Tour operator and travel writer Jill Worrall has been visiting Africa for decades and has experienced safaris throughout the continent, from Zimbabwe to Zambia, Botswana to Tanzania. Here she shares her top five.
An African safari is a once-in-a-lifetime experience for most of us, so careful planning and research is a must.
Not only are there are so many options to choose from, but there's a multitude of countries in which to travel – all of which can make designing that perfect Africa holiday rather confusing.
The best way to narrow down your choices is by first deciding on your budget and then the kind of safari experience and the countries you want to visit. Read up, both guide books and online, but there’s also no substitute for talking to travelers who have been there before.
And be prepared to pay. It’s easy to assume that because parts of Africa are less developed and many millions of people live on or below the poverty line, travel here will be cheap. You can do it on a budget, of course, but if you want to visit more remote parks (for example) you'll probably need to take chartered flights in small planes, and the costs can soon add up.
Here are five of my top African safari experiences...
1. South Luangwa National Park, Zambia
It's something of a hidden gem, but widely rated as one of the best parks in Africa. Don’t tell too many people that, though, as current visitor numbers are not nearly as great as those in neighbouring Tanzania, for example.
Magic moments: South Luangwa prides itself on being the home of the walking safari. Accompanied by two guides (one with a high-powered rifle just in case) we spent several hours on foot in the grasslands. The most stupendous moment was walking through a herd of giraffes, including calves and teenage males engaged in play fighting, which involved what sounded and looked like potentially spine-shattering neck slapping. There is nothing like actually feeling Africa’s earth beneath one’s feet.
Night safaris: many African animals are more active at night - after dark in South Luangwa we watched lions stretching languorously before a night’s hunting and a leopard, mouth bloodied from a kill, being chased from its meal of impala by two hyenas.
2. The Okavango Delta, Botswana
This watery wonderland created by the Okavango River as it flows through the Kalahari Desert is, naturally, most easily explored by boat.
Magic moment: Puttering in a boat around a bend in a channel fringed by two- metre high reeds just in time to watch a young elephant plunge into the water and swim to the other side, ears flapping, trunk snorkeling.
3. Serengeti National Park, Tanzania
Famed as one of the best places to see the annual mass migration of wildebeest and zebra, the Serengeti is also teeming with other African wildlife. If you can afford to, opt for smaller camps that offer safaris away from the crowds. It's worth it – one day we encountered about 20 Jeeps clustered around just one pride of lions.
Magic moments: On our way to our first night’s accommodation in the Serengeti our guide got a radio message urging him to make a small detour en route. With dusk (and the safari curfew) fast approaching, our driver hurtled down a track before stopping beside a cheetah: breathtakingly beautiful, elegant and aloof.
Another memorable moment – sitting in our jeep watching two leopards padding through the trees on a forest-clad slope. Our guide told us that leopards are normally solitary animals and these two were preparing to mate. A few kilometres along the same track we stopped again to photograph a leopard asleep in a tree, paws dangling.
4. Ngorongoro Conservation Area, Tanzania
One of the highest concentrations of wildlife in Africa live in this, the world’s largest unbroken, unflooded volcanic caldera.
Magic moment: Watching a herd of elephants chasing a pride of lions away from their young calves as they made their way across the crater floor. The lions, having just fed on an antelope, were reluctant to move, but repeated charges from several young elephants forced them to back away. Even when the lions took refuge under a thicket of thorn bushes the elephants repeatedly charged at them, trunks raised, bellowing ferociously. As the guide said, “Now you can see who is really the king of the jungle.”
5. Mana Pools National Park, Zimbabwe
This national park is on the Zimbabwean side of the Zambezi River, downstream from the awe-inspiring Victoria Falls. We visited at the end of the rainy season, so it was green and lush. This did make it more difficult to find the animals (which don’t need to congregate at water holes or the riverbed to find water) but showed us Africa in a totally different light.
Magic moment: Coming by chance on one of Africa’s most famous elephants, Boswell, who, the local guides told us, is the only elephant known to have developed the technique of standing on his hind legs to reach leafy branches otherwise out of reach. We stood behind a tree to watch this and I couldn’t shake the idea that Boswell knew we were there and was deigning to put on a performance just for us.
Then there are the unforgettable safari moments that can happen in almost any park and in almost any African country offering safaris. Lying in bed at night listening to hippos “humphing” in a nearby river, or the sound of elephants ripping bark from a tree just metres from one’s head are priceless experiences you'll never forget. It’s not all about the wildlife either – awakening before dawn to head out on safari is to see the world awaken in pearly silver; at dusk African sunsets burn with stunning ferocity.
But for me, what will live on longest in my memory, are a few moments beside Zimbabwe’s Lake Kariba just as the sun went down. In the fast approaching darkness two young lions heading out for a night’s hunting began calling to each other.
Their roars rolled across to us as we stood beside our Jeep. A lion’s roar is not just heard but felt... It seemed to vibrate through my chest, inspiring a little fear – but mostly a sense of being very much alive.