Hurtling through the sky on a gorge swing across mighty Victoria Falls. Seeing lions and elephants walk past next to our safari jeep. Jumping out of an airplane above the desert in Namibia. Hiking up close with majestic white rhinos. These were just a few of the unforgettable life experiences I had as a participant on Absolute Africa’s Southern Safari tour.
This guide is a review of the Southern Safari from Nairobi, Kenya, to Cape Town, South Africa, which I participated in for 52 days during May and June 2018. The Southern Safari is part of a longer tour, the Absolute Safari, which runs for 73 days, and encompasses a shorter tour, the Namibia Nomad, which runs for 34 days from Victoria Falls to Cape Town.
If you’re looking for an Absolute Africa review, or a day-by-day journal of what life is like on an overland safari, this resource should be everything you need. You’ll learn about the daily ins and outs, what life is like on the truck, the logistics of camping, recharging your electronics, and so on. I’ll give tips and reviews on which optional excursions are worth the money (Zanzibar! Serengeti!) and which ones you may want to skip.
This post should be helpful even if you’re considering a tour from a rival company (Acacia, G Adventures, Oasis, Intrepid), because they use many of the same campgrounds, attractions, and excursions.
If you find this guide useful and you end up booking something through Absolute Africa/Tour Radar, I’d be grateful if you book through my referral link. You’ll earn a discount, and I’ll get a small commission at no extra cost to you. Now, on with the Southern Safari overland safari review!
Basic Info and Review of the Absolute Africa Overland Safari
The Southern Safari Tour from Absolute Africa took us from Nairobi, Kenya to Cape Town, South Africa. Eight countries in 52 days! The base cost was less than $3000 USD and included all transportation, most lodging, and most meals.
Additional “optional excursions” could be purchased that included activities like skydiving, bungee jumping, horse riding, etc. I ended up spending between $5000-6000 in total, including excursions, snacks, meals, and souvenirs. That wasn’t outrageously expensive, especially since I rented out my apartment back home while I was gone (so I had barely any bills to pay for those two months!)
Our group consisted of travelers from all around the world, including Australia, England, Belgium, France, and South Korea. Most were in their late 20s or early 30s, but there were a few younger college-age travelers, a couple in the 40-ish range and one closer to 50. The group was about two-thirds female. There is obviously no guarantee that your group will have the same demographic makeup as mine, but I’ve heard similar reports from others who have taken these trips.
The overland safari gave us opportunities to visit some of Africa’s most incredible national parks, like Serengeti, Chobe, Matopos, and Etosha. Besides seeing some of the continent’s famous wild animals, we visited the beaches of Zanzibar, kicked back for a few days on Lake Malawi, relaxed on a houseboat in Zimbabwe’s Lake Kariba, and spent time in adventure towns like Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe and Swakopmund, Namibia.
So what’s my overall review of the Absolute Africa Southern Safari? Was it worth the money? Absolutely. It was the trip of a lifetime. Seeing safari animals crossing the road in front of our car, getting to interact with local folks in tiny villages in places like Malawi, seeing natural wonders like the Namibian sand dunes and the world’s biggest meteorite… there were so many experiences that I’ll never get anywhere else in the world.
The cost isn’t really that high when you consider that transportation, meals, and lodging are included. Africa is a very difficult place to go backpacking since there aren’t local buses or trains in most places, so if you want to experience southern Africa, you have to either rent a vehicle or join a tour like this.
Most of the people on the tour were folks who, like myself, are used to traveling alone and putting together our own itineraries. We normally don’t join group tours. But this one made sense and we’re all happy we did it. I highly recommend the Southern Safari for anyone who wants to see Africa.
Daily Camp Life: Sleeping, Cooking, Truck Life, Showers, Wifi
On my trip, there were 15 travelers most of the time. At various points along the tour, new folks would join, and others would leave. The truck was designed to hold up to 28 people, so we had plenty of space to relax. We saw rival companies with fewer people on a lot of their tours. Some had only 5 or 6 people.
We had an awesome group of travelers, who were for the most part friendly, considerate, and fun. Their energy definitely helped on some of the slower days throughout the trip. Some lifelong friendships were made (and there might have even been a romance or two!)
Chores were split into four teams. One team did the cooking for the day, while another cleaned the truck, another was in charge of truck security, and another did the dishes.
The daily schedule typically went like this. We’d wake in our tents around 7 or 8 am. This could be as early as 5 (yikes!) if it was a long travel day. The cooking team would make breakfast as everyone packed up their sleeping bags and tents and grabbed a shower if desired. Showers were hot maybe 50% of the time, while the rest of the campgrounds only had cold showers. Not exactly luxury travel conditions!
