Six of the best safaris for first-timers

Six of the best safaris for first-timers

These safaris get you straight to Africa’s best-known wildlife, including most of the Big Five, and needn’t break the bank in the process.

1. Masai Mara, Kenya

Masai Mara, Kenya. (Dreamstime)

Masai Mara, Kenya. (Dreamstime)

Picture just one safari destination and chances are it’s this one – if only because many a TV documentary has made Kenya’s teeming savannahs, flat-topped acacias and lazing predators emblematic of a continent.

The Masai Mara is a northern extension of Tanzania’s Serengeti, and the huge herds of wildebeest and other grazers that arrive from July to October dominate the park’s ecology in a similar way. This jaw-dropping spectacle is a magnet for predators; there is no better place to notch up lion and cheetah in double-quick time, helped by the open terrain and the cats’ ease around vehicles. Other draw-cards include elephant, giraffe and rare black rhinos.

The Mara’s downside is its popularity, sometimes leading to intrusive clusters of minibuses. For a more exclusive experience, head to upmarket camps in the west. Rough roads and seasonal flooding rule out self-drive for first-timers.

Budget: Options at all price levels

When to go: Cooler and more accessible during dry season, May-Oct

2. Serengeti National Park and Ngorongoro Crater, Tanzania

Ngorongoro Crater, Tanzania. (Dreamstime)

Ngorongoro Crater, Tanzania. (Dreamstime)

The Serengeti is arguably the best-known wildlife spectacle on the planet. Everything that applies to the Masai Mara – its northern extension – applies here, from the scale of the great migration to the ease of sighting predators. Except that the Serengeti, at nearly 15,000 sq km, is nearly ten times bigger, which means that its plains are that much more ‘endless’ and there is a greater habitat variety. It also means that visitors are a little thinner on the ground than in the Mara. The centre of the park, around Seronera, is often busy but private concessions in the north and west offer more exclusive options.

Ngorongoro Crater sits a short drive to the east, still within the Serengeti Conservation Area. This volcanic caldera encloses 250 sq km of plains, forest and lakes, and harbours an improbable concentration of wildlife – including lions, elephants and black rhinos. Such riches draw the crowds, and the place can sometimes seem like a wild zoo. But should your lifetime’s safari-going be confined to a single day-trip, then it should probably be here.

Budget: Options at all price levels

When to go: Year round; migration moves with the seasons; conditions best Jun-Oct

3. Kruger National Park, South Africa

Kruger National Park, South Africa. (Dreamstime)

Kruger National Park, South Africa. (Dreamstime)

Some purists argue that South Africa’s premier national park is too crowded and managed. Certainly, its tar roads and large camps are not to everybody’s taste. But its 22,000 sq km mean room for all comers, with enough backroads and bush camps to satisfy those with serious wilderness cravings.

Whatever your tastes, there’s no denying the wildlife. With the Big Five (including both rhino species) all thriving, plus cheetah, wild dog, numerous large herbivores and 500-plus bird species, you will see a huge selection here. The secret is the habitat variety, from hills and savannah to woodland and riverine forest. Abundant water helps, with perennial rivers ensuring game concentrations year round. All-weather roads also make this a top bet for the rainy season.

The upside of development is choice. From exclusive lodge to large public camp, and from night drive to wilderness trail, Kruger really does offer everything. First-timers and budget travellers will probably find this Africa’s easiest and most rewarding safari destination.

Budget: Options at all price levels

When to go: Year round; main rains Nov-Mar

4. Chobe National Park & Moremi Game Reserve Botswana

Chobe National Park, Botswana. (Dreamstime)

Chobe National Park, Botswana. (Dreamstime)

Botswana is a dry land yet, paradoxically, some of its best game viewing is by water. Come the dry season, wildlife throngs the riverfront in the far north of Chobe National Park, where boat cruises pass countless elephants and buffaloes. Lions and hyenas roam the loop roads, while sable are among the many herbivores. Victoria Falls is just a day-trip away.

Further south, the Moremi Reserve protects the eastern fringes of the Okavango Delta, where seasonal waterways lure prolific game numbers from the surrounding mopane woodland. Predators, including wild dog, are abundant. Boat cruises across the lagoons or mokoro (dugout canoe) trips down the narrow channels offer plentiful big game and bird life.

These two destinations are often combined, transferring either by air or an arduous road trip – the latter via Savuti, famed for elephants, lions and hyenas. Both can be crowded in peak season. Self-drive is only for the experienced but there are budget mobile packages (using government campsites), plus numerous lodges.

Budget: All price levels

When to go: Jun-Oct (peak Okavango floods May-Aug)

5. South Luangwa National Park, Zambia

South Luangwa National Park, Zambia. (Dreamstime)

South Luangwa National Park, Zambia. (Dreamstime)

Zambia’s top park is generally seen as a destination for the more discerning, thanks to its expert guiding and small, owner-run lodges promoting an all-round bush experience.Nonetheless, South Luangwa is also a top spot for first-timers. Toward the end of the dry season game concentrates in great numbers around the shrinking river and its hippo-choked lagoons, and – with the exception of rhino and cheetah – you can expect easy viewing of a full wildlife spectrum. Night drives allow the thrill of following big cats on the prowl – there is no better park for leopard – while guided walks offer an enthralling ground-level insight into the bush. Indeed, this park is known as the home of the walking safari.

This is a challenging destination for the independent traveller – more high-end lodge territory. But you can expect an excellent all-round safari for your money, with top wildlife, attention to detail and raw bush appeal.

Budget: Medium / High

When to go: Peak game viewing Jun-Oct; floods during rains (Nov-Mar), when some camps close

6. Etosha National Park, Namibia

Etosha National Park, Namibia. (Dreamstime)

Etosha National Park, Namibia. (Dreamstime)

Etosha is Namibia’s Kruger, with roads and facilities suitable for the self-drive, budget safari. The harsh, semi-arid terrain is not to all tastes, though, with its thorn scrub, calcrete rubble and vast, shimmering saltpan. And with no rivers, you can forget about hippos and crocs.

The best ploy here is to stake out one of the park’s many spring-fed waterholes and wait for animals to arrive. The end of the dry season sucks a procession of thirsty game from the parched bush. Zebra, giraffe, oryx and others all jostle for position, giving way to boisterous elephant herds and cantankerous black rhinos. Lion prides lurk in ambush.

Each public camp overlooks a busy waterhole, floodlit by night, so during the dry season you need never leave camp. The rainy season brings lush growth and flamingos flocking to temporary lagoons. A number of private concessions in the park’s southern and western reaches offer more upmarket guided safaris.

Budget: Options at all price levels

When to go: Peak game viewing Jun-Nov; pans flood Jan-Mar

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