Besides the staple reasons for visiting – safaris and birdwatching – there's nothing much you can't do in Southern Africa, from getting the blood running with adrenaline-fuelled craziness in Victoria Falls or Swakopmund to the more sedate pastime of fishing. Dive in!
Southern Africa is something of a gathering place for adrenaline nuts, and a range of weird and wonderful activities keeps them happily crazed. The top spots for extreme sports are Victoria Falls and Livingstone, while Swakopmund on Namibia's Atlantic Coast covers just about everything else. Otherwise, accessibility and infrastructure make South Africa the easiest destination to scare yourself silly.
- Bungee jumping off the Victoria Falls bridge are hourly occurrences, but the highest bridge bungee jump in the world (allegedly) can be found in South Africa at Bloukrans River Bridge; the bridge is 216m high...
- Swakopmund is the adventure capital of Namibia; sandboarding, skydiving and quad biking through the dunes are popular.
- South Africa is also one of the world’s top destinations for paragliding, particularly at Cape Town’s Table Mountain. The strongest thermals are from November to April.
Canoeing, Kayaking & White-Water Rafting
There are some fabulous opportunities across the region for canoeing and white-water rafting. South Africa and the Zambezi River in Zambia and Zimbabwe in particular are the epicentres for such pursuits. The best rafting months in Victoria Falls/Livingstone are from August to October during the dry season; the lower the Zambezi River is, the better the rapids.
While not really an activity you'll do yourself, sitting in a mokoro (wooden dugout canoe) while an expert poler punts through the watery channels of Botswana's Okavango Delta is pleasurable to say the least. And in Mozambique you can try a live-aboard dhow safari, in custom-built traditional wooden dhows.
- South Africa has many opportunities for canoeing and kayaking, especially at Garden Route National Park in the Western Cape, and the Senqu (Orange) River, particularly through Augrabies Falls National Park. There’s also some serene canoeing at the iSimangaliso Wetland Park.
- In Swaziland, the classic rafting destination is the Great Usutu River.
- The Zambezi River lures white-water rafters from around the globe to tackle its angry churn, and there are plenty of operators in Zimbabwe and Livingstone, Zambia; canoeing is also popular.
- Sea kayaking is popular in sporadic locations along the coast, while the lake variety is best experienced in Malawi at Cape Maclear and Nkhata Bay.
Diving & Snorkelling
Although not ranking among the world's best destinations for diving and snorkelling, there's plenty to pique your interest (including a dazzling array of marine life and hard and soft corals) and, especially in Mozambique, there are few more beautiful places on earth to give it a try. And the chances are you may just have it all to yourself.
- The best diving and snorkelling in the region is along the coast of Mozambique, particularly the Bazaruto Archipelago and Vilankulo, Ponta d’Ouro, Tofo, Pemba and the Quirimbas Archipelago. Quality equipment, instruction and certification are readily available at most of these locations.
- In South Africa, beginners should look to Sodwana Bay on KwaZulu-Natal's Elephant Coast. Port Elizabeth is another good choice.
- For a freshwater flutter, Lake Malawi offers some of the best lake snorkelling and diving in the world. There are good outfits in Nkhata Bay and Cape Maclear.
- Get your PADI open-water licence, swim among tropical fish or visit a WWI wreck on Lake Tanganyika in Zambia’s north; Ndole Bay Lodge is the place for all equipment etc.
Please consider the following tips when diving and help preserve the ecology and beauty of reefs:
- Never use anchors on the reef, and take care not to ground boats on coral.
- Avoid touching or standing on living marine organisms or dragging equipment across the reef. Polyps can be damaged by even the gentlest contact. If you must hold on to the reef, touch only exposed rock or dead coral.
- Be conscious of your fins. Even without contact, the surge from fin strokes near the reef can damage delicate organisms. Take care not to kick up clouds of sand, which can smother organisms.
- Practise and maintain proper buoyancy control. Major damage can be done by divers descending too quickly and colliding with the reef.
- Take great care in underwater caves. Spend as little time within them as possible as your air bubbles may be caught within the roof and thereby leave organisms high and dry. Take turns to inspect the interior of a small cave.
- Resist the temptation to collect or buy corals or shells or to loot marine archaeological sites (mainly shipwrecks).
- Ensure that you take home all your rubbish and any litter you may find as well. Plastics in particular are a serious threat to marine life.
- Do not feed fish.
- Minimise your disturbance of marine animals. Never ride on the back of turtles.
Southern Africa’s wild and varied coastline and wealth of rivers and lakes make for profitable fishing expeditions.
