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5 of the best African road trips

With better highways and more vehicle hire options, self-driving is a popular way to see Africa. Mike Breslin, author of Road Trip: A Practical Manual, recommends five Africa road trips

Driving across the desert in Namibia (Bresmedia)

1. Namibia

Driving Namibia’s unsealed roads (Bresmedia)

Driving Namibia’s unsealed roads (Bresmedia)

Start and finish: Windhoek
Distance: 2,100km
How? Hire a car in Windhoek
Why? Stunning scenery, wildlife and lonely desert roads
Time needed: 10 days

With its good, unsealed roads and beautiful desert scenery, nothing beats Namibia. You can even tick off the Big Five (elephant, lion, leopard, rhino and buffalo) if you have a keen eye and a bit of luck.

Begin in the capital of Windhoek, before driving south to the towering dunes around Sossusvlei, which are at their most beautiful at dawn. Continue your desert journey to the charmingly Germanic seaside town of Swakopmund before driving up a small portion of the Skeleton Coast and heading inland to Etosha National Park. You might want to stop at a secluded lodge such as Vingerklip, on the way.

Etosha National Park is where the animal action is, although by now you will have already caught sight of springbok, gemsbok [oryx] and cheeky black backed jackals. At Etosha’s salt pan reserve you will be unlucky not to see elephants and lions, while you will almost certainly see giraffes and zebras. You can also have thrilling encounters with leopards and cheetahs at Okonjima – a nature reserve that’s home to the Africat Foundation – on the drive down the paved B1 back to Windhoek.

2. South Africa and Eswatini

Rhinos in Hlane Royal National Park, Eswatini (Bresmedia)

Rhinos in Hlane Royal National Park, Eswatini (Bresmedia)

Start and finish: Johannesburg, South Africa
Distance: 1,750km
How? Easily driveable in a regular hire car
Why? Two countries, wildlife, beach and history
Time needed: 10 days

This loop from Johannesburg is a great two-country road trip, with easy border crossings between South Africa and Eswatini (formerly Swaziland).

After a long flight it’s a bit of a drive from Jo’burg to Eswatini, so a stop in the towns of Waterval Boven or Badplaas is worth thinking about before crossing the border. There are a number of lodges and game parks in Eswatini, but Phophonyane Falls Ecolodge is a particularly nice place to stay before you loop around Hlane Royal National Park, where rhino encounters are pretty much guaranteed.

Driving back into South Africa, Hluhluwe-iMfolozi Game Reserve is perhaps one of the country’s most beautiful, with opportunities to see the Big Five. You can also spot whales out at sea, too. Further down the coast a stop at Ballito on the Dolphin Coast is worthwhile, before an interesting drive into the interior of KwaZulu Natal province to visit the battlefields of Isandlwana and Rorke’s Drift, which was made famous in the 1964 war epic Zulu. A guided tour of the battlefields is a must; try to find a Zulu guide for a local’s perspective.

The final day’s drive is across the Free State, but don’t forget to see a little of Johannesburg after you drop off your car. The city sometimes gets a bad press but it’s well worth an overnight stay, and a tour around the township of Soweto is highly recommended.

3. Tanzania

Self-driving is by far the best way to see Tanzania (Bresmedia)

Self-driving is by far the best way to see Tanzania (Bresmedia)

Start and finish: Arusha to Dar es Salaam
Distance: 1,100km
How? Road Trip Tanzania supplies old but tough trucks and SUVs at affordable prices
Why? Wildlife encounters and a true taste of Africa
Time needed? About 10 days

The road into the Serengeti in Northern Tanzania is a bone shaker and car breaker, so many truck and pretty much all car hire companies will not allow you to drive into this vast national park. But that doesn’t mean you need to miss out on the wildlife if you opt to self-drive in Tanzania, as there is still Tarangire and Lake Manyara National Parks, plus the amazing Ngorongoro Crater, all of which are an easy drive from Arusha.

