I occasionally get asked by friends and family what my top choices would be for a first time traveler to Africa and to be honest I find it a massively daunting question. Not least is Africa a huge continent; but people’s expectations of the ‘Africa experience’, their propensity for luxury vs. budget and their general travel styles vary so greatly. That said, and having been lucky enough to sample a mere 18 of the 54 fully recognized countries that comprise the African continent, I enjoy the challenge and excitement of planning trips to Africa (both for myself and friends) and often plan trips just to add to my ‘future trips’ list. With that in mind I decided to put together a go-to list of my preferred destinations, by category, for first-time visitors. Disclaimer: I’ve based the list only on places I’ve traveled to; which means that it’s limited to my own experience. So, don’t blame me if your favourite isn’t on there yet! I’ve also failed to include any countries in West Africa (yet!).
There is no getting away from the fact that most people travel to Africa for safari; and that safari can be eye-wateringly expensive. South Africa is one of the few places where I think you can get a full safari experience (including a decent level of luxury) at a ‘reasonable price’. However, it’s important to consider that there are some drawbacks to the cheaper prices and greater ‘accessibility’. Most notably, it means SA attracts more people. If you’re looking for a true wilderness safari experience then South Africa might not quench that thirst. In some areas (including Kruger National Park), SA leaves me feeling a little ‘Disneyfied’ (Disclaimer: I think Animal Kingdom at Disney World is great). On the positive side, you’ll get the big 5 (i.e. lion, leopard, rhino, elephant, water buffalo) at a lower cost and can experience a multitude of other highlights and landmarks (Cape Town, beaches, the Drakensburg Mountains, Wine Country) that other African countries simply can’t offer.
Namibia, like South Africa, is another place where you can afford to splash out on a decent level of luxury without breaking the bank; particularly if you are going to self-drive and therefore aren’t paying the premium of a tour operator. In “shoulder season” between wet and dry, lodge prices are reasonable and plentiful – making self-booking very easy online and per night costs in all-inclusive lodge including game drives and activities can be found for the same price as an average per night cost in a 4-star European hotel. Government run lodges (operated by Namibia Wildlife Resorts (NWR)) also offer great value. If staying in an NWR resort in Etosha National Park, you’ll be inside the reserve itself overnight and have the chance to view wildlife in the resort’s unique floodlit waterholes.
As a first-time Africa traveler and a budget traveler, I think the single best option is to book an overland trip. The fact that you’ll be camping adds a spirit of adventure whilst vastly lowering the costs, and you’ll potentially get to see more than one country. If I had to recommend one overland trip for a first-timer I would suggest overlanding between Livingstone, Zambia and Windhoek, Namibia through Botswana. This route will include Victoria Falls, Chobe National Park (offering water and land-based safari and one of the greatest elephant sighting opportunities anywhere on earth) and the Okavango Delta (with the chance to mokoro (i.e. local canoe) in to the delta and sleep in a wild camp for a few days. Add a couple of days on each end (in Livingstone and Windhoek) so that you can walk with lions under rehabilitation, then microlight over Victoria Falls in Livingstone and lastly join a guided tour to see DeadVlei in Namibia (accessed via Soussuvlei, Namibia).
Big Game Hunters (not literally, just with a camera)
My favourite safari destination in Africa is undoubtedly South Luangwa National Park in the Eastern Province of Zambia. I’ll admit, if you’re going to drive there (or get driven there) instead of shelling out for the journey in a light aircraft, then it’s a fairly arduous journey from Lusaka with a possible overnight stay in Chipata (or a long drive from Lilongwe in Malawi). But it’s well worth it for some of the best wildlife experiences I’ve ever had and in a park that receives only a tiny portion of the tourists that the more famous African Parks (Kruger, Serengeti, Maasai Mara) receive. If you’re fortunate enough to stay at the Mfuwe Lodge inside the park then you may also be lucky enough (if the mangoes are ripe…….I now realise that sounds like some weird unintended innuendo) to witness herds of elephants traipsing through reception (literally through the middle of the building) to get to the mango trees. Once you’ve visited South Luangwa then take the trip to the North of the country and spend a few days in Livingstone visiting Victoria Falls and experiencing the huge host of activities they have in the surrounding area.
With both Chobe National Park and the Okavango Delta within its borders it would be impossible to leave Botswana off the list. Both parks also offer a unique water-based safari experience that can be offered barely anywhere else. In Chobe you could choose to safari by houseboat whilst in Okavango you could mokoro (which is a hollowed out tree stump formed in to a canoe of sorts) hours out in to the delta and then wild camp (including digging your own toilet) for a few days taking walking and mokoro safaris with an armed guide. The latter also means you’ll have great experiences like being woken in the middle of the night by alarmed guards who thought a hippo had entered our camp but it turned out to be a zebra. Much more effective than caffeine!
Kenya, Uganda, Rwanda
Kenya is probably the place most first-time Africa visitors think of when they decide they want to go on safari; and undoubtedly the likes of the Masai Mara, Lake Nakuru and Lake Naivasha offer spectacular safari options. However, over the last few years Kenya has dropped down my list because of the soaring costs to safari there. However, one way to avoid some of these costs is to visit Kenya on an overland tour. One of my favourite overland tours (other than the Zambia, Botswana, Namibia one I mentioned above) was from Kenya, in to Uganda and finishing in Kigali, Rwanda. This provides the opportunity to visit the Masai, Nakuru and Naivasha whilst also visiting Jinja (Uganda) to raft the Nile and then Volcanoes National Park (Rwanda) to visit the mountain gorillas (which honestly, is one of my best life experiences; so much so that I went back a second time). Just be aware that the cost of obtaining a gorilla tracking permit has soared in recent years, so make sure that whatever tour operator you use has included that cost in the trip price.
Tanzania is another destination where prices have soared a little, but it’s hard to avoid recommending the safaris on option in the Serengeti (especially for the Wildebeest migration), Ngorongoro Crater, and Selous National Park (in the latter you can also do walking and boat safaris). There are a whole host of other parks and private reserves in Tanzania, but these three are the true ‘big 5’ parks and many of the others don’t have rhino. Obviously, the presence of the Big 5 brings more people which drives up prices, so you may want to make trade-offs if rhino aren’t top of your must-see list or you’re more of a big-cat fan. The other great thing about Tanzania is that you can tag on a trip to Zanzibar at the end of the trip to unwind and relax on some of the best beaches anywhere in the world! One piece of advice on Zanzibar; pay the extra to get the plane back to Dar Es Salaam – never have I seen so many people throwing up on a ferry!
Part 2 for adrenaline junkies and culture vultures (and some additional honourable mentions) is coming next week! In the meantime, I’d love to hear your thoughts and comments based on where you’ve visited in Africa!
Check out part two of our post HERE.