Southern Africa is amazing
Looking for a life-changing trip? Riding a motorcycle on the southern end of the African continent might just be it.
Southern Africa offers some of the most compelling travel experiences on earth. The landscapes, the people, the cultures, the food, and the arts are all amazingly diverse. Mix that with some of the best wildlife viewing opportunities in the world, a mostly mild climate that calls you to spend more time outdoors, and a complex history that warrants deep reflection, and you’ve got a rich opportunity for the most thoughtful travelers.
And if you are planning to explore by motorcycle, remember that traffic here drives on the left side of the road.
The scenery in South Africa, Botswana, and Namibia delivers some of the most dramatic and diverse landscapes in the world.
Table Mountain, one of the oldest mountains on the planet, dominates the skyline above modern, cosmopolitan Cape Town, the capital of and oldest city in South Africa. Two of the best ways to see Table Mountain are from the seafront at Table View, or by taking the five-minute aerial cableway ride to the top of the mountain, more than 2,500 feet above sea level.
The 100-mile-long Panorama Route is a spectacular scenic road centered around the Blyde River Canyon. Covered in lush subtropical forest, it is the largest “green canyon” and the third-largest canyon, in the world. The route also offers several dramatic waterfalls, including 300-foot high Lisbon Falls, the highest in South Africa. Along the way you can explore several small towns important in the 19th-Century history of the country, its Transvaal gold rush, and see mysterious terracotta sculptures from the earliest-known Iron Age civilization in southern Africa.
The Kalahari Desert is more than 350,00 square miles of semi-arid savannah in Botswana, Namibia, and South Africa. The area receives more rainfall than most true deserts and and is filled with a huge variety of plants and animals. Within the Kalahari lies the Okavango Delta, a massive inland riparian area and a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
If you like huge, wide-open spaces, dramatic sunrises and sunsets, and endless stargazing, make sure to put Namibia on your itinerary. This is also where you’ll find the Skeleton Coast National Park and the resort town of Swakopmund, where the desert meets the Atlantic Ocean.
Animals, everywhere. Seeing exotic wildlife is one of the main reasons to go to southern Africa. And there are a nearly infinite number of ways to do it.
Elephant, lion, Cape buffalo, leopard, and rhinoceros have been referred to as Africa’s Big Five since the 1800s. European colonialists considered these the most dangerous animals to hunt. Today, most people who seek the Big Five—and virtually all the other wildlife in Africa—carry cameras and binoculars, rather than rifles and shotguns. What hunting that does still occur is tightly regulated, sustainable, brings cash into poor economies, and most often contributes to the food supply of native people living in remote places. Note that hunting is not the same as poaching which, by definition, is illegal.
The Big Five might be the stars of the show but they are joined by a vast array of supporting characters. Hippopotamus, giraffe, zebra, dozens of species of antelope, even wild dogs, and aardwolf—a type of hyena—are not uncommon.
South Africa, Botswana, and Namibia are also home to many hundreds of species of birds. If you are a serious birder, you can see the avian Big Six—the lappet-faced vulture, martial eagle, saddle billed stork, kori bustard, ground hornbill and Pel’s fishing owl—all within Kruger National Park. This park alone boasts more than 500 species of birds as does the Okavango Delta, in Botswana.
And that’s just on land. There is a lot more wildlife to be seen in, on, and near the water. Great white sharks, orca, southern right whales, and dolphins are all fairly easy to see just off the shores. Seasonally, leatherback and loggerhead turtles nest on sandy beaches with the hatchlings emerging about 70 days later. Two species of albatross visit during the winter. And African penguins live all the way around the southern coast, with a large colony on a public beach right in Cape Town.
Back on land, if you want to see the Big Five, or most other wildlife, you’ll probably want to go on safari. The word means “journey” in the Swahili language and originated in Arabic as “safar” meaning, roughly translated, “to make a journey.”
If you are traveling southern Africa by motorcycle, you can and will see animals. But if your goal is see as much wildlife as possible, especially some that can be considered dangerous, you’ll really need to park your bike for a few days and head out on four wheels. Most national parks and game preserves are not open to motorcycles.
