The ultimate African safari  (Shutterstock)
Article Words : Emma Gregg | 13 January 2019

Trip planner: African Safari

Do you want to track big game on foot or in a dugout canoe? Explore vast savannahs or sweeping dunes? Focus on birds or bigger beasts like lion and rhino? Plot the perfect African safari for you...

Nobody ever forgets their first safari. Mine was a self-drive trip through Kenya’s Masai Mara, bumping along wilderness tracks in a tiny Toyota rented for a song in Nairobi. With no guide, radio or mobile phone to assist us, our wildlife sightings were hit and miss. But we gloried in the novelty of it all, immersed in green landscapes where graceful zebras and giraffes, surprised-looking warthogs and paintbox-bright birds were as abundant and easy to see as cows, sheep and pigeons in rural England.

Blue Gnu coming thru: Hundreds of thousands of wildebeest – along the plains with zebra adding a dash of pizzazz – traverse the Masai Mara each year during the great migration (Shutterstock)

Blue Gnu coming thru: Hundreds of thousands of wildebeest – along the plains with zebra adding a dash of pizzazz – traverse the Masai Mara each year during the great migration (Shutterstock)

Back then, in the 1990s, Kenya’s roads were – like Britain’s – emptier, and four-wheel-driving through the African bush was still the ultimate thrill. Today, there are calls to limit or even ban self-drive safaris in Africa’s busiest protected areas, to reduce environmental damage and give the animals a little more personal space. Nonetheless, for wildlife-lovers with an adventurous spirit, there are still several glorious parks and reserves you can explore under your own steam, at your own pace. And if you’d rather let someone else do the driving (if only to enjoy a crisp beer or a gin and tonic at some point) there are plenty of conservation-friendly organised safaris that can show you Africa’s heartlands at their luminous, intricate best.

A cheetah – and her fluffy cub – perch on a termite mound in Kenya (Shutterstock)

A cheetah – and her fluffy cub – perch on a termite mound in Kenya (Shutterstock)

Whether you’re considering driving or want to book a guided tour, it’s wise to plan your trip with care, seeking expert advice. For example, some experiences are seasonal, and in some cases flying between parks and reserves is more practical than overlanding.

If the plethora of options leaves you as baffled as a warthog, try focusing on safari companies or destinations with a reputation for excellent guiding. First-class guides will keep you safe and help you find your wishlist species. Importantly, they’ll also unlock the wonders of the bush through thoughtful explanations and thrilling tales. They’re worth their weight in gold.

Kenya: Nairobi National Park

Zebra form herds known as a zeal (Shutterstock)

Zebra form herds known as a zeal (Shutterstock)

Best for: A quick wildlife-watching stopover

Duration: 1–3 days

Route: Nairobi | Nairobi NP

When to go? June–October and December–February are the driest months

Let’s start by debunking the idea that a safari has to be a journey. That notion dates back to the 18th and 19th centuries, when East African traders, hunters and explorers used the Swahili word safari (meaning voyage or journey) for an arduous trip between trading posts, or an animal-collecting expedition. Ripe with romantic, adventurous associations, the term is here to stay. But if you don’t have the time or inclination for a multi-stop marathon, you needn’t miss out entirely – it’s perfectly possible to plan a quick single-stop safari instead.

Spot giraffe against a backdrop of skyscrapers (Shutterstock)

Spot giraffe against a backdrop of skyscrapers (Shutterstock)

Kenya is blessed with one of Africa’s most accessible wildlife-watching areas: a national park more than ten times larger than London’s Richmond Park, right on Nairobi’s doorstep. Considering its size and location, its population of black rhinos, lions, zebras and gira­ffes is remarkably healthy. Kenya Airways now includes a free flying visit to the national park if you’re in transit between London and one of seven African cities. Their safari guides will drive you around the park, provide breakfast and even cover the cost of your transit visa.

For those who decide to stay overnight, the park has a couple of gorgeous little lodges (Ololo and The Emakoko) to knock spots off any airport hotel.

An ostrich forages in Nairobi National Park (Emma Gregg)

An ostrich forages in Nairobi National Park (Emma Gregg)

Kenya is blessed with one of Africa’s most accessible wildlife-watching areas: a national park more than ten times larger than London’s Richmond Park, right on Nairobi’s doorstep.

