An astonishingly diverse region fused by its prolific wildlife, breathtaking landscapes and deeply rooted cultures, Southern Africa is Africa at its most memorable.
Southern Africa has some of Africa’s greatest safari destinations: Kruger, Chobe, Etosha, South Luangwa and the Okavango Delta. The sheer number of elephants, lions, leopards, hyenas, rhinos, buffaloes, antelope and myriad other species will quickly overwhelm your camera. Spot them on self-drives, guided wildlife drives or charter flights...and if that’s not up close and personal enough, what about the chance to track highly endangered black rhino...on foot? Or the chance to see the fabled black-maned lions of the Kalahari, or the desert elephants of Namibia? Or head to the Caprivi Strip, one of Africa's emerging wildlife destinations, before the rest of the world catches on.
There's famous Table Mountain rising high above Cape Town, that mighty gash hacked out of the earth’s surface at Fish River Canyon, and the desertscapes of the Kalahari, but the lonely rural tracks that take you out into an otherwise trackless wilderness are just as memorable. In Namibia, huge slabs of flat-topped granite rise from mists of wind-blown sand and swirling dust. And Zambian floodplains are dotted with acacia trees and flanked by escarpments of dense woodland. Want to see all the landscapes the region has to offer? Put aside a lifetime.
For insight into extraordinary rock art left by ancestors of the San, an ancient people whose origins lie in the Stone Age, visit Tsodilo Hills in Botswana and the extensive rock-art galleries in Namibia, South Africa and Zimbabwe. Learn about the cultural melting pot of Mozambique Island; watch Shona sculptors at work in Zimbabwe; prop up the bar at a shebeen in Soweto; or visit the highland villages of Lesotho. Southern Africa has so many different takes on African culture, both ancient and contemporary, that it can be difficult to know where to begin.
Namibia is Southern Africa's headquarters for adrenaline-pumping fun, but there’s adventure to be had all over the region. Sail by dhow past remote islands off Mozambique’s jagged coastline, abseil Livingstonia in Malawi, and try tackling the ferocious rapids down the Zambezi River or bungeeing from a bridge at Victoria Falls. In South Africa, the Garden Route with its old-growth forests offers shark-cage diving, surfing, skydiving, canoeing and kloofing (canyoning). But it's in Swakopmund in Namibia where you'll truly take off, with the stirring juxtaposition of sand dunes and Atlantic Ocean waves providing a splendid backdrop to so many acts of sheer joy.
These are our favorite local haunts, touristy spots, and hidden gems throughout Southern Africa.
For scenery, variety and density of animals, South Luangwa is the best park in Zambia and one of the most majestic in Africa. Impalas, pukus, waterbucks, giraffes and buffaloes wander on the wide-open plains; leopards, of which there are many in the park, hunt in the dense woodlands; herds of elephants wade through the marshes; and hippos munch serenely on Nile cabbage in the Luangwa River. The bird life is also tremendous: about 400 species have been recorded. The focal point is Mfuwe, an uninspiring though more prosperous than average village with shops as well as a petrol station and market. Around 1.8km further along is Mfuwe Gate, the main entrance to the park, where a bridge crosses the Luangwa River. Much of the park is inaccessible because of rains between November and April. All lodges/camps run excellent day or night wildlife drives and some have walking safaris (June to November). These activities are included in the rates charged by the upmarket places, while the cheaper lodges/camps can organise things with little notice. A three-hour morning or evening wildlife drive normally costs around US$40, while a wildlife walk is about US$50. The wide Luangwa River is the lifeblood of the park. It rises in the far northeast of Zambia, near the border with Malawi, and flows southward for 800km through the broad Luangwa Valley – an offshoot of the Great Rift Valley, which cuts through East and Southern Africa. It flows all year, and gets very shallow in the dry season (May to October) when vast midstream sandbanks are exposed – usually covered in groups of hippos or crocodiles basking in the sun. Steep exposed banks mean animals prefer to drink at the park’s numerous oxbow lagoons, formed as the river continually changes its course, and this is where wildlife viewing is often best, especially as the smaller water holes run dry. The park is famous for its herds of buffaloes, which are particularly large and dramatic when they congregate in the dry season and march en masse to the river to drink. Elephant numbers are also very healthy, even though ivory poaching in the 1980s had a dramatic effect on the population. Elephants are not at all skittish as they are very used to human activity and wildlife vehicles, especially around Mfuwe. This park is also a great place to see lions and leopards (especially on night drives), plus local species including Cookson’s wildebeest (an unusual light-coloured subspecies) and the endemic Thornicroft’s giraffe, distinguished from other giraffes by a dark neck pattern.
