Chris McIntyre travels around southern Africa to reveal the National Parks you shouldn't miss on your next trip
“Single file, keep quiet, and whatever you do don’t run.” Four plus an armed guide was ideal for a walking safari, and we moved quietly through the undergrowth. After hours studying insects and tracking lion, the guide gave a wide berth to a herd of elephants: 300 metres was close enough. We watched as our scent alerted the matriarch, her trunk raised, her aggression barely contained. Yet a few weeks earlier, under similar umbrella-thorn trees, I had sat still as elephants swayed within a few metres, ignoring our small group in favour of the fallen fruit around us. Both were memorable walking safaris, but in different parks with very different elephant.
Outside of Africa, there is a tendency for its wildlife areas to seem homogeneous: vast plains covered in antelope, prowled by big cats and accompanied by David Attenborough’s gentle commentary. In reality, Africa’s parks and wildlife vary enormously – as do the best ways to visit them.
Southern Africa’s mammalian highlights include lion, spotted hyena and jackal, which you can expect to see in most of the main parks. Cheetah and wild dog are less common, whilst leopard are widespread but seldom seen. Elephant, buffalo, zebra, wildebeest, kudu and warthog are plentiful. The smaller steenbok and duiker are equally common, though less visible. Depending on the environment, one species of antelope – typically either springbok, impala, lechwe or puku – is usually very numerous. Sable, roan, eland, hartebeest, tsessebe, reedbuck, waterbuck, bushbuck and giraffe tend to be less common, but widely distributed. The rare sitatunga occur only in wetlands, whilst oryx love the deserts. Nyala and the smaller klipspringer, oribi and dik-dik have localised distributions, occurring only where conditions are ideal. Ignoring a few conspicuous exceptions, rhino are rare in most parks and have been exterminated from many.
Southern Africa’s 900-or-so bird species are an even more complex story, but whatever your interests, your decision on where to go may depend on how you prefer to travel. South Africa, Namibia and Zimbabwe have a good network of roads, often making their parks accessible by ordinary car. ‘Restcamps’ have evolved in these parks – like small villages for visitors with simple bungalow accommodation, a central shop, restaurant, pool and bar. These are often superb value, and in South Africa and Namibia can be quite modern, while in Zimbabwe, are often a real taste of the past. On the edges of the parks, privately run lodges and camps have sprung up, operating in their own wildlife reserves. In contrast, Botswana and Zambia have a poorer infrastructure. A visit to parks here usually involves either flying into private lodges or camps, or mounting a self-sufficient expedition.
However you arrive, most private camps or lodges in Southern Africa are small, catering for 8-24 guests in comfort. The price usually includes meals and game-drives, boating excursions (if there is a river or lake nearby), and the guides at the better ones are licenced to conduct walking safaris.
As an alternative, large overland expeditions with their own tents do visit many areas – though some find it difficult to view wildlife unobtrusively from a five-tonne truck.
South Africa is five times the size of the UK and has hundreds of reserves, so choosing just a few is difficult. The best game generally lies to the north and east, in Mpumalanga (the old Eastern Transvaal) and KwaZulu/Natal. Here restcamps make excellent, economical bases for exploring the parks – but try to avoid the local school holidays, when they become very busy.
South Africa’s flagship is Kruger National Park – a park the size of Wales that has over 20 restcamps, some the size of a small town. Kruger’s vegetation and game vary enormously. Woodlands, often mopane scrub, dominate the northern sections and are a favourite of elephants, tsessebe, roan and eland. The southern section tends to have more open grasslands, frequented by plains’ game like Burchell’s zebra, blue wildebeest and impala. A week driving through the park, spending a couple of nights in several camps, is perfect.
Kruger’s western border is largely unfenced and adjoining private reserves include everything from cheaper restcamps, to the most expensive lodges in Africa. All have similar ecosystems to Kruger, and some of the more luxurious have food worth Michelin stars. Their publicity may boast an ability to spot all of ‘the big five’ (elephant, buffalo, lion, leopard, rhino) with ease, but if you seek a true wilderness, go farther north. Many will use radios between guides to ‘arrange’ sightings of elusive animals – which is fine for fanatical photographers, but game viewing feels contrived when so planned.
South of Kruger, Umfolozi and Hluhluwe reserves are amongst Africa’s oldest national parks, and joined by a wildlife corridor. Umfolozi nurtured the southern white rhino from the brink of extinction, and then sent animals to repopulate the rest of the subcontinent. Both offer good big game viewing, particularly for black and white rhino, and have fewer visitors than Kruger.
