5 active experiences in Southern Africa

A safari doesn’t have to mean spending hours sitting still in a vehicle. Across Southern Africa, there are an increasing number of experiences that get you up and moving, trying out new ways of exploring the landscape, culture and wildlife of your chosen destination. From cycling between vineyards in South Africa’s Cape Winelands, to horse riding at sunset through Namibia’s desert scrubland, here are five of the best active experiences Southern Africa has to offer.

Foodies on Foot walking tour, Stellenbosch, South Africa

Surrounded by the vineyards and fertile hills of the Cape Winelands, Stellenbosch is renowned for its fresh food and locally produced wines. Dating back to 1679, it’s also the second-oldest town in South Africa.

Cheese and meat platter

By joining this three-and-a-half-hour walking tour, you’re able to appreciate both the cuisine and the heritage of this university town. Strolling along streets lined with oak trees and buildings boasting Cape Dutch, Victorian and Georgian architecture, you’ll hear the history of Stellenbosch — including details about the fire that destroyed much of the town in 1710 — and make regular stops to try local delicacies.

Your guide, Hanli, is a Stellenbosch resident and often greets people she knows during the walk. She keeps in contact with the food producers throughout the tour, so you’re taken to try food as soon as it’s ready, ensuring you taste it as fresh as possible. At each place you can chat to the local artisans about the inspiration behind their products and about life in Stellenbosch.

Each tour is different, but you’ll always sample a variety of sweet and savoury products, including a sit-down lunch. Possible eateries include the Blue Crane and the Butterfly, which serves homemade cakes and freshly prepared sandwiches, and the Blue Crane Coffee Company across the road. Here, cold-brew coffee is made in the cafe’s own ‘laboratory’, and you can see the process in action.

At the Brompton Wine Studio you can pair some of the region’s wines with locally crafted chocolates, noting the subtle changes in taste. Then there’s the chance to sample traditional beef delicacies such as biltong and droëwors sausage at a family-owned butchers.

At the end of the tour you’re given details on each of the places you visited, plus a few other recommended restaurants and cafes to try out during the rest of your stay.

Sunset horse riding from Desert Homestead Lodge, Namibia

Situated around half an hour outside Sesriem, Desert Homestead Lodge is surrounded by open desert scrubland. The distant outline of the Tsaris and Naukluft Mountains forms a stark backdrop, and a rippling sea of burnt-orange sand dunes begins around an hour’s drive to the west.

Horse ride at sunset

The main activity from here is visiting some of the highest dunes in the world around Sossusvlei to watch the sunrise, look for desert-adapted wildlife and work on your photography skills. But you can also join guided horse riding trips through the remote landscape as the sinking sun streaks the sky coral pink and fiery red.

Even if you haven’t ridden a horse before, the relaxed pace and experienced guides will ensure you feel at ease. As a more experienced rider, you might find the ride a little straightforward, but there may be a chance to trot or gallop at certain points along the route.

After taking afternoon tea on the lodge’s veranda, you’re kitted out with a helmet and matched with one of the property’s horses. As you head out across open grassland and through ancient water courses, there’s a distinct Wild West feel. Followed only by the group’s long shadows and the occasional oryx, there’s nothing but empty wilderness for miles.

After riding for around 45 minutes, you arrive at an elevated spot where drinks and snacks have been laid out ready for sundowners. Here, you can sip on a glass of wine or gin and tonic while watching the landscape gradually alter in the changing light. You then mount up once more before heading back to the lodge in the fading sun.

Walking safaris, South Luangwa National Park, Zambia

Walking safaris are offered in many destinations across Africa, but nowhere does them quite like Zambia. It was here that British conservationist Norman Carr first pioneered the walking safari concept, and today you can experience them in most of the country’s parks and reserves, including South Luangwa National Park.

Leopard, South Luangwa National Park, Zambia

While in other places bush walks typically last a couple of hours, in Zambia they can stretch on for five or six, covering much more ground as you learn about the local ecosystem.

There’s also the chance to join a mobile walking safari. Lasting between two and seven days, they involve tramping through the bush during the day before sleeping out under the stars.

