Southern Africa’s top 25 safari destinations

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HR-LB-shutterstock_98398925Philip 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), 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.

Liuwa Plains National Park
Tucked away in the remote northwest of the country, this little-known 3660-square-kilometre national park lies on the treeless and seasonally inundated floodplain of the upper Zambezi (a section of the river just downstream from the border with Angola). Limited facilities and plentiful wildlife, including lion, buffalo, zebra and impressive seasonal flocks of water birds (some 20 per cent of the global population of the endangered wattled crane breed here) ensure that Liuwa Plains provides one of the last genuine wilderness experiences in southern Africa. Its defining feature, however, is the migration of around 45,000 wildebeest that occurs every November, a spectacle second only the famous Serengeti migration.
• Best time to visit: August-November
• Length of stay: 3-4 nights
• Accommodation: Temporary camps only.
• Top tip: Try to be here in November, when the migration is in under way.

 

BOTSWANA
Many aficionados regard Botswana as the finest safari destination anywhere. Its most singular and iconic attraction is the vast Okavango Delta, which is often visited in conjunction with the elephant-rich Chobe National Park and nearby (albeit in another country) Victoria Falls. Its other prime wildlife area is the Tuli Block on the eastern border.

Tuli Block
The most easterly tip of Botswana, the Tuli Block is a wedge-shaped chunk of wilderness abutting the borders with South Africa and Zimbabwe. It comprises several large private game reserves that offer the winning combination of superb game viewing and almost total exclusivity. It is the quality, not the quantity, of sightings that stands out, so it is well suited to a long stay. Highlights include the large elephant herds that haunt the sandy riverbeds, and excellent encounters with large predators such as lion, leopard, cheetah and African wild dog. An attraction for birders is a large number of species whose core range is concentrated on the Kalahari sands of Botswana.
• Best time to visit: June-October for game viewing, November-April for scenery and birds.
• Length of stay: 3-6 nights
• Accommodation overview:  Primarily upmarket, with some mid-range options. The Tuli Safari Lodge was runner-up in the 2012 Sunday Times Travel Awards for Best-Value Hotel in Africa & The Middle East.
• Top tip: Although it lies within Botswana, the Tuli Block is most easily and commonly visited from South Africa, parking at the Pontdrift border post and then crossing the Limpopo on a hand drawn-cable car.

Chobe National Park
Bounded to the north by Namibia’s Caprivi Strip, Chobe – named after the river that flows along the border – is one of southern Africa’s most accessible national parks, since the substantial town of Kasane lies close to the main entrance gate. Boat trips along the river are spectacular, with elephants being particularly conspicuous (tens of thousands aggregate seasonally), along with hippo, buffalo and other aquatic oddities. Lion, leopard and other large predators are often seen on game drives along the river, as is the localised puku antelope, and a selection of the 450 recorded  bird species.
• Best time to visit: May-October for game viewing, November-April for birds
• Length of stay: 3 nights
• Accommodation: Camping and rooms suited to most budgets are found in and around Kasane.
• Top tip: Chobe can become crowded with tourist boats in season. A quieter but pricier alternative is the Linyanti Riverfront, protected in a cluster of concessions that form an ecological continuum between Chobe and Okavango.

Central Kalahari Game Reserve
One of Africa’s largest and most remote game reserves, set beneath wide-open desert skies, is the 52,800-square-kilometre Central Kalahari. It protects an arid part of central Botswana that has long been uninhabited bar a few small groups of San hunter-gatherers. Closed to the public until the 1990s, the Central Kalahari remains somewhat inaccessible except on a fully kitted 4WD expedition or by staying at one of two very recently opened permanent camps. The best area for wildlife is Deception Valley, which hosts incredible concentrations of oryx, springbok and other wildlife over late March to early May. Elsewhere, and at other times of year, wildlife is scarce.
• Best time to visit:  April
• Length of stay: 3 nights
• Accommodation: Upmarket only.
• Top tip: The misleadingly named Deception Valley Lodge  offers good game viewing all year round and an opportunity to interact with San hunter-gathers.

OKavango Delta
This vast perennial inland delta, formed by the Okavango River as it fans out and drains into the sandy soils of the Kalahari, vies with the Lower Zambezi as the region’s most exciting aquatic safari destination. Although part of the 15,000-square-kilometre delta is protected within Moremi National Park, the majority is divided up to form a network of exclusive concessions, each of which effectively functions as a private conservancy. In the central delta, experienced local polers steer dugout canoes (known locally as mokoros) through shallow streams lurked in by hippos and crocs, and flanked by islets where elephants roam between the plentiful birdlife (including the near-endemic slaty egret). Away from the water, locally common mammals include lion, leopard, African hunting dog, eland and sable antelope, all of which might be seen on guided game drives.
• Best time to visit: June-August for aquatic activities, September-October for terrestrial wildlife, November-April for birds
• Length of stay: 3-6 nights
• Accommodation: Dozens of upmarket camps are scattered around the delta.
• Top tip: Since each of the concessions offers a different balance of aquatic and terrestrial wildlife and activities, it is important to research your options thoroughly or consult a specialised operator with your requirements.

 

MALAWI
Malawi is a land of great natural beauty that is dominated by the idyllic 500km-long lake for which it is named. Like Mozambique, it is not a country you’d visit specifically to go on safari, but Liwonde National Park and Majete Game Reserve both offer some excellent wildlife viewing.

