Every love affair must start somewhere. For most, their love of Africa starts before they even arrive, feeling the lure whilst planning their first ever safari. Then from the moment you first set foot on African soil and immerse yourself in your safari, I know that you will be hooked and already planning your next adventure!
But, with a world of astounding countries, National Parks, Reserves and Conservancies to choose from, where should you select to travel to on your first safari to Africa? There are many countries that lend themselves perfectly to a first-timers’ safari, offering the big ‘bucket list’ experiences that you may wish to ‘check off’ during your visit. Alternatively, there are plenty of others that are less well-known, a bit different and off the beaten track, that will provide the most extraordinary memories.
Where you choose very much depends upon your interests and preferences, whether you are interested in wildlife, culture, historical heritage sites, marine adventures, family experiences, horse riding, cycling, conservation…the list goes on! Here are my own personal top 10 safari destinations for a first timers’ safari to Africa:
The famed Masai Mara is the safari region that immediately springs to the mind for first-time safari travellers when they are planning their first luxury African safari – and for good reason! A Kenyan safari to the Mara allows for simply astounding wildlife spotting.
Not only is it home to the Great Migration during the months of July through to the end of September, but the Mara also has resident wildlife all year round. The long rains fall in April and May so this is very quiet season when you may have parts of the reserve all to yourself! The wildlife is still here and I love visiting at this time. One year on a game drive in April, I saw all the ‘Big 5’ in one day and only 3 other vehicles during the whole day!
Although spending time in the Masai Mara National Reserve is certainly worthwhile, there is in addition more than double the area surrounding it dedicated to conservation and private conservancies. These are wonderful safari locations for grown-up families who want to hire a private villa or small fixed or mobile tented option for the best adventure. Some of my top tips to consider include Cottar’s Private Safari House, or a taking a private tented camp and being superbly guided by Sam Stogdale.
The legendary Serengeti National Park lies just across the border from the Masai Mara, together forming the Serengeti-Mara ecosystem. The Great Migration of two million wildebeest, zebra and various antelope travels through the Serengeti from the Mara and back again in an endless cyclical journey.
The calving takes place in its southern Ndutu area from January through early March. Up to 50 000 young can be born in a day, just as one of my friends saw last year. The Serengeti and it’s abutting conservancies are astounding with their resident wildlife. Some areas are well known for cheetah, whilst there is also hyena, lion, leopard and giraffe.
Mkombe’s House is a wonderful option for an exclusive family safari to Tanzania designed to engage travellers of all ages. Or if you would like to get a bit further off the beaten track, take a private mobile tented camp for a few days, set up in a private conservancy specifically to get you the best views of the Migration, with no other tourists around!
In the rolling hills of Laikipia, in the foothills of Mt Kenya lie Lewa and Borana Wildlife Conservancies. One of the best areas to take a first safari because it appeals to and is perfect for all. The conservancies are committed to conservation and innovative wildlife protection programs which include anti-poaching teams, conservation of specific endangered species and community development and support.
There are a range of accommodation types to suit all tastes. You could stay at luxury and romantic Elewana Lewa Safari Camp, a traditional safari lodge with few guest rooms, or a selection of completely private, exclusive use family houses and villas such as Lengishu, Sirai House or Laragai House.
There is a world of opportunities at the Lewa and Borana Wildlife Conservancies, including horse riding amongst wildlife including spotting their rhino (they have 169 black rhino on the conservancy). You may even see zebra and giraffe from your lodge as many wander across the lawns much to the delight of all the family.
Spend time with the Maasai who guide you across the plains, teaching you about their deep connection with this land and how they have lived off it for millennia. Or you can even visit the anti-poaching dogs and handlers who provide protection to this beautiful land.
Akagera National Park in eastern Rwanda is a conservation success story and well worth a visit for first-time safari goers who also want to see primates as part of their journey. Once decimated by poachers and nearly lost forever due to human encroachment, it has been under the guardianship of African Parks since 2010 and has been turned around.
African Parks, together with partners Rwanda Development Board and support from the Howard G Buffett Foundation, have transformed Akagera into a wonderful destination teaming with animals - including the Big 5! I would recommend this for a first-timers’ safari because of the variation. The terrain ranges through lakes, savannah, riverine forests, woodlands and grassland plains and the subsequent diversity of animals means that you can see so such in just one place!
Even better, if you are on a mission to see gorillas too, you can combine Akagera with a mountain gorilla safari in the nearby Volcanoes National Park. This is the ultimate wildlife combination which ticks so many boxes on the African safari bucket list.
Zambia is truly one of the best countries for a safari; you will never be disappointed. There are several National Parks and Reserves and all are worth a visit. I would recommend combining at least two of them, but I am especially fond of the Lower Zambezi National Park.
Sandwiched between the Zambezi Escarpment and magnificent Zambezi River which divides the Lower Zambezi NP from Mana Pools National Park in Zimbabwe, what makes this park special to me are the colours that cover the landscape. The purple-hued escarpment, the glittering blue waters of the Zambezi, the pastel shades of the albida forest. The rivers are full of crocodiles and hippo which make for interesting wildlife watching.
