Top Destinations for Safari & Leisure Travel in Africa
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Central Kalahari Game Reserve
Dusty evocative desert and an inspiring sense of wilderness dotted with big game.
Stand out destination in Africa
Few safari destinations are as escapist as the Central Kalahari, a gargantuan reserve that stretches across a huge part of Botswana. River beds become dusty, and sand dunes rise during the dry season, forcing animals to sniff out the few remaining waterholes. Rain brings a brief, colorful beauty; flowers spurting, grass flourishing, rivers flowing. But it's all too short in this dusty desert and the landscape soon returns to its evocative rusty yellow. African landscapes are so often about the constant battle for survival, and perhaps nowhere is this better illustrated than this seemingly endless reserve.
You can drive for two hours through the Central Kalahari without seeing wildlife. Like the animals themselves, safari is about seeking out the shrivelling waterholes that sustain life in the desert. So cross a ridge and suddenly there's hundreds of mammals tensely congregating around the water, the smallest creatures waiting for the elephants to depart. Baby pachyderms chase away cheeky warthogs and springbok must wait until the heat of the day to dare approach the water. Black-maned lions rule this landscape, roaming in prides that pick off the weak. Limited vegetation and water means there's plenty of potential targets, especially when a pride keeps watch on the waterhole. Large herds move hundreds of miles to seek water and their distant miraged figures are one of the Kalahari's great images, the legs and colors blurring as you gaze across the flat savannah. Another unforgettable image is that of the tusked male elephant, lonely walking across a desert of swirling dust and glowing heat.
In comparison to the lusher landscapes of Okavango and Chobe, the Central Kalahari provides a very different safari experience, one marked by competition rather than abundance. This makes it a hypnotic stop on a longer Botswana safari, enabling you to appreciate how desert dominates so much of the country and why the Okavango oasis is so integral to the country's wildlife. If it were a country, the Kalahari Desert would be one of the 30 biggest in the world. So expect to travel long distances on bumpy roads. Micro flights save travel time. It's rare you see other visitors and the camps are wonderfully secluded, making them excellent stops for high-end exclusive safaris. At most times in the reserve, you look around, taking in the 360-degree panorama, and wondering just how a remote a place can be.
Some of the camps can be over 50 miles from each other, making it a reserve for royalty and celebrities to discreetly escape from the world. A range of activities are available in the reserve. For the most part, you go on longer all-day game drives that loop around the waterholes in the desert. They're wonderfully unpredictable; after an hour of seeing nothing you suddenly encounter a leopard dragging a springbok carcass. You'll need to leave early in the morning to enjoy a walking safari or horse riding safari, but again, these have a supreme sense of the capricious. Camps are generally indelibly positioned overlooking or close to water, so elegant afternoons can be spent waiting for the nomads to arrive. Sometimes you're relaxing at the camp and a tower of giraffe suddenly pass by and curiously inspect whether you've got water. They appear like phantoms, then wander slowly onwards towards the horizon.
Chobe National Park
Thickly forested park that's home to more elephants than anywhere on the planet, some 60,000 to 100,000.
Stand out destination in Africa
Chobe is never quiet. Turn a corner and five elephants are bashing down an acacia. Drive a few meters further and a 15-strong herd guard their two trunk-swinging babies. Hooted calls come from a thick bush of green while the wheeze-honks of hippos echo from the Chobe River. Hundreds of giraffe heads poke above the treetops and you must have seen 500 elephants in the first 30 minutes of driving. Estimates range as to the number of elephants in Chobe. 60,000 is conservative while some conservationists believe that over 100,000 can be found here during the dry season. Disparities are due to whether you include the neighboring reserves, but mainly because the elephant population is simply too large to properly monitor. The herds smash trails through the woodland, shoot jets of water in the river, and clash continually with others. On a safari in Chobe the elephants blend into the scenery. Around most corners you encounter another few pachyderms, many of them towering above the safari vehicle and virtually within touching distance. Not only does Chobe have the largest elephant population in Africa. These are amongst the largest of Africa's elephants.
Even after you've seen a few thousand elephants, it's never boring. Giraffes are also abundant, their necks dominating the horizon whenever you reach a clearing. Baboons and multiple monkey species flicker through the trees, usually skittishly and shyly given the presence of elephants. Lions, leopards, and a series of forest-dwelling antelopes also inhabit the woodland. However, the thick trees and high grass makes these predators difficult to see. Often, you spot their paw prints and sense their presence, but the safari vehicle must stick to the trail, meaning just a glimpse at one of these revered characters.
Most Chobe safaris combine a game drive with a boat safari along the Chobe River, the wide and lavish water source that provides such a bounty of flora. Hippo encounters are the highlight, especially when you're in a smaller boat and just a few meters from a rumbustious pod. Larger boats offer sunset cruising or elegant dining while traversing the river, making a relaxed viewpoint for watching Chobe's three unmissable highlights: elephant, giraffe, and hippo. On long safari itineraries, this gentle cruising is a nice interlude after spending a few days bumping around on the road. Birdlife is prolific along the river, and you're never far from exotic wings or the soaring of predators.
Chobe's elephants are legendary in Africa. Their abundance is staggering and you only need a day safari to get a sense of it. In fact, you only need 20 minutes to realize just how special this place is. Perhaps you don't even need this long. You're almost guarenteed to spot dozens of elephants along the main road outside the park. Chobe is part of the world's largest conservation area, the Kavango-Zambezi Transfrontier Reserve, which spans five Southern African countries. It ensures the migration routes of elephants aren't interrupted and helps attract such abundance to Chobe in the dry season. Spending longer in the parks allows you to search out the woodland's other residents. There's often all the clues of predatory presence, you just need the patience to actually find them. For a more exclusive experience and a greater chance of spotting a more diverse cast, consider the three private unfenced reserves to the east of Chobe: Linyanti, Kwando and Selinda. This could be instead of Chobe or as an evocative addition.
Uninspiring capital that most skip through on route to the wilderness.
Approaching Gaborone by road can be a bizarre experience. After hundreds, perhaps thousands of miles of uninhabited desert you suddenly approach this conglomeration of concrete blocks and traffic lights. After 500 miles there's an ATM and a shopping center. Botswana is all about its wilderness and there's very little reason to stick around in Gaborone. Most flight connections enable you to skip through without an overnight and some luxury lodges on the outskirts provide a more emblematic first introduction to Botswana than visiting the city. Just remember to stock up on cash and any supplies you might need; it's a long long way to the next city.
Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park
Escapist and photogenic wilderness filled with sand dunes, lions, migratory herds and dried riverbeds.
Spanning 38,000 square kilometers, this wild and remote desert is ideal for escaping into an untrammelled realm. Red sand dunes rise above sparse vegetation, migrating herds dig for water in dried riverbeds, and sporadic predators conserve their energy beneath the odd camelthorn tree. The indigenous name Kgalagadi means “place of thirst,” and local fables say that the rivers flow just once a century. The harshness is unforgiving; vultures circle above exhausted springbok, hyenas snarl yet appear skinny and unnourished, while small herds migrate at a pedestrian pace. Perhaps it's only the gemsbok that can truly flourish here, large arid specialists with distinctive horns and an ability to tackle the desert heat. Like most desert landscapes you won't find an abundance of wildlife here. There's simply isn't the fertility and water to sustain large numbers. But go exploring and you see diverse residents, including black-maned lions, cheetahs, and hartebeest. Finding these animals isn't that difficult. Just follow the scent of water and seek out the denser stretches of savannah.
This transfrontier park was gazetted to preserve uninterrupted migration routes for the herds that move between Botswana and South Africa. While the park crosses a national border, this ecosystem sits amongst one of Africa's most sparsely inhabited regions, with the immersion in wilderness starting hundreds of miles before the park gate. The majority of the park is in Botswana, but the park's lodges and camps are on the South African side and most people enter on this side. Safari into the Botswana part of the park is excellent for anyone with a sense of adventure, a tent, and a four-wheel drive. Tour companies also take tourists here, with the experience geared towards sheer wilderness escapism, with all its charms and harshness. If you want to camp in the heart of the bush, with lion roars part of the evening soundtrack, this is a place to do it. Day trips from South African lodges to the Botswana side are also easy to make. The park is predominantly a favorite of self-driving tourists on route between South Africa and Botswana.
Khutse Game Reserve
Accessible slice of the Kalahari with spectacular although sparse wildlife.
Khutse feels a little like the Kalahari on a smaller more compact scale. There's the dozens of shimmering salt pans, wandering herds digging for water, and watchful predators waiting to pounce. Tucked away on the southern edge of the Central Kalahari Game Reserve, it's also a very accessible part of the Kalahari, especially for anyone coming from Gaberone to the south (weekends should be avoided as the park swells with those taking a break from the capital). Wildlife encounters can often be sparse and there's diversity rather than abundance. However, like the Central Kalahari, it's a place where you can randomly encounter the premier of safari memories. After a few hours of barely a flicker of life, there suddenly a cheetah using the savannah as her racetrack.
Exclusive and beautiful fly-in safari through a lush landscape of wetlands, woodland, and floodplains.
Stretching west from Chobe, the floodplains of Kwando provide a riverside wilderness that's become a premier destination for exclusive fly-in safaris. Hippos, giraffe, springbok, zebra, crocodile, buffalo; each animal finds its own niche within the varied landscape, especially as the River Kwando is the main source of water for hundreds of miles. Various predators take their pick from the ungulates and while they're not frequently spotted, it certainly easier to see the big cats on an open floodplain than in Chobe's thick woodland. It's worth staying a few days for the opportunity to encounter packs of African wild dogs, an elusive and often mesmerizing animal. Dozens of them roam together and their calls are an unmistakable part of the nighttime soundtrack. This spectacular sighting provides the champagne appeal in a park that already contains a wonderful variety of wildlife.
The fly-in safaris provide remote and wild experiences that are surprisingly informal. Forget notions of swimming pools in the bush and opulent rooms. Kwando's experience centers around an almost private access to a vast reserve and a whole menu of activities; game drives, nighttime drives, river cruises, and bush walks. It is luxurious, but it's not over-the-top or stuffy. With the mix of experiences on offer, Kwando becomes a sublime reserve for those on the second or third trip to Africa, those wanting an exclusive reserve with a focus on the quality of wildlife experiences.
Small and exclusive reserve with phenomenal game plus thrilling walking and nighttime safaris.
Linyati is the most popular of three private concessions that lie adjacent to Chobe National Park. And for good reason. Sweeping grasslands and iconic delta scenery merge into the thick mopane woodlands of Chobe, providing timeless photos of Northern Botswana's clash of ecosystems. Thousands of elephants and giraffe dominate the woodland and then speckle the rest of the park, while large buffalo herds meet with crocodiles and hippos in the river. Yet it's the portfolio of predators that makes Linyanti such an outstanding reserve. Endangered wild dog lead the list, joined by the safari favorites of lion, leopard, cheetah, and hyena. With the mix of habitats supporting such a mix of herbivores, this compact reserve provides food for many. Spend a few days here and there's a great chance of seeing the predators in action.
Linyanti's popularity is also elevated by the range of luxury lodges on offer. Each has its own slice of the concession and uninterrupted views over part of the reserve, including the lush Linyanti River. These are more exclusive and expensive than neighboring Chobe and most visitors fly in to the remote airstrip within the concession. Some provide opulence and indulgence, others cater more towards a feeling of solitude and uninterrupted charm. As this is a privately-managed concession, each lodge is able to offer eclectic activities. In particular, the walking safaris and nighttime drives showcase the thrilling drama of remote Africa. Stop the vehicle and listen to the clues. A roving spotlight illuminates the landscape but the sense of darkness is powerful. Rustling sounds, then a sharp cry, and when the spotlight shines down you discover there's a pride of lions barely ten meters away.
Linyanti's smaller size is also a factor in the popularity, with visitors knowing that it only takes a couple of days to experience a rich array of Botswana's wildlife. It is possible to arrive by road but most will fly in for a two or three-night safari. A relatively small size helps provide an iconic safari program, with early-morning and late-afternoon activities punctuated by languid hours overlooking the river and enjoying the wildlife that arrives to drink. Such an easy customizable program makes this a popular destination for seniors.
Makgadikgadi Pans National Park
Surreal blinding salt pan offering supreme solitude in the dry season and zebra herds when it rains.
Stand on the Makgadikgadi and the whiteness is near-absolute. This empty mosaic of blinding soda pans seems to stretch for eternity, especially as you admire the mirage that perennially floats across the landscape. This was once Africa's largest lake. Now it's the world's largest salt pan. Take an ATV and you can drive into the enormous emptiness, occasionally coming across protruding boulders or peeking meerkats. There's no camps or lodges on this deserted pan; it's just you, a guide, and a white mirage that stretches out across an area larger than Switzerland. Tour companies take their own equipment and you can roll out sleeping mats beneath the stars. There's hardly a permanent building for hundreds of miles, meaning unrivaled shows from the Milky Way. From March to November the experience is all about solitude and it's really only on an overnight ATV trip that you can come close to grasping the surreal scale of Makgadikgadi.
Shoots of grass appear with the rains and thousands of zebra and gemsbok graze on the new green. This is where you'll see Africa's other mammal migration, the zebra migration of Botswana. It doesn't have the fame of the wildebeest migration and was only discovered by scientists and conservationists in the last 15 years. As you move deeper into the wet season more animals begin to arrive, with the abundance peaking around the new year. But Makgadikgadi has no roads. It hardly even has a trail. So the boggy wet season landscape can be difficult to reach and slow to explore. Fly in safaris are a good option to avoid these challenges. Herds bring predators from their lair but you'll need luck to see them, so the undoubted highlight remains the zebra and one of the planet's most surreal landscapes.
There can be some confusion between the Makgadikgadi Pans and Nxai Pan, two famous Botswana destinations. Makgadikgadi refers to the entire area. Nxai is just one of the pans within Makgadikgadi. However, Nxai and Makgadikgadi are gazetted to have their own national park boundaries. Makgadikgadi's scale makes it the unmissable attraction in the dry season (March to November). Nxai sees more wildlife during the wet season. It's also more accessible than the broader Makgadikgadi National Park.
Mashatu Game Reserve
Largest private game reserve in Southern Africa; unparalleled luxury, intimate encounters, minimal tourists.
Stand out destination in Africa
Africa's largest private reserve is one of its finest. Mashatu is wedged into southeastern Botswana and the Tuli Block that neighbors both South Africa and Zimbabwe. Its service and opulence feel like the best of South Africa, yet the landscape and safari are indelibly Botswana. Two intimate lodges offer all-inclusive safari itineraries across the iconic savannah. Elephants gather around sandy rivers, thousands of migrating ungulates roam across the park, and there's always lion and leopard sightings. Wildlife isn't overly abundant, but the quality of game sightings in Mashatu can be unparalleled. Safari vehicles go off road for close-up encounters and that's just the start. Walking safaris deliver intimate moments and multi-day horse riding safaris allow you to gallop across the wilderness and sleep in luxury mobile camps. Elephants, zebra and giraffe are all seen at close quarters from the saddle.
The rarity of the experiences is reflected in the price. This is a private reserve that can blend raw and wild safari with exceptional luxury. As such, it's a reserve that's only on a few safari itineraries. The remoteness also keeps it away from the safari trail as it's an eight drive from Johannesburg, two hours from Polokwane, or an equally long transfer by road from Botswana. This should change in 2015 as Mashatu starts twice-weekly charter flights from OR Tambo International in Johannesburg. Don't expect it to get crowded. Many private game reserves are a fraction of Mashatu's size and cater for four times the tourists. So for those seeking unparalleled luxury and the intimate bush safari experience, Mashatu is a place to escape to. The customizable program of activities and relaxed atmosphere also make it a premier choice for seniors on safari.
Moremi Game Reserve
Legendary reserve in the Okavango Delta offering some of Africa's finest safari experiences.
Stand out destination in Africa
Moremi is the game-rich slice of the great Okavango and the only part of the delta to be fully protected. A patchwork of ecosystems are stitched together by the delta's channels, with the flooded channels separating large stretches of wetlands, mopane woodland, and palm islands. These bountiful landscapes start on the Okavango's fringes, making it the first stop for thousands of migrating mammals. Much of the wildlife continues further into the Delta, picking away at the lush mix of water and food, and coming to reside on paradise islands within nature's great oasis. The Moremi landscape blurs into Chobe to the north, continuing an uninterrupted wildlife corridor that stretches all the way to Namibia and Zambia. Huge migrating herds descend on Moremi for its endless water supply and the strong ones never leave, preferring to fight over the abundance than return to the desert. Okavango is the great oasis in the desert; Moremi is the great oasis within Okavango, a place of plentiful food amidst the liquid.
Game viewing is outstanding. The large herds are accompanied by local specialities like red lechwe, roan antelope, and wild dog. Both rhino species have been introduced to complete the big five although spotting these great mammals isn't yet common. Woodland greats like elephant and giraffe arrive in huge numbers while the waterways are amongst the finest places in Africa to see hippos up close. While game drives and walking safaris are the norm, Moremi's unique activity is to travel in a traditional mokoro – a dugout canoe that intimately cruises into the narrow channels of Okavango's mazy waterways. Around the reed-fringed banks you'll see all manner of big game; after all, while every animal has its preferred habitat, all must make the daily journey for a drink. This predicable behavior also assists in guiding game drives. Most of the life in Moremi will be living within an easy reach of the water.
Yet for all the immersion in slurping mammals, it's the mokoro encounters with hippos that are really legendary. It's one thing to see them while standing on land or from a large boat. It's quite another to encounter a 20-strong pod when you're riding in a narrow wooden canoe without an engine. Skilled gondoliers know how to interpret hippo behavior, helping get you close but also keep you safe. Plentiful predators add to Moremi's appeal, and it's rare to spend a few days here without the menagerie of Africa's great cats.
Moremi offers a range of accommodation for all budgets, with most of the luxury camps and lodges being found on Chief's Island. This isolated paradise is generally only accessed by micro flight, one that offers adoring views of how the Okavango floods the desert green and blue. Moremi's fringes can be reached by rough roads from elsewhere in Botswana (including a spectacularly rugged journey from Chobe), providing an accessibility that creates the reserve's popular central area. However, the Okavango's watery nature means that going deeper into the reserve requires something other than a car. This helps retain Chief's Island exclusive feel yet it's far from the only excellent spot within Moremi. Even the small local campsites are enshrouded with wildlife and you can wake up to find elephant or cheetah prints in the sand. This delta hub is arguably the premier safari destination in Botswana as it offers diverse wildlife, huge mammal numbers, exceptional game viewing, and unique safari activities. The dramatic journey to reach it is all part of the experience. As is sitting back at the camp and watching hundreds of mammals pass by.
Moremi changes through the seasons. The Okavango River brings water from the Angolan Highlands, water that must make a four to five-month journey to reach the Kalahari. As such, the Okavango Delta floods around June to September, exactly when the rest of the country is experiencing a scorched and dusty dry season. This is when wildlife migrates, and a great surge of abundance is found in Moremi. Later in the year, the summer rains can make parts of Moremi inaccessible and increase the malaria risk; some lodges will also close from December to February. Building roads and infrastructure on a mammoth floodplain are challenging so the location of a lodge is very important. Those on the water provide all-year round boating and walking activities, yet might become cut off from trails for game drives. Lodges on the drier fringes and permanent land must balance excellent game drives with the risk of water activities becoming inaccessible due to variable water levels.
Northern Tuli Game Reserve
Series of private concessions offering remote safari in a secluded part of Africa.
