Top safari regions
This is where you get the photo of big tusked elephants with the backdrop of the world's highest free-standing mountain, Kilimanjaro. Easy to reach, and compact enough to be explored in 2 days. Only a few camps to choose from which are mostly on private conservancies neighbouring the park, with a range of levels of luxury. Kenya.
Best time: January - February, and June - September
Access: Charter from Nairobi or other reserves (45 mins) or an easy and picturesque drive from Nairobi (2.5 hrs)
Combine with: Serengeti & Maasai Mara
Chobe & surrounds
Various reserves lie between the Okavango and Victoria Falls, at the only place on earth where 4 countries meet. In dry season, big herds of elephant, buffalo and zebra are attracted to rivers and waterholes. Camps tend to be simpler and tented, with that wild, remote African feeling, a/c is rare and some have pools. Botswana.
Best time: During the dry months; May to July are cool (cold nights), August to October the game viewing is even better but it gets hot.
Access: By charter or by road from Victoria Falls, Maun or Kasane Airports - there are many options here depending on the camp chosen.
At the end of the Garden Route which makes it easy to combine with Cape Town, and it's malaria free. Plenty to see for a first safari, but reserves are smaller and numbers of animals are lower. Addo's elephants are so peaceful I've walked right up to them. It's not classic acacia & savanna Africa, with dense bushes and undulating hills, and not all reserves are Big 5. Gentle, comfortable camps are child friendly, with a/c and heating for chilly winters. South Africa.
Best time: Pleasant from September to May, can be cold and wet from June to August.
Access: Scheduled flights from Cape Town (1 hr) and Joburg (1.5 hrs), or drive the Garden Route from Cape Town (8 hrs but best done over 2-3 days).
In Namibia where the rest of the country is desert, Etosha provides a more conventional safari area, with large amounts of game. Vast dry savannah surrounds the salt pan where flamingoes breed; expect to see lions, elephants, black rhinos and giraffes gather at waterholes. Camps are simpler, most have pools but not all have a/c. Namibia.
Best time: May to October when there's no rain and animals congregate around waterholes.
Access: Charter from Windhoek's Eros airport (1 hr) or drive (5 hrs)
These immense, dry pans are an unusual safari experience, the best place to view cheetah, and good for meerkats, elusive wild cat, porcupine, aardwolf and honey badger. In the dry season the Makgadikgadi Pans are surreal in their moonlike appearance. In the rainy season it's all transformed; flamingoes in the pans, zebra migration and the black-maned kalahari lion. Simple tented camps allow a close-to-nature experience. Botswana.
Best time: From November to March when the rains bring grass to the semi-desert which attracts the animals - but it is very hot. April to October is very quiet in Makgadikgadi.
Access: Charter flight (30 mins) or drive from Maun
Kruger National Park is surrounded by the most private luxury safari lodges in Africa - because sightings of all the Big 5 are almost guaranteed, and it's easy to get there. I've spent a lot of time at a friend's camp in the Sabi Sand, which is the best - animals allow you to get real close, and you can drive off-road to them. Pricier camps are not only more luxurious - a/c, private pools, butlers etc - but also have larger traversing areas. South Africa.
Best time: Best game viewing when dry and cooler from April to October, but popular year-round.
Access: Fly from Joburg (1 hour), Cape Town (2 hrs), Victoria Falls (2 hrs) plus quick transfer or charter flight into your camp. Driving from Joburg via the scenic Panorama Route takes about 6 hrs
I like this area for the variety of habitat for wildlife - forests, plains, mountains, wetlands - and it's close to unspoilt beaches for a safari & beach combo. Downside is reserves are smaller, so the herds are smaller, and denser vegetation can make sightings more difficult. Camps are very comfortable, with pools, a/c and the lux trimmings. Malaria is on the decline here and some reserves are malaria free. South Africa.
Best time: Mild and dry April to October, from September to March it's hotter with rain.
