September 18, 2021
Top African Safaris for any Traveller

Whether it’s your first time visiting the African continent for safari, or one of many trips (lucky you!), we’ve listed the best parks, reserves and wilderness areas to suit your level of safari experience, and your budget.

‘Safari’ is a Swahili word meaning ‘overland journey to hunt or observe wild animals, especially in east or southern Africa’. Nowadays, of course, long journeys across the country are no longer necessary; a traveller can arrive anywhere in Africa within a day or so, thanks to modern travel. With such a large, diverse and breathtakingly beautiful continent at your disposal, it can be difficult to decide where to even start planning a trip to Africa.

Let’s begin with a few questions. What are you looking for on your African getaway? Is it Big Five sightings? That’s elephant, lion, buffalo, leopard and rhino to safari newbies. Do you dream of trekking across grasslands on foot in search of a glimpse of a big cat, or is it watching the migrations of wildebeest on the vast plains of the Serengeti that really excites you? Are you a leisure traveller who enjoys relaxing drives and sundowners at beautiful locations, or the more active type who likes camping, bush walks and outdoor activities?

Whilst many parks boast the big five, other areas offer equally majestic wildlife such as giraffes, zebras, hippos and various antelope. A whole host of parks are also great for birding enthusiasts. Each area has its own unique beauty and combination of game, impressive landscapes, fascinating plant life, and activities on offer, so no matter where you choose to go, you will be in for a treat.

We’ve sorted the parks into three categories: the best spots for first-timers, second-timers and seasoned safari-goers. We’ve also highlighted the budget level, the best time of year to visit each park, the game that’s available within the area, and the vegetation within the area. So go ahead, and start planning your holiday with this easy and comprehensive safari guide.

A] The Best Safaris for First-timers

1. Kruger National Park, South Africa

The iconic Kruger National Park is a must-visit for any first-time safari-goer. Kruger Park is one of the largest game reserves in Africa, spanning both Limpopo and Mpumalanga provinces in South Africa. Here visitors can experience the big five in all their glory, along with impressive, vast open landscapes that are guaranteed to take your breath away. Some safari purists feel that the Kruger is too crowded and carefully managed, however, there’s no denying that Kruger offers incredible wildlife viewing opportunities.

The upside of Kruger’s development is choice: within the park, a wide variety of camps and tours are available, from luxury private camps and lodges to budget campsites and self-catering options. A traveller can find the perfect tour and camp to suit all of their unique needs. Within the Kruger, guests can enjoy bush walks, biking trails, camping and bird watching, amongst other activities.

  • Best time of year to visit: Year round, the rainy season is November to March
  • Budget: All budget levels
  • Wildlife: Big 5, cheetah, wild dog, numerous large herbivores and 500-plus bird species
  • Vegetation: Mopane veld, red bush willow veld, knob-thorn veld, marula veld

2. Masai Mara, Kenya

Masai Mara National Park, known locally as ‘The Mara’, is a large national game reserve in Narok, Kenya. The name of the park honours the local Maasai people, who are the ancestral inhabitants of the area. Masai Mara is any safari-goers’ dream come true, famous for its Great Wildebeest Migration. Each year, 1.3 million wildebeest and antelope move between Kenya and Tanzania, in search of greener pastures. This area is known to have the highest concentration of wildlife in the world.

Enjoy game drives through endless savannah plains dotted with iconic acacias, teeming with wildebeest and zebra, and hidden in the grasses, spot hungry cats salivating as they wait for their moment to strike. As the park is so popular, it’s worth noting that it can get overcrowded with travellers at peak times. To avoid large buses of tourists, head to the more upmarket camps in the west of the park. In Masai Mara, guests can go on game drives, nature walks, balloon safaris, cultural tours and even horseback safaris.