South Africa: Big Five adventure

A lioness shows off her fangs with a fearsome snarl in Kruger (Shutterstock)

A lioness shows off her fangs with a fearsome snarl in Kruger (Shutterstock)

Best for: A first-time safari

Duration: 10 days

Route: Cape Town | Winelands | Greater Kruger

When to go: Any time – but for dry weather and moderate temperatures, May and September - October are best

The Big Five aren’t the be all and end all. Africa has other large, charismatic creatures that are just as interesting – giraffes, cheetahs, hyenas and gorillas, for example. But seeking out the animals that topped the danger lists of big game hunters (elephant, rhino, lion, leopard and buffalo) will get your first safari off to a flying start.

South Africa offers lots of options for both independent and organised safaris, from budget to blowout, with good accommodation, roads and flights, well-managed reserves, and fabulous food and wine.

Dominating elephant – one of the big five roam parks across South Africa (Shutterstock)

Dominating elephant – one of the big five roam parks across South Africa (Shutterstock)

First, treat yourself to a few days in Cape Town and the Winelands, sinking your teeth into the sophisticated farm-to-fork food scene, basking in the glow of some contemporary art or warming up your wildlife-watching skills in Kirstenbosch National Botanical Garden and at the African penguin colony on Boulders Beach.

Get up close and personal to the wildlife in a jeep (Dreamstime)

Get up close and personal to the wildlife in a jeep (Dreamstime)

Top tip 

In Kruger NP, everyone is required to stick to the roads – however, in Sabi Sands, guides may drive off-road for extra-close wildlife encounters.

Next, fly or drive to Kruger for a classic safari in one of Africa’s prime wildlife-watching regions. Whether you stay in a simple lodge in Kruger National Park or an exclusive camp in the adjoining Sabi Sands Reserve, unforgettable sightings are practically guaranteed. Some visitors tick off the entire Big Five in their first afternoon.

The southern white rhino was saved from extinction largely thanks to efforts in South Africa (Shutterstock)

The southern white rhino was saved from extinction largely thanks to efforts in South Africa (Shutterstock)

Did you know? 

The white rhino’s name derives from a mistranslation of the Dutch word wijd (wide), describing its broad, square-lipped mouth.

Botswana: Rivers, desert and Delta

Gape escape: Hippos cool off in the waters of the Kwando River on the Namibia-Botswana border (Shutterstock)

Gape escape: Hippos cool off in the waters of the Kwando River on the Namibia-Botswana border (Shutterstock)

Best for: Pristine wilderness

Duration: 16 days

Route: Zambezi Region (Caprivi) | Okavango Panhandle | Central Kalahari GR | Maun | Okavango Delta | Chobe NP | Victoria Falls

When to go? To see the Okavango Delta in flood and Victoria Falls in full spate, the early dry season (May – August) is best

Botswana is known as an expensive safari destination – its conservation-focused tourism industry limits visitor numbers, and demand keeps prices high. If you want to stretch your money as far as possible, it’s worth considering a self-drive trip. You’ll need to be capable, resourceful and confident behind the wheel of a 4WD.

Exploring the watery wonderland of Botswana's Okavango Delta aboard a mokoro, a traditional dugout canoe (Shutterstock)

Exploring the watery wonderland of Botswana's Okavango Delta aboard a mokoro, a traditional dugout canoe (Shutterstock)

Start by exploring the shining Kwando River in a motorboat to look for elephants and hippos. Continue to the Okavango Panhandle – not a prime wildlife-watching area, but excellent for birdwatching from a motorboat or mokoro (traditional dugout canoe) re-imagined in fibreglass. Next, head into the Central Kalahari for the chance to see black-maned lions, bat-eared foxes and honey badgers.

Round off your trip with three of Africa’s blockbusters: cruise the waterways of the Okavango Delta, explore Chobe’s elephant-rich marshes and discover the mighty cataracts that the Lozi people call Mosi-oa-Tunya (‘The Smoke That Thunders’): Victoria Falls.

A black-maned male lion is simply irrestistible (Shutterstock)

A black-maned male lion is simply irrestistible (Shutterstock)

Did you know?

