The classic African safari naturally conjures images of rugged wilderness and vast open savannah teeming with wildlife (cue Lion King intro music). The good news is that gone are the days of glamorous elites donning their safari suits and pith helmets to hunt big game with a blunderbuss (a la Jumanji). Instead, the last few decades have seen the rise of the classic African Safari for even the most budget-conscious of tourists. Whilst you might not be able (or willing) to afford the five-star, all-inclusive, safari lodge you see on TV, there are a myriad of budget options in pretty much all of the major game reserves across sub-Saharan Africa. For those who haven’t been on safari before there is a natural inclination to immediately think of Kenya (most notably the Masai Mara) and Tanzania (particularly the Serengeti); these are the two places we’ve all seen the images of and are undoubtedly two of the best African safari options available (and are included in this post) but, with that in mind, here, in order, is a list of my top 5 African safari destinations (that I have visited):
South Luangwa National Park, Zambia: South Luangwa is my number one pick for a few reasons. Unfortunately, if you’re on a budget and don’t want to pay for a fly-in safari then I can personally attest to the fact that it’s a bit of drive to get there with a possible overnight stay en-route in Chipata. But therein lies the reason why Luangwa is number one. The long drive (or higher costs) means that it remains off of the list of the more touristy national parks. Fewer visitors mean that Luangwa has a more remote, wilderness feel and you can easily go for an hour without seeing another game vehicle (subject to heading in to the park and away from the main Mfuwe gate). Unlike the Masai Mara, where if you find a big cat you’ll have 25 other game vehicles parked next to you within 5 minutes, I sat parked under a tree watching a leopard and kill for an hour before the next vehicle arrived. We were able to maneuver the 4×4 around the tree to get different camera angles; and anyone who has been to the Masai will attest how difficult that can be there. As an added bonus this is probably the most renowned park for walking safaris (not for the faint hearted).
Serengeti National Park, Tanzania: The Serengeti (together with the Masai Mara which is the Northern extension of the Serengeti in Kenya) is host to probably the best known wildlife event anywhere; the wildebeest migration. The reason I’ve put the Serengeti above the Mara is simple; it’s ten times bigger – which means you can more easily manage to find areas of the park that aren’t deluged with other tourists (particularly in the private concessions). In addition, its larger size means a greater habitat diversity which adds a little bit of interest to your safari. Otherwise, the similarities are all there; an abundance of predators, far reaching savannah, picture-perfect sundowners and plenty of opportunities for ‘nat-geo moments’ such as big cats hunting or rutting antelope. If you can put up with the crowds then head east to the Ngorongoro Crater. This volcanic caldera has probably one of the greatest concentrations of wildlife anywhere on earth.
Okavango Delta, Botswana: The Okavango Delta provided me with one of the most ‘get your hands dirty’ safaris I’ve ever been on and which also made it one of the most memorable. Joining the safari from Maun, we took (led by a local guide) a dug-out tree canoe (locally called a mokoro) three hours in to the delta. From there we put up camp for three days (including digging out our own toilet) in the wilderness on one of the thousands of ‘islands’ that grow and shrink (or disappear) across the delta during the wet and dry seasons. During the day we went on walking and mokoro safaris and in the evening we pitched in with cooking duties and sat drinking around the campfire. Okavango hosts the big 5 so you won’t be short on opportunities for big game viewing, but if you’re planning for lodge accommodation then be prepared for potentially exorbitant prices.
Masai Mara, Kenya: The Masai Mara is probably the first destination that comes to mind for first-time safari-goers; and therein lies the problem. The Park is undoubtedly one of the best African safari experiences and the game-viewing opportunities are near second-to-none. But the chances are that you’ll be viewing that game alongside a gaggle of mini-buses and overland trucks topped off with some 4×4 self-drivers who might well scare the game off. All that said, it still makes my top 5 pretty much solely due to the predator-viewing opportunities. Nowhere have I been parked up under a tree watching three cheetahs sleeping only to turn around to the other side of the car to watch a lion kill a zebra. Top this off with the Northern end of the wildebeest migration and you’d be hard pressed not to have it on your top 5 African Safari experiences despite the gaggles of other tourists. It’s probably one of the best bets for a first-timer as it will certainly whet your appetite for next time around!
Volcanoes National Park, Rwanda: OK, so not strictly the typical African safari, but tracking gorillas in the Volcanoes National Park is a once in a lifetime experience. Unlike a typical safari, where you’re safely sheltered in a vehicle, you’ll be guided (by an armed guide; mostly due to poachers) in to the forest on foot. Following an hour or more trekking and carving your way through the forest with a machete (the guide does that part so don’t get any grand ideas) you’ll have the chance to sit, for an hour, mere meters from a troop of gorillas and hopefully a silverback. I can’t really stress how close you’ll have the opportunity to get but the fact that the guides ask you not to stare the silverback straight in the eyes probably gives a good enough idea.
What’s your favourite African safari destination? Leave your replies in the comments section below!