  • Best time of year to visit: Year round, rainy season November to March
  • Budget: All budget levels
  • Wildlife: Big 5, cheetah, hippo, zebra, busbaby, vervet monkey, spotted hyena, over 500 bird species
  • Vegetation: Grassland, Acacia woodland, riverine forest, Tarchonanthus and Croton scrub

3. Serengeti National Park & Ngorongoro Crater, Tanzania

The Serengeti National Park is arguably the best place to witness the Great Migration in all of Africa. This annual event is known as the ‘greatest wildlife spectacle on the planet’. It goes without saying that this park should be top of the list for any first-time safari goer. The Serengeti offers everything that the Masai Mara does, and more. It is 10 times as big, for one thing, at nearly 15 000 square kilometers, giving a sense of endlessness which is truly magical. Due to its sheer size, you won’t be bumping into other guests as frequently, giving you more privacy and exclusivity.

The Serengeti is bursting with wildlife, with over 2 million hoofed mammals, 4000 lions, 1000 leopards, 550 cheetahs and some 500 bird species. Need yet another reason to visit the Serengeti? The magnificent
Ngorongoro Crater is just a short drive to the east, still within the Serengeti Conservation Area. The Ngorongoro Conservation Area is named after Ngorongoro Crater, a large volcanic caldera within the area. In Ngorongoro, guests can spot lions, elephants and black rhinos, all with the backdrop of beautiful plains, lakes and forests.

  • Best time of year to visit: All year round, June to October has the best conditions
  • Budget: All budget levels
  • Wildlife: Lions, elephants, buffalo, rhino, giraffe, cheetah, hyena, honey badger, wilddog, vervet monkey
  • Vegetation: Grassland plains, savanna, riverine forest, and woodlands

4. Chobe National Park & Moremi Game Reserve, Botswana

Chobe National Park is Botswana’s most diverse park and is home to the largest elephant population in Africa. Some of the best wildlife viewings can be done in the dry months, via river cruises along the Chobe River. Here guests can spot countless elephants and buffaloes, as well as lions, hyenas and sable. Also easily accessible from Chobe Park is the magnificent Victoria Falls, which is just a day-trip away.

A little further south lies the Moremi Game Reserve, which protects the eastern fringes of the Okavango Delta. Moremi is home to the Big Five, both black and white rhinos, leopards and wild dogs. Moremi Game Reserve has seasonal wildlife viewing. The best time to visit is in the dry months, from July to October, as there is an influx of animals gathering near seasonal waterways. Boat cruises across the lagoons, or mokoro (dugout canoe) trips down the narrow channels offer incredible big game and bird viewings.

Chobe and Moremi parks are often combined into one trip, due to their proximity to one another. Travellers can move between the two parks either by air, or road via Savuti, known for its elephants, lions and hyena. Both parks can become crowded during peak season.

  • Best time of year to visit: June to October
  • Budget: All budget levels
  • Wildlife: (Both parks) Elephant, buffalo, lion, cheetah, leopard, giraffe, hippo, hyena, zebra. (Moremi only) black and white rhino
  • Vegetation: (Chobe) Floodplains, woodland, marsh, savannah, grasslands. (Moremi) Floodplains, mopane woodland forest, lagoons

5. Etosha National Park, Namibia

Etosha is famous for its massive salt pan, so big it can be seen from space! The park also boasts an abundance of wildlife that congregate around waterholes, guaranteeing visitors incredible game viewing experiences. As the terrain is harsh and semi-arid, it is best to seek out waterholes for the most optimal game viewing. There are no rivers in the park, so don’t expect any crocodiles or hippos.

The end of the dry season attracts hordes of game from the dry bush, including elephant, rhino, zebra, giraffe and oryx. In the rainy season, guests can witness huge flocks of flamingos congregating around temporary lagoons. The park is suitable for self-drive, while concessions in the park’s southern and western parts offer more upmarket guided safaris.

  • Best time of year to visit: June to October
  • Budget: All budget levels
  • Wildlife: Zebra, springbok, big five, oryx, leopard, flamingo
  • Vegetation: Salt pans, semi-arid terrain

6. South Luangwa National Park, Zambia

South Luangwa is Zambia’s top national park, offering a mesmerising combination of open, grassy plains, lush woodland areas, abundant wildlife and raw, untouched vegetation. The park provides breathtaking topography, and is suitable for both walking and driving safaris, although it is best known for its incredible walking safaris. The park tends to attract seasoned safari-goers due its expert guiding and privately-owned lodges, however, it is also an excellent destination for first-timers.

