When you travel throughout Africa, there’s an unmistakable sensation—a realization that, even though you’re seemingly in the middle of nowhere, you’re at the pulse of everything wild and free. That’s true whether you’re marching through Rwanda’s refulgent jungles in pursuit of a mountain gorilla, on a desert dune safari on Namibia’s sun-baked sand, or watching a lioness stalk a baby elephant in Zimbabwe’s grasslands.
You can’t really go wrong when you plan your journey. But when it comes to the camp or provider, you’ll have a better trip when you do the research to find camps in choice areas with reputable, knowledgeable guides, strong connections to the local people, and a foundation rooted in sustainability.
Consider this your blueprint for planning a modern-day trip to Africa: We’re covering how to get there, where to go and stay, and what to do. If you want to rest your head in a luxury tent with the rumbling of elephants nearby, a watering hole just outside a wine-stocked fire pit, and a week’s itinerary that includes soaring above Victoria Falls via chopper, a walking rhino safari, and a cross-country mountain bike tour, you came to the right place.
How to Get There
South African Airways is the flagship airline of South Africa. It has the most frequent daily flights to Cape Town, as well as direct flights from New York and London to Johannesburg. You’ll appreciate the in-flight features: two hot meals (breakfast and dinner), plenty of snacks and drinks, headphones, ear plugs, toothbrush/toothpaste, and a blanket and pillow. Depending on where you are in the world, you can expect at least one stop.
Planning and Booking
Planning the logistics of your stay, travel, and activities in Africa can be painstaking. Pro tip: Don’t do it alone. Get a travel agent who can spotlight the right country for your wish list, cherry pick activities and camps that align with your expectations (minimalist vs. luxury), find the best deals to save you money, and plan all the transportation—because Africa’s big, like larger than the contiguous U.S., China, India, and most of Europe combined, big.
Luxury travel agency Karell Travel creates personalized trips with bespoke tours all across the continent, from Mozambique to Seychelles. Wilro Tours, based in Johannesburg, is an excellent resource for transfers. You can get a driver to bring you to the airport, as well as make short- and long-distance trips. If you end up booking a camp with Wilderness Safaris, which is what I did, you can hop from one country to the next with the partnering Wilderness Air. Its fleet of Cessna aircrafts operate in Botswana, Namibia, Zambia, and Zimbabwe. While small, these five- and 12-passenger planes are workhorses.
Where to Go
If this is your first time to Africa, try to cover countries with some contrasting landscape. Fancy Eastern Africa? You can witness the massive migration of wildebeest between Kenya and Tanzania in June or July, as the animals stampede in tandem with seasonal rain patterns; or interact with local Massai tribes, which also reside in these countries. Take a hot air balloon over the seemingly endless, flat-as-a-board Mara-Serengeti while a menagerie of wildlife mosey below (the concentration of animals here is greater than anywhere else in Africa). And if you’re an adventure buff, you’ll find Mount Kilimanjaro towering over the horizon of Tanzania.
Southern Africa is home to diverse topography and a wider set of activities. You get the wetland habitat of the Okavango Delta and Zambezi River, bone-dry Skeleton Coast and Kalahari Desert, and Pixar-perfect coastline beaches and vineyards native to Cape Town. Peak times to visit vary vastly. Southern Africa’s winter (read: dry season) is May to October, and game drives are generally more eventful since the dry weather draws the animals to waterholes. Your risk for malaria also drops as there aren’t as many bugs. If you want to see cubs and calves, a surge in bush babies being born happens in spring.
This guide takes you to southern Africa: We’re hitting Johannesburg, Zambia, and Zimbabwe (plus Botswana and South Africa—if you’re up for a challenge).
The Fairlawns Boutique Hotel and Spa is a 25-minute drive from O.R. Tambo International Airport, and just the respite you need after 14+ hours of traveling. Book a Grand Chateau Suite—these palatial 50-square-meter rooms are in a secluded wing with the option to add adjoining family suites. What you’ll find: plush linens, an immaculate rain shower and tub, and heated floors. The property is a complete juxtaposition to Joburg’s bustle. The overall aesthetic imbues a pastoral European château, with canopied beds and heady rose bushes. But the common area off the Chateau Suites pays homage to local African culture, with artifacts from local tribes strewn across the walls. Spend the day acclimating to the time difference—preferably at Fairlawns’ Balinese spa.
