In 2003, Craig and I set off on the backpacking adventure of a lifetime. Five months of independent travel from Uganda to South Africa.
Africa digs very long roots into your heart. Some of our best travel memories come from that trip. It wasn’t just the close encounters with the wildlife, the stunning scenery, and crazy adventures we had, but the beautiful people we met, who welcomed us in like family.
Today we’ve partnered with KLM airlines to share our bucket list items of things to do in Eastern and Southern Africa to help you with your Africa travel planning.
Actually, these are way more than travel bucket list things to do, these are awe-inspiring experiences that will give you stories to share around the campfire for the rest of your life.
1. Sit with the gorillas, Uganda
If you want an adventurous African experience then go on a trek through the Bwindi National Forest to sit and play with the gorillas for an hour.
Bwindi means impenetrable and you can certainly understand why as your guide hacks his way through the undergrowth with his machete; a machete that certainly comes in handy as a scare tactic when the gigantic silverback decides to charge you in an effort to mark his territory.
Whoaaa heart-thumping stuff and an incredible story to tell!
There is a whole lot more to Uganda then just gorilla treks. The people of this nation are so warm and friendly, and the mountainous countryside scenery is just spectacular to explore. And while there make sure you do highlight number three below!
2. Masai Mara safari, Kenya
This was the first safari game park we visited and so has the “first love” attachment for me.
The memory of riding through the savannah in an open-topped van is still strong in my mind.
Experiencing the plains dotted far and wide with zebra and wildebeest; giraffes loping by in the distance, stopping for lunch under the shade of an acacia; watching cheetahs on the hunt and seeing my first ever lion kill of a wildebeest in front of us will never leave me.
And then at night, we camped around the fire talking to a Masai warrior as he shared tales with us of life as a fierce nomadic warrior who fight lions and leopards with their bare hands.
Eye-bulging, jaw-dropping AWE!
3. White water raft the Nile River, Uganda
Wash away the dirt of the trek on the white water rapids of the Nile River at Jinja, the source of the world’s longest river.
These grade 5 rapids are a churning mass of white wash fear waiting to pick you up and flip you out. Serious adrenalin-pumping fun. There are eight sections of rapids on the 4 hour, 30 km section of the Nile River you raft. I was flipped 4 times. So.much.fun.
I’ll let you decide for yourself whether the charging silverback or the final grade 5 rapid “The Bad Place” gets your heart racing more.
If you’re wondering whether the Nile is better than the Zambezi for white water rafting, we asked our guides who had guided both, and they said both were very similar in fear and fun levels, although The Bad Place trumped it as the Ultimate Rapid.
I also think rafting the world’s longest river has an extra layer of cool to it.
4. Catch a Zanzibar sunset, Tanzania
Speak to anyone who has been to Zanzibar and they will reply, “Ahh, Yes Zanzibar!”
Their eyes will glaze over as their mind takes them to a place of paradise, where the sun fires up the night sky as it dips below the horizon and bids farewell to the traditional dhow that passes before it, and the passing travellers sipping their beers from the hammocks between two palm trees above the powdery white sand.
Once darkness becomes the dominant light source, they make their way to the beachside restaurants to sit on plastic chairs and gorge themselves on inexpensive and fresh seafood barbecued in the spices this island has always been famous for.
5. Chill out at Mayoka Village Nkhata Bay, Lake Malawi
We arrived at Nkhata Bay, on Lake Malawi, with the intentions of staying just a couple of days. It took us two weeks to finally, heels kicking, drag ourselves out from under the Mayoka’s spell and continue on our way.
Mayoka sits on the rocky headland of the Nkhata Bay down the end of a small, dusty track winding its way in from Nkhata Bay town. The water can only be reached by a scramble over the rocks or from a quick jump from your chalet’s balcony, that sits near to the water’s edge.
You can relax at Mayoka or explore the lake during the day through canoeing, fishing, snorkelling or swimming.
6. Sunrise on top of Sossusvlei, Namibia
Often referred to as the highest sand dunes in the world, Sossusvlei in the Namib Desert is definitely a place worth exploring on your Africa adventure.
Start the day with an early morning climb 85m up Dune 45 for a panoramic view of a spectacular sunrise that changes the colour of the shifting sands through varying shades of red.
After the sunrise, explore the surreal Deadvlei, a favourite for photographers for its white baked clay pan, dead camel thorn trees, and surrounding red dunes. An eerie oppressive heat sets in here by mid morning, which has you racing for the nearest exit.
If you have enough energy you can attempt the climb up the ridge of the 390m Big Daddy, reported to be the highest dune in the world. Why not roll all the way down its face into Deadvlei as we witnessed some people doing?
7. Climb Table Mountain, South Africa
In Cape Town, everything comes back to the mountains.
No matter where you stand in the surrounding areas of the city, your eyes are always drawn back to the imposing grandeur of Table Mountain and her sister’s Lions Head and Signal Hill standing stately above guarding the wealth of the metropolis below
We climbed Table Mountain starting from Kirstenbosch Gardens along a strenuous rocky path to the summit. The clouds, however, were not our friend on this day, obstructing all views and making it feel like a pointless exercise.
We caught the cable car down through the fog, disappointed for not having the experience we craved, but not loving her any less because of it.
