Southern Africa’s incredible diversity makes people come back time and again. The wildlife viewing is world-class, but it’s the landscapes forming the backdrop of your trip that really set the region apart. Among Southern Africa’s top attractions is Victoria Falls, the world’s largest waterfall. Cape Town offers the perfect mix of cool urban vibe and natural beauty. Maloti-Drakensberg Park is a wild, pure and astonishingly scenic setting for walks and hikes. Here are 10 of the top places to visit in Southern Africa.
Kruger National Park, South Africa
Kruger National Park is one of Africa’s largest game reserves. At 20,000km2/7,722mi2, it’s the size of a small country such as Wales. So it’s not surprising that the variety of wildlife is amongst Africa’s best. Aside from the sought-after Big Five, lots of other creatures, both great and small, inhabit this vast ecosystem. You’ll be amazed by the number of species you’ll be able to check off. However, more important than the quantity of wildlife sightings is the quality. At Kruger, patient visitors are regularly rewarded with something special. It might be a mother cheetah teaching her cubs to hunt. Or two majestic kudu bulls fighting. Or it could be social interaction between the spotted hyenas that often den in roadside drainage lines.
Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe and Zambia
When you visit Victoria Falls, you’ll understand why it is one of the Seven Natural Wonders of the World. This is where the mighty Zambezi River, at 1.7km/1mi wide, tumbles down more than a hundred metres. The sheer power of this curtain of flowing water is likely to move you today, as it did David Livingstone when he first arrived here in 1855. Livingstone, a Scottish missionary and explorer, named the falls in honour of Queen Victoria. However, the local name is Mosi-oa-Tunya, or ‘the smoke that thunders’. It is this name that evokes an overwhelming sensation of being submerged in the roaring sound and mist of spray surrounding this World Heritage Site.
Cape Town, South Africa
Cape Town’s vibrant city life, melting pot of cultures and scenic beauty make it one of the top destinations in Southern Africa. Visit the Castle of Good Hope to learn about South Africa’s colonial past, enjoy some shopping at the V&A waterfront or swim with penguins on the Cape Peninsula. Table Mountain is the city’s most prominent landmark and its kilometre-high plateau offers sensational views in all directions. The super active can hike up the mountain, but there is also a rotating cableway that effortlessly gets you to the top in five minutes. Spend the day checking sights and experiences off your bucket list. End the day by indulging in a great meal and local wine at one of the city’s many top restaurants and vineyards.
For a true desert experience in style, look no further than Sossusvlei. Set in the southern Namib desert, the Sossusvlei area offers a picture-perfect combination of towering red dunes, other-worldly salt pans and desert-adapted wildlife. The most famous and photogenic site is Dead Vlei, a cracked pan whose surface is punctured by skeleton camel thorn trees. The scene might look a bit washed out at midday. The late afternoon is best. When the shadows lengthen over the parched soil, and the red hues of the surrounding dunes glow in the fading sunlight, it’s truly spectacular. Wildlife is scarce for obvious reasons but seeing a herd of gemsbok crossing the sandy dunes is a special sight. Although the area is remote and hot, the good roads and lodges make this a remarkably easy destination to access in Southern Africa.
Okavango Delta, Botswana
The Okavango Delta, one of the world’s largest inland water systems, is a maze of lagoons, channels and floating islands surrounded by the Kalahari Desert. This vast permanent oasis attracts large numbers of animals. Elephant, buffalo and lots of antelope thrive here, and predators are never far off. Moremi Game Reserve offers excellent wildlife viewing on land, but I love to explore the channels by mokoro. The silent, slow movement through the water is almost hypnotic. The low-level vantage point makes for some great photo opportunities such as a hippo yawning or a delicate jacana walking on waterlilies.
South Luangwa, Zambia
If you want an in-depth safari experience in Southern Africa, consider going to South Luangwa National Park. Although most iconic animals can be found here, it is not only about checking off the Big Five. The quality of the guiding is superb and there is a lot of emphasis on spending time out in the bush learning about almost everything. The highly qualified guides supplement the drives with bush walks. Seeing buffalo, elephant or any big predators on foot is not for the faint-hearted, so be prepared for the odd adrenaline rush. South Luangwa is great for night drives too. I saw a caracal pouncing on its prey, a leopard patrolling his territory, and two porcupines scurrying off in the distance, all in one evening.
Lake Malawi, Malawi
Friendly and off-the-beaten track, Malawi is dominated by a vast, scenic Rift Valley lake which shares its name. Hemmed in by towering mountains, and surrounded by sandy shores, the lake resembles an inland sea. But, for me, the warm, calm fresh waters make any activities so much easier and enjoyable than in the ocean. I love snorkelling here. The lake has an incredible amount of colourful fish, most of which are endemic to Malawi. Scuba diving is popular too and many of the lake-side lodges offer good, affordable courses. However, doing nothing is probably the most enjoyable thing to do in Malawi. Sit on the beach, read a book, and eat fresh fruit and fish. Maybe one day get up in time for that spectacular sunrise someone told you about.
Mana Pools National Park, Zimbabwe
Remote and rugged Mana Pools National Park, set on the south bank of the Zambezi River, is a great destination for the adventurous wildlife enthusiast. The best way to explore the park is on foot. However, be aware that there is a good population of wildlife around and encountering big animals is a real possibility. Canoe trips are also recommended. Hippos and crocodiles are everywhere. Dodging between them is one of the most important skills a river guide can possess. When you canoe the narrow channels that flank the main river, you might see anything. Paddling past a pride of lions approaching the water to drink was one of my most exciting wildlife encounters.
Maloti-Drakensberg Park, South Africa and Lesotho
Maloti-Drakensberg Park is composed of South Africa’s uKhahlamba-Drakensberg Park and the Lesotho’s more remote Sehlabathebe National Park. It protects the largest and highest mountain range in Southern Africa, and the hiking opportunities are incredible. I especially enjoy overnight hikes where you can stay in one of the many natural caves or overhangs that grace the slopes. Hiking groups need to be totally self-sufficient and good navigation skills are essential. Several resorts and lodges on the mountain’s foot slopes also offer easier day hikes to waterfalls and rock art sites.
Bazaruto Archipelago, Mozambique
Nothing beats a tropical island for true relaxation and getting away from it all. The Bazaruto Archipelago off the coast of Southern Mozambique comprises six islands known for their five-star lodges and idyllic coastline. Most people come to enjoy the sunshine and the turquoise waters of the Indian Ocean lapping on the white sandy beaches. But snorkelling, scuba-diving, horse riding and boat trips are also on offer for more active travellers. My favourite activity here is a sunset dhow cruise. Such a trip will take you back in time as these traditional Swahili vessels have sailed the Indian ocean for centuries.
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