An African safari had been on our bucket list for a long time. For some reason it just never happened. Perhaps it was the expensive airfare or perceived dangers of traveling the continent.
A little bit of research revealed there’s actually a lot of safe countries to visit in Africa. And thanks to generous donations from our wedding guests to our honeymoon fund, we no longer had an excuse not to go.
Side note: Africa ended up being our second honeymoon. The first was getting SCUBA certified in Honduras, our new favorite activity while traveling!
Planning the Trip
We began researching safaris in Southern Africa, which led to hours upon hours of reading blogs, news articles, travel guides and anything else we could find.
Eventually we decided it would be a mistake to only go on a safari. There was just too much that we wanted to see – majestic sand dunes of the Namib desert; rich wildlife and beautiful landscapes in Botswana; the “Big 5” in Kruger; the smoke that thunders in Victoria Falls; and the list goes on.
As a result, our itinerary expanded to include multiple countries and hundreds of miles to cover. The lack of reliable transit in the region meant there was only one option for making this happen: a road trip!
We looked into renting a vehicle and driving from place to place on our own. I’m convinced that this is the best way to travel Africa because of the freedom it allows you to explore.
However, a self-driving trip would require A LOT of planning, and we had less than a month to do it. So we opted instead to book an overland tour recommended by a friend.
What’s an overland tour? A small group excursion in an all-purpose 4×4 truck that has everything you need for several weeks of life on the road: tents, cooking supplies, storage lockers, electrical outlets and even a freezer. You set up camping tents at each destination, help the guide/driver cook meals and spend a lot of time on rugged, bumpy roads. Most overland tours also offer accommodated tours instead of camping. We used Tourradar, which is a great resource to find and compare different tours based on location, time of year and type of activities.
2,300 miles. 15 days. 6 national parks. 4 countries. 1 epic road trip!
From the starting point in Windhoek, Namibia we spent a full day on the road and crossed the border into Botswana. Our first stop: the Kalahari Desert. Here we visited a semi-nomadic hunter/gatherer tribe, the San people (also referred to as Bushmen).
The San people are believed to be the oldest population of modern humans on earth. That’s right, according to DNA studies they are THE FIRST HUMANS TO WALK THE PLANET. That means all of us, no matter where in the world we call home, can trace our lineage back to these people.
Several tribe members guided us on a bush walk with a translator to explain how they’ve lived entirely off the land for thousands of years, and continue to do so today. They showed us a variety of plants used for medicinal purposes, including pregnancy problems, arthritis, headaches, malaria, upset stomach, diarrhea, and others.
It was quite remarkable and made me question all the pharmaceutical drugs that I’ve been putting into my body the last 27 years. Why, for example, am I taking these malaria pills for 40 bucks a pop when I can simply chew on this plant?
We finished our stay in the desert with a traditional fire dancing ceremony in the evening.
Botswana has an incredibly rich and diverse wildlife population. In fact, more than 17% of the country is devoted to National Parks or Game Reserves!
The Okavango Delta is one of the most well known National Parks in Botswana and was recently inscribed on the UNESCO world heritage list in 2014. It’s a massive plain of grasslands that floods seasonally creating a lush animal habitat.
We stayed at Nguma Island Lodge, a secluded camp way off the grid. It’s about 45 minutes off the main road down a dirt road. Actually, “dirt road” is too generous. More like tire tracks winding through an unspoiled natural habitat. The lodge has fully equipped cabins as well as camping tents with cots set up inside. Staying in these tents was a luxury for us – we didn’t have to sleep on the ground!
My favorite activity was a full-day excursion of wildlife viewing and nature walks. We ventured into the Delta by riding in a mokoro, a dug-out wooden canoe propelled by a long pole.
The local people have used mokoros for hundreds of years as their primary mode of transportation to navigate the vast network of shallow waterways. It was very narrow and way too easy to tip over, but we were in capable hands. Our guide was born and raised in the Delta and has been using these canoes since before he could walk!
Our visit to the Delta also included several guided walks around the lodge and (motorized) boat rides for viewing vegetation and wildlife. We saw crocodiles, hippos, an array of birds and learned all about the inner workings of a termite mound (it’s a lot like the Disney movie A Bug’s Life).
Chobe National Park
Chobe is another gem in Botswana. This national park is home to the largest elephant population in the world!
Unsurprisingly, we saw lots of elephants in Chobe as well as other animals including the hippo, buffalo, antelope, crocodile, baboon, impala, giraffe, lion, mongoose and numerous bird species. The abundance of wildlife is largely due to Botswana’s heavy conservation efforts.
