Zebra are among the abundance of wildlife found in Kenya’s Masai Mara. // © 2014 Thinkstock
Feature image (above): A Masai warrior at sunset // © 2014 Thinkstock
"If a lion jumps out of the bush, don’t run,” said our safari tour guide. “He’ll think you are prey, and he’ll have you for lunch.”
That was my introduction to a safari in Africa. I’m happy to report that no lion came out of the bush and we went on our way, exploring the wide savannah of Zambia’s South Luangwa National Park. We were walking in single file, park rangers with rifles on either end of our line. Presumably, they would take care of any charging lion.
I’m also happy to say that most safaris in Africa are not dangerous. And these days there are safaris to suit every type of adventurer. You can take a walking safari, like I did, or a mobile safari using a 4x4 vehicle. There are also fly-in or “wing safaris,” canoe safaris and self-drive safaris. There are even bird-watching safaris.
Long gone are the days when big game hunting was the only reason to go on safari in Africa. Today, armed with only a camera, you can look forward to “shooting” a leopard in a tree with a freshly killed antelope, a cheetah racing across the savannah in pursuit of prey or a pride of lion, fresh off a feast, lounging casually on the road’s sun-warmed surface in no hurry to move for you or anybody else.
Going on safari in Africa can be a life-changing experience, so figuring out what works for clients, particularly those on their first safari, is not a quick process.
“People want to see the animals, but they don’t know the difference between East Africa and South Africa,” said Katie Cadar, general manager of TravelStore in Los Angeles. “Maybe they have seen the movie ‘Out of Africa’ and they are looking for big sweeping views like in the movie. That was Kenya. So I ask a lot of questions and I try to educate them. I’ll describe the difference between East Africa and South Africa. I ask them what their budget is and how much time they have. And then I start narrowing it down.”
Most safari destinations are in national parks in eastern and southern Africa. Some are well-known destinations and others are somewhat undiscovered and off the beaten track. Here’s our list of five national parks in Africa that are top safari destinations, based on interviews with travel agents, tour operators and some intrepid travelers.
Masai Mara National Reserve, Kenya
The Masai Mara was established in 1961, and it’s the main reason a lot of people decide to go to Kenya. The Reserve is located in the Rift Valley and merges with the Serengeti Plain to the south, the site of the great wildebeest migration.
This is the place to go if you want to see big cats. The Masai Mara has an abundance of wildlife, including the Big Five — lion, leopard, elephant, rhino and Cape buffalo. You might not see all of them at once, but you’ve got a good chance of seeing most of them if you spend enough time on safari. You’ll also get to see cheetah, hyena, wildebeest, giraffe, warthog, zebra, baboon and topi, a curved-horn antelope.
If and when you are crossing a river you should also be on the lookout for hippo and crocodile. The hippo like to wallow around, and their backs take on a pink sheen from a secretion that acts like a kind of sun block. The crocodiles — well, they can just sneak up on you.
Meeting the Masai people is also a treat. These days most Masai are cattlemen who are allowed to raise their cattle on the fringes of the Masai Mara Reserve. A lot of lodges and camps will arrange a trip to a Masai village or home, and some tour operators will handle specific requests.
“We arranged a Masai wedding ceremony for two clients,” said Scott Wiseman, president of the Americas for Cox & Kings. “They went through the entire ceremony, including a blessing by the eldest of the clan, a blessing with cow’s milk, wedding songs and a blessing with spitting saliva.”
Another traveler tells of being able to arrange an overnight stay in a real Masai home, which is built of mud and cow dung. Several local Masai — this time carrying weapons — stood guard on the hill overlooking the hut just to make sure predators passing by didn’t decide to take a detour.
Accommodations in the Masai Mara include safari lodges, family-friendly hotels, colonial-style tented camps and even mobile camps. Some lodges feature domed huts built in the style and shape of the traditional Masai manyattas. Ecotourism Kenya is making efforts to rate some of these properties by how green their practices are.
Serengeti National Park, Tanzania
Just the name Serengeti — which means “endless plain” in Masai — conjures up images of British colonial Africa and wild game crossing the wide plains. But what really sets the Serengeti apart is the Great Migration, a huge movement of wildlife between Tanzania and Kenya comprised mainly of wildebeest but which also includes zebra, impala and Grant’s gazelle. It goes on all year, but the number of animals is especially large during the months of June and July.
“I’ve watched this spectacle for 60 years, and each year it still brings tears to my eyes,” said Tim Lapage, founder of Safari Experts in Park City, Utah. “The sheer immensity is amazing — the dust, the thundering hooves, the endless bleating and the timelessness of it all.”
It’s not uncommon to see herds of animals stretching for more than 25 miles across the plains, further than the eye can see. Sadly, a quarter of the estimated 2 million animals that make the 497-mile trek don’t survive. They fall prey to lion and other predators that follow alongside the Great Migration, looking for stragglers and weaker members of the herds.
Big game sightings aren’t the only reason to visit the Serengeti. It offers an incredible number of bird species — more than 500 by some estimates. For a lot of African bird watchers, this is paradise. In fact, some safaris in Africa are devoted entirely to bird watching.
