Inspiration: Big Trip

Country Guide: South Africa

Country guide: South Africa

The best travel tips for SA and surrounding countries

From the arid emptiness of the Skeleton Coast to the thunder of Victoria Falls and the scent of Zanzibar spices, Africa is an assault on the senses.

Crossing the equator on land isn’t easy, so it’s a huge ‘bucket list’ achievement for any adventurous motorcyclist and the rewards are massive. After all, where else could you see lions, elephants, whales, dolphins and penguins all in their natural habitat?

Six of the 14 countries that straddle the equator are in Africa and most of the others are islands or in the middle of the Amazon rainforest, leaving Ecuador in South America as the only practical alternative for most riders. When it comes to diversity of scenery, wildlife and people, sub-Saharan Africa is an incredible destination for a tour, with Kenya to the Cape of Good Hope perfect for the Triumph rider with a little more time (around six weeks).

Kenya start?

Southern Africa is, says GlobeBusters tour leader Kevin Sanders, best explored from Kenya because it’s the easiest to access and you can freight your bike there using specialist companies like Moto Freight, who make all the arrangements. Simply fly in and collect your Tiger or Triumph of choice from the airport, as long as you have a carnet de passage in place (a temporary import and export document for your bike).

Don’t become a lion’s lunch 

From Nairobi on the eastern edge of the Rift Valley it’s a short ride north to the equator, then head south to the Ngorongoro Crater, a World Heritage Site in the Highlands of Tanzania, where lions, giraffe, wildebeest and warthog roam. It’s not a bad start to a trip, although be warned that most national parks in Africa won’t allow bikes in for fear of attack, so you’ll need to head in by a 4×4 Jeep tour.

Kilimanjaro awaits

While in Tanzania visit Africa’s highest mountain and its three volcanic cones, before taking the ferry to the spice island of Zanzibar in the Indian Ocean (incidentally the birthplace of Queen legend Freddie Mercury). It’s best as an ‘off-bike’ side excursion where you can kick back for a few days on pristine white sand bars in the middle of the Indian Ocean.

Wildlife beside the lake in the Ngorongoro Crater, Tanzania,

Livingstone I presume

From there, travel west into Zambia and the historic colonial town of Livingstone, where the Zambezi river plunges over the cliffs, forming the mile-wide Victoria Falls.

Cross the Zambezi on a small pontoon to reach Botswana; home to the Chobe National Park, which has one of the largest concentrations of game in Africa and is famed for its spectacular elephant population. Swap your bike for a boat here and spend the afternoon floating along the river animal-spotting.

Wild-elephant alert

Entering Namibia, ride through the long narrow Caprivi Strip, sandwiched between Zambia, Botswana and Angola. It’s a completely tarmac road and pretty long and straight, but the likelihood of seeing wild elephant at the side of the road is almost guaranteed, so be careful if you’re tempted to blast at top speed. From there it’s mostly unpaved tracks down to the Skeleton Coast and when you arrive you’ll have crossed Africa from the Indian Ocean to the South Atlantic.

Triumph Tiger in South Africa

The coastal road is a salt road, so almost as good as concrete and not too difficult for anyone to ride. Look out for shipwrecks and seals before heading back inland to the dirt roads of the Namib Desert, the ‘moonscape’ of the red Sossusvlei Dunes and the majesty of Fish River Canyon; 100 miles long, up to 17 miles wide and almost 550 metres deep in places.

Desert-sand warning 

These roads are unpredictable for bikers, so much so that in high season they are graded every 10 days to ensure they don’t get too heaped up with gravel and sand. Regardless, you’ll need to be up on the pegs and keeping a keen eye out for deeper sand sections. Travelling in small groups is advisable here.

Into the wilderness up a vertical mountain

Cross the Orange River into South Africa and ride through the Cederburg Wilderness area, a mountain range that’s home to an endangered species of cedar tree. Soon you’ll be in the vineyards around Stellenbosch, one of the oldest towns in the country with some of the finest vineyards in the world. From there you are perfectly placed to ride to the southernmost tip of Africa, Cape Agulhas. Leaving there, follow the coast road around False Bay and on to the Cape of Good Hope.

Ride Chapman’s Peak Drive, a spectacular road that hugs the near-vertical face of a mountain and on into Cape Town, nestling below the unforgettable Table Mountain, from where you can freight your bike back home.

Chapmans Peak Drive, South Africa

Will I need experience?

Riding in Africa is predictably unpredictable, which means you can expect anything from anywhere – after all, you’re sharing the roads with wildlife, domesticated animals, people and some of the worst-maintained vehicles on the planet.

On top of that, you need to be confident riding on gravel roads as they feature widely. Choice of bike is important here, so ideally an off-road bike like the Triumph Tiger XC will be a big ally, particularly in Namibia.

Riding in Africa is probably not recommended unless you have some experience of riding overseas, particularly covering long distances in hot climates. The same goes for pillion passengers too.

When to go

Early spring is the best time to travel in Southern Africa and because it’s in the southern hemisphere that means September and October, before the rainy season in summer. It’s warmer closer to the equator, with temperatures on average between 25 and 30˚C. Nearer South Africa the climate becomes more temperate with the chance of some rain.

What documents do I need?

UK citizens only need to get the Kenya visa in advance and can apply online as an e-visa. Visas can be bought at the borders for Tanzania and Zambia, but none of the other countries we’ve mentioned require them.

You will need a carnet de passage for your bike, which you can get from the RAC. Don’t forget your original passport and driving licence though.

Table Mountain, South Africa

What currency should I take?

Apart from in major cities and at luxury hotels, your credit card will be pretty much redundant. We advise travellers to stock up on US dollars and the South African rand, which is linked to a number of other currencies in the region. Both are readily exchangeable in most of the Southern African countries.

What bike should I ride?

Unless you intend to make your trip a physical challenge, you need a reliable adventure sport bike, with plenty of suspension travel so that it can cope with poorly maintained roads.

There are some decent stretches of tarmac in South Africa, but most of your ride will be bumpy! A mid-capacity machine, such as the Triumph Tiger 800, has plenty of power for covering long distances in comfort – top-end cruising speed is unlikely to be much use in this continent.

Fit it with some decent crash bars and metal boxes and you should be all set. Petrol can be scarce in some countries, so a decent tank range is essential and carrying a small amount of extra fuel on the bike in case of emergencies is recommended