Once a year I try and take a trip with a group of listeners of Amateur Traveler somewhere in the world. This year we chose southern Africa and took an overland trip to South Africa, Botswana, and Zimbabwe. We drove from Johannesburg, South Africa to Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe. This was a camping trip and an overland safari. Before the trip, my wife said, “this will probably be my only safari”. After the trip, she started saying things like, “when we go next time…” Let’s see if I can get you interested as well.
you can also listen to Africa Overland – Johannesburg to Victoria Falls – Episode 670
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We had traveled previously to China, Morocco, Cambodia, and India with Intrepid Travel so we booked this trip with Intrepid as well. We have had good experiences with Intrepid with great guides every time. Our guide to Cambodia was even named the guide of the year a few years later. Intrepid has a number of overland trips in southern Africa and we chose their Kruger to Victoria Falls – 8 days/7 nights trip.
Normally for these overland trips, they host groups of up to 24 in a custom made bus, but we ended up with a smaller group in a small van with a guide (Philip) and a driver (Goodman).
Johannesburg, South Africa
All the rest of our group got into Johannesburg a day early and explored the city but Joan and I spent 3 days in Capetown instead.
We flew from Cape Town to Johannesburg in the early afternoon but did not do any exploring. Joan wasn’t feeling great, possibly from starting the malaria medicine that day. Our meeting hotel was the Holiday Inn Rosebank. I had stayed in Rosebank 6 months previous on the way to a Botswana safari so I knew how easy it is to get from the airport to Rosebank via the train. We hopped on the train right at the airport terminal and made one connection to get to Rosebank. The Holiday Inn is within view of the station at the Rosebank Mall. We chilled out in the room until our 6 pm meetup.
We met our group and our guide Philip and driver Goodman in the hotel. The other members of our group were Pat and Lis, who had been on the Amateur Traveler India trip, and Lis’ two sons Alex and Eric. We had an early start in the morning so after our meeting, Pat and Joan and I headed into the mall for dinner and then an early bed.
Blyde River Canyon Nature Reserve, South Africa
We met up at 4:45 for a 5 am departure so that we could get out of town before the traffic got bad. The hotel had made up breakfast bags for us with some pastries and fruit, juice and a yogurt bar. When we stopped for coffee and bathroom at a truck stop at 7:30 – the Alzu Petroport on the N4. We saw ostriches and rhinos outside as there was a small private preserve. I made sure everyone got a look as it was unlikely we would see rhinos in the wild these days.
At 9:45 we stopped for groceries and food for our lunches at a SuperSpar market. Eric and Alex got a takeaway tray of meat with a side of meat from the local Wimpy Burger.
Our goal the first day was to get to Kruger National Park before they closed the gate when the sunset, but on the way to Kruger we drove through the Blyde River Canyon Nature Reserve. Blyde River Canyon Nature Reserve is not what I picture when I picture Africa. On the way to the canyon, we passed small towns with modern coffee shops and B&Bs. We past signs that that were advertising the local fishing.
The Three Rondavels
Our first stop was at a vista point where we could view the Three Rondavels. These rock structures remind locals of the local roundhouses or rondavels.
Bourke’s Luck Potholes
We picnicked for lunch at Bourke’s Luck Potholes. Here there are some small waterfalls and the river has carved a series of kettle shaped potholes into the rock. The area is named after a prospector who predicted gold in the area… but did not find it. So presumably Bourke’s Luck was bad.
We drove through forests of pine trees as we drove around the canyon. Logging is a major part of the local economy. We stopped again at God’s Window to get one last view of the area before heading downhill into Kruger National Park.
Kruger National Park, South Africa
As the sun was getting low to set we entered Kruger National Park, which has 150 mammal species, 110 reptiles species, and over 500 bird species. We hoped to see the Big 5: rhino, elephant, lion, Cape Buffalo, and leopard. There are also the “Ugly 5”: wildebeest, warthog, hyena, the maribou stork, and the leopard faced buzzard.
If you don’t get to the rest camp before the gates shut at sundown you will be fined. During the night and early morning hours, only the official park vehicles are allowed on the road. So we were anxious to get to the rest camp but also slowed down as we started to see animals along the side of the road.
We headed to Satara Rest Camp and set up our tents as it was getting dark, with plenty of help and advice from Philip and Goodman. Philip made spaghetti Bolognese and salad for dinner, and we made it an early night. We were pleased to see that along with the sleeping bags we each got a cot, mattress, pillow, and blanket. The tents were large enough to stand up and to hold two cots and at least some of our luggage.
