Africa is a continent full of diversity and wonder; its broad spectrum of cultures, climate and environment make it a must-visit for everyone. It need not cost you an arm and a leg either, as there are safari packages to suit all budgets, and you can even go solo, make up your own itinerary and choose at timetable to suit your sightseeing needs.Here you will find the top countries across Africa in which to spot the Big Five – that’s rhinoceros, buffalo, elephant, lion and leopard to those uninitiated with big game box-checking – and more exotic creatures great and small…
THE EXPERIENCE This eastern African country is a great place to take in all your safari desires as it has something for everyone, from towering mountain peaks and breathtaking views through to nature reserves and everything you could possibly think of for your dream safari experience. As well as the numerous creatures that are on-hand to occupy your time spotting, you are just as likely to be bewitched by the scenery in which these animals live. The great plains of the Serengeti are a truly awe-inspiring sight to behold, equally so Mount Kilimanjaro, which towers more than 19,000ft above sea level. It is the highest mountain in the continent, as well as one of the big seven mountains (the tallest mountains on each of the world’s continents) that driven climbers seek to ascend. For the adventurous and strong, you can bag yourself a summit too as part of a five-day trekking excursion – best get ready for the altitude though!
THE ANIMALS Being home to no fewer than 15 national parks including Mikumi, Ruaha and Saadani means it is the perfect place from which to get out and tick off the big five.
THE WOW FACTOR Tourists descend upon Tanzania every year to witness the great migration, in which 1.5 million wildebeest journey 1200 miles across the country’s grasslands and hills towards their destination in Kenya’s Maasai Mara National Reserve.
THE EXPERIENCE There are all manner of safari options for the intrepid explorer to find in South Africa. While most visitors to the country will take the most common starting point landing at Cape Town and heading out east along the Garden Route, you would do better to make your own way up to the northern part of the country where some of the best safari experiences in all of Africa can be found.Kruger National Park is one of the biggest in all of the continent – it’s almost the size of Wales. Despite its size it can get crowded, meaning it is best to get off the beaten track and avoid the popular routes. With everything from campsites to bustling compounds though, this is never too much of a problem. The Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park is a game reserve in the semi-desert Kalahari region. Its name translates as ‘place of thirst’, and it is located further to the west, with one quarter lying in South Africa, the remaining three quarters across the border in Botswana. It is a less well-travelled park and offers bountiful opportunities for embarking on a more rugged and wild, not to mention cheaper, big five experience, and is a good option for those journeying on a budget.
THE ANIMALS The big five are joined by plenty of game. The best time to visit is in the winter season, which runs from June to September – the weather will be colder and there will be more chance of rain, but less foliage means you will have a better chance to catch a glimpse of some critters.
THE WOW FACTOR You can combine your lion-watching with sunbathing time by visiting Hluhluwe-Imfolozi. This park is famed for its beaches, so you can do two holidays in one by chilling out on the the beach one day, and spotting the big five the next. Nice.
See hippos in Zambia
THE EXPERIENCE The Gambia is 300 miles long and 30 miles wide, bisected by the namesake river. The River Gambia National Park (also known as Baboon Islands) is home to a primate protection programme based on five islands in the river, which you can visit via boat tours. The Abuko Nature Reserve offers up chances to get your eyes on hyenas, crocs and some of the three types of monkeys that live in the Gambia (vervet, patas and red colobus), with day-long bush and beach safaris also popular so you can get out to spot the animals before taking a picnic on the beach.
THE ANIMALS The Gambia doesn’t have any of the big five creatures on its books for you to peer at through your binoculars. It does though, offer some serious simian-spotting, with apes, chimps and baboons among its most readily spied animal inhabitants. If squawking monkeys aren’t your bag, then you can take in some of the 560 different species of birds that live within six protected areas. Best spots for bird watchers include the Kiang West National Park and the Ginack Island National Park, as well as bird reserves in the coastal city of Tanji.
THE WOW FACTOR One of the most unique points about visiting this west African country from the UK is that it is no more than seven hours away, so there is no jet lag time difference to contend with. This means no dreaded tired eyes, which is handy for animal spotting.
THE EXPERIENCE The Moremi Game Reserve in northern Botswana was voted the best game reserve in Africa a few years ago by the African Travel and Tourism Association, and it’s clear why. The first reserve in Africa to be started by local residents, it is focused as much on environmental conservation as it is on tourism. Or straddling the Shashe, Motloutse and Limpopo Rivers in eastern Botswana is the Northern Tuli Game Reserve, which is just as well known for its spectacular landscapes and rich cultural history as it is for its abundance of wildlife. Comprising 71,000 hectares of diverse habitat, it is one of the largest privately owned game reserves in south Africa and home to bushland, woodland and marshland with towering cliffs, meaning you are just as likely to get caught up checking out the scenery as you are the 48 species of mammals and 350 species of birds that can be found living in it.
