Close-up, intimate views of big cats such as cheetahs (here in Namibia) are among the great pleasures of an African safari.
The array of wildlife-watching opportunities in Africa is dizzying. But with a wealth of species to spot and a vast range of parks, reserves, lodges and camps, how do you pick your perfect safari? BBC Wildlife asked the experts.
Safari: it’s one of the most resonant words in the wildlife-lovers’ lexicon. Swahili for journey, the term is pregnant with the sights, sounds and smells of the African savannah.
If it doesn’t conjure up images in your mind of lions resting under an acacia tree or elephants standing in the heat of the tropical sun, ears flapping like giant wings, then English probably isn’t your first language – or even your second, third or fourth.
A safari of some description is the first choice for many people who go on a wildlife holiday. That’s not just because of the great diversity and biomass of Africa’s megafauna, but also because of its visibility. You want elephants? You can’t miss ’em.
But the wide distribution of the traditional safari – from South Africa’s private reserves to the plains of Kenya’s Masai Mara – makes it hard to know how you can guarantee the wildlife experience you are hoping for.
With this in mind, we asked three of our most experienced Africa writers to choose their top spots for specific experiences or animals. If big cats are your thing or you want a self-drive adventure, they know the very best places to go. Some destinations may be known to you, but others won’t. And this experts’ guide is a great starting point for making your next big trip the holiday of a lifetime.
- Phillip Briggs has visited more than 20 African countries in the course of writing numerous travel guides and wildlife articles.
- William Gray writes about family, wildlife and adventure holidays, often travelling with his wife and 10-year-old twins.
- Brian Jackman is a former staff travel writer for The Sunday Times and now specialises in safari destinations.
Best for big cats: Olare Orok Conservancy, Kenya
A good guide can make all the difference to a safari, and they don’t come any better than Jackson Saiyalel. With his beads, bangles and blood-red shuka – the distinctive red, checked blanket – there is no mistaking him for anything but a true Maasai, born and bred on the Mara plains. Today he works in the Olare Orok Conservancy, which covers 8,000ha and borders the Masai Mara National Reserve itself.
At a time when lion numbers are declining, it is heartening to find somewhere that is bucking the trend. Since Olare Orok was founded in 2006, the local feline population has increased dramatically. There are now 51 lions, comprising three healthy prides, and one of the joys of staying here is getting to recognise them as individuals. There’s no mistaking Nguro, one of the Ridge Pride lionesses – her Maasai name means ‘short tail’. Nor does it take long to identify Mzee and Lolalai, grizzled Moniko Pride males.
Another bonus is that low-density tourism rules, so you can usually watch big cats with no other vehicles around – something that is much harder in the National Reserve.
Now you do it
- Stay at Porini Lion Camp, one of only three camps with exclusive game-viewing rights on this private wildlife reserve. Details from Gamewatchers Safaris. Call 0870 471 7122.
- Go any time except April and May, which is the rainy season.
Best for canoeing: The Zambezi, Zambia
Few tasks concentrate the mind so much as steering a canoe between a pair of hippos submerged in a channel of the Lower Zambezi. Stick to the shallows, says our guide, and you’ll be in no danger. But the problem is that I don’t see any signposts reading ‘Shallow water’ or ‘Here be hippos’.
As the current nudges me forward, I focus on the wake of the lead canoe that runs between the banks. The crossing takes only 30 seconds, but it feels like an eternity.
Canoeing the Zambezi is mostly a serene activity, and some moments are etched on my memory forever – for instance, floating within 10m of a pride of lions, whose guileless yellow eyes followed our passage across the knee-deep water. It is one of Africa’s most compelling experiences, offering the immediacy of being right there, on the river, without an engine in earshot or a window frame in sight.
Now you do it
- Sausage Tree Camp offers one-hour to one-day canoe trips
- All-inclusive packages can be booked through Expert Africa. Call 020 8232 9777.
- The best time to visit is June to September, the dry winter months.
Best for volunteering: Tuli Block, Botswana
Elephants can be masters of suspense. An entire herd can hide nearby in dense scrub, teasing you with glimpses of questing trunks, before they melt away into even thicker vegetation. In Tuli Block, however, we are rewarded with a far more intimate encounter when a herd of 30 encircles us and shows off their full range of dust-tossing, ear-flapping and head-shaking.
Getting up-close and personal with elephants takes on new meaning with the Tuli Conservation Project. Working as a volunteer, your job is to develop ID cards and record behaviour for the 1,400 or so elephants found in the study area.
This is one of southern Africa’s last free-roaming populations, and research into their movements is key to the success of the Limpopo-Shashe Transfrontier Conservation Area that allows wildlife to migrate between Botswana, South Africa and Zimbabwe.
Other activities focus on recording predator and baboon behaviour, game counts and habitat restoration.
Now you do it
- Frontier has a wildlife conservation project in Tanzania’s Kilombero Valley. Call 020 7613 2422.
- Earthwatch has a cheetah conservation project in Namibia. Call 01865 318838.
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.
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.
DODGING THE DANGERS
A safari can be perfectly safe if you take some simple precautions.
- Malaria is present in most safari destinations, and the greatest risk is during the rainy seasons. Before you fly consult your GP or local travel clinic for advice about malaria pills. Take prophylactics, use repellent and cover up between dusk and dawn – when Anopheles mosquitoes are active – and be alert to malarial symptoms after you return home.
- Don’t underestimate the African sun, particularly in open vehicles or on walking or boat safaris. Apply sunblock liberally, wear a hat and bring some long-sleeved shirts for protection.
- Water at most camps isn’t piped. Ask whether it is safe to drink, but otherwise stick to bottled water, even when you are brushing your teeth.
- Never leave food in your tent. Fruit might attract baboons or elephants, while meat could pique the curiosity of hyenas – or even lions.
- Big cats seldom view people as prey, but if you come into contact with one on foot, the worst thing you can do is run – this triggers its instinct to chase.
- Hippos and crocodiles are responsible for many deaths. Don’t swim (except in a swimming pool) without seeking local advice first, and avoid walking near lakes and rivers at dusk and dawn, when hippos are out feeding and may bulldoze anything that gets between them and the water.
- Listen to your guide in the presence of potentially dangerous wildlife such as hippos, buffalos or elephants, especially on walking or boat safaris.
- Snakes and scorpions are secretive and seldom seen unless actively searched for, for instance by turning over rocks. Still, wearing solid walking shoes and trousers will greatly reduce the (already infinitesimal) risk of a bite.
Read the BBC Wildlife guide to avoiding animal attacks here
BOOKING YOUR ULTIMATE SAFARI
So when you know what you want to see and where you want to go, what do you do next?
- There are two ways of realising your African dream safari. You can either organise all of the logistics yourself, including booking accommodation and rest camps, and hiring vehicles, or you can book through a tour operator who will arrange everything for you.
- The contact details we have supplied for each experience featured are usually those of specific camps, lodges or ground operators in Africa, but if you want a complete package it is best to go through an African safari specialist based in the UK.
- Below are some of the operators that BBC Wildlife staff have travelled with, but plenty of others advertise in the Classified pages.
To find out more about Expert Africa please click here
or call 020 8232 9777.
To find out more about
Naturetrek please click here or call
To find out more about
Rainbow Tours please click here or call
020 7226 1004.
To find out more about
Wildlife Worldwide please click here or call
0845 130 6982.
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