For many, an African safari is one of those experiences that can feel just as epic and life-changing the first time as it does the fifth time. With wildly diverse climates, ecosystems and wildlife—from the moon-like landscape of Namibia to the lush jungles in Rwanda—the best African safaris can take many shapes and forms. Here is a guide on how to choose among seven top destinations for an adventure that exceeds your expectations.
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South Africa is the continent’s metaphorical catch-all, comprising myriad cultures, climates and an astonishing quantity and variety of wildlife—seeing the quintessential lion, leopard, rhino, elephant and African buffalo is all but guaranteed here. One of the first countries to develop the safari trade, South Africa offers lodges so luxurious that they seem more like resorts than camps, with many offering fitness centers and spas. Several stunning private game reserves showcase the country’s successes in preserving the environment and maintaining biodiversity.
So beautiful it seems like a dream, teeming with wildlife and sensational camps, Botswana is one of Africa’s best conservation success stories. Since it became a safari destination in the 1960s, the country has pursued a low-impact, high-yield wildlife experience focused on exclusivity, conservation and sustainability. Accommodations range from simple to luxurious, and most camps allow no more than three vehicles per outing, so the experience feels authentic, conservation-minded and very private.
Tanzania attracts wilderness explorers with such legendary sights as Mount Kilimanjaro, the Serengeti, Olduvai Gorge, Lake Manyara and Ngorongoro Crater. The country has developed its tourism industry slowly and carefully, turning close to 25 percent of the land over to national parks and private reserves. As a result, visitors can still feel alone in a sea of animals. And although the Big Five are the main draw, Tanzania’s wide-open plains, where thousands of animals can be observed at once, make it one of the most mystical destinations in Africa. Visits can be planned to coincide with the Great Migration, an annual parade of close to 1.5 million wildebeest, 200,000 zebra and 500,000 Thomson gazelle marching hundreds of miles—but other times of year also do not disappoint.
Though in the past Kenya has developed a reputation as a more commercial safari experience compared to its counterparts, this characterization is in many ways misplaced. Kenya offers incredible diversity of wildlife and topography with a range of safari destinations, each home to stunning lodges and camps. Of course, there's the Mara, with its mesmerizing, endless plains and the Great Migration. But there is also Amboseli and Tsavo in the east, home to rare Super Tusker elephants, and Laikipia and Samburu country in the north, where one can witness the Northern Five (the Reticulated giraffe, Grevy's zebra, the beisa oryx, the gerenuk and the Somali ostrich). For those who love barefoot luxury, the coast also has a rich cultural heritage and several beautiful properties, specifically in Lamu and Watamu. And, finally, Kenya’s capital is the vibrant and modern city of Nairobi giving travelers the opportunity for a deeper cultural immersion, visiting markets and museums and enjoying a dynamic food scene before heading off on an adventure to the different corners of the country.
Zimbabwe has been back on the international travel circuit for some time now and is a real player in the luxury safari industry. While visitors may encounter more widespread poverty here than in some other popular safari destinations, the economy and employment rate are on the rise, and Zimbabwe offers plenty of sights and experiences to make a visit here special—including the entire Big Five and Victoria Falls (which is nearly twice as tall as Niagara Falls)—at a fraction of what one pays in South Africa, Botswana or Tanzania.
Often described as southern Africa’s final frontier, Namibia is mostly desert, complete with sand dunes, huge open spaces and great swaths of silence. Twice the size of California, the country has a population of only 2.2 million (about half that of Los Angeles). With rainfall scarce, plants get their water from fog, and most take decades to grow. While more a wilderness destination than a safari destination, Namibia is famed for its intimate lodges set in remote, starkly beautiful places filled with fascinating desert-adapted wildlife.
Rwanda has been heralded as the greenest, safest and cleanest country in Africa. The country is also famously home to the Endangered Mountain Gorillas, which have been conservation icons since the 1988 film Gorillas in the Mist. Today, Rwanda is one of only two countries in which visitors can safely view these majestic creatures. Commonly known as the “land of a thousand hills,” Rwanda is divided into a western region dominated by mountains and an eastern section of savanna and swamps. Volcanoes National Park, in the northwest, is home to several human-habituated gorilla groups for trekkers to visit, as well as golden monkeys, spotted hyenas, buffalo, elephants, black-fronted duiker and bushbuck. For those looking to dive deeper into primate trekking, Gishwati National Park and Nyungwe Forest in the less-visited southwest are both home to the chimpanzees. To complete the full Rwanda circuit, travelers might consider venturing to Akagera National Park—one of the largest success stories in Africa—for a more traditional safari experience.
This content was reviewed and verified by Indagare Senior Director of African Safari, Rose Allen.
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