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Southern Africa
South Africa, Botswana, Namibia, and Zimbabwe are home to some of the world's oldest surviving ethnic groups, the world's largest waterfall, the world's oldest desert, the world’s longest land mammal migration, and now, several of the world's top restaurants. Few other destinations on Earth are worthy of this many superlatives. Amidst such high acclaim, however, you’ll discover a region in transition. Cities are expanding and developing at a rapid pace, and although climate change and human encroachment on wild areas pose a threat to tourism (one the biggest economic drivers in the region), political conditions are more stable than ever before, making it an ideal time to visit Southern Africa. The buzzing cities, awe-inspiring wildlife corridors, and warm and welcoming people will stay with you long after you’ve left the continent.
The timing of your trip to Southern Africa will ultimately depend on your itinerary. For cities like Cape Town and Johannesburg, it’s best to visit during the summer months from October to February. For safari, the dry season is around June through October. Temperatures are a bit cooler (especially at night) and wildlife is easier to spot, making this an ideal time to visit. From November to April, life-giving rains pass over most of Botswana and Zimbabwe. This can be a more affordable time to travel.

Direct flights are available from the United States to Johannesburg. Direct flights are also available from Istanbul, Doha, and Frankfurt to Cape Town, Johannesburg, Harare, and Windhoek. Within Southern Africa, commercial airlines like Air Namibia, Air Botswana, South African Airways’s Airlink, and several low-cost carriers connect you to cities and bigger bush airports, like Hoedspruit. Charter flights can be arranged for travel to and from luxury lodges with small airstrips.

Visitors travel around Southern Africa by car, overland tour, or a mix of commercial and charter flights. You can travel the whole of Southern Africa by paved national highway, though the vast majority of routes are gravel and dirt roads. Distances are vast, so self-drivers should be aware of gas tank capacity, use a GPS or map, and carry extra water. Most car rental agencies will let you take your vehicle across international borders, except Botswana. Ask for the country fee(s) and permit information when renting a vehicle. Make sure to eat or leave behind any fresh meat or produce when crossing borders as it could be confiscated. Within major cities, taxis are often the safest form of public transportation.

There are restaurants to suit every budget and appetite in Southern Africa. Durban, Johannesburg, and Cape Town have earned international recognition for their affordable fine dining options. South Africa produces world-class wines. If you're in the mood to eat authentic African dishes, try lamb meat stew (potjiekos) in South Africa, an oryx steak in Namibia, and a bowl of thick maize porridge (sadaza) with mixed vegetables in Zimbabwe. Satisfy your sweet tooth by trying koeksisters in South Africa, candied papaya (mapopo) in Zimbabwe, and fried doughnut-like cakes (magwinya) in Botswana.

Trace the footsteps of former president and human rights activist Nelson Mandela in South Africa. Sit with a tribe of Himba women and learn why they rub red ochre over their hair and skin. Venture into Botswana’s Kalahari desert, where San bushmen will share natural plant remedies for common malaises. In Harare, witness a vibrant arts scene flourishing in a nation governed by a longstanding dictator.

There’s always something happening in Southern Africa. Oenophiles will enjoy the March harvest season festivals which take place across the wine farms in South Africa’s Western Cape. Burning Man fans won’t want to miss April’s Afrikaburn, held in South Africa’s Karoo desert. San tribes from around Botswana gather in D’Kar each August for the Kuru Dance Festival. In Harare, celebrate Southern Africa’s best musicians and artists during the six-day HIFA Festival each May. End the year on a high note and attend the Victoria Falls Carnival in Zimbabwe.

Before you depart, make sure you have enough room in your passport for visa stamps and remember to carry proof of return flights. Ask your doctor for advice on vaccinations for travel to rural areas. Antimalarials are recommended for travel through parts of Southern Africa and can be picked up at travel clinics in Cape Town or Johannesburg for a fraction of the cost of in the United States. Travel is generally safe in Southern Africa. When visiting remote areas, bring a cell phone in case of emergency. Purchase a local SIM card and a data bundle at a phone store or post office. Avoid flashy displays of jewelry and cameras in all major cities. While on safari, stay inside the vehicle and respect your ranger's instructions. Be aware of news headlines, and take care in conversation to avoid sensitive issues like politics and corruption. In terms of responsible travel, consider seasonality and drought conditions and take shorter showers. Ask before taking photographs of people. Recycling bins are almost always available, so use them. There are ATMs in most cities.

 

Although Marie Frei hails from Connecticut, she feels most at home while on safari in the African bush. With her background in the travel industry and experience living abroad, she is most interested in how the right balance of conservation and tourism can benefit both the people and wildlife of Africa. She is an avid photographer and writer, and shares her experiences and inspiration on her website, One Carry-On Travel.