The guides in Zambia must gain a higher qualification than elsewhere, so they’re true experts. As you follow your guide through the bush (in a group of no more than seven people), you’re shown how to identify and track animals by inspecting the paw prints and droppings left in their wake.

You’ll learn the calls of individual bird species, and hear all about the life cycle of dung beetles and other insects. Your guide will also point out plant life and tell you the stories behind trees that have stood for centuries.

While you might see more of the larger animals on game drives, you become much more tuned into your surroundings when on foot. Without the hum of a 4×4’s engine, you can listen to the sounds of the bush, from the crack of a twig to the whirr of a cricket or the roar of a lion.

Wine & Ride cycle tour of the Winelands, Franschhoek, South Africa

In South Africa’s Winelands region, great fists of rock rise above valleys braided by green vineyards, the odd cloud scudding gently over crumpled mountains. On this three-hour mountain bike tour you can enjoy the best of the area’s wine and scenery.

Stellenbosch vineyard

Following mountain passes and peaceful backroads, you pedal between local wineries in a small group led by a guide who’ll tell you about the region and its vineyards. Each cycling stint should last no longer than half an hour. While some sections are uphill, the ride’s pace is balanced against the group’s fitness levels, and bottles of water are provided.

The tour departs from Basse Provence, a country house just outside the town of Franschhoek. The wineries you visit vary for each tour, but you’ll stop at up to five different estates around Franschhoek and the surrounding area, tasting several varieties of wine at each. Some offer chocolate pairings or cheese and meat platters to accompany the wine, with a gourmet lunch included at one of the stops.

The experience also includes guided tours of vineyards and wine cellars, giving you an opportunity to learn about the wine-making process from vine to bottle.

Tok Tokkie Trails multi-day hike, NamibRand Nature Reserve, Namibia

The apricot-hued dunes and arid scrubland of the Namib Desert may seem barren and devoid of life, but look closer and an intricate world of desert-adapted wildlife is revealed. On this two-night experience you have the chance to walk through barely visited areas to see and learn about creatures that otherwise go unnoticed.

NamibRand Nature Reserve, Namibia

Joining no more than seven others, plus a guide with extensive knowledge of the region and its wildlife, you’ll hike and camp within the private NamibRand Reserve, following a circular route that takes in dunes, open savannah, rocky hills and dried-up riverbeds.

The first day involves a two-hour ramble, while on the second day you’ll walk for no more than five or six hours, moving at a leisurely pace with plenty of time reserved for a picnic lunch in the shade. The third day only requires a short walk back to the start point. Your luggage is transported separately, so all you need to carry is a daypack.

Throughout the hike, your guide will point out some of Namibia’s more unusual wildlife residents, including cartwheeling spiders, barking geckos, cannibalistic crickets and chameleons whose sticky tongues shoot out in a flash to catch unsuspecting prey. You might also encounter the tok tokkie beetle, whose skill at gathering moisture from the morning mists atop the dunes was featured in David Attenborough’s Planet Earth II.

Both nights are spent in camps, where you’re served a three-course dinner and your bed is set out in the open. Being a designated Dark Sky Reserve, this is one of the best places on the continent for stargazing — your guide is well-versed in astronomy and will help to identify the constellations glowing above you.

Craig Burkinshaw is Founder of Audley Travel.

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Comments (3)

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  1. Hugh says:

    Foodies on foot sounds ideal, and perhaps with a three hour walking tour my waistline won’t suffer from a food tour, for once! All of the options sound excellent, and I love experiencing local delights in a good setting, and combining it with some heritage and history as well. I think a walking safari or walking tour in general is a really good way to stay fit and healthy whilst indulging on holiday too.

  2. Lizzie says:

    It’s great to have a mixture of experiences on holiday, an even amount of relaxing and activities! The foodies on foot tour sounds great, I love the idea of walking off your food once you’ve filled your bellies. I don’t know much about the food in south africa – cold brew coffee is the part that’s drawing me in…Walking safari sounds amazing!

  3. Jessica says:

    Foodies on Foot walking tour at Stellenbosch sounds perfect to me. I love trying out new dishes when I visit somewhere new. You learn a lot about the history and culture too. A wine and cycle tour also sounds like a lot of fun. South Africa has so many amazing things to do, I really want to visit one day.

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