Majete Wildlife Reserve
Gazetted in 1955 and neglected over the subsequent decades, this 700-square-kilometre reserve has flourished in recent years under private management. An ambitious restocking programme involving buffalo, elephant, black rhino and various antelope culminated in 2012 with the reintroduction of lions. It is thus Africa’s newest Big Five reserve, and while you would be lucky indeed to see all of this iconic quintet, an unusually varied selection of antelope – including sable, eland, nyala, greater kudu and Liechtenstein’s hartebeest – goes a long way to compensating. Night drives, bush walks and boat trips are great, and the birding is excellent, particularly along the Shire River’s west bank.
• Best time to visit: May-October
• Length of stay: 2 nights
• Accommodation: A single upmarket camp and one mid-range camp.
• Top tip: Elephant tracking on foot is a real highlight.

Liwonde National Park
Flanking the Shire River shortly after it exits Lake Malombe, Liwonde is probably the most controversial inclusion in this top 25, thanks to its relatively small size and paucity of big cats. But these are compensated for by the rich sense of place evoked by the palm and reed-fringed river and its dense population of hippos, crocs, buffalo and elephants, especially at night, when the air resonates with the uninhibited chirruping of frogs and grunting of hippos. Other attractions include the wide range of activities – guided walks, superb boat trips, and night drives are all on offer – and a varied and conspicuous birdlife that includes such rarities as Pel’s fishing owl, rufous-bellied heron, brown-breasted barbet and Lilian’s lovebird.
• Best time to visit: May-October
• Length of stay: 2 nights
• Accommodation overview: One upmarket and one midrange camp.
• Top tip: With a camp outside the gate offering inexpensive dorm beds, Liwonde is among the easiest southern African parks to visit on a tight budget.

 

10 one-trick wonders

The following ten locations in southern Africa couldn’t be said to offer great general wildlife viewing, but all have one spectacular wildlife facet that makes them worth visiting.

1. Cape Cross, on the Skeleton Coast north of Lüderitz, supports a permanent colony of more than 80,000 Cape fur seals.

2. Northern Zambia’s Bangweulu Wetland is southern Africa’s most important refuge for the enigmatic shoebill, a papyrus-dweller that tops the wish list of many African birdwatchers.

3. For budget-conscious backpackers, Vwaza Marsh Wildlife Reserve in northern Malawi is the site of a readily accessible and affordable camp overlooking a waterhole that regularly attracts large elephant herds.

4. The delightfully comic African penguin can be seen in its thousands at Boulders Beach in suburban Cape Town.

5. The vast Namib-Naukluft National Park in central Namibia is thinly stocked with wildlife, but the (common) sight of an oryx trotting along the stunning red dunes around Sossusvlei is singularly evocative.

6. Confined to the Western Cape, the smallest of the world’s five floral kingdoms, dominated by a heath-like cover called fynbos, is seen at its most pristine in the De Hoop Nature Reserve, which also supports fynbos endemics such as the Cape mountain zebra, bontebok, Cape sugarbird and orange-bellied sunbird.

7. From early October to late November, up to eight million straw-coloured fruit bats aggregate in a one-hectare stand of evergreen swamp forest in Zambia’s remote Kasanka National Park.

8. Over September and October, the cliffs of Hermanus‚ on the Western Cape coast overlooking Walker Bay, offer the world’s best land-based whale watching.

9. Giant’s Castle in the uKhahlamba-Drakensberg is the site of a hide (nicknamed the vulture restaurant) that offers excellent opportunities to photograph the rare lammergeyer (bearded vulture) and other scavenging raptors.

10. A causeway at Lambert’s Bay leads to Bird Island, site of a breeding colony of around 25,000 Cape gannets and various other marine birds.

 

Best big five

Best Big Five encounters
1 Mpumalanga Private Reserves
2 Madikwe Game Reserve
3 Etosha National Park
4 Kruger National Park
5 Greater Addo Elephant National Park and Environs

Best wilderness atmosphere
1 Liuwa Plains National Park
2 Niassa Reserve
3 Central Kalahari Game Reserve
4 Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park
5 Northern Damaraland

Best in summer (European winter)
1 Greater Addo Elephant National Park and Environs
2 Madikwe Game Reserve
3 Mpumalanga Private Reserves
4 Tuli Block
5 Kruger National Park

Best for predators
1 Mpumalanga Private Reserves
2 Luangwa Valley
3 Madikwe Game Reserve
4 Tuli Block
5 Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park

Best for walking safaris
1 Mana Pools National Park
2 Luangwa Valley
3 Matusadona National Park
4 iSimangaliso Wetland Park
5 Hluhluwe-iMfolozi Game Reserve

Best boat and canoeing safaris
1 Lower Zambezi/Mana Pools National Park
2 Okavango Swamp
3 Niassa Reserve
4 Chobe National Park
5 Liwonde National Park

Best for night drives
1 Mpumalanga Private Reserves
2 Luangwa Valley
3 Lower Zambezi National Park
4 Tuli Block
5 Pilanesberg Game Reserve

Best for DIY & budget
1 Kruger National Park
2 Etosha National Park
3 Hluhluwe-iMfolozi Game Reserve
4 Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park
5 Liwonde National Park

Best for photography
1 Mpumalanga Private Reserves
2 Etosha National Park
3 Tuli Block
4 iSimangaliso Wetland Park (Mkhuze/Phinda)
5 Chobe National Park

Best for birding
1 iSimangaliso Wetland Park
2 Okavango Delta
3 Liwonde National Park
4 Kruger National Park
5 Lower Zambezi National Park

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