Fortunately, there are lots of ways to go on safari. Most common is to join an organized tour where you ride in a four-wheel drive vehicle with other people. Or, you can hire a guide to take you out on a private safari. And it is even possible to rent a capable four-by-four and enjoy your own self-drive safari.
Huge swaths of southern Africa have been set aside as parks and preserves to protect and conserve natural resources, habitats, and the plants, birds, and animals that depend on them.
Kruger National Park, in South Africa, is one of the largest game reserves in Africa. It offers more than 7,500 square miles of mountains, bush plains, and tropical forests and an incredible density of wildlife species. This is one of the best places in Africa for an opportunity to see the Big Five on a single safari.
Addo Elephant National Park has recently expanded and is now the third-largest national park in South Africa. Besides the large elephant herds this park is famous for, it also offers opportunities to see lion and several species of antelope. It’s also quite close to the Indian Ocean coast and Algoa Bay where it is possible to see southern right whales and great white sharks. Plus, the park is known for its selection of luxury safari lodges.
In Botswana, the Makgadikgadi Pans cover about 6,200 square miles and are one of the largest areas of salt flats in the world. Thousands of years ago this area was a vast lake larger than Switzerland. This is where you will find Nxai Pan National Park and Kubu Island, a dry island of granite surrounded by seemingly endless salt flats.
Skeleton Coast National Park protects about 300 miles of Namibia’s coast. The Benguela Current brings cold Atlantic waters that collide with the dry dunes and desert landscape. The seas are rough and the weather is often foggy. The beaches are littered with the bones of whales and of wrecked ships. Just inland live desert-dwelling elephants and lions.
Culture and history
In southern Africa, culture and history are complex, intricately entwined, and will probably cause you to look a bit more closely at what you think you know.
The people of South Africa lived under official policies of apartheid—literally, “aparthood,” in Afrikaans—from 1948 until the early 1990s. But the foundations of racial segregation and oppression go back to the first European colonies in southern Africa, in the mid-17th Century. The apartheid system was built upon the concept and culture of baasskap—meaning boss-hood, or boss-ship. Examples of this oppression are to be found throughout the region. Depending on your own perspective they can serve as reminders that things can get better, or, that there is still much work to be done.
Today, you can visit the world-renowned Apartheid Museum, in Johannesburg, and the former maximum-security prison on Robben Island, where Nelson Mandela was held for 18 years. The island is now a South African National Heritage Site and a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
KwaZulu-Natal is a province of South Africa, on the Indian Ocean. It was the Zulu Kingdom, home of the Zulu people, for most of the 19th Century, until it was conquered and annexed by the British, in 1879. The modern province was created in 1994, at the end of apartheid. The multiple Grammy-winning chorale group Ladysmith Black Mambazo are from KwaZulu-Natal and their a cappella singing styles are indigenous to the Zulu people. If you visit the province today you can enjoy proud demonstrations of traditional dances and ceremonies. You can see the quietly powerful sculpture marking the site where Nelson Mandela was arrested in 1962 for protesting apartheid. And you can go surfing, no matter who your ancestors were.
In Opuwo, a small town of about 15,000 people in the Kunene Region of Namibia, you can meet and learn about the Himba people. These are the last semi-nomadic people of Namibia. On the streets, you will see many Himba who have chosen to maintain their traditional culture, especially their appearance. Irrespective of gender, Himba people typically wear a type of skirt made of leather or textile and will most often go bare-chested. Perhaps the most distinctive trait of the Himba people is their use of otjize, a paste of butterfat and ochre pigment, which they use to protect their skin from the harsh climate, and to style their hair.
Exploring South Africa
South Africa offers incredibly rich experiences for travelers. Culture, food, history, scenery, adventure—South Africa has got all the bases covered. If you can only explore one country in this part of the world then South Africa is probably your best first choice.
