It goes without saying that Africa is a huge continent, which means deciding on a wildlife reserve to visit can be daunting. So I have put together a little guide to my favourite parks across the continent, which could help pinpoint the one that is just right for you.
With the size and diversity of safari Africa comes many wonderful options from lazy mekoro rides through the enchanting Okavango Delta to galloping around the dusty Kenyan bush on horseback, but knowing what you want out of your safari is essential in narrowing down your options.
Are you after unbridled luxury and a private experience? Nowhere is better than the plush exclusivity of Botswana.
Not fussed about bells and whistles, but craving action-packed adventure? An intrepid trip to Kenya could be perfect. Or perhaps a raw Zambian safari in mesh tents with walking, fishing and canoeing might just blow you away.
Can’t I do both?! Of course. Luxury is the name of the game on safari and can be found in every park that’s any good.
Is no trip complete without a city stay and some excellent eats? It’s got to be South Africa and the vibrant, enticing lights of Cape Town, which is easy to combine with any safari in southern Africa. Botswana, Zambia, Namibia, Zimbabwe… You name it.
Or is beach time an essential bookend to your trip? Mozambique, Kenya and Tanzania all have brilliant beaches, which is certainly no hardship. On their shores the Indian Ocean sparkles like nowhere else.
Looking for luxury but don’t want to break the bank? Zimbabwe is heaving with wildlife and lovely camps… But crucially, it is half the price of Botswana.
So here goes, an extensive (yet by no means definitive!) list of my 10 favourite destinations on the continent.
Nothing quite compares to a game drive in the Masai Mara. The park is buzzing with life and you can almost taste suspense in the air. But what makes it so special, aside from the incredible array of impressive animals, is its charm. Many repeat safari goers don’t even consider anywhere else, because they are head over heels in love with this incredible patch of heady natural nirvana.
When to go? Main season is July – September when the Great Migration crosses into the park from The Serengeti in Tanzania. But the secret seasons are June, October and November for cheaper nightly rates and still great wildlife. December, January and February are also excellent times to visit. April and May see the long rains.
This place will blow you away. The sheer vastness of the mighty Serengeti has the power to truly humble anyone who walks on its plains. Distant specks of life roar, grunt and coo all the way to the horizon. It is peaceful, yet alive. Then from behind the umbrella of a lopsided acacia tree, dust kicks up in a billowing cloud and everything changes. It could be a cheetah, a lion or a leopard and one unfortunate antelope… one thing’s for sure, you didn’t see that coming. No day – or indeed moment – is ever the same on a Serengeti safari. It is magic.
Best to combine with? The beaches of Zanzibar, The Ngorongoro Crater, Ruaha National Park, Rwanda/Uganda to see the mountain gorillas
When to go? Unlike the Masai Mara, the Great Wildebeest Migration resides in The Serengeti most of the year-round but the best time to view the migration is from late December to March when the herds are concentrated on the open plains of the southern Serengeti for the calving season.
But the secret seasons are June, October and November for cheaper nightly rates and still excellent wildlife, and also a good chance of seeing the albeit more dispersed and faster moving herds. April and May see the long rains.
Ruaha National Park in Southern Tanzania has a lot to shout about, but is just more of an introvert than its famed friend in the north. We would like to keep it that way, because the raw red earth and baobab towered horizons of Ruaha National Park is most definitely Tanzania’s best kept secret. This place has an abnormal amount of elephants and lions, and the best part? It is truly wild. With only a handful of camps, your odds of seeing another rare spotted vehicle are slim.
When to go? The peak season is June to November
It is no surprise therefore that this 100 square mile area of unfettered paradise is a stronghold for a wide variety of animals and birds. Rainfall cascades down from the Angola highlands to form this dreamy bowl of abundance.
This place is explosive as it is dreamy with lions around every turn. Oh, and it is mostly made up of private concessions, which means you get to experience it all to yourself.
The Okavango Delta is second to none.
When to go? Peak season is May to September, but March and April are also fantastic for lower rates, as are October and November, if you can stand the heat…
The quintessential image of this park is of elephants wallowing in the mighty Zambezi river as rich green acacias rustle behind them. Beyond sits the hazy purple backdrop of the towering escarpment, still and far away. The river is the lifeblood of this twisting beautiful park and around every corner lies, sits, stands or gallops a surprise. Leopards lop lackadaisical on horizontal trees and baboons cackle and swing on the natural scaffolding of this unruly yet in equal parts, utterly enchanting, patch of Africa.
