The Best 10 African Safari Countries and Their Top Highlights
The options can be daunting when it comes to choosing an African safari. Several different countries in eastern and southern Africa rank as top-notch safari destinations, and most offer a varied choice of national parks and private game reserves, along with a tempting selection of beaches, cities, mountains, forests, or other attractions. Some countries are ideal for self-drivers, while others are best suited to people looking for an exclusive wilderness experience. And many offer specialist add-ons – Kilimanjaro climbs in Tanzania, gorilla tracking in Uganda or Rwanda, sumptuous wining and dining in South Africa, the spectacular Victoria Falls on the Zimbabwe/Zambia border – that might sway your decision. Here we provide an overview of our 10 favorite African safari destinations and their top highlights.
It would be a brave soul who disputed Tanzania’s claim to be Africa’s leading safari destination. Indeed, with more than a quarter of its vast area dedicated to national parks and other protected areas, Tanzania is quite simply one of the most wildlife-friendly countries anywhere on the planet.
Most first-time visitors focus on the peerless northern circuit, highlights of which include the Serengeti and its world-famous wildebeest migration, along with Ngorongoro Crater, Lake Manyara, and Tarangire National Park. More remote but no less rewarding is the southern safari circuit, where the vast and untrammeled Nyerere and Ruaha national parks extend across a combined 20,000 sq miles, which is larger than Switzerland or the state of Mississippi.
Other highlights include chimp tracking in Gombe and Mahale Mountains, the stunning beaches and pristine reefs of the Zanzibar Archipelago, and the hike to the 19,341ft roof of Africa on snow-capped Kilimanjaro.
Kenya is the original home of the safari. Its top safari destination is the Masai Mara, a northern extension of the Serengeti that hosts the wildebeest migration over August and September and also offers excellent lion, leopard, and cheetah viewing.
Other must-see wildlife reserves include Amboseli National Park, where elephants roam below snowcapped Kilimanjaro; Ol Pejeta, a private reserve that hosts plentiful black rhinos and Kenya’s only chimpanzee sanctuary; and Samburu/Buffalo Springs, which is inhabited by localized dry-country specialists such as Grevy’s zebra, reticulated giraffe, Beisa oryx, and gerenuk.
Kenya’s glorious Indian Ocean coastline is studded with sandy swimming beaches and characterful Swahili towns. The beaches flanking the historic ports of Mombasa and Malindi are great for sunbathing, swimming, and snorkeling, while the more time-warped island town of Lamu is ideal for those seeking a Swahili cultural experience.
South Africa’s status as one of Africa’s finest safari destinations can be obscured by its wealth of other attractions. Historic Cape Town, set on the Atlantic coastline below Table Mountain, is one of the world’s most enjoyable and beautiful cities, while the nearby Cape Winelands offer wonderful wining and dining, and the surrounding coastline is great for whale watching.
When it comes to safaris, South Africa is ideal for self-drivers, families, and independent travelers. It also excels when it comes to quaint boutique hotels, exclusive lodges, and other luxurious amenities. Its wildlife showpiece is the 7,200-square-mile Kruger National Park, which hosts more than 100 mammal and 500 bird species including large numbers of lion, leopard, buffalo, elephant, and rhino. Malaria-free alternatives include Madikwe and Pilanesberg game reserves.
South Africa boasts several compelling UNESCO World Heritage Sites. The Cradle of Humankind is known for its unique wealth of hominin fossils, while hiker-friendly uKhahlamba-Drakensberg Mountains harbors a profusion of prehistoric rock art sites, and iSimangaliso Wetland Park protects a subtropical mosaic of lakes, estuaries, forested dunes, and Indian Ocean beaches.
Botswana’s high-cost, low-impact ecotourism policy makes it less budget-friendly than neighboring South Africa but ideal for those seeking a truly exclusive safari experience. Although it is dominated geographically by the pristine wilderness of the sparsely populated Kalahari Desert, Botswana’s two most highly rated attractions are both aquatic.
Best explored in a makoro dugout, the palm-lined channels and forested islets of the 5,800-square-mile Okavango Delta – formed by the Kavango River as it drains into the Kalahari – support all the Big Five as well as a profusion of hippos and waterbirds. No less alluring is Chobe National Park, where you can enjoy boat trips along the eponymous river and seasonal concentrations of 100,000 elephants.
