Top 10 African safari experiences

The array of wildlife-watching opportunities in Africa is dizzying. So how do you pick your perfect safari? BBC Wildlife asked the experts.
 

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1. Best for big cats: Olare Orok Conservancy, Kenya
 
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, 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. Brian Jackman
 
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
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Also recommended
 
 
2. 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, and supposedly you’ll be in no danger. But the problem is you don’t often see signposts reading ‘Shallow water’ or ‘Here be hippos’.
 
However, canoeing the Zambezi is mostly a serene activity, and moments will be etched on your memory forever – such as floating within 10m of a pride of lions. 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. Philip Briggs
 
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.
 
Also recommended
 
 
3. Best for volunteering: Tuli Block, Botswana
 
Getting up-close and personal with elephants takes on new meaning with the Tuli Conservation Project. Working as a volunteer, your job will be 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. William Gray
 
Now you do it
 
Also recommended
  • 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.
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4. Best for walking: South Luangwa National Park, Zambia
 
South Luangwa is a superb reserve on so many levels. There is the Luangwa River, its waters passing through dry-season pools dense with hippos, and its 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 genets, elephant-shrews and porcupines.
 
But South Luangwa is also 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 thrillingly manifest. PB
 
Now you do it
 
Also recommended
 
 
5. Best for wild dogs: The Selous, Tanzania
 
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. BJ
 
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. 
 
Also recommended
 
 
6. Best for elephants: Amboseli National Park, Kenya
 
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 in 1975 and the source of much of what is known today about elephant social behaviour and communication. The protection it offers means that Amboseli’s elephants sport tusks of sizes that are elsewhere consigned to memory. There’s no finer place to observe their behaviour and social interaction at close quarters. PB
 
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.
 
Also recommended
 
 
7. Best for big herds: Serengeti National Park
 
February in the Serengeti, and the short grass plains are black with a million wildebeest, drawn here by the imperative of the calving season. 
 
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, the herds must move on, moving away in long columns under a banner of dust, like a retreating army. BJ
 
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.
 
Also recommended
  • 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.
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8. Best for families: Eastern Cape, South Africa
 
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. WG
 
Now you do it
 
Also recommended
  • 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.
 
 
9. Best for self-drive: Kruger National Park, South Africa
 
Kruger is easily the best park in Africa for DIY safaris, thanks to its surfaced roads suitable for any car and a network of affordable rest camps with restaurants and shops for self-caterers.
 
Shorter safaris generally stick to the more accessible south, where a popular camp is Lower Sabie, 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 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, a great birding site. PB
 
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.
 
Also recommended
 
 
10. Best for birds: Okavango Delta, Botswana
 
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 cry from the 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.BJ
 
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.
 
Also recommended
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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. PB
 
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 01962 733051.
 
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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