Six of Africa’s best festivals

Whether you prefer to dance in Botswana, have a beer in Namibia or chill out in Malawi, there’s a festival in Africa with your name on it. Here are six of the best to inspire your next overland adventure. By Nell Hofmeyr

Knysna Oyster Festival, South Africa

Where: Knysna
When: June

Forest marathon
Scores of people flock to the Pick n Pay Knysna Oyster Festival every year to take part in the marathons and MTB events. Picture: oysterfestival.co.za

Whether you make your way to this pretty Garden Route town along the highway or opt for a scenic detour such as Route 62 instead, a trip to the Knysna Oyster Festival is worth it for the drive alone. Recommended for sports fanatics, families and anyone in search of some wholesome fun, this annual 10-day celebration of the good life is a highlight in the Western Cape’s social calendar.

The main drawcards are the weekend cycle tour and marathons which cater for all ages and skill levels. If running and MTB aren’t your thing, there are also scuba diving, rugby and golf events guaranteed to get the blood pumping. All that exercise is bound to work up an appetite, so be sure to indulge in plenty of oysters while you’re there. Combine your festival experience with a memorable drive along the Knysna Forest 4×4 Trail in the heart of Garden Route National Park and you have a winning recipe for a winter getaway.

Also read: All you need to know about the Otter Trail

Festival of the Dhow countries/Zanzibar International Film Festival (Ziff)

Where: Stone Town, Zanzibar
When: July

a traditional dhow
The dhow is a familiar sight in the Indian Ocean. Used as trading vessels, they typically sport long, thin hulls and one or more masts with a settee sail. Picture: Seyemon, Flickr.

Hear the name Zanzibar and you think of exotic spices, old-world charm and lazy days spent on the island’s pristine beaches. But for one week in July, this tranquil holiday destination transforms into a vibrant hub of activity. If you’re looking for a reason to load up your 4×4 and embark on a journey of exploration, the largest cultural event in East Africa is just the ticket.

Unfolding at venues across Stone Town, the Festival of the Dhow Countries celebrates art – with a special focus on film – from Africa, the Indian Ocean islands, the Gulf States, Iran and India. What unites these countries is a shared connection with the dhow, an Arab sailing vessel that has come to symbolise the long history of trade and travel in these waters.

Guests turn out in their thousands for the occasion and it’s easy to see why: the various artworks and performances on show offer a rare opportunity to see Africa through the eyes of its top creative talent. Entertainment is a given, but the real prize is an enriched understanding of the continent and its people, which can only serve you well in future travels.

Also read: Tanzania: Karibu!

Lake of Stars, Malawi

Where: Lake Malawi
When: September

Lake of Star malawi
The stunning views along Lake Malawi ensure a laid-back festival atmosphere. Picture: @LakeofStars twitter.

Since it first began 16 years ago, this magical three-day music festival along the shores of Lake Malawi has achieved world renown. Visitors from far and wide make the trip each year, no doubt drawn in by the promise of top-quality music in an idyllic setting. With an eclectic line-up featuring local, regional and international artists, there’s something for everyone.

Recline under a palm tree in between performances, dip your toes in the azure waters or try your hand at a game of volleyball, one of the many fun activities on offer. Ample sunshine and the friendly hospitality of locals will leave you in no doubt as to why Malawi is known as the warm heart of Africa. Feel good knowing that your support not only helps put homegrown talent on the map but goes a long way towards uplifting local communities who benefit from the influx of tourism.

Also read: 15 things you want to know before you travel Malawi

Timkat Festival, Ethiopia

Where: Ethiopia
When: 19-21 January (starts 20th on leap years)

Timkat festival
Hundreds of Ethiopians gather at a sacred body of water to commemorate Christ’s baptism and lay down the tabot, a symbolic model of the Ark of Covenant. Picture: Ethiosports

Famous for its rugged terrain and awe-inspiring scenery, Ethiopia is an overlander’s paradise at any time of year. However, to truly know why it’s regarded as Africa’s most unique nation, it’s worthwhile visiting during Timkat festival, when thousands of locals spill into the streets to celebrate the Orthodox Christian Epiphany.

Watch with wonder as priests adorned in colourful robes lead masses of pilgrims in spirited processions marked by singing, chanting, clapping and prayer. A must-see moment is when, upon arriving at a sacred ritual site, priests dip their golden crosses in holy water to bless it before sprinkling the water on the people in commemoration of Christ’s baptism. This deeply spiritual ceremony is carried out countrywide, but for an especially atmospheric experience take a trip north to Lalibela, a village renowned for its ancient rock-hewn churches.

Also read: Ten reasons to visit Ethiopia

Oktoberfest

Where: Windhoek, Namibia
When: October

Oktoberfest Windhoek
Dressed to impress, a group of Oktoberfest Namibia attendees hit the dancefloor. Picture: @Windhoekbeer_UK, Twitter

The world’s largest volksfest (folk festival), held annually in Munich, has inspired countless tribute events across the globe. However, few can pull off a festival of this scale with as much flair as the Namibians, who strive to ensure that the Windhoek version is every bit as authentic as the original in Germany.

The programme runs the gamut of classic Oktoberfest activities from Stamm-sägen (Log-Sawing) and Bierstemmen (Beer-Lifting) to mechanical bull rides and demonstrations of the Schuhplattler, a traditional Bavarian folk dance.

Feast on bratwurst and pretzels, don your best dirndl (or lederhosen for men) and say prost! over a draught of “festbier”, brewed specifically for the occasion. For travellers wanting a taste of Namibian heritage, this jolly event offers a unique way to be immersed in local culture.

Also read: Not-to-be-missed activities Namibia

Kuru Dance Festival, Botswana

Where: Dqae Qare San Lodge
When: August (the weekend of the full moon)

Kuru Dance Festival
San dance groups clap and kick the dust while performing a traditional dance. Picture: Kuru Dance Festival Facebook.

Love the Kalahari? Time spent with its indigenous San people will surely make you love it even more. The Kuru Dance Festival is an annual event that brings together San groups from Botswana, Namibia and South Africa for a celebration of their shared heritage. Visitors are given a rare glimpse into the culture and customs of an ancient people, expressed through a magnificent display of song, dance and storytelling.

From rites of passage, puberty and courtship to hunting and trance healing, there’s a dance for every facet of life, each one performed with passion by different groups dressed in their traditional regalia.

The festival takes place at Dqae Qare Game Farm, the only San-owned farm in Botswana and a valued social enterprise that depends on outside support to help the local community stay afloat. Conveniently situated just off the A3, it’s a perfect stopover if you’re headed north for game viewing in dry season.

Also read: Out of the ordinary Botswana activities

What is your favourite festival in Africa? Tell us in the comments.

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