Africa is massive. And life is short. So what better way to maximize on both by taking an overland tour from Cairo to Cape Town? The adventure of a lifetime, there are now plenty of overland outfitters to choose from ranging from small outfits that will take you and a few friends or enormous trucks that can carry groups of two dozen or more. Whatever your style of travel, it’s bound to be an incredible trip. While there are tons of things to see and do, we’ve narrowed it down for you – here are 15 unmissable sights on an overland Africa journey.
1) Cairo & Great Pyramids
Depending on whether you’re heading from Cairo to Cape Town or Cape Town to Cairo, every true overland trek will start or end here. What better introduction to Africa than Cairo and the Pyramids? Some say that Egypt, Morocco, and South Africa at the ‘corners’ of Africa are the best introduction since they’ve had interaction with other cultures for centuries. We think the combination of ancient Cairo plus one of the greatest achievements of mankind is the best way to kick off an epic adventure.
2) The Valley of the Kings
One of the most impressive sites in Egypt, this area is littered with temples, monuments, tombs, and museums — all paying tribute to ancient Egyptian civilization and its pharaohs. As you follow the Nile River south to Sudan, you’ll inevitably pass through this area which was a burial place for many kings from the New Kingdom and also one of Egypt’s top sites.
There’s no way to go south except through the Sudan. Until recently, it has had its fair share of turmoil, but things are looking better now. Sudan is also home to one of the most impressive sites in the continent — Meroe and the pyramids of Begarawiya. Built by the Nubian pharaohs, this smaller grouping of pyramids has remnants of over 100 smaller pyramids which, unlike the Egyptian ones, you can touch and wander through at your own leisure without the crowds.
Another site built centuries ago, the rock churches of Lalibela in Ethiopia are one of the most impressive sites in the world, let alone Africa. 11 rock cut churches sunk into the Earth (or carved out of it rather) over 1,000 years ago await you when you arrive. Ethiopia is one of the oldest bastions of Christianity and humanity, so what better place to learn about both aspects of human history?
5) Simien Mountains National Park
Ethiopia has some of the most dramatic scenery and mountains in all of Africa. You’ll undoubtedly experience the diversity of the country as you continue south on your journey. Make sure you stop at Simien Mountains National Park for some trekking, camping, or just to take in the views. Home to a number of endangered animals, the park is named after the packs of gelada baboons which roam the area in huge herds.
6) Lake Naivasha
Lake Naivasha in Kenya is the largest freshwater lake in the entire country and home to hundreds of different species of wildlife. Over 400 different types of birds alone inhabit the area, not to mention hippos and zebras. Set in the Kenyan Rift Valley, it is not too far from Nairobi, Mount Kenya, and Hell’s Gate Park, where you can rent bikes and the wildlife just roams free around you! Don’t worry, there are no carnivores.
7) Masai Mara
The Masai Mara National Reserve is one of the top parks in Africa with some of the most abundant wildlife per square kilometer in East Africa. Featuring every animal in the “Big Five” group as well as dozens of others, this is the spot where you’ll have your first real safari experience (provided you’re headed north to south). Additionally, you’ll likely have an opportunity to interact with the beautiful Masai people, traditionally cattle herders who inhabit the area and are as much a part of this incredible landscape as the animals.
8) Ngorongoro Crater
As you enter Tanzania, you’ll need to make the obligatory visit to the Ngorongoro Conservation Area. The crater, formed by a volcanic caldera thousands of years ago is home to abundant wildlife and considered to be one of the Seven Natural Wonders of Africa. Plenty of opportunity for excellent photography is abound and you can even camp in the area.
9) Mount Kilimanjaro
What overland trip would be complete without visiting one of the most famous peaks in the world? As iconic and important to Africa as any wildlife or historic site, Mount Kilimanjaro is unmissable. You may not have the time, will, or money to summit the peak and see its receding glacier, but you’ll at least be able to stand in awe at its base and appreciate the majesty of the mountain and the incredible adventure you’re undertaking.
10) Dar Es Salaam & Zanzibar
One of East Africa’s most important cities and its most famous island. Dar Es Salaam and Zanzibar played a central role in the prominence of East Africa in centuries past. Both a center of trade and the heart of Swahili culture, Dar is still vastly important economically and culturally. And while Zanzibar is somewhat less prominent than it used to be (and you can’t exactly drive your overland truck there), it is still dripping in history, food, culture, and beaches to explore.
11) Lake Malawi
The second largest and deepest lake in Africa, Lake Malawi is an essential stop as you start to enter southern Africa. The beauty of the lake can be overwhelming at times, but if you take a few days to make your way south through Malawi, there are dozens of places to stop on its shores. With almost every water activity you can think of from kayaking to diving, this is definitely a place to kick back, grab a drink on the beach, and have some fun.
12) Victoria Falls
Like Kilimanjaro, Victoria Falls is one of, if not the most impressive waterfall in the world. Set on the Zambezi River on the border between Zambia and Zimbabwe, there is so much to do here, more than a day is recommended. You can raft the Zambezi, one of the wildest rivers in the world, bungee jump, kayak, or swim in the natural infinity pool (Devil’s Pool) if you’re brave enough. Couple that with the national parks in the area and you may never make it to Cape Town.
13) Okavango Delta
The Okavango Delta is formed by the seasonal rains that flood the Okavango River in northern Botswana, turning the entire area into an enormous swampland teeming with wildlife. During flood times, the only way to see the park is by air (helicopter or plane) or by boat (traditional canoes are our recommendation). And while getting here isn’t necessarily as easy or inexpensive as other places you’ve been accustomed to just driving to, this is a once in a lifetime experience, and besides — it’s just money, you can always make more!
14) Kruger National Park
You’ve finally made it to South Africa! The first stop should be Kruger National Park, which has been protected for over 100 years as a wildlife sanctuary and another one of Africa’s best places to interact with nature. Home to zebras, lions, crocodiles, buffalo, elephants, giraffes, and much more, Kruger has more species of large mammals than any other park in Africa.
15) Cape Town
You’ve made it! Thousands of miles/kilometers, weeks on the road, new friends, and unforgettable experiences to last a lifetime. Cape Town is the usual terminus for most overland expeditions and for good reason too. It is one of the most beautiful places on the whole continent. Celebrate with some champagne on top of Table Mountain, overlooking the city and bay and marvel at what you’ve just accomplished. We know you don’t want it to end, but what better place to start planning your next adventure?
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This article was originally published October 24, 2014.