The Tuli Block comprises the swathe of savannah that's wedged between Zimbabwe and South Africa. Much of this has been gazetted into unfenced private concessions that form the Northern Tuli Game Reserve. The most famous of these is the large and opulent Mashatu. But there's also a variety of lodges and experiences that don't fall into the $1000 a night category. Northern Tuli's appeal is its broad mix of wildlife and inspiring blend of safari activities. You can take walking safari and nighttime game drives here, a rarity in most of Botswana. Four of the big five are here (excluding rhino) plus an eclectic range of characters like brown hyena and cheetah. Wildlife isn't overly abundant, but it is varied.
With the Limpopo River twinkling beneath a series of kopjes (rocky outcrops), the landscape transports you into a reverie of prime African landscapes, especially when the blood-red sun sets over a wandering leopard. However, this isn't the most accessible of destinations. It's usually included on overland safaris that include both South Africa and Botswana, as a day or two in Northern Tuli is the perfect interlude on the long drive between the countries. Unless it's naturally en route, there are likely to be other safari options within easier reach. There's also more famous and more abundant reserves in nearby Botswana, South Africa, and Zimbabwe.
Nxai Pan National Park
Big game part of Makgadikgadi filled with migrating herds during the November to March green season.
Nxai is one of the pans that forms the mammoth Makgadikdai salt pan system. In the dry season, it's wonderfully evocative, a vast world of white mirages punctuated by a stand of seven vast baobabs. Rains transform the pan in November and December, creating a gloopy oasis within the Kalahari desert. Migrating herds arrive for the bounty, meaning everything from zebra to elephant, gemsbok to impala. Thunderclouds build up through the day before ferociously unleashing and bringing more fertility to the pan. More herds arrive, and they're followed by the carnivores. Cheetahs accelerate across the flat, hazy pan while jackals and brown hyenas eye up a lion pride's leftovers.
During these green months, Nxai provides a surreal landscape of abundance. Game viewing is easy in such a flat open plain, although you'll be forced to drive slowly when the afternoon rains really tumble down. For the rest of the year, Nxai is still home to its residents, including lions and elephant. Conditions are harsh and you can sense the strive for survival. While many animals may have departed once Nxai shrivels, prints in the salt bed offer wonderful tracking adventures across the pan. Local bushman guides assist in identifying the clues and opening all your senses to the landscape. However, during the dry season months, if you're craving the absolute sense of wilderness, Makgadikgadi National Park provides a larger plain to escape into.
The world's greatest oasis and a phenomenal natural wonder in the heart of the Kalahari.
Stand out destination in Africa
If the Kalahari Desert was a country it would be one of the 30 largest in the world. Yet it's not the desolate place that most people envisage. Spreading out across the heart of the Kalahari is the Okavango Delta, a phenomenal oasis that paints the desert blue and green. Water doesn't really fall here. Instead, the phenomenon is caused by rainwater that tumbles down from the Angolan Highlands. The Okavango River swells, picking up tributaries on its journey towards Botswana, eventually flooding the delta five months after the rain initially fell. It's dazzling to witness this from the sky, the scorched yellow desert suddenly transformed into a natural wonder of flowing channels and sprouting reeds. Out of nowhere, there's vast stretches of blue and green beneath the plane's wingtips. On ground level the abundance is equally resplendent as dug-out canoe trips take you through labyrinthine channels of intimate encounters. After only a few minutes here it's clear to see why this was UNESCO's 1000th World Heritage Site.
Marooned amongst the landscape are thousands of islands, some of them larger than cities and others merely wide enough for a lion to keep his paws dry. Some of these expand as the water departs, then disappear when the Okavango River brings its annual bounty. There's water and life all year round in the Okavango. The delta floods from June to September, the months known as high-water season. This coincides with dry season game viewing in the rest of Botswana, making these months a prime time for multi-destination safari in the country. Just as the landscapes are shriveling and burning beneath the sun, the Okavango suddenly explodes with color. As such it's a haven for hundreds of thousands of migrants, including massive numbers of elephant and antelopes. They stick around until around November, feasting on the fringes of the delta until rains have fallen in their usual grazing grounds. Many don't leave. Such a wetland oasis in the desert inevitably provides home to abundant resident wildlife and the Okavango is a year-round destination.
The majority of the wild game is found around the delta's fringes, rather than in the wet center. The most famous place this is illustrated is Moremi Game Reserve, a gazetted area within the Okavango Delta ecosystem. Wild encounters come at short intervals here, particularly with the big cats and the biggest of Africa's mammals. Migratory and resident wildlife can be seen across the delta, although those with shorter time head straight to Moremi for its guaranteed abundance. Another prime region to explore is the Duba Plains, where battles between buffalos and lions are the stuff of legend. A series of outlying private concessions provide further options, and the size of the Delta means that nowhere ever feels too crowded.
The unmissable activity when visiting the Okavango is to travel by water, usually on a mokoro – a traditional dug-out canoe. A local gondolier pushes you through the maze, and there's always life hanging around the reeds. Hippo encounters are outstanding, and you come close to towering herds of elephants and buffalo. You're right down at jaw level, staring at a hippo's teeth or watching baby pachyderms playfully push each other under. Languid lions are also on your eye-line while sitatungas hop past lechwe who avoid the snaps of a crocodile. Like many wetlands, the Okavango is also a paradise for birdlife, and there are over 400 species to find.
Luxury in the bush with excellent predator viewing and a range of safari activities.
One of the clusters of private concessions in the fertile landscape west of Chobe, Selinda has an emphasis on getting you out of the safari vehicle and onto plains that teem with elephants, giraffe, zebra, and diverse antelopes. It's a place for exploring Africa at multiple levels; dug out canoe trips, horse riding, walking, and game drives at night. This has traditionally been the least visited of the three private reserves west of Chobe. However, the quantity of wildlife has grown in recent years as Selinda has moved away from its roots as a hunting concession to becoming a reserve of small sustainable camps. Also, an ancient waterway has filled and flourished for the first time in decades, slowly attracting a new collection of residents. In particular, the chance to see wild dogs and aardwolves makes this a special destination. Lions and other predators are also part of the experience.
Aberdares National Park
Forest in the clouds that offers outstanding multi-day walking safaris and many seldom seen animals.
Excellent and accessible walking safaris are the highlight in Aberdares, a park of thick forest and dramatic ravines. There are few places in Africa where a multi-day hike can be so charming yet so easy. A forest canopy provides shade through the day, occasionally breaking to reveal lingering vistas into the savannah. Walk for a day and you flit through the famous residents of the trees. But spend a few days and you're submerged in the woodland world, picking up on all the minute clues of animal behavior. An upturned branch, gnawed bark, the freshness of prints in the mud... all these signs indicate where and when you'll enjoy the next intimately encounter one of the woodland's species. Excellent mobile camping is provided to maintain the sense of wilderness while also providing comfort.
Aberdares is a haven for animals that rarely grace the typical safari circuit, in particular, small antelopes, nocturnal predators, and rarer monkeys. Sykes monkeys share the trees with black and white colobus monkeys, duikers and reedbuck hide on the ground, while mongoose and giant forest hogs appear at dusk. The very rare African golden cat can also be tracked as you go from rainforest to bamboo forest to moorland. Wildlife is secretive and surprising here, making Aberdares geared more towards the safari aficionados than the first timers. Rhino and leopard are present but seeing them is far from guaranteed. Instead, the experience is about walking into the woodland and getting close to Africa's unusual and endangered.
Amboseli National Park
Savannah-roaming elephants beneath the majestic peak of Mount Kilimanjaro.
Stand out destination in Africa
Amboseli offers one of Africa's most timeless images: large herds of elephants roaming beneath the towering backdrop of Mount Kilimanjaro. They march across an open savannah and provide eternal silhouettes to the landscape once dusk takes hold. Giraffes add their necks to the memorable scene as do herds of buffalo. Lion prides and various grazers are also spotted, but the chief attraction is the elephants and the landscape. So many classic images of Africa come together in a single panorama; the pachyderms, the towering volcanic mountain, the rolling open savannah, the sprinkle of acacia trees... For an introduction to safari, there are few places that can rival the iconicity. It's a view that's heavy on the wow factor and quick to convince that you made the right choice choosing Kenya for your vacation.
The park's accessibility from Nairobi and proximity to the Maasai Mara mean it's a very popular part of Kenyan safari itineraries. Most visit for two days and one night, ensuring both sunrise and sunset opportunities for the bewitching photo. Luxury camps are centered around this view, and Amboseli's famous image is usually available from your bed. Just note that Kilimanjaro can often be shrouded in cloud, especially through the heat of the day. So arriving for a single day safari can lead to disappointment. It's at dawn and dusk when the peak is most likely to be visible above the savannah. A mix of safari activities is offered by the more luxurious camps although most people only game drive here. Spotting the park's residents is easy, especially the large herds of elephant that roam freely and bash down trees on the savannah. It can get crowded during the peak months of July and August as Amboseli is the classic add-on to a Maasai Mara safari. And the view isn't quite as seductive with a safari vehicle in the frame.
Central Great Rift Valley
Stunning scenery and a rare chance for unguided cycle and walking safaris with the plains animals.
Traveling the main highway through Kenya brings surprising sights. Most often anticipate the glorious panoramas over the Great Rift Valley or the winding roads along towering cliffs. But zebra, buffalo, and giraffe wandering alongside the busy road? This central area of Kenya mixes abundant wildlife with urban life, a strange juxtaposition that's easily encountered on multi-day journeys through the country. Wildlife has adapted to the environment and became part of the scenery. As such, you often don't need a guide to explore on foot or by bike. Africa's famous animals dot the slopes adjacent to the main roads, meaning a giraffe or antelope often curiously waves you on your way. There's no time to stop and take photos on the highway, but the sights indicate the bounty to find at any of the destinations along the central Great Rift Valley.
The absence of big cats and dangerous elephants is another factor in ensuring there's little conflict between man and wild animals. Rather than focus on game drives (why bother when animals are so easy to find), the experience is focused on self-guided and alternative activities. From Naivasha to Nakuru you'll find many private reserves and small national reserves, all offering a similar experience and becoming very popular as weekend trips from Nairobi. Hell's Gate National Park offers excellent self-guided cycle and walking safaris, taking you past giraffe, zebra, and eland herds. Sticking to the trail is essential, but there's a wonderful freedom to completely picking your own pace. Large numbers of buffalo can also make this a thrilling ride. Nearby Mount Longonot offers a half-day hike to a volcanic crater that's dappled with giraffe and other plains animals. The private Crater Lakes Reserve has a similar array of wildlife seen on a gentle walking circuit. A series of very small private reserves in this area have a similar appeal.
The Great Rift Valley area of Kenya is great for anyone adverse to long guided itineraries. Guides can drop you at park entrances and leave you to explore the wildlife on foot or by bike. While many of the iconic mammals are missing, encountering a giraffe or zebra herd on foot, on your own, is a thrilling memory. These parks are also Kenya's most affordable for anyone on a budget. Just note that it's not the complete safari experience. It's a unique safari that gives you a feel of Africa's wildlife.
Chyulu Hills National Park
Green volcanic hills inhabited by sporadic game plus vibrant Maasai and Kamba communities.
Neatly connecting Amboseli with Tsavo, the volcanic mountains of Chyulu ensure wildlife has a passage between two of Kenya's most important wilderness areas. A series of peaks jut out above the rolling green hills, each a focal point on the landscape and a majestic lookout for views across Kenya and Tanzania. Mammals roam across these hills, often lone old males cast adrift from their herd and seeking fresh grazing space. Amongst these are Maasai giraffe, elephant, reedbuck, steinbock, and black rhino. However, their appearance is fleeting, and Chyulu wouldn't be first on any list of Kenya's best game park. The Maasai and Kamba communities that inhabit these hills provide some intriguing cultural experiences, ones that are far less touristic than Kenya's most famous parks. Furthermore, by driving through Chyulu Hills, you can continue an uninterrupted journey through the Kenyan wilderness. Safari itineraries are likely to connect Amboseli with Tsavo West, via a day of weaving through these exquisite hills.
Fabulous stretch of white sand and turquoise Indian Ocean with many luxury accommodation options.
Diani Beach comes straight from the exotic travel postcard, broad stretches of white sand flanked by majestic coconut palms and resplendent Indian Ocean waters. Indigenous forest sprouts from behind the beach, bringing monkeys and an endearing sense of wilderness. Traditional dhows and dolphins sail past in the azure while it's hard to picture a more invitingly warm and calm ocean to swim in. Diani has long been Kenya's premier beach destination, and the list of potential accommodation illustrates its popularity. Accessibility from Mombassa and the Tsavo national parks make Diani the most popular beach add-on to a Kenyan safari. Large resorts stand on the cliffs towards the northern end of the beach, with some of them focused on packaged all-inclusive tourism for European visitors. There are miles of empty space and private villas on Diani's more remote southern end. On these empty strips, you create the only footprints in the sand.
A slice of Central African rainforest with incredible birdlife and primate species.
Hidden away in the western highlands, Kakamega's unique rainforest ecosystem closely resembles the inaccessible forests of Central Africa. Often shrouded in mist, the forest canopy hides seven primate species and over 330 species of bird. It's rarely visited but provides a chance to experience a very different landscape from the plains and mountains seen elsewhere in Kenya. After coming from the scorched savannahs of southern Kenya, Kakamega immediately transports you to a fairytale realm. It's cool and calm; few sounds bar the distant echoes of a colobus monkey. Tropical birds tweet from the trees and a hundred green hues mingle in the dusk light. Unfortunately, facilities and infrastructure for tourism haven't quite developed to reach the standards as elsewhere in the country. There is a rustic charm to the place, but you won't find real luxury experiences. For some, that's all part of Kakamega's appeal, as when a great blue turaco or blue monkey climbs past your tent.
Huge mystical wilderness that hides luxurious lodges and specializes in intimate walking safaris.
Stand out destination in Africa
Stretching out across the north of Kenya, the Laikipia Plateau hides some of the country's most exclusive and unique experiences. This isn't a place for classic scenes like huge zebra herds or massive lion prides. It's a home for the rare and elusive, like reticulated giraffe, Beisa oryx, gerenuk, wild dog, and Grevy zebra. Laikipia is a haven for more endangered species than anywhere else in East Africa, providing an indication of the engulfing impression of wilderness that is experienced. You'll hardly see another person and very rarely encounter a vehicle as you explore. For safari aficionados, this mix of rare species and open space makes Laikipia a legendary destination, one that you could return to year after year. First-timers are not disappointed. Africa's most famous mammals also occupy the plateau – elephant, buffalo, lion, leopard, etc. They're not abundant, but neither are they scarce. Wildlife stretches over a huge area, and the Laikipia wildlife viewing celebrates diversity and quality rather than mere quantity.
Laikipia is split into several private wildlife conservancies that predominantly focus on exclusive experiences. The most popular is the opportunity for multi-day walking safaris through the wilderness; at this pace, you'll pick up on the clues of elephant, cheetah and leopard life, as well as get close to an eclectic series of mammals and birds. Great numbers of impala and gazelle are encountered as you wander across the brick-red earth while luxury mobile camping doesn't interrupt any of the immersion in the bush. Wilderness invariably means reduced accessibility. It's a very long drive from Nairobi to Laikipia on some bad roads. Most guests prefer to arrive by micro flight and spend at least four days, unwinding in the wild and savoring the untrammeled feeling. Each private conservancy has its stand out appeal, whether that's longer walking safaris, rafting, or horse riding safaris. There's also the unusual accommodation like the star beds at Loisaba, where the bed is on a hidden raised platform with uninterrupted views of the stars and the plains.
Hippo-filled lake that provides a delightful stopover on a longer Kenyan safari.
Thousands of rumbustious hippos fill Lake Naivasha, emerging at dusk to chomp on the grassy plains of lakeside lodges. Various monkey species occupy the surrounding acacia trees while marabou stork squawk their way across the grass. It can be wonderfully noisy, the night's silence broken by two male hippos fighting or a troop of monkeys hooting. Lodges overlook the lake, and the wildlife scenes are their main attraction. Lake Naivasha is not a national park or gazetted reserve, so nobody pays an entrance fee to enjoy it all. The wildlife is merely a part of the scenery and Naivasha location halfway between Nairobi and Nakuru make it an idyllic overnight stop. Some tour operators even bring visitors here for lunch before continuing a journey. It only takes an hour for a boat trip along the lake that reveals hundreds of hippos basking in the water; they can be a little tetchy and the hippos have been known to charge any boat getting with ten meters. Alongside the hippos are over 100 bird species, including large flocks of pelicans.
Lake Nakuru National Park
Dramatically pink, flamingo-filled lake and probably the best place in East Africa to see rhinos.
Lake Nakuru struggles to imbue impressions of wilderness or rustic charm. The whole park is fenced, and its proximity to the town of Nakuru hardly makes for a wild bush experience. However, three stand out attractions make Lake Nakuru very difficult to miss on the Kenyan safari circuit. You're greeted by the million-strong flock of flamingos and their distinct colors filling the lake. Explore the plains and there's a large number of introduced white rhino. Head into the woodlands and you'll spot the native black rhino. Not only is this one of very few places you can see both rhino species, their strong numbers make it practically guaranteed (it's worth noting that the fence and lack of wilderness character have helped protect the rhinos from poachers). Completing the game drive experience is Lake Nakuru's abundant leopard population; this often-elusive predator is a regular part of the safari.
While various other animals occupy the park, it's these three iconic memories that are usually taken from a day in the park. Until the recent rhino conservation, Nakuru had been slipping off many safari itineraries for the wilder parks further north. Protecting the black species and introducing the white provide a hard-to-miss hook for the park. Nakuru is also conveniently situated and can be visited for a single day on route elsewhere. The rhinos can usually be found throughout the day although elusive leopard sightings are hard unless you're here in the dawn and dusk hours.
Lewa Wildlife Conservancy and Adjacent Conservancies
Weird and wonderful wildlife fill iconic bushland at this luxury reserve.
Lewa's mix of regular favorites and rare characters make it a popular stop for luxury Kenyan safaris. Black and white rhinos, elephants and lion are seen on game drives. And then there's the Beisa oryx rumbling through the bush, vultures picking on a dik-dik carcass, and strange Somali ostrich. This private reserve is focused on luxury bush experiences, with all the accommodation offering privacy and prime views over a cascade of wildlife. There's an atmosphere of old-world charm and a focus on opulence, something that contributes to Lewa's long list of celebrity visitors. However, unlike some private conservancies, the luxury is matched by an excellent conservation record and the chance to explore different habitats.
Most guests come for two or three days and mix an itinerary of game drives, horse riding safari, and walking safari. There's also very rare multi-day camel safaris, where guests spend split their time between walking and riding the camels. Woodland, wetland, and savannah combine to provide a haven for diverse species and keep the safari feeling fresh. Five accommodation options offer secluded luxury and an ongoing parade of wild animals. For the adventurous, Lewa host an annual fundraising marathon that raises money for conservation. It's hot, challenging, and lauded as one of the world's hardest. But in the marathon coolness stakes, it's pretty difficult to beat 26 miles through pristine bushland dotted with zebra, giraffe, rhino, and elephant et al.
Sprinkled around Lewa are a series of other private and community conservancies. These share the same ecosystem as Lewa and provide a similar journey through eclectic wildlife. This central stretch of Kenya exudes a wild feel, with the conservancies around Lewa merging into Samburu to the north, Mount Kenya to the south, and Aberdare to the west. These other conservancies – Ol Jogi, Borana, Leparua, and Lekurruki – can't rival Lewa for luxury and service. However, they have strong community links and offer a less-expensive alternative.