- In Zambia the tigerfish of the Lower Zambezi River give a good fight, but not as good as the vundu, a catfish weighing upwards of 45kg.
- Botswana's Okavango Panhandle is a renowned destination for anglers, with tigerfish, pike, barbel (catfish) and bream all possible.
- In South African parks and reserves, anglers fish for introduced trout; there are some particularly good highland streams in the Drakensberg.
- Lesotho is an insider’s tip among trout anglers. The nearest fishing area to Maseru is the Makhaleng River. Other places to fish are the Malibamat’so River near Oxbow; the Mokhotlong River in the northeast; and the Thaba-Tseka main dam.
- Mozambique’s coast is legendary among anglers, particularly in the south between Ponta d’Ouro and Inhassoro. Species you are likely to encounter include marlin, kingfish, tuna, sailfish and more.
- Namibia draws anglers from all over Southern Africa. Try the beaches north of Swakopmund, or fly-fishing in the Caprivi region.
Across Southern Africa there are many excellent opportunities for hiking, and this is one of the most popular activities in the region. Remember that conditions vary from country to country – in Namibia, most hikes are guided treks only, while independent trekking is more a feature elsewhere.
- Namibia’s Fish River Canyon is one of Africa’s most spectacular hikes, but proper gear, food, water and experience are musts. Other excellent Namibian trails include those in Waterberg National Park and Ugab River.
- In Malawi you can trek the scenic peaks of Mt Mulanje, the Zomba Plateau and the Nyika Plateau.
- Mozambique boasts beautiful vantage points to trek to but little infrastructure, so you’ll likely be on your own. A good place to start is the beautiful Chimanimani Mountains, with lovely scenery, a handful of basic campsites and an excellent new eco-camp. Also good is the country around Gurúè.
- South Africa’s undulating topography offers superb hiking opportunities. Among the best walks are: the Hoerikwaggo hiking trails of Table Mountain National Park, the five-day Whale Route in De Hoop Nature Reserve and the celebrated Otter Trail, a five-day journey along the Garden Route that needs to be booked months in advance. Some other notable South African hikes include the Tsitsikamma Trail, which runs parallel to the Otter Trail, KwaZulu-Natal’s Giant’s Cup Trail – up to five days in the southern Drakensberg – and Mpumalanga’s Blyde River Canyon Hiking Trail.
- Zambia's Mutinondo Wilderness is the pick of the country's hiking options (leaving aside, of course, the walking safaris in the country's national parks).
- In Zimbabwe, your best trails are in Chimanimani National Park and the Bvumba Mountains.
To help preserve the ecology and beauty of Southern Africa, consider the following tips when hiking.
- Carry out all your rubbish. Don’t overlook easily forgotten items, such as orange peel. Empty packaging should be stored in a dedicated rubbish bag. Carry out rubbish left by others.
- Never bury your rubbish: digging disturbs soil and ground cover and encourages erosion. Buried rubbish will likely be dug up by animals, who may be injured or poisoned by it. It may also take years to decompose.
- Minimise waste by taking minimal packaging and no more food than you will need. Take reusable containers.
- Sanitary napkins, tampons, condoms and toilet paper should be carried out despite the inconvenience. They burn and decompose poorly.
Human Waste Disposal
- Contamination of water sources by human faeces can lead to the transmission of all sorts of nasties. If there is no toilet, bury your waste. Dig a small hole 15cm deep and at least 100m from any watercourse. Cover the waste with soil and a rock. In snow, dig down to the soil.
- Don’t use detergents or toothpaste in or near watercourses, even if they are biodegradable.
- For personal washing, use biodegradable soap and a water container at least 50m away from the watercourse. Disperse the waste water widely to allow the soil to filter it fully.
- Wash cooking utensils 50m from watercourses using a scourer, sand or snow instead of detergent.
- Hillsides and mountain slopes, especially at high altitudes, are prone to erosion. Stick to existing trails and avoid short cuts.
- If a well-used trail passes through a mud patch, walk through the mud so as not to increase the size of the patch.
- Avoid removing plant life, which keeps topsoil in place.
Fires & Low-Impact Cooking
- Don’t depend on open fires for cooking. The cutting of wood for fires in popular hiking areas can cause rapid deforestation. Cook on a light-weight kerosene, alcohol or Shellite (white gas) stove, and avoid those powered by disposable butane gas canisters.
- If you are trekking in highland areas, ensure you have enough clothing so that fires are not a necessity for warmth.
- If you use local accommodation, select those places that do not use wood fires to heat water or cook food.