For an optimal game-viewing experience, be sure to visit South Luangwa towards the end of the dry season, a game of all varieties tends to flock towards shrinking water sources, and hippos hog the remaining water in an attempt to keep cool. Here visitors can expect to see a wide variety of games, all except for cheetah and rhino. This park is the perfect spot to stalk big cats and is known for its beautiful leopards. Activities in this park include game drives, night safaris, bush walks and photographic tours.

  • Best time of year to visit: June to October
  • Budget: Medium to high
  • Wildlife: Lion, leopard, elephant, buffalo, a wide variety of antelope, giraffe, vervet monkey, baboon, more than 450 bird species
  • Vegetation: Grass plains, woodlands, baobab forest

B] The Best Safaris for Second-timers

If you’ve been on safari before, you’ve no doubt already experienced the thrill of spotting the big five in all their glory. For your next trip, why not slow it down, relax and move away from the crowds for a more immersive and restful experience?

1. Mana Pools, Zimbabwe

Mana Pools National Park is located in Zimbabwe, along the Zambezi River and the border of Zambia. During the rainy season, this broad plain area creates a series of beautiful lakes. As the lakes slowly dry up, they turn into smaller pools, which in turn create excellent game viewing sites for visitors, as game of all shapes and sizes flock to the pools to drink and cool off.

Although there are usually quite a few pools created as the rivers dry up, four main pools are always visible at this time. The word ‘mana’ means ‘four’ in the local language of the area. As the Mana Pools Park is remote and harder to reach than many other parks, it allows for a quieter and more immersive wilderness experience, away from the crowds. Visitors can enjoy camping, walking safaris and canoeing.

  • Best time of year to visit: May to October
  • Budget: Medium to high
  • Wildlife: Lion, leopard, buffalo, elephant, cheetah, hyena, zebra, eland, waterbuck
  • Vegetation: Floodplains, baobab trees, riverine wilderness

2. Laikipia Plateau, Kenya

Laikipia Plateau is set against the breathtaking backdrop of Mount Kenya and stretches all the way to the rim of the Great Rift Valley. The plateau is made up of semi-arid plains, acacia thickets, sprawling hills and dramatic gorges. The area consists of various ranches, farms, rangelands and wildlife conservancies, doing some of the most effective conservation work in the country. Here, endangered species live alongside cattle and camels.

Laikipia boasts wildlife densities second only to the Masai Mara, and protects a variety of endangered species including half of the country’s black rhino, half of the world’s Grevy’s zebra and the now rare African wild dog. Lodges in the area offer exclusivity and a quieter alternative to the popular Masai Mara. Visitors to the area can enjoy a wide range of exciting activities including camel rides, fishing, horse riding and walking safaris and night drives.

  • Best time of year to visit: Year round
  • Budget: Medium to high
  • Wildlife: Big 5, black rhino, wild dog, Grevy’s zebra, reticulated giraffe, Jackson’s hartebeest
  • Vegetation: Semi-arid plains, acacia thickets

Further reading: A Typical Day on a Kenya Safari

3. Okavango Private Reserves, Botswana

If you’ve visited Moremi already, head on over to one of the more exclusive private concessions for a refreshingly new experience of the Okavango Delta. Here you can immerse yourself in the wilderness, with private game drives, up close and personal wildlife encounters and peaceful evening sundowners. Enjoy drives and walks with not another vehicle or guest insight, gaze up at the incredible milky way at night, and take in the unique sights, smells and sounds of the area.

Both white and black rhinos have been reintroduced into the region, and the big five, as well as African wild dogs can also be spotted in the area. Each lodge has its own unique attractions, which vary according to terrain, and most are extremely luxurious, offering top safari guides and a variety of activities such as walking tours, night drives and even elephant-back safaris.