The facilities were nicer than expected, bathroom blocks with toilet stalls and showers with wooden doors. In general, I have never seen such nice facilities at U.S. national and state parks as we did at all of our stops in Africa. Someone was always in the facilities cleaning something it seemed.
Morning Game Drive
We had booked an early morning game drive so we had another early start. We were up at 4 to be picked up at 5. Philip had hot water ready for coffee and tea and rusks to dip. Rusks are like thick biscotti but made from cereal like muesli, really good. (Ouma brand recommended). Philip walked us to reception at 4:45.
It was so cold that the guide gave us each a blanket. He gave 2 people on each side spotlights to shine out to spot animals. From 5 to 6 it was dark and we had no sightings. From 6-8 we saw kudu, mongoose, steenbok, and then in the last 10 minutes, we saw two lions sitting near the side of the road. Fabulous! One of the reasons you do early morning or late night drives is that you are more likely to see the carnivores like the big cats at that time.
I kept track of where we had gone one our morning game drive with the maps.com iPhone app so I was able to show Goodman and Philip where we had been when we spotted the lions so we drove by that spot but did not find the lions again. We did find a large herd of cape buffalo we had seen previously and a herd of elephants complete with at least 3 very young elephants that were fascinating to watch.
Back at the camp, Philip made eggs, bacon, bread, along with leftover pasta sauce. We broke camp and left for Letaba Rest Camp at around 10, watching for game along the way.
We stopped at Oliphants overlook, where you look over a watering hole with elephants and hippos. We bought Kruger guide books with pictures of animals in the back that you can check off as you see them.
Each of the rest camps has two maps up with magnets on them that mark where people have seen some of the animals. While rhinos are on the map, they do not mark them because this was something that poachers were using to find and kill the animals for their horns. A rhino horn will sell for $100,000 in China. Rhinos are likely to become extinct in my lifetime at the current rate of poaching.
We got to camp at 3:30 and set up camp. Philip put out a fruit salad. We took a walk to the river but couldn’t see much there, sat at the restaurant and got drinks, then went to the Elephant Museum, which was really interesting. Philip made lamb chops and sausage, pap (made from maize), and corn for dinner.
Evening Game Drive
We headed to reception at 7:45 for our night drive. This time Joan had one of the spotlights. In the first hour, we saw a leopard, hyena pups, and a jackal. The second hour was quieter, though we did see spring hare and scrub hare. The guide was informative and allowed time for photos.
Back to camp at 10 and to bed.
Departure time was at 7:15. Breakfast at 6:45 was cereal, bread, coffee.
Thabaphaswa Farm Stay, South Africa
We headed west to Thabaphaswa (meaning ‘black and white mountain’ in the local dialect) for a farm stay. We passed by Zion Christian Church, which Goodman told us had 2.5 million people on Easter. The bishop lives in a sort of tower, and he apparently blesses and heals people. The complex was massive.
We stopped at a mall for lunch. The mall could easily have been somewhere in the U.S. as it had the same design and some of the same stores.
We got to the farm, which had a private reserve next door, and saw nyala, ostriches and their eggs, and monkeys. We were greeted in the driveway by our host and directed to go to the area we’d be staying. It was down a very long rocky dirt road, and when we arrived Philip assigned our rooms, which were buildings at various levels on a rocky hill, connected by cement paths and steps.
Each building consisted of 2 or 4 rooms, which each had one full wall made of panes of glass with a door that matched. Each building was painted in a different color. Most had bunk beds or just two twin mattresses on the floor. We brought our sleeping bags and pillows and blankets, and just what we needed for the night, and made up our beds. We had about an hour and a half break before dinner.
At 5 we drove to the main house where we sat in chairs in a circle on a patio, with our host as he described the work he has done to bring development and training young people to farm. There were 2 really nice good-sized dogs that greeted us, and another smaller one. We learned the 2 are “boerbulls”.
We walked to the cattle pen. The dogs came with us but were very intimidated by the cows. Back at the house, there was now a fire in the center of the circle where we’d sat, and the host talked about the cattle. He breeds for studs and hires out their services, and he offers a cattle hotel so a new farmer can place their cow with him, breed for better offspring, and build up his farm.
When Europeans came in they preferred the cattle breeds that they knew but those cattle were less suited for Africa so what they are trying to do is re-introduce the Nguni cattle that the local Bantu peoples raised. These animals are much more resistant to African diseases and the long-horned cattle can protect themselves from predators like leopards. Many a leopard had been killed by farmers trying to protect their prissy European cattle.