For something totally different, the St Lucia and Maputaland marine reserves protect wetlands just south of Mozambique. This marine reserve is one of the largest in Africa, encompassing the southern-most coral reefs in the world. There are antelope and smaller game here, but the real draws are the wide variety of reptiles and amphibians, and phenomenal bird-watching. Fish eagles, pelicans, herons, numerous storks and assorted waders are amongst the 350 bird species found here.
Visitors wanting to see big game near Cape Town are often disappointed. Most of these animals were shot long ago. However, the southern Cape encompasses the smallest of the world’s six floral kingdoms – so botanically, it is fascinating. Whole families of plants are endemic. Reserves protecting this unique flora are dotted along the ‘Garden Route’, and even the tiny Cape of Good Hope Nature Reserve contains half as many plant species as western Europe. So forget the felines and instead seek the rich fynbos vegetation of ericas (heather), orchids, proteas and cycads.
For the Cape’s best game-viewing, go to the Kalahari Gemsbok National Park, in the far north. This is South Africa’s second largest park, and quieter than most. It conserves a corner of Kalahari desert adjoining Botswana’s Gemsbok National Park (which is even larger). If time is short, then fly to Upington and drive from there. The park’s three restcamps are good, and the game-viewing is, unusually, at its best during the rains. The Kalahari’s lions, famed for their black manes, stalk herds of eland, oryx, red hartebeest, wildebeest and springbok. Although the area has no elephant, buffalo or giraffe, it is good for cheetah, and both bat-eared foxes and meerkats guarantee entertainment.
Wild and remote, Namibia is surprisingly easy to drive around (but a nightmare for hitchhikers). Inside the parks, its restcamps are good and inexpensive. Outside, Namibia’s best private reserves cost far less than their equivalents near Kruger, and everywhere hospitable guest farms are replacing their livestock with native wild game. Fly-in trips to exclusive areas, like the northern Skeleton Coast, suit those with more money than time. Longer drives around the dry south view desert game, including endemic Hartmann’s mountain zebra, amidst the most spectacular scenery in Southern Africa.
Etosha National Park is superb, but highly seasonal. As the dry season progresses, the game congregates around a string of natural waterholes. Elephant join huge herds of springbok, oryx, zebra and blue wildebeest to drink – followed by lion, cheetah and the odd spotted hyena. Game viewing from a car is easy, as Etosha’s landscapes are open. Though too dry for buffalo, the park’s special attractions include endemic black-faced impala, Damara dik-dik and the best chance on the continent to see wild black rhino – at floodlit waterholes beside Okaukuejo and Halali restcamps. Etosha is big enough to seem quiet, even when at its busiest. However, when the rains create natural pools in the bush, the game vanishes from view and bird-watchers come for breeding flamingoes, elegant blue cranes, and other migrants, but may never see an elephant.
Namibia’s largest national park, Namib-Naukluft, and the conservation areas on its northern coast, protect the endemic wildlife of the fragile Namib. This is the world’s oldest desert, and perhaps the best place to try to spot secretive brown hyena. Adjacent Damaraland is dry and its fauna sparse. Successful community-based projects have conserved the area’s desert-adapted black rhino and elephant. Several remote lodges here, such as Damaraland Camp, work closely with the local people – and help visitors to appreciate the environment, letting any game be a bonus.
Along the lush Caprivi Strip, which joins Namibia to the Zambezi, are four increasingly good parks: Mahango, Caprivi, Mudumu and Mamili. These are watered by the Okavango and Kwando rivers, making them Namibia’s best parks for bird-watching. They attract the Okavango Delta’s varied avifauna, including unusual copperytailed coucals, natal nightjars, longtoed plovers and acrobatic African skimmers. The area’s buffalo and elephant seem more numerous every year, and its sable and roan less rare. The lodges in these areas are accessible by car, but it is usually best to explore with a local guide.
Other superb Namibian parks include Waterberg Plateau Park and Fish River Canyon National Park – which have very challenging hiking – and Khaudom Game Reserve, a Kalahari wilderness where only the occasional 4WD expedition sees Namibia’s last remaining wild dogs.
Most of Botswana’s parks have virtually no facilities. A ‘campsite’ here means a tap encased in concrete (to protect it from thirsty elephants) and ‘roads’ are just tracks through deep sand. Most visitors fly-in to small private camps, or join equipped 4WD expeditions. Fortunately, this minimalist approach to tourism has kept even Botswana’s busiest parks – Chobe National Park and Moremi Wildlife Reserve – refreshingly quiet, and its other parks virtually deserted.
