Going on safari in Africa is usually a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Naturally, you want your trip to be as “perfect” as it can possibly be! But planning a trip to Africa can be daunting.
Africa is huge. It’s bigger than the U.S., China and all of Europe combined! And some destinations, like the Serengeti, for example, have over 100 safari camps. So how do you pick which country is best for your African safari? What’s a good safari itinerary? Should you visit Cape Town as well, or add on some R&R beach time afterward?
We spent 12 weeks in southern Africa (South Africa, Botswana, Zambia, Mozambique and Zanzibar) on two separate trips. Throughout, we gathered information and tips that can get you started on the right path – all compiled here in this luxury Africa travel guide.
Best African country for safari
Big question – where to go on safari?
Start by asking “How do you want to see the animals?” The answer may determine which country (or countries) you pick for your safari.
Closed safari vehicle:
In eastern Africa (like Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda), you typically ride in a closed safari vehicle on game drives. In Tanzania, for example, you stand up in the vehicle and pop your head out of the roof (or open a sliding glass window if you don’t want to stand).
Open safari vehicle:
On the other hand, in southern Africa (namely, South Africa, Zambia, Zimbabwe, Botswana and Namibia), game drives are done in open-sided 4×4 vehicles (e.g., Land Rovers). Note that in wildlife-rich Kruger National Park in South Africa, you have to go in a closed vehicle.
We wanted to ride in open vehicles (which are safe, so long as you stay seated inside). It’s easier to take photos in an open vehicle, and you’re closer to the wildlife so you can hear, smell and see them better. For this reason, you too might want to choose southern African countries when planning a safari.
Most wildlife viewing is done by game drives on land. But for a unique experience, you can view the animals from the water.
On a river safari on the Zambezi Queen, you sleep in an elegant floating houseboat. Think cocktails at sunset while watching elephants play in the water. By day, small aluminum skiffs whisk you along the Chobe River to duck into reeds and shallows for close-up views of crocodiles and birds.
Best places in Africa for a “Big Five” safari
So you want to see the “Big Five” – lion, leopard, buffalo, elephant and rhino? These are the animals that traditionally were the most difficult and dangerous to hunt on foot. The following are great places to go.
Sabi Sands Game Reserve:
Sabi Sands in South Africa is a private game reserve abutting Kruger National Park. There’s no fence between Kruger and Sabi Sands, so animals can freely roam throughout. It’s famous for its “Big Five” safaris – you’ll see all the bucket-list animals on a 3-night safari. You can also go off-road on game drives in Sabi Sands, meaning you can follow a lion hunting down an impala.
Private game reserves vs Kruger:
Private game reserves are less crowded, allow off-roading, limit vehicles that may gather at a wildlife sighting, offer night drives and boast more luxurious digs.
Sabi Sands has the biggest concentration of leopards in the world – if you want to view leopards, Sabi Sands is the place!
South Africa is also home to most of the world’s rhinos. We had an exciting up-close-and-personal rhino encounter on our “Big 5” safari in Sabi Sands.
Chobe National Park:
Chobe National Park was Botswana’s first dedicated national park. With one of the largest concentrations of game in Africa, a Chobe safari is a sure bet for seeing hordes of animals. Elephants are the stars (as they are in Zambia’s Lower Zambezi National Park below).
Chobe is also quite accessible. Unlike most safaris in the Okavango Delta, you don’t need to fly in. You can access Chobe by road from Kasane.
Raw. Authentic. Wild. Chances are that your dream of a true “Out of Africa” safari looks something like a safari in Zambia.
Two of the best places in Zambia are Lower Zambezi National Park and South Luangwa National Park. And they offer totally different safari experiences.
Lower Zambezi National Park:
Watching wildlife from the water is a wonderful contrast to your usual four-wheel game drive. From a small skiff or canoe, you can get very close to elephants, buffalo and birds without disturbing them. Dodging hippos is exhilarating! And the Nile crocodiles will ensure you keep your hands in the boat.
