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4 Outdoorsy activities to do in Africa (that aren't safaris!)

By: Clarice Henry + Save to a List

When you think of the African continent, you might not think of it as an outdoor enthusiasts’ playground. I bet dusty, flat red dirt roads, wildlife, mud huts, safari vehicles, acacia trees on the savannah, and tourists decked out in all shades of khaki come to mind. 

While some of those images are accurate, it is a contrasting continent of 54 diverse countries from the vast, arid Sahara Desert to the lush rainforests of the Congo and the beaches of Sierra Leone. In my opinion, the African continent is filled with some of the most beautiful places in the world with countless opportunities to get outdoors.

While heading into the African bush to go on safari is often high on people’s bucket lists, I am here to offer some more “outdoorsy” options to diversify your trip. (Don’t get me wrong, I have been on my share of safaris and have enjoyed each one.) If you're looking for something a little more physical and wild, here are four outdoor adventures to add to your itinerary.

      Turquoise lake framed by green tress and a town in the background.
      Lake Malawi with Nkhata Bay in the background.

      1. Kayaking on Lake Malawi

      To me, three words describe Lake Malawi: massive, turquoise, and glass. Bordered by Malawi, Tanzania and Mozambique, it is so large that you can't see the other side and it's home to more than 700 types of colorful cichlid fish. For a different view of the lake you can venture into the water via kayak. When you look down into the lake, it is like staring through a looking glass into an underwater world.

      On the Eastern shore of the lake lies Butterfly Space Eco Lodge in the town of Nkhata Bay, Malawi. The lodge offers kayaking expeditions via a local tour company called Monkey Business. You can choose from a number of options for the length of time spent out on the water, so you can find a kayaking opportunity that will fit into your schedule and activity levels.

      Double kayak with two males on the water

      Imagine spending your day kayaking along the shoreline of the pristine lake. You'll enjoy eating local fruits, honey, bread, and other delicious dishes on the beaches of small, isolated fishing villages. 

      Breaks may include snorkeling in the crystal clear water. You'll camp out on the lakefront each night and see local village fisherman head out on the water. The stars are magnificent because you're away from large, bright cities. The sky blends into the dark lake spotted with solar lights from the fisherman hard at work.

      Starry sky with lights from fishing boats on the horizon
      Night sky blending in with lights from fisherman on the horizon

      Kayaking the coastline of Lake Malawi is a tough but rewarding adventure with beautiful scenery, warm water to swim in, and the kindest people greeting visitors along the way. It is a must if you are visiting the “warm heart of Africa.”

          Cable car going up wire with mountain in background
          Table Mountain cable car with Lion's Head in the distance

          2. Hiking in South Africa

          There are some magnificent mountains on the African continent. I mean, Mount Kilimanjaro is the world's tallest freestanding mountain at over 19,000 feet. Aside from mountains, South Africa has 19 national parks plus reserves that have been set aside for their natural beauty. Many offer hiking and walking trails. 

          If you are in Cape Town, I highly recommend a day hike up Table Mountain. From the flat mountain top, you can take in views of the city below, the Atlantic Ocean, and magnificent mountainous features like the 12 Apostles. You can take several routes to the top, so do some research before setting out. If you are tired after your hike up, take the cable car down for a quicker descent.

          clouds at sunset surrounding mountain top with two hikers
          Lion's Head at sunset with clouds coming in.

          Lion's Head is another local Cape Town hike. This trail is around 3 miles to the top and features some ladders. It is a great spot for sunset views of Cape Town, the ocean below, and Table Mountain.

          If you want to hike in some glorious mountains, then head to the Eastern Cape to visit Drakensberg. Interested in the ocean? Take a hike somewhere along the Garden Route, like Tsitsikamma National Park. 

          Suspension bridge over a river with green hill behind
          Storm's River Bridge in Tsitsikamma National Park

          While hiking is not as common in Africa as in North America, there are many trails of varying ability levels and a wide range of scenery. Hiking here will take you to magnificent backcountry that you can't see from a safari vehicle.

              Trio of gorillas sitting in lush greenery
              Bwindi Impenetrable Forest, Uganda

              3. Gorilla Trekking

              Endangered Mountain Gorillas are some of the most amazing creatures. There are three countries where you can acquire a permit to trek through the jungle to spend time observing gorillas in their natural state; Rwanda, the Congo, and Uganda. 

              You can go for one day or more and need a permit for each day. The cost of the permits goes towards conservation efforts to protect the endangered Mountain Gorillas with armed guards and support the development of the surrounding communities.

              In Rwanda, you can visit Volcanoes National Park; in the Congo, you can visit Virunga or Volcanoes National Park to see the Mountain Gorillas. In Uganda, you will visit Bwindi Impenetrable Forest. Many tour companies are available to help plan and execute your trip, from getting permits to booking accommodations, and organizing transportation.

              baby gorilla looking while clinging to mother's back

              If you go in gorilla trekking in Uganda, most tour companies will pick you up in Kampala or Entebbe. It is a day trip down south to the forest with stops for meals and to stand on the equator. When I went, we spent the first night in the park at a beautiful lodge, where we could see volcanoes in the Congo from the deck of our cabin.

              On the day of your trek, you will meet early to find out which gorilla family you will search for on your hike. Trekking through the dense jungle can take a couple of hours to a half day or longer. Make sure you bring proper clothing and footwear for hiking through mud, bushwhacking, and protecting yourself from bugs and prickly plants. 

              Once you reach the gorillas, you will spend around an hour with them, watching them go about their day-to-day business of eating, grooming, and preparing nests. After your hour, you'll head back up to basecamp and receive a certificate for completing your trek and being a part of the efforts to keep the gorillas safe at home in the forest. 

                  rushing, massive waterfall
                  Victoria Falls in rainy season

                  4. Chasing Victoria Falls in Zimbabwe/Zambia

                  Victoria Falls, also known as Mosi-oa-Tunya, is one the largest waterfalls in the world, spanning 5,604 feet on the border of Zambia and Zimbabwe. You can visit the waterfall from both countries and partake in activities like bungee jumping or swimming in a pool above the falls. Once you walk along Victoria Falls during the rainy season, you will understand why they call it “the smoke that thunders.”

                  From the Zimbabwe side, you can walk along a cliff trail with the falls on the other side of the crevasse where the Zambezi River rushes below. Stop at the many vista points to get different views of magnificent Victoria Falls. You might even catch a glimpse of warthogs and monkeys throughout the park.

                  group of people gathered at edge of waterfall
                  People preparing to swim in Devil's Pool

                  From the Zambia side, you can do a short hike down to the Boiling Pot below the bridge to cross between countries. If you are feeling especially adventurous, you can swim above the waterfall in what they call the “Devil’s Pool,” during the dry season. I would highly suggest walking the trails and crossing the Knife Edge bridge. While in the park, beware of baboons who are known for trying to steal from tourists.

                  large boat on river with sunsetting
                  Sunset Cruise on the Zambezi River

                  When I headed to see the magnificent Victoria Falls, we visited the waterfall from both sides, but I favored the Zimbabwean side with a fuller view of the falls. You can also do a sunset cruise on the Zambezi River. During the trip, you will get glimpses of wildlife, enjoy a relaxing boat ride, and take in stunning views of sunset on the river. I highly recommend it!

                  Feature image of Ngorongoro Crater in Tanzania by Clarice Henry.

                  We want to acknowledge and thank the past, present, and future generations of all Native Nations and Indigenous Peoples whose ancestral lands we travel, explore, and play on. Always practice Leave No Trace ethics on your adventures and follow local regulations. Please explore responsibly!

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