Often overlooked in favor of more publicized countries, Zambia is particularly well-suited to those seeking an exclusive wilderness experience. South and North Luangwa national parks are renowned for expertly guided walking safaris, while Lower Zambezi National Park specializes in canoeing and boat safaris on a tropical waterway alive with hippos and other wildlife.
More obscure highlights include the 8,600-square-mile Kafue National Park, Africa’s second-biggest wildebeest migration in Liuwa Plain, and the dazzling aquatic birdlife that thrives in the Bangweulu Wetlands. Last but by no means least is Victoria Falls, which forms a popular hub for adventure activities such as white-water rafting, bungee jumping, and rhino tracking on foot.
Although its reputation has suffered from long years of autocratic rule and associated economic disaster, Zimbabwe remains a first-class safari destination that squeezes plenty of highlights – including five UNESCO World Heritage Sites – into a relatively compact area. As with neighboring Zambia, the big must-see highlight is the spectacular Victoria Falls, but it is also well worth visiting the ruined medieval stone city of Great Zimbabwe, which is arguably the most atmospheric and intriguing historic site in subequatorial Africa. When it comes to wildlife, top choices include Hwange for its vast size and excellent general game viewing, Gonarezhou for its remote and untrammeled wilderness feel, and Mana Pools for canoeing and walking safaris along the Zambezi River.
A vast open land of immense sand dunes, forbidding mountains, and stony desert plains, Namibia ranks as the least densely populated country on the African continent. It also boasts one of southern Africa’s most alluring safari destinations in the form of the 8,600-square-mile Etosha National Park, where lion, leopard, elephant, black rhino, and giraffe can be seen alongside the near-endemic black-faced impala. Etosha is particularly suited to self-drive vacations taking in other highlights such as the apricot-hued dunes of Sossusvlei, a breeding colony of 200,000 Cape fur seals at wave-battered Cape Cross, the prehistoric rock paintings and engravings at Twyfelfontein, and the desert-adapted elephants and rhinos of Damaraland.
Africa’s most underrated and biodiverse safari destination, Uganda combines elements of the East African savanna and West African jungle with a diversity of wetlands that includes the mighty Nile River and the oceanic expanses of Lake Victoria, Albert, and Edward. The main draw is the opportunity to track mountain gorillas in Bwindi Impenetrable or Mgahinga Gorilla national parks. Elsewhere, forests such as Kibale, Budongo, and Kalinzu offer superb chimp tracking along with an opportunity to see a wide variety of monkeys ad forest birds. Elephants, buffalo, lions, leopards, and various other ungulates inhabit the savanna of Queen Elizabeth, Murchison Falls, and Kidepo Valley, while reintroduced white rhinos can be tracked on foot in Ziwa Rhino Sanctuary. Uganda is also the best place in Africa to see the alluring shoebill, the most bizarre of its 1,000-plus bird species.
Much like neighboring Uganda, but on a smaller scale, Rwanda is best known for its mountain gorillas but also supports a variety of other wildlife. Volcanoes National Park is where Dian Fossey initiated the research program immortalized in the movie Gorillas in the Mist, and it now ranks as arguably the world’s top gorilla tracking destination. Savanna safaris can be undertaken in Akagera National Park, whose diverse mosaic of woodlands, grasslands, and wetlands support lion, leopard, elephant, buffalo, black rhino, white rhino, hippo, giraffe, and a dozen species of antelope. Elsewhere, Nyungwe National Park, which protects East Africa’s largest remaining Afromontane forest, is home to 13 primate species, including habituated chimps, and a wealth of forest birds including 30 Albertine Rift Endemics.
Twenty years ago, it would have been difficult to justify Malawi’s inclusion on a list of Africa’s best safari counties. That has changed, however, thanks to an extensive rehabilitation and reintroduction program that has transformed several once-neglected parks into rewarding Big Five safari destinations. Malawi’s most stellar national park is Liwonde, where boat trips and game drives along the palm-fringed Shire River usually yield excellent sightings of elephants, buffalo, hippos, crocodiles and aquatic birds. The smaller and more exclusive Majete Wildlife Reserve also lies along the Shire River and supports all the Big Five. By contrast, Malawi’s largest protected area, Nyika National Park, is a hiker’s paradise known for its highland scenery and wealth of orchids and birds. The other main scenic highlight is Lake Malawi, which runs for 350 miles through a stretch of the Rift Valley hemmed in by a mountainous escarpment.