Different Landscapes and Habitats of Africa
The inherent idiosyncrasy of safari is fueled initially by the diversity of Africa's landscapes and habitats. From a distant glimpse it can all be categorized with the same adjectives; wild, untrammeled, redolent, vivid. But arrive in Africa and each distinct habitats cascades its own impressions, canvases of eclectic spectacles extending in a variety of directions. In one national park, you could drive through a selection of habitats. Elsewhere, you could spend three days completely immersed in one pre-eminent exemplar of an iconic African landscape. Habitats dictate what you see on safari. They also dictate how you experience it, each new habitat providing its own mystical safari experience. Habitats are what an African safari tour is all about. These are the places you explore, the individual showcases of wilderness that can share characteristics yet delight in their inimitability.
Africa's landscapes are marvelously painted from the air, the elevated panorama providing a patchwork of colors; abundant stretches of scorched savannah merging into open woodland, the snaking path of a waterway, desert that pockmarked with exuberant oases. From the ground they can also extend; grasslands continuing unbroken beyond the horizon, flourishing spurts of kopjes that appear sporadic yet redolent, dense woodland marked by thick menace. Nothing is small or insignificant. Each landscape or habitat stretches for hundreds, often thousands, of square miles, an unsullied expanse with its own unique conditions. Naturally, these different habitats are favored by their own collections of wildlife. Certain national parks will immerse you in one of these distinct habitats. Multi-day safari itineraries often take you on a meandering journey through disparate yet connected slices of the African continent, stitching together the patchwork to bring fresh wildlife casts.
Why Habitat is Fundamental to the African Safari Experience
Understanding habitat is essential to understanding what you will see on safari. While a lot of Africa's large mammals are widespread across the continent, they favor a particular habitat, and sometimes even a distinct part of a habitat. Subsequently, different habitats support different collections of wildlife. Many species are specialists, evolving to flourish within a specific habitat, the strongest of a species dominating the place with most ideal conditions. Some species flit across a multiplicity of habitats, ever-adaptable to the conditions. Many predators survive this way, most comfortable in one particular environment yet able to survive elsewhere. For example, while the famous image is of lion prides lounging on rocks in the open grasslands, they're also expert hunters in woodland and around waterways. Other species are picky; lechwe seek out swamps, bright-orange bongo are endemic to particular East and Central African forest, and bat-eared foxes roam around the fringes of woodland and savannah. These are the unusual specialists, rarely found outside their territory. Yet even these must sometimes explore beyond their comfort zone, unconfident steps and anxious stares taking them to places unknown.
The intimacy of the experience is similarly dictated by habitat. Open landscapes allow you to see more; the wildlife quickly spotted on the horizon. One sweeping view presents everything, from the giraffe and elephant far in the distance to the impala and buffalo herds across the foreground. Closed and hidden habitats like woodland and forest are more challenging, with trees dominating most of the vista. You must inspect the trees and unravel the camouflage, follow the echoed calls and move slowly to discover hiding places. But trees also mean that wildlife doesn't see you. Turn a corner and you're within two meters of a giraffe tower. Suddenly emerge from the edge of the woodland and a normally bashful rhino is impossibly close. It's impossible to guess what might be around the next corner. These habitats offer a proximity and intimacy, always accompanied by shocks of surprise. So while you are likely to see a higher quantity of mammals in open habitats, the proximity is elevated in closed areas.
Take away the wildlife and each habitat is laced in visual superlatives: a salt pan that blinds as it shimmers with the mirage of nature's antiquity; a tangled forest scarred by the rumbustious rumblings of an elephant herd; a mammoth baobab tree standing lonely amidst an ocean of shriveled grass; the explosion of color and noise as a waterway slithers through deserted plains. These landscapes are attractions on their own, glorious odes to the unspoiled appeal of Africa. Then you add wildlife, and it's impossible to know which is more iconic; the setting or the life that roams before your eyes.
The Importance of Water to all Africa's Habitats
Every habitat is dictated by water. Desert life revolves around shriveled oasis before an annual deluge brings fluid bounty. When it doesn't arrive, wildlife migrates for hundreds of miles to scrap for the final remains. Woodland and forest are made abundant by water's continued presence, a sudden sprouting of trees often flanking a permanent river, or mountain slopes bringing a continual supply of rain. Savannah and grassland are colorized with the seasons, exploding into rich colors just after the rains, then gradually disintegrating to the telltale yellow of drought. Water is the constant that pulls everything together, often enabling habitats to blur and merge. It dictates migratory cycles, determines the abundance of wildlife, and prescribes where you'll find the idolized scenes.
When water is difficult to find the wildlife is usually impossible to miss. It must stay close to permanent water sources; rivers, lakes, waterholes yet to shrivel. Great swathes of a landscape can lay empty as the residents ensure they can make a daily trip to the water. Rains bring change, scattering wildlife across great areas. Ungulates move to fresh green pastures, feasting and spreading as they go. Many species have evolved to calve during this time of abundance, allowing the young to start life on fertile landscapes with limited competition. For most destinations, during and immediately after the rainy season is the off-peak time to travel; the wildlife is scattered so you must travel further to see it all. The vivacious eruption of color also makes this is a dazzling time to experience any of Africa's habitats.