The Kalahari’s lionesses can’t resist a black-maned male: this colouration indicates strength and resilience in the heat of the sun.

Kenya and Tanzania: The Great Migration

Wildebeest mix with zebra to form the Great Migration, dashing across the Mara River (Shutterstock)

Wildebeest mix with zebra to form the Great Migration, dashing across the Mara River (Shutterstock)

Best for: One of Africa’s most dramatic wildlife phenomena

Duration: 10 – 14 days

Route: Mara North Conservancy | Masa Mara | Northern Serengeti

When to go? July – October, to see the herds massing and crossing the Mara River

East Africa’s Great Migration is a rambling clockwise circuit lasting all year. Vast wildebeest herds, seeking fresh water and grass, head north from their calving grounds in the shortgrass plains of the southern Serengeti to the Grumeti River, continue towards the Mara River in the northern Serengeti and Masai Mara, then loop south again via the eastern Serengeti.

The first time I witnessed a river crossing, the experience filled me with shock, awe and concern: shock at the swift demise of a Thomson’s gazelle that was plucky enough to lead its companions into the Mara, only to be snapped up and death-rolled by a huge crocodile; awe at the spectacle of dozens of wildebeest galloping across in a struggling, plunging mass; and concern at the sheer numbers of safari vehicles jostling for the best sightlines on the opposite bank.

A lioness preens her cub (Emma Gregg)

A lioness preens her cub (Emma Gregg)

The best way to avoid the congestion is to limit your time in the Masai Mara National Reserve, where traffic bottlenecks regularly occur, in favour of the quieter adjoining conservancies. Here, some camps (such as Sanctuary Olonana and Ngare Serian) perch right on the banks of the Mara.

The best way to avoid the congestion is to limit your time in the Masai Mara National Reserve, where traffic bottlenecks regularly occur, in favour of the quieter adjoining conservancies. Here, some camps (such as Sanctuary Olonana and Ngare Serian) perch right on the banks of the Mara. For a fresh perspective, try an expert-guided walking and fly-camping experience with Serian, one of the few outfits permitted to explore the northern Serengeti on foot.

Wildebeest run the gauntlet of crocs and other predators to cross the Mara River during the Great Migration (Shutterstock)

Wildebeest run the gauntlet of crocs and other predators to cross the Mara River during the Great Migration (Shutterstock)

Did you know?

Each year, more than 6,000 wildebeest perish in the Mara River, adding biomass equivalent to 10 blue whales to the local ecosystem.

Zambia: Leopards and local culture

A leopard lounges in a branch in South Luangwa National Park, where superbly knowledgeable guides lead some of Africa's best walking safaris (Shutterstock)

A leopard lounges in a branch in South Luangwa National Park, where superbly knowledgeable guides lead some of Africa's best walking safaris (Shutterstock)

Best for: Walking safaris, crafts and community projects

Duration: 10 – 14 days

Route: Lusaka | South Luangwa NP | Lower Zambezi NP

When to go? June – October are the driest months; the green season, November – May, is great for birds and baby antelopes

If leopards and expertly guided bushwalks top your safari wishlist, look no further: Zambia’s flagship national park, South Luangwa, is one of Africa’s best destinations for both. Lower Zambezi is a complementary destination – Africa’s first carbon-neutral national park, and fabulously scenic.

Zambia has an excellent guiding tradition and bags of character and creative talent, particularly in the rural regions. You’ll get a strong sense of this at Latitude 15 Degrees in Lusaka, a delightful boutique hotel lavishly decorated with art and artefacts by Zambian artists, and in Mfuwe, gateway to South Luangwa, where several workshops sell original textiles, jewellery and homewares infinitely more appealing than the mass-produced carvings in many African craft markets. Even better, these enterprises contribute to wildlife conservation and help support local families.

South Luangwa National Park, where superbly knowledgeable guides lead some of Africa's best walking safaris (Lyn Hughes)

South Luangwa National Park, where superbly knowledgeable guides lead some of Africa's best walking safaris (Lyn Hughes)

Thanks to its rich wetland and woodland habitats, and the patient dedication of its guides, South Luangwa’s wildlife-watching is outstanding: on more than one weeklong visit I’ve seen leopards every day. In Lower Zambezi you can explore a great African waterway, the Zambezi, watching elephants pad silently down to the water’s edge to drink.