Cape Town was founded in 1652 and is South Africa’s oldest city and its capital. It is a modern, vibrant, cosmopolitan city of more than 4.6 million people. And it is surrounded by stunning natural scenery.
The city is known for its rich and diverse food scene. There is a fantastic selection of restaurants and cuisines, coffee shops, breweries, wineries, and craft distilleries. Small neighborhood markets feature international food stalls along with fresh local produce and other foods.
Besides Table Mountain and Robben Island, consider a visit to the Zeitz Museum of Contemporary Art Africa, the largest museum for contemporary African art in the world.
South African wine
South Africa has six distinct wine-growing regions and is known for its Cabernet Sauvignon. Other red wines to try include Syrah, Merlot, and South Africa’s own Pinotage. If you prefer white wines look for Chenin Blanc, Sauvignon Blanc, and Chardonnay.
Cape of Good Hope
The Cape of Good Hope is about about an hour and half outside of Cape Town and is the most south-western point on the African continent. It is not actually the southern tip of Africa; that distinction belongs to Cape Agulhas, about a half a degree of latitude south and about a hundred or so miles southeast. That is where the Atlantic and the Indian Ocean meet.
But that’s no reason to dismiss the Cape of Good Hope. This is a place of dramatic scenery and wild weather with an awesome hike up to a lighthouse for amazing views. Also, penguins and baboons.
The roads between Cape Town and the Cape of Good Hope offer some fantastic motorcycling, with lots of beautiful, twisty, coastal routes.
If you like the buzz of big cities, you will love Johannesburg. With more than five and a half million people in the city proper, and more than 14 million in the greater Johannesburg-Pretoria metro area, this is one of the 100 largest urban centers in the world.
When you visit, you’ll quickly learn that early everyone calls the city Jo’burg, or Jozi. It’s an exciting city with a thriving culture of music, food, and art that also seems to embrace and celebrate its history and its future.
Besides the Apartheid Museum, you might also want to visit Mandela House, where Nelson Mandela lived, and the Hector Pieterson Memorial and Museum, which commemorates the 1976 student uprising, in Soweto Township. During apartheid, Soweto was a separate city from Johannesburg. Today it is fully incorporated into the city and is actually a great place to experience the dynamics and high intensity of modern Jo’burg.
One of the best ways to get to know Johannesburg is by taking an organized tour. Whether on foot, bicycles, or by bus, the city offers a fantastic array of professional tours led by knowledgeable local guides. There are tours focused on history, museums, art, food, neighborhoods, and much more, lasting from a couple of hours to a full day.
South Africa has 1,740 miles of coastline, on two different oceans. And some of the best urban beaches in the world are right in Cape Town. You can even explore tropical coral reefs and find excellent places for snorkeling and scuba diving.
Botswana is breathtakingly beautiful. The country is dominated by the Kalahari Desert, a sandy, semi-arid, not-quite-a-desert that covers more than 80 percent of Botswana.
The most dramatic feature of the Kalahari is the Okavango Delta, the largest inland delta in the world. This is where the Okavango River spills out onto a vast 6,000-square-mile flat plain in northwestern Botswana. The river drains the Angolan highlands to the north that get about 50 inches of rain a year, nearly all of it between December and March. The water covers the delta and eventually drains into the sands of the Kalahari.
All that water makes the Okavango Delta an oasis in the desert and an environment with tremendous biodiversity that supports more than 500 species of birds and well over a hundred different mammals.
One of the best ways to see wildlife in the Okavango is from a mokoro, a native canoe. The boats were traditionally dug out of a single straight trunk from a large tree. Today, they are mostly made of fiberglass. The mokoro is propelled by a person standing in the stern, pushing against the bottom of the shallow waters with a long pole. Because the boats are silent, they are much less likely to spook animals than other ways of exploring.
Chobe National Park
Chobe National Park is another jewel of Botswana. It is more than 4,500 square miles of floodplains, swamps, and woodlands. And the Chobe is one of the most beautiful rivers in Africa. Here it is not uncommon to see hundreds of elephants in a single afternoon, coming to the river to drink, bathe, and cool off.
