You could spend many weeks exploring Africa’s rich landscapes, cultures and wildlife by following the long-distance routes below. If you only have time for a short trip, simply choose the chunk that appeals the most.
The Atlantic route (11 weeks)
Weeks 1-3: Tangiers to Dakar
Although a surfaced highway links Tangiers with Dakar, you shouldn’t miss exploring Morocco’s old cities – especially thousand-year-old Fez and Marrakech – in your haste to go south. In Mauritania, pause to visit the dramatic Adrar region and the old city of Chinguetti. From Nouakchott, you’re only a day’s drive from Dakar, the cultural capital of French-speaking West Africa, though it’s worth spending a day or two en route in the old colonial town of St-Louis. Dakar has no shortage of opportunities to recharge your batteries, plus museums and markets, beaches and islands.
Weeks 4-8: Dakar to Accra
After the road journey from Dakar to Bamako, follow the Niger River by road to Ségou and Mopti, perhaps deviating to Djenné for its fabulous Monday market. Alternatively, depending on the time of year and the depth of the water, use the river itself to go by ferry as far as Mopti or Korioumé, the port for Timbuktu. Mopti is a good base for exploring the enchanting landscape of the Dogon to the southeast. After Mali, head on via Burkina Faso to Ghana and its Atlantic coast. Ghana’s flourishing capital, Accra, and the former coastal slave-trading forts of Cape Coast and Elmina to the west are popular targets, as are the national parks Mole and Kakum and the colourful city of Kumasi.
Weeks 9-11: Accra to Yaoundé
Heading east along the coast from Accra, the next big focus is Benin, especially its fascinating city of Abomey with its relics of a violent history. If you cross from here into Nigeria (whose bark is much worse than its bite), you’ll avoid the chaotic experience of Lagos. There are multiple routes through Nigeria, and although you should steer clear of the Niger delta, the rest of the country is straightforward and packed with interest. The old Yoruba towns of the southwest and the rainforests and mountains of the east are highly recommended. There’s no ideal route into Cameroon, though the minor highland border crossings tend to be less of a hassle. Try to spend at least a few days in the beautiful Bamenda Grassfields region. Cameroon also has some superb beaches and opportunities to track gorillas.
The Nile route (12 weeks)
Weeks 1-2: Cairo to Khartoum
This classic overland journey starts in a country of must sees that’s been hosting travellers since the days of Thomas Cook. Try a Nile cruise or a felucca sailing voyage, and then take advantage of the fact that you can connect most of the way to Khartoum by (slow) train. The conurbation of Khartoum and Omdurman together forms one of Africa’s great cities – and, remarkably, also one of its safest and most memorably sited, astride the Nile. You’ll have no trouble filling a few days here, visiting the National Museum, Omdurman souk and the whirling dervishes.
Weeks 3-7: Khartoum to Rift Valley
From Khartoum, head for Addis Ababa, taking time to visit Lake Tana, the Simien Mountains and the Lalibela rock-hewn churches. Alternatively, go south via Wau to Juba and then Uganda, though the bush roads can be very bad. Travel conditions in Southern Sudan, which recently voted to secede from the north, will likely be in flux until the new nation gains its footing. From Ethiopia, a decent highway heads south to the Kenya border, with more diversions beckoning in the form of Rift Valley lakes and the remote cultures of the South Omo Valley.
Weeks 8-12: Rift Valley & beyond
Nairobi is East Africa’s hub, a major traveller’s crossroads with excellent transport connections in almost every direction. If you want to do a safari or climb Mount Kenya, both can be organised in Nairobi (allow at least a clear week for either trip), though it’s worth researching good operators in advance. After enjoying Kenya’s own, multifarious attractions, and perhaps pausing for a week or two on the coast near Mombasa or Lamu, head into Uganda for whitewater rafting at Jinja, and for gorillas further west. From there you can travel south into Rwanda or directly to Tanzania.
The Cape route (14 weeks)
Weeks 1-5: Nairobi/Arusha to Zambia
The overland route from East Africa to Cape Town is the most important traveller’s artery in Africa, all of it on surfaced roads. Reasonably safe and predictable and peppered with attractions and diversions along the way – gorillas in Uganda and Rwanda, Kilimanjaro in Tanzania, game parks, giant lakes and coral beaches – it’s equally feasible in your own vehicle or by public transport. Start in Nairobi, or in Arusha on Tanzania’s northern safari circuit. From Dar es Salaam to Zambia you have the option of taking the TAZARA railway, though this is an increasingly uncertain pleasure as the tracks and carriages fall apart. By road or rail, the route passes through the heart of southern Tanzania, including Mikumi and Ruaha national parks and the vast Selous Game Reserve. You’ll need to visit these on an organised safari unless you have your own 4WD transport.
Weeks 6-8: Zambia to Victoria Falls
In Zambia, South Luangwa National Park is one of Africa’s very best, and a classic area for walking safaris. Unless you’re rushing south, you should spare at least a week or so for Lake Malawi’s beach resorts, with their well-organised backpacker lodges and dive centres. Although not high on anyone’s must-see list, Lusaka is a natural stopover as you continue south. From here, the whole of southern Africa is spread out before you and you can get just about anywhere on the main routes, using bus or rail, in three or four days. Africa’s adrenaline capital, Victoria Falls (just a few hours south of Zambia’s capital), is a great choice.
Weeks 9-14: Victoria Falls to Cape Town
South of Victoria Falls is Botswana’s wildlife jewel, the Okavango Delta, and the wilderness of northern Namibia. Zimbabwe is once again on travel itineraries and you can take in much of the country’s best bits over the course of a few days heading south to Johannesburg. Jo’burg is big and amorphous but has facilities unrivalled in Africa and plenty of good backpackers’ lodges. From here you’re only hours from the Indian Ocean at Durban or laid-back Maputo in Mozambique, and you have the fantastic mountains and wildlife areas of KwaZulu-Natal to explore if you have time. From Jo’burg to the stunning city of Cape Town is a two-day drive or 27-hour train journey.
First published in Travel Africa magazine, Issue 54