  • Best time of year to visit: Year round
  • Budget: High
  • Wildlife: Big 5, black and white rhino, wild dog
  • Vegetation: Wetland, floodplains

4. Imfolozi Wilderness Trails, South Africa

If you’re looking for something completely different, a wilderness trail is an exhilarating experience for those seeking an exciting adventure and wanting to learn more about the landscape, vegetation and wildlife in the area. There is nothing that says ‘immersion’ quite like being on foot in the breathtaking, untouched wilderness, taking in all of the sights, sounds and smells on the ground. Here guests have the opportunity to truly disconnect from the modern world, as watches and cell phones must be left behind.

Come up close to the big 5, learn to identify various wildlife tracks, and take in the sounds of the bush at night as you sit around a crackling fire, looking up at the stars. Encounters with rhinos are common along these trails, and if you’re lucky, you might have the chance to watch big cats, elephants or buffalo going about their business. There are five unique trails to choose from:

  • The Primitive Trail
  • The Base Camp Trail
  • The Short Wilderness Trail
  • The Extended Short Wilderness Trail
  • The Explorer Trail

All trails are led by experienced guides, and are fully catered.

  • Best time of year to visit: Mid-February to Mid-November
  • Budget: Low
  • Wildlife: Big 5, black and white rhino, wildebeest, cheetah, giraffe, hyena, warthog
  • Vegetation: Grasslands

5. Queen Elizabeth National Park, Uganda

Uganda is well-known for its gorilla trekking and is one of just a few places in the world where gorillas can still be found and observed in their natural habitat. Queen Elizabeth National Park lies between Lakes Gorge and Albert, with the Kazinga Channel passing through it. The park was named after the Queen of England in 1954, following her visit to the country. Queen Elizabeth National Park has suffered terribly from poaching activity in recent years, however, today wildlife has been returning to the area at a rapid rate.

Watch herds of elephants and buffalo roaming near waterholes, hippos crowding rivers in an attempt to keep cool, and fascinating tree-climbing lions stalking antelope on the kob. Visitors are guaranteed plenty of big game encounters, but for the more experienced safari-goer, the unusual variety of habitats may also be of interest. Look out for chimpanzees in forested gorge areas and the rare shoebill in the papyrus swamps. There are lots of activities on offer at the lodges in the area, including balloon safaris, chimp tracking, cultural tours, boat tours and bird watching.

  • Best time of year to visit: Wettest months April to May and October to November, when some roads are impassable
  • Budget: All levels
  • Wildlife: Big 5, chimpanzees, antelope, waterbuck, hippos, over 600 bird species
  • Vegetation: Hills, plains, forest and swamp

Further reading: Beautiful Places to See Gorillas in Africa

6. Ruaha National Park, Southern Tanzania

Ruaha is the largest national park in Tanzania, and up until recently has been relatively unknown. Due to the development of Tanzania’s southern circuit, the park has become a favourite for many safari-goers. Ruaha is perfect for those wanting exclusivity, as there are relatively few camps in the park, spaced far apart. This area offers classic big five game viewing experiences and is known for its massive elephant population: the biggest in all of Tanzania.

The park also boasts large herds of buffalo, cheetah, wild dog, roan and sable antelope. Ruaha contains an unusual and extraordinary topography, placed between two biomes; acacia savannah and southern miombo woodland. The best time to visit the area is during the dry season when wildlife gathers in large groups around waterholes. In the wet season, bird watchers can enjoy excellent bird watching. Night drives and bush walks with an expert guide are available in this park.

  • Best time of year to visit: Year round
  • Budget: Medium/high
  • Wildlife: Big 5, cheetah, wild dog, sable, roan, more than 500 bird species
  • Vegetation: Acacia savannah, southern miombo woodland, riverine forest

C] The Best Safaris for Connoisseurs

For the connoisseurs, who’ve had their fair share of the big 5, game drives and luxury lodges, it’s time for something completely different, a deep, immersive wilderness experience.