Breakfast would be served. Meals changed daily but common breakfast items included eggs, sausage, baked beans, toast, and fruit. I got used to eating whatever was put in front of me. Once everyone ate and the truck was packed, the drive would begin to the next point of interest or campsite.
On safari days, we’d leave for the national parks in safari trucks and spend the day seeing wildlife. If it was just a driving day, we’d sit on the truck most of the day. Driving days could range from 2-8 hours. Most were in the 4-5 hour range, and that was a comfortable number. As the truck had no bathroom, there would be regular stops. Sometimes actual bathrooms could be found. Quite frequently, it was the “bush toilet,” where everyone basically pees on the side of the road.
Some people slept on the bus, but I could never get very comfortable in the seats. I usually read books from the truck library and listened to podcasts. Others socialized or played cards. The bus had outlets & USB chargers available, and many people smartly brought external chargers as well, so keeping devices charged was usually not a problem.
Often on driving days there would be a lunch stop at a grocery store or market. Sometimes we’d have to buy supplies for 2-3 days until our next market visit. While daily breakfast and dinner were included as part of the tour, lunch was usually not, so people either bought something fresh or ate leftovers.
Sometimes, we’d buy street food from local vendors. On other occasions, KFC was a common lunch option because it was cheap and familiar – you would not believe how many KFCs exist throughout Africa! “Towns get a KFC before they get a stoplight,” one local told us.
Some people bought lunch meat and cheese and kept them in the fridge to make sandwiches for lunch. I usually stored room-temperature foods (cans of tuna, bread, peanut butter, jelly, chips, apples) in my locker for times when there was nowhere to shop.
After lunch, the driving would continue, and we’d reach our next campground, where it was time to set up tents for the night, maybe have a shower and do some laundry, and cook dinner. Laundry was mostly hand-washing clothes in a bucket and hanging them to dry. Old-fashioned manual labor! Some campgrounds offered laundry service where we could pay a few bucks to have our clothes washed for us.
There was a ton of variety for the dinner meals. It just depended what the cooking team wanted to make and what they were able to procure at the market that day. We had spaghetti, burgers, stew, chicken, and more.
After dinner, people would often go to the campground bar to use wifi (if it was available), and to have a drink and watch tv (if available.) Maybe half of the campgrounds we stayed at had free wifi. Some charged for the service. Others had no internet connection at all.
Some nights got a little crazy with people partying late, while other times everyone was yawning and starting to nod off by 9 pm. Toward the end of the trip, after a number of early wake-up calls, we started going to bed when it got dark and waking with the sunlight. Lame, but you gotta get your sleep!
As for the weather, it totally depends on what time of year you visit. I did the trip in May and June, and for the first two weeks it rained hard almost everyday. Arriving to a campground late and having to put up a tent in the dark, and the rain, and the cold, was not fun at all. But by late May it rarely rained anymore. The bigger concern was chilly evenings, as June begins winter in this part of Africa.
The guides on the tour were fantastic. Capable and helpful, they assisted us with border crossings, police checkpoints, and any other issues that would arise. They were experienced and could offer advice and wisdom gained from their previous trips. And they knew how to negotiate the unexpected challenges that can pop up while traveling in Africa.
Absolute Africa Review: The Optional Excursions
When you sign up for a tour, you’ll be sent a big list of optional excursions. On some occasions (such as the microlite over Victoria Falls), the Absolute Africa tour prices were the same as what you’d pay if you booked directly. Other times, the excursion prices were a bit inflated, meaning that you could get those excursions cheaper if you booked them on your own.
Which optional excursions on the Southern Safari are worth the price? Here are some of my choices.
Optional excursions worth paying for:
Serengeti and Ngorongoro Crater game drives
This is one of the more expensive optionals, at more than $600 US. But it gets you three days in one of the best safari environments in the entire world. This is where I saw all of the Big Five African safari animals – lions, leopards, rhinos, elephants, and buffalo. Definitely splurge for these game drives, or else why did you even book this trip? For dozens more photos of the African wildlife I encountered, check out this post!
Trip to Zanzibar
Another costly excursion, but taking the boat from mainland Tanzania to Zanzibar was a worthwhile break from the routine. The trip included a couple days in historic Stone Town, and a couple more in a resort area with some of the country’s most beautiful beaches.
Malawi village walk
This only costs about $5-10 USD with tip. You’ll get a local guide to take you into town, with stops at a nearby school and hospital. It’s eye-opening to see the conditions in the hospital especially, where pregnant women struggle to be able to afford mosquito nets to protect themselves and their babies from malaria. Both facilities will request tips from you, so go ahead and leave a dollar or two in their jars.