Location and unique flora combine to make these 5.28-sq-km botanical gardens among the most beautiful in the world. Gate 1, the main entrance at the Newlands end of the gardens, is where you’ll find the information centre, an excellent souvenir shop and the conservatory. Added for the garden's centenary in 2013, the popular Tree Canopy Walkway (informally known as the 'Boomslang', meaning tree snake) is a curvaceous steel and timber bridge that rises through the trees and provides amazing views. The gardens run free guided walks, or you can hire the MyGuide electronic gizmo (R40) to receive recorded information about the various plants you’ll pass on the signposted circular walks. More than 7000 of Southern Africa’s 22,000 plant species are grown here, including the Cape Floral Kingdom's famous fynbos (literally, 'fine bush'; primarily proteas, heaths and ericas). You’ll find a fragrance garden that has been elevated so you can more easily sample the scents of the plants; a Braille trail; a kopje (hill) planted with pelargoniums; a sculpture garden; a section devoted to 'useful' medicinal plants; two hiking trails up Table Mountain (Skeleton Gorge and Nursery Ravine); and the significant remains of Van Riebeeck's Hedge, the wild almond hedge planted by Jan van Riebeeck in 1660 to form the boundary of the Dutch outpost. The outdoor Summer Sunset Concerts, held here on Sundays between November and April, are a Cape Town institution. The gardens are a stop on the City Sightseeing bus. The quiet Gate 3 (aka Rycroft Gate) is the first you’ll come to if you approach the gardens up Rhodes Dr from the south. There are three cafes, including the excellent Kirstenbosch Tea Room.
Here on the Zimbabwe side of the falls you're in for a real treat. Some two-thirds of Victoria Falls are located here, including the main falls themselves, which flow spectacularly year-round. The walk is along the top of the gorge, following a path with various viewing points that open up to extraordinary front-on panoramas of these world-famous waterfalls. One of the most dramatic spots is the westernmost point known as Cataract View (just before you reach the David Livingstone statue), where steps lead down to outlooks of Devil's Cataract, a dramatic view of the falls often accompanied by a rainbow prism effect. Heading back eastwards takes you past multiples viewing points of the main falls, where you'll witness the drama with full 180 degree views. Another track leads to the aptly named Danger Point, where a sheer, unfenced 100m drop-off will rattle your nerves. From there, you can follow a side track for a view of the Victoria Falls Bridge. If you're here in April, you'll need to hire a raincoat and umbrella just inside the gates – you will get soaked! During a full moon (and just before and after), the park opens again in the evenings in order for visitors to see the amazing lunar rainbow; tickets cost an extra US$10. The falls are located around 1km from the town centre (just before the border to Zambia) crossing, so you can easily walk here. Payment is accepted in US dollars, euro, pound and rand, as well as Mastercard and Visa. At the entrance there's a series of detailed information boards, and a decent souvenir shop selling a good selection of cultural books. Here there's also the quality Rainforest Cafe, which is a good spot for food or a drink.
Do not leave Jo'burg without visiting Constitution Hill. One of South Africa's most important historical sites, the deeply moving and inspirational exhibitions here are split across four locations: the Old Fort, which dates from 1892 and was once a notorious prison for white males; the horrific Number Four Jail, reserved for nonwhite males; the Women's Jail; and the Awaiting Trial Block – now mostly demolished and replaced by the Constitutional Court. Tours depart on the hour and provide essential context. What you will hear and see will be shocking – the brutal facts of prisoners' incarceration here speak volumes. You will come away with an integral understanding of the legal and historical ramifications of the struggle. Many of the country’s high-profile political activists, including Nelson and Winnie Mandela and Mohandas (Mahatma) Gandhi, were once held here. Most tours last one hour and cover the Number Four Jail and Constitutional Court; tours at 10am and 1pm last two hours and cover all sections of the hill. After the tour you are free to wander around. If visiting with children ask directions to Play Africa, an interactive children's play facility in a previously unused section of the Old Fort. Also keep an eye out for regular concerts and cultural events hosted at Constitution Hill. There's a good cafe, called the Hill, inside the Old Fort.
