Africa is a vast continent with so much to offer, so if you’re planning a safari where should you begin? William Gray explores the continent’s ecosystems, highlighting the best places to encounter its astonishing biodiversity
he moment you set eyes on the Serengeti, Masai Mara or any of Africa’s great savannahs, it will sear your mind forever. The immense tawny plains of wind-combed grasses, flat-topped umbrella acacias and rusty, rock-pile kopjes; the herds of gazelle, wildebeest and zebra scattered far and wide, quivering in the heat haze or flowing in long, sinuous lines, heads bowed but constantly aware of lion, cheetah and hyena.
From giraffe to gerbils, elephant to eagles, savannahs are big on biodiversity and epitomise our view of the African landscape — and yet this is just one of the continent’s ‘big six’ ecosystems. Forest, desert, mountain, wetland and coast complete the picture — each with its own rich palette of habitats and specially adapted plants and animals. Read on to discover Africa’s biodiversity hotspots and where to go for the best wildlife experiences…
You might not expect to see much wildlife in the desert, but even here you will find interesting species such as the fennec fox, sand cat and scimitar-horned oryx.
Great Rift Valley
‘Islands of endemism’, the mountains and lakes of the Great Rift Valley region support species found nowhere else, from mountain gorillas in the Virungas to cichlid fish in Lake Tanganyika.
Spectacular stage for the Great Migration, when seasonal rains in this protected ecosystem drive the clockwise march of more than a million wildebeest, gazelle and zebra.
A potent stew of rivers, swamps and flooded forests, Africa’s green heart is home to more than 10,000 plant species, 1000 species of bird and over 400 different mammals, including lowland gorillas, forest elephant, red river hog and okapi.
Spreading south from Tanzania into Zambia and Zimbabwe, the vast swathe of dry forest-savannah known as miombo is home to huge herds of elephant and a wide range of antelope.
Summer rains in the Central Kalahari lure herds of springbok to ephemeral grasslands, while seasonal floods in the Makgadikgadi and Nxai Pans can attract up to 30,000 flamingo, plus zebra and wildebeest.
A verdant oasis on the northern fringes of the Kalahari, the Okavango’s floodplains, lagoons and islands support prolific wildlife, from red lechwe to reed frog, lion to elephant, buffalo to wild dog.
Along with Africa’s other great rivers, such as the Congo, Nile, Limpopo and Luangwa, the Zambezi is a nourishing vein of life, attracting everything from buffalo to bee-eaters.
Desert-adapted elephant and black rhino roam Damaraland; dune geckos and tok-tokkie beetles inhabit the dunes, while the Skeleton Coast has colonies of fur seals.
The tip of the continent is characterised by the Cape Floral Kingdom where two-thirds of about 9000 plant species are found nowhere else. The rich seas, meanwhile, are the realm of great white shark, fur seal and Cape gannet.
South Africa’s KwaZulu-Natal coast seethes with life between May and July when numberless shoals of migratory bait fish are pursued by sharks, dolphins, humpback whales, seals and seabirds during the spectacular Sardine Run.
No less than 80 per cent of Malagasy wildlife is endemic, with lemurs taking the starring role in an evolutionary epic of leaf-tailed geckos, giraffe-necked weevils and predatory fosas.
Coral reefs fringe the East African coast, while the Seychelles are a haven for seabirds, giant tortoises and the coco-de-mer palm.
The green grass revolution
For all its familiarity, savannah is a relative newcomer to the African scene. A shift to a drier climate some 25 million years ago led to fragmentation of the continent’s broad swathe of rainforest. Grass seized the moment. Tough, adaptable and prolific, it began to sweep across Africa, lapping like a green tide at forests and deserts. Herbivores evolved the teeth and stomachs to process grass and rapidly diversified into the ancestors of the remarkable array of species we see today — munching their way across the Serengeti, Masai Mara and other great grasslands of Africa.
Millions of years ago, Africa’s savannahs began to witness an influx of antelope, buffalo, giraffe, hippo, wild dogs and sabre-tooth cats, following the continent’s collision with Eurasia. At the same time, Africa’s primates ventured from their ancestral forests onto the plains, while other ‘home-grown’ creatures such as elephant and aardvarks held their own against the new wave of arrivals. This ‘meeting of mammals’ reached its climax in the Pleistocene, when Africa was home to an unrivalled range of mammal families. Megafauna got off lightly in the Ice Age and, although many species now face severe pressure from habitat destruction, hunting, climate change and other impacts, it is still home to the world’s greatest concentration of large mammals.
