When you think of traveling in Africa, what do you picture? Do you picture luxurious hotels and game lodges, wine tastings, gourmet food, and wildlife-filled safaris?
That's definitely one way to see Africa – and, in fact, that's more or less the way my dad and I decided to experience South Africa.
But the opposite is also an option: sleeping in tents in the African bush, meals cooked over a campfire, and traveling around in a giant truck instead of private vans and planes.
Both ways are great ways to experience Africa – but the experiences themselves are of course very different.
Since I was doing a luxury trip in South Africa with my dad, I wanted to make sure to experience the other popular form of travel in Africa, too: the overland trip.
What is an overland trip?
“Overlanding” means exactly what it sounds like – you travel over land without the use of planes.
In Africa, overlanding is done in purpose-built trucks with giant tires and everything you need to travel for weeks, including tents and cooking supplies. You camp in shared tents, help cook meals, and experience the continent in a budget-friendly way.
Many people will tell you that an overland trip is the only way to see the “real” Africa, since it means driving along the dusty roads and through all the tiny villages that make Africa… well, Africa.
While I'm not sure if that's entirely true (I don't think there's any “right” or “wrong” way to experience any destination), I can't deny that overlanding in Africa was something that I was dying to do. Nevermind that I'm not a camper and really like my daily hot shower… I knew I couldn't leave Africa without trying it.
Overlanding with Acacia Africa
I ended up booking an overland trip from Cape Town to Victoria Falls with overland company Acacia Africa. Their 19-day Desert Tracker trip took me through Namibia and Botswana – two bucket list countries for me – and was just about the perfect length as far as I was concerned. I'll cover all the details about the trip in another post (let me know what questions you have!), but right now I just want to share some of the highlights:
Seeing Fish River Canyon
You've probably heard of the Grand Canyon, which is one of the largest canyons in the world. But have you heard of Fish River Canyon? Located in Namibia not far from the South African border, this is the largest canyon in Africa – and also one of the largest canyons in the world, with a depth of more than 1800 feet and sections that are 17 miles across.
The best part, though? Unlike the Grand Canyon, Fish River Canyon isn't flooded with people. In fact, when my group visited one evening for a short canyon rim walk before sitting down to watch the sun set, we were essentially the only ones there.
Climbing Dune 45
Part of the reason I wanted to visit Namibia so badly was because of my desire to see the famous orange sand dunes of the Namib Desert. And boy did I get my wish! We woke up at 4:30 a.m. in order to get to the Sossusvlei area of Namib-Naukluft National Park before the gates opened, meaning we were some of the first people to ascend the famous Dune 45 as the rays of the morning sun were turning it bright orange.
This is NOT an easy climb (and you will most definitely get sand everywhere), but it was definitely worth the effort.
Another part of the Namib Desert that I looked forward to seeing was Deadvlei, a clay pan surrounded by towering orange sand dunes and filled with the spindly black trunks of dead desert trees. We visited Deadvlei directly after our Dune 45 climb, making for an epic day of sand and sun.
Camping under the stars in Spitzkoppe
I'm definitely not a camper. In fact, before this trip, I had maybe spent a grand total of two nights sleeping in a tent. But there's something magical about camping under the stars in Africa, and this was hit home for me at a campsite in the middle of nowhere in Namibia.
Surrounded by towering sandstone formations, we cooked over a campfire and admired the Milky Way above our heads at our Spitzkoppe camp. I didn't even care that we had no access to electricity or running water.
Game driving in Etosha
The wildlife is often the star of a trip to Africa, and nearly every overland trip will include at least a few game drives in various national parks. Our first set of game drives were in Etosha National Park in Namibia, where we saw huge herds of zebra, plenty of elephants and giraffes, and even a few lions.
We also stayed at a great campsite right in the park that had its own watering hole that was floodlit at night – perfect for spotting rhinos!
Overnighting in the Okavango Delta
Going to the Okavango Delta is the reason that a lot of people visit Botswana. It's a unique ecosystem that changes with the seasons, and you get there by traditional mokoro canoes. My group stayed overnight in the Delta at a mobile tented camp, which meant we got to explore a bit on foot (and be terrified by the sounds of hippos way too close for comfort at night).
The next morning, I also did a doors-off helicopter flight over the Delta, which was incredible way to get a sense of just how vast it really is.
Staying at Elephant Sands
My favorite campsite of the whole trip? I think it had to be Elephant Sands in Botswana. When it comes to wildlife, elephants are definitely the most dominant in Botswana – there are tens of thousands of them! And at Elephant Sands, you're guaranteed to see plenty up close. The camp has no fences or barriers, and has one man-made watering hole at its center. Dozens of elephants (maybe even more) come here every day for a drink, meaning you can sit sipping a drink or be lazing in the pool just feet away from them.
Taking a boat safari in Chobe
My other favorite game drive of the trip was the boat safari we took in Chobe National Park in Botswana. We did a land-based game drive here, too, but it was definitely the boat safari that stole the show. Not only did we get to enjoy cruising down the Chobe River, but we got to get up close to things like big pods of hippos and swimming elephants!
Getting soaked at Victoria Falls
My overland trip ended in Livingstone, Zambia, near the world-famous Victoria Falls. I had already visited the Zimbabwe side of the falls with my dad, but the Zambia side was just as cool. We got soaked crossing the Knife-Edge Bridge thanks to the falls' heavy mist, which was so much fun.
Others in my group did things like bungee jumping and white water rafting at this stop, but since I'd already been gorge swinging and up in a microlight over on the Zimbabwe side, I just enjoyed seeing the falls for a second time.
There were plenty of other memorable moments during this trip, too – like taking silly photos at the Tropic of Capricorn and binging on seafood in Swakopmund – but these were definitely my personal highlights!
Have you ever been on an overland trip? What you you like to read more about?
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*Note: I received a discount on my Desert Tracker tour with Acacia Africa. But, as always, all opinions and oversharing of wildlife photos are 100% my own!
Amanda Williams is the award-winning blogger behind A Dangerous Business Travel Blog. She has traveled to more than 60 countries on 6 continents from her home base in Ohio, specializing in experiential and thoughtful travel through the US, Europe, and rest of the world. Amanda only shares tips based on her personal experiences and places she's actually traveled!