Africa! The very name should get you excited. If you’ve already decided on a trip to Africa, or maybe you are just starting to contemplate one, let me give you my suggestion for a truly epic southern African adventure. I know planning a trip here can be somewhat overwhelming — where to go, what to do, how much time to spend. Whether you’re an African “first-timer,” or perhaps you’ve been bitten by the Africa “bug” and are looking to return to explore the continent more, the journey I’d like to suggest covers three countries, some of the continent’s most iconic places, and brings you right up to some of the very best things southern Africa has to offer.
My husband and I recently traveled a route that I think checks all the boxes for the perfect African adventure. Starting in Zambia at the world-famous Victoria Falls, we then traveled the length of Zimbabwe via luxury train, stopping off at some special highlights along the way. We crossed into South Africa and finished our journey in the Greater Kruger Park — one of the biggest nature conservation areas in the world and one of the crown jewels of South African national parks. Read on for some inspiration…
We started our journey in Livingstone, on the Zambian side of the Victoria Falls.
Livingstone, named after the famous explorer David Livingstone, was founded in 1905 and became the country’s capital. In 1935, the capital was moved to Lusaka, but Livingstone has retained its “Tourist Capital” status. Roughly 6 miles from the Victoria Falls, Livingstone gives a real experience of authentic Zambian life.
The town is a typical African town with a busy charm. Clean, cheerful, and colorful, it’s a great place to get a feel for Zambian culture. The locals in Livingstone are busy going about their daily lives, and whilst friendly and welcoming, they pay little attention to tourists. As an added bonus, there are a lot fewer people trying to sell you stuff and generally part you from your money here than there are on the Zimbabwean side of the falls.
The Victoria Falls
When Scottish doctor, explorer, and missionary David Livingstone set sail for Africa in 1840, he was only 27 years old. By 1855, he’d spent years trekking across a continent that was then largely unknown to the rest of the world. As he traveled by boat down the Zambezi River, the local chief asked him if he’d seen the Mosi-oa-Tunya, meaning “The Smoke That Thunders.” The chief then escorted him down the river, right to the edge of the Victoria Falls.
Reaching the falls, Livingstone was so enchanted by what he saw that he wrote in his diary, “The whole scene was extremely beautiful… no one can imagine the beauty of the view… scenes so lovely must have been gazed upon by angels in their flight… the most wonderful sight I had witnessed in Africa.”
Livingstone sent word of the falls to England and named them after Queen Victoria. Though he wrote those words in 1855, little has changed. What you’ll see if you visit now is the same amazing view that awed Livingstone and has made the Victoria Falls one of the most visited destinations in Africa.
What To Do
Aside from visiting the Victoria Falls themselves, there are numerous activities to keep even the most adventurous traveler busy here: bungee jumping off or taking a guided tour of the famous Victoria Falls Bridge, white-water rafting on the Zambezi River downstream from the falls, taking a sunset cruise, visiting the white rhinos in the Mosi Oa Tunya National Park, or flying over the falls in a microlight or a helicopter.
Where To Stay
There are a myriad of places to stay when visiting the Victoria Falls, but my favorite is the stretch of the Zambezi River upstream from the Falls. Here, you are close enough to visit all the attractions, but it’s also a peaceful place to stay — away from the hustle and bustle of town.
Eighteen miles upstream of the Victoria Falls and Livingstone town is Mukwa River Lodge. Built to blend in with the natural surroundings, the rooms of this seven-suite, understated luxury boutique hotel open out over the river, giving the feeling of hovering over the water. Situated opposite the Zambezi National Park, you’ll likely see animals come down to the river to have a drink, all from the comfort of your private deck or plunge pool. Boat rides on the river, beautiful river views, luxurious décor, and fantastic food are the highlights of a stay here.
Crossing the border from Zambia to Zimbabwe, we headed to the railway station in the town of Victoria Falls.
At the station, we boarded what is known as the most luxurious train in Africa — indeed one of the most luxurious in the world — the Rovos Rail, “The Pride of Africa.”
