Africa is not all arid deserts and vast savannas teeming with large mammals and predators. Its barely touched jungles, narrow valleys, dramatic cliffs, snow-capped peaks, and crystal-clear seas are just aching to be explored.
According to a survey we conducted on our themed travel website, the majority of people traveling to Africa for the first time would prefer to see the Big Five and go on migration safaris in South Africa and East Africa. At the same time, they would like their safari to be adventurous and life-changing. So, why not escape the crowds and combine your African safari with some exciting outdoor activities that will allow you to discover the continent’s unique natural environments and wildlife from a different standpoint?
We’ve rounded up Africa’s best bucket-list experiences that adventure lovers seriously need to have in their lifetime:
Photo credit: Stig Nygaard via Flickr
From Mount Kilimanjaro and the Drakensberg to off-the-beaten-path mountain ranges, there are more mountain safaris worth checking out in Africa than you might imagine.
Trekking in South Africa
In Cape Town, you can pick one of several scenic routes to reach the top of Table Mountain (1,085m/3,559ft). Platteklip Gorge is the oldest and shortest way up, which also makes it the most popular. But when it comes to natural charm, Skeleton Gorge is considered the best. It is also the longest, taking at least five hours to complete the round trip, so make sure you’re in good physical condition before tackling this one.
South Africa’s highest mountain range, Drakensberg (3,582m/11,423ft), is characterized by dramatic pinnacles and rugged peaks, all of which can be explored on day routes, as well as more serious two to three-day hikes.
Climbing Mount Kilimanjaro
Who among us hasn’t dreamed of climbing Mount Kilimanjaro (5,895m/19,341ft) after reading Hemingway’s The Snows of Kilimanjaro? Various routes can take you to the summit of the tallest freestanding mountain in the world. The least difficult are Marangu and Rongai. The more challenging ones are Machame, Shira, and Lemosho.
Also in Tanzania, Mount Meru (4,562m/14,967ft) is preferred for acclimatization before climbing Kilimanjaro. Trekking this picturesque summit takes between three to four days.
Climbing Mount Kenya
Photo credit: Franco Pecchio via Flickr
Mount Kenya is Africa’s second highest mountain, with its twin peaks – Batian (5,199 m/16,355 ft) and Nelion (5,188 m/17,021 ft) – being accessible via technical climbing routes on both rock and ice. Its third highest peak, Lenana (4,085 m/13,402ft) is easier to reach via popular trekking routes.
Trekking in Morocco
The High Atlas Mountains in Morocco are home to the highest peak in North Africa – Jebel Toubkal (4,167 m/13,667 ft). The trek is considered challenging and, while you can reach the summit and return to the town of Imlil (about an hour’s drive from Marrakesh) in one day, it’s recommended that you allow at least three days for the trip.
There are many spectacular trekking routes in Morocco’s Atlas Mountains, and they all offer the chance to encounter the Berber people on your way.
Trekking in Ethiopia
Photo credit: Alvise Forcellini via Flickr
Ethiopia’s Semien Mountains are home to several peaks over 4,000 meters, the highest being Ras Dashen (4,543 m/14,901ft). These majestic mountains have been described by Homer as “chess pieces of the gods,” and their picturesque plateaus, valleys, and pinnacles form a unique landscape.
Off-the-beaten-path trekking in Uganda
Photo credit: Jørn Eriksson via Flickr
Off-the-beaten-path destinations like the Rwenzori Mountains in Uganda, also referred to as the Mountains of the Moon, are one of Africa’s best-kept secrets. Here, you can reach snow-capped peaks and permanent glaciers just north of the Equator. How awesome is that? Wait, there’s more! Its highest peak, Mount Stanley, is the fourth highest in Africa (5,109m/16,761ft).
At the border between Uganda and Kenya, Mt Elgon (4,321m/14,176ft) is an extinct volcano with one of the largest calderas in the world.
Desert trekking in Namibia
Treks that don’t necessarily involve great heights, but are just as thrilling, can be found in Namibia. Hike the highest sand dune in the world, nestled in the heart of the Namib Desert, rising 383 meters (1,256ft) from its base – Dune 7. For an even more exciting experience, camp in the mist of Sossusvlei under a canopy of stars and behold the jaw-dropping show of colors at dawn.
Kayak, canoe, and whitewater rafting
In central Uganda, Lake Victoria overflows to give birth to the world’s longest river – the Nile. In the place where the Nile begins its long winding journey towards the Mediterranean – Jinja on the lake’s northern shore – a series of rapids that alternate with flat water makes for an astounding kayaking and whitewater rafting playground. The White Nile boasts some of the world’s best class V rapids.
Photo credit: Johnny Peacock via Flickr
Zimbabwe is often referred to as Africa’s adventure capital. At Mana Pool National Park, you can hop on a canoe and paddle past grazing elephants and buffaloes on a multi-day canoe tour. Or, you can go whitewater rafting down the Zambezi River on some of the wildest rapids on the planet. After coming down Victoria Falls, the Zambezi River makes its way through the Batoka Gorge, where it offers over 30 world-renowned rapids up to class V.
When the waters are calm, looking down into Lake Malawi from your canoe is like looking down into a huge aquarium, with fish of every imaginable color swimming carelessly. There are over 600 species of cichlids in Lake Malawi, each one astounding in its own right.
Photo credit: David Nunn via Flickr
Explore one of the world’s largest wetlands, the Okavango Delta, in a mokoro – traditional dugout canoes that have been the main mode of transport through these wetlands for hundreds of years. On a mokoro safari, you will approach wildlife in absolute silence and go on bush walks in between paddles.
