Nine Amazing Adventures to Add to a Trip to Southern Africa
By Jill Nawrocki on June 20th, 2016
Southern Africa is so much more than the country named for the region. While South Africa is a great place to get started, there are adventures to be had across the entire continent south of the Sahara. Whether you’re interested in culture, outdoor adventure, safaris or urban exploration, you’ll find it.
Whether you’re spending some time on the African continent now or planning a trip in the future, tagging one of these nine Southern Africa adventures onto a trip to the country of South Africa will add some culture, wildlife experiences and outdoor wonder to an already incredible journey, making a trip to the Mother Land all the more memorable.
It’s easy to get caught up in the energy and excitement the cities, but vacations are supposed to be about catching a little R & R too. Few Southern African experiences prove as rejuvenating as a traditional makoro trip on the Okavango Delta. The Okavango Delta is near Botswana’s modern city of Maun, and easily accessible from the country’s main tarred road between Kasane and Gaborone.
“The smooth waters, brilliant sunshine and sense of silence make it one of Southern Africa’s most peaceful natural encounters”
The Okavango Delta is the world’s largest inland delta, and it’s at its peak during the winter months of June, July and August, when the delta swells to three times its normal size and attracts hundreds of thousands of animals like giraffes, elephants, wildebeests, zebras and rhinos, which can often be seen on a makoro trip. These low-floating canoes are hand-carved from giant tree trunks and propelled by nothing more than a guide with a pole. The smooth waters, brilliant sunshine and sense of silence make it one of Southern Africa’s most peaceful natural encounters.
For a taste of true African culture, visit a Himba village in the Kunene Region of Namibia. Opuwo, near Namibia’s border with Angola, is the home of the Himba tribe, though most families live outside the town limits. This tiny population of cattle and goat herders is one of the last traditional tribes on the continent and arguably one of the most interesting, too, as families live in mud and dung huts alongside their animals.
“This tiny population of cattle and goat herders is one of the last traditional tribes on the continent …”
A well-informed guide makes visits to these rural homesteads an educational and enlightening experience. Travelers learn about daily life in this nomadic tribe first-hand, from the fascinating traditional dress, to handmade crafts, to the red ocher paint that covers Himba women’s bodies.
Travelers can hitchhike from Windhoek or take an organized combi from the capital, but traditional village tours need to be arranged with area hotels or with Queen Elizabeth, a Himba woman who often sells her crafts at the local petrol station and will take visitors to the village where she was raised, for a small fee.
White water rafting on the Zambezi, Africa’s fourth-longest river, is sure to get the heat racing and the adrenaline pumping. While flying is the quickest way to arrive, budget travelers in no rush can take the Intercape bus from Cape Town to Victoria Falls, Zambia. The ride is long (upwards of 20 hours), but unlike most buses in Africa, the Intercape offers reserved seats, air conditioning and a toilet, too.
Travelers can opt for a full-day or half-day adventure on these stage four and five rapids, which are not for the faint of heart. Land-loving travelers can instead opt to stay on shore, or combine the trip with a visit to Victoria Falls, which can be seen from the river.
Chobe National Park has the highest concentration of African elephants on the continent, which makes it an ideal place for wildlife sightings after the big game. Located near the four-corners meeting point of Namibia, Botswana, Zambia and Zimbabwe, it’s most easily accessible from Namibia or Zambia, but travelers can easily drive through Botswana from South Africa if Chobe will be the stop. Hitchhiking across the border is also no problem.
“Some 50,000 elephants roam Chobe’s plains…”
Some 50,000 elephants roam Chobe’s plains, along with lions, leopards, giraffes and other African game, and the area offers one of the most spectacular opportunities to spot these giant creatures in their natural habitat. There are plenty of luxury options for travelers willing to drop a dime—from extravagant luxury cottages to multi-day safaris in the reserve. But those on a budget can sleep on the cheap in campsites beyond park borders and explore the wonders of Chobe on self-guided tours.
Viewing Victoria Falls – Zimbabwe
This Natural Wonder puts Niagara Falls to shame at three times its height and roughly twice the width. With mist that rises over 1,300 feet above the rushing waters, visitors can see the spray from more than 30 miles away. But the view from up close is still the best, and definitely one of the most spectacular sights in Southern Africa. Visitors to the Zimbabwe side can help support local tourism in a struggling economy while taking in the view from atop the falls. Plus, Zimbabwe’s visa is about a quarter of the price of Zambia’s for American and UK citizens, making it a steal for foreign travelers.
