Getting up close and personal with Africa’s most iconic wildlife is near the top of many travelers’ bucket lists.Words: Chris Moss
Sub-Saharan Africa is the world’s undisputed biodiversity hotspot for large mammals. Other destinations can showcase impressive numbers of butterflies, birds, marine life and even monkeys, but to see some of the planet’s biggest and most beautiful beasts visitors have to head for the fertile stretch of savannah, forest and wetlands running from Kenya to South Africa.
The safari experience has evolved in recent years, with camps becoming more luxurious, parks and reserves better managed and sightings more certain,
thanks to excellent training of guides and rangers. Those new to safaris are often amazed at the whole journey: the small flight over pristine bush; the warm welcome; and the authentic village and bush life taking place all around. All leading up to the main attractions — herds of giraffe striding across the plain; cheetah hunting in lush grassland; a pack of lions dozing under an acacia tree until dusk descends.
The appeal of safaris continues to rise. Kenya alone attracts around 300,000 US tourists a year. ASTA members report the appeal of twin destinations
— Kenya with Tanzania, Tanzania with Zanzibar’s beaches, South Africa with Victoria Falls and Botswana. South Africa-bound travellers also increasingly request city stays and vineyard trips.
“South Africa is rising in popularity due to the weakness of the rand and corresponding increased value for money,” says Julian Asher of Timeless Africa.
“Kenya, meanwhile, is showing a gradual rebound from last year’s low, as Ebola fades from people’s minds and positive initiatives such as reducing park fees begin to show an impact.”
Other key trends include: slowing down and spending more time in fewer places; multi-generation trips; digital detoxes in the bush; and active safaris (mountain biking, horseback riding, walking, canoeing).
Seeing the Big Five remains a bucket-list favorite for many people. Observing elephants, lions, leopards, rhinos and buffalos is not merely about checking off species; it’s seeing five powerful, supremely well-adapted mammals in a range of environments where they’re all king.
Travelers want a similar variety of experiences, says Karen Pickrum, of Preferred Travel. “Visiting South Africa, Zambia and Botswana allows you to experience three or four ecosystems in three countries, with many different ways of life and cultural experiences.”
Africa’s most developed nation is famed for its well-managed national parks, strict conservation policies and for delivering a level of luxury rarely found in neighboring countries. Better park roads also mean visitors who want a break from guides can go looking for wildlife on their own.
Kruger National Park is seen as South Africa’s premier safari destination. Despite covering almost five million acres, many visitors report rhino sightings inside a couple of days (largely because there are around 10,000 rhinos here, with very high density in the south — where white rhinos are seen on most game drives). Black rhinos are much harder to find in the dense thickets. Kruger also lends itself to self-drive DIY safaris.
Just two hours from Johannesburg or Pretoria (and next door to Sun City), Pilanesberg Game Reserve is very accessible for travelers short on time. It boasts the Big Five, including white rhinos, plus brown hyenas. The park is a viable size for a self-drive day holiday or two nights in a lodge or camp, and there are some well-positioned hides to provide a break from driving and window-gazing.
Every year from mid-June to October, Kenya’s fertile — and stunningly photogenic — Maasai Mara National Reserve draws vast herds of wildebeest, Thomson’s gazelle, zebra and other herbivores. As well as the spectacle of the migration itself, this is a chance to see lions stalking their prey in the long grasses, as well as cheetahs and crocodiles.
The reserve extends for 583sq miles, with dozens of lion-rich areas. At Governor’s Camp, on the tree-lined east bank of the Mara River, lion prides of up to 30 patrol the river confluences and marshes. Remote Sala’s Camp and Porini Mara Camp, in the Ol Kinyei Conservancy, are also hotspots.
But the Maasai Mara can get busy. Quieter alternatives such as Tsavo East National Park and Tsavo West National Park comprise wild, red plains, rugged mountains, palm-fringed rivers and around 700 lions, a third of Kenya’s lions.
Finally, if you want a boutique experience, check out the Ol Pejeta Conservancy, in Laikipia, central Kenya. It’s famous for its rhinos, but is very good for lions and the rest of the Big Five.
Zambia’s South Luangwa National Park — occupying a broad, fertile alluvial plain fed by the Luangwa River — is thought to have the biggest leopard population in Africa. With every kind of grazing animal, from aardvark to zebra, the area makes ideal hunting grounds for both lions and leopards. Accessibility has improved in recent years and it’s becoming popular. Even seasoned safari-lovers rate the park highly and experts say the late dry season (August to October) is the best time to see large numbers of predators and prey.
Lodges are generally scattered along the riverbanks or overlook oxbow lakes, which means leopard sightings are even possible from camp. Game drives allow further observations and, unusually for a national park, South Luangwa permits night drives. It’s even possible to do walking safaris in big cat country.
Owner-managed Kaingo Camp and Island Bush Camp are both regularly used by safaris specializing in leopards, and lions, while elephant and hippo are also prevalent in the park. Night drives and walking safaris are both used when stalking leopard.
Botswana is home to one of Africa’s last unpopulated wildernesses and is respected globally for its conservation philosophy under President Ian Khama. Low-volume, high-revenue tourism is the model, which tends to benefit travelers and animals.
The country has Africa’s biggest elephant population. Elephant-spotting areas include the Chobe River — supporting up to 50,000 in the dry season — and the former hunting concession of Linyanti. With its own ecosystem, the latter features channels, lagoons and a lush swathe of reed beds, providing permanent water and attracting large mammals and predators year round.
The famous Okavango Delta comprises a variety of terrain, from the Kalahari Desert to vast expanses of mopane woodland and the delta itself, a gigantic inland waterway. It has large herds of elephant, and is also popular with lion-lovers and twitchers. The area is accessible only by light aircraft. There are around 30 camps and lodges across the delta — many safaris begin at the Maun airstrip. The luxurious Abu Camp — known for its ‘safaris on
the back of an elephant’ — and eco-friendly Elephant Bush Camp are firm favorites with elephant-lovers.
The buffalo occupies an ambiguous role within the Big Five. Not as iconic as the lion, as mysterious as the leopard, or as well-liked as the elephant… and yet, the African, or Cape, buffalo, a horn-wielding powerhouse growing up to 2,000lb and 11ft long, is a formidable beast that’s often seen as the most dangerous of all the Big Five. Faced with a pack of wily lions, you can be sure the former is always in with a chance.
In Tanzania’s Serengeti during the migration season (May-August), huge herds of wildebeest are on the move, along with large numbers of zebra, and smaller groups of Grant’s gazelle, Thompson’s gazelle, eland and impala. It’s rare to see more than a thousand buffalo at a time — making the chance of a lion attack more likely. Photo-safaris afford the chance to get pictures from hot air balloons.
Concentrations can be seen in the western corridor of Serengeti along the Grumeti River (site of the andBeyond Grumeti Serengeti Tented Camp), and in the woodland around Seronera (used by seasonal camps). Buffalos, wildebeest, zebras, and eland regularly migrate in and out of the Ngorongoro Crater, too; Sanctuary Ngorongoro Crater Camp gives guests unrivalled access to the crater floor.