Best Countries for a Safari • Your Guide to an African Adventure
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Best Countries for a Safari: Your Guide to African Adventure

Cheetah, Botswana

Because I work in the travel industry, I often get asked “What is your favourite country to visit?”. I always find that a difficult question to answer. I have been fortunate enough to travel to many countries, but there are still many I haven’t yet visited. I usually answer “The last one I visited.”  However, if I am asked “What continent is my favourite?” I always know the answer straight away. “Africa”.

Africa is such a huge continent that it straddles the equator and has a foot in both tropics. It is home to sprawling cities and even larger deserts. There are also vast swathes of tropical rainforest and iconic savannah grasslands. Because of this Africa is the perfect destination for a safari holiday.

An African safari is a magical experience. For most people it is a once in a lifetime opportunity to combine a holiday and iconic wildlife. Despite the luxuries of a modern-day safari, you can still wake up each morning, step outside your tent, and feel like an explorer discovering somewhere wonderful for the first time.

The word ‘safari’ originates from the Swahili language and refers to a journey or an expedition. Although a safari can ultimately take place anywhere around the world, the traditional African safari holiday can be most easily experienced in eastern and southern Africa. But which are the best countries for a safari? Another difficult question.

Safari, Pom Pom Camp

1. Kenya Safaris

Kenya at a Glance
Best Time to TravelJune to OctoberInternational AirportsNairobi, Mombasa
Chance of ‘Big 5’ SightingsHighDirect Flights from the UKYes
No. of National Parks23Ease of Internal TravelGood
Popular DestinationsMasai Mara, AmboseliCost of a Safari££ – £££

Like many people, my first experience of a safari was in Kenya, and I loved it. I was fortunate enough to tick off the ‘Big 5’ (Lion, leopard, elephant rhino and buffalo) and much more in my first visit. I travelled on a budget, but saw so much, that when I left, I knew I would be returning soon to see more.

Kenya is a great all-rounder for those wanting to try a safari holiday. It caters for all budgets and interests. Kenya works excellently as a ‘safari and beach’ holiday location, opening it up as destination for couples and families alike. Direct flights from the UK and elsewhere in Europe, into the capital Nairobi, make it a quick and easy country to reach and this also helps keep the costs down.

Kenya has 23 designated National Parks, even more National Reserves and huge number of Private Conservancies or Game Reserves. The diversity of landscapes and wildlife throughout the country is unrivalled.

If you like your safari with a dose of drama, then a visit to The Masai Mara National Reserve is a must. Whilst it is possible to see the ‘Big 5’ and more throughout the year, it is during The Great Migration, in July and August, that the Mara really comes into its own. Immense herds of wildebeest and zebra thunder across the savannah driven by the search for fresh pasture after the rains. It is a perilous journey that brings them into contact with lions, leopards, hyenas and many other predators. The migration route leads to the banks of the mighty Mara River, where the herds must cross the treacherous current, with hungry crocodiles lying in wait. There is natural drama every day.

Wildebeest migration, Masai Mara

If the calm and slower movements of the African elephant are more your thing, then consider a safari in the foothills of Mount Kilimanjaro in Amboseli National Park.  The Amboseli ecosystem is home to a significant number of elephants, and the park’s open plains and marshlands provide ideal habitat for these majestic creatures. If you see photos of elephant with the shadows of Kilimanjaro behind them, you know that they were taken in Amboseli.

Kenya is divided by the Great Rift Valley, a geological feature created by movements in the earth crust. As well as cliffs and escarpments and the occasional now-dormant volcano, it also created large lakes that support an abundance of wildlife. For encounters with rhino, hippo, and flocks of pink flamingo head to Lakes Nakuru and Naivasha, where green grass and blue waters provide the perfect backdrop to wildlife viewing all year round.

Because Kenya ticks so many of the boxes that make for great wildlife encounters, it is top of my list when it comes to best countries for a safari.

2. South Africa Safaris

South Africa at a Glance
Best Time to TravelMay to SeptemberInternational AirportsJo’Burg, Cape Town
Chance of ‘Big 5’ SightingsHighDirect Flights from the UKYes
No. of National Parks19Ease of Internal TravelExcellent
Popular DestinationsKruger, Sabi SandsCost of a Safari££ – £££

I always seem to underestimate the size of South Africa. It has 19 National Parks, usually surrounded by a plethora of private concessions and game reserves. However, these are not just normal sized National Parks. For example, Kruger National Park alone, covers nearly 2 million hectares. The Greater Kruger (which also includes the unfenced game reserves and private concessions that neighbour the National Park) cover a vast 20 million hectares. Naturally, it is home to an abundance of wildlife and the perfect environment for a safari holiday.

