The 10 best safaris in Africa
Whether you go deep bush in northern Kruger or follow the big cats in the Maasai Mara, a trip into the wilderness will be life-changing.
When Telegraph Travel asked a group of Africa hands to come up with a shortlist of top safaris and safari destinations, the said hands leapt at the opportunity of celebrating the slices of African wilderness that touch their hearts and souls. So here we feature a selection of 10 ecosystems in six countries, ranging from volcanic forest landscape to desert plains, with animals from mountain gorillas and marauding lions through to equally fascinating dung beetles. People who have been on an African safari will tell you that it is life-changing; that is why, despite the high costs, those who have revelled in the experience invariably come back for more.
I have long held the belief that Botswana’s lions are the biggest in Africa. This is certainly the case with the large, magnificent prides of Duba – namely the Skimmer pride and the Tsaro pride, both of which were controlled for some years by two splendid males known as the Duba Boys. The Duba Boys sadly passed away last year, and for the moment a younger Skimmer male has taken over both prides. We shall see what happens next, as inevitably other males will move into the territory looking to take over these prides – and all hell could break loose.
Duba is a 65,000-acre concession in the far north of the Okavango Delta, with no access by road for most of the year. It has been the bush home of the filmmakers and National Geographic explorers-in-residence Dereck and Beverly Joubert for close on a decade, and it is where they filmed Relentless Enemies, the story of the confrontations between lions and buffaloes. Their company, Great Plains, recently bought the camp, and they are currently revamping what is already an idyllic place.
Seven nights at Duba Plains, to include all meals, safari activities, international & regional flights and light aircraft transfers costs from £4,115 per person, based on two sharing. Africa Travel (0845 450 1520; www.africatravel.co.uk) arrange tailor-made holidays to Botswana.
Mundulea Reserve, Namibia
Covered in seemingly endless bush, the rugged hills and sparse plains of Mundulea Reserve may match a thousand corners of Africa, but it’s the exceptional resident guide and his vision of conservation that set it apart. A decade ago, Mundulea was four large cattle farms and things were very different.
“It took two years to remove the 127km [79 miles] of internal fences,” remembered its founder, Bruno Nebe, as we wandered through his private reserve. Bruno’s aim has always been to restore the area’s ecology: “And not just the animals; the botanical side as well”, he explained, stopping to talk about the nutritional value of the grasses at our feet.
His purple T-shirt and jaunty Rastafarian hat – rather than regulation khaki and cap – bore testament to an unorthodox style. Although one of Africa’s top guides, he has never been to guiding school. Bruno grew up in Namibia, working summers on his father’s game farm, and studied for a degree in zoology before switching to fine art. Eight years at a top German film school, capped with photographic prizes, led to him covering Namibia’s Independence in 1990.
Almost 20 years later, as we climb a rock-strewn slope, Bruno talks enthusiastically about bush encroachment, burning biomass and the digestive tracts of zebras. In the distance, a small group of black-faced impala align their lyre-shaped horns to study our progress. “There are probably less than 1,000 of this native subspecies left; we reintroduced 38 three years ago: now we have 127.”
Later walks yielded more game – a herd of eland, a relaxed leopard in the fading sun and even a glimpse of rhino – but the animals and conservation projects at Mundulea aren’t the main attraction. If we had only seen the impala, it wouldn’t have mattered: a guide as inspirational as Bruno is what makes a truly great African safari.
A nine-day itinerary including three nights at Mundulea would cost from £2,995 per person including economy return flight from Britain and car hire in Namibia. With Audley Travel (01993 838500; www.audleytravel.com).
I like my Africa wild and vast, with the sort of huge horizons that reduce even the most hardened of bankers to tears. Up in Northern Kenya, right up against the Ethiopian border, far away from the fashionable animal-stuffed parks, you can find it. To wander through a land that is populated only by the indigenous peoples to whom it belongs, who live easily and naturally among all its inhabitants, the lion and the elephant as well as the goat and the cow, is to have a glimpse of how things once were and how perhaps they ought to be.