Exploring Different Habitats on an African Safari
Comparing habitats isn't easy from a distance. Photos and descriptions of wildlife can only tell part of the story. Each has a unique feel, a distinct atmosphere that floats with the chorus of mammal calls. Every individual scene retains this idiosyncrasy; spotting a cheetah accelerating across open grassland is different to seeing one stealthily moving through woodland. In essence, a safari in one habitat is nothing like a safari in another. This is one of the great advantages of multi-day safaris. By exploring for longer, you're able to experience the many sides of Africa's landscapes and habitats. Each day and each destination bring a new feeling, an ambiance that distinguishes it from the rest. Some people are most enchanted by certain scenes, but before you've set off on safari, it's hard to know which habitat will produce the most reverent memories
Most of Africa's famous safari routes effortlessly connect different habitats. For example, a safari across Botswana takes you from desert and pan to waterways and then dense woodland. Tanzania's northern safari loop connects four national parks, each with its own unique landscape. Kenya's vast diversity of habitats always makes safari eclectic. Some national parks provide a microcosm of the continent, mixing different habitats as they provide an oasis for a remarkable abundance of wildlife. South Africa's Kruger National Park and Tanzania's Ngorongoro Crater are good examples. Spending more time on safari allows the heterogeneous appeal to be peeled away, every game drive or safari activity opening up a new layer of the continent.
As you explore Africa the definitions blur. Open grassland blends into savannah which merges into open woodland that eventually becomes a forest. Desert plains can be desert plains. But when rain arrives they're also transformed into savannah. Waterways weave through most habitats, creating an oasis that contrasts the rest of the landscape. Scientifically, there are objective definitions as to what is what. They're not required. On a safari, you can sense the change through sight and sound. You come to understand the landscape and the characters that inhabit it. Explore for a few days and you'll grow accustomed to the distinct atmosphere that flickers through each of Africa's habitats. But you'll never tire of the infinite possibility found in every habitat.
These pages provide information on each of the habitats you're likely to encounter. But remember, these habitats are fluid, and each park will present its own unique mix. It's like an artist's paint palette. Red is red but there are a hundred different shades, and at what point does it become orange or what happens when it mixes with yellow? Like an artist's swirls, these habitats start from the same core ingredients yet jumble with infinite possibility.
Stretching beyond the horizon and affirming so many classic images of safari, open grasslands are mostly found in a small part of East Africa. They dance with legendary scenes, like great migrations, lions prowling, or large herds merging into a distant silhouette at sunset. Rains dictate everything, coating the trails in mud and prompting the grass to rise exuberantly high for a few months of the year. During the dry season, the grassland is cut short by grazing herds, brittle and scorched remnants providing an even greater sense of openness. It's these grasslands that form the preconceptions of many people arriving on safari, and it's these landscapes that have been immortalized in movies and countless documentaries.
What is an Open Grassland
Scientifically, grassland and savannah are the same things. Savannah is a type of grassland found in Africa, defined by the sporadic presence of trees that are too distantly spaced to form a canopy. However, the absolute sparseness of any interrupting trees gives East Africa's open grasslands a distinction from more classic versions of the savannah. In a place like the Serengeti, you can gaze out and see nothing but grass. Thousands of square miles become discombobulating, a confusing blanket without distinguishing features other than herds on the move. Sometimes there's a hill or a protruding expanse of rocks. But then there's more of them, and you can't remember which is which and where you just came from. The point at which open grassland becomes savannah is open to interpretation. There is no exact rule. They're separated here because they offer a distinct safari experience and form such integral preconceptions for those on a first-time safari. All these open grasslands are also fringed by savannah, usually where permanent water provides its effervescent mark on the landscape.
Grasslands are dictated by rains. They have a distinct wet season, the regular deluge of water transforming the landscape in just a couple of weeks. Puddles form, extending into quasi-floodplains before the water is slowly absorbed. The grass rises and keeps rising, sometimes stretching almost two meters from the ground. Herds start grazing, eating their way into but not through the flourishing landscape; high grass is dangerous, a perfect place for predators to hide and pounce. So the herds work around the edges, sentinels perched and ready to alert the rest of danger. As the grasslands are transitionary by nature so are the ungulate herds, constantly on the move to fresh grass. Aerial safaris provide a wonderful image of this transition, revealing swathes of stunted yellow that have been left behind and stretches of green yet to be grazed.
The Safari Experience on an Open Grassland
Open grasslands are all about scale, a single panorama offering a baffling abundance of wildlife and a wonderful portrayal of nature's size. From a camp or lodge, you gaze out, nothing breaking the plains as they roll and keep rolling far beyond the horizon. Giraffe and elephant are spotted miles in the distance, their distinct shapes wandering past throughout day and night. Undistinguishable herds dapple the landscape, those in the distance just a mass of mammals, but those roaming closer identified as zebra, wildebeest, buffalo, and more. At almost any point on a game drive, this panorama continues. Stop, swivel 360 degrees and there's far too much to take in.
Open grassland makes wildlife incredibly easy to find, and it's rare that you'll ever be taking a photo that isn't graced by something on four legs. Look around and you can determine the direction of travel by sight. Predators are easily spotted on open grassland as are most of the iconic large mammals. Naturally, these landscapes are home to grazers, predominantly those that prefer open space and safety in numbers. Almost all the ungulates are faster and can run longer than their predatory foes. So they graze in the open, moving away at the first sign of danger.
Most visit open grasslands during the dry season, especially in the months just preceding the rains At this time, the grasses are short, and the openness of the landscape is magnified. Sought after mammals like rhinos and lions are easily spotted from a distance. During and immediately following the wet season, soaring grass changes the perspective slightly, making predators harder to find. The cats enjoy the easy cover so often elusive sights like leopard and cheetah become even more elusive. At the same time, ungulates avoid these high grasses so great sections of the grassland can stand empty.
Grasslands are delicate landscapes, and it's rare that you'll be able to venture off-road. So while there's a lot to see, it's harder to get exceptionally close. Animals see you coming and usually prefer to veer clear of a safari vehicle's noise and size. The exceptional scale has to be tempered by occasional disappointment. For example, you can see the leopard. But it's hiding in the grass 50 meters from the track and eyes must strain through the binoculars. Open grasslands are usually only explorable on daytime game drives, another factor that can mean they're less intimate than other habitats. There's a very special feeling to be being immersed in these landscapes and their sheer unbroken impressions of wilderness.
