10 of Africa’s most worthwhile off-the-beaten track safari destinations
We’ve all heard about the Serengeti, Masai Mara, and Kruger, and there’s no doubt that these iconic national parks rank among Africa’s most rewarding safari destinations. That said, they sometimes feel like victims of their own popularity, attracting high seasonal tourist volumes that often dilute their innate wilderness atmosphere. On the other extreme, there are still many excellent and largely unsung African national parks that attract practically no tourism and retain a genuine off-the-beaten-track feel. Here we explore some of them:
Mkomazi National Park (Tanzania)
A southern extension of Kenya’s vast Tsavo National Park, 1,400-square-mile Mkomazi is largely neglected by northern Tanzania’s safari industry, despite its proximity to the regional safari capital Arusha. As a result, it is one of those rare parks where you can still do a game drive without seeing another vehicle. Wildlife viewing is erratic, but all the Big Five are present, and our most recent visit yielded great sightings of lion, elephant, buffalo, giraffe, zebra, Coke’s hartebeest, and eland. A more certain highlight is guided open 4×4 excursions into Mkomazi Black Rhino Tourist Sanctuary, which opened in 2021 and is the most reliable place in Tanzania for close-up rhino encounters. Mkomazi is an important stronghold for dry-country antelope such as gerenuk, lesser kudu, and fringe-eared oryx, while Kilimanjaro’s snow-capped peak is often visible in the late afternoon and early morning.
Gonarezhou National Park (Zimbabwe)
Zimbabwe’s second-largest national park extends across almost 2,000 square miles of pristine wilderness in the vast Greater Limpopo Transfrontier Park, which also incorporates South Africa’s, Kruger National Park. As implied by its Shona name (literally ‘Place of Elephants’), Gonarezhou protects a dense elephant population, one that currently stands at around 12,000 individuals. It’s also home to lion, leopard, buffalo, white rhino, black rhino, African wild dog, cheetah, giraffe, zebra, and more than 450 bird species. But the biggest attraction for many is the low level of tourist development (just one self-catering rest camp and a scattering of campsites) and the wild scenery typified by the sandstone Chilojo Cliffs, which tower 600ft above the Runde River.
Central Kalahari Game Reserve (Botswana)
The world’s largest game reserve, and almost certainly among the least visited, Central Kalahari extends across 20,000 square miles of inhospitable wilderness in the parched heart of Botswana. It’s a destination best suited to intrepid 4×4 enthusiasts, who are usually advised to visit in convoy in case of a breakdown. The main attraction is not so much wildlife viewing as the stark beauty of the remote desert setting, but the park does support low populations of black-maned Kalahari lion, cheetah, and various smaller carnivores, along with dry-country antelope such as oryx, springbok, and red hartebeest.
Kidepo Valley National Park (Uganda)
One of East Africa’s most remote safari destinations, Kidepo Valley protects a mesmerizing tract of grassland enclosed by a set of mountainous peaks bordering South Sudan. Reached via the wild semi-arid plains of Karamoja, the park is surprisingly lush in feel, thanks to the presence of two perennial rivers. Wildlife includes immense herds of buffalo, healthy numbers of lions and elephants, and local specialties such as the endangered Rothschild’s giraffe, the long-limbed patas monkey, and East Africa’s only wild population of rose-ringed parakeet.
Liuwa Plain National Park (Zambia)
A highlight of my recent self-drive road trip through Zambia was the opportunity to spend six nights in Liuwa Plain, a little-known national park that hosts Africa’s second-largest wildebeest migration. We were there in early November, when the migration peaks, and encountered several large wildebeest herds kicking up sand and baaing like disgruntled sheep. Liuwa isn’t your typical Big Five destination – we had some great lion sightings, and also encountered a large buffalo herd, but there are no rhinos, leopards, or elephants. However, the immense landscape, dramatic skies, superb birdwatching (including flocks of countless black-winged pratincole swarming quelea-like above the plains), and near absence of other vehicles make it a very special place.
Shaba National Reserve (Kenya)
Although it is only 93 square miles in area, little-visited Shaba forms part of a more extensive network of protected areas that also includes the popular Samburu-Buffalo Springs National Reserve. It protects an atmospheric tract of semi-arid acacia scrub hemmed in by the near-perennial forest-fringed Ewaso Nyiro River. Shaba is a great place to look for localized and/or dry-country specials such as reticulated giraffe, Grevy’s zebra, Beisa oryx, lesser kudu, gerenuk, rosy-patched shrike, and golden-breasted starling. Four of the Big Five – elephant, buffalo, lion, leopard – are seen with varying degrees of regularity.
Katavi National Park (Tanzania)
The most obscure and uncrowded of Tanzania’s major safari parks, Katavi seldom disappoints when it comes to wildlife. In the dry season, thousand-strong buffalo herds roam across the Katuma floodplain, along with large numbers of elephant, giraffe, zebra, and antelope. The large lion prides that haunt the floodplains are a conspicuous presence, while the waterways are home to some massive crocodiles and myriad waterbirds. In the late dry season, Katavi offers incredible hippo viewing, as concentrations of several hundred jostles for space in the few large pools that remain. Logistically, Katavi is often visited on a fly-in package with nearby Mahale Mountains National Park, Tanzania’s premier chimp-tracking destination.
North Luangwa National Park (Zambia)
Zambia’s South Luangwa National Park is one of Africa’s ultimate bucket-list safari destinations, thanks to its focus on walking safaris, high standards of guiding, thrilling night drives, memorable riverine scenery, and conspicuous populations of leopard, lion, elephant, and buffalo. A more remote and wild alternative is neighboring North Luangwa, which offers a similar experience to its southern counterpart, but attracts far fewer tourists and also supports Zambia’s only population of black rhinos.
Majete Wildlife Reserve (Malawi)
When I first visited Majete in the 1990s, the future of this neglected tract of Brachystegia woodland looked bleak indeed. I barely saw a single large mammal, and the sole highlight was the pretty Kapichira Falls, which lies on the Shire River as it flows along the reserve’s eastern boundary. All that has changed since 2003, when this poached-out reserve was placed in the custodianship of African Parks, an NGO that specializes in the rehabilitation of marginal conservation areas. Now home to reintroduced populations of all the Big Five, along with cheetah, giraffe, and around a dozen antelope species, Majete ranks among Africa’s most rewarding and exclusive safari destinations.
Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park (South Africa/Botswana)
Protecting a spectacular desert landscape of rippled apricot-colored dunes and dry acacia-lined riverbeds, 14,650-square-mile Kgalagadi is a favorite with South African wilderness lovers. It is famed for its majestic black-maned Kalahari lions, but leopard, cheetah, bat-eared fox, black-backed jackal, and African wild cat are all regular, while other wildlife includes giraffe, springbok, red hartebeest, wildebeest, eland, and oryx. Avian specials include swallow-tailed bee-eater, crimson-breasted shrike, violet-eared waxbill, and the localized sociable weavers whose immense communal nests are a distinctive feature of the landscape. The South African portion of Kgalagadi is serviced by affordable rest camps and easily explored in an ordinary saloon car; the larger Botswanan sector is geared more towards 4×4 enthusiasts who really want to get away from it all.