Africa Overland – An Epic Road Trip from Cape Town to Zanzibar (and Back)

This epic road trip through Africa, in a high-clearance 4×4, took myself and two companions six weeks to travel through seven African countries. The objective was to drive from Cape Town to Zanzibar island off the coast of Tanzania, and back again, an epic distance of more than 12,000kms (7,500 miles). It was a daunting prospect, but proved to be an incredible adventure.

Feeling Africa’s spirit by overland travel

Exploring such a vast and diverse continent by car is the most amazing way to see Africa. Every kilometre feels like an adventure, whether it be sand roads to navigate, dangerous truck drivers, wildlife spotting opportunities, crazy rainstorms, interesting street signs, or colourful characters to meet.

It’s easy to be tempted to visit every national park, stop at every major sight, and see as much as possible (which would require months of time). Instead, our drive was based around visiting some key destinations and skip those that required unnecessary detours. But the true aim of the trip was to learn and immerse ourselves in Africa’s landscapes, culture, people, and the feeling of life on the road.

I have some practical notes at the end of this post. But for now, let’s start the adventure!

South Africa

Our journey began in the shadow of Table Mountain, Cape Town’s crowning mountain feature that dwarfs the city. South Africa’s trendy and cosmopolitan city is one of most accessible jumping-off points for travel in Africa. It’s certainly one of the best places to visit for those who have never been to Africa before.

Starting the road trip at Cape town

Drawing of Cape Town at sunset from Blue Peter bar

Even before embarking on a road trip, Cape Town has plenty to keep anyone occupied. Climbing the city’s landmark peaks (Table Mountain, and Lion Rock, for example) are great for hikers, and to view the city from above. For those who forgot their hiking boots, sipping a gin and tonic by the beach at Camps Bay, posing for photos amidst the multi-coloured walls of Bo Kaap, or taking the ferry to Robben Island are wonderful ways to enjoy the sun, the scenery, and to learn about the city and its history.

Boulders Beach Penguin colony illustration artwork
Sketching some of the local inhabitants of Boulders Beach

Day trips and multi-day getaways offer even more great experiences; penguins swimming in the surf at Boulders Beach, wine tasting and exploring the colonial promenades of Stellenbosch, and taking a car along the garden route to Addo Elephant Park are all great experiences out of Cape Town.

But for now, we were saying goodbye to Cape Town. A mere 680 kilometers away was the Namibian border at Vioolsdrif, and (having already spent some time in South Africa), we reached Namibia in the first day.

Namibia

Sketch landscape of an offroad vehicle in the Namibia desert highway

From the southern border, Namibia’s landscape felt like driving across the surface of Mars. Without a person, building, or feature in sight, the absence of insects chirping or even wind made this quiet place otherworldly. Namibia’s landscape is spectacular; barren rocky deserts, sweeping valleys and sand dunes like mountains. In the north of Namibia, parks such as Etosha offer incredible wildlife spotting opportunities.

Ai-Ais and Fish River Canyon

Landscape illustration of Ai-Ais camping ground in Namibia Namib desert
The campsite at Ai-Ais, Namibia

Ai-ais, a hot spring hidden at the south of the Namib desert, is an ideal camping rest stop for travellers through this region. Campsites are available, as well as rooms, a tiered waterfall-esque pool, and kitchen. The thernal springs heat all the bathing pools here.

Ai-ais is just a small feature as part of Fish River canyon, a rugged river feature of immense scale, carved into the Namibian escarpment. For the adventurous, Fish River Canyon is ideal for hiking and wildlife spotting.

The Namib Desert – The middle of nowhere

Drawing of a broken down gas station in africa
An abandoned petrol station in Namibia

With just occasional small towns in the south, Namibia feels very empty, and campsites and towns can be very far between. Stranded without lodgings one night, we knocked on a farmer’s door to ask for a place to pitch our tents. In return, we were given a chalet to sleep in. And as a (pretty big) surprise, there was a lion enclosure right next door! It had been rescued from poachers, and lived on the farm.

National Parks and Wetlands of Botswana

Entering Botswana through Buitepos, we soon discovered a transformative world of green shrubbery, loquacious birdlife, and bulls that napped in the middle of the highway. No doubt about it; Botswana was the place to see animals, which we experienced exploring two massive wildlife habitats. Whereas we were lucky to see an insect in Ai-Ais, Botswana sometimes surprised us with families of fifty elephants that wandered across the highway.

The Okavango Delta by mokoro

In northern Botswana, a sprawling wetlands floods every year as the mighty Okavango River drains into a tectonic lowland, with waters fanning out over a stunning 15,000 to 22,000 km². In turn, an explosion of life occurs, as everything from elephants, lions, hippos and crocodiles (and many more) are drawn in to the waters to make this fertile landscape home. Welcome to the Okavango Delta.

