Southern Africa Travel Guide
Southern Africa is an evocative tapestry of landscapes, wildlife, and cultures. From the thundering might of Victoria Falls to the tranquil beaches of Mauritius, this region beckons with an irresistible allure.
Whether you're an intrepid traveler drawn to vast deserts and rugged mountains or a leisure seeker enticed by cosmopolitan cities and world-class vineyards, Southern Africa holds a promise of unforgettable moments and stories waiting to be written.
Discover our travel tips and articles for Southern Africa !
List of destinations in Southern Africa
Southern African Countries
Quick Facts About Southern Africa
- 15 countries and territories make up Southern Africa, including 2 French overseas territories (Réunion and Mayotte islands).
- Angola, with its vast expanse of land, is the largest country in the region.
- Eswatini, formerly known as Swaziland, is the smallest, yet brimming with rich traditions.
- Key geographic facts:
- Zambezi’s Majesty: The Zambezi River, one of Africa’s major rivers, snakes through several countries in the region before dramatically cascading over the iconic Victoria Falls.
- Desert Wonders: The Kalahari, stretching over Botswana, Namibia, and parts of South Africa, is a vast semi-arid sandy savanna. Meanwhile, the Namib Desert, with its towering dunes and haunting landscapes, is believed to be the world’s oldest desert.
- Okavango Delta: A unique inland delta located in Botswana, the Okavango River floods the plains but never finds its way to the sea, creating a haven for wildlife and forming a mesmerizing maze of islands and waterways.
- Island Paradises: Madagascar, the world’s fourth-largest island, offers unparalleled biodiversity. Mauritius and Comoros are idyllic spots with diverse ecosystems, coral reefs, and pristine beaches.
- Volcanic Marvel: Réunion Island is home to Piton de la Fournaise, one of the most active and studied volcanoes on Earth, often lighting up the skyline with its fiery eruptions.
- Salt Pans and Wetlands: Makgadikgadi Pans in Botswana are among the world’s largest salt flats, offering ethereal landscapes. Meanwhile, the Bangweulu Wetlands in Zambia are a vast freshwater expanse teeming with birds and wildlife.
- Mountain Ranges: The Drakensberg Mountains, meaning ‘Dragon Mountains’, are a formidable range with peaks rising over 3,000 meters in South Africa and Lesotho, offering hiking enthusiasts an elevated experience.
- Linguistic Diversity: Southern Africa is home to a multitude of languages. Major ones include Portuguese in Angola and Mozambique, English in Zambia, Zimbabwe, and South Africa, and Chichewa in Malawi.
- Colonial Influence: Due to historical ties, French is spoken in the islands of Réunion and Mayotte, while Dutch-inspired Afrikaans is prominent in South Africa.
- Christian Dominance: Christianity is the predominant religion, with significant followers in countries like Zambia, Zimbabwe, and South Africa.
- Islamic Presence: Islam is the major religion in the island nations of Comoros and Mayotte.
- Traditional Beliefs: Many countries in the region, such as Botswana and Madagascar, have a rich diversity of indigenous and traditional religious practices that coexist with major world religions.
Southern Africa, A Region of Many Records
- Majestic Waterfall: Victoria Falls, between Zambia and Zimbabwe, is considered the world’s largest waterfall by total area—creating a spray that can be seen from miles away.
- Inland Marvel: The Okavango Delta is the world’s largest inland delta, a unique ecological marvel teeming with wildlife.
- Rocky Wonders: Tsingy de Bemaraha in Madagascar is a UNESCO World Heritage site with a vast ‘forest’ of limestone pinnacles.
- Expansive Wildlife Habitat: Kruger National Park is one of Africa’s largest game reserves, boasting a vast number of species.
- Bird Watcher’s Dream: Bangweulu Wetlands in Zambia is one of the few places where one can spot the elusive and prehistoric-looking Shoebill bird.
- Tallest Sand Dunes: Namibia’s Sossusvlei claims some of the world’s highest sand dunes, offering a surreal red desert landscape.
- Breathtaking Canyon: The Blyde River Canyon is one of the largest canyons on Earth and undoubtedly the greenest, offering magnificent panoramic views.
- Underwater Paradise: Bazaruto Archipelago in Mozambique is renowned for its crystal-clear waters and thriving marine life, especially the endangered dugong.
- Volcanic Wonder: Réunion Island has two volcanoes, including the highly active Piton de la Fournaise.
- Desolate Beauty: The Skeleton Coast National Park in Namibia is famous for its shipwrecks, misty shores, and unique desert-adapted wildlife.
10 Handpicked Southern Africa Highlights
10 fantastic places and experiences in Southern Africa, in no particular order.
Victoria Falls: Dubbed “The Smoke that Thunders” in the local Tonga language, Victoria Falls is a testament to the power of nature. Straddling the borders of Zambia and Zimbabwe, the cascade is a spectacle of unparalleled beauty. Beyond the visual splendor, the area offers adrenaline-pumping activities, from white-water rafting in the churning rapids below to bungee jumping off the iconic Victoria Falls Bridge, ensuring every adventurer leaves with a tale to tell.
Okavango Delta: An emerald expanse in the heart of the Kalahari Desert, the Okavango Delta is a paradox of its surroundings. A sprawling oasis that never finds the sea, it provides refuge to a dazzling array of wildlife. Elephants, lions, leopards, and a plethora of bird species find sanctuary here. Visitors can embark on a serene mokoro (dugout canoe) safari, gliding through mirrored waters, or watch the sunset paint the sky from a luxury safari camp.
