Close-up, intimate views of big cats such as cheetahs (here in Namibia) are among the great pleasures of an African safari.
Best for walking: South Luangwa National Park, Zambia
A herd of buffalos marches slowly towards the life-sustaining Luangwa River. Our guide signals us to keep still as the front few animals stop to sniff the fresh morning air, their heads lowered, brown eyes staring intently ahead. Slowly, they resume their thirsty journey.
After watching them for a while, we walk on, too, stopping occasionally to enjoy the minutiae of the African bush: a chameleon wobbling goggle-eyed along a branch, or a palm-sized spider huddling expectantly in a corner of her web.
South Luangwa is a superb reserve on so many levels. There is the Luangwa River, its sluggish brown waters passing through dry-season pools dense with hippos, and its tall banks pockmarked with the breeding holes of dazzling carmine bee-eaters.
Then there are the night drives, renowned for their leopard sightings but also good for other ‘nocturnals’ such as the handsome genet, twitchy-nosed elephant-shrew and quill-rattling porcupine.
But South Luangwa can also claim to be the home of the walking safari – whether it is a half-day hike or multi-day trek between fly-camps. Either way, you get to experience a richer Africa than the one you see from a vehicle: the zebras look bigger, the giraffes tower higher and, faced with the stare of a buffalo or trumpeting of an elephant, your sense of being an intruder is painfully, thrillingly manifest.
Now you do it
Best for wild dogs: The Selous, Tanzania
When I first see the herd of impalas fleeing headlong across the hillside, I assume that they must have noticed a leopard among the rocks. But I should know better. No other predators create as much panic as a wild dog pack.
Sure enough, moments later I pick out three familiar brindled shapes, their bushy white tail-tips raised like flags. In the Selous, where this encounter takes place, the dogs are known as chaka-chaka – ‘the ones that trot’ – but this trio is racing flat-out. By the time we catch up with them, they have already pulled down an impala – their favourite prey – and are eating it as fast as they can.
The Selous in southern Tanzania is Africa’s biggest game reserve, a wilderness the size of Ireland and the best place to see wild dogs. In the whole of Africa there are perhaps as few as 4,000 of these Critically Endangered canids left, of which about 800 can be found in the Selous. It’s here that you are most likely to spot their four-toed tracks, hear their mournful contact calls and – because they are daylight hunters – watch them streaming in full cry through the bush.
Now you do it
- Base yourself at Beho Beho Safari Lodge in the northern Selous. Represented in the UK by Africa Reps. Call 01932 260618.
Best for elephants: Amboseli National Park, Kenya
Mesmerising orange hues filter through a suspension of volcanic dust kicked up by thousands of hooves. On the horizon, a cloudy shroud lifts to reveal the origin of these particles: the snow-capped peak of Kilimanjaro. Not for the first time, I am struck by how dusk transforms the Amboseli plains into such a wondrous place.
This small park on the Tanzanian border supports one of the world’s densest daytime elephant populations. This, too, is thanks to the great mountain, whose springs and molten snow feed a network of wetlands where up to 1,000 individuals converge to drink and play, having spread far beyond the park’s confines to graze by night.
These elephants are incredibly well habituated thanks to the Amboseli Elephant Research Project, founded by Cynthia Moss in 1975 and the source of much of what is known today about elephant social behaviour and communication.
The protection afforded by the project means that Amboseli’s elephants sport tusks of sizes that are elsewhere consigned to memory. And there’s no finer place to observe their behaviour and social interaction at close quarters. Whether it’s a convention of bulls foraging shoulder-deep in a marsh, or a mother and her impossibly tiny newborn baby walking tail-in-trunk across the plain, the action, complemented by the spectacular backdrop of Kilimanjaro, makes Amboseli a delight and a joy to visit.
Now you do it
- A full safari including accommodation can be booked through companies including Rainbow Tours. Call 020 7226 1004.
- Elephant sightings are plentiful throughout the year.
Best for big herds: Serengeti National Park
February in the Serengeti, and the short grass plains are black with wildebeest. How many? Let’s settle for a million, all drawn here by the imperative of the calving season. Soon we are in the thick of them, an endless, grunting tide of animals stretching as far as the eye can see. And the wildebeest are not alone: in the middle of a grass arena stands a solitary lion, his battle-scarred muzzle smothered in flies.
Over the next three weeks, a flood of babies will be born. Not only wildebeest, but also zebra foals and young Thomson’s gazelles. Many will fall prey to the carnivores: lions, cheetahs and spotted hyenas. But, by calving almost simultaneously, the herbivores ensure that most of their progeny survive the onslaught.
At this time of year, when the plains are green, there is nowhere so vibrantly alive. But when the dry season comes and the grass is exhausted, the herds must move on. I watched them once, moving away in long columns under a banner of dust, like a retreating army. They left nothing behind them but an emptiness of stubble and a few kori bustards.
Now you do it
- Follow the migration on a mobile safari. Try Audley Travel. Call 01993 838500.
- Wildebeest calving takes place in February each year.
- For zebra and gemsbok migration between January and April, try Jack’s Camp, Makgadikgadi Pans, Botswana.
- For huge numbers of blue wildebeest, zebra and tsessebe between November and June, try Liuwa Plains, Zambia. Try Robin Pope Safaris.