If you’ve never been on safari in Africa before, rest assured that no wildlife documentary can capture the awe of experiencing the region’s vastly contrasting landscapes and cultures in person. There are the sweeping savannas of the Serengeti-Mara ecosystem in East Africa, home to the world’s largest migrating animal herds, while green Central Africa is a habitat for the last remaining mountain gorillas on Earth. Southern Africa is home to such famous natural wonders as the Okavango Delta and the otherworldly Kalahari Desert. And in West Africa, forthcoming infrastructure in destinations like Pendjari National Park in Benin, where West African lions roam, is opening up lesser-explored areas for wildlife viewing.
Africa is composed of 54 countries with varying experiences ranging from thriving urban scenes to sublime landscapes. The continent’s seemingly endless wilderness experiences can be especially hard to navigate for the first-time safarigoer.
With that in mind, AFAR has picked three countries to get them started. Experiences include the fenceless savannas of Kenya, where such groups as the Masai own and manage private conservancies; South Africa, with its family-friendly, malaria-free reserves and impressive rewilding projects; and the wildlife-filled rivers of Zambia, known for family-owned camps and walking safaris.
These countries are only scratching the surface of nature-based experiences in Africa—and the beginning of a lifetime of return trips to explore. While we won’t cover the vibrant metropolises of these countries this time, you’ll regret skipping them, so ask your outfitter to work an urban experience into your trip. Here are three of the best places to go on safari if you’ve never been before.
Kenya is a mosaic of contrasting landscapes and home to more than 40 distinct tribes and communities. In the arid hills to the northeast, the Laikipia Plateau is the historical land of the Samburu and Kikuyu among others; to the south, a safari in the Tsavo and Amboseli national parks means large elephant herds, self-drive safaris, and views of Mount Kilimanjaro. The iconic savannas of the Masai Mara National Reserve are where millions of wildebeest known as the Great Migration roam, with hungry predators like lions and cheetahs in tow.
The Masai Mara
The Mara fills with visitors in the dry period between June and October, when there’s less green foliage to hide wildlife; in July, hundreds of vehicles line the rivers to watch epic wildebeest herd crossings. But a visit outside of high season can be even more rewarding, according to Dennis Pinto, managing director of Nairobi-based Micato Safaris. “The lushness of the landscapes throughout Kenya right after the April rains, during the off-peak green season, makes for a photographer’s paradise,” he said. “Wildebeest, zebra, and multitudes of other plains game being born make April and May such a wonderfully literal time of renewal—along with the predators looking for easy prey.”
Micato frequently sends guests to the private, community-owned conservancies adjacent to the Mara reserve that are sustainably managing wildlife on their lands—and have more restricted visitation, which translates into fewer crowds, benefiting both visitors and nature. One such camp is the well-appointed, 12-tent Mahali Mzuri, a Virgin Limited Edition camp that leases land from the Masai-owned Olare Motorogi Conservancy.
Tourism on conservancies creates jobs and supports the creation of roads, schools, scholarships, hospitals, and enterprises such as basketry, according to Vincent Oluoch, the program officer who oversees tourism for the Kenya Wildlife Conservancies Association, which represents 174 conservancies across Kenya. Since the height of the pandemic, “most facilities within the conservancies have started experiencing a steady increase in visitor numbers, including domestic visitors, and in turn have started generating necessary revenues,” said Oluoch.
Some conservancies operate their own tourism businesses—often at gentler prices than international lodges. Oluoch recommends a safari in the Nashulai Maasai Conservancy, which owns and manages Oldarpoi Mara Camp, a series of midrange cottages and tents with en suite bathrooms and Masai design touches. In the Tsavo Conservation Area, he suggests the recently renovated Kivuko Eco Camp, composed of a family house and camp accommodations run by the Taita Wildlife Conservancy.
How to book
Nairobi-based luxury outfitter Micato Safaris, owned and run by a Kenyan family, can arrange a custom-designed itinerary in Kenya that takes travelers to such private conservancies as Olare Motorogi and the Tsavo Conservation Area as well as the Masai Mara National Reserve. Ask it to work in a couple of days in Nairobi, a vibrant city the company knows particularly well. Travelers can also book experiences directly through some conservancies, including Nashulai.
With its winelands, grasslands, ancient forests, and windswept coasts, rural South Africa offers something for nearly everyone. Varying experiences also make it a year-round destination, with the cooler months falling between July and September.
Kruger National Park
In the country’s popular Kruger National Park, dry season falls between April and October. Green season can be a great option for those in search of better prices and fewer people. Showers are often brief, and less dust from the rain makes for beautiful light.
London-based tour operator Byron Thomas founded Niarra Travel in May 2021 to ensure that as much money travelers spend in a destination stays there—especially at smaller camps with few rooms that don’t have a lot of earning power. “Niarra’s goal is to get as much money to the destination as possible, and the best way to do this is booking directly,” said Thomas. “The second best way is to use a tour operator who has a real, vested interest in making sure they provide that service of putting together a trip that’s the right one for you as cheaply as possible for the particular destination.”
