Must-see places on the road from Kenya to South Africa

Route: Laikipia Highlands in Kenya to Johannesburg, via Uganda.

For 11 months of our conservation expedition we had travelled northwards, volunteering and assisting conservation projects along the way. Our turning point was the town of Nanyuki, Laikipia, in the shadow of the mighty Mount Kenya. The long road back to South Africa lay ahead of us, roughly 7000km in total, along which we aimed to experience as many wildlife phenomenon’s as possible!

Crossing the Rift Valley

The first leg was all rough gravel road, driving west through the wild plains and rocky outcrops of Laikipia. Gerenuk, Grevy’s zebra and Reticulated giraffe interspersed between massive granite boulders made us feel like tiny creatures in this incredible landscape. The plains turned into some steep cutbacks (que low range to save the brakes) as we dropped down the Eastern edge of the Great Rift Valley. We wound our way past some small villages where the infamous Phokot people of Kenya call home, notorious cattle rustlers between the numerous pastoralist tribes of East Africa. We overnighted on the banks of one of the most beautiful places we have ever been to, Lake Baringo and bought some local raw honey which is famous in this area, harvested from hives in the indigenous arid Acacia woodlands.

After a good night’s rest, listening to hippos grunting around camp and crocodiles splashing in the shallows, we headed off early to cut through the Rift Valley, still heading west for the border of Uganda. After crossing into Uganda and having a lengthy discussion with a local officer of the law, we stopped off just outside Jinja, which marks the source of the Nile River as it leaves Africa’s largest lake, Lake Victoria. We camped at Nile explorer’s camp, watched the red-tailed monkeys darting through the trees overhead and did some bird watching from a Kayak on the River Nile.

Grevy Zebra

Shoebills, Chimps & the mighty Nile River

Further West still, we travelled into the busy and chaotic streets of Uganda’s capital city Kampala before turning North, towards Murchison Falls National Park, where we were hoping to spot the very rare Shoebill Stork, a prehistoric giant of a bird, standing almost as tall as a man. Murchison River lodge was our base for this mission. A long 6 hour boat trip eventually delivered in the last half hour, after we had given up all hopes of success. In the reeds with a fish in its powerful bill, stood a magnificent bird, staring at us with that signature look. Such a privilege!

After boating on the Nile, we headed to the Murchison Falls themselves. Witnessing the entire Nile River crashing through a seven-meter crack in the rocks is impossible to describe! We were in awe of the thunderous power of this mighty River. Momentous to experience, it also markedour furthest point North on our year long conservation expedition. Before leaving the area, we overnighted inside the Budongo Forest, home to large groups of wild Chimpanzees. There was something incredibly surreal aboutlying in our rooftop tent at night listening to Chimpanzees howling in the forest at night, something you think only exists in movies!

A young chimp resting, seen in Budongo Forest

Red mud and dusty villages

The road to Fort Portal was a classic picture of East Africa - Red mud and dusty villages. We witnessed some frightening driving. Our IronMan4x4 recovery gear helped us clear a major blockage in the only road south, helping us tow 3 local vehicles out of a bit of thick red mud, where they found themselves firmly lodged after trying to navigate around a bogged banana truck! One of these vehicles was a UN landcruiser!

Continuing south at last, we crossed the Equator towards Queen Elizabeth National Park. From here we had a choice, take the tar road towards Bwindi Impenetrable National Park and face a longer road with the East African Traffic, or take a shorter, slower route that literally touches the DRC border, through the national Park, and then tea plantations and small villages, with no idea what we would encounter. Well, it didn’t take long for us to choose the latter, and through the park we went!

The drive through Queen Elizabeth National Park was beautiful, with Kob antelope, buffalo and Elephant around for entertainment, but the famous tree climbing lions from this area were a bit elusive. Out we went into the rolling hills of tea farms and small villages, sometimes within a couple kilometres of the infamous border with Eastern Congo, a thrill on its own being so close. With lots of fuel around, our 300tdi Defender Kuhanya was happy and had no issues with the high sulphur diesel that she was designed for. Winding and winding we made our way through countless villages towards Bwindi Impenetrable National Park, home to some of the last remaining Mountain Gorillas in the world.

A sticky situation on the roads in Uganda
A sticky situation on the roads in Uganda

Mighty Bwindi Impenetrable

Once you set out on foot in this forest, you suddenly become fully aware of where its name came from. I found myself falling head over heels (literally) and sliding off the path into the bushes at least three times in the dense vegetation because I was so in awe of my surroundings. Following our guide and tracking team through this truly impenetrable forest, we got our first glimpse of a wild baby mountain gorilla staring at us from his vantage point of a thin tree that he climbed in his curiosity. We spent our full hour with these gigantic distant relative of our human race. Being so close to these intelligent creatures without them being concerned by our presence was phenomenal and something we will remember forever!

Mountain gorillas in Bwindi Impenetrable Forest
If you want to see these amazing Great Apes yourself, have a look at our upcoming small-group safari in April 2025, or book your private Gorilla Trekking safari!