Most people who travel to Namibia do it for the sand dunes and the mesmerizing Sossusvlei. But what if I told you that you can kayak with seals at Walvis Bay? I bet you’d pack up and leave for Namibia right away! Walvis Bay is home to some 2,500 cape fur seals. There are also Heaviside's dolphins! A kayaking or canoeing trip in the bay at morning means that seal pups will be looking up at you, adult seals will surround your vessel and leap over the paddles, and dolphins will swim alongside.
Embark on the trek of a lifetime and cross lush forests and thundering waterfalls to come face-to-face with the elusive mountain gorilla. There are less than 900 mountain gorillas left in the wild, and around 200 of them call Volcanoes National Park in Rwanda their home. The untouched forests of Bwindi Impenetrable National Park in Uganda are one of the last remaining strongholds for these gentle primates.
Nowadays, the mountain gorilla finds safe haven in the Virunga Mountains, spread across Rwanda, Uganda, and the Democratic Republic of Congo. However, Uganda and Rwanda are widely considered the best places to go gorilla trekking, permits being cheaper in Uganda.
Please be advised that these are long treks through humid and muddy conditions. There are numerous day tours, but the most rewarding treks take a few days to complete. You will approach the gorillas quietly and will sit to observe them seven to ten meters (22-32 ft) away.
Scuba diving & snorkeling
There’s plenty of adventure to be had in Africa on land, but the waters surrounding the continent are equally thrilling. Egypt’s Red Sea, with its historic wrecks lying on its bottom and over 1,100 recorded species of fish, is a famous diving and snorkeling destination. However, the rest of Africa remains a final frontier when it comes to scuba diving.
Considered the continent’s most beautiful coastline, the shores of Mozambique are best explored in a dhow, traditional sailing vessels that will take you to some of the world’s finest diving sites. You can swim with bottlenose dolphins at Ponta do Ouro and with bull sharks at Pinnacles, while the elusive and highly vulnerable dugong can be seen in the Bazaruto Archipelago.
Zanzibar has excellent visibility, warm water, and shallow depths, which makes it excellent for beginner divers. There are also several diving sites that are recommended for experienced divers due to their strong currents.
In South Africa, there are plenty of sunken ships to explore and you can go diving with great white sharks. Don’t worry, I’m talking about shark cage diving here. Although adrenaline-packed, it is perfectly safe. The best place to go shark cage diving is Gansbaai, also known as the “Great White shark capital of the world.”
And if that’s just not thrilling enough for you, then you should know that at Aliwal Shoal in KwaZulu-Natal you can dive with bull sharks and tiger sharks without the protection of a cage.
Photo credit: Tee La Rosa via Flickr
Madagascar is home to the world’s third largest coral reef system. Extending along the island’s southwest coast, its rich marine wildlife cannot be found anywhere else on the planet! Whale sharks (the world’s largest fish) and manta rays call these reefs their home.
Rock climbing in South Africa
Photo credit: africafusion.co.za
South Africa is home to some of the best rock climbing spots in the world. Table Mountain has some awesome crags that offer routes of all grades and some impressive overhangs. Oh, and don’t even get me started on the scenery – chances are you’ll catch the best sunset in your life from the top of these routes.
Photo credit: archive Mélissa Le Nevé
North of Cape Town, the world-class bouldering at Rocklands in the Cederberg Wilderness area attracts climbers from far and wide, young and old, beginners and pros. Red, gray and black sandstone boulders offer routes up to six pitches long in an out-of-this-world semi-desert area.
Photo credit: © KEITH LADZINSKI/RED BULL CONTENT POOL
Blyde River Canyon in Mpumalanga offers some superb climbing on quartzite mesas, and Waterval Boven has over 700 routes on orange quartzite. This is South Africa’s premier sport climbing destination, with routes for every level and taste.
Rock climbing in Morocco
Photo credit: lucadegiorgi.com
Southeast of Agadir, the granite eggs at Tafraoute offer everything you could possibly expect from a world-class climbing venue, from bouldering and sport climbing to multi-pitch big wall climbing.
Todra Gorge in the High Atlas Mountains is Morocco’s largest and best-developed climbing area. These tall and imposing limestone cliffs are home to long bolted routes, up to 300 meters (1,000ft). The High Atlas Mountains are a year-round climbing destination, which makes them a favorite destination among Europeans wishing to escape the harsh winters at home.
Also in the High Atlas Mountains, Taghia Gorge offers the best big-wall climbing in Morocco, with routes up to 800 meters (2,600ft) long.
I cannot begin to talk about surfing in Africa without first introducing Morocco, a surfing mecca and a favorite winter destination for European surfers. The most renowned waves in Morocco can be found between Essaouira and Agadir, a region often referred to as “point break heaven.” The area around Taghazout is dotted with world-class breaks, like the legendary Anchor Point, Mysteries, and Killer Point.
South Africa’s scenic coastline is a surfing paradise, home to surf spots like Jeffrey’s Bay, Dungeons, and Durban. The world-famous Supertubes break at J-Bay is considered one of the fastest and most perfectly formed waves on the planet! While many of the breaks here are on the bucket list of experienced surfers, South Africa has plenty to offer for beginners as well.
Senegal offers a wide variety of spots for surfers of all levels. The breaks around Dakar are world-class and the beaches are uncrowded, which makes Senegal a hidden gem when it comes to surfing. Let’s hope it stays that way!
Skeleton Coast in Namibia is one of the surfing world’s best-kept secrets, home to the longest left-hand beach break on the planet. The Skeleton Coast may not be the friendliest surf spot out there, being relatively hard to reach, but those perfect barrels are well worth the effort.
Do you have a taste for adventure? Africa will quench your thirst! Go on a camping safari and reconnect with your wild side.