There are many trails leading up Table Mountain – choose the one that suits your fitness level.
8. Animal viewing at night at Etosha National Park, Namibia
Etosha, meaning “Great White Place” is dominated by a massive dry salt pan which fills only if the rains are heavy and even then only holds water for a short time.
This temporary water in the Etosha Pan attracts impressive flocks of flamingos and the perennial springs along the edges of the Etosha Pan draw large concentrations of wildlife and birds.
Etosha is one of those parks known for night-time animal viewing around the waterholes. We, unfortunately, went during the wrong season – the rainy season. The best time to visit Etosha is from May to September.
We didn’t see many animals at the floodlit waterholes near our camp, as the animals had ample watering holes elsewhere in the park. We did, however, see a lot of animals during the day.
9. Addo Elephant Park, South Africa
Addo Elephant Park is growing and is increasing its borders and variety of animals.
Apart from running into hundreds of elephants as they go about their day eating, bathing, playing and chasing lion cubs around waterholes, you will see an abundance of antelope, warthog, zebra, lion, buffalo, and rhino.
The popular main rest camp of the park offers a wide variety of accommodation units to suit all tastes and budgets with plenty of activities to keep visitors busy.
A unique feature is the waterhole lookout point, floodlit at night, within the camp as well as the underground hide, allowing close encounters with wildlife at the waterhole.
We saw a Mumma elephant chase away a lion cub from the waterhole to protect her baby. Incredible. We also saw a herd of elephants enjoying a mud bath together. One of the best things I’ve ever seen!
10. Kruger National Park safari, South Africa
Kruger National Park is well known for having one of the best African wildlife viewing experiences. Kruger has all the African wild animals you could ever hope to see, including the Big 5.
After spending four months backpacking Africa and visiting many African game reserves, we finally saw two leopards and even the very rare wild dogs.
Kruger is massive so choose one area to stay at and base your drives near there. We found the Lower Sabie area to be the best for viewing. Bear in mind though that animals move with the wind.
Camping facilities and lodges at Kruger are superb. We found it the best place to take an organized night time safari drive.
If you are a thrill seeker, then I highly recommend a walking safari. Nothing beats walking freely around as a guest in the animal’s kingdom. We came frighteningly close to black rhino, and almost to lions except the big scaredy cats flew off into the distance. Yeah! Who’s the King now??
11. Experience Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe
The world’s biggest waterfall is probably on everybody’s bucket list. It’s a mesmerizing and beautiful place.
Victoria Falls is named a Place of Peace. I did not read the plaque that stated this until after I traipsed along her ridges with the feeling surrounding me that I was walking amongst a deeply spiritual and peaceful place.
When David Livingstone first walked out of the jungle and stumbled upon the falls he wrote, “On sights as beautiful as this, angels in their flights must have gazed.” 1.7km of gushing waterfall thundering into the deep gorge below is truly a sight worth gazing at.
Take time to let the spray from ‘Mosi-oa-Tunya’ soak into your skin. Walk up and down the cliff face, stand further back into the forest so you can see and feel her ‘smoke that thunders.’
We spent Christmas Day here in 2003 and it was so memorable. On Christmas Eve, we went on a boat cruise on the Zambezi River with some local Zimbabweans and then during the day sat beside her thundering smoke to a delicious lunch.
Make Vic Falls an experience, not just a badge of honour.
12. St Lucia Wetlands, South Africa
St Lucia is a small estuary town in the St Lucia wetlands in Zululand, South Africa. St Lucia wetlands is a world heritage site and is uniquely comprised of five ecosystems, at your doorstep to explore.
St Lucia is a very small town, full of relaxed charm, and completely in tune with its natural surroundings. We camped in the gardens by the river where hippos are known to frequently graze at night.
Not only that, hippos are often sighted roaming around town in the evening, eating from the gardens of the neighbourhood homes, or even walking down the street outside the local pub.
We spent our days crawling through the underbrush and lantana of the dune forests, getting dunked in the surf of the wild coastline, on the hunt for leopards in the wetlands, (having to settle for crocs instead), drive by hippo hunting at night, and invading isolated hippo pools known only to the locals. These free tours were hosted by our hostel Bibs.
The evenings were spent with other travellers enjoying cultural Zulu dancing shows put on by Bibs, games of volleyball at dusk by the banks of the rivers watched by the crowd of hippos and crocs, games of Frisbee golf, night time braais, drinks, and bonfire parties on the beach. Epic memories.
(*note – I don’t mean hunting literally. It just sounds better than stalking or searching for!)
13. Simon’s Town penguins, South Africa
Get up close and personal with a colony of penguins at Boulders Beach, Simon’s Town.
You wouldn’t think South Africa would have penguins until you swim in the ocean and realize that it’s certainly cold enough for them.
2,500 penguins live and play on the beach at Simon’s Town and you are allowed to hang out with them. If you are brave enough to swim in the freezing water, you can also play Marco Polo with them.
The penguins are unfazed by the tourists sitting amongst them on the rocks and are happy for you to get up close for a photo.
Boulder’s is a picturesque beach, with boardwalks for you to walk along to view the mating, nesting, and sunbathing penguins. Simon’s Town is on the Cape Peninsula not far from Cape Town.
I could write thousands of words on things to do in Eastern and Southern Africa. Have you been?