The 5 Best Self-Drive Destinations in Africa
Africa is a massive continent and each country has its own unique culture. Diverse landscapes and incredible wildlife offer the self-drive traveler a range of opportunities to discover unforgettable experiences.
Whether you want to rough it with wild camping or stay at elegant safari lodges, Africa has it all. Keep reading for our list of the 5 best self-drive destinations in Africa.
Kenya is a great choice for a self-drive safari. The country boasts over 50 national parks and reserves. From dramatic mountains and sprawling savannah plains to epic deserts and amazing tropical beaches, Kenya has it all.
While the local wildlife experiences can’t be beat, this is not everything Kenya has to offer. You can also look forward to adventure activities like whitewater rafting near Mt Kenya, sailboarding on the Swahili coast, hiking to the peak of Mt Kenya, taking a multi day trek across Masai Land, and camel trekking around Laikipia.
Kenya’s capital city of Nairobi has become quite the cosmopolitan city but still exudes traditional African charm with colorful local markets and flamboyant street vendors.
Expect to find everything from designer shoes and artisan bakeries to western style shopping malls and a wide variety of restaurants.
Kenya’s most famous game park is the Masai Mara National Reserve. Situated in the south of the country, it’s home to the Great Wildebeest Migration that sees two million wildebeest cross the Talek, Mara, and San Rivers in search of fresh grazing lands.
While the migration pulls in a lot of tourists, the reserve is incredible all year round with gigantic resident herds of eland, giraffe, elephants, and buffalo, as well as healthy populations of lions, cheetahs, leopards, and rhino.
If you want to really get off the beaten path and discover less visited game parks, you can’t go wrong with heading out to Aberdare National Park for game walks and excellent fly fishing, and Kakamega Forest Reserve, which features hundreds of plant and bird species as well as 400 types of butterfly.
Saiwa Swamp National Park would also be worth a visit, being home to the rare sitatunga antelope and endangered black and white colobus monkey. Consider Drive South Africa for the cheapest 4×4 hire.
Ol Pejeta Conservancy is a great destination for families and rhino lovers. It’s home to three out of the four last northern white rhinos on Earth and plays host to southern white rhino and black rhino.
The Conservancy also features a chimpanzee sanctuary and the Big Five. Visitors here can look forward to a thrilling range of activities, from lion tracking and day and night game drives to bush walks and bird watching.
Another highlight of visiting Kenya is Mt Kenya, Africa’s second-highest mountain at 5199 m (17 057 ft). Mt Kenya features three snow-capped peaks.
The highest peaks, Batian and Nelion, can only be summited by experienced mountaineers, while Point Lenana can be trekked by anyone in around five days.
For the true adventurer, there’s Lake Turkana, where limited roads of extremely challenging condition lead to barren desert and the vision that is the seemingly endless jade blue lake.
With few villages and towns, we’d suggest you hire a local guide who knows the area and speaks the language – you won’t be sorry you did should you have any mechanical issues in this tough terrain.
Kenya’s Swahili coast is a dream for beach lovers, with endless white beaches, tranquil ocean waters, and palm trees aplenty. Scattered along this magnificent coastline, you’ll find everything from campsites to 6 star luxury resorts.
History buffs will love it too, with a number of historical sites from the bygone Arab trading years.
You’ll find Tsavo National Park a bit further inland. Popular beaches for international travelers include Watamu, Tiwi, Kilifi, Diani, and Malindi. Protected marine parks along the coast ensure great snorkeling and scuba.
If you’re keen to take a break from the steering wheel, head to Lamu Island, Kenya’s oldest living town dating back to the 14th century. The island boasts stunning Arab architecture, spectacular views over the ocean, and some of the friendliest Kenyans you’ll ever meet.
You can only reach the island by boat and motorized vehicles are banned, so bicycles, donkeys and walking are the only way to get around.
Kenya can be challenging to navigate. There isn’t much in the way of road signs and local maps are often inaccurate.
Even the popular app Tracks for Africa struggles a bit here. Nairobi has however had a number of ring roads built over the last couple years which have done a lot to relieve congestion.
Tanzania’s stunning wildlife, exotic beaches, and towering Mt Kilimanjaro make it an epic destination for a self-drive safari. It’s a massive country and it can easily take days to drive from one end to the other, so this isn’t a safari for the time-pressed.