Lake Kariba houseboat
The two days on the houseboat on Zimbabwe’s Lake Kariba were fantastic, although I think the price tag of $140 USD is a little high. Still, we got to jump off the boat in the middle of the lake, take smaller boats to see hippos and crocodiles up close, relax catching some sun on the top deck, and fry up fish for lunch that we had caught that morning. It was a nice mini-vacation in comfortable beds, away from the usual tents. It was a cool feeling to wake up in the morning and, while still in bed, look out to see crocodiles and hippos in the water.
Half day adrenaline at Victoria Falls (zip line, flying fox, gorge swing)
Bungee jumping is cool, but the gorge swing was way cooler. With the half-day adrenaline package, you get a zip line deep into the canyon at Victoria Falls, as well as a flying fox, which is a zip line where you go head-first and extend your arms out like Superman.
But the real thrill is the gorge swing, which was one of the most intense and scary things I’ve ever done. They strap a harness around your waist and shoulders, and you simply walk off a platform 400 feet above the Zambezi River. The free-fall straight down is four full seconds, and then you swing out over the canyon. As scary as the swing was, all of us found it to be one of the most amazing experiences of the trip.
I strongly suggest doing all three of these adrenaline activities, not just the gorge swing. Because the zip line and flying fox get you comfortable hanging on a harness above the river, so they make the gorge swing a lot less scary.
Okavango Delta trip
Here’s your chance to get away from the truck and be taken by traditional canoe deep into the Okavango Delta in Botswana. Here you camp out in the wild with the fierce African animals. Hyenas approached our camp at night, but the fire and large group of people kept them away. You also get to do a bush hike where you can encounter elephants, hippos, giraffes, zebras, ostriches, and baboons up close. Maybe lions too, but we fortunately didn’t see any of those while we were walking.
Skydiving in Namibia
I was on the fence about this one. I had never been skydiving before, and it occurred to me that Namibia is probably the coolest place I could ever skydive. It helped having a few of my fellow travelers join me. Truthfully, after the gorge swing, the thought of skydiving wasn’t so scary anymore.
The company that does these jumps is very reputable and safe, and the jump itself was so much fun. Getting to see the desert from above was a fantastic experience that would be hard to replicate elsewhere.
Optional excursions NOT worth paying for:
The giant tortoises at Prison Island, off the coast of Zanzibar, are very cool. You should definitely do this excursion. But you should book this one on your own, with one of the local boat captains on the beach. You should be able to get it for around $10 per person if you book directly with them, as opposed to going through Absolute, which charges $25-35 for the trip.
Victoria Falls microlite flight
It pains me to put this one on the list, because I thoroughly enjoyed my microlite flight over mighty Victoria Falls. What an experience! At nearly $200 USD for a fifteen-minute flight, though, I think in retrospect that money might have been better spent somewhere else.
You should do the microlite flight if: a) budget is not a concern, and b) you really, really want those awesome photos of yourself sitting there above the falls. The pics are just incredible.
I would recommend the microlite as opposed to the helicopter ride, because with the microlite you’re sitting right there in the open sky, soaring like a bird. It’s more fun than a helicopter ride, which doesn’t allow you to connect with nature at all.
South African wine tour
This one depends how much you enjoy wine and how much extra cash you have to spend. I like wine, but not enough to plunk down $50 USD to sample a few different kinds. I chose to make a few cheap mixed drinks at the hostel while the others were out getting wine crazy.
What to Bring on an Overland Safari
Packing for a trip like this can be kind of tricky. You have a limited amount of space and don’t want to waste it on unnecessary items. The tour company provides tents and sleeping mats. You will need to bring your own sleeping bag and pillow.
Here are some of my top choices for items to bring on a truck safari. Links go directly to Amazon. For even more suggestions, click to see a more extensive list of recommended items to pack for an overland trip.
Large backpack. It’s much easier to bring a large backpack as opposed to a suitcase. One of these large packs will be perfect for keeping most of your clothes.
Sleeping bag. Bring one appropriate for the season. I was there during Africa’s summer, and some of the nights got chilly. Then again, other nights were quite warm. Err on the side of taking a lighter (and more compact) sleeping bag, and bring sweatpants/hoodie to use for extra layers when it gets cold.
Microfiber towel. This was the first microfiber towel I ever purchased, and I was stunned how quickly it dried! The fact that it folds up into a tiny little package is an added bonus.
Universal Outlet Adapter. African countries mostly use the UK shaped outlet, so if you’re coming from America, you’ll want to have a universal adapter to plug in to the outlets.