Where do you find Open Grasslands
Famously, these open grasslands are found in East Africa, notably the single ecosystem that's split into Tanzania's Serengeti and Kenya's Maasai Mara. This open grassland was created when the Ngorongoro Volcano exploded, nutrient-rich dust tumbling westward and flattening the landscape. The fertility of the grass is the reason behind such astonishing mammal numbers, with more individuals inhabiting this area than anywhere else in Africa. It's estimated that 2 million mammals form the great wildebeest migration. Then there's a population of Thompson's gazelle that number over half a million.
Elsewhere across East Africa, you'll find smaller examples of open grassland. Again, the distinction between savannah and open grassland is a subjective one. Many will gaze across Kenya's Amboseli National Park and admire a landscape that epitomizes the safari reverie of an African grassland. A scientist would probably call it a savannah. Kenya has a number of grassland dominated parks and reserves scattered with ungulate herds. Likewise, Tanzania's Ngorongoro, Ruaha, or Selous, are all home to large stretches of open grassland that blend into other habitats. Southern Africa struggles to provide these vast uninterrupted grass plains. You will find the evocative openness provided by semi-desert, yet it comes without the profusion of grass.
Iconic Grassland Experiences
- Track the gargantuan herds of wildebeest and zebra as they cross Tanzania's Serengeti, the grassy landscape only broken by rumbling dust crowds emanating from herds.
- Gaze across the open plains of Kenya's Amboseli National Park, admiring the elephants that roam beneath the majestic backdrop of Mount Kilimanjaro.
- Take a game drive across the Maasai Mara and stop amidst its famous grasslands, the landscape extending far beyond the horizon.
- Hot air balloon above an open grassland and take in the impossible enormity of it all, both the herds and their migrations clearly visible from the sky.
Savannahs dominate African safari, carpets of grass punctuated by trees and shrubs not profuse enough to form a canopy. They provide a haven for many, the broad mix of vegetation supporting an eclectic variety of species. The mix of trees and grass provides a bounty of food, and those with four hooves are usually followed by those with four paws, along with a wide collection of birdlife. Savannahs provide a diverse safari experience, each day an opportunity to explore how distinct pockets of wildlife inhabit distinct pieces of the savannah. Almost every African safari will feature the savannah and there's a variety of activities for discovering it.
What is a Savannah
Perhaps nothing symbolizes Africa more than the savannah. Grassland is sporadically dotted by trees or shrubs, the trunks and branches never thick enough to form a closed canopy. In some areas the trees bunch together, blossoming beside a waterway or along an unseen slope that brings mountain rains. In other areas the savannah stands open, just the odd scorched tree silhouetted against the horizon. Technically, the open grasslands of East Africa are classified as savannah (they're separated here because they offer differing safari experiences). They mark one pole in a savannah's range, an area with virtually no trees. The dichotomy comes when trees congregate profusely, eventually forming a canopy and merging into what's known as woodland.
Grassland and woodland are home to distinct sets of wildlife. Savannah often has both, the mix of food allowing it to support a huge array of species and sub-species, although rarely in the same place. Predators have ample place to hide and hunt; most ungulate species can find their ideal food, and birdlife is abundant. While a savannah relies on rains to reenergize and reproduce, most are dominated by permanent water. This could be a series of waterholes that shrivel and expand with the seasons. It could also be a dried-up riverbed, a place where elephants dig down to slurp water that's beneath the surface. Or maybe it's the utopian curves of a famous river, always flowing and magnetically attracting wanderers from across the savannah.
Wet and dry seasons change the savannah's tones. They become vivaciously green and colorful during and after the rainy season; grass rising, plants flowering, trees sprinkled with fruit. This abundance is a time for wildlife to feast, everything from vervet monkeys picking figs to springbok dancing through the fresh grass. But then these landscapes burn and wither; trees become iconic silhouettes devoid of color, rusted hues and copper tones dominate the grasses, nomads wander to find the remaining water. This strong dichotomy between wet and dry seasons is found in some of Africa's savannas, particularly those set within low-altitude tropics. Some savannas with less predictable rainy seasons don't display the same marked changes.
The Safari Experience on an African Savannah
There's an irrefutable bounty to the African savannah, and every safari becomes laced with a menagerie of surprise. Elephants in the trees, predators in the grass, ungulate herds dappled in the open, solitary sights camouflaged into the landscape; the savannah's great trick is to support a phenomenal diversity of wildlife. In general, a safari in savannah offers a huge variety of wildlife, but it's impossible to define exactly which animals this would be. From a distance, it all might look like savannah, albeit with some areas far denser with trees than others. But each savannah provides a particular collection of vegetation, making if a favorite haunt for an own idiosyncratic collection of wildlife.
Some savannas excel in providing predatory encounters. Others form a phenomenal utopia for elephants or rhino. As always, it's the ungulates that are most abundant and the savannah can support both those seeking safety in the open and those that prefer to hide. Early morning and late afternoons are the time to explore. This is when wildlife is active and on the move. Come at midday and the savannah feels spookily quiet, most mammals retreating to shady hideouts away from others' eyes. Early mornings and evenings are also the time of hunters, a chance to admire elusive cats on the prowl as they actively seek out a meal. These predators are fiercely protective of their home range, so while many may inhabit the savannah, you'll need long game drives to see more than one.
Most wildlife is relatively easy to find, especially the species that prefer open grass areas. The savannah is home to many elusive characters, though, require you to go slow, especially in any area where trees become abundant. Like all habitats, the experience intensifies around water. Rivers, waterholes, and lakes become fervent demonstrations of Africa's mammal diversity, up to a dozen different animals dotting a single panorama. At some points the encounters are indelibly intimate; at other times the landscape opens up, and the experience is about scale. These are landscapes that can be explored in a variety of ways, the different safari activities providing a succession of unique angles. In places where the threat of big cats and large mammals is removed, savannas are idyllic destinations for walking, horse riding, or bicycle safari. Within one national park, there's often an option to explore from multiple angles.
