Every first-time traveller to Africa asks the same question: Which country offers the best African safari?
Anyone who's spent a fair bit of time travelling in the safari countries of Africa knows that's not an easy question to answer because every country offers something different and special. There's really no such thing as a 'once in a lifetime' trip to Africa. Wait til you go and experience it before you say that. Africa's addictive and it really does change your life. Once you've had a taste of it, there's a very high likelihood you'll want more. Luckily there's quite a few options to choose from, so if you've experienced one and you want more, there's great choices!
Since starting Matson & Ridley Safaris almost six years ago, I've explored many of the safari countries across Africa, and in my earlier days working as a zoologist I got to know quite a few of these countries very well. I have my favourites, but all for different reasons, and I struggle to pick one over another. In this blog I'm going to try and tease apart some of the pros and cons of a few of the different safari experiences.
KENYA AND TANZANIA
The famous Serengeti of Tanzania and Masai Mara of Kenya offer the true 'Out of Africa' experience, which is probably what you imagine Africa to be if you've never been. Those vast open plains dotted with wildebeest and zebras being hunted down by slender lionesses and cackling hyeanas... Thousands of wildebeests crossing the river, some being caught in the jaws of lethal Nile crocodiles... Yes that's really what it's like. It's mind-blowingly amazing and you really do feel like you're in a David Attenborough documentary. There's just so many animals that you'll have to pinch yourself to know it's real. But the down side of this part of Africa is the crowds of tourists. It's very hard to escape it if you want to see the famous river crossings of wildebeest at the Mara River because it's a very short window that this happens and everyone wants to see it. But the truth is, even with the crowds, it's worth it. You can visit the Serengeti in the green season to avoid some of the crowds and this is well worthwhile to experience the migration with lots of babies running around.
If it's lots of wildlife in a true wilderness with much lower tourist numbers (and much lower numbers of humans overall), then Botswana is what you're after. Bots specialises in top end tourism with low human impacts. Because you pay more to go there, there's less tourists and you're unlikely to have more than one other vehicle with you at a lion sighting. This really makes a difference on safari. Part of the African experience is tapping into nature in a way that you can't in the big city, so you ideally want to feel like you have the place to yourself. Bots is the best place to see lots of elephants all in one place as it has the largest elephant population in Africa. It's brilliant for African wild dogs, which you won't see in many places as they are critically endangered. I've seen African wild dogs hunting on numerous occasions in the Okavango and it's absolutely exhilarating. Landscapes range from the palm fringed wetlands of the Okavango Delta where hippos honk and Cape Buffaloes form herds of hundreds, to the more arid Kalahari Desert, where you can frolick with meerkats and experience the vast moonlike landscapes of the salt pans. Bots is pure magic.
(I have one room left on my 10 day Botswana safari in June 2020. Please contact me now if you would like the itinerary! I am also now offering a 6 night safari from 10-16 June 2020. Details available by dropping me a line through our contact page.)
Namibia is one big adventure destination and the landscapes have to be seen to be believed. It is also one of the easiest places to go on safari and a great option for families or couples who want to self-drive. The dunes of the Namib Desert are world famous for good reason (my favourite place to see them is at the NamibRand Reserve, staying at Wolwedans Dunes Lodge) and when you see elephants, rhinos and lions living in the north-western arid landscapes you cannot help but develop a great respect for these desert-dwelling creatures and what they have to do to survive. Namibia is one of the best places left in Africa to see rhinos in their wild state. And it's the only place you can visit the Skeleton Coast National Park, where desert-dwelling lions have recently returned to feast on seals and flamingoes. Seriously, imagine that! On the cons side, travel distances are large due to the size of the country, so you need to be ok with longish drives (3-4 hours per day is not unusual) and longish charter flights (at least an hour to most places that are worth seeing). You won't see the vast swathes of animals like you will in the Serengeti, but somehow when you do see an animal, a regal oryx for example, perched on a magnificent sand dune as the sun sets, that doesn't seem to matter. If space is what you love, you'll love Namibia.
People still associate Rwanda with the 2 G's - Genocide and Gorillas. A visit to Kigali's Genocide Museum is a must for any visitors to Rwanda. The country has moved on from its dark past and moved into an era of economic development, tourism growth and is developing a reputation for excellent wildlife conservation. Trekking with the mountain gorillas is truly unforgettable. You're up there in this ancient forest with its towering trees and after trekking up and up and up the mountain, you're suddenly in the presence of one of our closest relatives. The mountain gorillas are completely habituated to humans and pretty much ignore you, sometimes coming so close that the ranger has to tell you to move away. It's pure magic for the soul. And on the other side of Rwanda, Akagera National Park offers a very different environment, with savannahs, lakes and woodlands safari in Big Five territory. The park has only recently come back from an era of poaching and human encroachment, but now with the involvement of African Parks it's going from strength to strength and both lion and rhino numbers are increasing. It's a very good place to see leopards on night drives and the park boasts one of the highest hippo densities in Africa. Rwanda also offers chimp and colobus monkey experiences at Nyungwe National Park. In short, get in to Rwanda now before everyone else does!
(My December 2019 Rwanda safaris are now full. Please drop me a line if you'd like to sign up for December 2020).
South Africa is a great safari destination in its own right and because there are so many safari operators the standard is very high, both in service and accommodation. The private game reserves bordering Kruger National Park are outstanding and it's not uncommon to see all Big Five in your first 48 hours. There is the malari free Madikwe Reserve, the Drakensberg mountains, beautiful beaches and of course, the city no one wants to go to Africa without visiting: Cape Town. Cape Town has it all, from Table Mountain to magnificent beaches and marine experiences, cultural tours, wineries and food to twist any foodie's arm. You can easily add a few days in Cape Town after a safari in Botswana or Namibia as there are now direct flights which means it's too good to miss.
SO WHAT'S THE VERDICT?
So what's best? If you're going to Africa for the first time, the truth is you can't go wrong with any of the experiences in any of these countries. And there are other great options too, like Zimbabwe and Zambia, both of which offer awesome safaris. The key thing is to choose a safari that gives back and in Africa you really do get what you pay for. The best wildlife areas tend to be leased by companies that are paying the government or local communities more to have use of them, and that price is passed onto you for the privilege of experiencing them. But the good thing about the higher prices is that does go back to ensuring these areas are protected for future generations. An African safari is the most life-changing experience you can have on holiday, so if you haven't done it yet, now's the time!