Guide to Planning an African Safari
Whether you’re a first-time visitor or seasoned veteran, T+L helps you plan the perfect African safari.
Culture & Wildlife: South Africa
Highlights: Kruger National Park in the northeast, flanked by the private lodges and conservancies of the Sabi Sand Private Game Reserve; the vineyards and restaurants of the Cape Winelands region; Cape Town and Johannesburg, historical and cultural centers.
Related: 10 Amazing Affordable Safaris
Post-apartheid, South Africa established itself as the continent’s blue-chip destination. Safari lodges and companies, such as Singita Private Game Reserves, Londolozi, and &Beyond, brought luxury to the major game regions, while Cape Town and the surrounding winelands became a jet-set playground. But intimate retreats are now enticing travelers to make cultural side trips to lesser-known areas of the country. Bushmans Kloof Wilderness Reserve & Wellness Retreat, a 16-room lodge a three-hour drive north of Cape Town, is in a wildflower-filled setting where Bushman rock art sites date back 10,000 years. Two hours south of Cape Town, the 27-room Grootbos Private Nature Reserve arranges trips to see the Marine Big Five: whales, dolphins, sharks, seals, and penguins. Just northwest of Johannesburg are the caves of the Cradle of Humankind, a paleontology UNESCO World Heritage site. Adventurers can also head to Zululand, where Fugitives’ Drift Lodge, the house of late historian David Rattray, offers tours of 1879 Anglo-Zulu War battlefields.
When to Go: year round
Safety Note: Travelers should be cautious in Johannesburg, especially around the city center. Your hotel can advise you on the best way to get around.
New Adventure: Botswana
Highlights: The wildlife of the Okavango Delta; the sprawling, semi-arid Kalahari Desert; the northeast’s Chobe National Park, known for its massive elephant herds.
Botswana now rivals South Africa as the continent’s most high-end safari destination, defined by the Okavango Delta’s standard-setting camps such as Mombo Camp and Wilderness Safaris’ refurbished Abu Camp, famous for its elephant-back tours. The country, however, is shifting away from ultra-luxe lodges and back toward active itineraries and comfortably rustic properties. On the Kalahari Desert’s Makgadikgadi Pans, the 10-tent Camp Kalahari from Uncharted Africa is the affordable sister to the classic Jack’s Camp, also on the pans. Alternatively, Ride Botswana with David Foot Safaris now operates a horseback safari across the pans. Even more adventurous is the Selinda Canoe Trail operated by Great Plains Conservation, a four-day, 30-mile trip along the ancient Selinda Spillway.
When to Go: Jan.–Nov.
Safari Expert Ralph Bousfield
Company: Uncharted Africa Safari Co.
Safari Veterans: “For the experienced traveler to Africa, a trip to the Western Kalahari with the Bushmen is an amazing opportunity to see where we all come from. It’s incredible to think that 10,000 years ago we were all hunter-gatherers.”
Desert Diversity: Namibia
Highlights: Namib-Naukluft National Park, Africa’s largest reserve; Etosha National Park, renowned for plains game; the northwest’s Damaraland for fossilized trees and desert elephants; haunting Skeleton Coast National Park.
Namibia’s otherworldly desert landscapes and dramatic coastal plains hit the traveler’s radar in the mid 2000’s and have since grown in popularity. The challenge has always been how to navigate the great distances between attractions and camps. Lately more travelers are opting for high-end, privately guided safaris—involving helicopters and light planes—to visit the most far-flung corners, such as Wilderness Safaris’ eight-villa Serra Cafema camp near the Angola border. At the same time, operators are now offering more affordable group tours. Geographic Expeditions has eight-person safaris that travel from Windhoek to Damaraland for just over $3,000 a person. Wild About Africa also features a nine-day group itinerary, with a tour of the Fish River Canyon, for only $1,179 per person.
When to Go: year round
Affordable Adventure: Zambia
Highlights: The river-crossed South Luangwa National Park; game-rich Lower Zambezi National Park on the north bank of the Zambezi River; majestic Victoria Falls, bordering Zimbabwe.
Long in the shadow of neighboring Zimbabwe, Zambia has now established itself as the ultimate adventure destination, famous for its walking safaris and canoe trips—and complemented by a slate of stylish (yet affordable) bush lodges and river camps. South Luangwa, where outfitters Norman Carr and Robin Pope pioneered walking safaris, is the jewel of the country’s parks system and offers increasingly upscale accommodations to go with its unrivaled wildlife. The seven refurbished camps of the Bushcamp Company, in the south of the park, are chic and intimate, and can be visited on an exclusive camp-to-camp walk. In the Lower Zambezi Valley, the eight colonial-style suites of Baines’ River Camp bring a new level of luxury to Zambia. More in keeping with the country’s old-school authenticity are the river-view tents of the family-owned Chiawa Camp and its rustic sister property downriver, Old Mondoro, accessed by boat. Activities include game drives, river safaris, and fishing excursions.
When to Go: May–Sept.
Safari Expert Garth Hovell
Company: Abercrombie & Kent
Traveling on Foot: “Imagine standing in South Luangwa in the giant footsteps of an elephant or touching the bark of a tree where only minutes earlier a leopard had scratched it. Or spotting the tracks of a lion in the sand as it stalks its prey. On a walking safari, your senses are heightened by all that surrounds you.”