March to August is the best time to visit. From the gateway town of Maun, visitors take a mokoro, a slender canoe controlled by a guide that navigates by pole. Seated in the mokoro, the view through the tall reeds as we pushed through was unforgettable. Before long, tiny itchy spiders were landing on us, so the guide installed a tree branch in the front to break through the webs.

Unfortunately, we were in the wrong season, and didn’t spot much wildlife. The guides took us onto a nearby island to follow trails of elephant dung, and show off their favourite baobab tree.

Elephant spotting in Chobe national park

Driving under the large, triangular gate into Chobe national park is like entering Jurassic Park. This large national park in the far north of the country was elephant country. In fact, this place had about 120,000 elephants somewhere in the park. And there’s plenty more to see – herds of spiral-antlered kudu stared at us with trepidation, and ostriches galloped away in a flurry of feathers as we approached.

Drawing of three countries on one African road sign
Three African countries in one road sign – Zimbabwe, Zambia and Namibia!

The park is 11,700km2 (4,500m2), and driving from one end to the other can take all day, so arrive very early. The terrain ranges from deep sand, to rutted gravel, to waist-high river crossings, so a high-clearance vehicle is essential. On the other side, coming out near Namibia’s Caprivi Strip, we found the Kazangula border crossing across the Zambeze river into Zambia.

Navigating terrible roads in Zambia

A difficult driving experience

Zambia highway truck crash drawing semitrailer flip
A man sleeps on the roof of his truck on a dangerous Zambian Highway

Driving through Zambia is an experience unto itself, and not for the faint of heart. This is rugged country, and the state of the roads are shockingly bad. Our GPS failed, roads and highways are a minefield of potholes, and poor signposting means that journeys often take twice as long as expected. But this is all part of the fun, and with such a challenging and immersive experience, you may even forget that you’re even travelling. You’re just in it.

Despite the challenges, the landscapes are mesmerising. Dry scrubland and sparse trees stretch for miles. Tiny villages with thatch huts seem to endlessly follow the highway, and locals are always found to be at work, hauling bales of sticks on their heads as the sun sets, riding bicycles stacked with tomatoes, or selling pottery beside the highway.

Stop and chat with the locals, and you’ll find they are very friendly. Many like to practice their English, and tell you their story. Stop at a roadside shop to pick up supplies and you’ll likely end up kicking a balled-up newspaper soccer ball around with the kids.

Victoria falls, the biggest curtain of water in the world

knifes edge bridge at victoria falls
The knife’s edge bridge in front of Victoria falls

The local name for Victoria Falls, Mosi-O-Tunya, or ‘the smoke that thunders’, could not be more apt. This incredible waterfall is nature at its most furious and spectacular, and is undeniably the biggest draw of the region. At an inconceivable 1,700 metres (5,600 feet) wide, and over 100 metres (330 feet) high, the effect of this power creates mists that falls like rain, and rainbows that glimmer in the sun.

Visitors can see the falls from various viewpoints, with the option of donning a green raincoat to keep dry from the spray. A precarious walking bridge passes immediately in front of the falls for the most intense experience. Other trails lead to the lip of the falls, where the infamous Devil’s Pool gives one the chance the swim right up the very edge of the falls.

Another trail to the bottom of the falls takes you to the river floor below, as you watch bungee jumpers leap from high above. The bungee bridge is actually the border between, Zambia and Zimbabwe, so bring your passport!

What to expect from African potholes

Sketch of a car stuck in a massive pothole in zambia
Potholes big enough to park in

On small asphalt roads, you’ll find fields of deep, cauldron-shaped potholes with sharp edges, which you need to swerve around. It is difficult to find a stretch of road to pick up speed.

Enter the highways, and there are entire trenches that span the width of the road. They’re very deep, and can only be spotted from right up close, so they can literally rip the wheels off a semitrailer (we saw plenty of overturned trucks). More annoyingly are potholes filled with rocks that turn them to teeth-rattling speedbumps.

Stopping in Lusaka, Zambia’s capital city

Dull office blocks and dusty, jammed highways – Zambia’s hectic capital is not a pretty city, nor is there much to stay for. If you’re just passing through, like we did, check out the fun Lusaka City Market, packed with clothes and souvenirs. The best option is to drive through Lusaka and continue to Kabwe, where the excellent Tuskers hotel serves as a welcome sanctuary from a day’s chaotic driving.

