A safari — simply a “journey” in the East African language Swahili — can be a two-night excursion by private plane from Johannesburg or a monthlong hike through the highlands of northern Kenya. You may stay in an air-conditioned suite with a private pool or sleep in a tent with large wild creatures very audibly close at hand. The general idea of a safari seems romantic — and few people who have seen the movie Out of Africa are entirely immune to the allure — but it is vital to decide precisely what kind of experience you want before heading off down the jet bridge clutching a boarding card to Nairobi. Safaris come in an unexpected number of guises. I have been on safari 30 or 40 times at least (I long ago lost count), and I have enjoyed trips that have ranged from the physically demanding to the ludicrously indulgent. Here is what you need to consider if you are contemplating an African safari vacation.
The luxury safari lodge was invented in South Africa and although such properties now exist in half a dozen countries at least, the foremost examples of the genre are still to be found there. Singita Ebony, Singita Boulders and Londolozi are located in the Sabi Sand Game Reserve, little more than an hour’s flight from Johannesburg; Royal Malewane is situated in a similar private game area nearby. All of these lodges have huge air-conditioned suites with lavishly equipped marble baths, and serve the kind of food that you would expect to find at a top restaurant in a major city. Essentially, they are luxury resorts that happen to be in a game park. (Indeed some people come for a week, go on a single game drive and spend the rest of their stay by the pool or in the spa.) The game viewing is extremely well-organized: The rangers communicate with one another by radio in order to promptly locate the major species, and the animals themselves are habituated to human presence and unafraid of vehicles. It is not uncommon to see the Big Five — lion, leopard, elephant, rhino and buffalo — in a single morning. Lion and leopard sightings are virtually guaranteed.
All the lodges above will meet these requirements. As will Kwandwe, in the Eastern Cape Province, which is conveniently accessible from Cape Town, and Mateya Safari Lodge, which is a 75-minute flight northwest of Johannesburg. Places such as Abu Camp in the Okavango Delta (Botswana) and Singita Sasakwa Lodge close to the Serengeti (Tanzania) have the technology but are more arduous to reach unless you charter your own airplane. (The best option is a Pilatus PC-12, which is fast and also pressurized, so it can fly above the worst of the turbulence.) Cell phones work in very surprising places these days — the middle of the Serengeti for instance, thanks to the park headquarters at Seronera — but fast Wi-Fi continues to be elusive. Over time, this will doubtless change, except in places that deliberately offer a wilderness experience. But for now, if you really do need to make that conference call, it’s probably best to stay in South Africa.
In many parts of Africa, lion are relatively solitary creatures, especially the males, and the females are usually found in groups of three or four at most. Big prides exist where the food supply is extremely abundant, so the Maasai Mara (Kenya), the Serengeti and the Ngorongoro Crater (Tanzania) and the Okavango Delta are all places where you might expect to encounter a pride of 20 or more. (My personal best is 27.) And it is an extraordinary sight to see such a large group of predators set off to hunt as dusk begins to fall. However, the wildlife experience in Africa bears remarkably little resemblance to the one on the sofa watching the National Geographic Channel. The cameraman probably took two or three years to get that amazing footage of the lion and hyena fighting over a fresh wildebeest carcass. This is the biggest source of disappointment on safari. People think it is going to be like television, and it isn’t. Or rarely. I have been going to Africa for 30 years, and I have yet to witness a kill. Not one. I’ve come across the pride very shortly after the kill was made — maybe 10 minutes — but I’ve never seen it actually happen. So the likelihood is that you won’t either.
Leopards are nocturnal, solitary and, having been widely hunted for their fur, have a race memory that humans tend to be bad news. Leopards aren’t all that rare — there are almost certainly more of them than there are lions — but they are extremely elusive. Except in certain places. At Londolozi in Sabi Sand generations of leopard have been habituated by contact with the owners, the Varty family, and they are now routinely seen in daylight and show little or no fear of people. If you stay for three days at Londolozi, you will be extremely unlucky not to have several excellent sightings. The same is true, to an extent, at the neighboring Singita lodges. The leopards in the Okavango are numerous but tend to be more wary. That said, I once saw five different leopards on a single morning game drive from Mombo Camp on Chief’s Island. Pretty much everywhere else you have to be lucky. And I agree: Leopards are the most beautiful of the cats. To watch a big male on the prowl is one of the most thrilling sights in Africa. But to avoid disappointment it is as well to remember that leopards are extremely dimorphic: Females are often only half the size of males.
