Most people imagine endless plains covered with big game when they think of Africa. But the quintessential savannah of the Serengeti and Masai Mara is just one facet of the continent’s rich kaleidoscope of habitats. Ed Hutchings gives his opinion on the best scenery and wildlife encounters each month
The Drakensberg Mountains, in eastern South Africa, are a Global Centre for Plant Diversity, home to more than 2200 species of which around 400 are endemic. These include orchids, proteas and red-hot pokers (Kniphofia). The second half of January is the best time to observe this extraordinary variety of flowering plants.
Cameroon has some of the richest birdlife in Central Africa, including specialities such as the grey-necked rockfowl, Bannerman’s and Ross’s turaco, bushshrike, broadbill and banded wattle-eye. A wide variety of monkeys are also found from the semi-desert of the Sahel in the north to the montane forests and lowland rainforests in the south.
In Western Sahara, it is possible to see rare Western Palearctic birds, such as the golden nightjar, cricket warbler, Dunn’s lark, black-crowned sparrow lark, fulvous babbler, African desert warbler, desert sparrow, pharaoh eagle-owl and Sudan golden sparrow. Rare mammals include the golden jackal, Saharan striped polecat, desert hedgehog and lesser Egyptian jerboa.
Kenya’s spectacular birdlife is often overlooked in favour of its big game. More than 1000 species have been recorded here, including lesser flamingo (in their most accessible and largest concentrations worldwide), ostrich, African fish eagle, secretary bird, black and goliath herons, saddle-billed stork, hamerkop, kori bustard and great blue turaco.
As the flood of Botswana’s Okavango Delta starts to recede, mammals begin to concentrate around the remaining water, making them easier to view. There is a good chance of seeing African wild dog, as well as sable and roan antelope, lion, leopard, cheetah, African elephant, giraffe, hippopotamus and spotted hyena.
Zambia’s camps open for the dry season; all in some truly wild places, notably South Luangwa National Park. This is one of the few places in Africa where walking safaris and night-time spotlighting are allowed. The park is believed to support the biggest naturally occurring population of leopard on the planet.
Migrating animals, mainly a million blue wildebeest, cross the Grumeti River in the north of Tanzania’s Serengeti. Huge Nile crocodiles lie in wait for them. As far as numbers and variety of large mammals are concerned, visiting the Serengeti is probably the best wildlife experience in Africa and arguably worldwide.
Both mountain gorillas and chimpanzees may be seen in Rwanda. An hour spent among serene gorillas may contrast sharply with another spent among raucous, some might say intimidating, chimpanzees; both may prove to be the ultimate singular wildlife experience.
Namibia is a very sparsely populated region of the world where the rugged desert landscape includes some of the highest and most beautiful sand dunes anywhere. The single endemic bird, dune lark, and more than two-thirds of the bird species endemic to the southern third of Africa occur within its borders.
The unique island of Madagascar holds more than 100 endemic birds, nearly 150 endemic mammals and six endemic plant families. Over 100 species of lemur, including the large and loud indri, beautiful sifaka, the confiding ring-tailed lemur and tiny mouse lemurs, occur in some of the strangest habitats on the planet.
The Gambia offers easy birding in a small country (some 200 miles long and 30 miles wide) with many spectacular localised birds, including the Egyptian plover and white-backed night heron, as well as the Abyssinian and blue-bellied roller. West African crocodile, hippopotamus, Guinea baboon and Western red colobus all add further interest.
Fancy a festive wildlife holiday off the well-trodden route? In Sierra Leone’s superb lowland rainforest occur several species of monkey such as King and Western Red Colobuses, Diana Monkey and Chimpanzee. Spectacular birds in this West African country include the Egyptian plover, white-necked rockfowl, emerald starling, crimson seedcracker and Gola malimbe.