Take a look at our top picks for the best African safaris and why we love them
Victorian-era traveler William Cornwallis Harris is widely credited with creating the wildlife safari back in the 1830s. He famously led a year-long hunting expedition in South Africa, writing about the trip and painting many of the animals he saw along the way.
The concept of the safari– the Swahili word for journey– as a big game hunt was later popularized by famous writers like Jules Verne (Five Weeks in a Balloon) and Ernest Hemingway (“The Snows of Kilimanjaro”). But these days the term is used to describe almost any expedition where travelers can observe animals in their native environment.
Still, it’s hard to beat Africa when it comes to wondrous wildlife-watching opportunities. From central African nations like Rwanda and Uganda to southern African countries like Botswana and Namibia, exceptional adventures abound in a diverse array of ecosystems. Here’s a look at our picks for 10 travel destinations that offer the best African safari:
CENTRAL AFRICAN SAFARIS
REPUBLIC OF CONGO
Often confused with the Democratic Republic of Congo, the Republic of the Congo (a.k.a. Congo-Brazzaville) is part of the remarkably biodiverse Congo Basin, the second largest tropical rainforest in the world. The area offers a rich mixture of ecosystems (including forests, rivers, savannas, and swamps), which are home to a broad variety of wildlife species.
This fertile part of central Africa is teeming with life, providing protection for elephants, chimpanzees, monkeys, and more than 1,000 species of birds. But the Congo’s most popular tourism attraction is its population of endangered mountain and western lowland gorillas. Weighing up to 440 pounds, the latter species is smaller than other gorillas, with brown coats and a population that has declined by 60% over the last few decades.
Odzala-Kokoua National Park, one of Africa’s oldest national parks, is arguably the best place in the world to see gorillas in the Congo. They tend to live deep in the forest, resting in well-covered areas, so it’s best to see them when they’re active. Experienced guides and trackers can help visitors find and watch families of western lowland gorillas as they’re playing, feeding, and climbing through the trees. They’ll also teach you more about their mannerisms and behavioral patterns.
As you trek through the dense forest, you might see chimpanzees, putty-nosed and colobus monkeys, gray-cheeked mangabeys, and a wide array of bird life. You can also take a boat ride down the Lekoli River (where you may spot hippos and crocodiles), or take a sunrise hike to Mbouebe Bai (where elephants, buffalo, and hyenas are known to gather).
Surrounded by the majestic summits of the Virunga Mountains– a chain of volcanic peaks straddling the border with Uganda and the Democratic Republic of the Congo that tower from 10,049 to 14,787 feet above sea level– it’s easy to see why Rwanda earned its nickname “the land of a thousand hills.”
Most people are drawn here to see the critically endangered mountain gorillas, of which around 900 remain in the wild (half of which are in Rwanda’s Volcanoes National Park). The conservation plight of the gorillas was made famous in the ‘70s and ‘80s by late primatologist Dian Fossey and the Oscar-nominated biopic of her life, Gorillas in the Mist.
There are currently 10 habituated gorilla families open to tourist visits, so trekking permits are limited to a mere 80 per day. Hikes are moderate to difficult depending on distance and terrain, with treks ranging from 1-3 hours each way. But the rush of adrenaline you feel once your guides lead you to a clearing in the dense bamboo forests, where you find yourself surrounded by mamas, babies and massive Silverback gorillas, is an experience you’ll never forget.
But it's hardly the country's only wildlife-centered attraction. From tracking chimpanzees and several species of monkeys in Nyungwe Forest National Park to a more traditional Big 5 wildlife safari in Akagera National Park, Rwanda has numerous options for nature and wildlife lovers. And since the country is still emerging as an ecotourism hotspot, you’re almost certain to have some of these pristine attractions all to yourself.
Located just north of Rwanda, “the Pearl of Africa” (as Winston Churchill famously referred to Uganda) has been creeping onto quite few lists of the world’s best travel destinations in recent years. Credit for this surge in popularity goes almost entirely to the nation’s natural wonders, such as the world's largest free-standing volcano, second-largest freshwater lake, the headwaters of the world's longest river, and African's highest mountain range.
The bulk of this natural beauty has been conserved by Uganda’s 10 national parks. Each offers an array of outdoor adventures, such as community-based ecotourism, cultural tourism, mountaineering, rafting, and more. But what really makes Uganda a must-see for most wildlife lovers is its impressive array of safari opportunities.
For visitors to Queen Elizabeth National Park, there’s chimpanzee tracking in Kyambura Gorge and looking for the unusual tree-climbing lions of the Ishasha sector. In Murchison Falls National Park you can take a wildlife-watching cruise along the Nile River: The area is home to approximately 450 species of birds and over 75 species of mammals. And of course there’s trekking to see endangered mountain gorillas in the Bwindi Impenetrable Forest, which is home to nearly half of the world’s remaining population.
