Answering the Call of the Wild: The Top African Safaris
Let's face it: This is adventure travel at its most romantic. If your inner explorer yearns to answer the call of the wild, an array of options stand ready to choose from. Most modern safaris are well-planned and expertly guided. The biggest challenge lies in ferreting out the truly wild places—spots where great herds still roam, and the flocks you see are birds, not tourists. Herein are both classic safaris—where you game-watch from a vehicle and stay in traditional lodges—as well as edgier, more exotic adventures that take you to Africa's most remote and untamed territory. There are safaris for all budgets—from bargain camping expeditions to luxury safaris that cost as much as a small car. However you go, whatever your resources permit, you are guaranteed a thrilling, memorable journey. So, pack a camera to your backpack and let's go to the best Africa's safari.
Classic Tented Safari in Kenya
Think safari, and the images come to mind: broad savannahs; hordes of wildebeests and zebras; giraffes and elephants dotting the landscape; acacia trees in the foreground, a striking mountain emerging from the mists in the distance. This is Kenya, where the great safaris originated, where Hemingway and Teddy Roosevelt bagged their prizes, where most first-time safari-goers come. But they come to this east African country for good reason (several reasons, actually).
The Masai Mara, scene of amazing migrations, is Kenya's section of the Serengeti ecosystem, bordering it on the north. The Masai Mara National Preserve should be at the heart of your trip. The Amboseli, known for its spectacular backdrop of Mt. Kilimanjaro, just across the border, boasts a large elephant population. (Amboseli is the base for famed elephant researcher Cynthia Moss.) Tsavo National Park, a popular wildlife area near the coast, has Mzima Springs, where visitors can watch hippos swim by from an underwater viewing area. Mt. Kenya, second-highest mountain in Africa, offers great trekking and technical climbing. The cultures of the Masai and other local tribes are colorful, both literally and figuratively. And despite the Nairobi bombing of the summer of '98, Kenya has historically been a very stable and hospitable nation.
Settle into the landscape with a mobile-tented safari. Although perhaps a bit less comfortable than permanent camps and lodges, the trade-off of a permanent roof, tile bathroom, and swimming pool pays off in being remote and isolated from other tourists—and it gets you the best view of the vast array of wildlife.
The mobile-tented choice is usually just as expensive as a lodge due to the logistical demands of moving camp every day. Deluxe mobile tented safaris, with private baths and hot showers right in the tent, and five-star food and service, run $400-$600 per person per day for a party of four. A notch down on the luxe scale, with slightly smaller tents, separate (although still private) showers and toilets, and not-quite-white-glove service are $250-$375 per day. With shared shower/toilet, and a smaller tent, figure $200-$250 per day. (Service and food are typically very good even down to this level.) Rock-bottom mobile "fly-camping" safaris, where you stay in small two-man pup tents at public campgrounds, help out with camp chores, and ride well-used vehicles with minimal staff, typically cost $75-150 per day. The migrations generally occur from mid/late July to mid-September, though game viewing is still good all through the dry seasons—mid-December through March, and July to October.
Tanzania: The Ultimate Safari
Kenya may boast the fame of starting the safari, but Tanzania trumps it with some of the best game viewing on the continent. Bordered by the fantastic extremes of Lake Victoria (the world's second largest freshwater lake) and Mt. Kilimanjaro (Africa's highest point at more than 19,000 feet), Tanzania's numerous game reserves will fulfill most if not all of your safari fantasies.
The Serengeti is the site of one of the greatest animal migrations on earth. Vast herds of zebra, buffalo, and antelope, plus lion, leopard, and cheetah (and thousands of wildebeest for dinner) storm across more than 500 miles of "endless plain," usually in May or June. (It's impossible to predict the actual movement, since it depends on the rainy season.) This is probably Africa's best-known and most-visited safari destination for the international visitor.
The Ngorongoro Crater may be the best place on earth to see lions, not to mention the endangered black rhino. The largest unflooded volcanic caldera in the world, this 12-mile-wide valley surrounded by 1,500-foot cliffs has especially heavy concentrations of said lion, elephant, hippos, and buffalo.
The Selous in the southern region is the second-largest game reserve in Africa (and the largest in Tanzania), yet virtually undeveloped for tourists. Perhaps because it is difficult to drive in—it's only possible in the dry season. So most visitors take charter flights from Dar Es Salaam. The reserve also has heavy concentrations of large game, though more spread out than in other regions. This is the choice in Tanzania for off-the-beaten path types.
The Tarangire is a wildly diverse park known for its elephants and huge gnarled baobab trees, which give it a prehistoric look.
Mt. Kilimanjaro provides the striking backdrop to many of your trips (its peak is visible from hundreds of miles away), and can be a destination in itself for those more interested in a mountaineering accomplishment rather than the more passive nature tour.
The mobile tented-camp safari is always our recommendation, as opposed to the permanent lodge. You'll sleep in large stand-up tents and move from place to place each night or two. Obviously, this requires portable tents, but the level of luxury can still be ridiculously high—huge, multi-room, stand-up tents, with private shower and toilet, sterling silver tableware, waiters keeping your wineglass filled. More typically, there is a communal shower and toilet tent, but the food and service is still very good. Mobile safaris get you off the beaten path, away from the lodge vehicles (which tend to do standard loops), and make close encounters with game—an elephant strolling through camp, a lion roaring in the night just outside your tent—much more likely. The deluxe version runs $400-$600 per person per day for a party of four. A notch down on the luxe scale, with slightly smaller tents, separate (although still private) showers and toilets, and not-quite-white-glove service, are $250-$375 per day (save about ten to twenty percent more if you share). Rock-bottom mobile "fly-camping" safaris, where you stay in small two-man pup tents at public campgrounds, help out with camp chores, and ride well-used vehicles with minimal staff, typically cost $75-150 per day.