Access: Charter flight from Joburg (2 hrs) or drive from Durban (3 hrs) or Richards Bay (1 hr)
About 200 miles downstream from Victoria Falls is the world's largest man-made lake, Kariba, which is surrounded by safari areas, and below that the national parks of Mana Pools and Lower Zambezi straddle the mighty river - elephants cross between them. Simpler camps, mostly tented with nice pools overlooking the Zambezi. Zimbabwe/Zambia.
Best time: You can only visit in the dry season, from May to August is very pleasant, September - October temperatures rise but it's still dry.
Access: Charter from Victoria Falls.
A big reserve with wide open plains have that big Africa feel but it's malaria free. Plenty of game, especially lion and elephant, and some of the desert species like gemsbok as this is a dry area, and I've seen rare wild dogs here too. All camps share the same reserve, but you won't have more than 3 vehicles at a sighting. Camps are mostly under thatch with pools and a/c, and some as luxurious as those around Kruger. South Africa.
Best time: Good viewing year round but it does get very hot (dry heat) November to February.
Access: Charter flight from Joburg (1 hr) or drive (4 hrs)
This destination alongside giant Lake Malawi is only now opening up for safari, but don't expect the best game sightings, though Majeti does now have the Big 5. But it makes up for this with the dramatic scenery of the Rift Valley, superb birding (palmnut vulture, Bohm's bee-eater, Lilian's lovebird, Livingstone's flycatcher) and up north on the Nyika Plateau, animals adapted to high altitude grassland. Malawi.
Best time: May through October, although October is very hot
Access: Charter from Lilongwe to your lodge (30 mins to 2hrs)
Combine with: Zambian plains
The desert experience isn't just about the rare, desert-adapted lion, elephant and rhino - it's also about huge orange sandunes at Sossusvlei, the desolate Skeleton Coast, unusual plantlife and rock paintings. Camp designs can be dramatic, and offer a variety of experiences including walking, quad-biking and star-gazing. They usually have a pool and some have a/c. Namibia.
Best time: May to October is best when it's dry and cooler (temps in December are scorching) but pack a thick jacket - nights are cold.
Access: Charter from Windhoek's Eros airport; the international airport is a 2 hr flight from Johannesburg or Cape Town. Alternatively, rent a car and drive - roads are good, but distances are big.
Ngorongoro Crater & surrounds
The walls of Ngorongoro's spectacular volcanic crater have great private lodges, from which you drive down onto the plains, forests and wetlands to see the famed wildlife, including the big five. Tree-climbing lions at pretty Lake Manyara and and high game concentrations in Tarangire. All are public reserves, so you may see lots of vehicles on your drives. Camps here are not all tented, and there are some super lux options with a/c etc. Tanzania.
Best time: Animals are easier to see in dry June - October, but April - May is quieter and beautifully green. It can get unpleasantly busy in December high season.
Access: Charter flight from Arusha or Kilimanjaro (45 mins). If you prefer to travel by road these are easy to reach (2 hrs)
Combine with: Serengeti & Maasai Mara
The world’s largest inland delta is the holy grail for safari-goers, a magnificent combination of wetland (explore by boat or wooden mokoro) and dry islands (game drives and walks) which attracts one of Africa's most exciting concentrations of wildlife and birds. It is the 1000th World Heritage Site. The scenery flying in to your camp is breathtaking. Most camps are tented, and only some have pools and a/c. Botswana.
Best time: The delta fills with water from May to September which attracts the wildlife (this doesn’t coincide with the rains, so you also have clear skies, and mild winter temperatures). There's a secret season from December to January after the rains.
Access: Charter flight to your camp from Maun (1 hr) or Victoria Falls (1 hr)
Combine with: Chobe & surrounds
Pamushana & surrounds
I fell in love with Pamushana when i spent a week drawing baobab trees, but had the most amazing sightings of all the Big 5 plus cheetah and wild dog. Singita's super lux Pamushana is the only camp on a vast private reserve, which has been a great conservation success. Spend at least 4 nights. It borders Gonarezhou where other camps have opened, but wildlife there is skittish. Zimbabwe.
Best time: Milder and drier March to September, can be very hot October to February.
Access: Singita run a regular jet from Johannesburg (1 hr) and Vic Falls (1 hr).