The Uganda Wildlife Authority gives 20% of all national park fees back to local communities. So any money you spend on a wildlife safari in Uganda helps develop facilities such as schools, hospitals, and roads.
EAST AFRICAN SAFARIS
Kenya ranks near the top of many nature-lovers’ bucket lists, just for the Great Migration alone. The annual event, which typically lasts from May through October, is the stuff NatGeo documentaries are made of.
Kenya boasts two dozen national parks and 16 national reserves. But its finest wildlife safari opportunities can be found in its two most popular parks. Amboseli National Park, which became a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve in 1991, is perhaps best known for its many vast elephant herds. But the 151-square mile park also offers visitors a chance to see the Big 5 mammals and more than 400 different species of birds.
The Maasai Mara National Reserve is one of only two destinations where you can see the Great Migration (the other being Tanzania’s Serengeti National Park). The Mara is home to lions, leopards, cheetahs, hyenas, and more than 470 species of birds. Millions of Cape buffalo, gazelles, wildebeest, and zebras travel 500 miles each year to reach the reserve, searching for water and fresh grass. The world-renowned crossing at the Mara River, where hungry crocodiles lie in wait for an easy meal, is not for the faint of heart.
Kenya also offers countless lesser known safari destinations. Check out the mane-less lions of Tsavo East National Park (one of the country’s oldest); Samburu Reserve, where you can glimpse Giraffes, Zebras and several bird species; and the shores of Lake Nakuru, where flamingoes flock by the thousands (and sometimes millions).
A wildlife safari in Madagascar is completely different from what you’re likely to experience in other parts of Africa. You generally walk rather than going on a game drive. You’re led by an eagle-eyed local guide, who works with the pisteurs (a network of animal-spotters that run around the park and communicate with the guides), who tell them where animals are likely to be seen.
The wildlife of Madagascar is still recovering from the terrible impact of decades of unrestricted logging, which destroyed around 50% of the nation’s rainforest. Numerous lemurs and other endemic species became endangered or extinct as a result of habitat loss.
Thankfully, this convinced the government to create an extensive network of 25 national parks, in addition to its 21 wildlife reserves and four “Strict Nature Reserves.” Popular favorites include Isalo National Park, Ranomafana National Park, Tsingy de Bemaraha National Park, and the Anja Reserve. Poaching and logging are now strictly controlled, and most of the parks require visitors to have a local guide.
In terms of animals, be forewarned that many of Madagascar’s furry favorites are small and hard to see in the rainforest. The island is home to a whopping 800+ endemic species, including countless lemurs (brown, ring-tailed, sportive, Deeken’s sifaka, etc), fossa (a cat-like carnivore closely related to mongooses), jumping rats, around 75 species of chameleons, and more than 250 species of birds.
Tanzania is arguably the world’s #1 safari destination. Its easily accessible northern safari circuit encompasses many of the most beautiful Tanzania National Parks and reserves.
There’s Serengeti National Park, the starting point for the annual Great Migration. Spanning some 12,000 square miles, the Serengeti is packed with lion prides, leopards, and vast herds of giraffes, zebras, impala, and wildebeests. There’s Kilimanjaro National Park, home to the highest mountain in Africa (one of the world-renowned “seven summits”) and wildlife such as buffalo, elephants, leopards, and several species of monkeys.
There’s the Ngorongoro Conservation Area, where you’ll find the world’s largest intact, inactive volcanic crater. Measuring 2,000 feet deep and 100 square miles wide, the Ngorongoro Crater is home to more than 25,000 large animals (buffalo, hippos, gazelles, wildebeests, etc.) and a dense population of lions.
But for our money, Tanzania’s lesser known parks provided excellent safari experiences without the crowds. The diverse array of animals at Tarangire National Park includes lions, leopards, giraffes, zebras, birds, and the country’s highest concentration of elephants. Lake Manyara National Park is equally uncrowded, but includes most of the Big 5 as well as thousands of flamingos during the wet season.
SOUTHERN AFRICAN SAFARIS
Botswana has emerged as one of the world’s thought leaders when it comes to recognizing the connection between ecotourism and conservation. As a result, the industry generates around $250 million in revenue each year.
The country has been increasingly focused on protecting its natural resources since 1963, when the local Batawana people established the Moremi Nature Reserve. But in recent years they have dramatically stepped up their game in terms of fighting the poaching scourge that has plagued other African safari destinations.
Botswana’s wildlife conservation approach is among the world’s least forgiving. The nation banned commercial hunting completely in 2014. Anti-poaching laws are VERY strictly enforced, with an anti-poaching unit largely run by the country’s military forces (with all the training, arms and resources that implies). And wildlife management is largely left in the hands of local communities, providing alternative revenue streams to wildlife trafficking.
