If you’re flying in, you’ll almost certainly be starting at the capital city and centre of the country Addis Ababa. You can look around, or you can jump straight on a bus (or fly) to Bahir Dar on the shore of the expansive Lake Tana. After exploring those lakeside monasteries, you’ll be ready to head a little farther north to historic Gondar and its fascinating and well preserved castles. It’s only a 3-hour bus, and from here you can always arrange trips for multiday hikes into the The Simien Mountains – which is surely not to be missed at the right time of year. To continue your historic circuit, a long bus or short flight northeast and you’re at the ancient city of Axum. After exploring the countryside, you’ll be wanting to head directly south to Lalibela and its famous and outstanding rock-hewn churches.
By this point, you’ve probably had enough northern-circuit history, so consider flying all the way south to Arba Minch where national parks, animals and tribes are top on most people’s agenda. And for a last place to visit in the country, a stop at the rift valley lakes in Hawassa is never a bad idea – especially when there’s so much Italian food around!
It’s an easy flight from Addis Ababa to Kigali, where you can spend a few days of comparatively pleasant city exploration before heading inland to the lake at Kibuye (Karongi). Though it’ll be tough to tear yourself away from this town’s stunning location, Gisenyi (Rubavu) is just a couple of hours’ farther north along the shoreline and gives a different and equally pleasant perspective of the lake. Ruhengeri (Musanze) is also just another hour or so inland, and makes for an excellent base from which to explore the Volcanoes National Park – famous for its mountain gorillas. The final stop is the small border town of Cyanika where you’ll cross quickly into Uganda.
A short boda-boda (motorbike) journey over the Ugandan border puts you in compact Kisoro, which has excellent access to the hiking and gorillas in Mgahinga Gorilla National Park and makes for a good enough base for a few days.
From here, it’s only a few hours on the bus to Kabale. Although this town doesn’t have much to offer aside from some handy supermarkets, it is very close to Lake Bunyonyi which is about as close as the region comes to a backpacker favourite. After a few days of resting there, continue north to the city of Mbarara where you can fully stock up here before visiting the Kalinzu Forest Reserve chimpanzee habitat on the way to Queen Elizabeth National Park. Here is where you’ll finally join the safariing crowds. Renting your own jeep would be a good idea here to properly explore the national park, and it would really help in getting you to and around the Toro Crater Lakes and to the pleasant town of Fort Portal. After you’ve spent a few days in this region, head inland to the capital city Kampala before making a mad dash northwest to Murchison Falls National Park for some of the country’s best safari experiences. Then return back to the capital and press on to the border at Busia with Kenya.
After you’re rested up, it’s off to Nairobi to organise a tour into the Maasai Mara National Park, Lake Nakuru National Park and Amboseli National Park. These three national parks are all impressive in their own right and should not be missed – althoug it can be a lot of travelling in a short amount of time. A long and tiring bus journey (or short flight) from the capital to Malindi marks the end of the safaris and the start of some serious Swahili beach vibes. While this is one of the nicest spots along the Kenyan coast, you’ll not want to miss out on visiting the impressive creek at Kilifi or the well-facilitated party atmosphere of kite-surfing Diani Beach. From there, it’s only a short hop by bus to the easy Tanzanian border town of Lunga Lunga.
You won’t have to travel south down the Tanzanian coast for long at all before you reach the pleasant and quiet city of Tanga. Sure there’s not much to keep you here for long before you fly on a propeller plane to Zanzibar, but it certainly makes for an authentic couple of days. Once your plane touches down in Zanzibar, you’ll soon forget about everywhere that came before anyway. Stone Town will probably be your first port of call – to soak up the history, culture and flavour of the East African coastline – but you’ll soon want to head north to the powdery white beaches of Nungwi or east to the kite-surfing mecca of Paje. Either way, you’ll no doubt have to make plans to ferry or fly to Dar es Salaam to either finish your East African adventure or continue it elsewhere.
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