Southern Africa's Top 25 Safari Destinations
Philip Briggs, one of Africa’s most prolific travellers and writers, picks the best of the best and offers some practical advice to help you plan your perfect southern Africa itinerary.

 

 
SOUTH AFRICA
Of all the countries in the region, South Africa is perhaps one of the least widely thought of as a safari destination, thanks to a host of other premier attractions ranging from cosmopolitan Cape Town and the nearby Winelands to the fine beaches of the Garden Route and lofty peaks of the uKhahlamba-Drakensberg. Yet South Africa boasts some quite superb wildlife viewing destinations, offering a far greater ecological diversity than some of its neighbours. Its public reserves are particularly well suited to budget DIY safaris, while an ever-growing collection of luxurious private reserves offers concentrated Big Five viewing at the top end of the price range. A good network of surfaced roads and domestic flights allows for flexible itinerary planning, but the flagship Kruger Park and associated private reserves remain the obvious choice for first-time safarigoers, while Addo and environs are conveniently located near Port Elizabeth for those driving along the Garden Route.

Kruger National Park
The most famous wildlife sanctuary in southern Africa is also the best developed for tourism, with 21 rest camps and a dozen concession lodges scattered across its vast 19,000 square kilometres. Kruger is sometimes lambasted by 4WD elitists for its sealed road system and 21st-century facilities (ATMs and well-stocked supermarkets in the rest camps, and a mass of explanatory material), but these user-friendly features also make it uniquely suitable for first-time safarigoers seeking an affordable self-drive experience. Most importantly, wildlife is plentiful. Indeed, this is the last African reserve of comparable size whose ‘Big Five’ populations are in uniformly good shape. The latest available estimates include 37,500 buffalo, 13,700 elephant, 1750 lion and 1000 leopard, while some 12,000 white rhino and 600 black rhino are the largest such populations in any African conservation area. With 517 species recorded, birding is also fantastic, especially in the southern summer.
• Best time to visit: June-September for mammals, November-March for birds
• Length of stay: 3-5 days for the south or central region, with up to 14 days to explore the entire park
• Accommodation: The rest camps offer cheap campsites and inexpensive chalets. Lodges and tented camps on the concessions are more exclusive and upmarket.
• Top tips: It’s straightforward to book accommodation online at www.sanparks.org. Camps south of the Sabie River are best for wildlife, those north of the Letaba River for a wilderness experience, while ones in between offer the best of both worlds.

Mpumalanga Private Reserves
Where Kruger is the most overtly populist of Africa’s top wildlife destinations, the numerous private reserves that extend from its western border include several of the continent’s most chic and prestigious safari camps – MalaMala, Londolozi and Sabi Sabi among them. No fences divide these reserves from the Kruger, so wildlife moves freely between them. The difference, however, is that the private reserves offer an all-inclusive package featuring gourmet cuisine, world-class service, and a super-intensive Big Five experience – including the best leopard viewing in Africa – on off-road game drives guided by expert qualified rangers.
• Best time to visit: June-September
• Length of stay: 2 nights at least, ideally 3-4
• Accommodation: Mostly upmarket, though a few mid-range options still exist.
• Top tip: Several reserves have extensive traversing agreements with neighbouring properties. If your budget extends to it, stay at one that doesn’t (MalaMala, Singita or Londolozi).

Hluhluwe-Imfolozi Game Reserve
Offering the best all-round wildlife viewing of the 50-odd provincial reserves in KwaZulu-Natal, Hluhluwe-iMfolozi played a crucial early role in rhino conservation. Incredibly, every last white rhino in South Africa is descended from its early 20th century bottleneck population of fewer than 20, and it remains one of the best reserves in Africa for seeing these endangered behemoths. With a scenic setting of rolling green hills and wooded valleys, Hluhluwe-iMfolozi is also home to the other members of the Big Five, while other prominent species include African wild dog and nyala.
• Best time to visit: June-September for mammals, November-March for birds
• Length of stay: 2-3 nights
• Accommodation: Camping, budget and mid-range.
• Top tip: Guided two-hour game walks are available on the spot. Pre-booking is required to do the legendary four-night wilderness trail, which runs through a 300-square-kilometre area closed to vehicular traffic.

