It may be a cliche of Sunday night television, but the Great Migration remains the most stupendous wildlife show on earth. I first visited the Serengeti in the early 1980s. The Kenyans and the Tanzanians were in the midst of a political disagreement, and the international border was closed. In those days, most tourists began their safaris in Kenya, so I had the majestic grass plains of the southern Serengeti virtually to myself. I was doubly fortunate in that I had arrived at the precise moment — late January — when the wildebeest give birth en masse and hundreds of predators turn up for the annual feast. The scene was grand and stirring beyond description.
Each day, my guide would park the Land Rover in the midst of tens of thousands of animals and we would watch for hours, listening to the distinctive grunting of the wildebeest as they wandered slowly forward, methodically cropping the short grass. Packs of hyena and wild dog arrived to harass the herds; virtually every anthill seemed to be crowned by a pair of cheetah; and among the rocky outcrops, or kopjes, dozens of lion slumbered in the shade, already so full that they were virtually unable to move.
Nowadays, the Serengeti receives many more visitors, but it is still possible to escape the crowds. (Alas, the same cannot be said for the extraordinary Ngorongoro Crater — a part of the wider Serengeti ecosystem — where the Tanzanian authorities have failed to impose sensible and sustainable quotas.) In my view, the most memorable way to experience the migration is to have a private tented camp. Otherwise, the tented suites at Sanctuary
Kusini Camp provide the best option. It is important to realize that the great herds of wildebeest, zebra and gazelle concentrate from January until early April in the southern Serengeti. For the rest of the year, they spread out as they make their way west toward Lake Victoria and then north to Kenya’s Masai Mara. The most lavish of the Serengeti camps is Singita Grumeti, which the migrating animals reach in May and June.
Sabi Sand is a private reserve in northeastern South Africa, renowned for having the world’s most luxurious wildlife lodges, notably Singita Ebony, Singita Boulders and Londolozi. Fenced along its western boundary, it is open to the vast Kruger National Park in the east, which allows the free movement of game. Thick vegetation — hence abundant food for herbivores — and permanent water in the Sand River result in an astonishing density of wildlife. Nowhere else are you more likely to encounter the Big Five — lion, leopard, elephant, rhino and buffalo — in a single day.
On my first visit in 1994, I stayed at Singita Ebony Lodge. We set out on our first game drive at 4 p.m., and within 15 minutes of our departure came across a male lion feeding on a recent kill. Two hours later, the sole remaining member of the Big Five to be accounted for was a leopard. Our guide stopped the vehicle to point out a large eagle in a nearby tree, and right on cue, around a bend in the dirt road sauntered an enormous male. (Leopard are unusually dimorphic, with males sometimes double the size of females.) Rather than fleeing into the bush, the leopard continued to stroll up the track to within 15 feet of the Land Rover. He paused for a moment before making a graceful leap onto the top of nearby termite mound. From its summit, he then gazed impassively down on us for the next 20 minutes.
In most African game areas, the leopard is one of the most difficult animals to find. Generally, they are solitary, shy and nocturnal. As a result, many people return home frustrated, having failed to catch even a glimpse of arguably the most beautiful of the big cats.
Over the years, I have been lucky to experience many memorable leopard sightings: at Sabi Sand in South Africa; in Zambia’s Luangwa Valley; but above all in Botswana’s Okavango Delta. The Okavango River flows from the mountains of Angola and spreads out in a 200-mile-wide wilderness of reeds and marshy islands at the edge of the Kalahari Desert. At the point where it enters the delta, the river flows around Chief’s Island in the Moremi Game Reserve. Mombo Camp is located at the tip of the island, where the river deposits its silt. Consequently, the grazing is the most lush and nutritious. Like many safari camps, Mombo is connected by a web of raised walkways. These enable guests to move about in safety and, during the day, without the need for an armed escort. For a while, however, Mombo's walkways were put to a different use by a large male leopard. A damaged rear leg made it difficult for him to hunt, but he had discovered that it was possible to jump off the walkway onto unsuspecting antelope passing beneath.
Early one morning, I watched this particular individual strolling casually along a walkway, with almost proprietorial nonchalance. It was a foretaste of things to come, and by lunchtime, I had spotted no fewer than five leopard, all within a few miles of the camp. The final sighting was on the runway of Mombo's airstrip. A Cessna Caravan had just landed and the passengers were disembarking when a female dashed out of the bush, seized a young impala and dragged it back into the undergrowth. My safari guide raised his eyebrows and remarked that the new arrivals were doubtless under the impression that this sort of thing was routine.
The arid mountainous landscape of Namibia is some of the most dramatic on earth. Indeed, at times it is hard to believe that you have not been teleported to a different planet entirely. Although there is only one major game area, Etosha National Park, wildlife is thinly spread throughout the country, and the Namibian Kalahari is one of the most important sanctuaries for the gravely endangered cheetah. My favorite place is the valley of the Huab River in the region of Damaraland. (Damaraland Camp provides a relatively simple but sufficiently comfortable place in which to stay.)
There, the local elephant have developed into a distinct subspecies, which has become adapted to the harsh desert environment. It is seldom difficult to find 20 or 30 of the creatures browsing on vegetation in the dry riverbed. Over the years, the elephant have become accustomed to vehicles, and often it is possible to pull up close by and to sit watching them for hours. Sometimes, if you are sufficiently patient, the elephant decide that they have eaten enough and head off into the desert, striding in single file across the huge orange dunes. The sight is so improbable it seems almost surreal.
Prior to my recent trip to track the Mountain Gorillas in Rwanda, my most extraordinary experience with the great apes was in the remote Mahale Mountains on the eastern shore of Lake Tanganyika. Thanks to Jane Goodall and National Geographic magazine, the chimpanzees at Gombe, a small national park farther up the lake, have achieved worldwide renown. But at Mahale, a troop of 60 chimps became habituated to human presence by a Japanese research team that began its work in the early 1960s.
After an uncomfortable five-hour flight in a Cessna 206, we landed on a grass airstrip that appeared to have been chopped out of the surrounding forest earlier that afternoon. A brief stroll brought us to a primitive jetty, where we boarded a wooden dhow for a 90-minute cruise down the lake. We lay on cushions in the stern, gazing at the distant purple mountains of the Congo and sipping lemon vodka.
Set on a glorious white-sand beach, Greystoke Mahale Camp was created by an amiable Irish adventurer, Roland Purcell. It comprises a collection of comfortable wooden bandas and an exotic mess tent that appears to have escaped from “One Thousand and One Nights.” Virgin forest covers the slopes of the 8,000-foot Mahale Mountains and extends to the edge of the camp. We found the chimps after an hour’s walk along narrow, winding trails. Most of the troop’s members were crashing about in the trees overhead, but on lower branches, about 30 feet away, around 10 animals were quietly getting on with their domestic routine. One female was grooming a tiny baby, and I sat on the forest floor watching them through my binoculars for around half an hour. Then, for no apparent reason, the mother hoisted her offspring onto her back and climbed down. Completely unafraid, she walked directly toward me and passed by so close that I felt her right forearm brush the sleeve of my shirt.