The country is probably most famous for its game parks. It plays host to the world-renowned Serengeti National Park and Ngorongoro Crater in the north, the Selous Game Reserve and Ruaha National Park in the south.
You’ll also find smaller game parks in the north like Arusha National Park, Tarangire National Park, and Lake Manyara National Park.
There are few major roads linking towns and cities, but what’s there is mostly good tar. The smaller arterial roads leading to the national parks are however badly maintained dirt roads that can become impassable in the wet.
The 100km road linking Serengeti National Park with Ngorongoro Crater is a rough dirt road that can take up to four hours to drive depending on the conditions.
The Serengeti National Park is heaven for wildlife enthusiasts. There’s a large concentration of animals near the Seronera area which also hosts a number of public campsites.
Explore the less-beaten side tracks and with a bit of luck you’ll come across large prides of lions, wildebeest, elephant, zebra, cheetah, eland, buffalo, many kinds of antelope, as well as jackals and hyena.
Although there are rhinos, they tend to stay away from the roads in the deep wooded areas.
Although the Ngorongoro Crater is a major attraction, it has seen a decline in animal numbers in the last decade, with most animals relocating to outside of the conservation area due to alarmingly high tourist numbers over the last decade.
The steep entry fees can also be off putting ($200 per vehicle and $50 per person) especially when there are so many other options in Tanzania.
For the adventurous at heart, a self drive safari to Selous Game Reserve and Ruaha National Park is a must. Avoid it during the rainy season, but if you’ve got the time and the right 4×4, you’ll experience spectacular game viewing and few other vehicles in this barely developed part of Africa.
Camping is a great option if you’re on a tight budget, but there are also a few luxury lodges available.
Most people will want to check out Zanzibar off the coast of Tanzania for its beautiful beaches, historic Stone Town, and wide variety of accommodations.
You could ferry your vehicle to Zanzibar, but we’d suggest catching a ferry or plane to the island and getting around in a hire vehicle or motorbike.
For less crowded options, we’d suggest exploring Pemba Island or the beach paradises scattered along the coast. Pemba is raw and exotic, less touristy, and offers tropical mostly deserted beaches.
Check out the spectacular beaches near Pangani, Bagamoyo, and Ras Kutani, all offering warm and tranquil ocean waters and endless white sand.
For those looking for the ultimate Tanzanian challenge, there’s always Mt Kilimanjaro. At a massive 5 895 m (19 300ft) it’s the highest peak in Africa and not for the faint of heart.
There are several routes to choose from, from 7 to 10 days. Some of the most popular routes include Marangu, Rongai, Lemosho, and Machame. Choose your route according to the season and your level of fitness.
Although Victoria Falls is a major drawcard, there’s so much more to see and do on a self drive safari in Zambia. You can easily explore Zambia at your own pace by renting a 4×4.
Although the road network has improved over the last few years, you should still allow enough time and overnight stops between the major attractions.
Towns like Lusaka and Livingstone that were once dusty towns with very average hotels have been transformed into pretty much new cities with new super highways, a load of new international hotels, great restaurants, and a slew of South African chain supermarkets.
You can’t visit Zambia without taking in the majestic Victoria Falls in Livingstone. Zimbabwe’s political troubles in the past have meant that most tourists have ended up viewing the Falls from the Zambian side.
This increase in tourism has led to a wide range of hotels and campsites for all budgets as well as a variety of activities including sunset cruises, walking with lions, traditional village tours, canoeing, and rhino trekking.
There’s also no shortage of adrenaline-pumping options like bungee jumping, whitewater rafting, microlighting, and jet boating. Although Livingstone has seen much development, it still retains its historical town charm and much of its 19th-century architecture remains.
Not to be missed is its museum which provides an in-depth insight into Zambia’s history, covering everything from the original tribes through to independence and more modern development.
The room dedicated to David Livingstone deserves special mention for its original diary entries and original artifacts.Lake Kariba is well worth a visit. It’s Africa’s largest man-made dam at 226 km long and up to 40 km wide. It’s the perfect spot for a few days of relaxation and hosts the annual Tiger Fishing competition in May, drawing sport fishermen from around the world.