Samburu & Laikipia
The savannah to the north and west of Mount Kenya is one of Kenya's prime game viewing areas; it includes Samburu NR which is rated highly for leopard sightings, and the private conservancies on the Laikipia plateau with their large numbers of free-roaming wildife. Rare species include Grevy's zebra, gerenuk, besia oryx, reticulated giraffe and Somali ostrich. You'll also see Samburu herdsmen in their red robes. Most camps are tented. Kenya.
Best time: During the 2 dry seasons - December to March, and June to October
Access: Charter flight from Nairobi (1 hr), or by road from Nairobi (6 hrs)
Serengeti & Maasai Mara
Wild open plains that feel like they go on forever, game everywhere, dazzling light and huge herds. The Serengeti is in Tanzania, the Mara in Kenya - but the two million wildebeest & zebra dont know this and they just follow the rains, move freely over the border. Outside the migration, you'll see more diversity of species & pay lower rates. Camps are either on public reserves or private conservancies - beware of crowds of vehicles in the former. Hot air balloon rides can be booked from most camps. Almost every camp is tented, but vary dramatically in levels of luxury. Tanzania/Kenya.
Best time: The migration loosely follows this pattern: December - March grazing in southern Serengeti; avoid very wet April; May - June in northern Serengeti; July - August for the big crossings over the Mara River; September - November grazing in the Maasai Mara.
Access: Charter flight from Arusha (45 mins), Kilimanjaro (1 hr) or Nairobi (1 hr).
Combine with: Ngorongoro Crater & surrounds
Few have been to Africa’s largest private game reserve as it only takes few guests at a time - on 400 square miles! It’s the "Green Kalahari", which means arid savannah rather than desert - scenically magnificent, with rare species like desert black rhino and black-maned lions. You can get close to meerkats at one of their colonies. Don't expect abundant herds, it's too dry for that. The camps are very lux, with pools and a/c. South Africa.
Best time: To avoid desert extremes the shoulder seasons are most pleasant, March - May and August - October.
Access: Regular flight shuttle from Johannesburg (1.5 hrs)
The world's largest waterfall can be seen from both the Zimbabwean and Zambian sides. Although wildlife roams this area don't think of it as a real safari. It's rather a great place to spend a few days relaxing before or after your main safari - spa treatments, river cruises, fishing, craft markets, cultural tours, awesome range of adventure activities, and of course viewing the falls. Camps are lux, with pools, a/c and other indulgences. Zimbabwe/Zambia.
Best time: Can be done any time of year. From February - June the water is at it's peak, but July & August there's less spray so visibility is better. September to December the falls are low, but you can see into the gorge & more adventure activities are open.
Access: International airports on both sides - Victoria Falls in Zimbabwe or Livingstone in Zambia - link to Joburg, Kruger and other places. Charter hub for safaris into the region in the dry months.
Close to Johannesburg, mild climate and malaria free, this is a great first or family safari option. I helped out at at Welgevonden when it was being set up, and i think it's one of the most scenic safari areas - mountains, plains and treed valleys. Lots of rhino, the others of the Big 5 are there but leopard are elusive, and herds are small. Camps are usually cosy under thatch, with pools, a/c and all the trimmings. South Africa.
Best time: Pleasant temperatures September to May, nights are cold from June to August.
Access: Drive from Joburg (3 hrs) or charter flight (45 mins)
Combine with: Madikwe
There are 2 main reserves in Zambia, both with vast plains and few visitors, so they have a wild and unexplored feel. South Luangwa with lakes and rivers is famed for walking safaris, hIgh density of leopard, and endemic Thornicroft's giraffe and Crawshay's zebra. Kafue has even fewer camps and is closer to Vic Falls. This is serious safari country - don't expect pools, a/c etc; camps are intimate, low impact and close to nature. Zambia.
Best time: May to October when it's dry - but October can be very hot - most camps close during the wet season.
Access: Charter from Victoria Falls or Livingstone (1-2 hrs) to Kafue; the closest city to South Luangwa is Lilongwe (1hr flight or 5 hr drive)