THE ANIMALS Situated along the Okavango Delta, Moremi is known for its bountiful wildlife and bird watching opportunities. Both black and white rhino have been reintroduced into the park meaning it is a top destination for big five spotting, and with more than 400 species of birds to be found it is ideal for ornithology enthusiasts, too.
THE WOW FACTOR The Makgadikagi Pans Game Reserve in the central region of the country offers something a little different, with its 1,2000 square miles of seemingly never-ending flat, featureless terrain making up one of the largest salt planes in the whole world. Flat it may be, but the zebra and wildebeest can be found in plentiful supply, serving up another safari option in this diverse country.
THE EXPERIENCE Green vegetation sets apart Zambia’s parks from the arid desert that makes up most other safaris, so you’re in for a visual treat. Because of the many rivers in the country, canoe trips through the wilderness are also possible. Zambia has a collection of more luxurious lodges with waterfront views and extra comforts you wouldn’t always expect so far from home.
THE ANIMALS Permanent rivers all over Zambia mean it’s a magnet for wildlife – and far less visited than safari parks in neighbouring countries. You’re basically guaranteed a run-in with the biggest rhino of all here, the white rhino, and the lush grassland attracts absolutely enormous herds of grazing zebras and antelopes, which can only mean one thing… predators lurking in the trees. You’re more likely to spot a leopard here, though the giant cats do keep to themselves. Packs of wild dogs also rule the roost, but they’re hard to track down (and won’t respond to ‘Fido’).
THE WOW FACTOR Hippos may look slow and dopey, but as the world’s most dangerous animal they’re not creatures for cuddling up to. However for those of you who live life on the edge, some of the safaris in the south of the country take you so close to the bathing mud-lovers, you can almost reach out and touch them. Watch out for floating limbs.
Elephants are everywhere in Zimbabwe
THE EXPERIENCE Zimbabwe is trying hard to attract visitors following years of instability and danger that black-listed the country as a safe and popular tourist spot. However, international flights are flying there once again and many of the safaris cater to younger travellers whose cash may not be flowing. Rustic camping grounds with wooden huts surrounded by armed guards is the name of the game here. The benefit is that many lodges are right out there in the wilderness, maximising chances of a good sightings.
THE ANIMALS In Zimbabwe, they have elephants. So many that the population of the magnificent animals has soared to more than double what the land can support. And as a result they’re wreaking havoc in towns and villages – think stampedes smattering farms, crushing houses, and feasting on whole fields for lunch. It’s a jumbo problem that makes for a unique safari experience.
THE WOW FACTOR Zimbabwe has the best views of the jaw-dropping Victoria Falls and many of the packages include a visit. Going on safari close to the waterfalls is a birdwatcher’s dream – it may sound less exciting than coming face-to-face with the big five but when you see creatures coasting through waterfall mist that can be seen and felt from kilometres away, it will take your breath away.
THE EXPERIENCE Nambia offers up coast line that many other safari parks lack, so it truly stands apart. There’s something for everyone here too – from more budget campsites with showers under the trees to luxury lodges where honeymooning couples shack-up and make some animal noises of their own. Nudge nudge, wink wink.
THE ANIMALS Namibia has the largest and healthiest population of cheetahs in the world; but they run so fast, it’ll be hard to catch more than a fleeting glimpse. If you’re squeamish when it comes to snakes, cross this one off your list. The arid desert is home to more than 70 species of the slithering reptile, including the three types of spitting cobra and the African puff adder, which hide out in river beds ready to strike if your feet smell particularly good (probably nothing to worry about, if your hiking boots are anything to go by). If you hit the coast on safari, you’ll see a whole new set of wild delights – flamingos and seals holding court with hulking elephants and lounging lions.
THE WOW FACTOR Watching the red-hot African sun set atop some of the biggest sand dunes in the world at Namib-Naukluft National Park has got to be on your bucket list. Think Lawrence of Arabia (or, Africa) and you’ll be close – this is one of the world’s oldest deserts and nothing has changed except windstorms whipping the massive piles of sand into towers. The narrow road in and out of the park is also a sight to behold, flanked by huge dunes that will not do you any favours if you’re claustrophobic.