Pilanesberg Game Reserve
This 550-square-kilometre malaria-free reserve is the closest Big Five destination to Africa’s largest urban conglomeration, Gauteng, which incorporates Johannesburg and Pretoria. Abutting the famous Sun City complex and nestled scenically within a collapsed volcanic crater, Pilanesberg offers excellent general wildlife viewing, with elephant and white rhino both very common, but it is a little hit-and-miss when it comes to large predator sightings. For birdwatchers, an impressive checklist of 350 includes several western species (notably the charismatic crimson-breasted shrike). Overall, highly recommended for those doing business in Johannesburg or Pretoria.
• Best time to visit: June-September for mammals, November-March for birds
• Length of stay: 1-2 nights
• Accommodation: Camping, budget and mid-range, with several upmarket options (including Sun City) bordering.
• Top tip: Odds of predator encounters improve hugely if you join a guided night drive in an open 4WD.

Madikwe Game Reserve
Southern Africa’s premier malaria-free safari destination shares many ecological attributes with nearby Pilanesberg, but it is more remote, significantly larger and caters almost exclusively to the top end of the market, hosting a couple of dozen top-notch bush camps that offer an all-inclusive experience comparable to the private reserves of Mpumalanga. It is also something of a conservation miracle, having been forged from unproductive ranchland in 1991, and restocked with 8000 individual animals spanning 28 species of large mammal. There’s an excellent chance of spotting lion, elephant and both species of rhino. Buffalo and leopard are also present, but scarce.
• Best time to visit: June-September
• Length of stay: 2-4 nights
• Accommodation: Mostly upmarket, with a few mid-range options. 
• Top tip: The absence of malaria and high quality guiding make this a great choice for families.

Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park
Created in 1999 when South Africa’s Kalahari Gemsbok National Park merged with its less-accessible counterpart in Botswana, this remote reserve protects a haunting landscape of peach-coloured dunes bounded in by the seasonal Auob and Nossob rivers and a fringing band of acacias. Most memorable for its wild desert scenery, Kgalagadi is nevertheless superb for predators, not only lion and leopard, but also smaller species such as black-backed jackal, bat-eared fox, Cape fox, caracal, meerkat and yellow mongoose. An impressive array of raptors and other dry-country birds are common. Africa addicts will find it refreshingly different, infinitely rewarding and relatively easy to explore on a self-drive safari.
• Best time to visit: In wet years, wildlife congregates along the rivers over February-April. However, daytime temperatures are more comfortable over May-September.
• Length of stay: 3-6 nights
• Accommodation: A few rest camps offer camping or budget and mid-range chalets. Three new top-end camps are opening in mid-2013 on the Botswana side of the park.
• Top tip: Visit this remote reserve from the direction of Cape Town over August-September and you may also be treated to spectacular spring flower displays as you pass through Namaqualand.

iSimangaliso Wetland Park
Formerly the Greater St Lucia Wetland, this UNESCO World Heritage Site protects 200km of pristine coastline running from the St Lucia Estuary to Kosi Bay. It’s not an archetypal safari destination, but the checklist of 2000 marine, freshwater and terrestrial vertebrate species is greater than in any other African conservation area. iSimangaliso also incorporates the world’s tallest forested dunes, Africa’s southernmost coral reefs, and five separate Ramsar Wetlands. Boat trips on St Lucia Estuary are good for hippos, crocs and water birds, and other organised excursions include seasonal whale watching or turtle tracking. More conventional wildlife viewing is provided in the Mkhuze sector, a favourite of wildlife photographers and birdwatchers, while the bordering Phinda Private Game Reserve is easily the top private wildlife destination in KwaZulu-Natal.
• Best time to visit: May-October.
• Length of stay: 2-7 nights
• Accommodation: Everything from basic backpackers and campsites in St Lucia to 5-star luxury at Phinda.  
• Top tip: Backpacker hostels in St Lucia village, at the estuary mouth, make a useful base from which to explore iSimangaliso and Hluhluwe-iMfolozi on a budget.