Where do you find African Savannah
Savannas are found all over Africa, forming the de facto landscape on many multi-day safaris. They're found in each of Africa's major safari countries; Namibia, Botswana, South Africa, Kenya, and Tanzania. Perhaps South Africa's Kruger best exemplifies the diversity of a savannah, the ancient national park speckled with areas are quasi-woodland but also swathes of open grassland punctuated by a sole stunted trunk. In Botswana and Namibia, the savannah borders on being semi-desert, scorched and dusty for most of the year. In parts of Kenya and Southern Tanzania, the savannah is remarkably green, trails heading through tangled collections of ancient roots and branches. In the same countries, photos of the savannah can also be dominated by rusty hues and iconic pathways of orange.
Savannah has an incredibly broad definition. When comparing destinations for an African safari, the term is only the introduction to what will be on offer. Some cover areas that dwarf U.S. states. Others are snippets of wilderness best for a single short game drive. Many have a well-promoted specialism, anything from a large collection of rhinos or the unusual sight of tree-climbing lions. Combining different savannah based parks and reserves will always offer fresh experiences, even if they're within 50 miles of each other. For many visitors, savannah becomes iconic Africa. But it's got far more layers and intricacies than what's seen at first glance.
Iconic Savannah Experiences
- Spend a few days in South Africa's Kruger National Park, one of Africa's largest and oldest national parks and a symbol of the diversity found in a savannah.
- Marvel at the juxtaposition of elephants and baobab trees in Tanzania's Tarangire National Park, a place of giants wandering beneath iconically broad branches.
- Get lost in the enormity of Tsavo East and Tsavo West, Kenya's twin national park epitomizing the surprise that hides around lost corners of a savannah.
- Explore the southern fringes of Botswana's Kalahari, a series of private game reserves offering a fluid bounty to nomadic wanderers arriving from the desert.
- Discover the thornbush-savannah of Namibia's Etosha National Park, a habitat that seems infertile yet's graced by an unusual collection of specialists.
Pockets of woodland are dappled across Africa, usually bounded by flowing rivers and permanent water. Only rarely are they widespread and abundant, the woodland tending to occupy a fragment of a larger landscape or savannah. They're the home of browsers and unfussy feeders, notably elephants, monkeys, and antelopes that don't live in large herds. Dense growth and permanent shade are also desired by predators, the woodland alive with the hushed presence of danger. It's a thick dark landscape, trees dominating the panorama and making wildlife harder to find. But in the woodland you can almost blend in, meaning there's an incredible intimacy to the safari.
What is a Woodland
Woodland is found all over the world and continues to flourish in the harshest of African environments. Prompted by the availability of water, stretches of woodland stand like isolated sentinels across the continent, small patches of fertility amongst a landscape that's often stark and barren. Technically, savannah becomes woodland when the trees are dense enough to create a canopy. This aerial connection makes them an important haven for monkeys, baboons, and various other tree dwellers. But then an elephant herd smashes their way past, uprooting trees, leaving the telltale scars that only pachyderm can, and forcing the primates to scurry across the ground.
Acacia and mopane woodland are the most common, resilient trees with thin trunks and branches that stretch out to maximize sunlight. But there's dozens of others to discover, from the sycamore fig to umbrella thorn, fruity marula trees to the blood-red flowers and unusual fruit of the sausage tree. Some provide thick canopies of green, creating permanent shade and gloom that's brightened by leopard fur. Others are sparse, just brief providers of respite for those seeking escape from the sun.
Woodland covers small areas, especially given the gargantuan scale of Africa's other habitats. They're found nestled on the edge of a savannah or stand like an oasis in the desert. They stretch out along the river and around lakes but don't form the giant expanses seen elsewhere in the world. You'll need to head to Central Africa to find the enormous dense concoctions of forest found across Siberia or Asia. Like all definitions of Africa's habitats, there's a soft blurring of boundaries. Where savannah ends and where woodland begins is not always clear from a distance. But the journey into the woodland and you sense the limited light and echoing soundtrack, along with the fragrant freshness of a landscape that hasn't been scorched. The lights are dimmed, and the inevitable air of mystique arrives almost instantaneously.
The Safari Experience in a Woodland
Enter woodland and the visibility diminishes. From the broad sweeping views of the savannah or desert, there's now only 50 meters in sight. The branches tangle in a maze of possibility, a darkened floor emanates mystery, and your ears are alert to the reverberations of distant calls. Woodland opens your senses, ears and nose tracing the clues of its inhabitants. There's as much wildlife in the woodland as on the open grassland, but the trees make everything hard to find. Scan the branches and something flickers. Keep looking and the tail moves once more. Focus on the tree and a leopard's camouflage are betrayed, the sublime hunter peering out with clandestine concentration. If you'd have been driving any faster, this leopard would easily have been missed.
Turn a corner and a small elephant herd blocks the path. They are just meters away, appearing like phantoms as you snake a path through the trees. Another corner and you experience a giraffe tower, the often bashful giants visible at remarkable proximity. While woodland makes it harder for you to see wildlife, it also makes it harder for wildlife to see you coming. Animals don't spot the safari truck from a mile away so don't canter away from the trail. They see you with the same surprise as you see them. It can make for wonderfully seductive moments, like when you encounter a protective mother who warns you away from the track, or when the hideout of an elusive character is stumbled upon.