The Cape Town region
Niarra takes a 10 percent commission from companies on the ground, much lower than the industry standard, which can reach as high as 35 percent. The company also partners with responsibly run businesses with guidance from such groups as the Long Run, an organization that helps nature-based tourism businesses to drive such sustainability initiatives as community well-being and land and wildlife conservation. The 11-day Family Adventure itinerary starts with whale watching in the De Hoop Nature Reserve near Cape Town while staying at the four-bedroom Morukuru Ocean House. It continues to the malaria-free Madikwe Game Reserve, which has sunny days for much of the year. Game drives lead to lion, leopard, and elephant sightings, and guests sleep at the three-bedroom Morukuru River House.
Sabi Sand Game Reserve
For a safari that’s both ecofriendly and stylish, Nick Bay, founder of Seattle-based tour operator Your Private Africa, recommends Cheetah Plains in the Sabi Sand Game Reserve. Electric, solar-powered game drive vehicles offer not just a zero-emissions game drive but also quieter encounters with wildlife. The modern-feeling villa accommodations are a sight on their own, with their minimalistic interiors decorated with the work of contemporary African artists.
The Kalahari Desert
Bay also suggests heading north to the Kalahari Desert near the border of Botswana to experience Tswalu Kalahari Reserve, another malaria-free area set on a former cluster of overgrazed farmland that South Africa’s Oppenheimer family purchased and helped to rewild. Today it’s home to brown hyena, meerkats, desert black rhino, and large predators, including cheetah. Tswalu has an on-site researcher, Wendy Panaino, who is dedicated to studying ground pangolins, the world’s most trafficked animal, which can be found on the reserve.
Tswalu’s accommodations include the Tarkuni villa, a large home perfect for families. “The villa is especially family friendly, which is an emerging trend for safaris—bringing children six and under,” said Bay.
How to book
U.K.-based Niarra Travel offers several South African itineraries including the 11-day Cape, Wine, Wildlife, and Waterfalls, which goes to Kruger National Park and the country’s famous winelands. The 11-day Family Adventure in South Africa trip visits the malaria-free Madikwe Game Reserve for glimpses of big cats and elephants and the coastal De Hoop Nature Reserve for whale watching. U.S.-based Your Private Africa arranges customized private safaris for a wide range of travelers and budgets from start to finish, and it can organize hands-on conservation experiences at places like Tswalu.
Home to the Zambezi, Kafue, and Luangwa rivers, and sharing roaring Victoria Falls with neighboring Zimbabwe, Zambia offers a wide range of land- and water-based wildlife experiences. Safaris here are characterized by small, family-run camps that put guests especially close to nature through walking safaris, for which the country is famous (yet it’s still one of southern Africa’s less visited destinations). The popular dry season falls between July and November, but the April to June shoulder season, when the landscape turns green in the wake of the rains, is an especially good time to see Victoria Falls.
“Zambia is personally my ultimate safari experience,” said Suzanne Bayly-Coupe, managing director of Classic Portfolio, a collection of 53 independent lodges in 10 African countries. “It is one of the very few countries that has not been dominated by the bigger commercial safari companies.” According to Bayly-Coupe, Zambia’s water-based wildlife experiences rival those of the Okavango Delta in Botswana.
Lower Zambezi National Park
She recommends Chiawa Camp in Lower Zambezi National Park, which offers canoe rides along the crocodile-filled Zambezi River and has a multi-room family tent for parents with kids; about 20 miles to the east at Old Mondoro, five riverside chalets all have outdoor baths. In South Luangwa National Park, also known as valley of the leopard, add on a few nights at one of the half dozen tiny camps run by the Bushcamp Company.
Niarra will soon add a trip in partnership with Green Safaris, which operates camps with light footprints, including the canvas-tented Shawa Luangwa Camp in South Luangwa. “We’ve been really impressed with the aptly named Green Safaris, which are all off-grid and all electric, including vehicles, bikes, and boats, and they’re doing a lot of good work on the ground,” Thomas said.
According to Bay, some of the newest camps in Zambia focus on energy efficiency, resource conservation, and community capacity building. They include Lolebezi Safari Lodge in the Lower Zambezi, which is powered by solar panels, has its own water treatment plant, and was built with minimal use of concrete.
One of his favorite lodges in Zambia is Royal Chundu Island Lodge in Livingstone, which is easy to reach because of its location near Victoria Falls and an international airport. “Aggie Maseko, one of the owners, is a hospitality maven and makes it hard to ever leave,” said Bay. “The menu is composed of local ingredients elevated to French Relais & Châteaux standards.” Take a boat transfer to Katombora Island on the Zambezi River, where four sprawling villas have their own private decks that hover 40 feet above the rapids below. Go on a day tour to nearby Chobe National Park in neighboring Botswana for sightings of lions, cheetahs, wild dogs, and giraffes.
How to book
Book a tailored trip through southern Africa with these Classic Portfolio properties through such outfitters as Africa travel experts Explore Inc. or Your Private Africa. Niarra Travel offers a 13-day Victoria Falls, Okavango, and Cape Town itinerary that incorporates the Zambezi River and Falls into a three-country itinerary (Zambia, Botswana, and South Africa).