World-famous grass plains where abundant predators stalk millions of wildebeest, zebra, and gazelle.
Stand out destination in Africa
Gazing across the Maasai Mara is like rekindling a childhood image from Disney's Lion King. The endless plains of grass are interrupted by sporadic groups of rocks, the homes of lions that survey their kingdom. Like the movies, a great mix of life occupies these plains, although a few characters dominate the Mara regarding numbers: Thompson's gazelle, wildebeest, and zebra. Such vast abundance of ungulates supports an abnormally high concentration of predators. For a park of its size, the Maasai Mara has more big cats per square mile than anywhere else. This is undoubtedly Kenya's premier park and one of Africa's major safari highlights. It's a mainstay on virtually every Kenyan safari itinerary. It's also arguably the best place in Africa for a hot air balloon safari.
Sometime in June and July, over a million wildebeest cross the crocodile-infested Mara River to reach the fresh grazing land of the Maasai Mara. As the river rages and various predators line the banks, their frenzied crossing is one of Africa's most famous safari scenes. You'll need some patience and time to see it. The wildebeest herds are coming from the Serengeti and can wait for days before one strong male leads the charge. The great wildebeest migration is then centered on the Maasai Mara until September or October. However, not all wildebeest migrate, and you'll always see huge herds of ungulates in this park. Many of the predators don't follow the migration. Lions, cheetahs, leopards, hyenas, jackals, bat-eared fox... the Maasai Mara offers continual experiences with the big cats and a great chance to see genuine hunting scenes.
The Maasai Mara and Tanzania's Serengeti are the same ecosystem, separated only by an unfenced international border that isn't recognized by the animals. Both offer a very similar safari experience, one that's centered around predatory sightings and the movements of huge herds. The Maasai Mara is only a third of the size of the Serengeti. This is advantageous as an astonishing number of animals are packed into a compact area, and you don't need to dedicate as much time to see it all. However, the Maasai Mara can feel more crowded with other safari vehicles, especially during the great wildebeest migration months. For something more private, there's a large number of small private concessions adjacent to the park. These are also able to offer diverse experiences including horse riding and hiking on the famous grass plains. Especially in July and August, it's worth paying for the private experience.
The widespread obsession of visiting the Maasai Mara during the few months of the great migration can benefit tourists. Other than the Christmas holiday period, the park isn't overly touristic throughout the rest of the year. This enables you to explore one of Africa's premier destinations without too many safari vehicles in the background. Leopards pulling carcasses, cheetahs chasing a gazelle, hyenas and vultures seeking the scraps... there's always something dramatic to discover on these plains.
Luxury resorts, exotic marine life, and empty white sand in Kenya's exclusive coastal destination.
Offering seemingly endless miles of white sand, Malindi has long been Kenya's most exclusive coastal destination. The development here has always been luxury-focused, and each of the resorts and lodges is generously spaced from the next. This is where presidents come for a beach vacation, with the empty exotic sand blurring into sublime Indian Ocean waters. Traditional dhow trips allow you to sail along the coast while a series of fine dining restaurants are hidden amongst the palms. However, with this being Malindi, dinner is more likely to be fresh lobster barbecued on your porch than having to eat out. The coastal destination is often used as a final stop after the Kenyan safari. It's worth to check your government's travel advice as the road north from Malindi has been sporadically classed as unsafe over recent years.
Meru National Park
Diverse park framed by Mount Meru that offers exclusive experiences.
The full big five is found in Meru National Park, with the animals nestled amongst riverine forest and thick savannah. 300 bird species flutter across the park, lions roar from the trees, and wading hippos are difficult to miss. And with Mount Meru as the backdrop, there are few more mystical ways to encounter black rhino. In many ways, Meru is a more exclusive version of the more popular Amboseli National Park, with a majestic volcanic mountain as a backdrop to photos. Lodges are luxurious and quiet, increasing the sense of wilderness and offering multiple ways to go on safari. Furthermore, the accessibility from Nairobi makes this an excellent choice for exclusive safari experiences with genuine immersion in the wild.
Historic port city packed with Swahili architecture and surrounded by white sand beaches.
Mombassa's old town is a journey into an ancient exotic era. Crumbling Swahili townhouses line a labyrinthine pedestrianized center while market stalls spill their goods onto the streets. Most buildings come from the 18th century and blend African, Arab, and European architecture, with elegant balconies and intricately adorned doors. Many of these look towards Fort Jesus, a UNESCO World Heritage Site built in the 16th century and a remnant of Portuguese occupation along the Indian Ocean coast. This atmospheric old town is a cultural day trip or stopover for itineraries mixing safari with the beach. Two or three hours is enough to get an inspiring sense of the old town, as well as try a steaming cup of chai (tea) from one of the roadside vendors.
Mombassa is Kenya's second largest city and the major transport interchange on the coast. The international airport has connections to various East African destinations plus direct flights from Dubai and Italy. All roads from the west congregate here meaning almost all trips to Kenya's coast will pass through Mombassa by road or air. Those staying for longer tend to stay in Nyali, the upmarket suburb to the north that has a crowded yet beautiful white sand beach, along with various luxury resorts and restaurants.
Mount Kenya National Park
Majestic snow-capped peak and primates roam through the lower-altitude forest.
Africa's second highest peak (after Kilimanjaro) rises to 5,199meters, towering over monkey-filled forests and distant savannah. The hiking trails receive far fewer footsteps than Kilimanjaro, and you still get the experience of walking across the African snow for sublime views over iconic plains. Black and white colobus monkeys and buffalo are among the attractions as you ascend through the lower-altitude forest before you cross a lunar-like landscape that blurs into the snow line. While it doesn't have the fame of Kilimanjaro, Mount Kenya can be just as inspiring. This is still a 5,000-meter mountain that allows you to ascend through multiple ecosystems. Routes up and down the mountain range from three to five days with accommodation in mountain huts along the way. In comparison to Kilimanjaro, it's an easier climb with a far higher summit success percentage. And while it doesn't have the iconicity of saying you've climbed Africa's highest peak, it's still a wonderfully inspiring experience.
Surprisingly endearing capital that juxtaposes urban vibrancy with views over wildlife.
Nairobi has constantly struggled to shake off its negative world reputation, and it's a city that few visitors look forward to. Everyone seems to have heard a bad story about Nairobi; few seem to celebrate its appeal. With East Africa's largest airport, the Kenyan capital is the most common entry point to the whole region. A huge proportion of travelers transit through here, usually just for a single night before departing for safari or departing for home.
But come with an open mind and you'll be pleasantly surprised. Nairobi mixes the experiences as it provides a microcosm of the whole region. In the wealthy outer suburbs, there are views over the wild game and famous experiences with rescued giraffes. You can visit Karen Blixen's (author of Out of Africa) house, have giraffe poke their head through your bedroom window, and gaze longingly across the lush valley Nairobi is built upon. Across the city, you find fine dining restaurants and places that reflect how Nairobi is probably the most developed sub-Saharan African city outside South Africa. Then explore the center to find Maasai markets, excellent museums, and colonial relics. Most visit Nairobi for just a night before a safari itinerary. It's true that this sprawling city can feel a little overwhelming at first. But on a guided itinerary, there's a chance to customize activities that reflect the broad appeal of Kenya.
Nairobi National Park
Remarkable game viewing beneath the backdrop of Nairobi's downtown skyscrapers.
When colonial rulers founded Nairobi in the late-19th century, lions would regularly roam the city streets. The city was built on a wildlife filled expanse that was part of migration between the Maasai Mara and the northern lakes. Such wildlife migration has been interrupted, but the wildlife hasn't gone away. Nowhere else in Africa does the wild game come so close to the city's edge. Rhino, buffalo, and giraffe continue to wander beneath the backdrop of the city's skyscrapers, although they're now safely confined to a fenced national park boundary. Lions can also be seen here, and there are over 400 bird species. All this and you're only 10kms from downtown Nairobi. For photographers, the juxtaposition of wild nature and urban cityscape makes for some surreal images of modernized Africa. This can also be an excellent and easy introduction to safari for those who have just landed in Kenya. It's also a glimpse at safari for those on itineraries with less of a game viewing focus.
Ol Pejeta Conservancy / Sweetwaters Game Reserve
Intimate private reserve with Kenya's largest number of black rhinos and a chimpanzee sanctuary.
Tucked away between the snowy Mount Kenya and the Aberdares foothills, this relatively small conservancy and reserve provide a good blend of luxury experience with intimate encounters. It's another of central Kenya's easily-accessible destinations that exude the wilderness feel. The full big five are residents of the reserve, with close-up black rhino encounters the most guaranteed and revered. Just over 500 black rhinos reside in Kenya and close to 100 of these are found in Ol Pejeta Conservancy. These critically endangered mammals provide one of Africa's most memorable experiences. Black rhinos are more bashful and reserved than their white cousins, meaning they're often encountered far from a park's trail or deep in a secluded woodland. Serene and peaceful, they seek a life without anxiety; and noisy game vehicles can be stressful. So if there's only a handful in a park, spotting them is never guaranteed. The abundance of black rhinos at Ol Pejeta Conservancy helps ensure intimate moments with these incredible characters.
With a varied predator population and a large herd of resident elephants, the conservancy provides an excellent and varied game drive. Nighttime game drives reveal the rhinos in a more social mode and add unusual nocturnal creatures to the experience. Many of the park's lions are radio tagged for conservation, and it's possible to take a lion-tracking patrol with the park's staff, an activity that reveals far more about the predator than a glimpse of some sharpened teeth. Almost as an additional bonus, Sweetwaters has a large chimpanzee sanctuary. All the chimps were rescued from Burundi and are habituated towards humans. It's not a wild experience, but there are only a few places in the world where you're able to encounter wild chimpanzees, so even a controlled encounter has a certain primitive charm. Unlike the black rhinos, many of the chimpanzees are curious and confident.
Samburu National Reserve and Adjacent Private Reserves
A wild landscape that's home to the Samburu tribe and an eclectic mix of Africa's great mammals.
Stand out destination in Africa
Wrapping itself around mountain slopes and alpine plateaus, the land of the Samburu is one completely untouched by modernity. Exploring this area has many visitors making comparisons with the journeys of Livingstone, Speke, and other intrepid European explorers from the past. This is old Africa, ruggedly dancing a beat from the ancestors' era. Visitor access to most of this area is limited as the area has been demarcated into various private reserves, including the Samburu National Reserve. There's a strong sense of community involvement in most of the reserves, and you'll see the local Samburu tribes continuing to harmoniously share the land with wild animals. This is something that has millennia of history. While the Samburu National Reserve is only a piece in the jigsaw of reserves, the whole area is known as Samburu as this tribe is the traditional landowner here.
Hyena prints in the sand, elephant tracks in the forest, impalas gazing up at crowned eagle; this whole region is full of clues and walking safaris with warrior guides bring intimate encounters. Lions, leopard, and the other famed big mammals can also be seen, although the experience is far more about going off the beaten track than ticking off the revered animals. Visits to a Samburu manyatta, or homestead, and seeking out endangered species are part of the itinerary, and you'll explore from many different angles. Encounters with the Samburu are revered and often immersive experience. Don't come wanting to take iconic photos. Come to admire their lifestyles and learn about culture deep in the bush.
The walking safaris provide an excellent and instinctive journey into Samburu lifestyle. These can last from two days to two weeks, taking you deep into a land untamed with local warrior guides. Every clue is inspected, from the hardness of a paw print to trees that have been stripped of fruit. The locals have spent their entire life coexisting with marauding animals; walking and sleeping in such remote tracts of savannah is part of their everyday. For a visitor, it's a thrilling expression of wilderness and an indelible trip into the unknown.
Shimba Hills National Reserve
Small reserve offering easy day-trip safari from Kenya's southern beaches.
Hundreds of elephants roam through the coastal rainforest of this small reserve, marching their way past sable antelope and many rare plants. A handful of other large mammals can be seen although their appearance is fleeting and the park can't sustain a rich wildlife abundance. Shimba Hills is predominantly visited on packaged excursions by visitors staying in a nearby Diani Beach resort. For anyone on a vacation that's centered on Kenya's southern beaches, Shimba Hills is an easy chance for thrilling encounters with the tusked pachyderms. Those taking a safari elsewhere in Kenya will probably be underwhelmed by the diminutive scale and lack of other big mammals. Still, there's something magical about spending two hours with elephants and the rest of the day on a white sand beach.
Solio Private Game Reserve
Exclusive experiences with the big five and critically endangered black rhino.
Kenya is dappled with private reserves that offer exclusive experiences with the majority of Africa's most famed animals. Solio is one of the best of these, nestled along the slopes of Mount Kenya and home to a black rhino conservation project. The reserve is completely fenced, something that reduces the charm but helps keep the poachers out. The critically endangered animals are the star of the safari, but you'll see the rest of the big five within the reserve. Accommodation at the lodge is lavish and opulent, dappled with the views of animals that roam past beneath the balcony. As it's a private reserve, safari activities like cycling and horse riding can add to the intimacy, and there's a real focus on providing solitude and privacy. As such, Solio is a popular choice for honeymooners.
Tsavo East National Park
Large national park that epitomize the unpredictability and magic of African safari.
Stand out destination in Africa
For two hours it can all seem quiet in Tsavo East. Then you explore behind some scorched acacias, and a whole menagerie of life is hiding: buffalo, elephant, rhino, hartebeest, lion, leopard. This often dusty and parched landscape is home to many herds and most of Africa's highly revered animals. Biodiversity reigns here, the breadth of African wonder extending around roads of indelible red. Driving on this scorched earth gives a keen sense of raw Africa, with a giraffe hanging over the road or antelope dappling the distant savannah. But huge stretches lie empty, and the density of wildlife is low in comparison to other East Africa parks. Don't expect to be continually immersed in thousands of wild legs. Patience rewards visitors as the park also has a low density of safari vehicles. When you do stumble on the intimate encounters, it's usually a private experience. And as always, wildlife congregations present the most dramatic of safari scenes.
Tsavo East and Tsavo West are essentially one giant ecosystem, separated into two by the Nairobi to Mombassa highway and railway. This makes the park's peripheries noisy and sparse of life; you need a long day journeying into the park's heart to appreciate its beauty, rather than just a day trip from the beach. Tsavo East's landscape is more classic savannah while the western park rises into green mountains and some wetlands. Proximity to Kenya's Indian Ocean coastline makes them a common safari option when enjoying a few days on the white sand. They're also an excellent final or first safari stop for itineraries that combine beach and safari.
Tsavo West National Park
Green mountains and wetlands that cascade down into the Tsavo East ecosystem.
Eagle-covered cliffs and meandering valleys of Tsavo West, a park that changes color with the seasons. For most of the year, it's green and fertile, stretching out longingly with the bounty of the rains. Then for a few months, everything begins to shrivel, making the park's landscape visually similar to Tsavo East. The great Tsavo River and Mzima Springs ensure there's always water here, helping maintain a strong population of wild mammals. Like its neighbor, you'll find the full big five here, along with a diverse scattering of grazers and browsers. Also, the unmissable springs provide one of Kenya's best hippo experiences, with hundreds of them rowdily sharing the space with sun-basking crocodiles.
The ecosystem of Tsavo was first separated by British colonial rulers building a railway line from Mombassa to Nairobi. At the time, male lions were known to stalk and eat construction workers in the night. This primitive rawness can still be found deep in the park, although the area close to the railway and highway is mostly devoid of wildlife. Tsavo West receives more visitors than Tsavo East, something probably due to its smaller size and proximity to Mombassa and Diani Beach. While it's true that this park is easier to reach, you need to drive south to the park and spend the night to get the most from the experience. It's here that you leave the highway behind and escape into untamed stretches of green mountains and bewitching cliffs. Like many destinations, safari is centered around permanent water and the interactions discovered at the river.
Watamu Marine National Park
Remarkable ocean diversity in East Africa's finest marine reserve.
Watamu mixes the big with the small. Whale sharks and huge manta rays cruise through these Indian Ocean waters, passing by vast coral gardens that house over 400 species of fish and hundreds of unique nudibranch. Three turtle species nest on the park's main beach, and all of these can be encountered in the water. At one point this wonderful diversity was in danger of being damaged through rapidly growing tourism. As visitors to Kenya's coast have diminished, Watamu is benefiting from its protected solitude. Both diving and snorkeling are excellent with long reef walls bringing up a myriad of life from the ocean abyss. Warm waters and limited currents make it a good destination for less-confident underwater explorers. Most visit Watamu on day trips from Malindi or Mombassa although there are accommodation options closer to the park.
Lesotho's Mountain Wilderness
Surreal mountain wilderness and an immersive journey into a forgotten culture.
The highest country in the world is also one of the most visually striking. Jagged peaks rise above a plateau of grazing land that's dotted with sheep, minuscule villages, and terrible roads. This remote unconnected country feels, and is, cast adrift from the world, meaning an unforgettable journey into a culture and heritage that's rarely been documented. Everyone who visits is immediately fascinated, and Lesotho becomes the random travel memory you keep for the next three decades. But not many would say they want to return. Tourist infrastructure is in its infancy and the appalling roads mean that it's often better to travel as the locals do: on horseback. This is a place of adventure and genuine moments with the locals, alongside the perpetual alpine panoramas. Few places in the world are as untouched.
Lesotho's more accessible borders dot the northwest of the country and the lowland area that descends towards Johannesburg and Pretoria. Other borders provide access from the Drakensberg Mountains, including the astonishing Sani Pass. Four-wheel drive is required, and this isn't an option for those with a two-wheel drive hire car. Tour companies visiting Lesotho offer a variety of itineraries focused on outdoor adventure and community immersion. Some will cross the country; others can offer day trips that give a glimpse at its remote splendor.
Three national parks and reserves are high on the list of destinations. Ts'ehlanyane is prime for remote hiking and journeying miles from any other tourist. An eight-hour hike connects it to Bokong Nature Reserve, another place of glorious vistas and uninterrupted bliss. Sehlabathebe is also rugged, beautiful, and devoid of other footprints. Dotted across the country are remote villages offering a blossoming community tourism, with the most immersive being those furthest from the country's borders. But practically the whole of Lesotho can be viewed as an alpine national park mixed with genuine cultural encounters. Just be prepared to answer how many sheep you own: this is the single measure of wealth in Lesotho.
Sublime lake that epitomizes the serenity of Malawi and its people.
Dominating the country's landscape, this huge lake is an unmistakable symbol of Malawi's atmosphere and style. The tranquil stretch of blue is fringed by sporadic beaches, towering forests, and rustic local villages. Nothing moves fast here, not the local fisher boats nor the wind that brings softly lapping waves. It demands that you slow the pace, appreciate the serenity, and settle into the country's mellow rhythm. Poignant clouds of thunder roam across the lake at sundown while clear mornings give the impression that you're gazing at an open ocean, not just a lake. This is one of the world's ten largest lakes and measures over 500 kilometers from north to south. And other than the odd fishermen in paddle boats, it's a stretch of water that's wonderfully empty.
There's no single destination along the lake, and this helps to spread tourism evenly along the shore. Malawi simply wouldn't by Malawi if anywhere was crowded. The town of Nkhata Bay and the village of Cape McClear are the most developed for tourism. Winding along the cliffs of the lake's western edge, Nkhata Bay has a rugged splendor that mingles with the easy immersion in local Malawian life; traditional “witch” doctors, market stalls selling fried plantain, vibrant signs of life. Tiny Cape McClear also has a sandy beach to rest upon and a series of islands that can be paddled to by kayak, although it has a remote location on the southern tip of the lake.