Dinner was a traditional “braai” or BBQ, starting with a Mopani worm (cooked, crispy), sorghum beer, sausage, lamb and steak, chicken feet, spinach, Coleslaw, pap, and Chakalaka, with pudding for dessert. We could also get wine or beer for a fee.
At 9:10 we said goodnight and went back to the rooms. The shower and toilet were outside within a bamboo enclosure, and hot water is provided by a “donkey boiler” which Philip kept heated by building a fire under it. We didn’t know if we’d have hot water in the morning. It was a little colder overnight in the rooms, they are probably not as airtight as the tents.
We heard lions in the neighboring game reserve roaring by at least 5 am and got up at 5:30 for our 6:15 breakfast. We were pleased to have hot water for showers, but we still made them very quick as we were outside and the air was very cold. We packed up and met at the van where Philip and Goodman had cereal and tea and coffee ready.
Our host drove over and we followed his truck. At one point we stopped and he came and explained that we were in the “Platinum belt” and told us about underground and above-ground mining. One of his workers got in our van to go to the village with us to translate.
At about 8:30 we arrived at the village for our visit. The buildings are similar to what I see when I do volunteer work in Tijuana, made of cinder block and no indoor toilets. A man from the village was somehow designated to be our guide, and Goodman actually did some translating, and a young man from the village also came over and did the bulk of the initial translation.
The man we were visiting with owned a store, so we saw how it is set up, very neat, snacks, dry goods, and also meat. His bedroom is in the same building, and that is the entire building. He also grows vegetables to sell. He showed us his peanut plants and we tried raw peanuts, which tasted like beans. The young man we met had just finished school for mechanical engineering and was looking for an internship, which he said is the typical career starting point. We learned that typically a small percentage of the people in the village works in the mines, and the rest of the people work in support services. They do make their own houses, there is a community cement mixer to make the blocks.
One of the things that I like about Intrepid tours is that they usually involve some sort of community connection. It might be visiting a rehabilitation center as we did in Morocco or a village as we did in Cambodia or South Africa.
We left the village at around 9:15 and made a stop around 10:10-10:30 to pick up drinks. We drove into Botswana and got to our campsite at Moremi Gorge at around 1:45. We set up camp while Philip made tuna salad and fruit salad for lunch.
Moremi Gorge, Botswana
We started a hike of the Moremi Gorge around 3:30 with an intro and information about a large baobab tree. Philip had already shown us the inside of the fruit, which is hard and which is where we get cream of tartar.
We selected walking sticks to use on the hike and got started. The hike crosses a stream river several times, so the sticks were to help keep our balance while walking on rocks. We saw a dassie, and our guide identified several plants including a broom cluster fig and a rock scrambling fig. We saw a plant with a hole dug under it, and the guide said that if a porcupine eats the roots of a plant, it is safe for humans to eat that plant.
To complete the hike, we had to climb on boulders that had cables or sections of garden hose attached, definitely more strenuous than we had expected. But we all managed it both up and down. Just before we got to the last waterfall the cables went away and we had to climb around a set of boulders an uncomfortable height off the ground.
The waterfalls were very pretty. The hike back was much faster, which was good as it would be getting dark soon. Somehow stepping over the rocks in the stream and all the other aspects of the hike seemed much easier after the bouldering portion. Philip drove us back to camp and made Philip’s Surprise, basically chicken burritos. He had also provided ingredients for a variation on s’mores, with Nutella and Marie’s biscuits in place of chocolate and Graham crackers. They were actually very good!
Alex and Eric had bought some cane alcohol, and the campsite actually had a tall counter with a sink which made the perfect bar. Pat had bought wine, and we shared our Port from Stellenbosch.
While the rest of us had hiked the gorge, Alex had stayed at the camp, and when we got back he showed us photos of the zebra that had been wandering through the campsite while we were gone. The zebra actually hung around and was just in the trees later in the evening as well.
Makgadikgadi Salt Pans, Botswana
We were up showering at 5:30. We broke camp, had breakfast at 6:45 and were on our way by about 7:30 to drive to Nata. We had a quick bathroom/fuel stop, and a shopping stop from 10:30-11:15, in a really nice SuperSpar market.
We got to the Nata rest camp and set up camp. We had a drive scheduled out onto the Makgadikgadi Salt Pans. On the drive, we saw jackals, helicopter birds, ostriches, wildebeests, kori bustards, and zebra.