Elephants, giraffe, and primates are the dominant highlights, along with the opportunity to find predators, notably the leopard. Bird life is always resonant, a flurry of tweets and squawks following you through the trees. Woodland is packed with hiding places, making it a great place to spot the elusive and unusual of an African safari, especially when you're on a nighttime game drive. And while you probably won't see the same quantity of animals, a woodland safari provides an intense, evocative intimacy. You get very close, both on game drives and walking safaris. But rushing through the woodland is usually futile as only the primates and elephants unabashedly flank the track. Going slow is essential as it allows the woodland to unravel fully, the layers of surprise gently revealed in rich detail.
Where do you find Woodland
Woodlands are most commonly found around permanent water. They fringe many of Africa's iconic rivers, narrow bands of dense trees that ungulates must cross before they drink. You'll also see them around lakes, a ring of woodland that offers a utopia for diverse birdlife. Woodland also inhabits seemingly infertile landscapes, often flourishing via underground channels of water flow from an escarpment above. This habitat is predominantly explored in addition to another, the woodland a distinct piece of a national park or reserve's patchwork. It forms part of many safari experiences, even if it's just a tiny collection of trees that hide rare species. Also, some of Africa's national parks offer in-depth woodland experiences, a whole day required to weave your way through the myriad of trails.
Many camps and lodges are set on the edge of woodland, with the rooms gazing out across an open savannah, river, or permanent waterhole. The accommodation blends into the landscape, hiding beneath the trees and harnessing its natural bounty. From the dark backdrop comes the regular echoes of the wilderness, distinct calls piercing the serenity as you watch a succession of wildlife roam in the foreground. And during languid evenings, the woodland's surprise is at its most dramatic, something distinctive emerging as you're relaxing around the fire. Woodland is about going slow and picking up all the clues, and you can't go any slower than simply sitting outside your room. Ever so gradually you see it all, without ever having to move.
Iconic Woodland Experiences
- Spot tree-climbing lions and over 500 bird species in Tanzania's compact Lake Manyara National Park.
- Marvel at the world's largest concentration of elephants in Chobe National Park, up to 100,000 thought to inhabit this woodland area in the north of Botswana.
- Go off the beaten track with a safari in Zambia's South Luangwa National Park, a sanctuary for many of Africa's rare species.
- Enter the woodland on a long game drive, the sudden change in habitat providing a distinctly unique atmosphere and the chance to discover elusive predators.
- Explore the dense woodland of one of South Africa's private game reserves, a chance for unrivalled luxury amidst the evocative soundtrack of the trees.
East Africa's tropical forests are the haven of primates and birdlife, famously encountered when you trek to critically endangered gorilla troops in Uganda and Rwanda. They're dense landscapes, mostly inaccessible by road and flourishing at higher altitudes. Tropical forest and jungle rarely form part of a traditional big game safari. It's a habitat for the specialists and the place for more specialist safaris, either focused on the primates or journeys on foot. Nevertheless, they dramatically contrast Africa's other habitats, making them excellent additions to more traditional safari itineraries.
What is Tropical Forest and Jungle
The tropical forests of East Africa have many similarities with the forests and jungles found in tropics around the world. Lush and green, they're supplied by continual supplies of rain, blossoming to form tangled concoctions of creeping roots and clashing branches. Much like South America's Amazon, most of Africa's forests are vastly unexplored, the stuff of legend that enticed and frightened colonial explorers in equal measure. This is where gorillas hide amongst layers of mist, chimpanzees shout from resplendent canopies, and the unusual emerges when you explore on foot.
The Safari Experience in the Tropical Forest
According to the famous song, the lion sleeps in the jungle. Which is factually inaccurate. While you might occasionally find leopard or small cats in this habitat, lions don't like the wet ground. Furthermore, the chances of spotting cats in the tropical forest are extremely slim; it's far too dense to find their lair. Dedicated safaris explore these forests, predominantly focused on encounters with primates, most famously gorillas, and chimpanzees. Roads make only sporadic imprints on the landscape, so this is an experience enjoyed on foot, often with a guide who must slash through the greenery with a machete.
Open your senses and there's much to enjoy: the smell of freshly drenched ground after a day of rain; mist rising hypnotically through the canopy; the entwined exuberance of opposing green hues; reverberant calls from a hidden primate. These are special places, far different from Africa's traditional safari destinations and a chance to explore a fresh slice of wilderness. Birdlife is abundant, dozens of endemic species found in forests and a roll call of vibrant wings discovered on each journey into the jungle.
Where do you find Tropical Forest
Africa's tropical forests are predominantly found at altitude, rising from the volcanoes of East Africa, then stretching west across the dense jungle of the Democratic Republic of Congo to Cameroon. It's most accessible in Rwanda and Western Uganda, two countries that offer primate safaris and exceptional bird watching. Visitors to the jungle and tropical forest outside Uganda and Rwanda are rare. Small bands of tropical forest are also found in highland areas of Kenya and Tanzania, although much of these areas were chopped down by colonial conquerers. Its proximity to the coast meant the wood was exported and replaced by farmland. What remains is an enchanting interruption to big game safari, the forests offering something vastly different to the plains that surround them.
Iconic Tropical Forest Experiences
- Get intimate with the world's biggest primates with a gorilla trekking safari in Uganda or Rwanda.
- Marvel at the similarities when you encounter habituated chimpanzee groups in Uganda's tropical forest.
- Spot a dozen primate species in Tanzania's Udzungwa Mountains, including rare mangabeys that have only recently been known to scientists.
Nomads wander, and herds gather in Africa's semi-desert, the continual battle for survival epitomized by these arid, barren plains. There might be nothing for miles, other than a mystical silence and crusted footprints on the ground. But find permanent water and life flourishes. Mammals migrate and congregate around scorched water holes or shriveled river beds, bringing the inevitable conflict between predator and prey. Within the landscapes, you discover pans, a hazy mirage shimmering and blurring against the horizon. These semi-deserts are vast landscapes dappled with splendor, sometimes barren at first glance yet packed with action if you know where to look.
