Before delving into some of the best landscapes, wildlife watching and cultural experiences on the continent, remember that together these countries make up a huge area, and even crossing overland between them requires careful planning.
Wildlife regions abound, with South Africa, Botswana and Zambia offering the greatest diversity and numbers. Incredible landscapes just seem to pop up, but Namibia’s north, the Kalahari, and South Africa’s Drakensberg – to name but a few – are the stuff of legend. Many of the countries offer access to some of the best galleries of San rock art in Africa, while cities such as Cape Town, Windhoek and Maputo provide opportunities to delve deeper into the cultural fabric of the region.
Delta & Desert
Two of the continent’s iconic landscapes, the shifting waters of the Okavango Delta and the vast emptiness of the Kalahari Desert, provide more than merely a backdrop to some of Africa’s best wildlife spectacles. These are remote lands of singular beauty.
One of the greatest wildlife-watching shows on earth, from black-maned Kalahari lions to the largest elephant population on the planet. Another highlight involves getting up close and personal with meerkats.
Lodges & Campsites
Botswana is renowned for having some of the most exclusive lodges in Africa with unimpeachable levels of luxury. For self-drivers, campsites are widespread and often outstanding. Put them together and you've one of the best safari accommodation scenes anywhere in Africa.
Malealea, Ramabanta and Semonkong wow adventurers, yet another case of Lesotho's power to surprise. Superb hiking and sturdy Basotho ponies take travellers to another level, as does Southern Africa's highest waterfall.
Traditional Basotho cultural life remains strong, and the art of the San people is present throughout the country; lowland craft villages produce weavings, and dancing and music abounds at Morija Arts & Cultural Festival.
Remote & Rugged
Sehlabathebe National Park is as remote as you can get, Ts'ehlanyane National Park as lush and rugged, while the central highlands afford intense on-road driving with extraordinary vistas. With so much to see, it's difficult to know how this tiny country crams it all in.
Diving & Kayaking
If lakes don't get you excited, that's because you've never been to Lake Malawi. Carved out by the Rift Valley, Lake Malawi is a bottle-green paradise swarming with fish and desert islands. It’s perfect for diving with crystal clear depths and the most diverse freshwater fish on the planet.
The otherworldly landscapes of the soaring Mulanje massif and Zomba Plateau are perfect places to trek, with decent cabins to stay in, well-marked trails and reliable guides.
Malawi is firmly back on the map with restocked parks throughout the country, reintroduced lions, elephant populations on the move, world-class safari lodges and excellent tour operators.
Beaches & Islands
From the pounding surf and windswept dunes of Ponta d'Ouro to the turquoise waters and white sand of the Quirimbas Archipelago, Mozambique offers some of the continent's best beaches.
Mozambique's cultures have returned with full force after years of suppression. Sample this vibrancy in Maputo, with dance, theatre and other cultural offerings.
Northern Mozambique is one of the continent's last adventure frontiers, with unspoiled beaches and islands, and trackless bush. Sail on a dhow to uninhabited islands, relax on pristine beaches or experience remote bush in the interior.
Namibia is Southern Africa’s headquarters for adrenaline-pumping fun. Shoot down a dune on a sandboard, fling yourself out of an aircraft or go camel-riding into a desert sunset. Most such adventures begin in Swakopmund.
Canyons & Deserts
Namibia is stunning – granite monoliths rise from the desert plains through mists of windblown sand and dust. The enormous gash hacked out of the planet at Fish River Canyon should not be missed, nor should Namib-Naukluft National Park, where the swirling sand dunes are mesmerising – silent, constantly shifting and gently hued in colour.
Etosha & Beyond
Etosha National Park has long been renowned as one of Africa's finest wildlife parks, and deservedly so. But there are some other brilliant places to see wildlife, among them the Caprivi Strip, Okonjima and Erindi.
Experience Indian-style curries in Durban, hearty meaty fare inland, seafood along the coast and Cape Malay cuisine in and around Cape Town. Wherever you go, it's possible to make great food a centrepiece of your visit.
Creatures Great & Small
The self-drive safari is South Africa’s wildlife-watching trump card. As well as its diverse wildlife, including the Big Five, it has enough birds to keep twitchers smiling for months. And with most of the parks accessible to most vehicles, it's one of Southern Africa's easiest places to get wild.
Lest We Forget
To understand South Africa, you must understand its recent past. Even small-town museums have an apartheid exhibit, while larger cities have vast spaces dedicated to documenting the country’s darkest era.
Handicrafts & Textiles
Outlets such as Manzini Market abound, its handicrafts and textiles supplied by rural sellers, while the Ezulwini and Malkerns Valleys have a well-earned reputation for their craft centres and markets.
Choose between Malolotja Nature Reserve's hiking and canopy tours; walks, mountain biking and horse riding in Mlilwane Wildlife Sancturay; Great Usutu River rafting; caving in Gobholo; and tracking black rhinos in Mkhaya.
Swaziland's ceremonies are famous; among them is the Umhlanga Dance, essentially a debutante ball for Swazi maidens. It's a fascinating spectacle, and one that goes to the heart of what makes Swaziland tick.
A wealth of animals and a network of bush camps make Zambia one of Africa's finest wildlife-watching destinations. South Luangwa National Park is the highlight, but there are many more, including Kafue, known for its leopards, and wild-out-west Liuwa Plains National Park.
Wild Africa Calls
Outside Lusaka, almost everywhere in Zambia is bush. Once you're out in the wild, the logistical hassles fade away as the raw beauty of the landscape takes over.
The world's largest waterfall assaults the senses: get drenched by the spray, fill your ears with its roar and feast your eyes on its magnificence. Raft the rapids, cruise the Zambezi or simply stand awestruck on the sidelines.
It doesn’t get much wilder than the parks of Zimbabwe. Hwange is home to one of the largest elephant populations in Africa, while Mana Pools offers unguided walking in a park with predators; recommended only for the bravest of souls.
Zimbabwe is the perfect base for some serious adrenaline rushes. Bungee off Victoria Falls bridge or tame the rapids on the Zambezi River.
Rock Art & Ruins
Landscapes of natural granite boulders in the Matobo National Park are the canvas for ancient rock paintings by the San people, while Great Zimbabwe is the site of the greatest medieval city in sub-Saharan Africa.