The luxury of this place is not found in superfluous camps with their swimming pools and silver service, but in the fundamental beauty of this incredible park.
Now this is a proper safari. The Luangwa river twists and turns through this wild park tempting animals to its shores only to pull them under as hungry crocodiles fling themselves at a chance of a quick meal. No patch of river is left unclaimed as hippos grunt well into the night here and exist in pods of dozens. Lions prowl through the low-hanging trees, stalking one hundred buffalos as they spook and stir, like a swarm of clumsy, stampeding flies. And then carmine bee-eaters burst onto the scene as they flock into and out of their riverbank nests in flashes of iridescent colour.
There is so much going on here. It is place is trapped in a time capsule, oblivious to the complexities of the modern world and totally content in its primal cycle of life and death.
Best to combine with? Lower Zambezi, Kafue, Victoria Falls, Botswana, Malawi and Cape Town.
If you think the South Luangwa is as remote and wild as it gets, Kafue will prove you wrong. It is the hidden jewel of Southern Africa. The size of Wales, Kafue is largely unexplored and yet the wildlife is incredible with huge concentrations of elephants, buffalo and lion. And for birders Kafue is simply heaven. It is certainly not a go-to choice and you won’t hear about Kafue on a hashtag or in travel books like you would the Okavango Delta, but my goodness, if people only knew how incredible it was… Shh!
Best to combine with? Lower Zambezi, South Luangwa, Victoria Falls, Malawi, Botswana and Cape Town.
When to go? Zambia has its peak season from May to September. The wildlife is still fantastic in October and November, but the temperatures are not for the faint-hearted.
Etosha is unique, to say the least. You would not expect this pocket of life in the middle of Namibia’s characteristic arid desert landscape. This is where you can find the mythical ‘waterhole idyll’ saccharine scenes of different species of wildlife drinking side-by-side in perfect harmony. But it really does exist here, because without doing so the animals simply would not survive.
Namibia is a surprising place. People may visit for the dramatic milky way studded skies and the never ending silky desert dunes, but if you look at the little details – the scuttling oryx or the uniquely thick fur of a desert adapted lion, you begin to appreciate how special it really is. Etosha would blow Darwin’s socks off, that’s for sure.
When to go? Namibia has its own climate and is fantastic all year round, but only visit in January and February if you don’t mind the heat…
Straddling the other side of the Zambezi river to the Lower Zambezi National Park in Zambia, Mana Pools is just as beguiling. The wildlife could rival Africa’s most famous parks such as the Okavango Delta, and yet, it is half the price. Although Mana Pools offers raw, African safari at its best, it is not well trodden and as such you can enjoy this untouched paradise with few other visitors. For mesmerising game drives and lazy Zambezi ponderings, there is nowhere better. I can never understand why people don’t flock here in their hundreds… But I’m very glad they don’t.
When to go? Zimbabwe’s peak season runs from May to September. The wildlife is amazing in October and November, but the temperatures can be unbearable for some.
Along with the Masai Mara and Serengeti, this is the place on many people’s lips when they think of an African safari. Indeed, the wildlife here is staggeringly good. You can hardly drive for the big five. It is not unusual to tick them all off in a day here, which is unheard of throughout the continent, aside from perhaps in the bowl of the Ngorongoro Crater in Tanzania. As a result, the main area of the park can become unbearably busy with vehicles. But venture to the private reserves on the Kruger’s borders and you have it all… The continent’s best wildlife and no other people? Don’t mind if I do.
Best to combine with? It would be criminal to visit the Kruger and not explore Cape Town and the surrounding Winelands.
When to go? South Africa is fantastic all year round.
As you can see, each area is so unique and has so much to offer that it can be impossible to cover everything in a paragraph or two! But I hope this gives you the confidence to start thinking about where you might like to go.
If you still don’t have an iota of a clue, that’s ok: I have it all in my head from decades of incredible adventures, so I can easily talk you through everything on the phone.
Even after 35 years, I still get a twinkle in my eye when chatting about my favourite places in Africa…
All the best,