What is Semi-desert
Africa's semi-deserts can be brutal places. These gargantuan landscapes appear arid and scorched, nothing but the oddly stunted shrub breaking a monotony of rock and seemingly infertile ground. Aerial vistas maximize the impression of the deserts' mammoth size and inhospitable nature. But look closer and there's always signs of life. A set of footprints encrusted along a dried riverbed, a lone elephant wandering with tender melancholy, zebra cantering with a stare of distress. An oasis appears from nowhere, the sprouting circle of water collecting hundreds of disparate nomads, the interaction between herds and prides laced with tension.
These deserts are defined by size and scale. If it was a country, Botswana's Kalahari Desert would be in the largest 30 of the world. They're also indelibly marked by subtlety. While some areas appear impossibly desolate, there are utopian pockets of life all over, especially when rivers arrive and pans become flooded. Water brings relief, a single day of rain instantly transforming the landscape into vibrant color, floral patterns rising between rugged unbreakable shrubs. Wildlife then scatters when the rains arrive, feasting on a bounty that's all too infrequent. Herds migrate and predators have abnormally large ranges, the relative lack of food affecting each of the desert's species.
Like all of Africa's habitats, definitions of where the desert begins is often a subjective one. Some know the semi-desert as scrub savannah, a place not of grass but sprinklings of bush and shrubs. Within the desert, you'll occasionally find wetland or woodland. Desert areas sometimes fringe places of abundance, the barren land slowly merging into savannah or grassland. Occasionally the semi-desert unravels and stretches onto the flat monotone of a desert pan. These immense and discombobulating pans are amongst Africa's most surreal sights, hundreds of square miles of nothingness blurred in a mirage. In Botswana, these pans are a dazzling white, dominated by salt, crossed seasonably by huge zebra herds and wandering elephants. In Namibia, these pans hold permanent water, transformed into flat shallow lakes where wildlife splashes with glee.
The Safari Experience in a Semi-desert
Semi-deserts are full of life, but it's not always obvious. Gaze towards the horizon and you might not see anything. Nor will you hear anything, the sublime silence punctuated only by the flickering of wind. These are not abundant places. They're harsh environments, home to those that have evolved to be the strongest or most specialized. Yet they are never empty. Like the animals that grace this habitat, you also become a nomad, seeking out the oasis and following tracks to areas where life can flourish. Elephant, giraffe, rhino; Africa's great mammals are spotted in the open, often on the move or dominating the scene at a waterhole. Ungulates are scattered around and found in large herds when seasonal migrations take place. Follow the nomadic footprints and the semi-desert feels alive with concentrated profusion. The idolized predators are also found here. The limited amount of regular prey supports a limited number of prides and individuals, usually with large ranges. However, limited cover and predictable patterns make the predators relatively easy to find.
The scale of these landscapes makes game drives almost essential. Experiencing a semideserts wildlife requires you to cover large distances and visit areas that are broadly spread. Aerial safaris are also impressive, enabling an evocative impression of the desert's scale and subtle changes. These barren lands are also those where you'll find some of Africa's most unchanged traditional tribal groups, like the San and Himba in Namibia to the Hadzabe of Tanzania. While their lands are shrinking, the landscape's infertility has provided an isolation and reduced, but not removed, the pressure on the tribes to be “reeducated” or “integrate.” Semi-deserts offer a chance to interact with these tribes and a great opportunity to go on tracking or walking safaris; the focus is less on spotting a lot of wildlife and more on learning and understanding the landscape's clues.
Water is at the essence of deserts and safari activities. Many camps and lodges offer peak panoramas over a water source, allowing the nomadic wanderers to come to you, especially in the cooler evening hours. Game drives often tour waterholes, slicing through the desert to admire anxious interaction. Every hour brings a surprise. You could be driving and see nothing. Ascend over a mound and suddenly there's a whole menagerie of life, a dozen species stretched across the landscape. It appears as a phantom, a ghostly abundance that then disappears once you cross into the next valley. Keep driving. More shocks of wildlife emerge; kudu picking at sporadic shoots of green, meerkats poking out intrigued heads, a white rhino pair at home in the silence. For while semi-deserts seem quiet at first glance, those who explore them find them eternally supplied with unique moments and memorable scenes.
Where do you Find Semi-desert
Southern Africa is dominated by semi-desert. Namibia is almost entirely desert, ranging from iconic towering sand dunes to vast pans where herds blur in an elegant mirage. Likewise, Botswana is desert, although it's punctuated by resplendent salt pans and the phenomenal oasis of the Okavango Delta, Africa's greatest wetland area. Note that the Okavango Delta is part of the Kalahari Desert and receives very little rainfall; the Okavango River arrives from Angola's highlands and floods every year. The majority of South Africa is also a desert, although this arid interior is less visited as most itineraries concentrate on a green band that runs along the coast. Semi-desert also covers large swathes of Southern Tanzania and Northern Kenya. Again, these are only fleetingly explored as most visitors prefer the lush band of fertile land that straddles the border between the two countries.
In Botswana and Namibia, semi-desert supporting a range of wildlife blurs into a full, unadulterated desert where little survives. Namibia's coastline is almost exclusively sand dunes, towering 300 meter plus rolls of burning red where there's little but a few lizards breaking the surreal panorama. Large sections of both countries are similarly infertile, tough, unforgiving landscapes with very few permanent residents. Occasionally they're crossed by big nomadic wanderers, and it can be a baffling experience. You're driving along the main highway, gazing out at miles of desolate beauty, when an elephant or giraffe appears on the horizon.