Parks and reserves
Masai Mara National Reserve, Kenya
• WHY As well as hosting the Great Migration, the Mara is famous for its big cats — the BBC’s Big Cat Diary was filmed here — and you’d be unlucky not to see lion and cheetah.
• HOW Based at one of the numerous camps in the reserve or neighbouring conservancies, activities include game drives, hot-air ballooning and walking safaris accompanied by local Maasai guides.
• WHEN The migration usually reaches the Masai Mara by early August, moving eastwards through the reserve during September before starting the trek south again in October.
Serengeti National Park, Tanzania
• WHY Like the Masai Mara, the Serengeti’s vast expanse of savannah and acacia woodland has excellent year-round wildlife, but the wildebeest migration is its biggest drawcard.
• HOW There are numerous lodges and camps, with adjacent reserves such as Grumeti and Loliondo offering the bonus of walking safaris, horse riding and night drives.
• WHEN Early in the year, wildebeest are calving on the southern plains before moving towards the Western Corridor in April and May and crossing the Grumeti River in June en route to the Mara.
Ngorongoro Conservation Area, Tanzania
• WHY A 19km-wide caldera hemmed in by 600m-high walls, Ngorongoro Crater is a spectacular natural amphitheatre thick with game, including black rhino, elephant, lion, hyena and even a lake with a filigree of flamingo.
• HOW There are lodges dotted along the crater rim, from where 4WDs descend on game drives.
• WHEN Year-round, although the high season (June to September) can be extremely busy. It is a good idea to be at the entrance gate by 6.30am to enjoy the reserve at its quietest.
Kruger National Park, South Africa
• WHY Stretching for 350km along the border with Mozambique, Kruger boasts 147 mammal species (including the Big Five) and more than 500 varieties of bird. Its leopard population is legendary.
• HOW For flexibility, independence and value for money, opt for self-drive, staying at self-catering restcamps; for exclusive accommodation, fine cuisine and superb guides, choose one of Kruger’s private game reserves, such as Sabi Sabi, Londolozi, Singita or Ulusaba.
• WHEN Wildlife concentrates around water sources between May and October, while birding is best during summer when migrant species arrive.
Okavango Delta, Botswana
• WHY An enigmatic inland delta pulsing into the Kalahari, the Okavango is one of Africa’s most compelling safari destinations with profuse birdlife, the Big Five and good numbers of wild dog.
• HOW Superb camps are located in Moremi Game Reserve and a patchwork of private reserves, with activities ranging from game drives and walking safaris to mokoro (dugout canoe) trips.
• WHEN The best season for wildlife viewing is the dry season (May to November); paradoxically, this is when the delta receives its annual floodwaters, so it’s also ideal for exploring by mokoro.
Etosha National Park, Namibia
• WHY A vast saltpan dominates this arid reserve, concentrating wildlife to the fringes where waterholes attract a procession of animals, from elephant and springbok to rhino and lion.
• HOW You can either drive yourself and stay at inexpensive self-catering restcamps overlooking floodlit waterholes, or book into a lodge or camp offering various safari activities.
• WHEN Game viewing is good May to December, peaking in mid-winter when the driest conditions force animals to waterholes.
South Luangwa National Park, Zambia
• WHY Woodland, grassland and wetland merge into a mosaic of wildlife-rich habitats in Luangwa where, in a single day, you might see elephant foraging for wild mangoes, hippo clogging a bend in the river, and a leopard stalking puku in a woodland clearing.
• HOW South Luangwa is the home of the walking safari with several lodges offering multi-day trails linking rustic satellite camps — there’s no better way to track big game or wise up on bushlore.
• WHEN June to October. Access is more challenging during the rainy ‘emerald season’ (November to May) but this is a good time for birders and boat trips.
Mana Pools National Park, Zimbabwe
• WHY Seasonal pools lining the Zambezi waterfront and backed by terraces of acacia and mahogany woodland are a magnet to large herds of elephant and buffalo, along with abundant antelope and a range of predators, including lion and wild dog.
• HOW Mana Pools is a superb location for canoeing and walking safaris.
• WHEN Dry season (June to October) is the best time to see big game lured to riverine areas in search of water.