Moremi Wildlife Reserve is the jewel in Botswana’s crown, covering the mosaic of the eastern Okavango Delta: a maze of islands, lagoons, waterways and floodplains. This permanent water attracts game during the dry season from the Kalahari’s waterless interior, but also retains many of the animals even during the rains. The Okavango’s waterways warrant an article to themselves for their spectacular scenery, superb bird-watching and often, if you are selective in choice of camps, spectacular game. For example, wild dog seem to do especially well near Mombo, Chitabe and the park’s South Gate – whilst elephants can be observed most closely from the back of one of Abu Camp’s elephants. But, don’t come here on your first trip to Africa: it is better to start elsewhere and visit the Delta later, when you will appreciate why it’s so unique.
During the dry season, Chobe National Park ranks with the subcontinents’ best. In the north, the permanent rivers of the Linyanti and Chobe host dense concentrations of game. Large herds of elephants and buffalo are virtually guaranteed, and the Chobe can seem an impossibly beautiful backdrop. Smaller attractions include the delicate Chobe bushbuck, which have brighter markings than bushbuck farther south, and the oribi near Nogatsaa Pan. Away from the rivers, the scenery is a less interesting mix of thick bush on permanent dunes. In the middle of the park, large prides of lion and inquisitive hyena have made the Savuti area something of a legend. Northwest of Chobe, in the private Selinda and Linyanti reserves bordering the Linyanti Marshes, a few small camps offer exclusive game-viewing in similar ecosystems.
Botswana’s lesser-known parks include Nxai Pan, which covers a series of wide, grassy plains dotted with acacia bushes, a favourite for giraffe throughout the year. Nearby, Makgadikgadi salt-pans are usually flat and bare. When it rains, huge herds of springbok, Burchell’s zebra, red hartebeest and blue wildebeest migrate to both, accompanied by predators. During good years, Makgadikgadi can even become an expanse of shallow water, home to a pink haze of breeding flamingoes. Here, Jack’s Camp is a good alternative to an expedition, and it can be reached by light aircraft.
More of a wilderness area than a game park, the huge Central Kalahari Game Reserve protects sparse populations of red hartebeest, wildebeest, oryx, ostrich, springbok, eland, lion, hyena, and even wild dog – in the traditional areas of the San Bushmen. Strict access rules for this park have recently relaxed, increasing the trickle of visitors on mobile safaris. This gives great cause for concern because of the sensitivity of the remaining Bushmen. However, the area’s operators can now monitor the actions of the government who have frequently been accused of trying to exploit the area’s mineral reserves, with little regard for the welfare of these people.
Zimbabwe often seems to have the best of all worlds. Nervous first-time visitors use Air Zimbabwe’s network of cheap flights linking Victoria Falls, Hwange, and Kariba, to be met at the airports and delivered safely to their lodges. Independent-minded travellers drive around the Eastern Highlands and the south of the country, before flying into remote corners of the northern parks – Matusadona, Chizarira and Mana Pools. Whilst adventurous backpackers find Zimbabwe’s buses friendly and camping inexpensive. Everybody visits Victoria Falls. But, with such different options, it is vital to choose your parks and camps carefully.
Hwange National Park is the country’s busiest. Its central restcamp, Main Camp, is easily accessible and surrounded by reasonable roads and relaxed game. Deeper into the park, Sinamatella and Robins are quieter and more spectacular, but set in denser bush so driving here requires a more robust vehicle. Hwange’s eastern border is lined by private lodges, whose varying standards seem to bear little resemblance to their prices. Dense vegetation and few expanses of water mean that patience, or a good guide, are needed to get the best from Hwange. Several camps are opening within Hwange’s remote western wilderness areas; although expensive, these should be excellent.
Zimbabweans love Mana Pools National Park, as the regulations allow people to walk unescorted. However, inexperienced visitors should beware: in the dry season the river terraces and old ox-bow lagoons attract dense concentrations of big game. Elephants are relaxed and buffalo numerous. Canoeing down the Zambezi is increasingly popular, though do avoid the marathon trips from Kariba or Chirundu. The slower ones are better, concentrating on the rich game within the park. Use a canoeing company whose guides have ‘walking licences’, which qualify them to conduct walking safaris, rather than the simpler ‘canoeing tickets’ which require less experience.
On the south side of Lake Kariba, Matusadona National Park is within a short flight or boat trip of Kariba Airport. Picture skeletal trees in a watery sunset – that’s Matusadona. Numerous camps and lodges have grown up beside, and even on, the lake, offering water- and land-based game-viewing along the shore. The better ones also go tracking black rhino on foot. Farther from the shore, and also in the rugged Chizarira National Park, small camps do serious walking safaris. These are strictly for enthusiasts, as the environment is rocky and the game relatively sparse.
