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Africa is one big mama of a continent, too vast and diverse to sum up in a single sentenceor trip. From the Arabian north to the Soweto south, from the famously golden savannas of the east to the jazzy west, with its entrancing rhythms and cultures, few have seen it all. That's not to say that thousands don't try every year.
The means of choice is the "overlander"a tanklike tour vehicle designed to cart you and 20 unwashed strangers around the parks and campsites of the continent. Sound like fun? If not, consider these circuits in eastern and southern Africa.
All prices in U.S. dollars
Beast and Beach Circuit
Far from an upscale safari, this route is for those who want to see big game from the trail, not a Land Rover.
From Nairobi, Kenya, take a matatu (minivan) to Narok, about three hours west. Hire a car or try to hitch a ride in the back of a pickup, local style (along with several Kenyans and a few chickens), to the southwestern border village of Morijo. There, meet up with Moses Kipelian, a Loita Masai who is one of the finest animal trackers in Kenya, for a four-day hike in the Loita Forest, the pristine spiritual land of his tribe (includes a typical Masai daily menu heavy on goat; firstname.lastname@example.org). In these 150 square miles [388 square kilometers], you'll find monkeys, elephants, buffalo, and lionsbut no roads.
Back in Nairobi, take the overnight train southeast to Mombasa. Visit Fort Jesus, founded by the Portuguese in 1593, and then catch the early morning bus north to Mokowe (eight hours) and the ferry to Lamu.
After a night on the island, hire one of the local "beach boys" to take you on a four-day trip through the Lamu archipelago, the best way to see the coast. Sail north, camping on the islands along the way (be warnedthe mosquitoes here are merciless). Fly back to Nairobi via the Manda Island airstrip (Airkenya Aviation; www.airkenya.com). Campable Kingdom Circuit
South Africa draws those seeking easy entrée to outdoor adventure. This circuit from Johannesburg to the small kingdoms of Lesotho and Swaziland offers rugged mountain experience and access to local culture.
At the Jo'burg airport, rent a four-wheel-drive vehicle (www.europcar.co.za) and drive south to Lesotho's mountain capital, Maseru. Buy hiking maps at the Department of Land, Surveys and Physical Planning office on Lerotholi Road, then head east to Sani Pass on one of the most spectacular mountain roads in South Africa.
Wind up steep hairpin turns to Sani Lodge (www.sanilodge.co.za). Park the car and set off on a three-day hike to Hodgson's Peaks, a 10,682-foot [3,256-meter] vantage point with 360-degree views into KwaZulu-Natal Province. You can camp anywhereas long as you get permission from the village chief, which could lead to an invitation into a rondavel (hut) for papa (a polenta-like corn dish you eat with your hands).
Next, drive east to the oceanfront city of Durban. Stop overnight, then cruise the coast north on the N2 freeway about 225 miles [362 kilometers] and enter Swaziland at Lavumisa.
Swazi, just a bit smaller than New Jersey, is green and lush, with amazing nature reserves and culture. Head north to the capital, Mbabane, making several stops along the way.
In the Ezulwini Valley, you can base yourself at an inexpensive caravan park, and set out to look for rare black rhinos at the Mkhaya Game Reserve. You can shop for Swazi handicrafts in the Malkerns Valley, then spend your last few days among the exotic flowers and wildlife of the Malolotja Nature Reserve (Swaziland National Trust Commission, www.sntc.org.sz).
Return to Jo'burg via Mbabane. TWO-MONTH ITINERARIES
Snow to Spice Circuit
In two months you can explore Tanzania's bestparks, peaks, coastline, and the remote southwest.
From Nairobi, Kenya, take the bus south to Arusha for a seven-day outing with Roy Safaris (www.roysafaris.com), taking in Ngorongoro Crater, Olduvai Gorge, and the wildlife of the Serengeti. Roy Safaris will also guide you up Kilimanjaro's scenic Machame route.
A ten-hour bus ride gets you to Dar es Salaam, where a two-hour ferry floats you to Zanzibar Island's Stone Town, spice tours, and coconut-infused Swahili dishes.
An overnight boat goes to Pemba, a mellow spice isle with amazing diving (Swahili Divers; www.swahilidivers.com). Then swing back to Zanzibar and Dar es Salaam to catch the TAZARA train 200 miles [322 kilometers] to Mang'ula, the gateway to the rain forests and waterfalls of Udzungwa Mountains National Park (www.newafrica.com/).
Return to Nairobi by bus via Dar es Salaam. Frontierland Circuit
For the moment, Botswana and Zambia are relatively obscure gems. Beat the pack by hopping a bus from Jo'burg to Botswana's capital, Gaborone (seven hours), where the nearby Mokolodi Nature Reserve (www.mokolodi.com) shelters white rhinos. A bus to Sepupa and a river taxi land you on the Okavango Delta, for three days of canoeing alongside elephants and crocs (www.mokoro.org).
Charter a flight north to Kasane and rent a car (www.avis.com) for a self-guided camping safari in Botswana's famous Chobe National Park (www.go2africa.com/botswana/chobe/chobe-national-park). Cross the border by ferry at Kazungula, then bus 40 miles [64 kilometers] east to Livingstone, Zambia's rafting capital (Bundu Adventures; www.zambiatourism.com/bundu).
Seven hours northeast by bus is Lusaka, where Chachacha Backpackers and Safaris guides canoe trips among the elephant islands of the Zambezi River (www.zambiatourism.com/chachacha). ONE-YEAR ITINERARY
Roundabout Africa Circuit
Touring Africa from north to south is all about base camps. Nairobi is first; jump into Africa by spending a few months roaming north to the rock-hewn churches of Lalibela, a town tucked away in the Ethiopian highlands; south to the flamingos at Lake Nakuru; and west for quality time with Uganda's mountain gorillas.
Budget at least two months to string the jewels of the Kenya-Tanzania border, from the Loita Forest to the Serengeti, Ngorongoro, and Kilimanjaro.
Next base: Tanzania's languid Pemba Island. After a month of diving there, pop down to Zanzibar, where a month studying Swahili (Institute of Kiswahili and Foreign Languages; +255 242 233 337) will enhance your train ride south from Dar to canoe Zambia's rapid- and hippo-filled Zambezi River.
Plan to spend a few weeks with the elephants of Botswana's Chobe National Park, then take a combi (minibus) from Gaborone to Johannesburg before embarking on a three-week circuit through Lesotho, Swaziland, and Kruger National Park.
After surfing Indian Ocean combers at Durban and East London, you'll be pooped. Luckily, Cape Town is an easy base for less intense adventures, like biking through South Africa's wine country, paragliding at Walvis Bay, or four-wheeling into the sunset in the Namib Desert.
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