Best of the rest
2 Amboseli National Park, Kenya: Iconic scenes of elephant against a backdrop of Kilimanjaro.
3 Bangweulu Wetlands, Zambia: Splashtime for 30,000 endemic black lechwe, plus the rare shoebill.
4 Berenty Private Reserve, Madagascar: Natural stage for the ‘dancing’ Verreaux’s sifaka.
5 Bwindi Impenetrable National Park, Uganda: Riotous rainforest retreat for mountain gorillas.
6 Zambezi Region, Namibia: Verdant panhandle with hippo, buffalo, elephant and birds galore, formerly known as the Caprivi Strip.
7 Chobe National Park, Botswana: Prime spot for big game and pachyderms.
8 Damaraland, Namibia: Dusty realm of the desert elephant and black rhino.
9 Gombe Stream National Park, Tanzania: Jane Goodall’s chimpanzee research site.
10 Gonarezhou National Park, Zimbabwe: Red sandstone cliffs loom over quintessential big-game country.
11 Hwange National Park, Zimbabwe: Stronghold for wild dog, elephant, brown hyena and sable.
12 Kafue National Park, Zambia: Vast reserve with its own ‘mini Serengeti’ — the Busanga Plains.
13 Kasanka National Park, Zambia: Marshy refuge for a million migrating straw-coloured fruit bats.
14 Katavi National Park, Tanzania: Remote big-game country with large herds of zebra and buffalo.
15 Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park, South Africa and Botswana: Kingdom of Kalahari black-maned lion.
16 Kidepo National Park, Uganda: Rugged, far-flung savannah, home to elephant, lion and cheetah.
17 Laikipia, Kenya: Community-run ranches and conservancies providing sanctuary to rhinos.
18 Lake Manyara National Park, Tanzania: Rift Valley gem with flamingo and tree-climbing lion.
19 Liuwa Plain National Park, Zambia: Remote savannah with a lesser-known wildebeest migration.
20 Liwonde National Park, Malawi: Superb birdlife, as well as Malawi’s largest elephant population.
21 Lower Zambezi National Park, Zambia: Backwater canoe trips spotting birds and big game.
22 Madikwe Game Reserve, South Africa: Malaria-free Big Five reserve with great lodges.
23 Mahale Mountains National Park, Tanzania: Chimp hang-out in lush forest by Lake Tanganyika.
24 NamibRand Reserve, Namibia: Huge private reserve of dunes, sandy plains and mountains.
25 Queen Elizabeth National Park, Uganda: Rich mix of teeming savannah, swamp, river and forest.
26 Ruaha National Park, Tanzania: Savannah stomping ground for impressive herds of elephant.
27 Samburu National Reserve, Kenya: Rust-red refuge for Grevy’s zebra and reticulated giraffe.
28 Selous Game Reserve, Tanzania: Legendary wilderness for walking and boat trips on Rufiji River.
29 Tsavo National Park, Kenya: Colossal reserve famous for efforts to conserve elephant and rhino.
30 Volcanoes National Park, Rwanda: Mingle with mountain gorillas and golden monkeys.
For the intrepid traveller
Before the civil war of the 1970s, this was one of Africa’s finest parks. An ambitious wildlife reintroduction programme, however, has begun to restore this ‘Serengeti of the South’. Large herds of waterbuck can be found on the floodplains, sable antelope browse the woodlands, while Mount Gorongosa is renowned for endemics such as the green-headed oriole.
Odzala-Kokoua National Park, Republic of Congo
Created in 1935, this is one of Africa’s oldest national parks — 13,600sq km of pristine rainforest in the green heart of the Congo Basin. Western lowland gorillas are the star attraction, but there are 11 other primate species. Swampy clearings, known as bais, attract forest elephant, buffalo, bongo and sitatunga, while birdwatchers may get glimpses of trogons, hornbills and other forest beauties.
Pendjari National Park, Benin
The last great savannah wilderness in West Africa, Pendjari is a vital reserve for 90 per cent of the region’s remaining lions and is also a stronghold for critically endangered populations of West African cheetah and elephant.
Zakouma National Park, Chad
With an ongoing rhino reintroduction project, this remote tract of Central African savannah will, once again, support the Big Five. The only known population of West African giraffe can also be found here, along with some 450 species of bird.
Even more remote
North Luangwa National Park, Zambia
Virunga National Park, DRC