South Luangwa National Park:
This the place to try a walking safari. (Norman Carr pioneered walking safaris back in the 1950s.) Whether walking or driving though, you’ll be saucer-eyed by the wildlife. The park boasts countless large lion prides, and when a leopard drags its kill up a tree, your vehicle may be the only one there.
You’ll probably need to overnight in Lusaka to reach the above safari parks.
Latitude 15 | This stylish boutique hotel is the best place to stay in Lusaka. It’s funky, with polished concrete floors, African art, two excellent restaurants and two swimming pools. Complimentary laundry perk: Clothes are laundered within a few hours.
The spectacular Victoria Falls (spanning both Zambia and Zimbabwe) is a popular stop on the safari circuit. Local tribes used to call the falls “the smoke that thunders.” Indeed, the noise of the crashing water can heard more than 20 miles away!
Be sure to watch the free vulture feeding at the Victoria Falls Safari Lodge – educational and fascinating.
Other Safari Destinations
Kenya, Tanzania and Namibia are other top “Big 5” safari destinations.
For gorillas, Uganda and Rwanda are the places to go.
Read more about where to go on safari and which countries and parks offer what experiences on Wanderlust: “The Best African Safaris For Any Traveler.”
South Africa, Victoria Falls and Botswana:
This 2-week South Africa safari itinerary packs in 2 game-rich land safaris (SA and Botswana) with Victoria Falls and a luxury river safari.
This ultimate 2-week Zambia itinerary immerses you in Zambia’s wilderness, combining a river-based setting (for canoeing and seeing elephants, hippos and crocs galore) with the drier South Luangwa (for walking safaris and to see lions).
Zimbabwe is calling out to us! The country is said to be one of the best safari destinations in Africa for an authentically wild experience – raw, teeming with wildlife and fewer safari visitors than other countries.
Best time to go on an African safari
For a safari, the best time to go is during the dry season – usually May to October. When rains are infrequent, large numbers of animals concentrate around the waterholes and riverbeds.
Other Africa safari travel tips
For more tips and things to consider when planning your Africa trip, read:
On Forbes | “Everything You Need to Know to Plan an Amazing African Safari”
On Lonely Planet | “Safari Planning”
If flying all the way to South Africa for a safari, you might want to visit the Mother City – there are many unmissable things to do Cape Town!
Highlights? Strolling the beautiful Camps Bay area, laughing at the penguins at Boulders Beach and visiting the Kirstenbosch National Botanical Gardens.
Taking the gondola or hiking up Table Mountain is very popular too. (Note: You can hike on top of Table Mountain after taking the gondola up – that’s what we did.)
Day trip to Stellenbosch:
Also be sure to visit the Winelands (as the wine country is called). We had fun, tasted luscious wines and learned lots about South African wine on our Stellenbosch wine tasting day trip.
Zanzibar, 23 miles off the coast of Tanzania, is ideal for the “beach” part of a bush-safari-and-beach vacay.
What to do in Zanzibar, apart from the beach?
There are lots of fascinating things to do in Stone Town. A UNESCO World Heritage Site, the Zanzibari capital is a maze of winding alleys – a place of haunting old slave markets, palaces and atmospheric boutique hotels.
In Zanzibar, we also went “reef walking,” toured a spice farm and saw rare red colobus monkeys in the Jozani Monkey Forest.
Untamed and unspoiled, Mozambique is well off Africa’s tourist track. Make the effort to get there, though, and you’ll discover stunning beaches, a storied colonial past and adventures galore. (Swimming with wild dolphins in the open sea, anyone?)
Indeed, there are many unique things to do in Mozambique on a luxury beach holiday!
Tetouan (near Tangier):
Market day is the best day to explore Morocco’s colorful Tetuoan Medina. A UNESCO World Heritage Site, it makes for a great day trip from Tangier.
Snake charmers? Harems? Marrakesh is indeed magical! It’s one of the most tantalizing places to visit on a Morocco cruise.
More on Africa
See all our: