Africa Safaris 101: The Game's Afoot

by Julian Harrison

Swahili for “journey,” the word “safari” originated when Arab slave and ivory traders ventured through wild country where the tribes were least sophisticated and most dangerous — and where the elephants and other trophy animals dwelled. Today, safaris in Africa are among the world's most popular and venerable forms of adventure travel and ecotourism; the continent's top areas for photo safaris are its south and southeast, mainly due to wide-open ecosystems home to countless fauna and flora.

Most safari itineraries are organized around luxury lodges — some stone and thatch, others large tents akin to canvas suites, with several days at several lodges. For more remote destinations with few or no roads, like northern Botswana and southern Tanzania, fly-in safaris are more common, with small bush planes shuttling guests between lodges.

Many lodges offer walking as an option, but walking safaris have you on foot with an armed guard most or all of the time, sometimes walking each day from one pre-erected camp to another. Canoe trails are conducted down some of Africa’s great rivers, such as the Zambezi between Zimbabwe and Zambia with small groups of up to eight paddling in two-person canoes from one pre erected camp to another (not recommended for first-timers). Finally, mobile safaris put you in Land Rovers or Toyota Land Cruisers fitted with extra seats, long-range fuel tanks, high canopies, and large windows. Most are self-sufficient camping affairs using a mix of public and private campsites, and sometimes booking into luxury lodges along the way.

Top Safari Destinations

Botswana is rainy from late November through February, while June-October is prime game-spotting season. Mostly small, spread-out tented camps allow for low-density viewing; they’re either luxury tented camps or low-end, with visitors expected to put up their own tents and assist with chores.

One of Africa’s greatest remaining nature sanctuaries, accessed by light aircraft and four-wheel-drive vehicles, its Okavango Delta covers more than 6,000 square miles (almost 16,000 square km) of waterways, palm-filled islands, and lagoons and harbors the most animal and plant species in the southern hemisphere. Activities include game drives in open vehicles, guided island walks, and poling through shallow, reed-lined channels in makoros (dugout canoes).

In East Africa, the numerous national parks of Kenya and Tanzania are known for their vast array of species and especially for their annual wildebeest migration. Following the April/May rains in the Serengeti, wildebeest move into its western corridor toward the Mara River, generally staying in Kenya’s Maasai Mara late July to early November before returning to the Serengeti. Rainy seasons are April through early June and November/early December.

National parks and reserves cover over eight percent of Kenya. The “Big Five” (elephant, lion, rhino, buffalo, leopard) can be seen in Masai Mara and Amboseli national parks, amongst others; remote Samburu holds unique species like Beisa oryx, reticulated giraffe, Somali ostrich, gerenuk, and Grevy’s zebra; viewing’s best July through September and January through March. Masai Mara’s undulating hills and rolling grasslands support huge animal populations, including elephants, cheetahs, leopards, Cape buffalos, giraffe, gazelles, Topi antelope, and Africa’s largest lion population; in the Mara River there are also hundreds of hippos and crocodiles.

Top among Tanzania's extraordinary wildlife and grand landscapes are the year-round snow-capped peaks of majestic Mount Kilimanjaro; mighty, mystical Ngorongoro Crater; and the Serengeti National Park, with more than three million large animals spread across vast.

Semi-desert and one of Africa’s least populated countries, Namibia is all about unspoiled nature, rich wildlife, abundant sunshine, and striking beauty, with a short rainy season in November and the main rains in February and March.

Etosha National Park is mainly saline desert, savannah, and woodlands; its main feature is the Etosha Pan, a shallow depression stretching some 6,133 square kilometers (about 2,400 square miles). This white “place of dry water” is very different from Africa’s other reserves; some days it’s a shimmering sheet of mirages on which the animals appear to be floating on air. Its more than 110 mammal species include rare endangered species such as black rhino and black-faced impala, the latter unique to northwestern Namibia and southwestern Angola.

In South Africa‘s top wildlife destination, Kruger National Park, annual rains fall late November through February; the rest of the year’s mostly dry. Game-spotting’s good almost year round, but July and August are considered low season, so fewer tourists come to the lodges and you can score some great deals. In actual fact, it’s still a superb time for game viewing.

Many luxury lodges line Kruger’s western boundary in three main areas: Sabi Sands, Timbivati, and Manyaleti. Sabi Sands is best for year-round game; a two- or three-night stay should yield “Big Five” sightings at the very least.

Uganda is where the East African savannah meets the West African jungle, and the only place in Africa where you can watch lions prowling the open plains in the morning, track wild chimpanzees through the rainforest in the afternoon, then the next day navigate tropical channels teeming with hippo and crocodiles before setting off into misty mountains to spend time with Uganda’s stars: its highly endangered mountain gorillas. Seeing these gentle giants up close is as humbling as it is thrilling, particularly when one realizes that there are a mere 700 or so left in the wild, found only in Bwindi National Park and the Virunga Mountains. Heavy rains come March through May, then lighter rains in October/November.

Bigger than Texas, Zambia has big, unspoiled national parks with tremendous game viewing, especially on walking safaris. It’s rainy, though, so the season’s fairly short; the best time is June through October, but April/May and November/December also offer decent wildlife spotting.

The 3,500-square-mile (9,000-square-kilometer) Luangwa Valley is one of Africa’s last unspoiled wilderness areas and one of its finest wildlife sanctuaries. The Luangwa River meanders through, and oxbow lagoons, woodlands, and plains harbor huge animal populations, including elephants, buffalos, lions, giraffes, and hippos; Luangwa’s especially well known for leopards.

Finally, Zimbabwe may be a disaster politically and economically, but it’s still top-notch and safe for game viewing, with unspoiled wilderness and outstanding variety of wildlife, including endangered species which once roamed all Africa. Dry except during for late November through February; game spotting is good for most of the year, and peak season runs June through October.

Hwange National Park includes vast open palm-fringed plains, acacia woodlands, and mopane forests with elephants, buffalos, sables, roans, giraffe, wildebeests, impalas, and sometimes oryx. It’s also tops for predators — lions, leopards, wild dog, and cheetah, along with the smaller African wildcats, serval, honey badger, civits, and hyenas.

More info: Tripatini’s Africa Safaris forum.

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