If you’ve got a daring spirit, legs like a horse, and a proclivity for mountain biking, participate in the Nedbank Tour de Tuli. The mileage and route change every year, but, essentially, you set out on a tour of Africa’s wilderness, riding to a new camp each night, where you’ll sleep in tents under a canopy of stars.
This year’s journey was a four-day, 155-mile tour through Botswana, Zimbabwe, and South Africa. The first leg saw riders navigating the Tuli block, a fringe of land that connects the three aforementioned countries. We weaved through mopane thickets that peppered the savannas, getting snagged along thorn bushes; powered over koppies (hills) that dropped us into sandy drainage lines requiring furious low-gear pedaling; and relished in ancient, hard-packed elephant trails and flat-top mesa that gave way to some fast, scenic riding. If you participate, you’ll stumble across elephant herds, catch giraffes loping across the plains, and stop to give backpacks to a local children’s school, taking moments to reflect (and catch your breath) under baobab trees.
At camp, dusty, bruised, and probably a little bloody, you’ll crack open ice-cold local brews (Pro tip: hydrate first with a Zambezi lager, then enjoy a stout or Indian Pale Ale from Big Sip Co., Botswana’s first craft beer); get a free, 20-minute massage, courtesy of Balancing Touch; and wolf down a gourmet meal the likes you never thought possible in the middle of the bush. Velvety cappuccinos from Bean There Coffee Company and Biogen’s recovery and hydration supplements will give you the necessary sustenance to conquer each new day (and squash any hangovers).
The terrain is technical and your fitness needs to be on-point, so check out how to train for a multi-stage tour (this guide is specific to the Nedbank Tour de Tuli). Best of all? Proceeds go toward Children in the Wilderness, a nonprofit educational program that benefits rural children across Africa.
Take the coach bus back to Joburg and spend the night in InterContinental Johannesburg O.R. Tambo Airport. Order room service; take a proper shower or soak in the tub; and assess your bruises. Quills restaurant, right on the ground floor, serves a killer breakfast, after which you can walk over to the airport and fly to Livingstone, Zambia, where you’ll head to Wilderness Safaris Toka Leya camp.
Schedule a road transfer from the airport to Toka Leya camp via Wilro Tours; the driver will bring you to a camp staff member who will complete the journey by boat. Toka Leya sits atop stilts (for safety as much as the view) overlooking the Zambezi river.
Canvas stretches overhead and teak decks run along the entirety of the property. You’ll amble pass a fire pit, up a ramp that spills open to the sundeck—where you’ll enjoy lunch and cocktails—then continue along the walkway to the veranda and bar, haloed by barstools. It’s fully stocked with local wine and a cappuccino machine. Further along is an infinity pool, framed by sun loungers and umbrellas, as well as the main dining and lounge area. Closer to the water’s edge you’ll find the camp’s spa and air-conditioned gym.
Follow the walkway to reach the 12 tented rooms. Each has its own deck with sunken seating and an outdoor tub. At night, a staff member will escort you to your tent in case there are elephants or other wildlife poking about. For your safety, you’re not permitted to leave your room and walk the grounds after dark.
If you arrive in the evening, go on a sunset river cruise. Float by grunting hippos, sun-baking crocs, and spot native birds as you sip a gin and tonic. The staff will welcome you “home” with waves and a beverage (sherry, most likely), as well as perform traditional song and dance. You’re encouraged to join—and you should. Eat dinner with your travel companion(s) or join another group.
Toka Leya’s rates (starting at $645 USD per day, based on the time/month of travel) include all meals, local drinks, and two activities per day. In the morning, head out to Victoria Falls Helicopter Flight. As the name suggests, you’ll tour Victoria Falls (a.k.a. “Mosi oa-Tunya”—or, the Smoke That Thunders). It’s the largest waterfall in the world, towering about 355′ tall and 5,604′ wide. You have two options: a short 13-minute flight (Flight of Angels; $150) or a long 25-minute flight (Zambezi Spectacular; $284). The latter will fly you through Batoka Gorge, hover up above the falls on the Zambia and Zimbabwe side, and over Zambezi National Park.
I highly suggest having high-quality camera equipment with you (your smartphone isn’t gonna cut it). Bring a GoPro Hero 6 or 7 Black. Because it’s waterproof, you can capture stills and videos when you do the walking tour of the falls post-helicopter ride without destroying your DSLR in the spray, which turns into a deluge. Opt for Canon’s EOS D Mark II; it’s powerful, compact, and a breeze to use whether you’re snapping scenery or wildlife.