1. Northern Damaraland, Namibia

Damaraland is one of the least populated areas in Namibia and has a rugged, wild landscape. The area boasts incredible attractions such as Gross Spitzkoppe and Brandberg Mountain, both adorned with fascinating rock art and breathtaking at sunset. Twyfelfontein is another must-visit, with 100s of engravings to explore. In Damaraland, the plant life, landscape and wilderness are as beautiful and interesting as the wildlife. Visitors can spot slightly different wildlife in this area, including oryx, mountain zebra, desert-adapted elephant, giraffe, cheetah and wild brown hyenas.

Sectors of land in the area have been turned into concession areas, where local communities and camps work together, and a portion of the income goes back into the community. As each camp is relatively remote, we recommend you stay at least 3 days at each, in order to enjoy a variety of activities, which include bush walks, cultural tours, adventure camping, and hiking.

  • Best time of year to visit: May to November (Camps closed during rains)
  • Budget: High
  • Wildlife: Oryx, mountain zebra, desert-adapted elephant, giraffe, cheetah and wild brown hyena
  • Vegetation: Dessert

2. North Luangwa, Zambia

North Luangwa National Park is situated in the oldest part of the Great Rift Valley and is the most northern of the three parks in the Luangwa Valley. This diverse and unique ecosystem is one of the largest wild and untouched natural areas left in central Africa. North Luangwa is also the only national park in Zambia to contain all the big five.

It doesn’t get more private and exclusive than this, as there are just 3 camps in the whole park, and only a few safari operators are allowed to conduct walking tours in the area. Due to the park’s remoteness and minimal interaction with humans, the game tends to be quite shy, however, leopards and hyenas are abundant, and you’re likely to spot herds of buffalo, hopefully with a pride of lions in tow. This park is the perfect place to track games on foot, whilst learning interesting secrets about the wildlife and terrain from an expert guide.

  • Best time of year to visit: May to November
  • Budget: High
  • Wildlife: Big 5, hyenas, Cookson’s wildebeest, Thornicroft’s giraffes
  • Vegetation: Mopane woodland, riverine forest, open grasslands and acacia thicket

3. Katavi National Park, Tanzania

Katavi National Park is the country’s third-largest park, and is one of the most wild and untouched areas in the whole of Tanzania. The area is extremely remote, with only around 100 visitors entering the park each year. Due to its floodplains and intricate waterways, the area is home to a large population of hippos and a variety of interesting birdlife. To the west, woodlands create the perfect refuge for elephants and buffalo.

The dry season provides excellent game viewing opportunities, as wildlife flock to water sources, and hippos clog up rivers in an attempt to keep cool. Due to the park’s exclusivity, it can only be accessed by air, and there are only a handful of upmarket camps to choose from. Due to the size and remote nature of the park, safaris can last all day. Night drives and camping trips can also be organised.

  • Best time of year to visit: All year
  • Budget: High
  • Wildlife: Buffalo, elephant, hippo, lion, zebra, impala
  • Vegetation: Floodplain, grasslands, woodlands

Whether it’s your first time visiting the African continent for safari, or one of many trips (lucky you!), we’ve listed the best parks, reserves and wilderness areas to suit your level of the safari experience and your budget.

‘Safari’ is a Swahili word meaning ‘overland journey to hunt or observe wild animals, especially in east or southern Africa’. Nowadays, of course, long journeys across the country are no longer necessary; a traveller can arrive anywhere in Africa within a day or so, thanks to modern travel. With such a large, diverse and breathtakingly beautiful continent at your disposal, it can be difficult to decide where to even start planning a trip to Africa.

Let’s begin with a few questions. What are you looking for on your African getaway? Is it Big Five sightings? That’s elephant, lion, buffalo, leopard and rhino to safari newbies. Do you dream of trekking across grasslands on foot in search of a glimpse of a big cat, or is it watching the migrations of wildebeest on the vast plains of the Serengeti that really excites you? Are you a leisure traveller who enjoys relaxing drives and sundowners at beautiful locations, or the more active type who likes camping, bush walks and outdoor activities?