Tsingy de Bemaraha: On the vast island of Madagascar lies a labyrinth of jagged limestone pinnacles known as the Tsingy de Bemaraha. This UNESCO World Heritage site is more than just a geological wonder. It’s an ecological treasure trove, harboring species that can’t be found anywhere else on Earth. Traversing the suspended rope bridges, visitors will feel like they’ve stepped into another realm.
Kruger National Park: A mosaic of ecosystems awaits in South Africa’s most renowned game reserve. From dense forests to open savannahs, Kruger is a biodiversity hotspot. Home to the celebrated Big Five—lion, elephant, buffalo, leopard, and rhino—the park offers unparalleled wildlife sightings. Whether you’re exploring in a 4×4, or sitting by a camp as nocturnal sounds serenade you, Kruger is an authentic African adventure.
Bangweulu Wetlands: A watery expanse that stretches as far as the eye can see, the Bangweulu Wetlands are an ornithologist’s dream. The crowning glory is undoubtedly the Shoebill, a rare bird with prehistoric features. As dawn breaks over the wetlands, the rising sun casts a golden hue over the waters, creating a mesmerizing tableau of life.
Sossusvlei: Situated in the vast Namib Desert, the sand dunes of Sossusvlei are a photographer’s dream. The dunes, particularly the iconic Dune 45, rise dramatically, their fiery reds and oranges contrasting starkly with the azure sky. Hiking up a dune to watch the sunrise is a transformative experience, as the landscape seems to shift with every ray of light.
Blyde River Canyon: The verdant cliffs and rock formations of the Blyde River Canyon are an ode to nature’s artistry. Overlook points such as the Three Rondavels provide panoramic views of this green canyon. Flowing rivers, cascading waterfalls, and a rich array of flora and fauna make it a paradise for nature lovers.
Bazaruto Archipelago: Off the coast of Mozambique, the Bazaruto Archipelago beckons with its turquoise waters and coral kaleidoscopes. A marine reserve, it’s a sanctuary for a myriad of marine species, including the elusive dugong. Its sandy beaches are the epitome of tranquility, making it a perfect escape for those seeking solace by the sea.
Volcanic Landscapes of Réunion: Réunion Island may be famous for its beaches, but its heart beats with volcanic fervor. The island boasts two volcanoes, with the active Piton de la Fournaise often putting on a fiery display. The rugged landscapes, replete with calderas and lava flows, are a hiker’s challenge and delight.
Skeleton Coast National Park: Namibia’s haunting coastline is strewn with shipwrecks, remnants of voyages gone awry. The Skeleton Coast, often enveloped in mist, is a desolate yet captivating landscape where sand dunes meet the sea. Desert-adapted wildlife, like lions and elephants, roam its expanse, making it a surreal and unforgettable destination.
When to Go to Southern Africa
Southern Africa’s climate is as diverse as its landscapes, with regions experiencing temperate, tropical, and arid conditions. Generally, the best time to visit largely depends on the activities you’re interested in.
For Wildlife Viewing: The dry season, which runs from May to October, is ideal. Animals congregate around water sources, making sightings more frequent. Parks like Kruger in South Africa and Chobe in Botswana are particularly vibrant during these months.
For Beaches: The months between November and April are warm and sunny, perfect for the beaches of Mauritius, Réunion, and Mozambique.
For Scenic Beauty: The rainy season, from November to April, transforms landscapes, especially Victoria Falls, which is in full spate.
Remember, each country has its own climatic particularities, so it’s essential to research individual destinations before planning your trip.
Traveling to Southern Africa
Southern Africa is a mesmerizing region, but like any destination, it has its risks. Here are ten safety tips for travelers:
- Stay Informed: Check your home country’s travel advisories for destinations in Southern Africa.
- Wildlife Precautions: Always maintain a safe distance from wild animals and never feed them.
- Malaria Precaution: Some regions are malaria-endemic. Use mosquito repellents, wear long-sleeved clothing, and consider anti-malaria medication.
- Avoid Night Travel: Restrict travel to daylight hours, especially in remote areas or where road conditions are poor.
- Secure Valuables: Use hotel safes and avoid displaying expensive items or jewelry.
- Water Safety: Always check local advisories before swimming, particularly for ocean currents and waterborne diseases in freshwater.
- Local Customs: Respect local customs and traditions. Dress modestly, especially in rural areas.
- Health Insurance: Ensure you have comprehensive travel and medical insurance.
- Stay Hydrated: The region can be very hot. Drink plenty of water and protect against sunburn.
- Emergency Numbers: Familiarize yourself with local emergency numbers and locations of the nearest medical facilities.
Getting There and Around
- Southern Africa is well-connected by air, with major international airports including Johannesburg’s O.R. Tambo International, Cape Town International, and Harare International.
- Regional airlines such as South African Airways, Airlink, and Fastjet provide extensive networks across countries.
- The region also boasts expansive road networks. Buses, like Intercape and Greyhound, offer comfortable and affordable inter-country services.
- While trains are less common, luxury options like Rovos Rail provide scenic journeys.
- Car rentals are available in major cities, but ensure you’re acquainted with local driving conditions.
From bustling urban centers to remote wilderness, Southern Africa offers a range of accommodation options to suit all budgets. Luxury safari lodges, particularly in Botswana and South Africa, provide an unparalleled wilderness experience.
Cities like Cape Town and Johannesburg boast international hotel chains, while budget travelers can find solace in numerous backpacker hostels. In more remote areas, guesthouses or “rest camps” are common.
Accommodation costs vary widely, from opulent lodges costing hundreds of dollars per night to budget-friendly hostels at around $10-$20. Always check reviews and book in advance, especially during peak seasons.