So you’ve decided you’re off on Africa Safari, but whereabouts to head to? We asked our Africa Destination Manager Sara Reeves for the lowdown on where to see what in Africa, and when. Check out her tips below, then let us know yours.
And once you’ve had a read through, go to our ultimate Africa packing list for the full run-through of what you shouldn’t leave home without!
To spot the Big Five
The wilderness gives no guarantees, but at anytime of year, even if you’re only on a quick trip, Kruger National Park in South Africa is a safe bet. Sightings there are exceptional – you tend to get lots of close-ups on game drives, as well as having a good chance of rarer sightings such as cheetah. Kruger’s also excellently set up – its good network of roads and trails means you can explore the place in-depth in a relatively short time.
For the great migration
The Great Migration is a year-round cycle amid the plains of the Masai and Serengeti. If you’re travelling to East Africa during the peak season – July to September – then it’s worth bearing in mind that the Migration will be in the Masai Mara around then. If you’re super lucky you may even see the once-in-a-lifetime spectacle of thousands of wildebeest splashing their way across the swollen Mara River. February is another fantastic time to see the wildebeest as it’s the time when babies are born – thousands of calves popping out at pretty much the same time. Head to the Serengeti in February if that’s your thing.
The Migration is undeniably amazing – perhaps Africa’s single most extraordinary sight. But if you’re unable to catch it during your time on safari, don’t kick yourself. If you’re in the Serengeti when the Migration is across the border in Kenya, you’re still going to see wonderful wildlife – lions, elephants, giraffe, possibly cheetah. In other words, still a magical experience!
A lot of variety in a little time
Again, Kruger is a good choice, but Tanzania’s Ngorongoro Crater is simply unparalleled for its abundance and diversity within such a small area. The tag ‘Garden of Eden’ readily attaches itself to the crater, and with good reason – an entire ecosystem exists here, complete with marshes, plains and forests, all within the 20km-wide crater floor. But it’s the wildlife that’s most stunning. Ngorongoro offers your best chance for seeing black rhino, while the crater’s Lerai Forest is great for vervet monkeys, baboons and antelope. Buffalo are also abundant here, and you should expect to see lions, zebra, wildebeest and elephants as well. Pretty much everything! The crater is also believed to have the highest density of predators in Africa, so there’s a relatively good chance of seeing them in action. Animals living in Ngorongoro don’t leave – and once you’re among this little piece of paradise you understand why.
For sheer spectacle, the million flamingo of Kenya’s Lake Nakuru is unsurpassable, but birdwatchers are going to be happy throughout Africa. A hardcore twitcher could notch up at least a couple hundred species in a week, whether they’re heading to east or southern Africa. West Africa may not be a classic safari destination, but birding enthusiasts will know just how special Senegal and The Gambia are, with over 600 species recorded in the latter country alone - a must if you’re a twitcher.
The high grasslands of the Masai Mara and the Serengeti both support a huge array of birds, and Ngorongoro is as good for birds as it is for mammals, from the ostriches on the plains to the many waterbirds, to the rarer rufous-tailed weaver. Further south, the Okavango Delta is another hotspot, with plenty of large aquatic birds like pelicans and egrets, with hornbills, bee-eaters, kingfishers and nightjars among the many, many beautiful species making their home among the wetlands.
Further south, South Africa’s St Lucia Wetlands are also catnip for bird-lovers – particularly for the winter ‘bird parties’, where numerous species congregate in vast numbers on Lake St Lucia’s eastern shores. Look out too for the spectacular African fish eagle, as well many hippos and crocs dotting the waters.
Uganda and Rwanda. Trekking through dense forests to catch sightings of mountain gorilla families is a favourite wildlife experience for many who have done it. They can be seen all year round – in the wet season, mammals and birds move down from the cold, higher peaks. Uganda is a great place for anyone after a full primate fix – Kibale National Park has 13 species, including habituated chimpanzees, red colobus and L’Hoest’s monkeys. Also, Ngamba Island on Lake Victoria is home to a chimp sanctuary, which offers what might be your best chance ever for close encounters with the species.
Head for the snow-white sands and crystalline water of Mozambique. Tofo Beach is a good spot – whether you’re a snorkeller or a diver, you’ll soon be among some of the greats of the sea. Manta rays love the area, and fish are abundant too – little bright jewels of colour enjoying the warm tropical seas. Best of all, Mozambique is one of the best places on earth for close encounters with the biggest fish in the sea – whale sharks frequent these waters, with the peak season being from October to April.
Further north, Zanzibar is another treat. The waters may not be quite as stocked with big fish as Mozambique, but it is home to the world’s third largest coral reef, so the number and variety of fish is incredible, and the water bath-warm. Zanzibar is also just a fantastic place to chill out for a few days – perfect R&R after days on dusty safari trails or climbing Kilimanjaro!
And don’t forget the inland sea of Lake Malawi. There’s a wonderful beach vibe there, and once in the water you’re inevitably surrounded by shoals of cichlids, as well as having a good chance of spotting some rarities like catfish and dolphinfish.
Safaris with a difference
Antelope Park in Zimbabwe offers an exhilarating, totally different safari experience. There you ditch game drives in favour of walking with the wildlife. More specifically, you take the resident lions out of a stroll on the savannah. Sounds a little suicidal, and your heart will certainly be pounding a bit quicker when you begin your walk, but it’s an amazing experience to watch up-close as these lion clubs hone their stalking skills – a huge thrill.
For a true wilderness experience
Has to be Botswana’s Okavango Delta.For anyone who’s dreamt of going remote in Africa, this is the stuff of fantasies – miles from traffic or tourists, exploring one of the world’s most beautiful environments by mokoro (traditional dugout canoe) with the great silence only broken by the chorus of wildlife. Birdsong accompanies you as you drift along, and wildlife spotting is great – elephants clacking their way through the undergrowth, water buffalo wallowing, wild dogs on the prowl for lechwe and impala. Just an abundant, lush place to explore, wonderfully peaceful and with a glorious ‘back-of-beyond’ feeling.
For the best sunsets and sunrises
First tip: get to Namibia’s Sossusvlei sand dunes for sunrise. They’re the biggest sand dunes in the world, and they’re at their most spectacular at sun-up, when the orange starts to flame and contrasts spectacularly against nearby black shadows. One of Africa’s great natural sights. And after sunrise, think about a spot sandboarding! For wildlife watching at sunset, it’s difficult to beat Chobe River in Botswana – jump aboard a boat and cruise down the river watching elephants taking their evening sundowners while you have yours. The sun sets golden then the deepest red on the water and surrounding bush – for photographers, cue classic silhouette photos of bathing hippos and feeding elephants, giraffe and antelope.
For culture and community
Sub-Saharan Africa isn’t all big game and boundless plains; go there if you’re after a dose of intriguing, vivacious cultures too. Port Elizabeth in South Africa offers real urban adventure – it’s an inspiring, engrossing place, and a township tour there gets you among friendly locals, crucial sites in the struggle against apartheid and a real insight into modern South Africa. There’s also the perfect end to the tour – a homemade beer with the locals at a ‘shebeen’, the local pub, South Africa style.
When you’re out on safari, I’d really recommend spending time with tribal people as well. The Himba Tribe in Namibia’s Etosha National Park are a fascinating people, with the ochre adornments of the females, rounded huts amid the red earth and traditional practises – very hospitable too, and all in some really harsh, tough surroundings. It’s humbling spending time with them. So too the Masai in Kenya – their bright robes and ‘jumping’ dance are the stuff of National Geographic covers, but getting beyond that and seeing firsthand their daily lives and learning about their beliefs is definitely a highlight of East Africa.