Right-of-way in the Okavango Delta.
Whether it’s your first time or your fifth, here’s how to do it right.
African safaris embody many currents of our post-peak pandemic moment. In a hotter, more crowded world, going to Africa is a statement about the importance of wildlife and open landscapes. In the continent’s subsistence economies, canceled reservations and plummeting revenues caused by pandemic-era travel restrictions led to a real risk that lost livelihoods could translate to increased poaching. “To travel here is a decision to help protect Africa’s cultures and wildlife,” says Sherwin Banda, president of African Travel, Inc. “A safari is about discovering a rhythm that connects you to the land and the human spirit. It’s always been more than just the animals.” We spoke to top operators and gathered insight from travel advisors about the best ways to safari, whether you’re dreaming up your first or your fifth.
A confusion of wildebeests during their Great Migration.
Crookes and Jackson
First Time Around
Dennis Pinto, managing director of Micato Safaris, says that first-time safari-goers fit broadly into two categories: “Those who envision big open plains and unending herds to the horizon should try Kenya and Tanzania,” he says. “Those after good wildlife viewing plus other activities will probably like South Africa, including time in Cape Town, the Winelands, and other cultural destinations.”
The Great Migration Micato Safaris’ small-group, 12-day loop through Kenya and Tanzania is succinct but comprehensive, with a chance to peek at thousands of creatures from the Ngorongoro Crater; take in the thunder of zebras, wildebeests, and gazelles by the gazillion migrating across the fabled Serengeti; and spy copious elephant herds at Tarangire National Park. Best of all, there’s the opportunity for a hot-air balloon safari over the Mara, which Charlotte French, a Virtuoso travel advisor, describes as “one of the top five travel experiences of any lifetime.” Departures: Multiple dates, September 6, 2023, through December 25, 2024.
Big Five, Little Known It doesn’t have East Africa’s marquee attractions (besides Victoria Falls), but Zimbabwe is a solid bet for first-timers seeking smaller crowds and authentic experiences. “Zim has some of the continent’s best guides and fewer tourists than better-known destinations,” says Crisney Lane. Abercrombie & Kent’s private 12-day circuit guides guests through the highlights, including tracking the “big five” at Hwange, the country’s largest national park; elephant sightings by boat on Lake Kariba; and canoe encounters with hippos at Mana Pools National Park. The tour culminates with a helicopter ride over Victoria Falls. Departures: Any day, April through October 2024.
Hot-air balloons in Namibia.
Planes, Trains, and Riverboats
The quintessential safari consists of beating the bush with a guide and four-wheel drive. “The classics are great, but nobody will ever be disappointed or bored by returning for something different,” says Linda de Sosa. Novel experiences – from the air, the water, or a hypnotically swaying train – can yield a fresh perspective on the land and wildlife.
Hornbill’s-Eye View The vast expanses of Namibia are best explored by light aircraft. Big Five Tours & Expeditions’ 11-day flying safari hits all the high points, starting with Etosha National Park to try and tick off the “big five” – and possibly spot the endemic Monteiro’s hornbill. From there, Cessna-hop to the best of the rest. In the Hartmann Valley, meet members of the nomadic Himba people. Pause at Serra Cafema, a lodge whose opulence defies its isolation, before heading to Damaraland to track elephants and black rhinos. And in the NamibRand Nature Reserve, renowned for its vocational training initiatives for young Namibians, guests scale nearly thousand-foot dunes, spot oryx from hot-air-balloon game flights, and sip sundowners from desert-view decks. Departures: Any day through 2024.
Traveling Show AmaWaterways’ 13-night southern Africa sailing allows for the unparalleled experience of spotting wildlife from your cabin. After three full days exploring Cape Town, guests spend four nights aboard the Zambezi Queen, patrolling for herds of elephants and bloats of hippos along Botswana’s Chobe River. The trip wraps up with four nights spotting lions, giraffes, and impalas from the berth of a deluxe train that eases through the bush from Vic Falls to Pretoria. Departures: Multiple dates, November 3, 2023, through November 7, 2025.
A Wilderness Magashi tent.
Rwanda might just be Africa’s buzziest destination. “Though it’s carved out a reputation as the place to see gorillas,” French says, “it actually offers perhaps the broadest safari experience of any country on the continent.” From chimpanzees and a profusion of birdlife (don’t miss the shoebill at Akagera National Park) to mountain coffee plantations, a trip here is an exploration of a country on the upswing.
Out of the Mist The centerpiece of Artisans of Leisure’s private, eight-day Rwanda experience is a pair of conservation-focused accommodations. Wilderness Magashi, a string of eight spacious tents overlooking Lake Rwanyakazinga, is a tranquil headquarters for delving into Akagera’s rehabilitated wildlife. Its lion population is thriving, thanks to a committed management strategy, and rhinos, which disappeared from the country after its civil war, are back after an international translocation project. Meanwhile, to the west, Wilderness Bisate’s six forest villas, nestled on the slopes of a volcanic cone, are the jumping-off point for another success story: Following their near extinction, mountain gorillas in the Virunga massif now number more than 600. Departures: Any day through January 3, 2026.