There is a wide range of accommodations in the Serengeti, from rudimentary camps to luxury lodges, and some luxury camps. Among them are the Serengeti Safari Camp and &Beyond’s Serengeti Under Canvas. They are ideal for putting the safari-goer as close to the migrating animals as possible. These are both mobile camps, but they have all the amenities one would expect of a more traditional high-end lodge. Many African safaris are increasingly luxurious, catering to the crowd that likes a hot shower after a dusty game drive.
Chobe National Park, Botswana
This park is best known for the incredible number of elephant within its 4,500 square miles. By some estimates they number up to 120,000. Individual elephant herds are mind-boggling in size, sometimes in the thousands.
The park is also prime viewing territory for the Big Five. In addition, you can see hippo, crocodile, wild dog, kudu, antelope and, again, huge numbers of birds of all species. A good safari guide will be able to identify birds and any animal, for that matter, day or night, and tell you the history of that species and its place in the ecosystem. If the guide is good, the trip is good.
There are a number of ecosystems in Chobe that range from the dry plains to fertile grasslands, thick forests and water-logged swamps. Many of Chobe’s lodges are located along the Chobe River, which makes for some spectacular sunset cruises (and “sundowners,” or happy hours) to see the wildlife getting in that last feeding before dark.
Its close proximity to Victoria Falls means that Chobe is a popular destination for short safaris and African honeymoons. Some local tour operators offer one-day mini-safaris that include a morning boat cruise, lunch and then a quick view of the game from a 4x4 vehicle.
Winter, which spans from April to October, is the best time to see wildlife in the park. Chobe is accessible by car, but there are other ways to see the game, including from the air.
“It’s a unique experience to try game viewing by helicopter,” said Dennis Pinto, managing director of Micato Safaris. “Hovering above a crystal-clear channel gives guests an unprecedented opportunity to watch a hippo playing at the bottom of a deepwater pool.”
Accommodations in Chobe range from luxurious to rudimentary. Permanent tented camps offer all the amenities of a luxury lodge, including air conditioning and en-suite bathrooms with toilets and showers. Clients can even rent a houseboat.
Kruger National Park, South Africa
Kruger is one of the oldest national parks in Africa — the veritable granddaddy of them all — and it’s incredibly well maintained and managed. The roads are all paved and beautifully maintained, which makes Kruger ideal for self-drive safaris. And it’s relatively easy to get to — Kruger is a five-hour drive from Johannesburg. There are also airstrips nearby, which allow for fly-in or “wing safaris.”
Skukuza, the so-called “capital” of Kruger, is a super-sized rest stop complete with an ATM, a restaurant, a library, a gas station, a variety shop and just about anything else you need to go on safari.
The park covers 7,523 square miles and accommodations are available in two sections. The lower part of the park is home to a lot of luxury lodges. But, if you’re looking for a more rugged alternative, go to the northern area of Kruger, up by the border with Zimbabwe and Mozambique. Here you can go on off-road game drives with private concessions. There is no fence between the borders, so the game can roam freely.
“I usually book people into two different camps,” said TravelStore’s Katie Cadar. “The place is huge and the camps are very different, right down to the color of the earth. The dirt in one camp is redder than the dirt in another. Plus, you meet some interesting people if you move around.”
Kruger is a great spot for night safaris, where you are taken out in a 4x4 vehicle after dark to spot nocturnal animals that might not come out at all in the daylight. Your guide will shine a huge spotlight on the terrain as you bump along off-road, often spotting some animal as it scurries to get out of the glare.
Etosha National Park, Namibia
Namibia is perhaps best known for its massive sand dunes. They are indeed spectacular, and it’s one of the reasons a lot of people go to Namibia. On the western side of the country, the Skeleton Coast, so-named because of the large number of shipwrecks submerged underwater, is also a major draw. For safari-goers, Namibia’s Etosha National park is a real find. It’s far off the beaten track, but it’s not likely to remain that way for long.
Etosha means “great white place,” so named because 25 percent of the country is covered by a huge salt basin that was an inland lake 12 million years ago. It’s hard to imagine unless you think of Utah’s Great Salt Lake multiplied hundreds of times and extending beyond the horizon. That’s Etosha National Park.
As dry as the park can be, in the rainy season it transforms into something altogether different. It often floods, which attracts a huge variety of wildlife. The influx of flamingoes that feed on the blue-green algae is especially dazzling.
The best way to see the game in Etosha is to drive up to a waterhole and just wait. Sooner or later the animals will come to drink, which is an excellent opportunity to take out the camera and shoot away. The animals have been coming to these watering holes for so long and so regularly that they are not easily spooked by tourists.
Among the most prevalent wildlife species in Etosha are lion, rhino, elephant and giraffe, plus a lot of antelope, cheetah and leopard. The best time for viewing wildlife here is from April to October when the vegetation is thin and the animals are clearly visible.
Accommodations just outside the park range from basic camps to luxurious chalets overlooking floodlit water holes. You can also stay at rest camps within the park that have pools, grocery stores, gas stations and restaurants.
One of the more interesting places to stay is the Onguma Tree Top Camp located on Etosha’s eastern side. It is exactly what the name implies — a camp built in the treetops. There are four thatched-roof rooms with canvas walls and outside showers. They are all connected by a raised wooden walkway that then connects to a dining room and a main building.
You might hear a noise in the dark of night underneath your room, an animal on a prowl, foraging for food. After all, you are in Africa.