There are other options, however, such as a balloon trip, a great way to view the migration in all its thundering glory. An accent to your stay in the Serengeti is an hour-long float above the vast herds in a hot-air balloon; the advantage here is the quiet (except for the intermittent roar of the propane burner) and mobility, although you follow the whims of the wind rather than the animals. Or the walking safari, the best way to live among the animals. The Serengeti prohibits them, but a few private game areas do allow you to walk along the plains.
Botswana: Exploring the Okavango
Many an Africa hand will say that Botswana, in southern Africa, is the ultimate safari destination: you get superb wildlife viewing, with opportunities comparable to the best of Tanzania or Kenya, without the crowds. And the heart of any safari to Botswana should be the Okavango Delta. A river delta in the middle of a desert? That's exactly what this is; the Okavango River flows out of the mountains to the north and simply disappears into the sands of the Kalahari Desert. The result is a unique ecosystem swarming with wildlife. The bird sightings are spectacular, hippos and crocs are everywhere, even fishing is available. Because of all the water, safari vehicles are impractical here. You'll scout for wildlife in a mokoro (a skinny dugout canoe) as your guide propels you through the clear, placid waters with a ngashi (boat pole) amid the papyrus reeds.
Besides the delta, Botswana offers other superb national parks, such as:
Moremi Wildlife Reserve: a large and scenically diverse game reserve that is home to the largest population of wild dogs in Africa. One of the continent's best-kept secrets.
Chobe: Only 50 miles from Victoria Falls, Chobe is known for lots of active elephants, as well as boat safaris along the Chobe River. (The Savuti, an arid region in the southern region of the park, is famous for its lions.)
Most itineraries would include 2-3 parks, with a few days in each. As with most African safaris, you'll have to choose between a mobile tented safari, or a lodge-based one. Elephant back safaris are relatively new (though they're expensive), and they will get you very close to wildlife, as will one on horseback. Botswana is expensive relative to most safari destinations. Low-end safaris will cost about $100-125 a day, moderate priced lodge ones $175-250. Add another 25-30% if you book through a U.S. operator that includes their own tour guide and other frills.
Plan your trip for May through October for the best game viewing. Nearby Victoria Falls as well as some of Zimbabwe's national parks are excellent add-on destinations.
Zambia: Day Walks and Night Drives
The images of safaris, along with herds in the distance and elephants, giraffes, and more in the foreground often include the more familiar site of a LandRover teeming with tourists. Come to the central African nation of Zambia for the "up close and personal" walking safari. Cooped up in a minibus, peering out of a roof hatch, is still wondrous, but you are a mere spectator to the big game action. On a walking safari, you step up onto the stage with the main players. Although you'll probably see fewer animals--vehicles have the speed and instant mobility to chase down the game--the immediacy and excitement of walking among the beasts will more than make up for it. On foot, a mere rustling in the bushes triggers more excitement and adrenaline than a close-up sighting from the safety of a vehicle. Moreover, silent and fumeless, you'll often be able to sneak up closer to wildlife before it knows you're there.
Walking safaris can be taken either from permanent bush camps or, better yet, from mobile tented camps. In either case, you will always be accompanied by a guide and an armed guard. The safety record of walking safaris is excellent; we're not aware of a walker who's ever been seriously injured by an animal. They are prohibited in some of East Africa's popular parks--the Serengeti, for example. Zambia and Zimbabwe are the birthplace of the walking safari, and still the best places for this unique experience.
The night game drive is equally unique, providing a glimpse of animals in action in a whole new light. Many species hunt at night (lions), under the cover of darkness, and to escape the midday sun. That same cover of darkness allows you to get much closer to game than otherwise, and provides surprises for you both.
And the best place in Zambia for both is South Luangwa National Park. This is a huge park swarming with wildlife, among the best in Africa, which is why it's known as the Crowded Valley. There are elephants (some of the highest concentrations on the planet), giraffes, buffalo, hippo (the best place to see them entirely out of the water), and numerous hoofed animals and various birds. There is a good chance that you'll actually see the elusive leopard, especially on a night drive.
For walking safaris, plan to be on foot for several hours, averaging three to seven miles a day (some last for several days). Your base bush camps will vary in level of luxury. Although perhaps a bit less comfortable than permanent camps and lodges, the mobile tented choice is usually just as expensive due to the logistical demands of moving camp every day. In effect, you're trading a permanent roof, tile bathroom, and swimming pool for being remote and isolated from other tourists. For the typical Green Traveler, that's a good trade-off. Deluxe mobile tented safaris, with private baths and hot showers right in the tent, and five-star food and service, run $400-$600 per person per day for a party of four. A notch down on the luxe scale, with slightly smaller tents, separate (although still private) showers and toilets, and not-quite-white-glove service, are $250-$375 per day. With shared shower/toilet, and a smaller tent, figure $200-$250 per day. (Service and food are typically very good even down to this level.) Rock-bottom mobile "fly-camping" safaris, where you stay in small two-man pup tents at public campgrounds, help out with camp chores, and ride well-used vehicles with minimal staff, typically cost $75-150 per day.
Cost per day
© 2017 William Hemsworth