After visiting the national parks, backtrack through Arusha. Head on to the vibrant town of Moshi, a jumping off point for climbing Kilimanjaro, or if time is short, a selection of day hikes. Next up it’s an interesting journey to the magical Usambara Mountains and more hiking, before a well-earned rest on the Indian Ocean coast near Pangani.

The final day’s drive is to the former capital, Dar es Salaam. Chances are you’ll be caught in a traffic jam here so just go with the flow and enjoy the attention of vendors selling everything from fish and nuts to footballs and kites.

While much of this trip is on paved highways, there are unsealed roads in the parks, mountains and near the coast – as is the case with many African road trips.

4. Uganda and Rwanda

Mountain gorilla with three-day old baby in Bwindi Impenetrable National Park, Uganda (Bresmedia)

Mountain gorilla with three-day old baby in Bwindi Impenetrable National Park, Uganda (Bresmedia)

Start and finish: Entebbe, Uganda
Distance: 1,800km
How? Depending on the time of the year going off the main roads can be tricky, so hiring a 4x4 is advisable
Why? Two exceptionally friendly countries, awesome wildlife and wonderful scenery
Time needed: Two weeks

You usually need to pre-book a ticket to see the mountain gorillas (it’s cheaper in Uganda), but it’s an experience not to be missed and it’s worth planning a Uganda/Rwanda road trip around a gorilla tracking adventure.

You will start in Entebbe near the main airport in Uganda. Set on the shores of Lake Victoria, Entebbe is a chilled out town which is worth at least a night’s stop. Then it’s an interesting drive down to Lake Mburo National Park. The road is Tarmaced – but watch out for speed bumps, the blight of Uganda! Once in the park you can hire a ranger to take you on a walking safari.

From Lake Mburo it’s on to the border with Rwanda. Plan for a couple of hours to cross – and keep in mind that as with many African crossings, it’s simply about having the right paperwork, a sense of humour and plenty of patience. After miles of picturesque hills and tea plantations it’s on to Rwanda’s vibrant and booming capital, Kigali; then the sublime Lake Kivu, before heading back into Uganda for the gorillas at Bwindi Impenetrable National Park – stay at the jaw dropping Lake Mutanda if you can.

Three nights at different locations in Queen Elizabeth National Park follow, before a drive north for a couple of days in the lovely and buzzing African town of Fort Portal. Close the loop back in Entebbe.

Many of the main roads are Tarmaced, but when it rains some unsealed roads and the tracks in the parks can get very muddy – which can make this trip a proper adventure.

5. South Africa and Botswana

A 4x4 with a roof tent (Bresmedia)

A 4x4 with a roof tent (Bresmedia)

Start and finish: Johannesburg, South Africa to Maun, Botswana
Distance: 6,500km
How? Hire a truck with a roof tent from Johannesburg
Why? Everyone needs at least one big adventure in their lifetime
Time needed: At least four weeks

Once a five-country journey through southern Africa might have been seen as more of an expedition than a road trip. But many overland-equipped 4x4 hire firms are now available, so this is certainly doable if you have the time – and a sense of adventure.

Start in Johannesburg before visiting Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park – stopping at Kuruman on the way – for a taste of the Kalahari Desert; then head into Namibia and north to the riverside town of Rundu. From there, head into Botswana and sleep out with the elephants in Chobe National Park; then see Victoria Falls in Zambia; Hwange’s wildlife and Matobo National Park’s scenery in Zimbabwe before returning to Botswana for a drive on to the Makgadikgadi Pan. Drop off your truck in Maun, then enjoy trips into the Okavango Delta.

You could spend a month on this adventure, and there are plenty of options to extend or modify the route. One warning, though, this trip takes some serious planning.

Road Trip: A Practical Manual

Road Trip: A Practical Manual by Mike Breslin (Haynes) provides inspiration and expert advice for planning and driving road trips around the world – including 50 suggested routes

Buy now

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