Kafue National Park is a must-do. It’s Zambia’s oldest national park and the biggest in Africa, home to over 55 species of mammals. You’ll need to allow yourself plenty of time to get there – the 200 km road from Lusaka is challenging, mostly broken tar and dirt track.
There’s a wide variety of activities awaiting you at the park, from game drives and boat safaris to hot air ballooning, walking safaris, and canoeing. It’s best to avoid traveling here between November and April as the roads can become impassable.
South Luangwa National Park is also well worth a visit. The scenery is spectacular and there’s a wide variety of animals to spot. If you’re after seeing the elusive leopard, you’ll probably be able to spot one or two at this magnificent destination.
This park used to be a challenge to access, but a new road has been built from Chipata to Mfuwe cutting travel time from eight hours to two hours.
Botswana is a spectacular self drive safari destination, a place of few roads and wide open spaces. Renting a 4×4 in Botswana is one of the most popular ways to explore this beautiful country.
The country offers intrepid travelers some of Africa’s most isolated and beautiful lodges scattered amongst savannahs, deserts, wetlands and salt pans. By limiting development to urban areas, Botswana has left its wilderness areas mostly untouched.
One of the country’s major drawcards is the Okavango Delta, 15 000 square kilometers of watery mazes and islands that support a plethora of wildlife and bird life.
Although you can access parts of the Delta in a 4×4, to truly get to the heart of this paradise you’ll need to travel by boat or plane. Indigenous to the area are the San people, who live traditionally as hunter-gatherers.
Chobe National Park boasts the highest concentration of elephants in Africa and is the most accessible of game parks in Botswana. If you want to access the park from Maun, you’ll need a high clearance 4×4 and some experience behind the wheel since the terrain is notoriously rough and features mud, seasonal flooding and river crossings.
Botswana is a beautiful country for a self-drive safari, but you’ll need to take your time and book your accommodation well in advance.
A self-drive safari through Malawi provides the perfect opportunity to experience the relaxed Malawian lifestyle while still taking in the country’s many attractions.
Navigation is relatively easy, with a few roads connecting the main towns and running along the lake. Once you get off the main roads, however, the condition of the smaller roads often deteriorates. This is why renting a 4×4 in Malawi is your best option to get around the country.
Lake Malawi is the main attraction here and is popular for exploration amongst most travelers. The lake’s edge is a hive of activity, featuring subsistence farmers and skilled craftsmen carving statues and furniture. Water sports and scuba diving are popular here and there are a number of beaches that are swimming friendly.
The sheer scale of the lake is unbelievable – it feels more like an ocean and spans Malawi and Mozambique. Although much of the game has been poached out, one game park we can suggest is Vwaza Marsh just north of the town Mzuzu, which is popular with elephant lovers.
Few travelers venture here and you’ll often have the whole park to yourself. It’s best to avoid this park during the rainy season as the roads can become impassable.If you want to escape the tropical heat and enjoy horse riding and hiking then Nyika Plateau is a great option. Situated in the highlands at 1800 m above sea level, the plateau offers a complete contrast to the terrain closer to the lake.
Wildlife roaming the plains and rolling hills include zebra, warthogs, jackals, duiker, roan antelope, and reedbuck. During the rainy season, wild orchids form a beautiful blanket over the land.
Nkhotakota Wildlife Reserve offers a true wilderness to explore. The park spans 1800 square kilometers and is largely underdeveloped and unexploited. Although the game viewing is nothing special, it’s worth visiting for its sheer wildness of wooded areas, tropical forests, open plains, and ample bird life.
For a real adventure, hop aboard the MV Ilala for a few days and perhaps stop off at Likoni Island where you’ll find a great resort. The MV Ilala is not a luxury cruise vessel but rather a crucial lifeline for people living on the islands and along the lake. The boat runs between Monkey Bay in the south and Chilumba in the north.
Livingstonia is a remarkable place that reminds you of a small Scottish village overlooking the lake in the north. A tribute to Dr David Livingstone, the village has an interesting museum as well as a church with a stained glass window depicting Livingstone. About four kilometers away you’ll find Manchewe Falls. The road to Livingstonia is steep and winding, but a visit to this historical village is well worth the effort.