The Serengeti and its northern extension in Kenya, the Maasai Mara, are where you need to go. There are huge numbers of animals in the Selous Game Reserve (Tanzania), the Luangwa Valley (Zambia), Hwange (Zimbabwe), Chobe (Botswana), the Okavango and Kruger (South Africa), but only in a specific region of East Africa do you find immense, flat, short-grass plains covered with literally hundreds of thousands of grazing animals. But remember, the herds in the Serengeti move around, whereas the Mara has a huge resident population due to an abundant year-round water supply.
Alas, in that case you will be well advised to avoid the Maasai Mara, when the herds arrive there in August/September. At the principal crossing points on the Mara River, it is not unusual for there to be 50 safari vehicles in attendance. The wildebeest concentrate to give birth in the southern Serengeti, near Ndutu, in January and February each year. Nowadays the tourist pressure can be depressing there as well. The best option is probably to have a private tented camp, with a private guide, who will know how to escape the crowds. Or if a smallish tent sounds unappealing, then Sanctuary Kusini camp is my recommended place to stay. In March the animals move off to the west and north. If you are extremely unlucky, they will move into one of the hunting concessions adjacent to the national park, where you will be unable to follow them. By mid-June, the herds are usually near Singita Sasakwa. If they are not close by, you may have to drive for a couple of hours on a dirt road, or charter a light aircraft, in order to find them.
Mountain gorillas, the largest of the gorilla species (males stand six feet tall and weigh up to 650 pounds), are to be found either in Uganda or Rwanda. The respective parks are actually quite close to each other but are separated by the international border. Theoretically, this is possible to cross, but I’m not sure I’d be willing to try. The lodges in both countries are sufficiently comfortable but not luxurious. In Rwanda, I currently recommend Sabyinyo Silverback Lodge. (The excellent company Wilderness Safaris will shortly open Bisate Lodge in Rwanda, which will almost certainly set a new standard.) The gorilla viewing is generally agreed to be slightly easier in Uganda, as the terrain is less steep and the animals live at a lower altitude. Dian Fossey’s famous troop in Rwanda’s Parc National des Volcans is usually to be found at an elevation of about 11,000 feet, and you have to slog up through sharp bamboo forest and thick vegetation to reach them. But if you are reasonably fit, it is certainly worth the effort. You are only allowed to watch the animals for a maximum of an hour, so that they get 23 hours a day to themselves, and you are not supposed to get closer than 20 to 30 feet — though nobody has told the gorillas this.
The best place to watch chimpanzees is at Greystoke Mahale camp on Lake Tanganyika in Tanzania. Here, a particular group of the primates has become habituated to humans, having been studied by a group of Japanese scientists since the early 1960s. (Jane Goodall conducted her groundbreaking research at Gombe, farther up the lake, but the national park is tiny and there is nowhere suitable to stay.) Greystoke Mahale on the other hand is extremely comfortable and the location is extraordinarily beautiful. Getting there requires a long flight by light aircraft, however, and this experience is undoubtedly for the more adventurous. As a reward for perseverance, you are likely to see 20 or 30 chimps at close quarters, swinging through the trees, or occasionally foraging on the ground, close to where you squat with binoculars, entranced.
The birdlife is astonishing in most of Africa’s wildlife reserves. But in Botswana’s Okavango Delta, and the Zambezi Valley separating Zambia and Zimbabwe, it is utterly extraordinary. The carmine bee-eater colonies, built into the banks of the Zambezi river, would alone make a trip worthwhile. Imagine hundreds, if not thousands, of bright crimson birds, swooping and wheeling in a scene of ceaseless activity. (Ruckomechi Camp in Zimbabwe’s Mana Pools National Park is my preferred place to stay.) Of course, there is competition elsewhere: The 50,000 pink flamingoes that live on the soda lake at the bottom of the Ngorongoro Crater also make quite a spectacle!
