One of the top ‘must-do’ items on anyone’s bucket list has to be an African safari. Sweeping through magnificent awe-inspiring landscapes, watching the most exotic of wild animals in their natural habitats, spending magical nights under canvas or in rustic lodges under star-studded skies…a safari never fails to be a truly unforgettable experience.
Words by Ben West
A continent as diverse as Africa naturally provides a great range of safaris to choose from, whether you select a majestic drive over the Serengeti plains, a tramp through the vegetation-rich paths of the Luangwa Valley, or drifting slowly along the Okavango Delta in a traditional wooden canoe.
African safaris have moved on somewhat since their inception in 1836 when William Cornwallis Harris led an expedition to observe wildlife and landscapes. Specialised safari experiences have diversified today to include such options as fly-in, river, primate, elephantback, horseback and balloon safaris, as well as accessible safaris for people with disabilities.
Africa is overwhelmed by safari destinations, but a handful of countries including Kenya, Tanzania, South Africa, Botswana, Zambia, Zimbabwe and Namibia perhaps offer the best-organised wildlife-watching opportunities, and often represent the best value for money.
Further options include Cameroon, Gabon, Uganda and Rwanda, although the first two have a less developed tourism infrastructure (and therefore there are more issues travelling around, finding quality accommodation and access to as varied a selection of wildlife) and all are likely to be considerably more costly to visit than the most established safari destinations like Kenya and South Africa.
Kenya, the original safari market, remains Africa’s most popular safari destination and the Masai Mara Reserve is its most popular wildlife park. Here you can witness the dramatic and unforgettable migration of millions of zebra and wildebeest from July to October: it is possibly the best wildlife show on earth. Although Kenya principally provides for the mass market tourism sector, this does mean that it is particularly affordable. It is especially ideal for safaris coupled with inexpensive beach breaks.
Botswana, boasting four distinct eco-systems, has an established luxury safari infrastructure and is the most expensive safari destination to visit in Africa. Highlights include Chobe National Park, with its herds of giraffe, wildebeest, elephant, zebra, eland and buffalo. Being accessible by car reduces the cost of visiting Chobe, and the great variety of accommodation available is a boon for those on a budget.
Botswana’s stunning Okavango Delta, slicing through the centre of the Kalahari Desert, is a must-see. The large variety of mammals and birds here can be viewed from a traditional canoe, called a mokoro. Accommodation spans simple camping sites to comfortable lodges and luxury safari camps.
In Namibia, safaris are enhanced by the particularly dramatic scenery it is blessed with. It’s top park is Etosha, which contains more than 90 mammal species including the endangered black rhino and the continent’s tallest elephants. Other wildlife in abundance includes much birdlife as well as lion, giraffe, cheetah and leopard.
Zambia excels in its walking safaris and particularly high standards of guiding, especially in the South Luangwa National Park. Offering accommodation for all budgets, here you can witness large prides of lions, many hippos in the Luangwa river, and more than 400 species of bird. You can’t beat a walking safari to savour the surroundings and take in every subtlety of the wildlife, from an unfamiliar bird’s call to the roar of an elephant.
South Africa’s Kruger National Park perhaps offers the largest variety of wildlife in a concentrated area on the continent. The luxury lodges are generally located in the southern section of Kruger, while the northernmost area of the Park, near the South African border with Zimbabwe and Mozambique, offers more of a deep-bush experience.
Tanzania is another particularly popular safari destination, it’s most famous park being the Serengeti. Its expanses of grasslands are ideal for watching lion kills and huge zebra and wildebeest migrations. The Ngorongoro Conservation Area features the world’s largest crater, which naturally contains virtually every species of wildlife found in the region.
Zimbabwe’s turbulent recent history has not quashed its safari opportunities. One of the cheaper safari destinations overall, not least because of the recent troubles, its Hwange National Park boasts more than 100 mammal species, many in abundance including elephant, giraffe, wild dog and lion. A Zimbabwe safari holiday can easily be combined with a visit to the stunning Victoria Falls.
For those with deeper pockets, a trip to Bwindi Impenetrable Forest in Uganda will yield an opportunity to observe mountain gorillas as well as chimpanzees and many other mammals.
It is 20 years since the genocide in Rwanda and the country has transformed itself into a stable and increasingly prosperous destination, and it remains a prime location for observing mountain gorillas and other primates.
Safaris can sometimes hit the wallet hard, especially when you specify exclusive camps, private guides and short hops by air. However, there are numerous ways you can reduce costs considerably.
One option is to go off-season. Flights are cheaper and reserves less crowded, resulting in lower prices at camps and lodges. The weather may be less predictable, but the quieter surroundings usually more than compensates. Seasons vary around the continent: in east Africa lodges often close during the April/May rainy season while South African accommodation is open all year.
The less well known reserves, such as Zambia’s North Luangwa, Kenya’s Samburu and Madikwe in South Africa, are often more keenly priced than the better-known ones.
State-run national parks are usually significantly cheaper than privately run ones, although there are likely to be rather less creature comforts.
The smaller, owner-operated lodges are often better value than the more swish accommodation offered by the bigger safari companies, which tend to have higher overheads. Joining a group tour rather than turning up alone or as a couple can also make considerable savings. Likewise, newer lodges tend to be more competitively priced than their older, more established counterparts.