Greater Addo Elephant National Park and Environs
Situated in a malaria-free area a short drive north of Port Elizabeth, Addo was created in 1931 to protect the few shy survivors that constituted Africa’s most southerly elephant population. These have since multiplied and today they are very relaxed – indeed, the elephant viewing here is usually superb – while the original park is now the centrepiece of a 17,000-square-kilometre conservation area descending from the peaks of the Zuurberg to the coastal dunefields around Port Alfred, and including five of South Africa’s seven terrestrial biomes.  A series of recent mammal reintroductions means the core reserve – a great self-drive destination – protects all the Big Five, with black rhino and buffalo both conspicuous. And the surrounding area supports several exclusive private conservation areas, notably the superb Shamwari and Kwandwe Game Reserves, which offer a sumptuous (albeit relatively contrived) Big Five package comparable to the best of the private reserves bordering Kruger.
• Best time to visit: All year
• Length of stay: 2-3 nights
• Accommodation: Camping and inexpensive chalets at the national park rest camp, or 5-star luxury at Shamwari and Kwandwe. 
• Top tip: The location near Port Elizabeth makes this cluster of reserves an ideal and uncomplicated add-on to a self-drive trip from Cape Town along the legendary Garden Route.



NAMIBIA
One of the world’s most thinly populated countries, Namibia is better known for its hauntingly austere desert landscapes than its wildlife. Nevertheless, it incorporates one of the region’s most highly regarded self-drive safari destinations, the superlative Etosha National Park, and several other worthwhile reserves. Other highlights worth including in an itinerary are the famous dunes of Sossusvlei, and the coast between Lüderitz and Cape Cross.

Etosha National Park
Namibia’s premier safari destination, this 22,750-square-kilometre national park (larger than the Kruger or Serengeti) is centred on the Etosha Pan, a vast salt-encrusted depression that transforms into a shallow seasonal lake after heavy rain. A series of perennial waterholes along the pan’s southern shore is popular with wildlife photographers during the dry season, when it attracts prodigious mixed herds of zebra, wildebeest, giraffe, springbok, oryx, kudu and other wildlife. Etosha is well suited to self-drive safaris, thanks to the quality of the roads and affordable rest camps. Elephant, lion and black rhino are all quite conspicuous, leopard somewhat less so, and this must be the only major African safari destination where buffalo are entirely absent. Look out for the black-faced impala, an endangered subspecies confined to the western Angola-Namibia border area.
• Best time to visit: June-November, peaking October
• Length of stay: 3-5 nights
• Accommodation: Camping and inexpensive chalets at the rest camps. Several upmarket camps border the park. 
• Top tip: The floodlit waterhole at Okaukuejo Rest Camp often offers exceptional nocturnal game viewing, with a good chance of black rhino.

Caprivi Strip
The Caprivi Strip is moister and more stereotypically African than the rest of Namibia. The strip’s five national parks and reserves support plenty of wildlife, notably water-associated species such as elephant, buffalo, hippo, red lechwe and sitatunga. The area is also renowned for its wealth of aquatic and other birds. However, access to Caprivi’s most productive wildlife areas is tricky without a 4WD, making it suitable for those with an expeditionary bent, and who value a wilderness over wall-to-wall wildlife.
• Best time to visit: June-October
• Length of stay:  3-5 nights
• Accommodation: Most price levels are catered to.
• Top tip: Accommodation is scattered, so a good map and guidebook are recommended.

Northern Damaraland
The austere dunes and rockscapes of northern Damaraland suggest unpromising candidates for wildlife viewing. But this parched and uninhabited region somehow sustains southern Africa’s last remaining herds of desert-adapted elephant and black rhino, hardy survivors that extract their required daily water intake from woody plants and subterranean streams. A few exclusive concessions offer the opportunity to track these rare creatures, with the possibility of encountering other large wildlife such as oryx, kudu, springbok and Hartmann’s mountain zebra. Also present are several endemic bird species, including Monteiro’s hornbill, Herero chat and Ruppell’s korhaan. Not for the impatient, but a highly rewarding experience.
• Best time to visit: May-October
• Length of stay: 3 nights
• Accommodation: Upmarket only.
• Top tip: Damaraland is also the repository of some of Africa’s finest rock-art sites, including Brandberg and Twyfelfontein.