There is a complete ban on all hunting in the country and there is a strict “poach the poacher” policy. If a person is found poaching, the authorities will shoot to kill on the spot. No questions asked.
It sounds brutal, but you can’t argue with it’s effectiveness!
We stayed in Chobe for two days. Our game viewing included an afternoon/sunset boat cruise along the Chobe River and a game drive in a 4×4 vehicle. My favorites: watching an elephant play in the mud from a boat 10 feet away, and giraffes roaming for food up in the trees.
Crossing the border into Zimbabwe was a bit chaotic. They ran out of stamps for the dual visas and the queue in the immigration building was closer to a mob than a line. We survived nonetheless.
The most popular attraction in Zimbabwe, Victoria Falls, is also shared with its neighbor Zambia. The border runs directly through the falls and splits the two main cities: Zambia’s Livingstone and Zimbabwe’s aptly named Victoria Falls.
The Smoke That Thunders, as it’s called by the native population, is arguably the largest waterfall on earth. Niagara Falls and Iguazu Falls are also in the discussion, but it depends on what metric you look at. Regardless, it’s gigantic.
We spent several hours at Victoria Falls National Park on the Zimbabwe side. There is a walking path with 16 different viewpoints that leave you stunned in amazement. The sheer size and beauty of the falls is unlike anything I’ve ever seen.
It’s so powerful that the water crashing below creates a heavy mist that floats into the atmosphere (hence the name “The Smoke that Thunders”). It’s also the first time I’ve seen two separate rainbows crossing paths.
In addition to viewing the falls on foot, there are a number of activities in the area including a helicopter flight, river rafting, bungee jumping, hiking and you can even go for a swim in the devils pool.
Kruger National Park
This is where we saw the most wildlife in terms of quantity and variety. Kruger is South Africa’s largest and most famous national park for game viewing.
Thousands of visitors flock here in hopes of seeing the Big 5 of Africa: Buffalo, Elephant, Rhino, Lion and Leopard. While there are lots of other animals to see, these five seem to get all the attention. “Have you seen the Big 5 yet?” is a question we heard often during our visit.
We spent three nights at Nkambeni Safari Camp. It’s inside the park and completely surrounded by the natural habitat. One morning while taking a shower a buffalo rolls up about 15 feet away from me. One side of the shower is open air, so we have a clear view of each other. A staring contest ensues.
Suddenly, a rather frightening thought enters my mind: the only thing between me and that buffalo is an electric fence, and I don’t even know for sure if it works. Shower over.
Here is an overview of the game drives that we did in Kruger and the animals we saw:
Sunset Game Drive – White Rhino, Impala, Hippo, Antelope, Buffalo, Buzzard, Helmeted Guinea Fowl
Full day Game Drive – Lion, Elephant, Leopard, Buffalo, Zebra, Spotted Hyena, Giraffe, Blue Wildebeest, Hippo, Vulture, Baboon, Vervet Monkey, Warthog, Mongoose, Eagle Owl, Water Buck, Antelope, Impala, Helmeted Guinea Fowl, Parasite Bird
Morning Game Drive – White Rhino, Leopard, Elephant, Buffalo, Giraffe, Water Buck, Dwarf Mongoose, Vervet Monkey, Tortoise, Spotted Hyena, Ground Hornbill, Blue Wildebeest, Zebra
It can be a little unnerving at first to watch a powerful, potentially deadly animal like a lion or leopard casually roam around your vehicle. Will they attack us? Why doesn’t our vehicle scare them off?
One of our guides put it in perspective: for thousands of years humans have been killing these animals on foot for food and survival. In many African tribes, a male didn’t become a “man” until he had successfully killed a lion.
As a result it’s been coded in the animal’s DNA to recognize that a human on foot equals danger. Cars on the other hand? They haven’t been around for long and killing these animals is a rare occurrence nowadays. It’s for this reason that they don’t associate vehicles with danger.
We also spent a day outside of the park for a scenic drive along the Panorama Route. There are theee main stops along the route – God’s Window, Bourke’s Luck Potholes, and Three Rondavels Viewpoint. Each location showcases a unique landscape that makes for amazing pictures!
Our flight back to the States departed from Johannesburg, so we spent a day there before flying home. Most of our time was spent at the Apartheid Museum, which chronicles the 20th-century history of South Africa and it’s system of racial segregation.
It’s a sad, painful story, but also one of strength and inspiration. The museum dedicates an entire section to Nelson Mandela’s struggle to end racial segregation and also bring reconciliation in the post-apartheid era. It was interesting learning about his story and there was a number of video clips that provided a more personal look into the inspirational figure.