Paradise on Tanganyika

Further south we went from Uganda into Rwanda. A short stay of one night in this incredibly clean and well looked after little country, and back into Tanzania. This time, down the Eastern shore of Lake Tanganyika. A short stretch of 100km on the worst road we had travelled so far took us almost 4 hours. Potholed almost to nonexistence. The drive was beautiful though, through indigenous woodland and passing small villages of refugees from Burundi. The beautiful Lake Shore Lodge right on the shore of the Lake Tanganyika was a welcomed refuge and break after a bumpy, dusty few days. Resembling a tropical paradise with palm trees, deck chairs and white sand, the lodge was idyllic. We took to snorkelling in the crystal-clear water looking for the hundreds of species of Cichlid fish that occur in Lake Tanganyika, the lake with the most rapid rate of speciation and evolution on the planet.

Largest mammal migration on the planet

We crossed back into Zambia at the tiny Mbala border post which took a total of 15 minutes, it was short stretch of rough dirt track until we were met by a tar road with a speed limit the Landy couldn’t reach for the first time since entering East Africa. What a pleasure after the very slow pace of Tanzania and Kenya where on an average day of driving we could only cover about 400 km's! A brief stop at Kapishya Hot Springs – a true paradise – before witnessing the largest mammal migration on the planet!

Every year, between September and the end of November, up to 12 million straw coloured fruit bats migrate from different areas in Central Africa to a small patch of forest in Kasanka National Park. The atmosphere in the early evening when these bats take flight in search of food is something to behold! The added bonus were the sightings of rare Sitatunga antelope right in front of Pontoon campsite which has its own hide.

From here a quick stop in Lusaka at Mudpackers 4x4 where the owner Trevor is always willing to help and they have avery well stocked outdoor 4x4 centre (including Ironman4x4 gear!). They can also fill up all Cadac gas cylinders. While we were there, they were busy finishing off their butchery where they will sell locally sourced top-quality meat, a good butchery like this is difficult to find when you are on the road up here!

Kasanka's Bat Migration

Okavango Delta - not to be missed

We couldn’t travel through Botswana without visiting some of our favourite wilderness areas – Chobe, Savuti and Moremi, which never fail to awe with their phenomenal landscapes and sightings of wildlife. Whilst Chobe was relatively quiet, Savute delivered the quality elephant sightings we were looking for. Our route choice towards the Khwai gate was either the dune road (more solid option) or the marsh road. Given as though it was still so dry, we opted for the Marsh road which skirts the western edge of the Savuti Marsh. It may have been the dry season, but we had to negotiate many ominous wet patches of notorious black cotton soil. We got through ok, but two German chaps we came across weren’t so fortunate. The day before they had taken that same route in a very old land cruiser station wagon. While trying to negotiate around a large mud patch, they unluckily chose a poor line and got themselves properly bogged in the mud. While trying the get out, they had broken a sideshaft or something in the drive train and so only had 2x4, not ideal in the middle of nowhere in the Savuti game reserve. They were very relieved to hear us coming after spending the night in the mud listening to lions roaring not far off. Out came our IronMan4x4 recovery kit and within minutes they were out of their predicament busy dealing with their next one - whether to continue or turn around. Treads would have been invaluable to them, but we weren’t too keen to give ours up – and we were mighty glad we didn’t as we needed them a few days later!!

Wild dogs of Khwai

More thick sand from Savuti to Khwai until we eventually started seeing greenery and knew that we were nearing the life-giving waters of the Khwai River, fed by the Okavango Delta. The night at Khwai gate was wonderful, with elephants walking through camp and hippos grunting through the night. The next day was a long drive to Xakanaxa loaded with great game viewing. The highlight was spending some quality time a pack of wild dogs looking for a meal. They chased a hippo for fun, as you do, and then settled down for a nap in the shade with some dagga boys (old male buffalos) watching from a thicket nearby.

Off to Third Bridge, and on the way we weaved through a herd of what must have been close to a thousand buffalo! It was just awesome being surrounded and stared at by so many of these big grumpy bovines. Not done exploring, even after a year on the road, we took along afternoon drive along another lesser travelled route and enjoyed our last sunset in Moremi with a raft of Hippos. Navigating through a marshy pool of water to get there, despite pre-walking the route, we stuck fast straddled on a piece of high ground! Treads to the rescue, and after some digging to place them under the water and the tyres (with some help from our high lift jack!),we got free in time to catch the sunset! A truly magical sight. We headed back for camp passing some hyenas and a caracal along the way and our last night in the delta we were joined by hungry hippo grazing right inside our little camp site, which had us looking for plan B and C just in case he got too friendly!

After 5 blissful nights in the wilds of Moremi, Khwai and Savute, we packed up and headed for Maun and the long tarroad via Ghanzi and onwards eventually towards the smoky skies of Johannesburg. Sitting here writing this makes me want jump into Kuhanya our beloved Landy again, fill her tanks with diesel and head for the horizon. But I guess that’s one thing that makes journeys like this so special, is looking forward to them, and it makes us appreciate them that much more. We are very privileged to have such magnificent wilderness right on our door step! Let’s just make sure they are still there in future in their pristine natural beauty.

Wild Dogs of Khwai

Interested in visiting any of these stunning areas? 

Have a look at these example safari itineraries to spark your imagination, or contact us to design your own, bespoke African safar!

Written by Michelle Pengilly

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