ZIMBABWE
Despite negative international perceptions, Zimbabwe remains one of Africa’s most rewarding safari destinations, offering high-quality lodging to all budgets in some of the region’s finest national parks. The flagship reserve, situated conveniently close to the ever-popular Victoria Falls, is  the immense Hwange National Park – it’s a great all-round safari experience comparable to Kruger or Etosha. For a more singular adventure, however, Mana Pools, allows canoeing and walking safaris on the Zambezi, which is difficult to beat.

Hwange National Park
Hwange is Zimbabwe’s largest protected area, extending for 14,540 square kilometres along the border with Botswana. Although a short drive, and even shorter flight, south of Victoria Falls, it has never been as fashionable among the cognoscenti as Etosha, Okavango or even Mana Pools. However, it is a truly superb national park, supporting a volume and variety of wildlife that compares favourably with almost anywhere else in the region. Hwange is situated at the eastern extreme of one of Africa’s most extensive migratory ecosystems, and attracts tens of thousands of elephants during the dry winter months. In addition, good sightings of lion, giraffe and buffalo can more or less be taken for granted, while more elusive leopard and cheetah are present in significant numbers. It is also one of the few parks to harbour the full quota of what might be termed Africa’s antelope ‘big five’: eland, roan, sable, greater kudu and gemsbok.
• Best time to visit: May-October
• Length of stay:  3-6 nights
• Accommodation: Affordable and down-to-earth camping and chalets at the rest camps, and upmarket tented camps in several private concessions.
• Top tip: A few hides in the public sector of the park can be booked exclusively for the night for a small fee. This is the consummate Hwange experience, with a succession of elephant herds and other grazers coming to drink, joined by the occasional leopard or lion.

Mana Pools National Park
Inscribed as Zimbabwe’s first UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1984, this 2500-square-kilometre park on the south bank of the Zambezi protects a luxuriant landscape of wooded islands, meandering channels and oxbow lakes lined with tall mahogany, ebony and acacia trees. Significant numbers of elephant, buffalo, lion, leopard, giraffe and assorted antelope roam the riverine woodland, while the Zambezi itself supports plenty of hippos and crocs, and the birdlife is both varied and prolific. Mana Pools stands out as one of the few parks in the region where the emphasis is not so much on game drives as on walking and canoeing – making for an altogether more rewarding safari experience of Africa in the raw.
• Best time to visit: May-October
• Length of stay: 3-5 nights
• Accommodation: Campsites and upmarket lodges.
• Top tip: Aimed at fit and self-sufficient hikers, the park offers reasonably priced three-day guided wilderness hikes during full moon.

Matusadona National Park
Extending 1400 square kilometres across rugged hills that slope down to the shore of Lake Kariba, Matusadona ranks among the region’s more inaccessible, wild and uncrowded national parks. Home to thousand-strong buffalo herds and one of the densest lion populations anywhere in Africa, this scenic park is also good for elephant, and it supports one of Zimbabwe’s last black rhino populations. Much of the park is accessible by boat or on foot only, making for a more varied safari experience.
• Best time to visit: May-October
• Length of stay: 3 nights
• Accommodation: Cheap public campsites, upmarket lodges and houseboats.
• Top tip:  A quirky but popular option, especially for families, is to rent a houseboat, which functions as floating safari lodge and hide.



MOZAMBIQUE
Renowned for its lovely tropical coastline, Mozambique boasts two significant but little-visited game reserves, both in the process of recovering from the devastation caused by long years of civil war. The more accessible Gorongosa is an easy add-on to a self-drive beach holiday on the busy south coast, while the vast but remote Niassa Reserve is most often visited by air in conjunction with the beach idylls of the offshore Quirimbas Archipelago.

