There is so much more to visiting Africa than 5-star safari lodges, and some of the best experiences in Southern and Eastern Africa can be done on a shoestring.
Whether it’s bearing witness to the dramatic thundering of hooves as thousands of animals join together for the Great Wildebeest Migration or getting up close and personal with the peaceful mountain gorillas that grace the ranges of Uganda, Africa is home to some of the world's best natural wonders.
The jury is still out on which African wonders should be at the top of the bucket list, but for those looking to experiencing the best of Africa without breaking the bank, here are seven wonders of Africa you can see on a shoestring.
1. Okavango Delta, Botswana
The Okavango Delta, spanning more than 16,000 square kilometres, is the world’s largest inland river delta and this majestic aquatic labyrinth is home to some of Africa’s largest concentrations of wildlife. This spectacular region, made famous by David Attenborough’s Nature’s Great Escapes series, is often seen as a remote, 5-star destination but travellers can experience the true delta life while saying no to the high prices.
The best and most cost-effective way to experience this region is to forgo the flight into the delta and go back to basics with an overland drive and mokoro (dug-out canoe) camping trip. You can soak up the rich local village life on the way and experience the region as local tribes have done for thousands of years – on the traditional canoe. By travelling with local mokoro ‘polers’, visitors will get to know the ins and outs of this amazing region, track wildlife, join elephants for sunset water play and even try their hand at poling.
2. The Garden Route, South Africa
While Cape Town is the jewel in South Africa’s crown, it is not just the destination that deserves bucket-list status but the journey from the Eastern Cape, largely considered Africa’s most spectacular coastal wonder. Encompassing vineyards, elephants, mountain ranges, low-lying lagoons, colonial architecture, the Big Five, penguin colonies and the colourful city of Cape Town, this adventure is truly reflective of South Africa’s diversity.
By joining a tour and bedding down for the night in boutique hotels and local lodges, this magical part of the Eastern Cape can be very affordable. By taking an economical overland route, travellers can explore all the nooks and crannies of this region in one trip. Watch elephants go through their nocturnal routines at a floodlit waterhole, visit the ostrich capital of the world, tour the award-winning wineries of the quaint town of Stellenbosch and visit Cape Town’s stunning coastline, home to Chapman’s Peak – one of the best coastal drives in the world.
3. Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe/Zambia
For selfie lovers and Instagrammers the world over, the pool that sits atop Victoria Falls is one of the most photographed destinations in Africa, and offers a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to witness the power of the mighty Zambezi from the scene of the action. Victoria Falls straddles Zambia and Zimbabwe and while it’s definitely worth exploring from both sides – and it’s an easy feat to walk between the two – it is much more cost-effective to stay on the Zimbabwe side, where there is a better range of accommodation and food, and more vantage points from which to see the falls. For the exhilarating Devil’s Pool experience, travellers must visit the Zambian side. Other once-in-a-lifetime experiences include micro-lighting over the falls, bungee jumping and tackling the Grade 5 rapids.
With park entry starting from $US30 ($A40) in Zimbabwe, readily available campsites and such a variety of activities to suit all budgets, this incredible natural wonder of Africa can easily be done on a shoestring. As well as staying on the Zimbabwean side, travellers can cut costs by arriving overland, as flights to the two local airports can add up.
4. The Great Migration – Tanzania/Kenya
Every year, herds of more than a million wildebeest, zebra and gazelle cross the plains of the Serengeti National Park in Tanzania to the Masai Mara in Kenya, and it is one of the most spectacular wildlife shows on earth. This great event happens between July and October and often bumps up the accommodation and touring prices in the region.
For those wanting to experience this incredible natural phenomenon without paying more, an overland tour means no peak-season surcharges, with camping a rewarding and cost-effective experience. Camping options are available in both Tanzania and Kenya, which are equally good for seeing the migration albeit in different phases. This is the best way to have a truly immersive experience, as travellers sleep under the stars and wake up to the sounds of different animal calls.