Malawi is most commonly visited on an overland trip connecting Eastern and Southern Africa. Given the long distances between the two countries, a few days on this lake is an idyllic break on the journey. Rest, recover from the long distances and reenergize for the trip between the two African regions. Spreading tourists thinly along the lake shore are a succession of secluded lodges and camps that are far from any town. These are all places for settling into a rustic way of life and escaping from the rest of the world. They're not exclusive fenced reserves. Instead, they stand along the beach and provide serene days on the water. Just walk onto the land for unadulterated trips through tiny villages.
Fabulously exotic Indian Ocean islands with a luxurious feel.
Stand out destination in Africa
Much like the Maldives further west, Bazaruto is a series of sandbanks and islets tailored towards luxury tourism. You'll find deserted white sand, towering palms, and not much else, other than fables about who of the world's rich and famous owns which island. Much like the more famous Maldives, most lodges are set on their own private island, and there's a real focus on providing solitude. Bazaruto is geared towards exclusive private experiences rather than appealing to a broad audience, with some lodges coming complete with private butlers and personal chefs. While the Seychelles and Maldives receive worldwide acclaim, Bazaruto offers equally exotic Indian Ocean bliss. There are far fewer options regarding where to stay and where to dine, but there's also far fewer tourists coming out to this slice of paradise.
For honeymooners and couples, they provide an idyllic final stop on a Southern Africa vacation, especially after the excitement of safari. Journeying to the archipelago is part of the experience. First, fly to Vilanculos (usually from Johannesburg), where you're greeted by a helicopter that takes you away from the mainland (another indication as to the exclusiveness of the experience). Once here the focus is on kicking off the shoes and enjoying a paradise shared only by the pods of dolphins that swim past. Scuba diving with sharks and rays is also a highlight, along with sunset cruises on traditional wooden dhows. The whole archipelago is currently on UNESCO's World Heritage tentative list, due to the rich marine diversity.
Ilha de Mozambique
Majestic heritage island with a mesmerizing mix of ancient Swahili and Portuguese colonial architecture.
Stand out destination in Africa
The charming tones of history are found all across this tiny island in the north of Mozembia. Arab traders have been arriving here since the 8th century, and their architectural influence is found in the ancient Swahili buildings. Under Portuguese rule, the island town was the capital of Mozambique for over four centuries. Lanes are flanked by Mediterranean townhouses and colorful churches, including the oldest European building in the southern hemisphere. Wooden Dhow trips take you into azure waters while the beaches continue Mozambique's tropical promise. It's a UNESCO World Heritage Site akin to Zanzibar.
But like many untouched attractions, Ilha de Mozambique is remote and inaccessible. Roads in Northern Mozambique can be terrible and only dedicated overlanders would attempt the journey. Instead, you'll need to fly to Nampula and continue for two to three hours by road. It is worth it. Especially if your idea of mesmerizing history comes without another tourist in sight.
The sleepy historic town usually visited as a day trip from Tofo.
A long, brutal – and thankfully long since finished – civil war has left few historical remnants in Mozambique. The destruction of this now-distant conflict is best illustrated by Mozambique being the only country to have a gun on their flag. But Inhambane has retained its mystical old-world charm and sense of Portugal along the Indian Ocean. Historic buildings are clustered around the town center, including whitewashed townhouses and a crumbling cathedral. Wooden boats still occupy the port, and quiet cafes offer lingering views over the water. It's charming and endearing, making Inhambane a perfect afternoon or day trip from the nearby white beaches of Tofo.
Vibrant capital with an evocative mix of Mediterranean and African styles best visited with a guide.
Mozambique's capital is a strange clash of styles from the centuries. Distinct suburbs have a Mediterranean atmosphere, epitomized by al fresco dining and the scent of free coffee. Crumbling ruins from a colonial era are dotted across the city, juxtaposed with communist-era apartment blocks and statues of freedom fighters. Unmistakable African colors and charms are found in markets and close to the port, then whiffs of fresh seafood come from cafes with small plastic tables. Parts of the capital are also ugly and squalid, hangovers from the civil war or symbols of the inequality that exists within the country. There's also no single area where the charms are situated. As such, Maputo can be a little scary when you explore on your own. While Maputo has Mozambique's main airport, many visitors quickly transit onto one of the country's beach destinations. Go with a guide and it makes for an intriguing and little-seen insight into the complexities of Africa's past and present.
Ponta D'ouro and Ponta Malongane
Easy to reach beach destinations that help connect South Africa, Mozambique, and Swaziland.
For a quick glimpse at Mozambique, Ponta D'ouro is perhaps the easiest place to come. Drive across from South Africa and the sleepy town quickly imbues the exotic reverie of the coast. Further along the road is Ponta Malongane, a smaller and quieter stretch of windswept white sand beach. Both have developed tourist infrastructures and a sampling of luxury lodges. And while accessible, they remain as much of Mozambique's coast: idyllic, secluded, and sublime. Overland itineraries can connect Swaziland and South Africa via these two snippets of sand, offering a dose of Mozambique's distinct atmosphere and the endearing views over the ocean.
Sublime eight-mile beach, excellent diving, and a quiet town enshrouded in sand.
Tofo confirms most impressions of a remote coastal paradise. The two main streets of the tiny town are enshrouded in the sand while the beach seems to stretch on for eternity. An international airport brings tourists from Johannesburg, making this a popular beach escape for South Africans. Despite being Mozambique's most visited destination, there's still a real sense of serenity, especially along the white beach. Like the best of Indian Ocean destinations, the main attraction is doing nothing. Walk a mile or so down the beach and there's hardly another footprint in site. Peel yourself away from the sand and there are some idyllic diving and snorkeling that focuses on encounters with the big stuff, like reef sharks and whale sharks; for many years, this has been a prime all-year-round destination for swimming with the ocean's largest fish. An advanced open-water dive qualification is usually recommended due to the depths of the dives.
Quiet coastal town fringed by white beaches and turquoise waters.
Draped along the Indian Ocean, Vilanculos combines an atmospheric small town with long white beaches for languid strolls. The best strips of sand are found furthest from the town, places where blissful lodges overlook the waves and oysters are so common they're served as a breakfast snack. A new international airport is making Vilanculos an easy entry point into Mozambique, meaning visitors no longer have to travel via capital Maputo. Once here it's a case of lying back and indulging in the tropical reverie. Dhow and catamaran trips set sail from here, and the town is the gateway to the Bazaruto Archipelago. Some visitors add in the beach with return flights from Johannesburg while others journey south along the Indian Ocean coastline back towards South Africa.
Namibia's panhandle is a lush mammal-filled landscape with numerous game reserves and parks.
Lush and fertile, Namibia's northeastern panhandle provides a surreal contrast to the deserted wilderness in the rest of the country. Green forests and grasslands flourish as four of Southern Africa's great rivers meander through the landscape: Okavango, Zambezi, Chobe, and Kwando. Large migrating herds arrive in the dry season for the permanent water, including thousands upon thousands of elephants as well as packs of wild dog. The Caprivi has always been a crowded place, its liquid resources in huge demand in a country dominated by desert. Animals and villages must coexist, and this notably celebrated in the creation of community-run conservancies. There's no single national park as the landscape is pockmarked by both villages and elephant-covered waterholes. Half a dozen different destinations stand either side of the main highway, the largest being Bwabwata National Park, Mudumu National Park, and Nkasa Rupara National Park. All of these support an array of wildlife, but the competition for resources means that none can support a permanent abundance, and none shine above the others on a safari itinerary.
Trips to the Caprivi Strip can be done in one day or five, usually when connecting Namibia to Victoria Falls or Northern Botswana. You could travel the 300kms in a single day, stopping off at just one park. You can also hop between the parks as you travel from the desert to the Zambezi River. The Caprivi illustrates how village life and wildlife can harmoniously share the landscape. You'll see elephants crossing the main road, zebra walking past women in colorful dresses, and giraffe poking their heads above a village of huts. Even when you arrive at the border to Zimbabwe or Botswana, there are elephants crossing just 100 meters from immigration.
Phantasmagorical landscape of swirling colors and weird rock formations.
Damaraland can quickly make anyone feel insignificant. Imposing rocks stand over red-tinted valleys that are crossed by lonely elephant bulls; surreal formations of boulders climb into the blue desert sky; the odd antelope darts away and quickly camouflages into the landscape's strange colors. This is a wild and beautiful place, a place that's always been too hostile to support permanent animal or human life. Come here for a couple of days you feel the enormity of Mother Nature and her phantasmagorical spell. For an added treat, come towards the end of the dry season in September and October and the chances of encountering desert elephants and black rhino are elevated. These often lonely mammals provide a delightful focal point to the surrounding impressions of scale.
Visitors who love the outdoors find a playground here, with thousands of hiking and cycling trails rolling around the landscape. Ancient rock art is carved onto towering boulders, and there's always another viewpoint to ascent. While wildlife is scarce, it's also a majestic reminder of how Damaraland remains completely untouched and untamed. Not even the great pachyderms have managed to tame Damaraland. In such a vast and empty destination, the lodges focus on privacy and solitude, ensuring you can truly appreciate a vast landscape that almost seems to come from another planet.
Etosha National Park
Easy to explore yet evocatively wild, Etosha is Namibia's premier safari destination.
Stand out destination in Africa
Etosha National Park has a wonderful paradox. Like all of Namibia, there's this evocative sense of wilderness and exploring a distant realm of old Africa. Etosha also provides incredibly easy game viewing. There's a comfort and simplicity to the safari, one that might be difficult to fathom when you gaze across the shimmering rawness of the park's salt pan. Within Etosha, you'll find the only water for hundreds of miles, something that naturally attracts a great succession of migrating mammals during the dry season. So it often only requires one glance from the lodge to spot a mystical collection of animals by a waterhole.
Etosha's dusty savannah is scorched yellow and red. Plants shrivel, and large stretches of the landscape are framed a rusty amber. At the park's heart is the Etosha Pan, a mammoth glistening salt bed that provides the park's indigenous name, Etosha meaning “great white place.” Ungulates splash up water when they skip across the pan after the rains while elephants and buffalo suck up the mineral-rich water. When the pan shrivels, life revolves around the waterholes that are dotted across the park. Almost all lodges overlook one of these waterholes, meaning the safari is as much about watching from your balcony as taking game drives.
Most of Africa's revered mammals survive off Etosha's permanent water, including rhinos and a menagerie of predators. They arrive in abundant herds during the dry season, making this a wonderful place for wildlife photographers. The ease of the game viewing experience is also elevated by the openness of the environment. There are very few places to hide here, meaning tense predatory scenes around the waterhole and simple viewing of the most elusive species, like a black-faced impala. This is Namibia's flagship safari destination and a revered highlight of the country.
Fish River Canyon
World's second largest canyon beautifully experienced on an aerial safari.
Stand out destination in Africa
160kms long, 27kms wide, over 500meters deep, but you'll be hard-pressed to find someone who could name the world's second largest canyon. Only Nevada's Grand Canyon is bigger, and it receives around 5 million visitors a year. This dramatic slice of nature receives little more than 1% of that figure, making Fish River Canyon one of the world's most under-visited natural wonders. A challenging five-day hiking trail winds along the canyon floor, and there are various lookout spots along the canyon's cliffs. Unfortunately, Fish River Canyon is a long way from just about everything else in Southern Africa. As such it's not suited to land itineraries unless you have lots of time or are making a long overland journey across the region. Appreciating the raw beauty is best via an aerial safari that also takes in the resplendent red of Namib Naukluft National Park. Only from the sky or on the walking trail are you able to sense the enormity of this ancient river bed.
Luderitz and Kolmanskop
Coastal ghost towns providing a poignant reminder of nature's power over man.
Spurred by the discovering of diamonds back in the early-20th century, Kolmanskop was once one of Africa's most lavish towns. It was a slice of Germany in the desert, with elegant wooden houses and sumptuous interiors. Now the bathtubs are filled with sand and dunes have taken over most of the town. This ghost town is an eery reminder of nature's power and an intriguing clash between the desert and colonial history. It's a dreamy destination for photographers looking for unusual subjects. In a remarkable repeat of history, the nearby town of Luderitz is slowly going through the same transformation from diamond town to ghost town. Hotels and restaurants are still open but the sand is encroaching, and parts of the town are now abandoned. It won't be long before it's as desolate as Kolmanskop.
Namib Naukluft National Park
Africa's largest national park is a phenomenal expanse of red dune desert best seen from the sky.
Stand out destination in Africa
Namib Naukluft is a place of visual superlatives and records. This is Africa's largest national park, the world's oldest desert, and the site of the tallest sand dunes on earth (over 300 meters). And it's almost 20,000 square miles of nothing but burning red desert. There's a strange paradox: you could spend weeks here and see nothing but sand and desert, yet every meter and every vista is unique. This spine of dunes swerves and twists besides the coast of Namibia, rising and falling and rising and falling as your eye is led beyond the horizon. Along dried-up salt beds blackened trees still stand despite being dead for over 500 years. Occasionally the sand flattens, tumbling down into rolls of smaller dunes of rustic crimson. When the dunes taper off along the coast, they give rise to lagoons and wetlands, seasonal places for a mass of seabirds. In other places, the sand blurs from red to yellow and the seemingly infinite craters bring comparisons with the moon.
Unfortunately, as with most deserts, Namib Naukluft is extremely inaccessible. Roads don't punctuate the sand, and most of the area have never seen human footprints. The accessible exception is Sossusvlei, a stretch of famous dunes and floodplain that's one of Namibia's most visited attractions. Seeing the rest of this huge park is best from the sky, on an aerial safari. Three-hour aerial journeys do a loop over parts of the park while multi-day trips include landing in remote parts of the desert. It's also impressive from the road, although you'll need a few days to drive the bumpy sand-covered roads on the edge of the park.
Okonjima Nature Reserve
Private reserve offering the rare chance to track big cats on foot.
Halfway between Windhoek and Etosha National Park, Okonjima is an idyllic first stop for a Namibia safari. While the park is small and fully fenced, it offers some stunning encounters with Africa's lesser-seen cats. Wild leopards are frequently seen while guests at the lodge can track cheetahs, spotted hyenas, and wild dogs on foot. Okonjima is home to the Africat Foundation, a non-profit organization aiming to conserve some of Africa's wild carnivores. Many of the rehabilitated carnivores are rescued and unable to hunt. This makes the big cat walking safaris possible although note that you can also encounter free roaming cats that are not part of the rehabilitation project. Self-guided walking trails and bushman experiences provide activities for a second day in Okonjima, with the focus more on the solitude of the wilderness. Nighttime game drives further enhance the reserve's appeal. Most experiences are reserved for guests staying at the onsite lodge, so safari itineraries will spend one or two nights here.
Ongava Game Reserve
Luxury private reserve of intimate encounters that include tracking black and white rhinos on foot.
A pair of elegant horns points skyward as you wander across the Ongava savannah. Step, step, step, slowly you get closer to the rhinos. From a safari vehicle, these majestic mammals seem to define power and grace. They look much bigger when you're also at ground level. Tracking black and white rhinos on foot is the highlight of this luxurious reserve close to Etosha. Lions, elephants, giraffe, and a series of rare antelopes add to the enchantment, many of which may also be encountered with a walking safari. Photography hides provide another intimate experience while the lodge offers elegant vistas down towards Etosha. Exclusivity is a major part of being in Ongava, both with the game viewing activities and accommodation. Prices reflect this and the reserve is only generally included on high-end safaris.
Surreal shipwrecks lost in the dunes and the rowdy antics of Cape fur seals.
Provocatively named, the Skeleton Coast is as harsh and inhospitable landscape you could wish to find anywhere. Great wooden ships are engulfed in sand, the final memoirs of ancient shipwrecks standing abandoned in the desert. Masts point above the dunes while hulls are now an irrefutable piece of the desert. These alluring shipwrecks are wonderfully spotted on an aerial safari from Swakopmund but can also be seen up close by taking the bumpy (and sandy) road along the Atlantic Coast. It's a journey of desert beauty and solitude, other than at Cape Cross, where a staggering 300,000 Cape fur seals live and breed. Their rowdy and rumbustious antics fill the coast with strange smells and riotous sounds. Watch big males battle for a harem, admire mothers as they aggressively guard babies, and bask in the waddling antics of these peculiar animals. The Skeleton Coast is usually visited on a day trip from Swakopmund.
Coastal colonial town that feels a little like Germany with palm trees and sand.
Late 19th-century German townhouses stand beside towering palm trees in Swakopmund, a cute coastal town flanked by Atlantic waves and towering Namibian sand dunes. Memoirs of colonial rule are evident in the restaurants and people in the town, but there's also no mistaking the scent of Namibia's wilderness. Some of the world's highest dunes start rising from the edge of this town, making for some adrenalin-pumping sandboarding adventures. Nearby Dune 7 is the highest in the world, rising a staggering 383meters despite being just a few miles from the coast. It's possible to climb this dune on an early morning or late-afternoon trip from Swakopmund.
After a long journey through the desert, Swakopmund is a quaint base to relax and recover from the bumpy ride. It's also the starting point for day-trip aerial safaris and trips to the Skeleton Coast. The international Walvis Bay Airport is nearby and a good entry point to the country when arriving from South Africa. Note that Walvis Bay is an important port town with little to offer tourists other than the same surrounding sand dunes. Swakopmund is the cute smaller alternative stuck in time.
Sossusvlei and Deadvlei
Majestic and accessible sand dunes that symbolize the surreal beauty of Namibia.
Stand out destination in Africa
Most of Namibia's desert is wild and inaccessible, little more than endless miles of sand dunes that change tone as the sun moves across the sky. Sossusvlei and Deadvlei are part of this hypnotic landscape, but this shimmering stretch of dunes and pans is made accessible by some rugged desert roads. The relative ease of travel makes this area one of Namibia's most visited tourist attractions. Sossusvlei itself is a dried salt and clay pan that floods whenever it rains, creating a haven of life and lush color in the desert. Seeing this phenomenon relies on luck as the flood quickly evaporates and the bed becomes evocatively scorched once more.
In recent years, the name Sossusvlei has been used to indicate a region much larger than the actual pan. For many first-time visitors to Namibia, Sossusvlei is the name that symbolizes the raw appeal of the desert. It is part of the larger Namib-Naukluft National Park. Lodges and rest camps look out across the dunes, and it's a 45-minute drive through the sand to Sossusvlei itself. From here you can walk to Deadvlei, an even more iconic clay pan that's dotted with the carcasses of 550-year dead trees. Their stunted blackened branches juxtapose with the orange of the dunes and rusty yellow of the clay bed, creating one of Africa's most famous wilderness images. Halfway between the main rest camp and Sossusvlei is Dune 7, an easy to climb 80-meter dune that offers the iconic sunrise or sunset desert viewpoint.
While the clay pans most capture the imagination, this whole region is like the rest of the Namib-Naukluft: burning red desert and dunes that twist across the landscape like a dinosaur's skeleton. Climbing any of the dunes isn't easy but affords the mystical panoramas over a seemingly endless landscape of sand. Big Daddy, a 325-meter dune above Deadvlei is the most challenging and rewarding, as it looks over both the desert and the fossilized camel thorn trees in the pan. You'll need to be climbing along the ridge at first dawn light to make it up and down before the sun gets too intense. An aerial safari offers better views without having to sweat, and the loop from Swakopmund to Sossusvlei is the country's most popular.
Quiet capital with limited attractions but an easygoing atmosphere.