These vast untrammeled landscapes are the focus of many ultra-exclusive safaris. They're places of absolute escapism, virtually no other vehicles or tourists encountered even if you explore for a week. In particular, Botswana has some opulent experiences for those seeking complete privacy, making it a safari destination for the wealthy and famous. They're also favored by many visitors on their second or third African safaris. First-time visitors tend to flock towards the places of highest abundance to maximize the variety and quantity of wildlife on offer. Those returning to Africa are drawn to the serenity and untameable wild of semi-deserts, as well as the delightful provision of surprise.
Iconic Semi-desert Experiences
- Track the great zebra migration across Botswana's Nxai and Makgadikgadi salt pans, Africa's great wildlife secret revealed with game drives, walks, and even horse riding safari.
- Marvel at the wildlife that splashes around the fringes of the shimmering Etosha Pan, the centerpiece of Etosha National Park, Namibia's premier safari destination.
- Explore like a nomad and admire the black-maned lion prides of Botswana's Central Kalahari Game Reserve, a huge landscape where predatory scenes are accompanied with the evocative ambling of huge mammals.
- Go off the beaten trail in Northern Kenya and explore with the Samburu, a unique tribe who effortlessly track wildlife through a landscape of diaphanous beauty.
- Visit a private game reserve in South Africa's Karoo Desert, reveling in opulence and big five opportunities that are within a few hours of Cape Town.
Wetlands showcase Africa's bounty, the habitat dominated by lavish colors and the untethered excess of natural exuberance. Rivers snake through the continent, spurting forests and growth as they weave across parks and reserves. Many flood with the annual rains, bursting into marshes, swamps, and wetlands, creating a utopian oasis for millions of hungry mammal mouths. Rain also replenishes the waterways, spreading the lush colors through a labyrinth of colors. Wetlands and waterways are a showcase of nature's riches, attracting wildlife from thousands of miles around and transforming the landscape.
What are Wetlands and Waterways
Wetlands and waterways provide Africa's untethered bounty. Rivers snake through the desert and dry savannah, stimulating woodland and flooding annually to create thousands of miles of grassland. Lakes are congregation points, places many mammals must reach at least once a day. Ungulate herds must graze nearby, knowing the journey to water can't be too tiresome. Predators prowl with menace; the dinner menu brought to them as almost everyone must eventually drink. In the season of abundance wetlands flourish; marshes, swamps, and floodplains, each alive with the splashing of hooves and the slurping of tongues. This is an annual cycle in many places, a system of channels flourishing with the rains. In others, riverbeds dry for decades before the water eventually returns, reinvigorating the landscape and enabling the wanderers to return.
Like every habitat, wetlands are dictated by the rains, although the transformation isn't always as instantaneous. The major rivers descend from distant highlands, snaking their way across the continent. 2000 miles downriver, they could flood and form deltas some three or four months after the rainy season in the highlands. As these rivers cascade they split into channels and spill into marsh areas, forging a bounty that exists in addition to a landscape's dry and wet seasons. In other areas, rains are washed into swamps as the landscape struggles to suck up such abundant goodness. These marshes and waterways are a haven for specialists, home to those few amphibious types equally comfortable in land and water.
Conversely, it's often in the dry season that wildlife is concentrated around a waterway. When water is so scarce elsewhere, animals must stick close to the river. Wildlife spreads far and wide during the rains, moving to feast on the newly created bounty. Following the rainy season, pockets of water dot the landscape, allowing wildlife to survive far from their regular waterway. As these waterholes shrivel the life slowly returns to the waterway. But it's not always this clear cut. Rains also stimulate the spectacular bounty of a wetland system, water channeled into tributaries and banks bursting to create flooded plains. In these delta ecosystems, nomadic wanderers arrive for months at a time, compelling animals to travel hundreds or perhaps thousands of miles for the season of abundance. For millennia these animals have followed the same migratory patterns, timing their mating and calving season to coincide with nature's bounty.
The Safari Experience in Wetlands and Waterways
Wetlands are never quiet. A soundtrack of birdsong accompanies their colorful opulence, the increased decibels indicative of the increase in wildlife. Two idolized characters dominate scenes in the waterways. Hippos thump and thud their way into the water, boisterously bathing through the day and occasionally bursting into songs of grunts and wheeze-honks. Conversely, crocodiles spend a lot of the day on the banks, absorbing the same sun the hippos are seeking to avoid. In the water it's only eyes and snouts that poke out, a mysterious glint accompanying each grin. Then a yawn, snap, a ferocious set of teeth revealed as hippo or crocodile opens its mouth. Hippos congregate in large pods while crocodiles dot the banks. Guides normally navigate you straight to their preferred bathing space, offering one of the safari's easiest and most predictable sights. You'll have to arrive early morning or around dusk to capture them in active mode, although the multitude of eyes always makes a lingering impression.
Wetland systems are also at the core of Africa's birdlife, a multitude of endemic wings fluttering above permanent stretches of blue. Sometimes they shout and holler, squawking loudly from the surrounding treetops to warn of a big cat approaching the waterway. Ungulates take note and cease their drinking, a hundred heads overtaken by fear as they peer into the trees. Downriver there's a standoff, two herds of elephants arriving to drink at the same time, one backing down with a fight to allow the order to feast first. But the tension remains and the waiting herd continues to signal that there is a queue. The profusion of water makes this habitat the most diverse and concentrated regarding wildlife, especially during the dry season when inhabitants have no other choice about where to drink.
Most mammals are visitors to the water rather than permanent dwellers, arriving once a day before disappearing back into the savannah. It's rare that a single spot teems with life, watchful herds choosing to queue discreetly or slurping from a quieter spot. But spend a day along a popular waterway and you'll slowly admire a procession of life taking their turn. In the dry season, many daily itineraries follow waterways, tracking rivers as they meander through a savannah or following the course of tributaries. Much like the wildlife, you are also magnetically pulled to water, feasting on the oasis that has been created. Not only is the water a place to spot wildlife, but the surrounding area is also often the most concentrated into terms of animal density. Most prefer to stay within relatively easy reach of their daily drink.
