Eastern and Southern Africa’s 10 top Bucket-List Sights and Experiences… and Their off-the-Beaten-Track Equivalents
By Philip Briggs | Updated March 25, 2022
Eastern and Southern Africa are renowned for their peerless network of national parks and other scenic and cultural attractions. You could easily spend a year or two traveling in the region without repeating yourself, seeing new sights, and having fresh experiences on a daily basis. But for those who don’t have the luxury of that kind of time, here we highlight ten of the region’s genuine bucket list experiences, as well as some off-the-radar alternatives for more adventurous travelers.
Track Mountain Gorillas in Rwanda and Uganda
A face-to-face meeting with the world’s largest living primate – up to three times as bulky as the average person – is an unforgettable and deeply moving experience. This is because gorillas, despite their fearsome outward appearance, are among the most peaceable of creatures, usually to be found sitting on the first floor, nibbling contentedly on bamboo shoots or leaves, and offering visitors the occasional intimate glances with those meltingly soulful brown eyes. Arguably the world’s ultimate wildlife encounter.
Off-the-beaten-track alternative: Chimpanzees are more restless than gorillas, which can make them challenging and frustrating to track, but on a good day it’s an equally magical experience.
Pole Through the Okavango Delta
A unique watery wonderland, the vast inland delta formed by the Kavango River is one of Africa’s most compelling wilderness destinations. Gliding silently through the Okavango in a dugout mokoro, you’ll explore jungle-lined channels, lily-covered pools and papyrus swamps teeming with aquatic birds. The delta is home to all the Big Five, along with hippo, giraffe, zebra and a wide variety of antelope, making it a popular goal for an upmarket safari.
Off-the-beaten-track alternative: Namibia’s little-known Nkasa Rupara National Park forms part of the Okavango ecosystem and protects a similar range of habitats and wildlife.
Catch the Wildebeest Migration in Kenya and Tanzania
Nothing compares to East Africa’s great migration. Every year, some two million wildebeest and zebra tread an ancient migratory loop through Tanzania’s Serengeti and Kenya’s Masai Mara, a 600-mile journey punctuated by at least two major river crossings, as well as the February calving season. You need to time your visit carefully to catch the migration in action, but even if you miss it, Serengeti and Masai Mara rank among Africa’s top Big Five safari destinations.
Off-the-beaten-track alternative: Zambia’s Liuwa Plains is the arena for Africa’s second largest wildebeest migration, comprising about 40,000 animals.
Stand on the Knife Edge at Victoria Falls
One of the seven wonders of the natural world, this spectacular jungle-fringed waterfall on the Zambezi cascades 350ft in a single fall, measures more than a mile wide, and kicks up a plume of spray that’s sometimes visible from 30 miles away. Both sides of the waterfall are worth a visit. Zimbabwe is where you get that classic full frontal view on the main falls, but when the river is high, nothing beats the immersive experience of walking through the swirl of spray and deafening roar that engulfs Zambia’s Knife Edge Bridge.
Off-the-beaten-track alternatives: A dead heat between Ethiopia’s Blue Nile Falls and Uganda’s Murchison Falls.
Explore the Dunes and Pans of the Namib
The Namib is probably the world’s oldest desert, having experienced arid conditions throughout the past 50 million years. Its photogenetic centerpiece is Sossusvlei, where the world’s tallest sand dunes tower above parched clay pans such as Deadvlei, with its ghost forest of dead camelthorns. Nearby Dune 45, whose crest stands 300ft above the base, can be climbed at sunrise for a panoramic view over the desert moonscapes.
Off-the-beaten-track alternative: Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park protects a vast semi-desert known for its orange dunes and black-maned lions. The South African sector is accessible to ordinary cars, whereas the larger Botswanan sector is a haven for 4×4 enthusiasts.
Climb Kilimanjaro, the Roof of Africa
Africa’s highest mountain, Kilimanjaro is the tallest summit anywhere that can be climbed without special gear or technical experience. Snowcapped 19,341ft Uhuru Peak is a popular goal with peak-baggers, who pass through a succession of vegetation zones – including tangled Afromontane forest and ethereal Afroalpine moorland – on the scenic ascent. Most hikers allocate five or six days to the hike, but a longer itinerary allows more time to acclimatize to the altitude and to enjoy the scenery.
Off-the-beaten-track alternative: Africa’s highest all-weather road traverses the chilly Afroalpine moorland of Ethiopia’s Bale Mountains. Here you can see the endangered Ethiopian wolf and mountain nyala, along with a dozen endemic bird species.
Explore the Alleys of Zanzibar’s Stone Town
Zanzibar is famed for its beach destination, and rightly so, but its most unique feature is a timeworn enclave of traditional buildings known as Stone Town. Here you can explore labyrinthine alleys lined with multi-storey Swahili homesteads and studded Zanzibari doors, and an ancient waterfront where dhows with billowing sails cruise past an imposing 16th century Omani fort. History aside, Zanzibar is a great place for foodies to enjoy Swahili cuisine and couldn’t-be-fresher seafood.
Off-the-beaten-track alternative: Ethiopia’s northern historic circuit is studded with actively used mediaeval rock-hewn churches and classical ruins dating back 3,000 years.
Overnight on the rim of Erta Ale
Erta Ale is an Afar name that translates as Smoking Mountain – a rather understated description of the Ethiopian volcano that encloses the world’s oldest lava lake. An apparition as spectacular as it is hellish, this cauldron of bubbling magma has a black crust that keeps cracking open to reveal glowing scars of molten red rock. The relentlessly shadeless 6-mile hike to the caldera is best undertaken in the late afternoon, overnighting at a shelter on the rim. Overnighting ensures you’re there in optimum photographic conditions.
Off-the-beaten-track alternatives: Other active African volcanoes include the DRC’s Nyiragongo), which also contains a permanent lava lake, and Tanzania’s Old Doinyo Lengai. Both are more demanding hikes than Erta Ale.
Track Wildlife on Foot in South Luangwa
Zambia’s premier national park is the home of the walking safari. Most camps offer day walks, but if you really want to experience the African bush in the raw, book a multi-day hike between camps. Encountering the likes of lion, elephant and buffalo on foot is a far more immediate experience than viewing them from the security of a car. While you’re in South Luangwa, be sure to take a night drive; the leopard sightings are exceptional.
Off-the-beaten-track alternative: The more remote North Luangwa National Park is geared almost entirely to walking safaris. It’s the only place in Zambia to host all the Big Five, black rhino included.
Soak up the View From Table Mountain
Cape Town is Africa’s most beautiful city and the eponymous peninsula and Winelands offer variety enough to keep you busy for a fortnight. An outstanding attraction is the panoramic view from Table Mountain, which encompasses the city center as well as Table Bay, Robben Island, the 30-mile spine of the peninsula, and the distant peaks of the Hottentots Holland. Most visitors ascend in a rotating cable car that offers sensational tasters for the view from the top, but energetic travelers can climb the steep trail through Platteklip Gorge.
Off-the-beaten-track alternative: A UNESCO World Heritage Site, uKhahlamba-Drakensberg Park is a hiker’s paradise renowned for its prehistoric rock art and endemic wildlife.