The most significant cemetery is the Valley of the Kings which contains the tombs of over 60 pharaohs, including the tomb of Tutankhamen discovered in 1922. A hillside entrance takes you underground to the burial chambers with the walls covered in brightly painted images and hieroglyphs. Other features in this area include the Colossi of Memnon, huge twin statues of Amenhotep III, and the Temple of Queen Hatshepsut, a monument to the only female pharaoh which has a spectacular setting and scale as well as finely detailed carvings. On the east bank of the Nile is 'Thebes of the Living' featuring the remarkable Luxor and Karnak Temples. The temples were dedicated to the gods Amon, Mut and Montu. Karnak Temple is an astonishing site, built over a period of 1,500 years. The Great Hypostyle Hall contains 134 columns in 16 rows, resembling papyrus stalks, each 23 metres high, and carved with scenes of the King worshipping Amon. The Luxor Museum is also well worth a visit, with an excellent display of relics from the temples and tombs of Thebes.
UNESCO World Heritage Site: Ancient Thebes with its Necropolis
A cruise along the Nile, the world's longest river, is one of the quintessential experiences of a trip to Egypt. Whether on a felucca sailing boat or a more luxury cruise boat, the trip usually travels from Luxor to Aswan (or in reverse) in southern Egypt. The cruise offers the chance to observe the traditional rural life along the riverbank, relax on one of the world's great rivers and visit two of the best preserved Ptolemaic temples, dating from the 3rd to the 1st centuries BC. The Temple of Horus at Edfu is the second largest in Egypt after Karnak Temple and is in excellent condition due to being covered in sand for centuries. It is notable for having its roof intact, elaborate reliefs, black granite falcon statues and its huge Pylon or Gateway, 79 metres wide and 35 metres high. Further upriver, the twin temple of Kom Ombo is dedicated to the falcon-headed god Horus and the crocodile god Sobek.
Aswan is Egypt's third largest and most southerly city. It's a laid back and relaxed city and had retained its feel as a frontier town between Arab Egypt and black Africa. Aswan has a wealth of attractions both within the city and as a base for exploring nearby. These include taking a felucca sailboat across to the Botanical Gardens on Lord Kitchener's Island, taking a camel ride to the abandoned Coptic Monastery of St. Simeon, exploring the Nubian bazaar through the back streets of the city and visiting the Aswan High Dam and the Unfinished Obelisk. The Temple of Isis at Philae is the most important historical monument close to Aswan. Constructed between the 4th century BC and the 3rd century AD, the temple was recently relocated to Agilika Island to preserve it from the rising waters of the Nile.
|Great Temple of Ramses II at Abu Simbel|
The Great Temple of Ramses II was built at Abu Simbel in the Nubian desert in the 13th century BC. The temple is guarded by four colossal statues of Ramses (each 20 metres high), one of Egypt's great pharaohs and known as the Great Builder, carved into the cliff face. They were buried in sand until being discovered in 1813 and 150 years later were in danger of being submerged due to the construction of the Aswan High Dam but a UNESCO project led to the relocation of the statues to higher ground overlooking Lake Nasser, now staring east at the rising sun.
UNESCO World Heritage Site: Nubian Monuments from Abu Simbel to Philae
|Temple of Amun at Gebel Barkal|
The temple and pyramid complexes along in the Nile in Sudan are evidence of the Napatan, Meroitic and Kushite civilisations that ruled here between 900 BC and AD 600. At Gebel Barkal, the Temple of Amun served as a religious centre for the Kush, mirroring Egyptian religious values. The temples are beautifully decorated and have hieroglyphic inscriptions, while the complex also includes tomb pyramids. Further north lie the Egyptian style Temple of Sulb near the village of Wawa and the Temple of Kawa near Dongola.
UNESCO World Heritage Site: Gebel Barkal and the Sites of the Napatan Region
|Pyramids at Meroe|
The royal city of Meroe was founded by the Kingdom of Kush, a major power from the 8th century B.C. to the 4th century A.D., whose empire extended from the Mediterranean to the heart of Africa. The pyramids at Meroe are the most impressive and well preserved in Sudan, but virtually deserted compared to their counterparts to the north in Egypt. The site also includes the remains of temples, domestic buildings and water management installations. South of Meroe lie the Lion Temple at Naqa and the palace at Musawwarat es-Sufra.
UNESCO World Heritage Site: Archaeological Sites of the Island of Meroe
Like the rest of the country, the capital Khartoum is as off the tourist trail as you can get, but is a fascinating city to explore. The old British colonial city lies on one side of the river and the sprawling town of Omdurman on the other. The market at Omdurman is one of the most interesting in Africa, both for its products and the sight of the Sufi Whirling Dervishes, who every afternoon dance to a religious frenzy. Elsewhere the Khalifa Museum is the best museum in Khartoum to discover Sudanese history. Khartoum is also the site where the Nile splits in two, to form the White Nile which heads south to Uganda and Lake Victoria and the Blue Nile which heads east to Ethiopia and Lake Tana.
The small town of Axum in the north of Ethiopia was once the capital of the Axumite Empire which flourished between the 1st century BC and the 7th century AD. The Axumites traded with Rome, Persia and India and was one of the great civilisations of its day. There are many historical sites in and around Axum dating from this time, most notably the stelae of the Axumite kings, giant granite obelisks marking their tombs. According to legend, Axum was also the birthplace and home of the Queen of Sheba in the 10th century BC and her son Menelik (fathered by King Solomon) returned from Jerusalem with the Ark of the Covenant. Ethiopians believe the Ark still resides in Axum, located in a building of the Church of St. Mary of Zion.