Depending on the fluctuating exchange rate, South Africa is usually seen as a great value for money safari destination. The chances of seeing the ‘Big 5’ are very good, whilst the prices for a traditional safari holiday are relatively low. That is not to say that the quality of safari lodges and camps aren’t as high as other countries though. South Africa is home to some of the best safari lodges in the world.

Leopard, Kruger National Park

In Kruger National Park it is possible to compete a self-drive safari. The roads within the park are well-maintained and there are official fenced camping areas for those that want to go it alone. Whilst this is the most economic form of safari in Africa, it is best suited to the locals and experienced safari-goers who know where and when to go and what to look for. For the rest of us, I cannot recommend highly enough the experience of travelling on a safari with an expert guide. In the Greater Kruger this is possible from any of the lodges that surround the park. In my experience all guides are amazing, but those in South Africa are amongst the best.

One personal example for you. Out amongst the bush in Sabi Sands Game Reserve, my driver and guide, Victor, stops the vehicle and whispers “leopard in the tree” whilst pointing to my left. I scan the trees in that direction and can’t spot it. I grab my binoculars and scan every branch of every tree in that direction and see nothing. Only then, with Victor telling me exactly which tree, and which individual branch, do I spot the tell-tail flick of a leopard’s tail. Nothing else was visible from where we stopped. On my own I would never have spotted it. Victor spotted it half a mile away whilst also driving a 4×4 vehicle. That is a talent worth having.

Although my personal experience of safaris in South Africa are restricted to Kruger, it is possible to have some great safari experiences elsewhere in South Africa as well. Down in the Eastern Cape, the Addo Elephant National Park and the nearby game reserves are home to the ‘Big 5’ whilst in KwaZulu-Natal the difficult to pronounce Hluhluwe-Imfolozi Park, covers 96 thousand hectares and has worked hard in preserving the White Rhino numbers in South Africa.

3. Tanzania Safaris

Tanzania at a Glance
Best Time to TravelJune – OctoberInternational AirportsDar es Salaam
Chance of ‘Big 5’ SightingsHighDirect Flights from the UKNo
No. of National Parks16Ease of Internal TravelModerate
Popular DestinationsSerengeti, Ruaha, SelousCost of a Safari£££ – ££££

The Serengeti National Park is at the forefront of Tanzania’s safari experiences and rightly so. Covering nearly 1.5 million hectares, the Serengeti is characterized by sweeping plains and open grasslands that are vital grazing lands for the park’s herbivores, including wildebeest, zebra, antelope, and buffalo. With large herds of herbivores, you also get ample food for predators, so in the Serengeti there are healthy populations of lion, cheetah, leopard, and hyena. Elephant and giraffe can munch happily on the occasional acacia tree, and although rare it is possible to spot both black and white rhino within the park.

Neighbouring the Serengeti is the Ngorongoro Crater, the living epitome of “The Land That Time Forgot”. Although you won’t find dinosaurs in the crater, you can spot the ‘Big 5’ amongst the unique swamps, lakes and tropical forests that have grown in isolation from the rest of Tanzania. This unique environment, created by the high walls of the extinct volcano’s caldera, enables the crater to create its own climate and ecosystem within. Remarkably, only giraffe cannot come and go from the crater, as all the other animals can scale the steep slopes of the crater wall. With permanent lodges around the edge of the crater, Ngorongoro is not quite as remote as it once was, but it still offers remarkable safari experiences.

Giraffes, Serengeti National Park

Venture beyond these famed destinations, and Tanzania reveals even more safari treasures awaiting discovery. Ruaha National Park, with its rugged landscapes and baobab-dotted plains, offers a wilderness experience off the beaten path. Here, encounters with large prides of lions, herds of elephants, and elusive leopards await amidst the remote wilderness of Southern Tanzania. Further south lies the Selous Game Reserve, a UNESCO World Heritage Site and one of the largest protected areas in Africa. Here you can explore vast forests, expansive grasslands, and meandering rivers teeming with hippos and crocodiles, offering a tranquil contrast to the more bustling safari destinations.