For the Masai Mara, the Acacia Camp is particularly good value and located on the edge of the reserve, which is fantastic for avoiding the crowds. It also offers cooking facilities so travellers can make a braai (barbecue) local style.
5. Sossusvlei, Namibia
Namibia is home to some of the world’s biggest and best natural attractions, including the second-largest gorge and the world’s oldest desert. Namib-Naukluft National Park is not only the place to explore this ancient desert, it is also home to some of the rarest plant and animal species, as well as the world’s highest sand dunes.
Travellers to this remote region can expect some of the most unique and spectacular scenery on earth, with sand dunes 300 metres high and of varying characteristics, from the ochres and reds of Sossusvlei to the stark whites of the salt pan Deadvlei, which is populated by the striking silhouettes of blackened acacia trees.
Due to its remoteness, accommodation in this region can be quite pricey but Agama River Camp offers both rustic camping and airconditioned chalets, as well as a cozy bar, restaurant and refreshing swimming pool, and is just a 45-minute drive to the gates of Sossusvlei.
6. The Big Five
Africa is synonymous with the Big Five – the must-see animals: lion, leopard, white rhinos, elephant and buffalo. Getting up close and personal with these magnificent creatures can be costly and rather crowded but there are several parks across Southern and Eastern Africa which offer comfortable accommodation options and activities off the beaten track, and off the over draft facility!
Staying just outside national parks and close to a concession area is a great way to save on accommodation costs and explore areas with lower human densities and higher populations of animals.
Top picks include:
Kruger National Park
Kruger is one of Africa’s most famous parks and is renowned for its many sightings of the Big Five. It is easily accessible by air and road, and offers a range of accommodation options, so is a great choice for safari-goers on a budget.
Hazyview is the ideal spot to bed down for the night as it is just outside the national park so price tags are lower. As it is just 10 kilometres from the Pbhaeni Gate, travellers can almost hear the animals as they wake up, and easily enjoy daily trips into the park. This lower section of the Kruger Park is one of the best, with rivers drawing in huge numbers of game during the dry season.
Khwai River region & Moremi Game Reserve
The Okavango Delta is one of Africa’s richest game regions and the northern Khawi river region and Moremi Game Reserve is particularly renowned for its concentration of mammals. To get the most out of this incredible area and keep the purse strings fairly intact, Khawi Bedouin Camp makes a great base.
This tented camp overlooks the River Khawi and all animals are on your doorstep so the game drive begins when the engine turns on. The comfortable tents are definitely more glamping style, as they are spacious and fully furnished with comfortable beds.
Etosha National Park
Etosha National Park is Namibia’s premier wildlife reserve and has an extensive network of gravel roads so travellers can explore every corner of this 22,700-square-kilometre park. Etosha is also home to the endangered black rhino, as well as the black-faced impala, which are only found in this part of the world. Like Kruger, affordable accommodation can be found just outside the park boundaries.
7. Gorillas, Uganda
The elusive mountain gorillas are slowly making a comeback but a trek through the mountainous jungles of Eastern Africa to meet these peaceful creatures is still a rare bucket-list opportunity, and it can be done without completely breaking the bank. There are 700 mountain gorillas left in the pocket of East Africa that straddles Rwanda, Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo, and gorilla trekking is strictly limited to ensure the maximum protection to this endangered species. Permits are required as they provide valuable funding to protection efforts.
As gorilla trekking is dependent on several factors – weather, sightings and visitor numbers, for example – it is difficult to experience a gorilla encounter unless on an organised tour. It is also best suited to the adventurous and fit traveler, as plans are flexible and adapt to the daily conditions.
There are touring options that offer gorilla trekking at reasonable prices by using local guides, comfortable local accommodation and simple but delicious food options, as well as not charging in advance for gorilla permits. This is because the cost of the permits vary by country and park, so depending on where the gorillas are, different parks will be visited and the government often changes the prices.
The permits are the most expensive part of the trek, starting at $US600 ($A810) in Uganda, as there are only 10 permits granted each day to limit the gorillas’ exposure. By opting for less expensive travel and accommodation options, this unique wildlife encounter is affordable.