At the salt pan, we saw a huge number of flamingoes in the sunset. In fine African tradition, the numerous vehicles from the rest camp brought coolers of beer and other drinks for a traditional “sundowner”.
Philip made poiki for dinner, a traditional stew with kudu meat, made in a dutch oven over the fire.
After dinner, Philip took us for a quick walk into the dark around our campsite to find bush babies. Bushbabies are one of the smallest and cutest primates. We only had to look in a few trees before we saw their large eyes staring down at us.
Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe
We packed up camp and headed out around 7:15 am to head to Victoria Falls. We got to Victoria Falls Rest Camp around 1:30, and Philip and Goodman said they would set up camp for us. (Yay!) We had lunch at the restaurant at the camp, “in Da Belly”. You have to love a restaurant with croc, warthog, and impala on the menu.
The camp was right in town, unlike our other camps so far.
Philip drove us to the Falls, where we had a guided tour of the viewing point. We were glad that Philip had advised us to wear rain gear and sandals as we definitely got wet. There are more than a dozen different viewing spots and the half to the right get more and more wet. At one it was basically like being in a driving rain.
The Falls are spectacular, with a rainbow visible for much of the walk, at times a double rainbow. The tour lasted about 2 hours, though you could do it in less.
Philip had made reservations at Pariah State, a restaurant close to the camp, at 7. The restaurant was really good. We split a spinach and feta pizza and a chocolate dessert. Joan tried Zambezi beer, Chris had a cider. The entire bill for the 2 of us was $22.
We were able to have a later start on the last day, with breakfast around 8. Philip and Goodman kindly took down our tents, before they packed up to drive the van back to Johannesburg. You can normally book this trip either one way as we did or round trip which takes 14+ days and visits some other great sites on the way back to Johannesburg like the Okavango Delta and the Khama Rhino Sanctuary.
We said our goodbyes and put our luggage in storage, and then went with Lis and Alex and Eric to the market in town to look at handicrafts. It was quite an experience, with many vendors all with very similar wooden and stone artwork and lots of haggling and even bartering. Lis gave one of the vendors things from her purse like a tape measure and nail clippers.
One of the reasons that people were trying to barter with us for our shirts, shoes, and nicknacks is that Zimbabwe’s economy is quite screwed up after they had runaway hyperinflation. Over 90% of the country are out of work and it is a wonder that the country still functions. But the people we met were friendly, the crafts were great and I was glad we could buy some to take home.
Joan and I wanted to visit Zambia which is just over the bridge from Victoria Falls. We said our goodbyes, went back to the camp and got a cab for $5 to the border. There we exited Zimbabwe and walked between the two borders, which included crossing the bridge, with additional walking before and after the bridge. It was farther than we expected. At the Zambia side, we got in a line to enter and were behind a group that we thought were also tourists. It was moving slowly if at all, and after about 5 min someone in a uniform came over and told us there were 2 lines and we should be in the other line, which was for tourists. That was much shorter and it went quickly from there.
We then got a cab into Livingstone, the town across the border. We shared it with someone and it was about $10 each. On the way, we talked to both the driver and our fellow passenger about Zambia and Zimbabwe. Zambia is doing much better than Zimbabwe due to its better government for the last few decades.
The driver and other passenger gave us recommendations for what to do in Livingstone, but since we didn’t have much time, and the crossing had taken longer than we expected, we just got lunch and didn’t try to see more of town.
We got a cab back to the border for $10, as listed on a price list the driver showed us, then got a taxi that goes from border to border to avoid the long walk, and then a third cab to the Vic Falls Rest Camp. We had time to sit at the restaurant and have a soda and iced tea before getting our luggage out and waiting for our driver from the Old Drift Lodge to pick us up for our next adventure.
What to Pack
Also, see What to Pack for a Mobile African Safari for a more detail list.
It was interesting seeing Africa, or this corner of Africa at least from ground level on an overland tour. The countries are of a good size so there is a lot of driving on this trip, but there was something interesting to do every day. I would love to go back and do one of the other tours that Intrepid has in southern Africa. I would try and see if we could get Goodman and Philip again if I could!
One other surprise is that the trip sounded like our wildlife experiences would mainly be in Kruger National Park. We certainly had great wildlife encounters there, but we also would just see elephants or giraffes or zebra crossing the road some times. The stretch of road from Botswana to Zimbabwe is called the Elephant Highway. Much of it is inside the national parkland.
As with all road trips, the most important thing is great traveling companions and, like every other Amateur Traveler trip, we were richly blessed in that regard.
See all my Africa photos