wildlife sightseeing in African Safari

African safari - which country to choose?

January 26, 2015

Africa is an addictive travel destination. Captivating landscapes inhabited by a resilient people, together with a vast diversity of ethnic cultures, make this continent far from the homogenous entity we often dub as ‘Africa’. After travelling to the continent four times and through eighteen countries as a writer and photographer, Africa always draws me back with a rare power.

For many, the lure of Africa is the wildlife - up close encounters with towering giraffes, the adrenalin-pumping thrill of watching a lion kill, and the breathtaking spectacle that is the annual wildebeest migration. From tracking the calls of leaping lemurs in a walking safari through the Madagascan rainforest, to photographing the bathing pursuits of hundreds of playful elephants in the watering holes of South Africa, to cruising along the croc-infested waters of the Zambezi river in a canoe - the safari opportunities throughout the continent are both varied and unlimited. While the quintessential image of an African safari is one of driving through a sparsely vegetated plain while animals pose patiently for photographs, the adventures that await are vastly different.

If you are a first-time visitor to this luminous continent, how do you decide which country offers the safari experience to suit you? Here are a few of the top safari destinations and some tips on what each country or region has to offer.

Kenya - Traditional Masai culture, annual wildebeest/zebra migration, and luxury tented camping

Wildebeest migration crossing a river in Kenya
Wildebeest/zebra migration is one of the spectacular annual events in Kenya.

Kenya’s Masai Mara National Park offers the ultimate in traditional safari experiences - luxury tented camps within breathtaking landscapes, daily guided game drives and almost guaranteed sightings of the Big Five - lion, leopard, elephant, buffalo and rhino. Not only is the Masai Mara traversed by the wildebeest and zebra on their spectacular annual migration, but it is also home to the semi-nomadic Masai Mara tribe. Vibrantly draped in red cloth and adorned in beads, they welcome visitors to embrace their culture as they gradually transform from animal hunters to animal protectionists.

While you will have to share the country with large numbers of other tourists, Kenya allows you to be immersed in one of Africa’s most intriguing traditional cultures, while a plethora of wildlife surround you.

Tanzania - Annual migration, magnificent bird life and stunning beaches

flamingos in shallow pools of water, Tanzania
Soft-pink flamingos in shallow pools of water of Ngorongoro Conservation Area in Tanzania.

The north of Tanzania is home to one of Africa’s most famous ‘safari circuits’ - a multi-day, all-inclusive trip where guests embark on game drives into the magnificent expanses of the Serengeti and the beautiful crater of Ngorongoro. Expect traffic jams as you wait for huge herds of zebra to meander across roads as part of the annual migration, while magnificent flocks of soft-pink flamingos fossick in shallow pools of water.

Migratory birds throng to the Ngorongoro highlands between November and March, while crowned cranes, Kori bustards and ostriches are resident within the crater throughout the year. And when you have ticked off the Big Five and had your fill of game drives, alluring Zanzibar awaits. Combining superb beaches, diving and an exotic spice trade, the Arab trading history of the island is at its most evocative in World Heritage Listed Stone Town.

Uganda / Rwanda / Democratic Republic of Congo - Jungle trekking to the Mountain Gorillas

Silver-back gorilla, Uganda.
A silver-back gorilla eating the leaves in the forest of Uganda.

The lush, fertile slopes of the Virungas that traverse the borders of Uganda, Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of Congo are home to accessible colonies of the largest living primate - the Mountain Gorilla. While the tourism industry in these countries lack the experience of their eastern and southern neighbours, the opportunity to stand within a few metres of a grunting silverback gorilla is one they can never match.

Trekking to the gorillas can be a challenging experience, along muddy tracks at altitude, and for several hours at length. But walking through this dense jungle while the calls of chimpanzees, colobus monkeys, and rare bird species ring out around you, is well worth the effort. An encounter with the gorillas, a species so closely related to our own, is truly a once in a lifetime experience.

Zambia / Zimbabwe - Immersive walking safaris and adventure canoe trips

defiant look of a hippo
Hippo, the animal that causes more human deaths than any other big animals in Africa.

Its time to get out of the jeep and start exploring the African wilderness on foot. Zambia and Zimbabwe are not only home to the booming cascades of Victoria Falls, but both offer excellent walking safaris and have reputations for having some of the best-informed guides on the continent. These safaris are about spotting wildlife whilst begin immersed in your environment, and the rare chance to see brown hyena, sable antelope and both black and white rhinos.

For those feeling a little more adventurous, jump aboard a canoe safari on the Zambezi, where crocodiles lurk in the murky depths below and hippos, considered the most dangerous animal in Africa, have been known to charge at potential human aggressors. Canoe safaris offer a fresh perspective of both the African wildlife and wilderness along one of the continent’s most legendary waterways.

Madagascar - Endemic species, undeveloped beaches and bulbous baobabs

Giant Baobabs in Madagascar
Madagascar is famous for it giant baobabs. Photo by Pip.

While Madagascar doesn’t boast the Big Five wildlife-viewing opportunities of the African mainland, its isolation has resulted in a profusion of endemic creatures that makes it well worth the trip across the Mozambique Channel. The most well-known of these are the lemurs, with almost 100 species of this primate endemic to the island and inhabiting some of the island’s most extraordinary landscapes. From the geological wonderland of Tsingy de Bemaraha to the lush rain forests of Ranomafana, lemurs zealously play in almost every corner of Madagascar and guided walking safaris through these wild areas allow you to get you up close.

In addition to its endemic wildlife, such as the cat-like fossa and two-thirds of the world’s species of chameleon, Madagascar features a unique afro-asian culture. It is surrounded by largely undeveloped white sand beaches and islands to laze upon, and impressive avenues of monumental, bulbous baobabs will have photographers absorbed.

South Africa - Big game traditional safaris, world-class surf and stunning wine regions

Herd of Elephants in Africa
Elephants are one of the most iconic animals of Africa. Addo Elephant National Park is a great spot to these marvelous animals. Photo by Pip.

For many people, their first African experience is South Africa - a country where the luxuries of the developed world mingle with the calls of the African wild. Home to vibrant cities, stunning stretches of coastline and almost guaranteed Big Five encounters, it’s easy to understand why this country at the base of the continent has such a booming tourism industry.

Kruger is its flagship wildlife park, where graceful impala antelope and white rhino linger amidst prowling lion, cheetah and leopards. Addo Elephant National Park has a huge concentration of these big-eared beasts who playfully romp around watering holes, and there are also plenty of smaller, private reserves where you can escape the crowds and witness some of the country’s dry country specialists, such as meerkat, springbok and bat-eared foxes.

South Africa is the ultimate destination to combine safaris and surfing, with some of the world’s most lauded breaks, whilst the wine regions of Stellenbosch and Franschoek, with their fine dining and luxury accommodation, will keep the culinary aficionados more than satisfied.

Namibia - Rich marine life, desert-adapted big game animals and traditional Himba culture

Himba ethnic woman sitting under a tree
Himba ethnic, well-known for covering themselves with otjize paste.

Namibia’s unique, desert landscape, with perfectly sculpted sand dunes and elaborate wind-carved rock formations make a highly photogenic backdrop for wildlife encounters, and it is a great place to escape the safari crowds. Elegant springbok and Damara dik-dik antelope skip across the plains, while elephants and giraffe lumber between sparse Acacia trees.

Hiring your own car and embarking on self-drive safaris is the way to see Namibia, allowing you to explore the ship-wreck dotted coastline of the Skeleton Coast National Park with its rich marine life, and venture into the northern lands of the Himba ethnic people whose women adorn themselves in red clay and goat skins. Sitting around an open campfire with this ancient tribe or watching the comings and goings of Etosha’s resident rhinos at one of the park’s well-lit watering holes while the immense African night sky opens up above, will be etched indelibly in your memory.

Botswana - Unique watery landscape, canoe safaris to spot big game wildlife and birds-eye scenic flights

wildlife sightseeing in African Safari
Botswana offers lots of spotting opportunities in both Chobe National Park and Okavango Delta.

There are abundant big game wildlife spotting opportunities in both Chobe National Park and Makgadikgadi National Park, but the gem of Botswana safari destinations has to be the Okavango Delta. This watery wonderland is a chance to get out of the jeep and into a local mokoro canoe to meander between islands that come and go with the seasonal rains, as do its big game residents. Specialist antelopes, adapted to a semi-aquatic environment, such as puku and red lechwe, inhabit the delta, while large herds of giraffe and elephant lumber through the water.

In the evening watch the sun burn orange over the horizon and sink behind the hippo pool as these hefty (and dangerous) creatures slowly surface and submerge, then fall asleep to the howls, grunts and grumbles of Okavango’s wildlife at your doorstep. If you are going to do a scenic flight anywhere in Africa, then the Okavango Delta is the place, allowing you to get a sense of the immensity and reflective beauty of this unique African safari landscape.

Ethiopia - Breath-taking landscapes, tribal cultures and bleeding heart baboons

Gelada Baboons in Ethiopia
Gelada Baboons abound in the Ethiopia Simien Mountains. Photo by Pip.

Ethiopia is a country of extraordinary landscapes, rock-hewn historical treasures and compelling tribal people. Endemic Gelada Baboons, otherwise known as ‘Bleeding Heart Baboons’ for their bright red chests, inhabit the magnificent Simien Mountains. This high-altitude area provides a spectacular backdrop for easy walking safaris to witness large numbers of these Old World monkeys at play and the photographic opportunities are spell-binding.

While civil war has led many of Ethiopia’s large mammals, such as Black rhinoceros and Ethiopian Wolf, to become critically endangered, lions, elephants, gazelles and antelope are still seen throughout the country, and the Great Rift Valley lakes are home to a profusion of bird life, including the endemic Abyssinian Catbird and Ethiopian Siskin.

For those keen to explore the cultural riches of what is considered by many the cradle of mankind, together with some unique wildlife experiences, Ethiopia is slowly emerging as a favourite destination amongst returning African tourists.

Enchanting Africa

For many, an African safari conjures images of bumping along in a jeep and leisurely taking photographs as a slow ‘film’ of wild animals plays out alongside. But in reality, it is so much more than that. An African safari is about chasing the action as antelope are hunted down by families of prowling lions. It’s about exploring ancient forests and expansive plains on foot while the calls of the wild reverberate around you, or braving the treacherous waters of the continent’s waterways. Whichever country you choose to start your African safari experience in, there are always new adventures that await, ready to lure you back to this diverse and enchanting continent.

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