External charger. Gotta keep those cameras and phones charged up! The price of external chargers has come way down in recent years and now they can provide many hours of power.
Quality headlamp. You’ll be doing a lot of activities with your hands in the dark (using the bathroom, taking down your tent, sometimes eating dinner) so a headlamp is essential. Don’t get a cheap $5 one on Amazon – I did that and it crapped out by week two. Spend a bit more for a quality one.
Overland Safari Highlights by Country
A thorough Absolute Africa review must include a recap of the most enjoyable moments in each country. As I think back on this overland safari, these are the experiences that stand out most.
Days spent here: 2
Highlights: Giraffe Centre, central Nairobi
Lowdown: The Southern Safari began in Nairobi and left Kenya on the very same day. I arrived a day early to give myself a buffer in case of flight delays, to buy some local supplies, and to see some of Nairobi’s hotspots. I visited the roof of the Kenya International Convention Centre to see the city skyline from above and kissed giraffes at the famous Giraffe Centre.
Days spent here: 11
Highlights: Serengeti & Ngorongoro Crater safaris, Zanzibar beaches, Stone Town
Lowdown: The most incredible wildlife viewing I found in Africa came in Tanzania’s Serengeti National Park and Ngorongoro Crater. Leopards, lions, elephants, giraffes, zebras, rhinos… we saw it all. Zanzibar offered great beaches, and quirky attractions like Freddie Mercury’s birth home in Stone Town.
Days spent here: 4
Highlights: Lake Malawi
Lowdown: I was sick for most of my time in Malawi, but at least we were at the perfect place to relax: Lake Malawi, a gorgeous natural wonder that covers 20% of the country. I rested in bed at our resort while others paddled out to nearby islands, played beach volleyball with locals, and went on horse rides.
Days spent here: 3
Highlights: Lusaka, Victoria Falls
Lowdown: Our time in Zambia was limited to a couple of big cities and a couple nights at campgrounds. We passed through the Zambian capital of Lusaka en route to Zimbabwe. Several days later, when were staying in Victoria Falls, I joined a few others as we crossed the border to see Victoria Falls from the Zambian side. We also took a taxi from the border into Livingstone and had breakfast at a café.
Days spent here: 0
Highlights: Seeing the country from across the river
Lowdown: Mozambique was one of two countries (along with Angola) that we did not officially enter, but were able to see across the river. I’m not going to add Mozambique to the list of countries I’ve visited, because that would be cheating. But it was still cool at the Luangwa Bridge to be able to look at the forested hillside downriver and say, “There’s Mozambique!” African police and government officials are very strict about not allowing photos at border crossings, bridges, and other places of interest, so I have no Mozambique photo to share.
Days spent here: 13
Highlights: Lake Kariba, Matopos National Park, Victoria Falls
Lowdown: Matopos National Park was the site of our epic rhino walk, where we hung out in the presence of a group of rhinos way out in the bush. Lake Kariba provided some of the trip’s best sunsets. And Victoria Falls was the spot for gorge swing and microlite adventures and game meat dinners.
Days spent here: 4
Highlights: Chobe National Park and Okavango Delta
Lowdown: Chobe was another prime wildlife area with lots of elephants and lions. The mokoro canoe ride out into the Okavango Delta was one of the most enjoyable parts of the entire safari.
Days spent here: 0
Highlights: Sunset and hippos
Lowdown: One night while camping in Namibia, our campsite was right across the river from Angola. So even though we didn’t enter the country, we got to witness a beautiful sunset and hear some of Angola’s hippos as they belched and wheezed at night while we tried to sleep.
Days spent here: 11
Highlights: Etosha National Park, Swakopmund, Dune 45, Sossusvlei, Fish River Canyon
Lowdown: Namibia might have been my favorite country on this trip. It had so much to offer, including the game animals of Etosha National Park, the world’s largest meteorite at Hoba, the German-settled coastal city of Swakopmund, the colony of thousands of seals at Cape Cross, the skydiving opportunities, the views at Fish River Canyon (“the Grand Canyon of Africa”), the world-famous sand dunes, and the centuries-old dead trees at Sossusvlei.
Days spent here: 10
Highlights: Boulders Beach penguins, Table Mountain hike, Cape Town urban life
Lowdown: The Southern Safari officially concluded with four days in South Africa, passing through Stellenbosch – a college town and popular wine region – and Cape Town. Like many of the travelers in our group, I stayed several extra days in Cape Town to fully experience the city before heading home. I climbed Table Mountain, one of the big peaks overlooking the city, watched World Cup games at local pubs, and visited Boulders Beach to see the African penguins up close.
Additional Tips for Getting the Most Out of Your Overland Safari
Interact with locals!