The Victoria Falls airport in Zimbabwe is located just 18km away from Victoria Falls, but if you’re flying in, be warned: some travelers have reported having to bribe attendants with US dollars to receive luggage upon landing.
South Africa’s Cape Peninsula offers up a truly extraordinary experience that’s still close to the action and easy on the wallet. An easy drive from Cape Town, a tour of the Cape Peninsula offers travelers a chance to see African penguins, do some light hiking and experience one of the most beautiful views in the country. Situated within Table Mountain National Park, Cape Point is best known as the meeting point of the Indian and Atlantic Oceans (even though that’s not exactly true; the actual meeting point is farther east), while Cape of Good Hope is an unspoiled bird sanctuary where ornithology enthusiasts can check off rarities on their life lists.
“…Cape Peninsula offers travelers a chance to see African penguins…”
The Cape Peninsula is only about an hour from Cape Town. The Baz Bus offers a day trip that includes a short bike ride through the park, lunch, a visit to the penguins, a drive along the coast and a visit to Cape Peninsula. Travelers planning who are booking trips on the Baz Bus also get a discount on the day’s journey.
Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt were on to something when they opted to deliver their daughter Shilo in Namibia’s coastal town of Swakopmund. German influence lends this outdoor wonderland an international flair, in terms of both architecture and cuisine, but what makes Swakopmund an ideal add-on to a South Africa holiday is its outdoor adventures.
“…kayaking along the bay is a less popular, but amazing experience.”
From deep see fishing in the ice-cold Atlantic, to sky diving into the Namib desert, to dune-boarding down some of the largest sand dunes in the world, there are plenty of options for those eager to stretch their legs. While most activities are highly promoted in this tourist town, kayaking along the bay is a less popular, but amazing experience. The trip starts with a scenic ride along the Atlantic, past towering dunes and through colorful salt planes. And while that’s all worth the drive, it’s the hundreds of playful seals that aren’t afraid to get up close and personal that make this kayaking trip such uniquely Namibian experience.
Swakopmund is 175 miles west of Windhoek, the capital of Namibia. It’s easy to hitchhike from Cape Town north, otherwise, travelers can take the Intercape bus to Windhoek and hitchhike from there. (More often than not, for free.)
Pony Trekking – Lesotho
Known as the Kingdom in the Sky, Lesotho is a tiny land-locked country located within South Africa, and with the highest low elevation point in the world, it can be a serious test of strength just to get around. Perhaps that’s why pony trekking is this tiny, mountainous country’s most popular sport.
Treks take both novice and experienced riders on sure-footed Lesotho ponies through steep mountain passes and into villages of the Bosotho people, making the trip not just a breathtaking encounter with Lesotho’s natural beauty, but a memorable experience interacting with locals as well.
Maseru, the country’s capital and largest city, is 350 kms from Johannesburg. Travelers will need to take local transport, but will likely have an easy time finding others with cars traveling that way. If you’re in a time crunch, you can fly from Johannesburg to Moshoeshoe Airport, drive a rental car into the country (though be aware you will need written permission from the rental company), or take a bus from Johannesburg.
Snorkeling in Lake Malawi – Malawi
Aquariums can be great, but Southern Africa plays host to some of the most diverse marine life on the planet, which makes getting face to face with fishy friends in their natural habitat an ideal excursion in the area.
Lake Malawi, the third largest lake in Africa and the seventh largest lake in the world, contains over 11,500 square miles of fresh water. It’s home to several hundred species of fish found nowhere else on earth, which makes it a great stop for a truly unique underwater experience. Travelers looking to splash out can organize luxe day-long excursions into the open waters with local guides, but those on a budget can still get in on the action for cheap since most hostels and hotels offer guests free fins and masks for breathtaking swims closer to shore.
“It’s home to several hundred species of fish found nowhere else on earth…”
Unfortunately, the pristine lake’s placid waters are an ideal breading ground for snails that carry bilharzias, a chronic illness that impairs organ function. Luckily, it’s only found in certain areas of Lake Malawi and guides usually know where the risk is low and waters are safe.
Located on the eastern side of Southern Africa, Malawi is landlocked by Mozambique, Tanzania and Zambia. By far the easiest way to get there is to fly from Johannesburg to Lilongwe, though those planning extended overland travel can also get there (slowly) from South Africa by bus.