To go deep into Samburu country with Anna Trzebinski and her Samburu husband, Lemarti, is to enjoy a glimpse of an Africa that almost everywhere else has vanished. The days acquire a rhythm of their own. With them you can walk in the morning, lunch in the shade of some acacia trees and then as the sun begins to cool you walk some more, arriving at the end of the day to find the tents are up, there’s a kettle on the fire and dinner around the campfire is already cooking.
The downside is that the game is sparse and very skittish, but for an intense immersion into the Africa many of us dream about, it’s hard to beat.
Lucia van der Post
A seven-night trip to Lemarti’s Camp, to include all meals, game drives, walks, camel treks and cultural visits, international flights and light aircraft transfers, costs from £3,995 per person, based on two sharing. Africa Travel (0845 450 1520; www.africatravel.co.uk) can tailor-make visits to Northern Kenya.
The Zambezi Valley, Zambia
There are few other places in Africa that feel as unspoilt as this valley, through which the sluggish Zambezi river flows past grassy floodplains and lush riverine forests beneath a soaring purple escarpment. It was here that I saw the only full-moon eclipse I will ever see: a burning white flat circle brightening into a bulbous orange orb against a black sky littered with billions of glittering stars. It was here I spent a sleepless night as lions moaned and roared around my tent. Here where I marvelled at the migration of clouds of brown-veined white butterflies en route to East Africa, watched a leopard flick its tail on a branch above my head, saw a baby elephant swim beside its mother across the waters from Zimbabwe, and held my breath as a prehistoric-looking crocodile slithered off its sandbank into the murky waters beneath my canoe.
This is not a park; it’s a wilderness that happens to have a sprinkling of rather comfortable camps and expert guides to bring comfort and knowledge to the experience: Chongwe (www.chongwe.com), with its romantic open-sided tented suites, or Chiawa (www.chiawa.com), with its passionate guides, or Sausage Tree (www.sausagetreecamp.com), with its perfectly positioned sunset cocktail deck. Best of all are the activities available, from walking with armed guides in the early morning to angling for tigerfish, canoeing, boating and spotting nocturnal creatures by torchlight. Or just sitting with a cold beer, listening to hyenas whoop in the hills at night.
Seven nights in a standard tent at Chongwe River Camp, including all meals, most drinks, game activities, current park fees, flight transfers within Zambia and international flights with BA from London, costs from £2,906 per person through Expert Africa (020 8232 9777; www.expertafrica.com; email@example.com).
On the same basis, seven nights in the Cassia Suite at Chongwe costs from £3,268pp; seven nights at Chiawa costs from £3,613pp.
With the confidence of an accomplished slayer, François brandished his machete against a mesh of gargantuan green stems. We cautiously picked our way in his wake, in awe of his proficiency. Perhaps we needn’t have been so impressed: such skills aren’t new here; they were used to devastating effect in countless bloody murders during 1994. Since then, memories haven’t faded – even Google still expects the word “genocide” to follow “Rwanda” – but the country has moved on apace.
Although poor, Rwanda is now stable. Its parliament is run by a majority of women, average incomes are rising fast, and laws actively promote reconciliation. Africa’s most densely populated country is prospering; in many ways it is a model of success.
Tourism has played a vital role in re-energising the economy. For our mountain hike, we had each willingly paid US$500 (£316) – a price that is high but which guarantees one of Africa’s finest wildlife sightings. François always heads unerringly to the morning’s sighting, guided by radio directions from the animals’ full-time bodyguards. Even so, when we heard a rustle, just 10 minutes after hacking off the main path, and several gorillas appeared around us, it was a real surprise.
Slowly, more of the group came into view: the large ones munching on substantial shoots, the younger ones playfully wrestling and tumbling, and an infant suckling contentedly from its mother. Looking into the eyes of a sizeable silverback male transcended any other “wildlife” experience I had known. He stared right back, clearly conscious that I was another individual. We held each other’s gaze; he was, I believe, as curious to know my thoughts as I was his.
Three nights at Sabyinyo Silverback Lodge in Rwanda followed by three nights at Clouds Mountain Gorilla Lodge in Uganda and one night at Kampala’s best boutique hotel, Emin Pasha, costs from £3,150 per person including return international flight, transfers, full-board accommodation while on safari and one gorilla permit per person in both Rwanda and Uganda. cazenove+loyd (020 7384 2332; www.cazloyd.com).