Wildlife spotting in Tanzania

Pencil drawing of African national park with wildebeest silhouettes red sunset
Wildebeest move to the water hole under a dazzling orange sunset

Tanzania might be the quintessential Africa that people imagine. Dry savannahs and elegant silhouettes of herds of giraffes against red sunsets, with acacia trees spreading their branches low and wide. The names of places to visit are like a list of celebrities, too; Serengeti, Ngorongoro, Mt Kilimanjaro, Zanzibar.

Mercifully, Tanzania’s road infrastructure is a leap forward compared to Zambia, and you can expect smooth, sealed highways across the country.

Truck drivers like these roads too – coming away from the Nakonde border is a mad dash to escape the truck traffic. Covered in garish lights and stickers, these road giants move slowly and are terrifying to overtake. But there’s a code; watch for the indicators and the trucks let you know when its safe to pass (left means wait, right means OK to go).

Driving the Uluguru mountain range

Sketch of a road sign in front of a moubtain road in africa
Winding mountain road ahead!

To reach the coast from the crossroads city of Mbeya, the highway crosses the dramatic Uluguru mountain range. Jagged peaks, lush forests, and slithering mountain passes make this a very beautiful drive (but when passing trucks on blind bends, often a white-knuckle experience). On the other side is a vast forest of lonesome baobab trees.

Self-driving Mikumi national park

Drawing of an african zebra running across a road
A zebra skips across the higway

Tanzanias’s lovely Mikumi National Park is not the most famous park in the country, but this means it’s less crowded, and there are good chances for wildlife spotting. Watch out for maasai giraffes with jagged, star-shaped blotches wandering around in Mikumi, as well as lions, and herds of grunting buffalo. Overnight chalets are available inside the park to sleep.

Leaving Dar es salaam (ASAP)

We arrived in Dar Es Salaam by way of Morogoro, and found a city even bigger and more crazy than Lusaka. Honking horns, heaving bundles of electrical wires overhead, touts and pickpockets, puppies for sale at traffic lights.

Dar Es Salaam didn’t feel very safe, and we intended to leave right away, so we left the car at the Ford garage for a service, and took the ferry. Watch out for persistent touts that try to sell you tickets – only buy them from the terminal.

Renting motorcycles on Zanzibar

Just the name Zanzibar conjures up the most exotic imagery of the Age of Exploration – Portuguese fortresses baking under the African sun, food markets and antique dealers, shady back alley houses with beautiful doorways, palm trees at the old port, dhow fishing boats plying sparkling azure seas.

Exploring Stone Town on foot

Urban sketching Zanzibar beach ships palm trees bicycle
Locals on the beach at Zanzibar

Arab, Persian, Swahili and Portugese influence all melt together in Stone Town. Still part of Tanzania, the mosques and minarets that begin the call to prayer are a reminder that you’ve come a very long way since leaving Cape Town. It is a great town to amble around and take pictures, a beautiful maze of fortifications, colonial houses, alleyways and market squares.

The island is small enough to be explored by motorbike. We rode to Paje, on the east side of the island, where many of the quiet resorts are located. We stayed in Paje by Night bungalows, and splurged on fresh seafood (a nice change from Nshima (a maize meal from some southern African countries).

Drawing of a sunset in zanzibar with a traditional dhow fishing boat
A dhow passes across a stunning african sunset

Malawi

Malawi is not a travel destination that’s on many people’s radar. It is a small, landlocked country of mountain ranges; and of tea, sugar, rubber and coffee plantations.

Camping on Lake Malawi

Cartoon sketch of African kids dancing on Lake Malawi Africa
Kids dancing on the beach on the shore of Lake Malawi

The most defining geographical feature here is Lake Malawi (AKA Lake Nyasa), a long sliver of water that runs down the east side of the country. It’s so large that you can’t see the other side, and has lots of opportunities to stay in lakeside lodges and camping grounds.

With under a million annual visitors, the intrepid few who do visit will meet warm and generous locals that love to speak English with you, play a game of pool at the camp ground, and groups of kids that encourage you to drink your beer quickly to take the empty bottles. Point at a camera at the kids, and they’ll start dancing!

Keep an eye out for enthusiastic kids selling fried bread balls as you wait for traffic lights, and farmers delivering live pigs strapped to the back of bicycles!

Blantyre gateway to Mount Mulanje

Named by Scottish missionaries, Blantyre in the south of Malawi is not much more than a rest stop. It feels very safe, and is a great place to recharge of food, fuel and supplies before continuing on to Mulanje Massif, a popular hiking mountain.

Mozambique

Today considered an exotic country of sunshine, palm trees and coconut plantations, Mozambique is still living under the shadow of an ugly civil war that raged for 15 years and claimed the lives of a million Mozambicans.