This 77.5-sq-km section of Table Mountain National Park includes awesome scenery, fantastic walks, great birdwatching and often-deserted beaches. The reserve is commonly referred to as Cape Point, after its most dramatic (but less famous) promontory. Bookings are required for the two-day Cape of Good Hope Trail, a spectacular 33.8km circular route with one night spent in a basic hut. Contact the Buffelsfontein Visitor Centre for further details. Some 250 species of birds have been spotted here, including cormorants and a family of ostriches that hang out near the Cape of Good Hope promontory, the southwestern-most point of the continent. There are many bus tours to the reserve but, if you have the time, hiking or cycling through it is much more rewarding. Bear in mind, though, that there is minimal shade and that the weather can change quickly. It’s not a hard walk uphill, but if you’re feeling lazy take the Flying Dutchman Funicular, which runs up from beside the restaurant to the souvenir kiosk next to the old lighthouse (which dates from 1859). A 1km trail runs from here to its successor. It takes less than 30 minutes to walk along a spectacular ridgeway path to look down on the new lighthouse and the sheer cliffs plunging into the pounding ocean.
Sossusvlei, a large ephemeral pan, is set amid red sand dunes that tower up to 325m above the valley floor. It rarely contains any water, but when the Tsauchab River has gathered enough volume and momentum to push beyond the thirsty plains to the sand sea, it’s completely transformed. The normally cracked dry mud gives way to an ethereal blue-green lake, surrounded by greenery and attended by aquatic birdlife, as well as the usual sand-loving gemsboks, and ostriches. This sand probably originated in the Kalahari between three and five million years ago. It was washed down the Orange River and out to sea, where it was swept northward with the Benguela Current to be deposited along the coast. The best way to get the measure of this sandy sprawl is to climb a dune, as most people do. And of course, if you experience a sense of déjà vu here, don’t be surprised – Sossusvlei has appeared in many films and advertisements worldwide, and every story ever written about Namibia features a photo of it. At the end of the 65km 2WD road from Sesriem is the 2WD car park; only 4WDs can drive the last 4km into the Sossusvlei Pan itself. Visitors with lesser vehicles park at the 2WD car park and walk, hitch or catch the shuttle to cover the remaining distance. If you choose to walk, allot about 90 minutes, and carry enough water for a hot, sandy slog in the sun.
One of the most thrilling experiences – not only at the falls but in all of Africa – is the hair-raising journey to Livingstone Island. Here you will bathe in Devil's Pool – nature’s ultimate infinity pool, set directly on the edge of the Victoria Falls. You can leap into the pool and then poke your head over the edge to get an extraordinary view of the 100m drop. Here also you'll see the plaque marking the spot where David Livingstone first sighted the falls. You can only visit Livingstone Island as part of a tour, and swimming in Devil's Pool is only possible during the drier months, usually from the middle of August to mid January. Five trips depart daily by boat to Livingstone Island, from where you'll swim to Devil's Pools. When the water is low around October and November, you’re able to access it via walking across, but a guide is compulsory. Note that access to the island is closed from around March to May when the water levels are too high. Prices start at US$90 which includes a full English Breakfast, US$158 for lunch or US$133 for high tea, including alcohol.
This1400-sq-km park protects the five islands of the Bazaruto Archipelago, plus surrounding waters. Thanks to this protected status, and to the archipelago's relative isolation from the ravages of war on the mainland, nature bursts forth in full force, with dozens of bird species, including fish eagles and pink flamingos, plus red duikers, bushbucks and, especially on Benguera, Nile crocodiles. Dolphins swim through the clear waters, along with 2000 types of fish, plus loggerhead, leatherback and green turtles. Most intriguing are the elusive dugongs, who spend their days foraging among seagrass meadows around the archipelago. Living amid all the natural beauty are about 3500 Mozambicans who call the archipelago home. National-park entry fees are normally collected by the island hotels, and in advance by most Vilankulo-based dhow-safari operators. Park headquarters are located at Sitone, on the western side of Bazaruto Island. While fees for diving, walking and other activities within the archipelago have been approved in principle, they are not currently being enforced.
In terms of wildlife alone, Kruger is one of the world's greatest national parks. The diversity, density and sheer numbers of animals is almost unparalleled, and all of Africa's iconic safari species – elephant, lion, leopard, cheetah, rhino, buffalo, giraffe, hippo and zebra – live out their dramatic days here, along with a supporting cast of 137 other mammal species and more than 500 varieties of bird. The landscape is on a grand scale, stretching over 19,485 sq km, and though less in your face than the wildlife, it certainly has the power to charm. Beautiful granite kopjes (hills) pepper the bushveld in the south, the Lebombo Mountains rise from the savannah in the east and tropical forests cut across the far north. But what makes Kruger truly special is the access and opportunities it provides the visitor. A vast network of roads is there to explore on your own (incredibly), guided wildlife activities are everywhere and accommodation is both plentiful and great value.