Uganda: Gorillas, chimps and birds

Critically endangered mountain gorillas live in Bwindi Impenetrable Forest (Shutterstock)

Critically endangered mountain gorillas live in Bwindi Impenetrable Forest (Shutterstock)

Best for: an all-in-one road trip

Duration: 14 – 18 days

Route: kampala | Budongo Forest | Kibale Forest NP | Murchison Falls NP | Queen Elizabeth NP | Bwindi Impenetrable Forest NP

When to go? The driest months are June – September

Uganda may not have southern Africa’s designer camps and hotshot guides, nor the teeming herds of antelopes and zebras in Kenya and Tanzania – but nor does it have teeming herds of tourists. It’s a refreshingly easy-going wildlife destination with plenty of lions, antelopes, zebras, giraffes and hippos – but fewer safari vehicles competing to seek them out.

It also has a few aces up its sleeve. Uganda’s roads are in decent shape and, with a superb variety of habitats – from rainforest to savannah, woodland and wetland – the birding here is worth travelling halfway around the world for. Uganda is also, with Rwanda, the safest and most straightforward place to track both chimps and mountain gorillas in the wild.

Red-throated bee-eaters nest in Uganda's riverbanks (Shutterstock)

Red-throated bee-eaters nest in Uganda's riverbanks (Shutterstock)

Budongo and Kibale are Uganda’s best chimp-tracking destinations. Budongo is denser and dimmer; Kibale is easier underfoot but busier. In both, you can choose between short walks and full-day experiences, following wild chimps through the forest with a ranger.

Clock up some classic river and savannah wildlife-watching from vehicles and boats in Murchison Falls and Queen Elizabeth national parks. Then climb through Bwindi’s misty forests for an experience to savour: an encounter with a family of gentle giants – mountain gorillas.

Dominant male mountain gorilla reclining in Bwindi Impenetrable Forest (Dreamstime)

Dominant male mountain gorilla reclining in Bwindi Impenetrable Forest (Dreamstime)

Top tip

The token cost of hiring a porter on a gorilla-tracking hike is worth every penny – they’ll carry your stuff and pull or push you up the steepest slopes.

Namibia: Dunes and desert wildlife

Oryx roam the arid Namib Desert (Shutterstock)

Oryx roam the arid Namib Desert (Shutterstock)

Best for: A self-drive desert adventure

Duration: 14 days

Route: Windhoek | Namib-Naukluft NP | Sossusvlei | Swakopmund | Erongo and Kunene | Etosha NP | Waterberg Plateau and Okonjima

When to go: Any time; the driest months, May – December, are best for wildlife-watching at waterholes

Namibia is one of a kind. Charismatic, spacious and serene, its desert landscapes set it apart from Africa’s other safari destinations, and its largely empty roads are satisfyingly easy to navigate. With practically no rain between May and December, and precious little at other times, it’s natural to assume that wildlife would be scarce – so you may be surprised to discover how regularly scurrying ostriches and stately, desert-adapted giraffes, oryx and elephants appear in the shimmering haze.

The ochre-coloured sands and timeworn camelthorn trees of Namib-Naukluft National Park make it one of Africa’s most photogenic destinations, and there’s fun to be had here, too: drift over the mighty dunes in a hot air balloon or run down a dune just for the thrill of it. The raw drama continues as you head up the windswept Atlantic coast north into the Erongo and Kunene regions, where you can track black rhinos and dip into Herero and Himba culture.

Etosha is easily one of the world’s finest places to watch wildlife. You might spot milling congregations of elephants as well as giraffes, zebras, antelopes and lions at Etosha Pan, an ancient lake bed so huge that it’s visible from space. Before returning to Windhoek, you could drop in at one of Namibia’s top predator conservation projects to encounter cheetahs or leopards at close range.

Spot cheetah at Etosha National Park or one of Namibia's carnivore conservation projects (Shutterstock)

Spot cheetah at Etosha National Park or one of Namibia's carnivore conservation projects (Shutterstock)

Top tip

Namibia’s Cheetah Conservation Fund and AfriCat Foundation both welcome visitors.