- Fires may be acceptable below the treeline in areas that get very few visitors. If you light a fire, use an existing fireplace. Don’t surround fires with rocks. Use only dead, fallen wood. Remember the adage ‘the bigger the fool, the bigger the fire’. Use minimal wood, just what you need for cooking. In huts, leave wood for the next person.
- Ensure that you fully extinguish a fire; spread the embers and flood them with water.
- Don’t buy items made from endangered species.
- Don’t attempt to exterminate animals in huts. In wild places, they are likely to be protected native animals.
- Discourage the presence of wildlife by not leaving food scraps behind you. Place gear out of reach and tie packs to rafters or trees.
- Do not feed the wildlife as this can lead to animals becoming dependent on handouts, to unbalanced populations and to diseases.
- Always seek permission to camp from landowners.
While desert areas of Southern Africa – especially parts of Namibia, Botswana and South Africa – offer a host of hiking opportunities, the conditions are quite different from those to which most visitors are accustomed. Take note of the following:
- In national parks, summer hiking is officially forbidden, and most hiking trails are closed from November or December to April or May.
- In the desert heat, hikers should carry 4L of water per person per day.
- Wear light-coloured and lightweight clothing, use a good sunscreen (at least UV Protection Factor 30) and never set off without a hat that shelters your neck and face from the direct sun.
- Rise before the sun and hike until the heat becomes oppressive. You may then want to rest through the heat of midday and begin again after about 3pm. (Note, however, that summer thunderstorms often brew up at around this time and may continue into the night.)
- During warmer months, it may also be worthwhile timing your hike with the full moon, which will allow you to hike at night.
- Never camp in canyons or dry riverbeds, and always keep to higher ground whenever there’s a risk of flash-flooding.
In South Africa it’s easy to find rides for all experience levels. Particularly good areas include the iSimangaliso Wetland Park. Riding is also an option in Zimbabwe's national parks, and on the beach in Mozambique, at Vilankulo and Tofo.
Dedicated horse-riding operations:
Horizon Horseback Adventures South Africa
Ride Botswana Botswana
Namibia Horse Safari Company Namibia
In the Saddle Safaris across the region
It goes without saying that a region so rich in hiking opportunities will have equally rewarding mountain-biking possibilities. Outside South Africa and the main tourist areas in the region, it’s relatively difficult to hire bikes, so you’d need to bring your own, which may deter all but the most dedicated mountain bikers. You can also hire local-style sit-up-and-beg steel roadsters. These are good for getting around towns (especially flat ones) or exploring rural areas at a leisurely pace.
- South Africa is littered with excellent biking trails; among the best are those in De Hoop Nature Reserve, with overnight and day trails, and Citrusdal, with a network of trails. Then there’s Cape Town, which is something of an unofficial national hub.
- In Malawi great mountain-biking areas include Nyika National Park and the Viphya Plateau. There's even the Luwawa International Mountain Bike Race in June.
Rock Climbing & Abseiling
South Africa is far and away the best place for rock climbers. It's not that other countries don't have excellent climbing venues; rather, it's only in South Africa that you'll find truly professional climbing outfits with all of the necessary equipment and experience.
- You'll find the best climbing at Table Mountain, the Cederberg, Montagu, the Drakensberg and Waterval Boven, near Nelspruit in Mpumalanga.
- In Malawi you can try abseiling around Manchewe Falls near Livingstonia.There is excellent and challenging climbing on the close-to-sheer faces of the KwaZulu-Natal Drakensberg in South Africa.
- Experienced climbers with their own equipment could also try the Spitzkoppe and the Brandberg in Namibia.
Surfing & Kitesurfing
Any surfer worth their wax is familiar with the legendary waves at J-Bay, better known to nonconverts as Jeffrey’s Bay. Situated on the Garden Route, the town’s choppy surf lures experts and amateurs from around the globe. South Africa also offers myriad less-celebrated alternatives, particularly along the Eastern Cape coast from Port Alfred northwards.
- Although undeveloped for surfers, Namibia’s Skeleton Coast is famous for rough waves and unspoilt beaches. This stretch is only for the seriously experienced and brave, though, with savage rips, icy water temperatures and the odd great white shark.
- Mozambique’s best waves are at Ponta d’Ouro in the far south of the country and (for skilled surfers) at Tofinho – Mozambique’s unofficial surfing capital, just south of Tofo.
- Kitesurfing is an increasingly popular pastime in Mozambique, especially in the north at Murrébuè, around 12km south of Pemba, and around Vilankulo.