And I’m not kidding about getting soaked during the walking tour of Vic Falls. My guide cloaked our group in garbage bags and ponchos, and advised we put our cameras away once we edged closer to the belly of the beast. This is a stellar way to see the falls from a mere mortal’s perspective. When you’re done, there are plenty of opportunities to buy trinkets and handmade souvenirs at the entrance. You can also go bungee jumping, white water rafting, and bridge swinging (exactly how it sounds).
After lunch, some downtime, and afternoon tea (you’ll regret not ordering an iced coffee and baked treat), head out on Toka Leya’s guided walking rhino tour. Wildlife scouts monitor and protect the nearly extinct white rhinos around the clock. The population has dwindled because of poaching. Even though rhino horns are made of keratin (like our finger nails) and can be dehorned without slaying, poachers still kill them, and the population has dwindled as a result. People believe the horn has special medicinal properties, like helping cancer and serving as an aphrodisiac.
We watched the alpha male, Louis, a young (six- or seven-year-old) tank snoozing in the grass, as well as a cow (female) with her calves. The specialists explained how they’ll swap out the males to prevent inbreeding and help regrow the population in the area, which hovers around 13 rhinos at the moment. All of Wilderness Safaris’ camps have a sustainability element with a purpose tied to rehabilitation of local species and plants, as well as cultural visits and donations.
Spot game in Mosi-oa-Tunya National Park on your way back to camp, then settle down for a night cap and dinner. In the morning, you’ll have a road transfer to Victoria Falls International Airport and take light aircraft to Davison’s Camp in Zimbabwe.
Once you de-plane, you’ll embark on a very different kind of road transfer to camp—a game drive. I was lucky enough to go solo on my evening tour, bumping along the Jeep tracks of the Linkwasha Concession—one of the most prolific wildlife areas in Hwange National Park.
“What do you want to see?” my guide asked.
My answer wasn’t surprising: lions, of course.
We stopped to gawk at ostrich, Guineafowl, Cape buffalo, baboons, and a massive congregation of elephants. Dozens of herds meandered about, some digging into the earth to dislodge salt and minerals to supplement their diets (this was in August, so wintertime), others splashing about in waterholes, glistening in the sinking sun.
An excited voice crackled through the walkie-talkie. A smile spread across my guide’s face. He turned the engine on, then gunned it. In minutes we pulled up alongside two other Wilderness Safari vehicles, three lionesses, and a lion.
We watched as the big cats, unbothered by our presence, lolled about in the grass. Aside from the frenzy of shutter clicks, everyone fell into contented silence. The females nuzzled one another, then got up to stalk an elephant in the near distance. We stayed with the male as he sauntered from the undergrowth of a bush up onto a mound of dirt framed by branches in what comically resembled a throne. After a few beats, he strode down, coming close to one of the game drive vehicles before plopping in the grass.
‘What do you want to see?’ my guide asked. My answer wasn’t surprising: lions, of course.
We watched, transfixed, as he got up again and started off in the direction of his females, the sun slipping beneath the horizon. My guide started the engine and we reluctantly started back. The evening, which was just ablaze, quickly turned dark and cold, like the closing scene of a play. I climbed over the seat to sit shotgun and pulled a blanket around myself for the journey to Davison’s Camp. We stopped once in the darkness to let elephants, towering over us, clear the road and again to catch a glimpse at a leopard’s tail retreating into the brush.
I was welcomed by the staff with waves and a warm towel to clean my face and hands before a quick tour of the grounds. The lounge, dining area, and nine tents are all huddled under false mopane trees overlooking a waterhole available for giraffes, zebra, and cheetah to enjoy 24/7—and they do. Then, enjoy a communal dinner and a night cap around the grounds’ fire pit.
The next morning you’ll have a game drive, followed by tea in the middle of the park, and lunch back at camp. You’re free to help yourself to wine and refreshments as you set up by the pool or sit around the fire pit. If you’re lucky, an elephant and her calves might wander to the manmade waterhole just a stone’s throw away from the chairs, allowing you to watch as they play and drink.
If you like, take a quick nap, then gear up for the evening game drive. You’ll have a sundowner, then come back to camp for dinner and stargazing. Davison’s Camp rates start at $405 USD per day, based on the time/month of travel, and include food, drinks, and game drives.
You’ll have one final game drive before you make the long journey home. Bask in it. And don’t fret if you don’t cross an animal off your must-see list. You’ve already answered the call of the wild.