Windhoek doesn't quite have the appeal of some of the world's other desert cities. It's no Dubai or Las Vegas, and there are no shimmering glass skyscrapers. Instead, Windhoek is much like the rest of Namibia; quiet, understated, and filled with an easygoing atmosphere. Those arriving in Namibia by plane are often disappointed. Windhoek is the size of a small town, and there's not much to see other than a few souvenir shops and wild game restaurants. Arrive in Windhoek by land and there's a context that usually improves your opinion. This is the country's big rest stop, a place for relaxing and refueling before heading out once more into the red desert wilderness. On most travel itineraries Windhoek is treated as such. You usually have a night to rest before starting, continuing, or ending the adventure the next day.
Clean and colorful capital with poignant genocide memorial.
Most visitors to Kigali are in awe of its cleanliness, order, and calm. There's no backed up traffic on the wide boulevards, no places to avoid after dark, and an atmosphere that's both easygoing and efficient. It's lightyears away from East Africa's other capital cities. Arrive in Kigali and it's very hard to imagine that the Rwandan genocide was little over 20 years ago. Enjoying the transformation is a touching highlight of traveling here. Also, a visit to the national genocide memorial provides a harrowing yet thoughtful journey into the past. Many other memorials can be visited within 30 minutes of Kigali. This fresh-feeling city has Rwanda's main airport and is usually a pleasant stopover for those gorilla tracking in Volcanoes National Park, two to three hours away.
Nyungwe Forest National Park
Untrammeled tropical rainforest shrouded in mystique and spectacular biodiversity.
It only takes a few steps beneath the Nyungwe canopy to feel the allure of central Africa. This dense tropical rainforest provides the blur between East Africa's open expanses and the impenetrable mystique of the continent's heart. A staggering biodiversity can be found, encompassing orchids, monkeys, and butterflies. But the main attraction is walking into an exotic rainforest that is inaccessible in the rest of Africa. Despite an excellent luxury lodge, only a handful of visitors ventures this far south in Rwanda, meaning the canopy walk and narrow trails are usually exclusive experiences.
Volcanoes National Park
Intimate gorilla tracking and the premier reason to visit Rwanda.
Stand out destination in Africa
Rwanda's majestic peaks and precipitous slopes house one of Africa's densest human populations. There's little space for wildlife here, other than in the virtually impenetrable forests that border the Democratic Republic of Congo. This is where Volcanoes National Park is located, the most accessible of Africa's three gorilla tracking experiences. Reaching the park and spending an hour with the great primates can be done in just a two-day trip from Nairobi or Tanzania, making Volcanoes National Park the choice for those who want to squeeze gorillas into an East Africa itinerary. Luxury accommodation options can be found in the park that's just a two-hour drive from capital Kigali. This page has more information on the differences between gorilla tracking in Rwanda and Uganda, along with why each has its advantages.
Addo Elephant National Park
Hundreds of elephants and a sprinkling of other favorites at this easily accessible reserve.
There are no prizes for guessing the stars of Addo Elephant National Park. The pachyderms roam in herds of up to 100; babies chase warthogs from waterholes, large tuskers boisterously grunt, and mothers chaperone their trunk-swinging young past other herds. Enter the park from one side and you see them grouped together on the fringes of the forest. Arrive from the south and you spot them barging down great swathes of woodland. Various antelopes and many buffalo herds are also part of the scenery, including all of southern Africa's iconic species: springbok, kudu, and eland. Lions and leopards and present although sightings of the predators are relatively rare. The park has been introducing more lions to the park as it looks to increase its appeal. Trips with national park guides can reveal the science behind this process and take you to areas that are closed to tourists.
Addo can be seen in a day and is the most authentic safari experience to find along the southern coast of South Africa. This makes it a regular highlight of the Garden Route and self-drive itineraries. While it's easy to drive your own vehicle through the reserve, the high grass and mass numbers of elephants make it far more enjoyable to go with a guide.
Aquila / Fairy Glen / Sambona Private Game Reserves
Small fenced reserves accessed from Cape Town that cater towards those on a first-time safari.
These private reserves are a long way down the list of the best African safari experiences. However, they're barely two hours drive from Cape Town, meaning there's a chance of seeing the big five without dedicating a large part of your vacation to safari. All three of these reserves are fully fenced and ensure they can sustain a diverse collection of wildlife, rather than an abundant number of mammals. Also, the luxurious lodge-style experience comes with swimming pools, views over the savannah and huge meals.
Watching buffalos and elephants from an infinity pool is a sublime introduction to safari. As is seeing rhino, elephant, and lion on your first ever game drive. However, these fenced private reserves simply can't compete with the rest of Africa for the density of wildlife. Mammals have been brought here from other reserves, and there's usually just a handful of each species. You won't see the interaction between herds or the daily wildlife theater that's unmissable in bigger national parks. As such, they impress people who are on a first-time safari and those who aren't planning to visit other safari destinations on their trip. Both can be an overnight or day trip from Cape Town; the overnight option is nicer given the drive from the city and the chance to safari in the cooler early morning and late afternoon.
Balule Nature Reserve and Adjacent Private Reserves
Private reserve with open borders to Kruger National Park.
Far less known than Sabi Sands, Balule is another private game reserve sharing unfenced borders with Kruger National Park. It lies north of Sabi Sands and Malamala and stands beside a series of other smaller reserves. The Olifants River slices through the park, bringing plentiful giraffe, waterbuck, and wildebeest, along with the springbok and kudu that dot so many South African landscapes. Like much of the wider Kruger ecosystem, encounters with lions and rhinos are a mainstay of the safari experience. Game drives can go off-road, and there are options for walking safaris and nighttime drives. Heading further north to a reserve Balule means there are less other safari vehicles around. Shorter Kruger safaris tend to stick to the southern sections of the park and the area around Sabi Sands, as these are most accessible from Johannesburg or Nelspruit. Going to Balule is a little off the beaten track, and there's a series of other reserves either side of its splendor: Timbavati, Lourene, and Groot-Letaba.
Iconic colorful city that's framed by Table Mountain and offers a sublime mix of culture and nature.
Stand out destination in Africa
Arguably Africa's most iconic city destination, Cape Town is framed by a thousand colors and paradigms. The city's unforgettable location provides the initial unforgettable visual; Table Mountain's 1 km-high vertical slope towering over the city and ocean below. Most people are desperately photographing the mountain from the taxi window as they're transferred to their hotel. There's no need to rush, though. Table Mountain is the compass point for all Cape Town visits, an unmissable expanse that will always guide you around the city.
Explore what lies below Table Mountain and you quickly unravel layers of fascination. Suburbs cluster beneath its majestic frame sandwiched between mountain and the crashing blue of the Atlantic. Robben Island – the scene of Mandela's incarceration – can be seen in the distance as you wander the vibrant waterfront area or stand on top of the sister mountains of Lion's Head or Devil's Peak. Streets are doused in kaleidoscopic blends; the old painted slave houses, atmospheric local markets, bottles of red are opened on bohemian terraces, townships that flip perceptions that they are mere places of squalor. This is a city that has a little of everything, and you'll need to dedicate some time to get close to the diversity.
Some visitors come to Cape Town and declare it's not Africa, a statement that reflects both Cape Town's modernity and stereotypes of Africa's poverty. This is undeniably a modern Western thinking city that has an excellent infrastructure and a slant towards enjoying itself; fine dining, funky bars, neighborhood markets, industrial suburbs converted to chic living. It's still very much part of Africa. Faces and characters from all over the continent call this city home and throughout Cape Town, you'll find many representations of what many first-time visitors would consider “Africa.” This mix of culture and modernity makes it a great first stop for those arriving on the continent. It's a place that eases you gently into Africa, far more so than Nairobi or even Johannesburg.
For all the pop-up cafes and embracing the culture, it's often nature that holds people captive. A series of activities can take you onto the Atlantic waves while beach suburbs like Camps Bay provide a relaxing base. It's less than an hour's drive to half a dozen exceptional and unusual beaches, like the penguins that occupy Boulder's Beach and the windswept untouched expanses on the Cape Peninsula. It's a two-hour hike or short cable car journey to the Table Mountain summit, where a whole chain of peaks is seen snaking towards the tip of Africa. Then just a five-minute drive from the city center you can be on forest trails, mountain slopes, or coastal walkways. And there's always that view; Table Mountain flanked by its sister peaks and the Atlantic Ocean.
With Africa's third busiest airport, Cape Town is also an excellent transport hub. Many start or end a trip here. Furthermore, domestic flights provide connections to many destinations in South Africa and, increasingly, neighboring countries. So while the city is tucked onto the most distant pinnacle of the continent, it's easy to slip into short itineraries. The downside is that it's far from Africa's premier safari destinations, so visiting Cape Town inevitably means a flight and a break from the wilderness. As befitting the city's modernity, there's a wide choice of luxury accommodation and probably Africa's best restaurant scene.
Elegant valley of picturesque scenery, boutique accommodation, fine dining, and over 500 vineyards.
Over 500 vineyards cascade across the green valleys just northeast of Cape Town. Large international brands stand beside crumbling little farmhouses seemingly unchanged for 150 years; chic modern wineries gaze across at rows of South Africa's signature Pinotage grape; rural wine estates offer timeless luxury amidst the valley while the country's two oldest towns revel in their 18th-century pomp. Tranquil country roads connect it all, taking you winding and weaving through a landscape that imbues serenity and elegance. This is the sort of place that encourages you to indulge and enjoy life, from private cellar tours to wild-game barbecues, or afternoon tea on the lawn to sharing a bottle with a vineyard's owners.
The Cape Winelands are less than an hour's drive from Cape Town, a journey that crosses a dramatic mountain pass. It's Cape Town's second most popular day trip (after Cape Point), with tours providing wine tasting at four or five different vineyards. But one longing look at the valley, with its exquisite backdrop of green mountains, has visitors wishing they were staying for more than just an afternoon. Many come to the Winelands for two or three nights of indulgence. Sublime country estates and wineries provide the accommodation, and there's always a series of cellars within easy reach. Stellenbosch and Franschhoek are the two historic towns; both have quiet centers and some of Africa's best fine dining restaurants. The area offers the indelible contrast to nearby Cape Town, providing a lingering sense of tranquility and rurality that accompanies the colors of the city.
Drakensberg Mountains / uKhahlamba-Drakensberg Park
Majestic mountain range and World Heritage Site; hiking, cute towns, adventure, and ancient rock art.
Some 22,000 pieces of indigenous rock art are dotted around the uKhahlamba-Drakensberg mountains, all the cultural legacy of San bushmen that occupied this area for a few millennia. They're carved into the cliffs and overhangs, allowing you to interpret successful hunts, messages to the next nomadic tribe, and paintings depicting the white man arriving. This incredible cultural legacy gave the area its World Heritage status and an evocative look at the history of ancient Africa. But these hidden pieces of art aren't the first or overriding impression of these mountains. Rising sharply and often vertically, the 200-mile stretch of peaks towers far above the emerald and orange valleys below. If Table Mountain is the iconic poster-child of South Africa, then the uKhahlamba-Drakensberg are its bigger, rougher, and more untamed brother.
The Drakensberg is the most commonly used name on English maps, an Afrikaans word referring to how the peaks rise sharply like a dragon's tail. To the Zulu, uKhahlamba means “barrier of spears” referring to when King Shaka Zulu's army failed to summit the peaks and conquer Lesotho. It's a haven for hiking trails, from one-day trips to multi-day excursions along the spine. Spend a few days here and you can camp in caves of rock art and cross passes of surreal solitude. Rock climbing and horse riding are also part of the adventure. Then tucked beneath the mountains are a series of alpine towns that are as relaxed as they come. Boutique lodge accommodation and uninterrupted panoramas are the norm as you settle into lodges and estates found along the outskirts of a town.
The Northern Drakensberg is more popular as it's on route from Johannesburg to Durban and many other destinations on a Zululand itinerary. As well as the art, a hiking day trip takes you to the top of the world's second highest waterfall, 948meter Tugela Falls. You can dip your feet into the alpine freshness just a few meters from the lip, with the sheer cliffs tumbling down kilometers below. Southern Drakensberg is more remote and less accessible by road, meaning it's a haven for hikers looking for deserted mountain trails, as well as the stunning Sani Pass. Across the Drakensberg, winters bring snowy summits and roaring log fires. Storms paint the panorama in summer, swirling and crashing in the distance as eagles soar overhead. Both seasons are good for hiking if you have the right clothes.
Eclectic coastal city with beautiful beaches and an intriguing heritage.
Durban is a city of colorful juxtapositions. Zulu traditions mingle with surf culture; Indian styles combine with colonial heritage, and there's always a surprise to find along the coast. This old city is practically built on the sand, the skyscrapers standing above miles of Indian Ocean waves and the ever-enthusiastic surfers. An international airport makes Durban the entry point for trips along South Africa's eastern coastline, through Zululand, or even overland to Mozambique and Swaziland. This airport now has recently opened connections to Dubai and plans to add more intercontinental routes. Many people skip through Durban, preferring to stay at the emptier beaches to be found north and south of the city.
Durban does seem a little shabby around the edges, almost as if it's been neglected for more luxurious beach towns nearby. It certainly doesn't have the clean modern feel of a city like Cape Town. For some this is part of a charm, as the Indian meets British heritage finds a place amongst the proud atmosphere of Zululand, making for an intriguing day of sightseeing. Furthermore, the balmy sunny days make for a great atmosphere of local South Africa at the seaside, especially at the weekend.
Gansbaai / Hermanus
World-famous whale watching and shark cage diving at these two adjacent towns.
These two nearby towns offer intimate encounters with some of nature's largest animals; great white sharks around Gansbaai and three species of whale in the Hermanus bay. The ocean's most ferocious predator circles the seal-rich waters off the Gansbaai coast. From May to September they congregate around Seal Island, before moving off to Shark Alley for the rest of the year. At both spots, seals must swim the great white gauntlet to fish. No diving experience or qualification is required. Climb down into a metal cage, hold your breath, and duck your head under as a four-meter giant swims past. You're close enough to reach out and touch, although that's not recommended. This is no sanitized zoo experience; you're in the water with the ocean's greatest predator and the sharks often clatter their bulk into the cage as they swim past. Viewing from the boat is equally impressive; sharks breach and slam back down onto the water, others circle menacingly, and razored teeth shimmer in the morning sun. Shark sightings are virtually guaranteed (a free return trip is offered if you don't see them) and you're given ample time in the cage for multiple intimate encounters.
The town crier blows a kelp horn in Hermanus, alerting everyone in town whenever a whale is spotted in the bay. From July to November, the strange trumpet sound is heard many times a day. Southern right whales arrive from the Antarctic to calve in July and August before the big males arrive for mating in October. Their 15-meter frames are seen breaching just 30 meters from the coastal cliffs, rising and falling with a grace that belies their 50-ton frames. Humpback and Bryde's whales are also seen, along with Cape fur seals and penguins. The easiest way to take it all in is by simply walking the coastal cliff path; demarcated sections allow this self-guided trail to be tailored to your fitness levels. Kayaking and boat excursions take you much closer, and there's a range of luxury options including champagne whale watching cruises. Like the sharks in Gansbaai, you're virtually guaranteed to the whales when you visit during the July to November season.
Both towns are around a two-hour drive from Cape Town, making them very popular day trips from the city. Gansbaai itself is little more than a tourist and fishing town, but cute Hermanus stretches along the ocean and offers a peaceful escape along the coast. In Gansbaai, great whites can only be seen out on an excursion. In contrast, whales can be spotted directly from the Hermanus cliffs, or its ocean-facing restaurants, and even some hotel rooms. Combined with the relaxed atmosphere, this easy access to whales makes Hermanus a revered stop for senior travelers. It's only 30 minutes drive between the two towns, meaning that's it's possible to see whales and sharks in just a one or two-night stop.
Delightful stretch of indigenous forest, sublime beaches, surf bays, and quaint towns.
Straddling the main N2 highway, the Garden Route winds an enchanting spell across the southern coast of Africa. Golden beaches are hidden beneath cliffs, thick forests cascade down into the ocean, and glistening bays make prime surfing spots. It's an area that's always been the getaway zone for wealthy South Africans, and the tourist infrastructure is amongst the best of the continent. As most destinations are within a few minutes of the N2, most people hop along the coast, picking from a variety of similar places. A seductive blend of natural scenery fills this 200-mile stretch, taking you from rolling hills to forested mountains, and deserted beaches to tumbling valleys. The ease of travel and proximity to Cape Town place the Garden Route high on many visitors' must-see lists, especially those who hire a car in South Africa.
Mossel Bay marks the Garden Route's western boundary, and the large town is centered on an adventure tourism industry. Further along the coast, ever-popular Knysna was voted the country's prettiest town and has the distinctive feel of a retirement destination for local South Africans. Cross the mountain pass here and you switch from fertile green to the arid slopes of the Karoo, where ostriches roam around the town of Oudtshoorn. It's worth the journey purely for the scenic contrast from on top of the pass; one side lush and fertile, the other evocatively barren and rusty-colored. Sedgefield and Plettenberg Bay are other pretty coastal towns with spacious beaches and a scent of charm while the town of Wilderness aptly evokes its name. From a long secluded beach, the town stretches into a thick forest of hills, where lodges are tucked away within an atmosphere of mystique.
Perhaps the premier attraction is the Garden Route National Park, an amalgamation of three adjacent attractions and an extension of what was previously Tsitsikamma National Park. The Tsitsikamma forest drops directly into the ocean, with trees tumbling above vibrant cliffs and pointing out towards passing dolphin pods and whales. Wild hiking trails are exceptional here, and it's one of South Africa's largest indigenous forests. There's some excellent national park accommodation around the Storm's River area and a series of adventure activities that lead off from this small town. Tsitsikamma's national park borders have now been extended to include the area that stretches over to Wilderness and also the Knysna Lakes. Like most things on the Garden Route, you access the park directly from the N2, and there's no shortage of activities of luxury accommodation.
Hluhluwe-iMfolozi National Park
Africa's oldest reserve is a compact haven for both the big and small of safari.
Stand out destination in Africa
A blueprint for conservation, Hluhluwe-iMfolozi has been a protected reserve since 1895, making it comfortably the oldest conservation area on the continent. It continues to offer refuge for both famous safari animals and the more unknown, elusive creatures. In particular, there's over 1000 white rhino, a phenomenal number given that the park measures less than 1000 square kilometers. Tradition seems to radiate through everything here, whether that's the view from a Zulu-designed circular hut, mammals clashing at a waterhole, or big cats stalking a kudu or reedbuck. Game drives offer access to the big five, with white rhinos and elephants encountered at regular intervals. But it's the reserve's array of ungulates that symbolize conservation efforts; nyala, duiker, suni, reedbuck, wildebeest, waterbuck, and other peculiar creatures find their own piece of the reserve. You just need a couple of game drives to seek it all out, along with an elegant evening watching silhouettes roam free on the hills below.
The park's diversity has its origins in a broad habitat. The Umfolozi savannah is framed by two permanently flowing rivers while the Hluhluwe area mixes grasslands with woodland and mountainous forest. Both have been protected areas since the late-19th century and were merged in 1989. Exploring the park gives the rich sense of an ancient untouched Africa, one where nature has played out uninterrupted. Continuing the diversity are 340 bird species, many of them slowly becoming endemic as their habitats elsewhere are being trampled; yellow-throated longclaw, black-bellied korhaan, Shelley's Francolin, and other rare tropical sets of wings. Yet it's probably the white rhinos that provide the most poignant safari memory. This reserve is the home and birthplace of rhino conservation, and it's terrifying to think what might have been had Operation Rhino not started here in the 1950's.