One of the most common ways to see the wildlife of the Chobe is by taking a river cruise. Large, open-air boats with flat, shaded decks slowly explore the main river and its vast array of side channels. Besides elephants, it is common to see hippos and crocodiles in the water. The shores hold large numbers of antelope which then attract predators like lions, leopards, and hyenas. The river cruises typically run from a few hours to a full day and usually include cold drinks, beer, wine and lunch.
Namibia offers some of the most interesting and unique landscapes in the world. Giant red sand dunes, riverine forests, foggy beaches, and rugged mountains, all in one of the most sparsely populated countries on earth.
Fish River Canyon
The Fish River has cut the largest canyon in Africa, and the second largest in the world, behind Arizona’s Grand Canyon. The canyon is about 100 miles long, about 17 miles across at its widest point, and more than 1,800 feet deep. Besides the dramatic scenery the canyon also offers natural hot springs and even a spa resort.
Namib-Naukluft National Park
Namib-Naukluft Park stretches from the Atlantic coast inland to the edge of the Great Escarpment, includes part of the Namib Desert—the oldest in the world—and covers more than 19,000 square miles.
Probably the most well-known sight in the park is Sossusvlei, a white salt and clay pan surrounded by tall dunes of red sand. These are some of the largest sand dunes in the world with many more than 600 feet tall and a few reaching over 1,000 feet above the floor of the pan. The sand is red because it contains a high concentration of iron. It has rusted.
Pavement, gravel, or dirt?
What kind of riding are you looking for? In this part of the world you’ll find a vast array of roads. From smooth, modern highways, to well-maintained gravel roads, to challenging, technical tracks, southern Africa has some of the best riding opportunities you can imagine.
Probably the most well-known motorcycle road in South Africa is Route 62. It heads east from Cape Town nearly 500 miles to Gqeberha, in Eastern Cape province. Until 2021, Gqeberha was called Port Elizabeth and most locals still use that name, most often just calling it “P.E.”
Route 62 is a good paved highway that will take you through several wine-growing regions, some twisty mountain passes, the semi-arid Karoo region, and the beautiful Wild Coast.
Stellenbosch To Cape Agulhas
Stellenbosch is a charming university town about 30 miles east of Cape Town. It is surrounded by vineyards and is known for its oak-shaded streets and cafes and art galleries. Take Route 45 over spectacular Franschhoek Pass, head south across Theewaterskloof Dam then east and south along the coast until you get to the southern tip of Africa, where the Atlantic meets the Indian Ocean.
Imagine a well-maintained gravel road with spectacular views, sharp switchbacks, and grades of up to 15 percent. That’s Swartberg Pass, on Route 328, between Oudtshoorn and Prince Albert, in the Western Cape, South Africa.
The road is only about 45 miles long and you could probably ride it in a couple of hours, in good weather. But the views are amazing, with dramatic rock formations, interesting plant life, some points of historical interest, and even a few places to stop for a picnic. So plan at least a half day. And know that in wet weather conditions will change drastically, at times leaving the road completely impassable.
Want to go big? Ride the Trans-Kalahari Highway more than 1,000 miles, from Walvis Bay on the Namibian coast, across Botswana, to Johannesburg in South Africa.
The Trans-Kalahari Highway opened in 1998. It is paved the entire way but there are long stretches with minimal services. You could ride the complete route in a couple of long days but that would be missing the point, completely.
There are lots of great places to explore, with amazing scenery and landscapes along the way. Many of those roads are unpaved so be ready for that. Since you’ll be right on the doorstep of the Okavango Delta, you’ll probably want to spend a few days there, so maybe plan for at least a week to see as much as possible from Namibia to Johannesburg.
What would your perfect southern Africa adventure look like? All the animals, all the time? Remote places, massive scenery, and not a lot of people? As much motorcycling as you can fit in? Or, maybe no riding at all?
Tell us your interests. We would love to work with you to create a trip that you will be talking about for years after you return home.
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