Gorongosa National Park
This 5250-square-kilometre national park was acclaimed as one of the continent’s finest in the 1970s, when wildlife concentrations rivalled those of the Serengeti. It’s been through some lean times since, but rehabilitation has been underway since 2004, and approached with realistic expectations it is still a very rewarding park, with the potential to rise back to the top ranks in years to come. In crude Big Five terms, lion and elephant are quite common, but buffalo are scarce, leopards furtive, and rhino (predictably) extinct. Waterbuck, reedbuck and impala also thrive, and the tangled bush and mesmerising waterways are teeming with birds.
For those travelling in the area, its accessibility from the main road between Chimoio and Beira is
a definite plus.
• Best time to visit:  May-November
• Length of stay: 2-4 nights
• Accommodation: One rest camp with camping and mid-range chalets, and one upmarket tented camp.
• Top tip: Birders should arrange in advance to do a day or overnight hike on nearby Mount Gorongosa, which is renowned for its endemic localised race of green-headed oriole.

Niassa Reserve
Africa’s third largest wildlife sanctuary, the 42,000-square-kilometre Niassa Reserve is also one of the continent’s most untrammelled safari destinations. Its dominant feature is the Lugenda River, hemmed in by wide sandbanks lined with hippos and crocs, and a ribbon of lush riparian forest that supports plentiful elephant and a wealth of birdlife. Away from the river, vast tracts of baobab-studded miombo woodland harbour an estimated 450 African wild dogs (the second largest population after neighbouring Selous in Tanzania), and immense, granite inselbergs rise majestically into the sky. Game densities are generally low, but Niassa offers a true wilderness experience, with the added advantage that game drives are supplemented by exciting canoeing excursions
and guided walks.
• Best time to visit: May-November
• Length of stay: 3-4 nights
• Accommodation: One upmarket tented camp and a basic campsite.
• Top tip: The spectacular but seldom seen Angola pitta is conspicuous around the reserve’s only camp during its brief mating season in November.



ZAMBIA
One of Africa’s leading safari destinations, Zambia is also the site of the legendary Victoria Falls. Its national parks possess a strong wilderness character, with Luangwa Valley and Lower Zambezi  being outstanding for wildlife, while Liuwa Plains wins the off-the-beaten-track stakes.

Lower Zambezi National Park
Canoe safaris are the main attraction in this rather undeveloped 4000-square-kilometre national park, which lies along the opposite bank of the Zambezi River to Mana Pools (see Zimbabwe section, page 41), and is essentially its Zambian counterpart. Although rhino are absent, the park supports healthy populations of lion, leopard, elephant and buffalo, as well as plentiful hippos and a thrilling variety of birds.
• Best time to visit: June-September
• Length of stay: 3-5 nights
• Accommodation: Several upmarket camps inside the park and some cheaper options outside.
• Top tip:  Top tip: Although most camps offer half-day boat safaris, a multi-day canoe trip is the definitive way to experience this untrammelled riverine park.

Luangwa Valley
This primal southerly extension of the Great Rift Valley, flowed through by the sluggish brown Luangwa River, supports a trio of national parks –  South Luangwa, North Luangwa and Luambe – with a combined extent of 14,000 square kilometres and a reputation for exceptionally high guiding standards. South Luangwa, the largest and most popular of the three, is the home of the walking safari, with everything from relaxed half-day outings to multi-day hikes between several fly-camps on offer. Night drives are exceptional too, vying only with the private reserves of Mpumalanga for quality leopard sightings. Other conspicuous wildlife includes lion, buffalo, zebra, giraffe, and the hippos that congregate in riverine pools along the river.
• Best time to visit: May-November for traditional safaris, but the wetter ‘Emerald Season’ (November-March) offers great photography, birding and boat safaris.
• Length of stay: 3-7 nights
• Accommodation: Numerous upmarket camps and a smaller choice of midrange lodges and budget campsites. 
• Top tip: North Luangwa and Luambe National Parks support similar wildlife to South Luangwa, but offer a more exclusive experience.


 

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