Visitors are often drawn to Southern Africa by its world-class big-game viewing, but they’re often surprised at what else the region has to offer. The countries of Botswana, Lesotho, Malawi, Mozambique, Namibia, South Africa, Swaziland, Zambia and Zimbabwe offer a stunning array of landscapes, coastal areas, colonial cities and native cultures that amaze and delight travelers from around the world.
Botswana’s varied terrain ranges from desert to delta and draws a stunning array of wildlife to its wetlands in the winter—like hippos, rhinos, lions, cheetahs, elephants, and more!—and a dazzling display of birdlife during the summer. The country’s national parks and reserves provide a safe haven for 85 species of mammals and more than 1075 species of birds.
The seascapes, mountains, deserts, wildlife and colonial cities of Namibia are a photographer’s dream. Nowhere else on earth will you find such diverse life existing in such harsh conditions. Gravel plains are home to ostriches, zebras, gemsboks, springboks, mongooses, ground squirrels, black-backed jackals, bat-eared foxes, caracals, aardwolves and brown hyenas. Along the coast, you might spot penguins and seals that thrive in the cold Atlantic currents. In the barren Erongo Mountains and the Waterberg Plateau, visitors have the privilege of viewing some of the world’s last wild black rhinoceros populations, which are slowly recovering from near extinction.
A visit to mighty Victoria Falls is the icing on the cake of many Southern African tours. Stand in awe of one of nature’s greatest wonders as you watch the Zambezi river plunge 355 feet down a cascade twice as wide and twice as deep as Niagara Falls. From here you might go whitewater rafting, take a helicopter flight over the falls or embark on an elephant-back safari.
You can tour the Cape Peninsular to Cape Point, where the Two Oceans meet, enjoy spectacular views from the top of Table Mountain, visit the Cape Winelands, Robbben Island or explore the world renowned Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens.
This history of Southern Africa reaches farther back than almost anywhere on earth. Here lies the Cradle of Humankind, a strip of caves containing the fossilized remains of ancient hominids dating back 3.5 million years. Declared it a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1999, South Africa’s Cradle of Humankind provides a window into the deepest roots of human history. The first fossils were uncovered here in 1935. The most recent find was unearthed in 2010. The region continues to be a hotbed of anthropological research, shedding light on the origin and evolution of humans.
The first Europeans to enter Southern Africa were the Portuguese in 1482. Around the same time, various maritime expeditions were edging their way around the African coast in search of a sea route to India. Christian missionaries as well as slave traders soon followed. By the 16th century, the Dutch settlement at the Cape of Good Hope had become a busting port city. Europeans came to barter cattle with the locals in exchange for iron, copper, beads, tobacco, brandy and slaves.
By 1807 Britain had abolished the slave trade and turned its attention instead to the wealth of raw materials available in Africa—to meet the growing demands of the industrial revolution that was already underway in Europe. With such potential for wealth, the so-called “scramble” for Africa was on as various European countries laid claim to almost every country in Southern and Eastern Africa. Exports included precious minerals, rubber, animal skins, ivory and cotton.
Rumors of gold and diamonds in Southern Africa’s interior in the 1860s beckoned droves of people from across Africa and from all over the world to the region. With these prospectors came roads, railways, harbors, manufacturing, increased land prices, a working class and a blending of cultures that would change Africa forever.
Colonialism lasted until after World War II, when Europe began to let go of its African territories. As in other regions of Africa, national borders had only recently been established by Europeans—with little regard for traditional territories of the native peoples. Some cultures were split among different countries, which led to a lack of national unity, great unrest and even civil wars.
Perhaps the greatest example of turmoil was South Africa’s apartheid. In 1948, the South African government (made up entirely of whites) enacted a policy of racial, political and economic discrimination. They declared that whites and blacks must live and work separately. As a result, many blacks endured terrible living conditions, poverty and poor education. Any South African, black or white, who protested against apartheid risked death or imprisonment. Violence from opponents and the state increased until the early 1990s. In 1994, when Nelson Mandela became South Africa’s first democratically elected president, apartheid officially came to an end.
Today, the Southern African Development Community exists to promote development and economic independence among member nations. Formed in 1979, this group fosters projects in agriculture, energy, healthcare, telecommunications, industry and trade. Many Southern African nations thrive on mining precious minerals and gemstones, tourism, and agriculture.