Take advantage of every opportunity to interact with local people. There weren’t a ton of chances to get to know locals on this safari, but there were a few. When you go on a tour with a local guide, be the person who sidles up next to them and chats with them about their life. When you venture out as a group to a neighborhood bar, make conversation with the locals sitting next to you.
Your biggest opportunity to interact with locals will come at markets. Every couple days, the safari stops at a grocery store or an outdoor marketplace. This is a fantastic opportunity to meet people. I found the locals to be very friendly and inquisitive about the mzungu (white) visitors. You’ll get the occasional person who just wants to hit you up for money, but for the most part people are just happy to chat. You are as foreign and exotic to them as they are to you. Most everyone speaks English, so it’s easy to chit chat with the woman selling pastries at the bakery stand or the older fellow at the bar.
Take advantage of wifi
If you want to download new music or podcasts, do it whenever you get a chance at a campground with fast wifi service. There aren’t many – most of the wifi in Africa is slow. So if you find yourself in a lucky spot with speedy wifi, take advantage of it!
Bring large and small bills, but don’t bring too much cash!
The tour companies tell you to bring at least $2000 in USD, and to bring it entirely in large bills like 100s and 50s. This is all terrible advice. ATMs are quite common in the shopping malls and towns, so you’ll be able to access money at least a couple times a week. I was quite uncomfortable carrying around such a large amount of money. In retrospect, I would’ve been fine bringing about $1000 USD, to cover visas and other cash payments, and using credit cards for everything else. The good news is that the truck has a locking safe where you can store valuables like cash and passports.
The other important suggestion is to bring a lot of small bills. You’ll need them for tips and smaller purchases at places that accept U.S. dollars. It’s very difficult to tip someone a few dollars if you only have $20s and $50s and $100s.
You’ll also need small bills in Zimbabwe, because many establishments in that country only accept U.S. dollars these days. I found myself constantly needing $1 and $5 bills because all my bills were bigger. Be sure to bring some of those smaller denominations with you.
Buy local SIM cards
If your phone is unlocked, you can buy SIM cards in most of these countries for a reasonable fee ($5-10) that will give you data and texting capability while you’re there. Often, you can find SIM card sellers right at the border crossings.
Exercise whenever you can!
On this trip, there will be long stretches of 3-4 days at a time where nearly the entire day is spent on the truck. Which means you could be walking fewer than 1000 steps a day. That is so little exercise!
Many of us started finding alternate ways to exercise. Some folks would go for jogs in the evening or morning on the campsite grounds. Some would do yoga before dinner. Some tried to sneak in a swim whenever there was a lake or pool. I played volleyball at a few campgrounds that offered it. Whatever you can do to keep your muscles active, do it!
Get the standard Kenya visa instead of the transit visa
The tour company advised that I could get the “transit visa” in Kenya to save money ($25 versus $50 for the standard visa), but this was a big mistake. Upon leaving Kenya, the immigration official claimed the transit visa was not appropriate and held us up for several hours. We ended up having to bribe him to get out of the country. Forget the Kenya transit visa and splurge for the standard visa instead.
Other Overland Safari Companies: G Adventures, Acacia, Intrepid, Oasis
At various times, we encountered trucks from some of the other overland companies. I briefly chatted with some of the passengers. They all seemed pretty much the same in terms of the physical trucks, their travel routes, and their level of accommodations. Life on the trucks was pretty standard across all the companies, except that some of the other companies had fewer passengers.
The reason I selected Absolute Africa was because they seemed to offer the best value. Their extensive list of optional excursions meant that I could pay for the activities I really wanted and skip the things I wasn’t interested in. Browse all the available trips on Tour Radar and go with the company that you think offers the best value!
I had been considering G Adventures, but many of their tours are limited to folks in the 18-to-39 age range, and I found that level of age discrimination unacceptable. I can understand having a recommended age for such tours, but it’s incomprehensible that they would actually ban people in their 40s from participating in some of their specific tours. On my Absolute Africa tour, we had a couple folks in their 40s and one in their 50s, and they were all in perfectly normal shape and had no physical challenges with the trip.
There’s so little physical activity on overland tours (most everything is sitting in trucks, sitting in campgrounds, sitting in safari vehicles) that I can’t fathom why there would be an age limit for such a tour, as there are literally zero strenuous activities, unless pitching a tent on a nightly basis counts as strenuous. End of my rant against G Adventures.
So to sum up my Absolute Africa review: The Southern Safari was a fantastic experience and I would highly recommend it if you want to participate in an overland safari to see all of the amazing sights and wonders of southern Africa. Feel free to contact me with any questions if you’re planning your own trip to Africa!