Some systems allow you to explore with a boat safari. It's serene and slow, gently gliding through the water and admiring everything that approaches the banks. Occasionally you slide past a hippo pod or crocodile, maintaining a safe distance yet providing eye-level shots of the rumbustious beasts. Going by boat is a calming change, enabling the wildlife to come slowly to you, rather than searching for it on a game drive. Sometimes it's by traditional wooden canoe, other times by larger boats with wide decks and a stocked bar; with both, there's a focus more on savoring the landscape rather than seeking wildlife. And this mindset always brings delightful tales along the riverbanks.
Where do you find Wetlands and Waterways
Waterways form the core of many African safari destinations, their lavish natural wealth providing the central focus of safari itineraries. You'll find this habitat across the continent although in varying degrees of scale. For example, the Tarangire River meanders through Tarangire National Park and the Mara River provides a natural boundary between the Serengeti and the Maasai Mara. But the most spectacular and famous are waterways that create oases in Southern Africa's deserts. The Okavango descends from Angola's highlands, spreading across the Kalahari Desert to create the Okavango Delta. The Chobe and Kwando rivers create life in Namibia's Caprivi Strip while the Zambezi Rivers isn't just famous for creating Victoria Falls. A series of small national parks and reserves along the banks offers rhinos, lions, and a phenomenal gathering of elephants. During seasonal floods, Botswana and Namibia's cracked pans flourish into wetland areas, attracting nomads from miles around. Boat safaris are predominantly found in Southern Africa, made possible by these wider rivers and the channels that go through deltas.
Iconic Waterway and Wetland Experiences
- Spend a few days exploring Botswana's Okavango Delta, Africa's greatest oasis and an enormous phenomenon in the desert. Fly to marooned islands, boat along hippo-filled channels, walk through lush reserves and take long game drives in this iconic haven.
- Explore Namibia's Caprivi Strip, a narrow band of wetland and woodland that's home to seven national parks and reserves, each with a peculiar specialism.
- Savor a luxury camp that overlooks a floodlit river at the waterhole, spending elegant evenings watching a succession of mammals come to drink.
- Marvel at thousands of wildebeest and zebra crossing the Mara River, the natural wetland divide between the Serengeti and Maasai Mara.
Africa's iconic mountains are sporadically dotted with wildlife, high-altitude specialists that include rare primates and unusual antelopes. But for the most part, these mountains are the basis of trekking vacations rather than safari, notably the conquerable peaks of East Africa's dormant volcanoes. The Great Rift Valley cuts a dramatic scar north to south through the continent, hiding wildlife within its multiplicity of folds, then a bubbling belt of volcanic history runs east to west, offering the resplendent of cones of Kilimanjaro, Kenya, the Rwenzori and more.
What are Africa's Mountains
East Africa's volcanic mountains seem to define iconicity. Take Kilimanjaro, a faultless freestanding cone that dominates northern Tanzania. Snow glistens across the summit, slices of white clinging to its antiquated crater slopes. The snow melts and descends, creating a resplendent forest that circles the mountain's base. Cross over to Kenya and there's hardly a note of snow on Kilimanjaro's northern slope, but it's still a phenomenal backdrop to the big game that meanders across Amboseli National Park. Kilimanjaro isn't alone. You'll find dozens of these dormant volcanic cones across East Africa.
The Great Rift Valley provides the folds of the continent's most impressive mountain chain, the peaks surging from South Africa to Egypt, dissecting Africa with sheets of forest and precipitous cliffs. In a predictably flat and open landscape, the Great Rift Valley provides shade and privacy for many species which prefer a low profile. Klipspringer nimbly jumps across rocks, leopards find stealthy solace, while endemic monkeys feast on concentrations of fig trees. There aren't copious amounts of wildlife to find. But look closely and the lower slopes are always sprinkled with enchantment.
The Safari Experience in Africa's Mountains
Africa's mountains are rarely visited for traditional big game safari. It's their peaks that draw tourists and a non-safari climb to the summit. Many combine one of the famous peaks, like Kilimanjaro, Kenya, or Meru, with a short safari in national parks within the vicinity. This offers one of two days of intimate sights after a week of phenomenal panoramas. Mountains also provide ideal destinations for multi-day walking game safaris. Going slow offers an indelible collection of unusual and rare sights, with riverside and forest camps providing eternal impressions of the wilderness. In most cases, walking is the only way across the slopes. They're too steep for vehicle tracks, something that has ensured these mountains remain unspoiled and wild, even when they're surrounded by villages and urban populations.
Where do you Find Africa's Mountains
The Great Rift Valley runs from South Africa to Egypt, cutting a dramatic scar that runs through the continent, including the countries of Zimbabwe, Malawi, Tanzania, Kenya. Higher volcanic peaks run east to west, rising intermittently in Tanzania and Kenya and putting most of Uganda and Kenya at high altitude. Namibia's desert is also punctuated by the surreal peaks of Damaraland while the Table Mountain chain that runs to the tip of southwestern Africa is another sublime example of rugged precipitous slopes.
Iconic Mountain Safaris
- Bicycle without a guide through Kenya's Hell's Gate National Park, a Great Rift Valley destination where big herds of buffalo and zebra share the trails with giraffe towers.
- Take a multi-day walking safari across the Laikipia Plateau, wandering far from any road and camping amongst pristine wilderness.
- Explore Uganda's Queen Elizabeth National Park, an ode to recent conservation efforts and a place to admire tree-climbing lions, hippos, and elephants.
- Stand on a summit and watch nomadic elephants wander lonely in the valleys of Namibia's Damaraland, an area of majestic rock art and unusual wildlife surprise.