Kruger, South Africa
I have included Kruger Park more for balance than out of any personal conviction. None of my fellow Africa hands has included South Africa, and while I understand their choices, it’s difficult to leave the country off any listing of this kind.
So, the southern part of Kruger is dominated by exclusive, expensive luxury lodges that provide haute cuisine, fine wines, excellent guides and a pretty good first-timer’s glance at the Big Five. But it cannot offer the deep-bush experience my colleagues on these pages so love. For that you need to go to the northernmost part of the Kruger Park, right up to the South African border with Zimbabwe and Mozambique.
Pafuri, a tented camp in this lovely, pristine wilderness that looks out over the Luvuvhu River, accommodates between 80 and 100 people – too many for the purists – but it is a lovely area to be in.
The vegetation and large diversity of mammals and bird life are reminiscent of the most beautiful parts of the Zambezi Valley – and until recently the area was mainly inhabited by hunters, smugglers and the local tribes people, the Makuleke. The camp has 20 exquisite thatch-covered tented rooms, all of which look onto the river, and are joined to the dining area and other communal facilities by raised walkways.
The 24,000-hectare concession is also at the centre of a significant but as yet unfulfilled wildlife experiment: the Great Limpopo Transfrontier Park, the planned super-wilderness that will join Kruger to Zimbabwe’s Gonarezhou and the western wilderness in Mozambique.
Seven nights at Pafuri Camp costs from £3,095 per person including return flight with BA from London to Johannesburg and connecting domestic flights to Pafuri, plus accommodation fully inclusive of meals, drinks, game drives, excursions and all activities. The Africa specialist Cox & Kings (020 7873 5000; www.coxandkings.co.uk) can arrange private tailor-made travel across the continent.
Ruaha National Park, Tanzania
Even before the plane touched down, I knew I was going to love Ruaha. On our approach we banked sharply over a range of broken hills. Below us a herd of zebra was stampeding across a yellow plain, and farther off was a huge river bordered by acacias.
Over much of Africa, our covenant with the wild has been broken beyond repair; but not here. Not yet. There was a rawness I had never seen before. This was the Africa of long ago, and who better to show it to me than Chris Fox, the bush-wise owner of Mwagusi safari camp?
At Mwagusi I met an American who told me he had been all over Africa, but now he goes only to Ruaha because nowhere is better. “I’ve been here two days and already I have seen three cheetahs, two leopards and God knows how many lions,” he said.
With each passing day, following Ruaha’s red ochre game trails among smouldering purple hills, I could feel the place getting under my skin. There is nothing gentle about it like the Mara. Its beauty is of an altogether harsher kind. Its parched plains are littered with boulders and wherever you look there are grotesque baobabs as old as London.
Every day we went looking for lions along the sand rivers. The land was painted in muted colours, but in the hour before sundown it glowed like amber, and that was when we watched five male lions emerge from the long grass, one after another. They were nomads, said Fox, hell-bent on a pride takeover, and that night they roared around camp for two hours or more. Life on safari doesn’t get much better.
Seven nights at Mwagusi in Ruaha, including return flight from London, internal flights within Tanzania, current park fees and activities, costs from £3,795 per person sharing through Expert Africa (020 8232 9777; www.expertafrica.com; firstname.lastname@example.org).
The South Luangwa, Zambia
This isn’t the most beautiful spot on Earth. It can be very hot (over 100F/40C in summer), is thickly vegetated and lacks any outstanding geographical features. But it’s where, in the Fifties, professional game guiding began in Zambia – and it’s from here that some of the best walking safaris operate.
Guests come not just because there is great game (everything but rhino, which were wiped out by decades of poaching), but great guides: Robin Pope (infrequently, now he has retired) and Deb Tittle at Nsefu (www.robinpopesafaris.net); and Abraham Banda at Kapani Lodge (www.normancarrsafaris.com).
With these pros at the helm, guests walk a few hours a day, stopping to learn about every moving thing en route, from the Big Five (such as buffalo) to the Little Five (buffalo weaver) and Plant Five (buffalo grass).
