An African safari stands head and shoulders above most international trips. Anything but your average vacation, a safari in Africa is a breathtaking encounter with the world’s best loved animal species, spectacular events, epic landscapes, and extraordinary lodges.
But choosing where to go on safari in Africa is no easy task. By our count, there are somewhere in the region of 225 national parks dotted across the continent. Add to this biosphere reserves, protected wetlands, and marine reserves, and this figure shoots up to around 3,000 potential safari destinations in 30 of Africa’s 54 nation states.
Nor are all national parks of the same quality. Some lead the world in their guest experiences and are considered so important they are UNESCO World Heritage Sites. Others are little more than demarcations on atlases with no true infrastructure or way to visit them.
That’s why we’ve put together this introductory guide to the best countries and national parks in Africa for the ultimate in safari experiences. Our selection is listed from north to south, but you can be sure each country and national park has been included for very good reasons.
If anywhere in Africa can lay claim to being the birthplace of the safari, it’s Kenya. The word itself means ‘journey’ in Swahili, a language widely spoken in the country. That said, the Kenyan safari industry is heavily focused on English, so you’ll have no problem with communication anywhere in the country.
In addition, Kenya has more national parks than any other African country, with no less than 24. There are another 15 national reserves, and a growing number of marine parks – the sea-based equivalent to its national parks. For Lion King inspired landscapes of golden grasses dotted with acacia trees, it’s Kenya where you’ll want to head.
The Top Safari Destination in Kenya
If you’ve ever watched a nature documentary, you’re probably already well acquainted with Kenya’s foremost safari destination, the Maasai Mara. A national reserve rather than a national park (the distinction being who runs the area), it’s one of the world’s best known safari spots.
Situated in Kenya’s southwest, ‘the Mara’ is another of Africa’s Big Five destinations, although black rhinos are both elusive by temperament and increasingly rare due to poaching. On the other hand, the Maasai Mara is celebrated for its big cats. Not only does it protect very healthy populations of lion, but also leopard and cheetah.
The Mara plays host to the Great Wildebeest Migration between July and October, with the Mara River being the center of attention during this period. If that wasn’t enough, the region has recorded 570 species of bird, more than any other destination on our list.
What Else Is There to See in Kenya?
After several pre-dawn mornings to take advantage of the best conditions for game drives, many travelers to Kenya like to relax with a beach escape. Here the glorious shallows of the Indian Ocean take center stage. The 11 miles of white sand at Diani Beach are difficult to resist, with Watamu Beach further north coming in a close second.
In many ways, Tanzania can be thought of as the sister safari destination to Kenya. The two countries have similar cultures and languages, while some of their national parks even connect with one another without fencing or any border formalities.
On top of this, Tanzania has brilliant tourist infrastructure, ranging from private airstrips to unmissable hot air balloon rides. It also welcomes significantly fewer visitors on an annual basis than Kenya, despite the fact Tanzania hosts many of east Africa’s finest attractions.
It’s in Tanzania that you’ll be able to witness the vast majority of the Great Wildebeest Migration. Further, there’s the world famous Ngorongoro Crater, Olduvai Gorge (containing some of the earliest examples of prehistoric man), and Africa’s highest peak – Mount Kilimanjaro.
The Top National Park in Tanzania
There’s one name and one name alone you should remember when it comes to the top national park in Tanzania – Serengeti National Park. It’s name comes from the Maasai siringet, meaning ‘the land which continues for ever,’ an apt moniker for a park 5,700 square miles in area.
The Serengeti is best known as the start and end point of the Great Wildebeest Migration. Considered the largest yearly animal migration, herds of up to 1.5 million wildebeest, 250,000 zebra, and 200,000 gazelles span across the park’s plains.
Needless to say, predatory species are quickly attracted, with the Serengeti providing one of the best chances of seeing lion in the wild. Elsewhere on the migration route, the Grumeti River provides a tantalizing rival to Kenya’s Mara River. Here the herds must cross frothing rivers fraught with danger.
What Else Is There to See in Tanzania?
The semi-autonomous Zanzibar archipelago combines Indian Ocean beaches with scuba diving and a fascinating culture taking elements from Arabia, Africa, Europe, and the Indian subcontinent. UNESCO listed Stone Town is the place to head to delve into this culture, while the beaches are best on the north coast.
Despite its reputation, Zimbabwe is not only very safe, but also very welcoming to safari goers. The reasons for picking Zimbabwe for your upcoming safari are varied. Less well known than neighboring South Africa, Zimbabwe receives just a quarter of the visitor numbers.
But at the same time, it’s widely thought to have the best trained guides in the world. For anyone looking for a combination of crowd-free parks, and game drives packed with animal sightings, there’s therefore nowhere better.
The Top National Park in Zimbabwe
Of the country’s 11 national parks, Hwange (pronounced Wang-ee) is difficult to beat. Rivaling South Africa’s Kruger in size, at over 5,600 square miles, Hwange is also just two years younger. This means it has an incredible pedigree behind it of almost one hundred years as well.
Although Hwange boasts the Big Five, it’s particularly well known for its large elephant herds. In addition to lion and leopard, Hwange has good numbers of cheetah, and one of the largest populations of the highly endangered African wild dog (painted wolves) anywhere on the continent.
What Else Is There to See in Zimbabwe?