Whilst many parks boast the big five, other areas offer equally majestic wildlife such as giraffes, zebras, hippos and various antelope. A whole host of parks are also great for birding enthusiasts. Each area has its own unique beauty and combination of game, impressive landscapes, fascinating plant life, and activities on offer, so no matter where you choose to go, you will be in for a treat. We’ve sorted the parks into three categories: the best spots for first-timers, second-timers and seasoned safari-goers. We’ve also highlighted the budget level, the best time of year to visit each park, the game that’s available within the area, and the vegetation within the area. So go ahead, and start planning your holiday with this easy and comprehensive safari guide.

  • Best time of year to visit: All year
  • Budget: High
  • Wildlife: Buffalo, elephant, hippo, lion, zebra, impala
  • Vegetation: Floodplain, grasslands, woodlands

4. Central Kalahari Game Reserve, Botswana

The Central Kalahari Game Reserve is the largest, and most remote game reserve in southern Africa, and the second-largest game reserve in the world. At over 500,000 square kilometers, this reserve tops Serengeti, Kruger and South Luangwa combined. The sheer scale, feeling of expansiveness and never-ending untouched wilderness is guaranteed to take your breath away. You won’t see any other travellers as you explore the area, giving you the feeling of having the place all to yourself.

The wetter months (January to May) are the best time to see wildlife, as thousands of springbok, gemsbok, wildebeest, eland and other wildlife arrive to graze on new, fresh grasses. Predators include the Kalahari’s famous black-maned lion, cheetah, and hyena. The area is also home to the meerkat and the ostrich, among other unusual wildlife. In the drier months, wildlife is much more sparse, providing the feeling of intense vastness, an incredible phenomenon to experience.

  • Best time of year to visit: January to May
  • Budget: Medium/High
  • Wildlife: Black-maned lion, cheetah, hyena, gemsbok, wildebeest, eland, ostrich, meerkat
  • Vegetation: Grasslands, dunes, pans, fossil river valleys

Further reading: Botswana – Frequently Asked Questions

5. Southern Selous Game Reserve, Tanzania

Selous Game Reserve is the biggest reserve in Tanzania, yet it isn’t as well-known as the Serengeti National Park. The park boasts a number of different habitats, including woodlands, mountains and riverine forests. Although the game isn’t as easy to come by as in the Serengeti, the park contains large numbers of elephants, buffalo, zebra, lion, crocodile and hippo, as well as more unusual wildlife such as sable and wild dogs.

The park is divided into north and south by the Rufiji River, with the northern side containing most of the camps and safari opportunities. It has only been in recent years that the Selous Project has been leading people into the more remote south, for a truly exclusive experience. If you’re looking for an on-foot adventure into the untouched wilderness, led by an expert guide, Southern Selous is the perfect place for you.

  • Best time of year to visit: Year-round
  • Budget: High
  • Wildlife: Elephant, zebra, buffalo, lion, crocodile and hippo, sable, wild dog
  • Vegetation: Woodlands, mountains and riverine forest

Further reading: Tanzania Safaris: North vs South

6. Liuwa Plain, Zambia

Liuwa Plain National Park’s history is one of the oldest in Africa, dating back to the 19th century where the King of Barotseland, Lubosi Lewanika appointed his people to be the custodians of the park and its wildlife. Liuwa is an excellent example of a place in which humans and wildlife co-exist peacefully, as over 10,000 people currently live within the park.

It is also home to the second biggest wildebeest migration in Africa, where over 30,000 wildebeest converge on the plains during the rainy season. They are joined by zebras and other grazing animals. The main predators in the area are hyenas, with a few wild dogs and cheetahs, and a small population of lions. Plant and birdlife are also a huge draw at Liuwa. Currently, only one company takes visitors here, so it’s guaranteed to be a quiet and exclusive experience.

  • Best time of year to visit: Expeditions in May/June and November/December
  • Budget: High
  • Wildlife: Wildebeest, zebra, wild dog, hyena, lion, over 330 bird species
  • Vegetation: Grasslands

About author

MD and Co-Founder. Born in Zimbabwe, Robin has a long history in Africa, and safaris in general, from running lodges to marketing. He is always on the look out for new ideas and products from around the safari world.

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