While walking is not for sissies (the big animals can, and sometimes do, charge), traversing the bush on foot is the best way to drink in the surroundings, to smell the dung-infused earth, to listen to elephants grumble and trumpet as they trundle, to watch dungbeetles roll their egg-filled balls, to spy on crocodiles digging nests in a sandy riverbank.
There’s no barstool I’d rather drink at than the deckchairs set up beside a Luangwa fire, and no shower as sensually thrilling as the simple bucket hung on the branch of a tree. This isn’t a place for lovers of iPods and spas; it is the earth as it has been for millennia, untouched and unspoilt.
A seven-night safari in South Luangwa, with four nights at Nsefu followed by three nights at Kapani, costs from £2,950 per person. The price includes return international flight, transfers and full-board accommodation throughout. cazenove+loyd (020 7384 2332; www.cazloyd.com).
The Central Kalahari Game Reserve
When most people think of the Central Kalahari Game Reserve, they think desert. They think dust and barren earth, thirst and deprivation. Me? I think blue, blue skies, the sun turning the grass a deep gold, the acacia trees dotting the landscape, each one topped with a chanting goshawk standing sentinel among its leaves. Up in the sky the raptors whirl; down under the thorn trees the animals seek the shade.
In the Kalahari, you have to mind about the small, the neglected, the unsung – the dung beetle and the snake, the African hare and the jackal. You learn to look out for the springbok, the ostrich and the gemsbok, and you get your thrills at night when you hear the roar of the black-maned Kalahari lion and the howl of the brown hyena, while up in the sky the stars are brighter and more extravagant than anywhere in Europe. It doesn’t take long before you understand why Tom Hardbattle, a British policeman who arrived in what was then Bechuanaland after the war, declared: “Everything I ever wanted I found in the Kalahari.”
It’s scarcely ever visited; the camps are few. I like to go with my own mobile safari guide (Peter Comley through African Explorations), pitching the tents where the fancy takes us. But I also long to do what some gloriously dusty, sun-tanned Swedes I once met at Maun airport had done – they had hired two camper vans, complete with vast fridges and tents that rose up at the press of a button, and driven themselves through that land that’s as beautiful, as pristine, as unpolluted as it’s possible to find. They had had more fun, more adventure than any swanky safari lodge could ever deliver.
Lucia van der Post
Seven nights at the Kalahari Plains Tented Camp costs from £3,995 per person, including return BA flight to Johannesburg, connecting domestic flights, transfers, full board and drinks and all excursions, game drives and activities at the camp; book thorugh Cox & Kings (020 7873 5000; www.coxandkings.co.uk).
www.africanexplorations.com can organise a well-priced mobile safari with Peter Comley or, more luxuriously and more expensively, with Roger Dugmore.
www.wilderness-safaris.com has Kalahari Plains Camp in the northern part of the CKGR.
Maasai Mara, Kenya
If, like me, you are a big-cat junkie, there is only one place to go. Come rain or shine, Kenya’s Maasai Mara national reserve always delivers. Here in one day you can photograph a leopard up a tree, look into the amber eyes of a cheetah and come face to face with a whole pride of lions. No wonder the BBC chose it for its Big Cat Diary television series. This is where I saw my first simba, roaring from the top of a termite mound with the morning dew glistening all around him, and where I got to know the Musiara Marsh lions years before the BBC made them known to millions.
For cats and visitors alike, the best time of year begins in July when the migrating wildebeest and zebra herds arrive from the Serengeti in numbers beyond comprehension – the greatest wildlife show on Earth. But in the end what gets you is the intoxicating sense of space and freedom. Driving over its boundless savannahs, you find yourself either gazing up at its wide rolling skylines on which animals – zebra, topi, or perhaps a herd of elephants – are outlined against the blue. Or else you are in the sky itself, on somewhere like Rhino Ridge, looking out over widescreen Africa.
Where to stay? Take your pick from Rekero, Little Governors, Cottars 1920 Camp, Kicheche Bush Camp and Porini Lion Camp.
An eight-day itinerary, with three nights at Kicheche Bush Camp in the Mara, would cost from £2,760 per person including return flight from Britain through Audley Travel (01993 838000; www.audleytravel.com).