For many, an African safari is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. With wildly diverse climates, ecosystems and wildlife—from the moon-like landscape of Namibia to the lush jungles in Rwanda—African safaris can take many shapes and forms. Here is a guide on how to choose among six top destinations for an adventure that exceeds your expectations.
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Courtesy Singita Lebombo, South Africa
Located at its nether tip, South Africa is the continent’s metaphorical catch-all, comprising myriad cultures, climates and an astonishing quantity and variety of wildlife—seeing the Big Five 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 WiFi, 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 biggest 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 are simple but luxurious, and most camps allow no more than three vehicles per outing, so the experience feels authentic, conservation-minded and very private.
What Makes It Unique: The incredibly diverse ecosystems — desert, delta and plains
Top Activities: Water safaris, game drives, canoeing, visiting local communities
Tanzania attracts veteran wilderness explorers with such legendary sights as Mount Kilimanjaro, the Serengeti 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 should ideally 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.
What Makes It Unique: The Serengeti, the Great Migration and the Maasai
Top Activities: Game drives, hot-air ballooning, visiting Maasai villages, viewing the Great Migration
Who Should Go: Safari newbies, who will be stunned by both the landscape and the abundant game
After years of political turmoil, Zimbabwe is back on the international travel circuit and posed to become a real player in the luxury safari industry. Despite an economy and an employment rate that have been on the rise since 2009, visitors should be prepared to see more widespread poverty than in other popular safari countries. But Zimbabwe offers plenty of sights and experiences to make a visit here life-changing — 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.
What Makes It Unique: Victoria Falls and less expensive luxury camps
Top Activities: Game drives, white-water rafting, bungee jumping
Who Should Go: Travelers who have already been to the more famous safari destinations or those looking for a more budget-friendly safari
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. As a safari destination, Namibia is famed for its intimate lodges set in remote, starkly beautiful places filled with fascinating desert-adapted wildlife.
What Makes It Unique: The Skeleton Coast (so named for the wrecked ships and beached whales that sadly fell victim to the coastline’s currents), the otherworldly landscapes and the animals that have evolved to survive in extremely arid conditions
Top Activities: Sand dune surfing, stargazing, visiting the Himba communities, exploring shipwrecks along the Skeleton Coast
Who Should Go: Nature enthusiasts and those looking for spectacular scenery rather than a safari filled with animal encounters
Mountain gorillas have been conservation icons since the 1988 film Gorillas in the Mist. Today, Rwanda is one of only two countries (in addition to Uganda) 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 west, 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. And no trip to the country is complete without a visit to the powerful Genocide Memorial in Kigali, commemorating the thousands of lives lost during the 1994 war.
What Makes It Unique: Gorilla trekking
Top Activities: Tracking the endangered golden monkey, gorilla trekking, visiting the Genocide Memorial in Kigali, hiking
Who Should Go: Outdoor enthusiasts and animal lovers who want to see gorillas in their natural habitat