Vibrant and vastly misunderstood city that's home to Africa's busiest airport.
Sprawling Johannesburg is many visitors first or last impression of southern Africa. In essence, the city is a conglomeration of disparate suburbs that stretch out over an area larger than Greater London or Los Angeles. Some aren't especially pretty, and some have given Johannesburg a global and somewhat undeserved reputation for crime. But like all big cities, the negative impressions can quickly peel away when you visit. Give the city a little time and a vibrant metropolis unravels; restaurants stand in skyscrapers, the neighborhood markets are alive with improvised music, a creative scene jumps out across the city, and there's some fascinating history to discover. With just a single night before or after the intercontinental flight, Johannesburg isn't particularly memorable. The longer you do stay, the more seductive it becomes.
Soweto is one of Johannesburg's many suburbs, and like the rest, it exudes its own personality. It's a place that can divide opinion dependent on where you place the emphasis. Some call it the world's second largest slum. It also where you'll find the only street in the world that's been home to two Nobel prize winners. Nelson Mandela lived on Velekazi Street at the time of incarceration; Desmund Tutu still lives there. Soweto isn't a place of squalor and visitors are welcomed with waves and smiles to a rolling land of colorful tightly-packed houses. The Apartheid Museum on the edge of Soweto is perhaps South Africa's finest museum. Also, the Hector Pieterson Museum evocatively remembers the 1976 student Soweto Uprising and a critical point in the fight against apartheid. Soweto is predominantly visited on a guided day trip from Johannesburg. Other popular trips are to the Cradle of Humankind, a World Heritage site that's home to around 40% of the planet's hominin fossils.
Kruger National Park
Gargantuan national park home to over half the world's rhinos and a full game viewing experience.
Kruger has always held a special place in the heart of safari lovers. This is one of Africa's oldest and biggest parks, covering almost 20,000 square kilometers, an area larger than many European countries. The scale is something Kruger excels at. Roaming through the bush savannah is over half the world's rhino population and staggering numbers of big cats. It's often hard to go through a game drive without a lion pride lounging in the vehicle's shadow and the enchanting horns filling your camera roll. Habitats blend, and ecosystems collide here, meaning distinct parts of Kruger offer encounters with distinct casts of animals. In general, expect a huge array of grazing antelopes, elephants, giraffe, rhinos, lions, buffalo, and well, just about everything you could hope to see on a game drive.
Somewhat surprisingly, Kruger has also become one of the continent's most accessible parks. A tarred road runs through the heart of the park, and it's possible to safari in your vehicle without a guide; although elephants are tipping the cars of photographers that overuse the flash are a reminder of how dangerous this could be. This accessibility reduces the sense of wild bush experience for those on shorter safaris. You need a few days to escape the noise and get out to the most remote areas of Kruger, predominantly those stretching to the north. Those providing time to the experience roam to immense carved valleys, wild predatory scenes, and an authentic getaway into the wilderness.
On a single game drive, you could see dozens of white rhinos and a handful of different lion prides. You could also see nothing. Parts of Kruger are incredibly dense with life while others are much quieter. After a few days, the complexities of the landscape begin to unravel. You notice which trees attract which mammals and why certain plains are devoid of life. Understanding these complexities takes years of experience, something that makes guided game drives far more appealing than self-drive safari.
Kruger is the centerpiece of a wider wildlife area that spills into Swaziland, Mozambique, and Zimbabwe. Policing this area continues to be problematic, and the vast majority of poached rhinos are taken from here. On a positive note, Kruger shares unfenced borders with a range of private game reserves, like Sabi Sands and Mala Mala, meaning the actual Kruger ecosystem is another 30% bigger than its gazetted boundaries. Accommodation caters for all budgets although there's a continued emphasis on making safari accessible. Especially in comparison to East Africa, Kruger is a much more affordable destination for those looking for budget trips. This naturally results in a lot of tourists, especially if you follow the standard three or four-day loop. Those looking for more exclusivity and luxury should consider Mala Mala and Sabi Sands.
Mala Mala Private Game Reserve
World-renowned private reserve that elegantly blending luxury with intimate safari brilliance.
Stand out destination in Africa
Exclusive in both its service and wildlife encounters, Mala Mala is one of Africa's most celebrated private reserves. Game drives take you off the road, bringing intimate sightings of a leopard pulling a carcass or a baby elephant looking to escape its mother's watchful eye. White rhinos openly maraud across the savannah, arriving from the adjacent and unfenced Kruger. Nighttime drives open up an array of fascination, the roving spotlight unveiling unusual characters and the predators on the prowl. Tucked between the main Sabi Sands reserves and Kruger National Park, Mala Mala is on a wonderful wildlife corridor that brings the best of South African safari to the country's largest private reserve. It's the big five, and there's no doubting the guides' skills in revealing them all. Yet it's more than just the big five, more than just a distant glimpse or a single snapshot. In this private reserve, the experience is focused on the astonishingly intimate moments that are remembered for a lifetime.
There's three accommodation offerings, each relatively unassuming and providing gracious views over the savannah. The focus is on exclusivity and luxury, meaning Mala Mala is firmly geared towards high-end tourists. A range of safari activities open up all the landscape's angles and even after three days, there's always a fresh experience; perhaps the tracks of a springbok herd, maybe rhinos spotted from your balcony at dawn, or a black-maned lion meandering in the dusk light. It's possible to arrive by land, either from the adjacent Kruger, Sabi Sands, or Nelspruit. The reserve also has its own airstrip, one that must be cleared of wildlife before planes can land.
Sabi Sands Private Reserve
Collection of abundant private reserves adjacent to Kruger, all offering the classic big five experience.
Stand out destination in Africa
Rhinos and lions rarely recognize the unfenced boundaries between the reserves. Hundreds of thousands of mammals roam freely between Kruger National Park and Sabi Sands, predominantly arriving for its two great assets: the Sabi and the Sands rivers. This is an area of staggering abundance, and most of the classic safari animals are seen in large numbers; rhino, lion, elephant, giraffe, leopard, hippo, buffalo, zebra. Game drives roam through forest habitats and admire the creatures that drink from the river, before crossing acacia-dappled savannah for intimacy with the grazers. If you've never been on safari before, it's hard to beat how such a dramatic overview of animals can be seen on a short game drive.
For luxury tourism, Sabi Sands has become more popular than neighboring Kruger in recent years. The area is a series of unfenced privately-managed reserves. Some of these are reserved exclusively for guests staying at the reserve's lodge. These offer an elevated intimacy and almost private immersion in the environment. Others are open access to anyone on day trips or staying within the Sabi Sands boundaries. There's nothing impacting wildlife movement and each reserve or lodge has its own specialties, whether that's proximity to lion prides, views over the river, or acacias favored by large elephant herds.
In comparison to Kruger, Sabi Sands is more compact and requires less time, making it an easy safari introduction for first timers. The wide choice of luxury lodges elevates the experience, each with their own distinct style and all offering opulent views over the savannah. Just sit back, sip on a drink, and watch the procession of four-legged characters roam past your private balcony. However, while this is a private reserve, much of the land is shared between multiple lodges, meaning you won't get the truly exclusive safari experience offered by some other private South African reserves. There's also restrictions on activities and driving off the road that isn't usually found in private reserves. Still, the thick concentrations of wildlife and celebrated numbers of lion and rhino mean that everyone isn't chasing a sighting of the same animal. The combination of luxury and the iconic game also makes Sabi Sands a popular choice for honeymooning couples. Furthermore, there's virtually no malaria risk here, a huge attraction for families and older tourists. This is the kind of destination that offers being pampered, watching rhinos from the pool, and indulging in an old-world opulence.
iSimangaliso Wetland Park
World Heritage site and one of the world's largest wetlands, bringing intimate safari adventure and beaches.
Monkeys shout from the trees while hippos grunt in the surreal waters in iSimangaliso. Crocodiles bask in the sun, and elephants plod companionless through the trees. Kudu, nyala, and various other antelopes flicker around in the wild landscape. Other than the odd mud-splattered trail there are no roads through here, meaning you must travel on the water or walk into the forest. Watery trails spill into the ocean or roll around onto deserted beaches that can only be reached by boat. Then deeper in the forest, you encounter the Tonga tribe, original landowners that show you how to follow tracks in the mud. This World Heritage Site is one of the world's largest wetlands and presents a very different safari landscape to the savannahs of South Africa.
A boat safari is the main way to explore, ranging from a luxury vessel to a tiny traditional canoe. Head through the reeds and you at eye-level with rumbustious hippo pods or the odd marauding elephant. Large crocodiles sunbathe on banks, and a whole menagerie of water-loving antelopes can be seen. Also, there's over 500 bird species in the trees, plus a whole gaggle of primates; keep your windows closed because they know how to sniff out any food. There are two ways to enter the park. Some start at the beach, notably in St Lucia, and journey into the thick woodland. Others start on the edge of the forest then journey through it to deserted beaches or the crystal clear snorkeling waters of Kosi Bay. Some lodges can be found in the park, although many stay on the coast to combine water safari with beach time.
A spectacular road journey, climbing 1332 vertical meters to connect South Africa with Lesotho.
Borders don't come much more dramatic or remote than the Sani Pass. The road climbs 1332 vertical meters in just eight kilometers, zigzagging spectacularly from the Southern Drakensberg to the mountainous kingdom of Lesotho. Four-wheel drive is essential, and the pass is notoriously icy in winter. Along with the unforgettable views, a trip to the top brings you to the self-proclaimed “Africa's highest pub,” another iconic photo on this spectacular road journey. Visitors don't need a visa to enter Lesotho for the day.
Sublime white sand on the edge of the wetlands makes for a combination of beach and safari.
St Lucia's white sand and pristine beaches are an attraction in themselves. They're made far more endearing by the wheeze-honking hippos and mischievous monkeys that roam through the fringes of the town. Spend the day on the beach, or take a boat into the iSimangaliso Wetland Park that stretches north from the edge of the town. Or journey into nearby Hluhluwe-iMfolozi for a more classic day of safari. Opulent lodges are sandwiched between lush green and white sand while the small town offers good dining options. Wander from the lodge and you'll probably have the sand to yourself; this is a remote part of South Africa, and there's often more baboons on the beach than people. St Lucia mixes the appeal of Africa. It's delightful coastal bliss, yet it's also so much more.
Tembe Elephant Park
Forested park home to some of Africa's biggest elephants and the full big five.
Tembe's elephants are real giants, their tusks almost as wide as their trunks and their ears flapping far above the safari vehicle. Some of Africa's biggest and last tuskers reside here, their legendary tusks curling meters past their own trunks. Encountering them is the thrilling highlight of the safari, the massive bulls dwarfing the safari truck in size and sound. The rest of the big five are also present here although a lot of game can be hard to spot in the thick traces of forest. Instead, the experience is less about moving around and more about sitting back and watching the mammals congregate around waterholes. However, a remote location bordering Mozambique has made the park vulnerable to poachers and the limited accommodation options don't assist in increasing tourism. For the most part, it's a day-trip park for seeing the tuskers. And it's hard to forget these incredible mammals.
Thanda Private Game Reserve
Exclusive reserve with an award-winning luxury lodge and eclectic wildlife experiences; good for honeymoons.
Opulent and decadent, Thanda's experience is tailored towards just a handful of guests. Over 50 mammals species and the complete big five roam through the reserve, not in large numbers but with just enough abundance to ensure there's a sense of how wildlife interacts amongst the landscape. Luxury accommodation and exclusive experiences make Thanda a popular destination for honeymooners and those who have five-star accommodation high on their safari wish list. This is where you watch elephants from a private plunge pool, wake to the sporadic calls of hyenas, and revel in the untamed luxury that African safari can offer. Think candlelit bush dinners, double person bathtubs and having a personal guide customize your private safari program.
Seductively beautiful and untamed coastline filled with immersive Xhosa culture and remote beaches.
Ask South Africans about their favorite domestic destination and the Wild Coast is likely to be on top of the list. This hypnotic stretch of coastline is part of the Transkei, an area that had semi-independence during apartheid and was the birthplace of many persecuted ANC members including Mandela. Local Xhosa culture continues untrammeled; painted circular huts stand on cliffs above the ocean, women in flamboyant dresses carry baskets on their heads, and it's hard to pass any local without hearing the Xhosa “molo” (hello) and “unjani” (how are you). The untamed atmosphere comes straight from the landscape. As an example, there's only a handful of waterfalls around the world that drop directly into the ocean. The Wild Coast has three of them. Hills curve, mountains roll, and cliffs stand like assertive sentinels against the Indian Ocean waves.
It's a place of remote splendor, a place where you stand alone on cliffs and gaze out at passing whales, a place of rural charm that has you aching to remain. But this is also South Africa's most underdeveloped region. The roads are rugged, and it's a long way to come unless you're planning to travel the entire stretch of coastline between Durban and the Garden Route. You'll need time to adapt to the slower rhythm. Hiking and horse riding is often an easier way of getting round than taking the car. Accommodation options can also be limited although the Wild Coast is home to arguably the best collection of community-based accommodation on the whole continent. Meeting and eating with the locals is an expected part of the experience, as is finding a beach that hasn't seen footprints for a week. This isn't merely a destination; it's an invitation into rural Africa.
Hlane Royal National Park
Big five destination and a wildlife abundance that most people wouldn't expect in Swaziland.
Swaziland's flagship safari destination continues to surprise visitors. Most don't expect lion encounters and hippo-filled lakes from southern Africa's remote kingdom, nor do they anticipate the intimacy of the Hlane experience. But Swaziland is well-versed in springing surprises and the big five savannah of Hlane is accompanied by the serene atmosphere of the nation. Slow the pace, take the time to say hello and let the safari come to you. Fabulous views come as standard, and the park is very accessible once you've made it into Swaziland. The only thing that seems to prevent an influx of tourism is the country's lack of fame. With South Africa and Botswana being so close, few devote their time to this rural backwater.
Manzini and Central Swaziland Valleys
Hub for tourism in Swaziland, with easy journeys into lush green hills and tribal traditions.
Swaziland is a fascinating country, one that remains a kingdom and continues a culture that's hardly been changed in centuries. It's a journey into the Africa that many people hold in their curious dreams, one of the tribal chiefs, unusual ceremonies, and villages of mud and stick huts. Encountering this culture is inevitable as soon as you arrive in the country. Getting immersed in it can be tricky, as rural mud villages aren't places for passable tourist accommodation. Manzini is the central hub for the country and has the widest selection of accommodation. From here it's easy to make day trips into rural Swaziland and the splendor it promises. It's also a good base for attending some of the country's famous ceremonies, like the Reed Dance.
Mkhaya Game Reserve
Both rhino species make this a good day trip when traveling through Swaziland.
Opportunities to see both black and white rhino put Mkhaya on the map when you're visiting this corner of Southern Africa. While lions are lacking, many of Africa's other large mammals sporadically fill the reserve, and there's a wonderfully unassuming atmosphere to the safari. With its lingering rolls of savannah and woodland, Mkhaya is offbeat and refreshingly informal. It's not a place of great abundance, but like the rest of the country, the experience is always filled with scenes and moments that make you smile.
Mlilwane Wildlife Sanctuary
Wonderful bicycle and horse riding safaris amongst a landscape without predators.
Quite uniquely amongst safari destinations, Mlilwane celebrates its lack of big cats and large mammals. Other than hippos and buffalo, there's nothing that's particularly dangerous here. This enables visitors to make self-guided bicycle and walking safaris through the park's green swathes of savannah and woodland. Zebra, warthog, impala, springbok, kudu... there's a lot to see, and it all appears much bigger from the saddle. Horse riding safaris also offer these thrills, and there's a skill to approaching the zebra and riding with them. These intimate horse riding and walking experiences can be found in other reserves across Africa. However, Mlilwane is also unique in having a clear focus towards youth and budget travel. It's the only reserve in Africa that has backpackers accommodation within its boundaries.
Main jumping-off point for a northern circuit safari to Serengeti, Ngorongoro, Tarangire, and Manyara.
Arusha is far from being Tanzania's most endearing of towns. It's loud, chaotic, and virtually unavoidable if you're planning to visit the destinations on the northern safari circuit, including the Serengeti and Ngorongoro. Kilimanjaro International Airport is just 30 minutes away, and most visitors spend the night in Arusha before starting the safari the next morning. Rather than stay in the town itself, most upmarket tour operators use lodges situated on the verdant and quiet slopes around Arusha; expect monkeys and bushbabies to sing the evening lullaby. Head west from Arusha and the landscape quickly opens into the iconic plains of your imagination, and that's why this town is so important to Tanzanian tourism. The airport is one side, and the safari starts within an hour's drive to the other.
Arusha National Park
Tiny national park offering quick day safaris for those climbing Mount Kilimanjaro.
In comparison to the rest of Northern Tanzania, Arusha National Park has neither the abundance or diversity to elevate it to more than a periphery role on the safari landscape. The main appeal is its proximity to Arusha and Moshi, making it a day-trip safari from either of these towns. For anyone on a longer Tanzanian safari, Arusha can't compete with its neighbors and would be a waste of a day when you could be in the Serengeti or Tarangire. Its appeal is more geared towards those that have climbed Mount Kilimanjaro and don't want to leave Tanzania without seeing wild mammals. After the climb, you can take a day trip to this national park for a glimpse at African safari. You'll see elephants, buffalo, giraffe, plus a mix of other ungulates, but it's rare to see the big cats.
Dar es Salaam
Huge chaotic city with a major airport and quick access to Zanzibar.
Tanzania's economic capital isn't the most pleasing on the eye. Concrete towers stand over sputtering exhaust fumes while the chaotic streets are packed with traffic and noise. Few would plan to stay here. However, Dar es Salaam is an important transport hub in East Africa and the location of Tanzania's largest airport. From here it's just a 20-minute micro flight to Zanzibar. Safaris heading to Tanzania's southern parks (Ruaha, Udzungwa, etc.) will depart from here, and there's also regular flights to Kilimanjaro, the northern parks, and neighboring countries like Rwanda. Tour operators usually use luxury hotels in the upmarket suburbs, meaning the real chaos of central Dar es Salaam is avoided.
Gombe National Park
Incredible chimpanzee tracking and various primates in the forest.
Tucked away on Lake Tanganyika in remote eastern Tanzania, Gombe is visited for its unique chimpanzee safaris. It's one of the best places on the continent to experience these relatively rare primates. Groups aren't habituated, and the sightings aren't guaranteed, so plan at least a couple of days in the itineraries. Various other monkey and baboon species are found in abundance here, and there's always elegant views around the lakeshore. Unfortunately, Gombe is far from other safari destinations and difficult to get to. This makes the experience fairly exclusive and reserved for those with longer itineraries.
Grumeti Game Reserve
Opulent and exclusive wilderness offering unique experiences on the great wildebeest migration route.
One of Africa's most unashamedly luxurious destinations, Grumeti provides exclusive safari experience to an elite handful of guests. The grass plains share open borders with the Serengeti's western corridor, meaning they're home to all the large carnivores and mammals the Serengeti is famous for. Additionally, these plains become shrouded in dust and chaos as the great wildebeest migration passes through for a few weeks sometime between April and June. Three camps offer opulence and privacy while a series of extremely unique safari experiences fill the days. This is big cat filled wilderness, and you're able to go on horse riding and walking safaris, along with hot air balloon trips and game drives in open-sided vehicles.