Gonarezhou National Park was off-limits for most of the 80s, when poaching was rife. Now several private camps here are easily accessible, though the park’s animals are still wary and its elephants notoriously aggressive. That said, for the unusual nyala, the rare Lichtenstein’s hartebeest, and the tiny suni antelope in a pristine environment, Gonarezhou is great value.
Internal flights serve Bulawayo poorly, and so many visitors miss both the city and the nearby Matobo National Park. A great omission, as Matobo’s superb scenery of rounded hills and oddly balancing boulders is easily reached by car or bus. Its historic sites and prolific Bushman paintings are well-signposted, while the adventurous can safely go hiking with a map and compass. Although there is plenty of game around, there are none of the most dangerous species (lion, elephant or buffalo); but Matobo has thriving sable and giraffe; a dense leopard population, usually unseen; many splendid black eagles; and a separate western section that guards many of Zimbabwe’s remaining black and white rhino.
Like Botswana, Zambia is best seen by flying between its far-flung camps, or joining a small expedition. The more popular parks offer superb game viewing and, because Zambia’s national parks allow night drives, your chances of spotting leopard and the smaller cats are excellent.
The Luangwa Valley, which encloses the South and North Luangwa National Parks, is Zambia’s most famous area. Walking safaris originated here in ‘the valley’, and it still has the best guides in Africa. Small, high-quality operations are the norm; a camp sleeping 16 guests is big. The Luangwa’s game is superb in the dry season, and includes the rare Thornicroft’s giraffe and Cookson’s wildebeest – both sub-species endemic to the valley. Hippos are prolific, and leopard surprisingly visible.
The North Luangwa National Park, known simply as the ‘north park’, is strictly for walking, so is not so good for close-up wildlife photos. However, just a few hundred visitors stay here in a year, so it is very wild and untouched. Both parks have excellent bird-watching: eagle owls are a speciality, and the Nsefu area harbours particularly large colonies of yellow-billed storks and crowned cranes.
Zambia’s largest national park, Kafue, is even larger than Kruger, yet has only a handful of camps. It is at its best on the remarkable Busanga Plains where excellent lion, and, unusually for Zambia, occasional cheetah, hunt the large herds of red lechwe and puku. Wild dog are increasingly sighted, and oribi are common, though elephants are usually scarce and skittish. The defassa waterbuck is a sub-species found only in Zambia, including in Kafue, which lack the white ‘toilet-seat’ marking on the rump of its common cousin.
The Lower Zambezi National Park is similar to Zimbabwe’s Mana Pools, on the opposite bank of the Zambezi, but tends to get even fewer visitors. Like Mana, it is a good park for variation, can be explored from the water as well as the land, and has no cheetah or giraffe.
Lesser-known gems in Zambia can be difficult to reach. They include the seasonal floodplains around Lake Bangweulu. These are home to thousands of endemic black lechwe, and attract countless migrant birds, including wattled and crowned cranes, and the endangered shoebill stork. Kasanka National Park, to the south of the lake, is another top bird-watching destination. It also offers the subcontinents’ best chance to glimpse rare swamp-dwelling sitatunga antelope – from a hide, 20 metres into a towering mululu tree.
Chris McIntyre is author of the Bradt Guides to Namibia and Zambia
When to go: The best time to visit South Africa’s Cape is late Oct-Mar, when it’s dry and warm, although Dec-Jan can be busy with South African visitors. May-Sep is cooler and wetter. For the rest of the subcontinent, Dec-Apr is hot and wet, with downpours in the late afternoon (the Namib and Kalahari deserts have the same weather pattern, but minimal rain). May-Aug is dry, and fairly cool. It remains dry Sep-Nov, but gets progressively hotter. Jul-Oct is best for most safari camps, though bird-watchers may prefer the rainy season.
Health: Strict malaria prophylaxis is often essential. Typhoid, tetanus, polio and diphtheria vaccinations are strongly recommended. Hepatitis A is usually a wise precaution, but Yellow Fever only needs to be considered for Zambia (because of its proximity to Zaire).
Photography: For landscapes, when there’s often plenty of light, slow film (50-100 ASA) is fine. For the best shots of animals, use at least a 200mm lens, and perhaps faster film (200 ASA). Generally, people are relaxed about being photographed – but always ask first. Binoculars are essential for safaris.
Dress: Long trousers for men, and skirts for women, are the norm, especially in rural areas. Neutral dark colours of green, brown and tan are recommended for walking safaris, and cotton or natural fibres are the best materials when it’s hot. Avoid anything with a military camouflage pattern.