As a result, Botswana has become one of southern Africa’s hottest ecotourism destinations. Its excellent wildlife safari attractions include exploring the Okavango Delta via a traditional canoe (a.k.a. mokoro), birdwatching in the Okavango Panhandle, mingling with the 120,000 elephants estimated to reside in Chobe National Park, and having a traditional Big 5 safari experience at Moremi.
To get a real sense of Southern Africa’s diversity, a trip to Namibia is an absolute must. With just two million residents spread across 300,000 square miles, the nation is as unpopulated, wild, and pristine as they come.
Named after the Namib Desert (which stretches around 1,200 miles along southern Africa’s Atlantic coast), the country is perhaps best known for its alien, otherworldly landscapes. Picture massive sand dunes that change color with the light, skeletal trees that look as if they might suddenly come to life, and a coastline that’s famous for its countless shipwrecks (the Skeleton Coast).
In terms of wildlife safaris, Namibia offers many that are unlike those you’ll see in any other African destination. Namibia was the first African nation to officially incorporate environmental protection into its constitution. With 12 national parks and more than 60 communal reserves, the country has more than 35 million acres of protected habitat.
Its most interesting attractions include Etosha National Park, the third largest game reserve in Africa; the remote, undeveloped Khaudum National Park, which offers 320+ bird species as well as big cats, African wild dogs, and more; and Bwabwata National Park, which borders the Okavango Delta and falls along the region’s elephant migration route.
For a wildlife experience you won’t see anywhere else in the world, visit the Cape Cross Seal Reserve. Located near the town of Swakopmund along the Skeleton Coast, it’s home to one of the world’s largest Cape fur seal colonies. During peak times of the year, the population there can grow to over 500,000!
In the decades since apartheid ended, South Africa has emerged as a strong rival to Kenya and Tanzania as the world’s most popular destination for African safaris. Its location at the southern tip of the continent makes it easier and more affordable for most U.S. residents to fly to. And the well-developed infrastructure of cities such as Cape Town, Durban, and Johannesburg offer plenty of options for travelers seeking more than mere wildlife-watching.
Kruger National Park is easily the country’s biggest tourism draw. Spanning some 7,500 square miles in the northeastern Limpopo and Mpumalanga provinces, Kruger is the rare safari park where visitors can drive themselves and still count on amazing animal sightings. Part of the UNESCO-protected Kruger to Canyons Biosphere Reserve, the park is one of Africa’s largest and most biodiverse. Spend a week and you’re virtually guaranteed to see the Big 5, as well as rare species such as African wild dogs and cheetahs.
For a more luxurious and intimate safari experience, visit any of the major private game reserves located in the Greater Kruger area. Londolozi was a trailblazer in South Africa’s ecotourism industry, while Balule, Sabi Sands and Timbavati all have stellar reputations among wildlife lovers.
If there’s a complaint to be made about Kruger, it’s that, with around 1.5 million annual visitors, mass tourism is becoming an issue. KwaZulu-Natal, in the country’s southeastern section, is very different. This is Zulu country, and offers excellent safari opportunities in Hluhluwe–iMfolozi Park, the wetlands of iSimangaliso Wetland Park (a UNESCO site), and numerous private reserves.
The Republic of Zambia hasn’t gotten nearly as much attention as its neighbors (which include Tanzania to the north and Botswana, Namibia, and Zimbabwe to the south). The country is best known for Victoria Falls, which– at 354 feet tall and 5,064 feet wide– claims the title of the world’s largest waterfall. But its reputation among the best African nations for wildlife safaris has been growing gradually in recent years.
Much of the credit for that goes to President Edgar Lungu, who made his commitment to conservation clear immediately upon taking office. “In our effort to conserve and protect [Zambia’s] wildlife heritage, the government will enhance community and private sector involvement in the management of wildlife,” he said. “This is with a view to ensure sustainable wildlife management that will benefit both the government and the communities.”
Compared to other countries in the region, Zambia boasts a booming economy, stable political climate, impressive infrastructure, and welcoming locals. Yet still its 20 national parks see far fewer annual visitors than rivals such as South Africa.
Among these, the 3,400 square mile South Luangwa National Park is arguably the most famous, with wildlife that includes around 14,000 elephants, hippos, leopards, lions, and the endemic Thornicroft’s giraffe. Kafue National Park, which spans 8,648 square miles, is Africa’s second largest park, with the Kafue River attracting crocodiles, hippos, various antelopes, and predators such as African wild dogs, cheetahs, hyenas, and leopards. For a unique change of pace, Kasanka National Park is a 150-square mile birdwatcher’s haven, with 400 species including the African finfoot, Ross’ lourie, Pel’s fishing owl, and western osprey. –Bret Love
BIO: Bret Love is a journalist/editor with 23 years of print and online experience, whose clients have ranged from the Atlanta Journal Constitution and American Airlines to National Geographic and Yahoo Travel. Along with his wife, photographer/videographer Mary Gabbett, he is the co-founder of ecotourism/conservation website Green Global Travel and Green Travel Media.