Island Prime As in Rwanda, primates are the main attraction in Madagascar – but here, endemic lemurs are the stars. Guests may encounter more than 25 lemur species on Natural Habitat Adventures’ 13-day, four-national-park, small-group navigation of the island. There are also chances to glimpse the tenrec, which can look like a cross between a weasel and a pincushion, or the fossa, a reclusive catlike beast straight out of a Dr. Seuss illustration. “A lot of the land is densely forested, so the key to sightings is a great guide,” de Sosa says. She also advises tacking on a few days at Miavana by Time + Tide – for powdery beaches, helicopter safaris, and one of the country’s top restaurants. Departures: Multiple dates, September 7, 2023, through November 14, 2024.
Stylish surrounds at Singita Sweni Lodge.
“I’ve never had a meal at a safari camp that didn’t impress. The food is always great, and especially so considering everything it takes to provide five-star dining in such remote places,” says Tesa Totengco. “But for variety and volume, nowhere can match South Africa.”
Home Base If you think of Cape Town and the Winelands as the San Francisco and Napa of Africa, it’s easy to see why Ker & Downey’s private epicurean adventure doesn’t travel more than three hours at a stretch in ten days. At Mount Nelson, a Belmond hotel, there’s dinner at The Red Room, where karaage chicken and Karoo lamb wonton soup pay homage to the city’s history as a trading post with Asia. Next comes a Cape Dutch estate in the Winelands, where guests work up an appetite by canoeing or cycling on the grounds before a dinner of locally raised Chianina beef and baked water-buffalo yogurt – paired with local vintages, naturally. Then it’s off to Sanbona Wildlife Reserve, where “big five” game drives precede candlelit dinners and sundowners from nearby vineyards. Departures: Any day through 2024.
Room For More Safari destinations are so renowned for excellent dining that it’s tough to call out just one. From the seven glass-and-wood riverside suites at Singita Sweni Lodge, gain private access to 33,000 acres of Kruger National Park and a wine cellar with some of the continent’s most coveted reserves. The Tug Restaurant in Swakopmund, Namibia, features Walvis Bay oysters, rock lobster from Lüderitz, and other fresh-caught seafood in a dining room fashioned from a Scottish tugboat built in 1959. And the eight-tent Wilderness DumaTau, perched on Botswana’s Linyanti marshlands – home to Africa’s highest density of elephants – offers a fresh, plant-forward culinary experience, starring carrot gravlax (a vegetarian salmon dupe) and pumpkin with millet polenta.
Up in the clouds on Mount Kilimanjaro.
Andrew Tomkins & Stephanie Kretzschmer
Safaris once meant soaking up next-level experiences while seated – in a Land Rover or a game hide, at the dining table – but that’s changing. “People want to maintain their activities, even on vacation, whether that’s walking or hiking or running,” says Micato’s Dennis Pinto. Increasingly, operators are crafting active itineraries, from horseback game rides to jogging tours of the reserves with local running guides.
Movable Beast In July, 2023, a mobile, two-camp safari experience, Wilderness Usawa Serengeti, opened on a stretch of secluded sites in Tanzania’s Serengeti. Not only are each camp’s six en-suite safari tents completely mobile, they’re also situated in the Serengeti’s designated walking zone, allowing guides to lead on-foot safaris directly from your tent. The camps’ flexibility within the 5,700-square-mile park gives guests the best chance of witnessing the annual migration, when some 2 million animals move in search of food and water. “It’s for active travelers looking for that truly immersive experience,” says Wilderness’ Amanda Wilson. Fear not: Plush beds and G&Ts still round out each day.
Take a Hike For the intrepid, G Adventures’ 19-day Tanzania extravaganza starts with a five-day ascent of Mount Kilimanjaro, Africa’s highest peak at 19,341 feet. Groups hike between 5 and 12 hours daily, moving through five climate zones at a measured pace to allow for altitude acclimatization. After standing on the continent’s summit, then hiking down for another half day, a few less strenuous days on Ngorongoro Crater and Serengeti game drives complement mountain-flora sightings with plenty of savanna fauna. The trip ends with some true R&R: snorkeling and beach days on the island of Zanzibar. Departures: Multiple dates, September 2, 2023, through December 21, 2024.
Making core memories in Zimbabwe.
Young, Wild, and Free
“Nature is its own classroom, and a safari is a chance for kids to get off devices and experience something concrete and real,” says andBeyond’s Nicole Robinson. She adds that, while not all camps allow children, an increasing number of safari operators are catering to families.
Safari School On andBeyond’s small-group, five-day Botswana Okavango Delta trip, teenagers (ages 14 to 18) go deeper than the standard game drives by shadowing a ranger trainer and learning to track animals, engage in baobab conservation, identify medicinal plants, and survive in the desert. They also spend time with researchers from the Botswana Predator Conservation Trust to assist in tracking and surveying wild dogs. There’s catch-and-release fishing for tigerfish, pike, and catfish; a friendly competition to identify the most birds; and evening astronomy lessons under the dark southern skies. Departures: Any day through 2024.
Play Time For even younger children (ages 4 to 10), African Travel, Inc. offers an 11-day South Africa and Zimbabwe itinerary with kid-friendly highlights, including baking with the chef and pint-size bathrobes at Belmond’s Mount Nelson hotel, and big-game oriented programming during daycare at Kruger’s Sabi Sabi Bush Lodge for kids who aren’t ready for the Land Rover. “We took our child, Noah, on safari when he was 5, and we’ve built this experience around the wonderful time we all had,” Banda says of the tour. “When we came back to get him after a game drive, he was having such a great time that he told us to go away.” Departures: Any day through 2024.