The Lower Zambezi is perfect for walking safaris, either short walks each day from your camp or embarking upon a longer five to six day walk through the park with a private guide and sleeping in a mobile camp set up especially for you in different locations as you travel. You can see wonderful birdlife as well as the dazzling Burchell’s Zebra (Boehms Zebra). This Park deserves at least a four night stay to allow you to fully experience all the activities, both land and water based.
For an exemplary experience, Luke Evans and Kyle Branch have tented camps where you can walk, canoe and take boat safaris with these superb private guides each day. Or for a fixed base and more luxurious accommodation, Chongwe River House offers a plethora of activities and award-winning design.
Team the Lower Zambezi with the most well-known Zambian Park, the South Luangwa. Walking safaris are de rigeur, the guides are some of the most dedicated and knowledgeable and, without doubt, this is one of my top three safari destinations in Africa!
The wildlife is incredible, some of the most concentrated in all of Africa. The park is known for its great leopard sightings and I once saw twelve different leopard in a five-day visit, three of them in a single sighting!
To put an exclusive twist to avoid the crowds, consider hiring a private safari house. Robin’s House has two bedrooms and is perfect for a family with young children. You have a contingent of staff to take care of your every need and children love to go for safari walks with your guide, learning all about the wildlife spoor that they find, or in the evenings going for stargazing walks. Luangwa Safari House is another exclusive, impressive offering sitting gracefully on the edge of a lagoon system frequented by large herds of elephants, impalas, giraffes and countless other species.
Chobe National Park in Botswana is close to my heart – I lived there for 15 years! This is the only place where I have been able to sit on the banks of the river in the dry season and see a thousand elephants stretched along the river.
There is all the other wildlife here too, but what makes this so special are the combined land and river-based game drives. To me there is nothing so special as the afternoon drift along the river, watching wildlife coming down to drink and ending with a red and orange sunset.
Zimbabwe’s Hwange National Park is the first National Park that I lived in. Currently home to 45 000 elephants, I would almost guarantee a sighting (or several) of the worlds’ largest land mammal. You can take a walking safari and spend time in hides, which I highly recommend! On my last safari to Hwange I spent a glorious afternoon in a hide which gave a ground-level close view of the watering hole with several herds of elephants coming to drink and milling around just feet from where we were sat; it was breath taking!
Take time out, sit and watch the wildlife come to you. There is always something happening around waterholes and I enjoy watching the flocks of sandgrouse coming down to drink and wet their feathers to take back to give to their young chicks. You will also see crocodiles lying wait in the shallows, kudu daintily tip toeing to the water’s edge and elephants arriving, swotting thirsty buffalo away so that they can spray themselves with a cooling shower of water on a hot afternoon.
South Africa is often called “a world in one country” and you have so much choice there for your holiday that it is hard to choose. There is something for everyone, from honeymoon couples, to families, to those seeking private getaways in exclusive villas. South Africa’s Eastern Cape has a host of options of private reserves and National Parks, where you can do a safari in the morning and be on a beach lapped by the Indian Ocean in the afternoon.
Some of these wildlife rich parks offer a slow and soft safari for the time poor where you could see a host of animals in just one or two game drives. Or there are gentile boutique hotels for those wanting to spend more time and venture out in a relaxed fashion to learn about the cultures, visit stunningly good restaurants, do some walking and fishing, too. On the other hand there is so much to do for young families as well, that you will be kept busy from dawn to dusk.
Another perfect destination for a first-time, luxury safari to South Africa are the multiple private reserves that abut the Kruger National Park, known as the Sabi Sands. Well known as a place almost guaranteed to see the Big 5 in a day, the 65,000-hectare area is a conservation success.
The passion the Sabi Sands’ owners have for preserving the land and its flora and fauna for generations to come, whilst at the same time supporting local surrounding communities, adds to its importance. There are luxury lodges aplenty and that, combined with the incredible experiences on offer, will leave the very best memories of your first safari.
Singita Castleton is a favourite of mine in the Sabi Sands and can be taken exclusively for those who are seeking complete privacy. Another delightful lodge is Lion Sands, which has two beautiful treehouse suites, raised up on stilts, where you could spend a night sleeping out under the stars in privacy and complete comfort!
In addition to selecting a region and type of accommodation, I always recommend that you plan to give back as a part of your vacation. The best safaris have a long-lived positive impact, both on you as a traveller and on the region to which you travel.
Today, responsible safari-goers can get involved in conservation or community support projects as a part of your travel, so that you can see directly how your travel supports the land and the local people and wildlife. A visit to a local charitable project or NGO can truly enhance your safari to the extraordinary!
Images and video by kind courtesy of:
Chobo Chilwero - Sanctuary Retreats, Africa Born Safaris, Laragai House, Cottar's 1920s Camps, Lengishu House, Dennis Stogsdill (Gorilla photo), Lion Sands - MORE , Serengeti Mobile Camp - Legendary, Time + Tide Chongwe House, Robin Pope Safaris, Singita Castleton, Tusk and Mane Zambia, Luangwa Safari House.