Victoria Falls, the world’s largest single curtain of water, lies just a 1.5 hour drive north of the main gate of Hwange National Park. Forming the border with Zambia, it has its own national park, but best known for its whitewater rafting and steel bridge constructed in 1905. Elsewhere in the country, Great Zimbabwe is a magical ruined hilltop citadel thought to date to the Late Iron Age.
You might not immediately associate Botswana with safaris, yet this southern African nation has some of the finest wildlife viewing experiences on the planet. Getting there generally involves a flight connection in Johannesburg, but a couple of hours at OR Tambo International Airport is a small price to pay for all Botswana offers.
Firmly positioned towards the higher end of the safari market, Botswana is one of the classiest safari destinations around. As a country, it’s democratic, stable, and one of the least corrupt nations on the continent. Safaris operate to the highest standards, to the extent that at camps and lodges you won’t even need to change your US dollars for Pula, the currency since 1976.
Pula means ‘rain’ in Setswana, a language widely spoken in Botswana alongside English. This is because rain is infrequent in the country, which is dominated by the Kalahari Desert. The desert landscapes don’t mean a lack of wildlife though.
The Top Game Rserve in Botswana
Unique in the world, Botswana’s Okavango Delta is rightly called an Eden. Forming the largest inland river delta anywhere in the world, its annual flooding creates an extraordinary landscape encompassing Moremi Game Reserve.
This game reserve sees elephant and giraffe wade through knee-high waters. Equally common are the Okavango’s hippos, which merrily wallow among the reeds as you slip by on traditionally-built canoes called mokoro.
You’ll also have the chance to step out of your mokoro onto Chief’s Island, an area of dry land known for its walking safaris. It takes bravery to walk in Big Five country, but with an expert guide in the lead you can be certain wildlife encounters will be remembered for all the right reasons.
What Else Is There to See in Botswana?
In northeastern Botswana, Chobe National Park combines biological diversity with sights observable nowhere else. The third-largest national park in the country, Chobe has a rare pride of lion which have learned to hunt juvenile elephants, while its floodplains are the only place in the country the puka antelope can be seen.
The stark and arid landscapes of Namibia create very different safaris compared to any of the other destinations on our list. But this doesn’t mean the animal encounters possible in Namibia are any less impressive.
The country’s desert panoramas make it all the more miraculous that there are so many different species thriving within the country. These include the full gambit of safari favorites, alongside a wealth of plants, from spring blooms in Damaraland to welwitschia ‘living fossils’ in the Namib Desert.
The Top National Park in Namibia
There are 12 national parks to pick between in Namibia. With the wildlife in mind, Etosha National Park is number one, and where most safari goers will travel. A huge area of wilderness, Etosha covers over 8,600 square miles. Much of this area is covered in drought-tolerant grasses surrounding the large salt pan the park is named after.
During the dry season, a series of natural and artificial water holes around the pan attract animals from far and wide. The need for water makes Etosha one of the only places where it’s possible to witness predator species such as lion drinking beside their prey. Some waterholes are floodlit, allowing for nighttime viewing of species including black rhinos. Etosha has the most stable population of these creatures in Africa.
With the rainy season, Etosha pan fills, creating dramatic scenes for photography, and drawing in thousands of flamingoes looking to mate.
What Else Is There to See in Namibia?
The town of Kolmanskop was once a thriving mining town. Now, it has been swallowed up by the desert sands. The result is an eerie ghost town of half-drowned buildings from the early 1900s. One of the only ways to explore Namibia’s Sperrgebiet, or ‘forbidden zone,’ Kolmanskop appeared quickly after the discovery of diamonds in the area, before being abandoned in 1956.
The southernmost nation in Africa is probably the easiest of any in Africa to head out on safari. Its guides and lodges have decades of expertise in delivering exactly what animal lovers are looking for, while the country’s infrastructure is superb. The exchange rate with the South African rand also makes a vacation to the country incredible value for money. For example, the cost of a meal at a mid-range restaurant can be as little as $20 per person.
Even so, the real reason to choose South Africa for your safari is the sheer choice available to travelers looking for close encounters with the continent’s big game. There are 19 national parks in total, ranging from typical savanna (more usually called veld in South Africa) to mountain tops and the stunning coastline of the Garden Route.
The Top National Park in South Africa
South Africa takes its role in protecting its species incredibly seriously. SANParks, the governing authority, was founded almost 100 years ago, in 1926. Thirty years before, President Paul Kruger laid the foundations, creating the first game reserves. These included Sabi Game Reserve, now known as Kruger National Park, the country’s pièce de résistance.
At more than 7,500 square miles in area, Kruger National Park is slightly bigger than the state of New Jersey. It also makes Kruger one of the largest protected areas anywhere in Africa. The park’s mix of grassland and stunted mopane trees provides the perfect habitat for the Big Five species. Yet there are another 142 species of large mammal – more than anywhere else in Africa. For the most exclusive experience and best lodges, head to the privately-run conservancies in the greater Kruger area.
What Else Is There to See in South Africa?
Many travelers choose to combine their trip to Kruger National Park with a few days in Cape Town, South Africa’s ‘mother city.’ With Table Mountain forming a sublime backdrop, its vibrant blend of history and culture will be sure to have you planning your next trip to South Africa soon.
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Ian Packham is an award-winning freelance travel writer, adventurer, and after-dinner speaker with bylines in a range of magazines and newspapers. Based in the UK, his explorations by public transportation have seen him travel everywhere from Norway and Gabon to Bangladesh and Lesotho.