With all these amazing safari experiences, you may wonder why Tanzania is only third on my list of ‘Best Countries for a Safari’. As far as the wildlife experiences are concerned Tanzania has it all. My experiences on walking safaris in Ruaha and by boat in the Selous have all been amazing and equal to anything in South Africa and Kenya. However, the vastness of Tanzania is also a barrier to many potential visitors. The only way to get between the three different areas mention above is really a light aircraft. Light aircraft are like buses or taxis for safaris, there is always one arriving or leaving throughout the day. They are a great way to see the African Savannah from a different point of view. Spotting elephant herds from the window of a Cessna beats counting sheep from the back of your parents’ car. Unfortunately, aircraft aren’t the most economic forms of travel, and to fly between these parks will inevitably increase the price of your safari. So, in comparison to its neighbour, Kenya, you can expect the costs in Tanzania to be a little higher. Add to that no direct flights from the UK and a very limited road network, and you can see why Tanzania’s magnificent wildlife are just in third spot.

4. Botswana Safaris

Botswana at a Glance
Best Time to TravelMay to SeptemberInternational Airports Gabarone, Maun
Chance of ‘Big 5’ SightingsHighDirect Flights from the UKNo
No. of National Parks10Ease of Internal TravelGood
Popular DestinationsOkavango, ChobeCost of a Safari££££ – £££££

For a landlocked country like Botswana, finding water is hugely important to the local wildlife. Whether is it the magnificent Chobe River that flows through the Chobe National Park, or the famous Okavango Delta, that seasonally creates wetlands in the northwestern area of Botswana, it is the water that enables the wildlife to thrive. Likewise, it is the lack of water sources in the Central Kalahari Reserve of Botswana that have led to desert adapted animals dominating.

For safaris, Botswana is best known for its luxury lodges and remote wilderness camps, many of which are in private concessions outside of the 10 main National Parks in the country. As a country, Botswana has prioritised low environmental impact, and high value tourism, often limiting visitor numbers in certain areas. This exclusivity ensures that guests receive a more intimate safari experience.

Chobe National Park is renowned for having one of the largest concentrations of elephants in the whole of Africa. It is not uncommon to see herds of hundreds congregating along the Chobe River during the dry season, when water sources elsewhere become scarce. One of the unique experiences available to guests during this time is a small boat cruise along the river to view the elephants, and other wildlife, quenching their thirst on the riverbank.

The thick bush within Chobe National Park is also perfect habitat for big cats. Not only does the bush provide camouflage for an ambush of unsuspecting prey, but it also acts as the perfect protection for mothers to safely raise their cubs. The lion prides of Chobe National Park are some of the largest in the area. It is not only mammals that enjoy Chobe National Park. Rangers in the park have recorded more than 450 bird species within its boundaries, with an abundance of waterbirds including African fish eagle, heron, stork and kingfisher. I was also fortunate to see the elusive Pel’s Fishing Owl on my visit to Chobe National Park. Although it is one of the largest owls in Africa, its mottled brown plumage makes it difficult to spot during the day. Needless to say, my guide had to point it out to me!

Mokoro safari, Okavango Delta

Flying into the Okavango Delta, you may wonder how luxury lodges and camps were ever built within the patchwork of rivers, streams and islands. It is remarkable how well they are maintained and the quality of food and service that is provided in such a remote location. Perhaps the most iconic experience that makes up a unique Botswana safari is an excursion in a Mokoro.  A Mokoro is a traditional dugout canoe that has been used by the local indigenous people, the Bayei, for centuries to navigate the waterways of the delta. Once in the canoe, your guide can propel you through the tranquil channels and lagoons of the delta, observing wildlife from a different perspective and getting up close to amphibians and aquatic species such as fish, frogs, and crocodiles, as well as various birds. It is a relaxing and very rewarding addition to any traditional safari.

I loved my time in Botswana, but because of the remote locations and exclusivity of most Botswana safari lodges, a Botswana safari can often be observed as expensive. That is the only reason Botswana stays at number four on my list. However, while a Botswana safari may be more expensive than other safari destinations, the unparalleled wildlife viewing opportunities, exclusive accommodations, and focus on preserving the pristine wilderness also make it a once-in-a-lifetime experience for many travellers and can be viewed as the ultimate African safari adventure.

5. Zambia Safaris

Zambia at a Glance
Best Time to TravelJune to OctoberInternational AirportsLusaka
Chance of ‘Big 5’ SightingsModerateDirect Flights from the UKNo
No. of National Parks20Ease of Internal TravelModerate
Popular DestinationsSouth Luangwa, ZambeziCost of a Safari£££ – ££££

For a truly authentic and ‘off the beaten path’ safari experience, look no further than Zambia. It may not draw the crowds of Kenya, have the spice islands of Tanzania or the winelands of South Africa, but that maybe what makes it so special. What it does have is thousands of miles of pristine wilderness, an abundance of wildlife and the small matter of the amazing Victoria Falls.