Safari in the Serengeti is limited, and there are restrictions on what visitors can and can't do. Grumeti retains the untouched feel of the grass plains but increases the angles. Furthermore, there's just a handful of visitors in a vast expanse of wilderness. And when the wildebeest are marauding through, the unique safari experiences are elevated to mind-boggling levels. Just imagine the feeling of riding alongside thousands of zebra and wildebeest.
Katavi National Park
Off the beaten track grassland savannah offering intimate safari and a sense of wilderness exclusivity.
Boisterous hippos and thousand-strong buffalo herds are the huge highlights of Katavi. Their abundance is legendary, and there's rarely another safari vehicle watching the same action. The engulfing sense of wilderness is partly due to the classic grassland savannah landscape, and partly thanks to the park's exclusivity. Katavi is relatively inaccessible and focused on high-end accommodation, providing a wonderfully off the beaten track experience for those wanting to escape completely in Tanzania's crowds. Come for a couple of days and it's easy to get lost in the wild bounty that the country so easily offers. Note that the wet season of March to May makes roads impassable and many lodges are closed.
Kilimanjaro National Park
Africa's highest peak and an unforgettable week-long climb to the summit.
Stand out destination in Africa
Slowly ascend the volcanic slopes of Kilimanjaro and it takes five or six days before you're stood on the roof of Africa. You rise through the monkey-dappled forest to vast moorlands before crossing a wild landscape where little flora can survive. Snow marks the summit, and you've climbed the world's highest free-standing mountain. Read more about climbing Mount Kilimanjaro here. Kilimanjaro National Park is the broad gazetted area that incorporates all the hiking trails. Hikes start from trailheads at the park's entrance, which tends to be at around 2,200 – 2,500 meters.
Beautiful and remote lake where you can spend time with indigenous Hadza tribes.
Indigenous Hadza tribes live around the fringes of Lake Eyasi, a soda lake that's close to the Serengeti and Ngorongoro Crater. While the game is thin, there are beautiful views over the adjacent grass plains and a chance to spend time with one of Africa's few remaining hunter-gatherer tribes. The Hadzabe are wonderfully iconic, yet there's only a few thousand of them remaining. Encounters are well-managed and provide a respectful insight into their culture. Unlike some visits to Maasai tribes, meeting the Hadzabe is not a point-and-shoot-the-camera exercise. You get an insight into the life of these great nomads, complete with all its charm and notions of poverty. This tribe has been the subject of countless re-education programs and has seen its lands gradually get taken away. Tourism is one factor in helping maintain their culture.
Lake Manyara National Park
Compact and beautiful national park home to diverse mammals and incredible birdlife.
Stand out destination in Africa
With Tanzania's world-famous parks as its neighbors, Lake Manyara usually struggles to attract the attention or recognition it deserves. It's usually seen as the poor relation on Tanzania's northern circuit. And it's quick to spring surprises. Enter the park through thick woodlands dappled with elephants and hundreds of bird species, before skirting a lake that's thick with rumbustious hippos. Go slowly and there's a good chance of seeing tree-climbing lions, a very rare sight across the whole of Africa. They lounge on elevated branches, napping with one eye open as they control the landscape. Leopards can also be spotted here although it's a site reserved for the fortunate.
Those seeking out predator versus prey and abundant large mammals are likely to be disappointed, and this might contribute to the park's lack of attention. Lake Manyara is usually the first or second stop on the northern circuit, meaning visitors are picturing the grass plains of the Serengeti but then arriving at a vast lake and woodland. So in the clamber to find the large herds and most famous mammals, the beauty of Lake Manyara is often missed. Stop. Appreciate the environment. And wait to be wowed. There are over 500 bird species in the trees, including the cacophonous hornbills that welcome you to the park. Thousands upon thousands of baboons forage across the forest floor plus a rich number of the rarer antelopes and other primates poke their eyes through the foliage. Then there are the towers of giraffes that gracefully roam.. Yes, the big cats can be difficult to spot, and there are no rhinos, but Manyara's inherent visual beauty and delicate diversity make it an unexpected highlight of Tanzanian safari.
Phantasmagorical soda lake that's a magnet for photographers and lunar-seeking explorers
Lake Natron's photos never seem real. Strange volcanic explosions and erupting gasses have created a surreal landscape of crimson, flaming ruby, emerald, and other poetic tones. Over 2.5 million flamingoes provide another hue, the largest flock in East Africa breeding along the blue-green-red lakeshore. Little other wildlife can survive here, meaning the flamingos have no natural predators and can breed uninterrupted. A distant glance is laced in color. Then get close to pick out the intricacies of the scene. Now step back and fathom the bizarre landscape that stretches out. This strange lake is an inspiring destination for budding photographers and those seeking something that's far from the usual. It's a potential day trip for anyone on a northern circuit safari.
Mahale Mountains National Park
Habituated chimpanzee tracking and diverse forest birds.
Like Gombe National Park, Mahale's premier attraction is tracking habituated chimpanzee groups on foot. This intimate experience makes the journey to remote Eastern Tanzania worth the effort. Colorful forest birds and other rare primates are also seen, but you're unlikely to spot any antelope of large mammals. Instead, come here for the rare chance at following the chimpanzees through the trees and marveling at just how lifelike they can be. Mahale is fairly inaccessible and as such is geared towards primate lovers rather than those on more encompassing safaris to Tanzania.
Mikumi National Park
Vast grasslands filled with large ungulate herds and diverse safari activities.
Mikumi's green floodplain offers a diminutive version of the famous Serengeti plains found further north. Large numbers of wildebeest, zebra, impala, and buffalo are seen migrating across the park, slowly mowing the grass as they move. Less common antelopes also congregate to feed on the rich grassland and chaperoning predators like lion and spotted hyena watch over the grazers. Many have labeled Mikumi as the Serengeti in miniature form, and it's impossible to deny the similarities. Mikumi's accessibility from Dar es Salaam (and Zanzibar) is both an appeal and a hindrance. It doesn't always feel especially feel like the wilderness, despite the large numbers of wild animals and the grasslands that stretch far into the distance. At the weekends it can get crowded with visitors from the city, further diminishing the appeal. However, it's an easy add-on to a beach itinerary and a common first stop for anyone driving to the parks of Southern Tanzania. The ease and availability of walking safaris also make Mikumi appealing, especially as they're extremely restricted in the more famous Serengeti.
Quaint northern town beneath Kilimanjaro used as a base for mountain ascents and sometimes safaris.
Two-street town Moshi still retains a feel of yesteryear, its low-rise buildings winding out beneath the majestic backdrop of Mount Kilimanjaro. Africa's highest mountain provides an eternally soothing scene-setter that seems to maintain Moshi's relaxed and quaint feel. This town is the starting point for Kilimanjaro climbs. It's also the place to relax following a climb, and you'll always see a few tourists exhaustedly walking around town or lazing away an afternoon in the various cafes. Moshi is 45-minutes drive from Kilimanjaro International Airport and is also used by visitors wanting a more relaxed alternative to starting a safari in Arusha. However, note that you must return past the airport to reach the northern circuit safari destinations.
Thrilling place to see the great wildebeest migration between mid-December and mid-March.
Millions of wildebeest and Thompson's gazelle calve on the vast grassy plains around the Southern Serengeti and Western Ngorongoro Reserve. Their young are nourished on the nutrient-rich volcanic grass, meaning they can quickly build their size and strength for the long migration. They also become an easy meal for the congregating masses of carnivorous cats. This calving and nurturing of young signals the start of the great wildebeest migration, as the herds will move off once their offspring are sufficiently strong enough.
Ndutu is not a reserve or national park. Instead, it's an area that stretches across the southeastern Serengeti and western Ngorongoro. From mid-December to mid-March it's the scene of the greatest mammal congregation found anywhere on the planet. Two additional factors make this time and place one of Africa's unmissable moments. Ndutu lies on the Serengeti's eastern fringes, meaning it's closer to Arusha and more easily visited for those short on time. Once the migration moves off, it's very difficult to see it without five or more days on safari. Furthermore, off-trail driving is permitted as this area is considered a seasonal destination and the grass has time to recover. Unless you're visiting a private concession, you won't be able to drive off road anywhere else in the Serengeti. This results in incredibly intimate encounters with big cats and inspiring views of predatory scenes. For the other nine months of the year, this area is quiet and most skip through it on route to the central and northern Serengeti. However, during these off-peak months, it's worth spending a few hours seeking out those that didn't migrate. Many revered cats live here year round.
Wonderfully abundant volcanic caldera providing a rich overview of species in a single game drive.
Stand out destination in Africa
If safari is about ticking off intimate encounters with the most revered mammals, then it's hard to look past Ngorongoro Crater. Six different habitats juxtapose in a small and compact area, each providing a haven for a different species. Look one way and there are huge-tusked elephants in the trees, turn the other to see rhinos trotting past buffalos, then look down because a lion pride is approaching the safari truck. By African standards, this is a tiny safari area. Once the morning's surreal misty veil has evaporated, the walls of the entire crater are almost always in view. Game vehicles are given six hours in the crater, and that's more than enough time to tour the whole crater and the habitat of some 30,000 different mammals. Rest beside the hippo filled pools, find the abundant clumps of ungulates, and seek out leopards on the periphery. Almost all of Africa's most famous mammals can be spotted in just a single game drive, making Ngorongoro a fantastic introduction or experience for those short on time.
Ngorongoro's protected area stretches from the crater to the grasslands that tumble into the Serengeti. Maasai herdsmen dot this grass, their red blankets providing another iconic photograph. Wild game is also seen along the road here, mingling with cows that are herded by the Maasai, or juxtaposed with a Maasai boma, or homestead. The Serengeti's national park status meant that the Maasai were moved from their famous homelands. Many of them inhabit the Ngorongoro's broader conservation area and encounters with a Maasai community are normally enjoyed here. These could be a short 30-minute stop when traveling from Ngorongoro towards the Serengeti, or a longer half-day experience as an interlude from the safari.
A handful of luxury lodges are perched on the rim of the crater, offering adoring views into the caldera. While the mist can roam and rise throughout the day, on a clear day, this is Tanzania's most famous vista. All these lodges and even the public campsites feature on the daily route of large mammals like elephants and reedbuck, meaning the safari continues well into the evening. But the safari experience is centered on the crater floor. Descend into the crater and six distinct habitats provide the journey through Africa's great. A small section of woodland is the haven for some of Tanzania's largest elephants, lone male bulls who've been cast out from their herd. The soda lake is speckled with flamingo and the slurping of ungulates while hippos lounge in another small stretch of lake. Black rhinos and leopard hide beneath the crater rim, tucked into the scrub bush for most of the day (early morning is when you can see them in the open). Then across the open grassland of the crater floor, one sweeping view brings thousands of wildebeest, buffalo, and zebra. Spotting lions in hunting mode is commonplace here, and a black and white limb goes crunch beside the road.
Ngorongoro's conservation area blends into the Serengeti to the west. Coming from the east, it's no more than a 90-minute drive from Tarangire or Lake Manyara. It's easily Tanzania's most visited wildlife area. The location means that Ngorongoro is on practically every itinerary, whether you're visiting the Serengeti, Tarangire, Manyara or the classic combination of all these northern parks. Furthermore, you must drive past the crater rim to reach the Serengeti from Arusha, so not stopping for a drive in this UNESCO World Heritage Site would be unthinkable. Only game drives are permitted in the Ngorongoro Crater, and early starts are recommended here as the crater is prone to getting busy with safari vehicles from mid-morning to mid-afternoon, especially in the peak months of January, February, July andAugust. This makes the lodges around the crater rim even more desirable as you can be inside the crater as soon as it opens at sunrise.
Cradle of human civilization that's easy to visit on a Serengeti and Ngorongoro itinerary
Olduvai contains some of the oldest records of early human life and is one of the world's most important evolutionary sites. Remains of homo habilis have been dated to 1.9 million years ago while evidence of homo sapiens living here is dated to some 20,000 years ago. There are few other places on the planet with such an abundance of fossils and stone tools from man's earlier incarnations. Many of this evolutionary evidence is on display at the excellent onsite museum. Also, a beautiful walking trail takes you through the gorge and then rises for some dazzling views over the surrounding plains.
Olduvai is situated on the main route between Ngorongoro and the Serengeti, making it easy to work into a safari itinerary. Perhaps if it were in another place, it would be more lauded as a must-see destination. With so much wild game surrounding the gorge, some see Olduvai as an interruption to the safari. Why look at fossils when lions are chasing wildebeest a few miles along the trail? But spare an hour and it's a wonderful insight into how much of the world's history is hidden in this fascinating area.
Untouched Indian Ocean island for diving, beach bliss and getting off the beaten track.
Exotic Pemba responds to the reverie of Indian Ocean island bliss. Vast white beaches are sporadically interrupted by coconut forests while clear green waters roll out from the shore. This is a remote tropical island, basking in its serenity and continually providing an immersion in nature. With the introduction of good quality accommodation in recent years, Pemba Island is becoming a quieter alternative to nearby Zanzibar. It's not glamorous, and it's far from being touristic. Like the Zanzibar beaches of 30 years ago, there's a real sense of discovering a destination that's yet to feature on travel brochures. If you're seeking an escape into the primitive forest, untouched beach, and unspoiled reefs, this exquisite gem should be high up your African list.
Ruaha National Park
Iconic and exclusive wilderness that's filled with both predators and unusual species.
Stand out destination in Africa
In enchanting Ruaha, it's rare to see another safari vehicle. Rugged trails take you through a huge park that's filled with predatory cats, including some of Africa's largest lion prides. Scattered amongst the savannah are packs of wild dogs and Ruaha is perhaps the best place in East Africa to encounter these rare hunters. Unusual antelopes stand beside more famous ungulates, and there's never an interruption to the sense of wilderness. Stretching across a huge area in Southern Tanzania, Ruaha is one of Africa's most underrated parks. As most visitors to Tanzania head north, only 10% of them drive south to the phantasmagorical wilderness that includes Ruaha and Selous. It's an area of real primitive charm, the rugged road taking you past villages of mud-and-stick villages and into over 20,000 km² of the raw savannah.
Slicing through the park is the great Ruaha River, a stretch of water that energizes flourishing woodland and occasionally explodes into wetlands. This has created a haven for around 10,000 elephants, East Africa's largest single population of pachyderms. Game viewing is centered around this river, particularly in the southeastern section of the park. You can drive for hours without seeing another safari vehicle, and there's an unerring sense of being amongst the wilderness. Raucous storks warn sable antelope of stalking cheetah. Prides of over a dozen lions lounge around the savannah's bushy trees. In the last two decades, the Ruaha has periodically dried up, causing the congregation of mammals to dig furiously beneath its dusty bed.
Walking safaris provide mornings of excitement and the wild game roams outside the park boundaries to settle around a succession of lodges. So why are there so few other tourists? Ruaha is challenging to reach. Realistically, when going by land, it's a ten-day safari to visit Ruaha and other parks in the south. Furthermore, the lack of budget accommodation options down here keeps most visitors to parks in the north. However, luxury safaris provide an easy connection as micro flights go directly from Ruaha to parks on the northern safari circuit. It creates a certain exclusivity, enabling Ruaha to combine the space and abundance of a large national park with the intimacy of a private reserve.
Selous Game Reserve
Mammoth game reserve offering classic game viewing in vehicles, boats, and on foot.
Selous stretches almost 50,000 km² across Southern Tanzania and is home to almost all of East Africa's great mammals, including rare Tanzanian sightings of rhino. Lions and leopards are easy to spot along the Rufiji River, along with hippos, elephant, giraffe, and an eclectic mix of antelopes. A large wild dog population provides another rare African highlight. Head this far south in Tanzania and you're practically at the border between East and Southern Africa, exploring the vast emptiness that's over a thousand kilometers to the nearest city. It's raw, remote, and resplendent, epitomized by the echoed shouts that so seductively provide a lullaby.
Officially, this is Africa's largest game reserve, covering an area that's two and a half times bigger than the Serengeti. Unfortunately, much of Selous is demarcated as private hunting concessions, giving its status as Africa's largest game reserve somewhat of a false impression. Game viewing is centered on the area north of Rufiji River, with the majority of the park gazetted for hunting to the south of the river. The area open to game viewing is usually covered in just a couple of days. A typical itinerary will include a classic game drive, a boat safari along the Rufiji River, and a walking safari into the savannah. Such a range of activities is rare for a Tanzanian national park and the multitude of angles help counter the side effects of the rifles south of the river. Wildlife can be easily spooked here, a hangover from the threat that exists elsewhere in the reserve. Try and get closer and usually responsive animals can disappear into the distance.
But remember, you are in the heart of the thick unspoiled wilderness, far from any traces of modernity. So when silence descends at nightfall, there's an evocative serenity to Selous. Calls arrive from distant trees; perhaps two male lions shouting, maybe elephants or hippos besides the water or even the huffing of grazing buffalo just meters from the camp. To come this far south in Tanzania is to be enveloped in a landscape that's never seen human development. And remember that hunting and wildlife viewing take place in completely different parts of the park. Selous is the southernmost stop on a land-based Tanzanian safari while there's also an airstrip providing easy connections to Ruaha and the rest of the country.
World-famous grasslands home to the great wildebeest migration and the world's greatest abundance of mammals.
Stand out destination in Africa
Home to the world's greatest concentration of mammals, the extravagant Serengeti responds to many images of safari reverie. In fact, the Serengeti seems to be the iconic image that so many visitors to Africa cherish in the preconceptions. The grasslands are seemingly endless, a carpet of green stretching out for hundreds of unbroken miles. It begins before you cross the park's boundary. There's zebra grazing on the grass, gazelle skipping across the grass, leopards hiding in the grass, and giraffe rising like sentinels above the grass. Sporadic rocks interrupt the panorama, home to lion prides that stretch out with a yawn and survey their kingdom. Wildebeest roam in herds of hundreds of thousands, rutting and charging as they migrate around a park that's larger than Belgium. Hooves kick up dust as they maraud onwards, a phenomenal sight for both anyone on safari and any resident predator.
The animals aren't spread evenly across the park. Dependent on the time of year, some areas of the Serengeti empty and quiet, little more than the odd hyena and the elegant grassland view. But keep driving, cross a ridge, and the black mass in the distance slowly becomes half a million animals on the move. These nutrient-rich grasses support Africa's greatest number of ungulates: 400,000 zebras, half a million Thompson's gazelle (easily the most abundant collection of a single antelope), and well over a million wildebeest. These numbers remain estimates and conservations disagree on the totals, although there's general agreement that around 2 million mammals live here. But the understanding hasn't increased that much since the 1950's when Michael Grzimek would fly over the Serengeti in a zebra-stripe painted plane to aerially count the herds.
For eight months of the year, the Serengeti is the setting for the great wildebeest migration. From July to October many of the animals cross into Kenya's Maasai Mara, which is part of the same ecosystem (the division is not a natural one but the national border between the two countries). The wildebeest calve in the southeast of the park from January to March, then take multiple routes north to the Mara. It's not a single mass movement of 2 million animals. Large clusters of herds move off at different times and take slightly different routes. You can read more about witnessing the great wildebeest migration here.
The Serengeti's phenomenal collection of grassland grazers is always watched over by eclectic predatory eyes. Hyenas scurry alongside the herds; lion prides are found in huge abundance, and there are few better places for leopard and cheetah sightings. Around small clumps of trees, you'll also see giraffe, elephant, and various other ungulates. However, the experience in the Serengeti is very much about the battle between predators and prey, between the continent's most famous hunters and its most abundant ungulates. Most predators don't have the stamina to follow the herds. Instead, they patrol their own realm and wait for the ungulates to arrive. So even in on seemingly deserted plains there could be a pride of bachelor lions or the secretive movements of a wild cat.