UNESCO World Heritage Site: Aksum
The Simien Mountains are one of the best trekking destinations in Africa, a stunning mountain range characterised by jagged peaks, huge gorges and panoramic views across the landscape from atop the escarpment that bisects the park. It is especially beautiful just after the wet season when the green landscape is at its most vivid. The National Park is home to some rare animals endemic to this region including the shaggy-haired gelada baboon (the highest-dwelling and most social primates on earth), the Walia ibex and the rare Ethiopian wolf. Some trips to Ethiopia include a brief period of trekking in the Simiens as a taster but longer, dedicated tours are available that comprise an 8-10 day trek from the town of Debark to Ras Dashen, at 4543 metres the fourth highest peak in Africa.
UNESCO World Heritage Site: Simien National Park
The rock-hewn churches of Lalibela are unquestionably one of the world's most extraordinary sites. Built in the 13th century by King Lalibela to create a 'New Jerusalem', the 11 churches in the village have been carved out of cliff faces, hillsides and into the ground with an incredible level of detail and beauty, on the exterior and interior. The most famous and beautiful is the crossed-shaped Bet Giorgis. Lalibela itself is today a small mountain village, isolated from the world and tourist masses, and the churches themselves are very much still in use, with priests, pilgrims and religious ceremonies regularly seen. The surrounding countryside contains more churches for exploration, such as Ashatan Maryam.
UNESCO World Heritage Site: Rock-Hewn Churches, Lalibela
The fortress-city of Fasil Ghebbi is located in the city of Gonder which was the imperial capital for over 200 years. It was built in the 16th and 17th centuries by King Fasilides and his successors. Known as The Royal Enclosure, the compound contains well preserved castles, palaces, a banquet hall, library, lion house and other buildings, the Gonderian architecture displaying Arab, Hindu and European influences. Nearby in Gonder lies Debre Berhan Selassie, a beautifully preserved 17th century church, and Fasilidas's Pool, which is filled with water and worshippers every year during the Timkat Festival.
UNESCO World Heritage Site: Fasil Ghebbi, Gondar Region
|Lake Tana Monasteries|
The islands and shores of Lake Tana contain numerous centuries old monasteries reached by boat trips from Bahir Dar. The monasteries were used as a refuge for emperors and their riches at times of upheaval and according to legend the Ark of the Covenant was kept here when Axum was under threat. Today the monasteries contain numerous religious treasures including Axumite crosses and manuscripts.
|Blue Nile Falls / Tississat Falls|
The Blue Nile originates in Lake Tana and 30 kilometres from its source it forms a 45 metre waterfall known as the Blue Nile Falls. Once second only in Africa to Victoria Falls in terms of magnitude, the construction of a nearby hydroelectric plant has dramatically reduced the Falls' volume. Nevertheless they are still an impressive site and with an evocative journey through villages and fields and over a 16th century Portuguese bridge to reach them, and barely a tourist in sight, they are well worth the visit.
The Omo Valley in southern Ethiopia offers the chance to meet the diverse and colourful tribes of the region, one of the best places in Africa to explore traditional lifestyles. Among the tribes are the pastoralist Mursi, whose women are famous for extending their lower lips with clay discs and men for stick fighting, the Karo known for their elaborate body painting, the photogenic Hamer with their ornate dress and hairstyles and the Konso, known for their beautifully constructed walled villages and stone terraces.
UNESCO World Heritage Site: Lower Valley of the Omo
|Lake Turkana National Parks|
The three national parks around Lake Turkana are stopovers for migrant waterfowl and major breeding grounds for the Nile crocodile, hippopotamus and a variety of venomous snakes while the Koobi Fora deposits are rich in mammalian, molluscan and other fossil remains.
UNESCO World Heritage Site: Lake Turkana National Parks
|Samburu/Laikipia National Reserve|
Samburu is one of Kenya's lesser known national parks, located north of Nairobi in desert bush with views of Mount Kenya. The Ewaso Ng'iro river runs through the reserve, which is home to numerous crocodiles and attracts the "red elephants of Samburu". Leopard sightings are common in the acacia trees that line the riverbank and in addition to the usual game, Samburu also hosts the rare Grevy's zebra, reticulated giraffe and the gerenuk antelope.
Mount Kenya is the second highest peak in Africa at 5199m. The trekking route up Mount Kenya has been described as more beautiful than that of Kilimanjaro. The trekking peak reached is Point Lenana at 4985m, higher are the technical peaks of Batian (5199m) and Nelion (5188m). For the less adventurous, the slopes of Mount Kenya makes for excellent hikes through grasslands, moorlands and dense forests.
UNESCO World Heritage Site: Mount Kenya National Park/Natural Forest
Lake Naivasha is a picturesque lake in the Great Rift Valley, that allows boat trips to view hippos and the abundant birdlife here, home to over 400 species. Nearby is Crescent Island Sanctuary where you can go on walking safari to view zebra, giraffe and wildebeest, Hell's Gate National Park for bike riding amidst spectacular canyons and hot springs and Elsamere, the former home of Joy Adamson of 'Born Free' fame, where you can learn about her life and work.
Lake Nakuru is a beautiful national park, best know for its huge population of pink flamingos which are attracted to the algae of its soda lake - one of the greatest bird spectacles on earth where entire portions of the lake can be turned pink due to the vast numbers. Over 400 other bird species are also resident here, including 13 globally threatened species and is a major nesting and breeding ground for great white pelicans. On dry land, it's an excellent place to view black and white rhinos, as well as buffalo, cheetah, lion, greater kudu, zebra and the endangered Rothschild giraffe.
UNESCO World Heritage Site: Kenya Lake System in the Great Rift Valley