Close-up, intimate views of big cats such as cheetahs (here in Namibia) are among the great pleasures of an African safari.
Best for families: Eastern Cape, South Africa
Weaving between stands of euphorbia, Bruce can simultaneously drive a 4x4 vehicle, identify countless birds and relate a children’s story about why warthogs run with their tails held aloft. Much to the delight of our kids, he also has a fascination with dung, scooping up giraffe droppings as if they were chocolate-coated raisins.
We are in the private reserve of Kwandwe, and Bruce frequently pauses to show us small wonders, such as a shed cobra skin turned inside out or the graffiti of animal tracks around a waterhole. Kwandwe may not be the wildest area in Africa, but the Eastern Cape is the cat’s whiskers for family safaris. Not only is the region malaria-free, but you can easily combine your safari with the ‘Garden Route’ for beaches and dolphin-watching.
And just because it’s not Kruger, don’t feel you get short-changed. Several Eastern Cape reserves boast the ‘Big Five’ (lions, leopards, rhinos, buffalos and elephants), while Addo Elephant National Park is a good self-drive option. More upmarket reserves have child-friendly lodges.
Now you do it
- Malaria-free Madikwe Game Reserve, north of Johannesburg 00 27 21 424 1037.
- Tanzania also offers family-friendly safaris – try Families Worldwide 0845 051 4567.
Best for self-drive: Kruger National Park, South Africa
It’s barely 10am, and as I pull into Satara Camp for brunch I reflect on a near-perfect morning. Five hours earlier, as dawn broke over Olifants Camp, I saw a pack of African wild dogs cross the road in front of me. Just 15 minutes later, a pair of spotted hyenas, sniffing around an acacia trunk, led my eyes to the branch where a leopard was hoarding its kill. Approaching Satara, I came across lions feeding on a carcass, and a female cheetah and her two cubs pacing through the open grass.
Kruger has its quiet times, too; indeed, I have gone a couple of days here without seeing a single large predator. But it is easily the best park in Africa for DIY safaris, thanks to its surfaced roads suitable for any car – not just 4x4s – and a network of affordable rest camps with restaurants and grocery shops for self-caterers.
Shorter safaris generally stick to the more accessible south, where my favourite camp is Lower Sabie, which is located at the junction of three top-notch game-viewing roads. The H4-1 along the river is excellent for elephants, leopards and woodland birds; the H4-2 south to Crocodile Bridge passes through an area with plenty of rhinos; and – going north – the scenic H10 almost always presents some good ‘Big Five’ sightings.
With more time to spare, you could head to Satara, where herds of wildebeest and zebras are preyed upon by the park’s densest concentrations of lions and cheetahs. Further north still are Shingwedzi and Punda Maria, the latter offering access to the lushly forested Luvuvhu River, one of my favourite birding sites in South Africa.
Now you do it
- Book your rest camp or accommodation through South Africa’s comprehensive national parks website.
- To reach the park, fly with South African Airways to Kruger Mpumalanga Airport and hire a car there.
- Game-viewing is best July–October.
Best for birds: Okavango Delta, Botswana
Where better to go birding than in the Okavango Delta? This oasis in the northern Kalahari is the world’s largest Ramsar site – more than 26,000km2 of rivers, lagoons, floodplains and reedbeds – and every square centimetre throbs with life.
Numerous species of kingfisher haunt its reed-lined channels, while marsh harriers drift over the papyrus beds and pygmy geese float among the waterlilies. Fish eagles – the authentic voice of the Okavango – cry from the riverine treetops, and wherever you look there are storks, herons, bitterns, egrets, grebes, crakes and cormorants.
In all, about 350 species frequent these ‘African Everglades’, including Okavango specials such as wattled cranes and slaty egrets. The rarity everyone wants to see is Pel’s fishing owl, though there are only an estimated 100 breeding pairs in the whole of the delta. And don’t forget that there are interesting mammals here, too, including the water-loving sitatunga antelopes.
Now you do it
- Located on the banks of the Khwai River in the heart of Moremi Game Reserve, Xakanaxa Camp is good year round. Call 00 27 11 463 3999.