When it comes to travel, speed and convenience are usually priorities. Often when we travel, especially by plane, we forget to actually enjoy the journey. Every once in a while, it’s important to slow down a little and travel at a more leisurely pace and in luxurious fashion. A trip on Rovos Rail gives you exactly that — fine food, fine wine, and fantastic accommodation. We were set to travel for 4 days and three nights all the way through Zimbabwe, from Victoria Falls to South Africa’s administrative capital, Pretoria, stopping at a couple of special spots along the way.
Hwange National Park
Heading south on the train, our first stop was Hwange National Park, Zimbabwe’s largest national park covering an impressive 5,657 square miles. The park was named after a local chief and was once the royal hunting ground for the king of the Ndebele tribe, before being designated a national park in 1929. Teeming with wildlife, Hwange is home to the world’s largest population of elephants (40,000) as well as a huge variety of other wildlife. The train stopped here and waited some hours, while the passengers spent the morning exploring the park on guided game drives and seeing elephants, giraffes, buffalo, sable antelope, lions, and more.
Matobo National Park
The following morning, the train stopped again for the passengers to alight. This time, we visited Matobo National Park. A UNESCO World Heritage Site and one of the oldest parks in Zimbabwe, it is home to both black and white rhinos, as well as a fantastic collection of ancient rock art dating back at least 13,000 years. Matobo means “bald heads” and is an apt description of the dramatic hills and granite rocks in this area. The Matopos Hills also boasts some of the most dramatic scenery in Zimbabwe, with giant balancing rock formations on a huge granite plateau. It is here — on the peak of the Malindidzimu (“Hill of Spirits”) — that we visited the gravestone of Cecil John Rhodes. A British mining magnate, politician, and founder of diamond company De Beers, he was the original driving force behind the building of the Victoria Falls Bridge.
Johannesburg, or the “City of Gold” as it’s sometimes referred to, is a massive city — the largest in South Africa and the country’s financial capital. Usually just a stopover for international tourists, Johannesburg is also a popular jumping-off point for a safari, which was exactly what we had planned.
Where To Stay
Located in the upscale neighborhood of Houghton, The Residence is a really special boutique hotel. It has three swimming pools (one heated), a tennis court, a gym and spa (which offers great massages amongst other treatments), a sauna and steam room, and fireplaces throughout. The rooms are beautifully decorated with crystal chandeliers, antique furnishings, and Persian rugs. For golf enthusiasts, the hotel is positioned within walking distance of two of the most prestigious Johannesburg golf courses. OR Tambo International Airport is only 30 minutes away; an airport shuttle is available, as are terrific private Johannesburg city tours with the hotel’s in-house accredited tour guide.
Kruger National Park
Departing Johannesburg, we headed off to the final stop on our epic southern African journey: Kruger National Park.
At 7,523 square miles, Kruger National Park is the sixth largest national park in Africa, the first national park established in the country, and the country’s largest and best-known safari destination. All of Africa’s iconic safari species can be found here. The park is home to over 12,000 elephants, 27,000 buffalo, 2,000 leopards, 2,800 lions, and around 2,500 rhinos, as well as cheetahs, giraffes, hippos, and zebras.
Along the boundaries of Kruger National Park are a cluster of private game reserves. The fences between these reserves and the national park have been removed, meaning wildlife can roam between the park and the reserves freely. These private reserves offer a more exclusive safari experience than staying within the national park. There are several private game reserves in the Greater Kruger area; we chose Thornybush Game Reserve for our visit. Thornybush is 29,000 acres and home to such an abundance of wildlife that you’re almost guaranteed to spot the Big Five (lion, leopard, elephant, rhino, and buffalo) on your visit. It’s the perfect safari destination for experts and novices alike.
Where To Stay
Fantastic wildlife sightings are right on your doorstep at Malewane Lodge at Royal Malewane and the guides are some of the most qualified, passionate, and experienced in Africa. With gorgeous rooms, personalized service, gourmet food, and a great year-round climate, Royal Malawane is an ideal safari destination. It’s also one of the best places to experience the wild heart of the African bush in comfort, style, and seclusion; everything you need for a truly memorable safari.
Kruger was the final stop on our epic southern Africa journey before we headed home. As we reached the end of our itinerary, we truly felt we’d experienced some of the very best this part of the continent had to offer. I hope I’ve inspired you to follow in our footsteps!