Zambia was the birthplace of the walking safari. They were pioneered by the conservationist Norman Carr back in the 1950s, and I would recommend everyone on safari to get out on foot at least once during their time in Africa. Your guides will keep you well away from anything that you can’t outrun and will also introduce you to many things that you will miss from within the vehicle. You can learn to track footprints in the sand and how to identify an animal by its poo(!) but more importantly you will see everything from a different angle.

During my time in South Luangwa National Park, I would regularly go on game drives without seeing another vehicle. It was like we had the whole park to ourselves. We were able to watch lion prides sleeping (as they usually do during the day), hyena cubs playing outside their den, wild dogs following the scent, and a leopard hunting at dusk, all on our own. They were personal experiences shared with nobody else but my guide and I. Both sides of the Luangwa River are spectacular. Birders could spend hours watching Carmine Bee-Eaters emerge from their holes in the riverbank, whilst others can sit and relax as elephant choose the shallowest part of the river to cross, often moving the disgruntled and noisy hippo out the way as they go. It is idyllic.

Walking safari, Imbali Safari Lodge

The Lower Zambezi National Park is equally beautiful. It is a wilderness packed with wildlife, with the added bonus of the Zambezi River flowing by. If somehow you have had enough of bouncing around in the back of a 4×4 vehicle, then jump into a canoe or boat for a cruise along the river. As I got into the canoe for a quick paddle downstream (easier than upstream), my guide said that if I was to fall in, I should swim to the bank with the fewest logs. He answered my quizzical look with “Those aren’t really logs. They’re crocodiles”. I am glad to report that I didn’t have to test his theory.

While not exclusively a safari destination, Zambia is home to the majestic Victoria Falls, one of the Seven Natural Wonders of the World. Join a guided tour, take a scenic helicopter flight or board a sunset cruise on the Zambezi River to witness the best of the falls. The “smoke that thunders” never disappoints.

It used to be possible to fly direct to from the UK to Lusaka, the capital of Zambia, but that route was withdrawn some years ago, so now most people arrive in Zambia via a transit in Johannesburg. Unfortunately, this extends the travel time in reaching Zambia, and this may put off some people from visiting. But it really shouldn’t.

6. Zimbabwe Safaris

Zimbabwe at a Glance
Best Time to TravelMay to OctoberInternational AirportsHarare, Victoria Falls
Chance of ‘Big 5’ SightingsModerateDirect Flights from the UKNo
No. of National Parks11Ease of Internal TravelModerate
Popular DestinationsHwange, Mana PoolsCost of a Safari££ – £££

Just the other side of the Zambezi River from Zambia, is Zimbabwe, a stunning safari destination. Once blighted by political problems, the country has bounced back to be a popular choice for safari goers wanting a different location.

The country’s Largest National Park, and consequently its premier safari destination, is Hwange. Easily accessible from Livingstone and Victoria Falls, the park is home to significant numbers of elephant, buffalo, giraffe and numerous antelope species. As we know alongside large numbers of these species, there will always be predators, so expect to see prides of lion, solitary leopards, and wild dogs nearby. Hwange is renowned for its diverse habitats, ranging from open grasslands and woodlands to mopane forests and seasonal pans, so there is a great variety to see and do here. One of my favourite activities in Hwange is a night drive. With your spotters illuminating the bush with red light, that animals can’t see, it brings everything alive in the dead of night. It is also exciting to know that there may be something hiding just beyond the torch beam. I was fortunate to see a genet, elephant shrew and honey-badger in just one evening.

Elephant, Hwange National Park

In northern Zimbabwe, Mana Pools National Park is a UNESCO World Heritage Site with exceptional wildlife viewing opportunities. Mana Pools is famous for its iconic floodplain landscapes, dotted with ancient trees and waterholes that attract large concentrations of wildlife, including elephant, hippo, crocodile, and a variety of bird species.

The infrastructure within Zimbabwe is rapidly improving, although not yet up to western standards. Moving between parks can involve long journeys in a vehicle or flying once again. With no direct flight links to the UK or Europe, Zimbabwe is another destination best reached via South Africa or Kenya.

I have loved all my African safaris and I hope that you will too. If you would like more help in choosing the best country for your next safari, then please get in touch with our one of our specialist Africa Travel Consultants who will be happy to create a bespoke safari itinerary just for you.

WRITTEN BY
Richard

Richard has more than 25 years of experience working within the travel industry. He has travelled widely in the USA, Australia and Africa and enjoys exploring National Parks and other wilderness areas.