Checkpoints and roadblocks in Africa

We were reminded of this when crossing the border at Milange. A hard-faced soldier with a machine gun, beret, tattooed arms and rolled up sleeves wanted to inspect every inch of the car. From our toothbrushes to the high-lift jack, we needed to explain why we had all that stuff. Meanwhile, locals were passing by using a stamped scrap of paper as a local passport.

Don’t let times like these scare you. All over Africa, police checkpoints might ask for a passport, or to search your car. They can usually be trusted.

But this is key – when you pass through a border crossing, there will always be enterprising touts who claim to help you through the crossing. They either ask for money, or steal your documents, so only ever deal with the man behind the desk.

Mozambique’s seaside getaway, Vilanculos

Pencil drawing of Stranded boats on the sand on Vilanculos beach
Stranded boats in the low tide of Vilankulo beach

Reaching the eastern coast of Africa, Vilankulos (or Vilanculo) is one of the best places to feel the warm Indian ocean lapping up against your feet. An idyllic beach town of soaring palms and sparkling azure waters, Vilankulos is a favourite getaway for South African visitors arriving by 4×4.

This is also the jumping-off point for the Bazaruto Archipelago, a marine national park of 6 islands teeming with reef fish, as well as larger wildlife such as dugong, leatherback turtles and whale sharks.

One afternoon in Maputo

Continuing the trend of African cities we couldn’t wait to leave, we arrived in Maputo in a line of traffic mayhem. At the very least, this city was much prettier than others. Tree-lined boulevards and Mediterranean architecture seems to have seeped into the city through Portugese influence.

The beaux-arts Maputo station is of exceptional note; a lovely, grand building of archways, detailed ceilings and wide verandahs. We explored a local art gallery that melted down AK-47s into new shapes. And when we spotted ivory trinkets for sale at Maputo Central market, we decided to leave.

To Cape Town – Completing the road trip

We arrived back in South Africa through the large, organised southern border at Lebombo. The difference in road quality was immediate. Smooth asphalt again!

Nelspruit, a base for Kruger

Now known as Mbombela, this city doesn’t offer much for visitors. It is, however, often used a base for trips into Kruger National Park, one of Africa’s largest and most famous game reserves, almost double the size of Chobe National Park.

Port Elizabeth, Addo NP and the Garden Route

Bringing the road trip to a close was the Garden Route, beginning with Port Elizabeth, a port city that has some beautiful, relaxing beaches. Addo Elephant Park is also nearby, a wonderful self-drive game reserve. Wake up early to see a wider variety of wildlife when the weather is still cool (and watch out you don’t drive on the dung beetles!).

Highlights of the Garden Route include Knysna, a cute seaside town with kitschy tourist shops and seafood dining; Tsitsikamma’s gorgeous national park and forest hiking; bungee jumping from Bloukrans (the world’s highest jump!); and Hermanus, for the clifftop viewpoints to spot passing pods of whales.

Equipment, paperwork and health

A drawing of travel documentation and equipment on a table
Preparing all the documents for an African journey

The Africa expedition vehicle

We drove a 2010 Ford Everest, which we nicknamed ‘Hammond’. We had the advantage that it belonged to my uncle, who agreed to lend it to us. As this is an exceptional case, renting a vehicle, or buying and selling a 4×4 in Cape Town is a more realistic way to get your hands on a car, and certainly possible for your own road trip.

By itself, it was more than capable of tackling any of the terrain we encountered. But there some extra modifications, too. We had knobbly offroad tyres fitted, and brought two spares, a high-lift jack, two jerry cans filled with diesel, and installed a small fridge in the back.

Other equipment

Other equipment which was invaluable was a puncture repair kit, a detailed hard copy road map (GPS often failed), tents and sleeping equipment, and general camping equipment such as barbeque equipment, camp chairs and table.

Paperwork needed for an Africa overland trip

In terms of paperwork, all visas were carefully researched and pre-arranged. The car had a carnet de passage en Douane, a form of importation permit for our vehicle. The car also had legal stickering for some countries, such a red and white reflector for Tanzania, a SA sticker for South Africa, and a yellow and blue triangle for Mozambique. With some border crossings nothing more than a small cabin in the forest, you must bring paper copies of everything.

Immunisations

You need to consult your doctor to ask what immunisations you need for Africa. Of particular importance is yellow fever; in addition to protecting yourself, yellow fever proof is actually a requirement to enter some countries. The other major disease to be mindful of is malaria, and appropriate medication should be taken during your trip.

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There we have it, our epic African road trip wrapped up! From Cape Town to Zanzibar by car is truly the most amazing way to discover the continent of Africa, with every truck stop, wildlife park and campsite along the way. Have you been to any of these African countries? Which one would you most like to visit? Let me know in the comments!