This huge national park demands a few days, especially when traveling by land. Visit for 24 hours and you're restricted to a small piece of the park, usually the corner closest to Ngorongoro Crater. The wildlife moves throughout the year, and large areas can seem barren. Remember, these are grazers. So once the grass has been eaten they move on. Spending at least two days helps ensure you can travel to the areas currently being graced by the migrating herds. Each blade of grass will be covered over the course the year, so those visiting in February and November will explore different parts of the park. Flexibility over the choice of lodge or camp is recommended to maximize your immersion in the Serengeti's abundance; safari companies have a longstanding knowledge of migratory movements and which camps are closest during which months of the year. Being fixated on staying at a single camp could mean you're three hours from where the action is. Realistically, you'll need three days to explore the park and encounter the huge herds.
Most of the Serengeti is a fiercely-protected national park area, and daytime game drives are the only means of exploration. A few private concessions lie around the edges of the park, providing unique walking and horseback safari options, the most famous of these being Grumeti. Again, these different concessions are favored dependent on the time of year, with the great wildebeest migration crossing through different areas for a few weeks of the year. A handful of isolated airstrips are used by luxury safaris and provide immediate access to the park. Without flying, it's a long drive from Arusha, albeit one that passes by Ngorongoro Crater.
Stone Town, Zanzibar
Enchanting labyrinthine town of coral houses, Swahili culture, and evocative history.
Stand out destination in Africa
Smells and sounds waft through the Stone Town maze; fruit vendors, barbecued octopus, church bells, a muezzin's call to prayer. Centuries of trade and traditions are etched into the walls, stretching back over a millennium of Arab, African, Indian, and European influence. This UNESCO World Heritage site is one of the unmistakable cultural highlights of Sub-Saharan Africa, and it's far from a museum piece. On the lively streets, you're immersed in local life, and most hotels effortlessly celebrate another era, either housed in an old coral house or languidly gazing out over the Stone Town's maze of rooftops. Much of the original architecture has been retained in the city, all of it evoking the history of Africa's most famous trading post.
Some visit the Stone Town as a day trip from one of Zanzibar's beaches, and this is all that's required to explore the key historical highlights, including the Slave Market, Tippu Tip's House, Palace Museum, House of Wonders, and Old Fort. All these monuments are part of the labyrinth, visited on foot by walking down alleyways that are barely wide enough for a passing donkey cart laden with oranges. Fully discovering the town's elegance and beauty requires at least a couple of nights amidst these atmospheric lanes. Various restaurants provide sublime ocean and sunset views, yet you could also spend the evening at a local cafe tucked down a hidden street. The extra advantage of spending the night is being able to explore in the cooler hours of the day. Day trips invariably bring you to the Stone Town in the heat of the afternoon, when everything slumbers into a quiet siesta. Early-evening is a far more vibrant time to soak up the charms.
Tarangire National Park
Huge elephant herds amongst the famed mammals roaming through a landscape of acacias and baobabs.
Tarangire's landscape seems to come from a safari fairytale, with thousands of huge elephants roaming past ancient baobab trees. These pachyderms move in large herds, sometimes 30, 40 or even 100 slowly marching together. They're the inimitable and unmissable highlights of this northern Tanzania national park, but they're far from lonely in the trees. There are no abundant ungulate species but the diverse woodland and savannah habitat makes Tarangire home to a rich variety of species as well as over 500 different birds. Predators are also abundant but spotting them is often challenging as the thick woodland provides ample hiding space. Those that are lucky will see the rare tree-climbing lion, a leopard in its lair, or a cheetah stalking a journey through the grass.
Even when the landscape appears empty of wildlife, it's still a famous sight. Some of the baobabs swell and fatten, then come alive with floral patterns after the rains. Others are blackened spouts, dead for years yet still standing like bold rulers of the landscape. With sweeping acacias filling in the gaps it's easy to see why Tarangire is such an elephant haven. Naturally, giraffe are the other great benefactors of this flora, and it's hard to go a few minutes without seeing both nature's tallest and largest land mammals.
Tarangire's stands between Arusha and the most famous parks of Serengeti and Ngorongoro, making it a common first stop on the Northern Tanzania safari loop. It's a wonderful contrast, one of birdsong and iconic woodland to complement the open grass plains. Most lodges have elegant views into the forest and the elephants wandering by. Activities in the park are restricted to game drives, but walking and nighttime activities are offered in the area adjacent to the park. Dry season viewing is excellent and easy, yet occasionally crowded with tourists in July and August. When the park shrivels, all the wildlife gathers around the permanent water of the Tarangire River. After the rains, animals are dispersed through the park and the shoulder-high grass means those predators become even more elusive.
Udzungwa Mountains National Park
Recently gazetted woodland home to endemic primates and beautiful hiking.
Udzungwa's mystical forest trails offer a nice contrast to the nearby savannah of Mikumi and Ruaha National Park. 400 bird species and six different primates are the attraction, including the endemic sanje-crested mangabey and Iringa red colobus monkey. It makes for a break from game drives on a Southern Tanzania safari itinerary, and the trails can be explored without a guide. Limited accommodation options within the park dampen the appeal although that's set to change in the coming years as Tanzania's promotes this recently gazetted area.
Exotic island of white sand beaches, fascinating history, and effortless escapism.
A soporific loop of white sand rolls around Zanzibar, the seemingly unending beaches twinkling alongside Indian Ocean waters. The island responds to all reverie of indulgent escapism, offering a series of destinations handcrafted for different visitors. Some beaches are virtually empty, reserved for the select handful of guests at a particular resort. On others, you share the sand with a few local fishermen or a rocking wooden dhow. For most people, the combination of quiet beach, tropical backdrop, and the gentle ocean is enough for a few days lulling into hibernation. But peel yourself from the sand and there are many unique experiences, including swimming with wild dolphins, tracking monkeys in the forest, and exploring the World Heritage Stone Town. The diving is also outstanding, especially to the north and northwest of the island.
Zanzibar is small and in 90 minutes you can travel between any two destinations on the island. The international airport has drastically increased tourism as you no longer need to overnight in Dar es Salaam before taking a local flight to Zanzibar. Many people now complete a Tanzania or Kenya safari by flying directly to a few days on a Zanzibar beach. Beaches to the north are more developed and have the largest selection of resorts. This was the traditional hub for tourism and it can be as much party as peaceful. Those on the east the most picturesque, the white sand stretching out for a mile whenever the ride goes out. These are mostly quiet and untouched. Those on the sheltered western side offer exclusive resorts. So transfer to a beachside room, kick off the shoes, and settle in: after an adventurous week in the wilderness, this island provides an idyllic antidote.
Bwindi Impenetrable Forest
Incredible gorilla tracking in a thick misty forest.
Stand out destination in Africa
Bwindi is one of only two places in the world that can offer reliable and intimate gorilla tracking. It's a challenging walk through the thick misty forest, but exertion is always rewarded with a spine-tingling hour surrounded by a gorilla troop. This park is the premier reason to visit Uganda and the country's flagship destination. For many years, Bwindi could only accommodate a few dozen tourists a day. However, the recent habituation of new gorilla troops has opened the park to an increased number of tourists and tracking starts from four different locations around the park.
Old capital city situated on Lake Victoria that houses Uganda's main airport.
Entebbe is almost the antithesis of Kampala; relaxed, quiet, and not nearly as vibrant. With serene Lake Victoria as the backdrop, this former capital city has broad boulevards of colonial buildings and modern mansions. Uganda's main international airport is found in Entebbe, making the small city a first or last stop for longer journeys in the country. There's not enough to entertain for longer than a quick stopover although some take day trips onto Africa's largest lake. From Entebbe, you can take domestic flights to the country's famous western and northwestern national parks.
Often chaotic but vividly enchanting capital with red earth-colored roads and friendly locals.
Kampala reflects many stereotypes – good and bad – about big African cities. It's crowded and chaotic, huge throngs of people and cars congregating on narrow central streets. But it's also colorfully enchanting and an immersive look into local life; women in flamboyant dresses with baskets on their heads, thousands of tiny stalls lining the sidewalks, roads made of the burning red color of the earth. Without a guide, the city can be baffling and often daunting. Spend a day with a local's knowledge and you experience a very off the beaten track and authentic piece of the continent.
Kibale Forest National Park
Outstanding chimpanzee tracking and 13 primate species in a sublime forest park.
Kibale doesn't quite guarantee chimpanzee encounters, but it's very rare that visitors leave disappointed. This stunning track of forest is quietly becoming the premier place in Africa to see chimpanzees in their natural habitat and makes for an easy add on to Ugandan gorilla tracking. With just three days you can intimately connect with gorillas and then stand beside a large troop of chimpanzees. The troops have been habituated to human presence, which helps ensure the reliability of the experience, although there is the unpredictable chance of seeing other chimpanzee troops. Much like the gorillas, the experience involves a hike through the forest to where the chimps have last been seen, then an inspiring journey to catch up with them. A rich abundance of birdlife also occupies the trees, with the colorful wings fluttering around a further 12 different primate species.
Mgahinga Gorilla National Park
Unreliable encounters with gorilla troops: Mgahinga can't rival nearby Bwindi or Volcanoes National Park.
Mgahinga has been traditionally used as a destination for tracking gorillas. However, the habituated gorilla troop is prone to crossing the border into either the DRC or Rwanda's Volcanoes National Park. This makes gorilla tracking unreliable and not guaranteed. The habituation of new gorilla troops makes nearby Bwindi National Park a safer option for gorilla tracking.
Murchison Falls National Park
Scenic national park on the River Nile that offers easy game viewing by road and boat.
An ugly decade in Uganda's history saw Murchison Falls used as an armed force's larder during the civil war. This has many visitors wondering just how healthy and abundant this park could have been. Large elephant herds, regular lion sightings, and mass numbers of hippos and buffalo make Murchison Falls good for encountering the iconic. Then a rich diversity of antelopes, primates, and birds offer elements of surprise. Boat and walking activities offer different angles and for a first-time safari, there's little missing from the experience. Furthermore, the scenic Victoria Nile and flowing cascades provide a picturesque backdrop to the safari. The problem now facing the park isn't conservation, but encouraging visitors to visit Northern Uganda rather than Kenya or Tanzania after they've come for a gorilla safari.
Queen Elizabeth National Park
Popular savannah home to chimpanzees, predators, and a huge diversity of birds.
Over 600 bird species flutter across Queen Elizabeth National Park, many of them endemic to a stretch of thickly-forested Ruwenzori Mountains that hang above the savannah. Explore this area and there's both leopard and tree-climbing lions, along with a mix of antelopes. Elephants and buffalo are fairly numerous, and a boat safari provides intimate encounters with huge hippo pods. Chimpanzee tracking is also available here although Queen Elizabeth has fallen behind Kibale in recent years for this experience. A mix of habitats and activities offer a diverse experience here, and although there's few species seen in large abundance, there's always adoring views of the animals. With its proximity to Kibale and Bwindi, Queen Elizabeth National Park is a natural stopover for those staying in Uganda for more than just the primates.
Cute historic town and gateway to Victoria Falls.
Named after the British explorer, Livingstone still retains the atmosphere of a distant era. It's calm and quiet, other than the distant rumble coming from nearby Victoria Falls. Luxury lodges and restaurants have sprung up, contrasting the very immersive local side of the town; vibrant markets, smiles from strangers, flashes of color, etc. While the focus in this part of Zambia is inevitably the falls and the Zambezi River, Livingstone provides a very easy chance to experience a small rural town atmosphere.
Lower Zambezi National Park
Pristine park of woodland and wetlands, home to thousands of big mammals and migrating visitors.
Once the private reserve of an ex-Zambian president, this lush wetland park offers intimate encounters with large elephant herds and often-comical hippo pods. During the dry season, the park is alive with the steps of migratory species, including large pachyderms and thirsty zebra herds. Some predators can also be seen along with a rich diversity of birdlife. And it always feels like an adventure here, the muddy trails swerving through thick woodland before opening onto vast floodplains. Lower Zambezi National Park and the adjacent Zimbabwe's Mana Pools form an ecosystem that's had World Heritage status for over three decades. Like the Luangwa Parks in Zambia, accessibility is its drawback but also its appeal. There are micro flights from Livingstone or you can take a Lower Zambezi river cruise that culminates at this national park.
North Luangwa National Park
Unbroken wilderness offering exclusive walking safaris.
Despite rich biodiversity and plentiful mammals, Zambia can't compete with its neighbors for a revered safari reputation. So it focuses on offering unique safari experiences, the epitome of these being a walking safari in North Luangwa. The park is closed to the public and accessible only with a handful of luxury operators that have permission for these safaris. There's hardly a road or trail in sight as you walk from mopane woodland to riverine forest, then onto the open grasslands. Walks are centered around the Mwaleshi River, a magnet for migrating mammals during dry season months, and an opportunity for intimate encounters with many of Africa's great animals.
South Luangwa National Park
Vastly underrated park reflecting the magnificent diversity of African safari.
Stand out destination in Africa
The trails are rough and bumpy as you ride through this wilderness, and there's never a quiet moment. Leopards stalk impala as dusk light falls across Luangwa's forests. Great herds of elephants splash in the river as a flurry of vultures alert you to a lion pride's hunt. Rowdy buffalo herds stare at barreling hippos while zebra rest adoringly on each others' backs. This is Zambia's flagship safari destination, and it rarely disappoints. Walking safaris take you closer while the nighttime game drives are some of the best on the continent.
There's very little that South Luangwa can't offer. This is pure, untamed wilderness and Africa at its most iconic. Furthermore, the park has hardly been touched by the hand of mass tourism. But South Luangwa isn't particularly accessible, even with the new direct flights from Livingstone. The journey by road is long and arduous, and those in Livingstone can reach Botswana's parks quicker than a flight to remote Northern Luangwa. As such, this is a park more savored by the safari aficionados looking to avoid crowds and enjoy a rich mix of safari activities.
Victoria Falls (Zambia)
Staggering natural wonder experienced from many inspiring angles.
Stand out destination in Africa
Baboons guide you on the trail towards Victoria Falls, hooting and marauding as you hear the rumbustious rumble of the Cascades. Keep walking, the noise almost deafening but trees still blocking the view of the falls. A few more steps and you glimpse the world's most powerful waterfall through a break in the green; then you wander into the open, and the spray drenches you in an instant. Of course, these mile-wide falls are mystically beautiful. But the main memory you take away is their relentless power, especially when you walk across narrow bridges to cataracts standing isolated in the Zambezi River. A series of walking trails lead to different viewpoints both beneath and alongside the falls while the sporadic shouting of baboons means you must always keep the camera ready.
More of the falls are located on the Zimbabwean side of the border. However, this Zambian side is more popular due to its accessibility and choice of activities. Helicopter rides offer staggering aerials of the cascade's power and the area's wild charm. As your focus is drawn away from the tumbling water and layers of steam, there's a real sense of the remoteness in this part of the world, with thick green forests and open savannahs spreading in all directions. Sunset Zambezi river cruises reveal hippos and crocodiles while adventurous kayaking trips take you along one of Africa's most famous rivers. There's easy safari nearby along with the bungee jump from no-mans-land between Zambia and Zimbabwe.
Easy game viewing option from Livingstone with thrilling rhino walking safari.
Easily visited in just a couple of hours, Mosi-oa-Tunya Park offers a rare opportunity to track rhinos on foot. The park's white rhinos are impressive on a game drive, but their enormity takes on a fresh meaning when you're stood just ten meters away. There's hundreds of bird species in the trees above and a scattering of different antelopes along the rustic savannah. Giraffes also make an appearance, and there's more than enough to inspire someone on a first-time safari. However, it's the white rhinos that make this park one of a kind.
Southern Africa's most important ruins and perhaps the finest historical site south of Zanzibar.
These ruins provided the name to a newly independent nation in 1980 and are revered by all Zimbabweans. Don't expect Rome, ancient Greece, or anything akin to 16th century Europe. See these ruins in their context, and remember that these were amongst just a tiny handful of stone structures in Southern Africa at the time. Regarding archaeology and history, this is the most important site historical south of Tanzania. And while they might not have ancient Europe's elegant grandeur, they do have something altogether more African: large troops of monkeys and tropical birds.
Hwange National Park
Huge, diverse national park with incredible game that's damaged by a poor conservation record.
Hwange provides a classic safari experience. Roam through mopane woodland to see huge herds of elephants, cross the grasslands to see ungulates running from lions and leopards, then admire the tense clashes found around waterholes. Almost all the big and famous mammals are seen, along with the rare and endangered like wild dogs. In almost 15,000 km² there's just a handful of tourists and the camp is engulfed by a wild soundtrack. Unfortunately, Hwange is known less for its safari and more for its poor conservation record. This was the home of Cecil the Lion, a black-maned giant whose death at the hands of an American game-hunter caused a media outcry in 2015. There are been various other poaching incidents over the last decade, targeting elephants, lions, and buffalo. So there is a sense of what might have been when you safari in Hwange. On a positive note, the park's abundance and biodiversity remain at astonishingly high levels and increased safari tourism provides huge support for conservation.
Wetland reserve and World Heritage site offering adventurous safaris with hardly another tourist in sight.
Stand out destination in Africa
If Mana Pools were in South Africa or Botswana, it would be well-established as one of Southern Africa's unmissable destinations. These shimmering wetlands turn to expansive lakes after the rains, making them a haven for huge numbers of hippos and crocodiles. During the dry season, thousands of mammals migrate here for its permanent water, including huge herds of buffalo and elephant. Sandbanks and baobab trees dot the landscape while a forest of wild fig and mahogany is the hiding place of leopards and small cats. A mix of ungulates also migrates here dependent on the season, alerting the resident lions and migrating hyenas. Spend four days in Mana Pools and it's extremely rare you'll see another tourist.
So why the lack of visitors? Just as the park was developing its facilities in the late-90's, Zimbabwe's political situation turned tourists away from the country. There's been little investment since. The trails are rugged and sticky with mud, making every mile an adventure. Lodges can't provide the luxury of Zimbabwe's neighbors, and the campsites are not always comfortable. However, if your idea of safari is an uninterrupted wilderness devoid of tourists, then Mana Pools deserves a chance. It's pure adventure, with no indication of what's around the corner or whether the next trail will be open to vehicles.
Victoria Falls (Zimbabwe)
The world's most powerful waterfall and a symbol of Africa's natural beauty.
Stand out destination in Africa
Waterfalls can be higher and wider. But none can rival Victoria Falls for the quantity of water that falls into the abyss. You hear them before you see them, a monotonous rumble that stretches out a dozen miles from the falls. Get close and sometimes you still can't see them, a monstrous haze of mist rising from the canyon and pouring down on visitors. Follow the walking trail alongside the falls and different lookouts provide either uninterrupted visuals or memorable displays of the waterfall's power. Helicopter rides offer the best aesthetics; the lavishly blue Zambezi River opening into a precipitous canyon that's shrouded in mist.
Victoria Falls and the Zambezi River provide a natural border between Zimbabwe and Zambia. Visitors can see the falls from both countries. More of the falls are on the Zimbabwean side, and there are more unspoiled lookout points on this side of the border, but to walk across bridges to the famous cataracts is on the Zambian side. It's possible to walk to the border and cross through immigration so you can visit the falls from both countries. On this Zimbabwean side, the town of Victoria Falls has a tiny urban center amongst vast miles of untouched landscape. Most lodges are nestled upriver along the Zambezi, meaning elegant views and the chance of spotting hippos and crocodiles in the river.