The Maasai, in Kenya and Tanzania, are generally cited as Africa’s most spectacular tribal people. Alas, tourism has altered and commercialized their way of life, especially in the vicinity of the Maasai Mara Game Reserve. However, their northern cousins, the Samburu, who wear similarly dramatic scarlet cloaks and elaborate jewelry, are still largely authentic and uncorrupted. It is possible to go on game walks with the Samburu at numerous camps, including my recommended Sirikoi on Lewa Wildlife Conservancy (Kenya). From Lewa, you can also go on a Samburu-led camel safari, for up to a week, into remote northern Kenya. This is an amazing, potentially life-changing experience for fit, adventurous and experienced travelers. And from The Sanctuary at Ol Lentille, also in northern Kenya, you can venture on quad bikes (ATVs) to remote Samburu villages, where schools and clinics are financially supported by the lodge.
Many camps and lodges now offer walking safaris. Among the most famous walking guides are John Stevens (Zimbabwe), Robin Pope (Zambia) and Richard Bonham (Kenya). But there are numerous others. I recently spent an unforgettable day with Mark Friend, walking up to elephants at Singita Pamushana in Zimbabwe’s Malilangwe Wildlife Reserve. There is, of course, a huge difference between a four-hour walk before brunch and a five-day expedition, sleeping in fly camps along the way. For me, walking safaris are about the electric atmosphere of the bush, the occasional frisson of fear and the authentic Hemingway experience of sleeping in a small tent and feeling the ground tremble when the lions roar nearby. But you will always see more animals from a vehicle than you will on foot. At Singita, a male lion once rubbed himself on the tire of my Land Rover, three feet below where I was sitting, easing an itch for at least five minutes. On foot, you won’t get much closer than 200 yards. But then, you probably won’t want to. One exception that bears out the general rule, however, is at Abu Camp in the Okavango Delta, where you can walk in the bush with tame elephants, some of which were rescued from circuses and are now being prepared for release into the wild. The other animals find the elephants reassuring and are much less apprehensive about their human companions.
Most safari lodges require children to be at least 12 years old. And at some, the minimum age is 16. This is on the assumption that children tend to chatter, to the considerable annoyance of the adults who are paying, when they are not loudly lamenting the patchy cell phone coverage that is preventing them from posting on Instagram. It is a sad fact that many people, and especially children, are a lot less interested in wildlife than they thought they were back home. In part, this is because animals spend a good deal of time asleep (lions) or with their heads down grazing (antelope). Different generations, and sexes, tend to require different things. Older people find that they have a limited tolerance for bumpy dirt roads and getting bitten by tsetse flies (kids aren’t keen on the latter either). Some women are happy to rough it, but others are miserable without a socket to plug in a hair dryer and an adjacent mirror. Unfortunately, many people opt for a two-week safari and by day four never want to see another zebra for the remainder of their existence. If you have been on safari and have acquired the bug, then by all means head off into the wilds for weeks at a time. But for a first safari, particularly with children, reserve a comfortable lodge for four or five days and see how everyone gets along. (Spend the rest of the vacation on the beach in Cape Town or in the Seychelles.) I especially recommend places where you can also go hiking, or horseback riding, and where there is good food, a pool and possibly a spa.
The immense and untouched Kalahari Desert stretches for 800 miles from the border of South Africa to the Zambezi Valley. Jack’s Camp in Botswana is situated at the edge of the Kalahari’s great Makgadikgadi salt pans — which, unlike the Great Wall of China, really is observable from outer space. From Jack’s, it is possible to make two- or three-night excursions into a landscape that seems like that of another planet entirely. Alternatively, spend time at two or three of my recommended camps in Namibia. From Hoanib Skeleton Coast Camp, you can go in search of the famous desert adapted lion, and also drive through the desert to see the vast sea lion colonies on the wild and remote Atlantic coast.