A Classic, with a Twist: Tanzania
Highlights: The Serengeti, site of the Great Migration; Mount Kilimanjaro, Africa’s highest peak; the volcanic, game-rich Ngorongoro Crater basin; the UNESCO-listed Stone Town on Zanzibar island.
As with the Mara in Kenya, the Serengeti has been plagued with mass tourism and overcrowding. But innovative operators are taking travelers to the country’s less visited corners. Last June luxe lodging company Singita Grumeti Reserves unveiled its first mobile safaris in its 340,000-acre concession near the Serengeti. Eco-camping outfitter Wayo Africa visits remote Lake Eyasi, a salt lake south of the park. In the undeveloped north, the government has chosen a few companies to build small lodges, including Nomad Tanzania’s Lamai Serengeti, whose 12 rooms blend into rocky hills. Even farther-flung regions are coming to the fore: In the jungle-covered Mahale chimp habitat, Nomad’s Greystoke Mahale has six thatched-roof huts on Lake Tanganyika. In 2010, Amara Selous opened with 12 suites (all with private plunge pools) in southern Tanzania’s untamed Selous Game Reserve.
When to Go: June–Oct.
Community & Conservation: Kenya
Highlights: The Masai Mara National Reserve, home to the Great Migration; the private game reserves of the Laikipia region; the vibrant capital, Nairobi.
Traditionally the most romantic of safari destinations, Kenya lost much of its luster over the past three decades because of congestion in its parks and rampant political corruption. But there’s a fresh energy in the countryside, evident in a new breed of lodges—and lodge owners—that emphasize community and preservation. Proceeds from the eight-cottage Olarro, on the Mara’s eastern perimeter, go to build local schools, clinics, and wells. The seven-tent Mara Plains Camp operates game-viewing trips in a conservancy run in partnership with the Masai. Segera Retreat, meanwhile, is set to open eight solar-powered villas on a reclaimed Laikipia cattle ranch in July. Family-owned properties are also playing up the personalities of their owners. In Laikipia, Lemarti’s Camp is owned by Nairobi fashion designer Anna Trzebinski and her Samburu husband. Near Amboseli National Park, Ol Donyo Lodge is the revamped lodge of legendary conservationist Richard Bonham.
Big Five Tours & Expeditions 7 days from $6,000.
Cottars Safari Service 7 days from $5,950.
Extraordinary Journeys 7 days from $3,500.
Journeys by Design 8 days from $7,395.
Micato Safaris 7 days from $11,200.
Safari & Conservation Company 9 days from $4,997.
When to Go: Jan.–March, July–Oct.
Safety Note: The U.S. State Department currently has a travel warning issued for Kenya. Check with your tour operator and hotels on what security precautions they take.
Safari Expert Douglas Nagi
Company: Cottars Safari Service
First-Time Safari: “The Mara is as close to Out of Africa as you can get, and perfect for novice safari-goers. Nowhere else can you see all of the Big Five in a matter of hours and watch the annual migration of more than a million wildebeests.”
Primates & the Big Five: Rwanda & Uganda
Highlights: The mountain-gorilla-filled Virunga Mountains, encompassing Parc des Volcans, in Rwanda, and Uganda’s Bwindi Impenetrable Forest; the adjacent Queen Elizabeth National Park and Kibale National Park, both in Uganda, famous for chimps and a dozen other primates.
Since 2000, Africa’s central highlands have seen a dramatic rise in gorilla tourism, most of it from the United States. Rwanda is easier on trekkers, with its gently graded walks into the mountains, while Uganda’s dense jungle, which holds a larger gorilla population, requires better fitness. But a safari to the region no longer need focus solely on gorillas. Thanks to sounder conservation policies, Uganda is seeing a resurgence in plains game at its parks. Volcanoes Safaris recently opened the Kyambura Gorge Lodge on a former coffee estate on the edge of Queen Elizabeth National Park—perfectly sited for lion, elephant, and chimp tracking. The operator can round out a trip with stays at its Bwindi Safari Lodge or across the border at Rwanda’s Virunga Lodge. For a traditional safari experience, consider the recently rebuilt 36-room, 21-tent Chobe Safari Lodge, in Uganda’s Murchison Falls National Park. Since the establishment of the Ziwa Rhino Sanctuary, it’s now possible to see the Big Five in the country again.
When to Go: Dec.–March, June–Oct.
Safari Expert Brad Horn
From: Australia, but lived in Botswana for many years
Company: Epic Private Journeys
Adrenaline Rush: “The biggest of the silverback gorillas in Rwanda’s Virunga Mountains was yards away when he unexpectedly rose on two legs and ran past us beating his chest, meting out his punishment on a devious son. Incredible.”
Malawi: The gin-clear waters of Lake Malawi have attracted operators such as Wilderness Safaris, while the African Parks Network is reintroducing elephants and black rhinos into the Majete Wildlife Reserve in the country’s south.
Mozambique: Gone are decades of poaching: the big story is Gorongosa National Park, where conservationist Greg Carr’s namesake foundation has spent millions to reintroduce elephants and opened a tented camp.
Republic of the Congo: Not to be confused with the war-torn Democratic Republic, Congo is establishing eco-camps in Odzala-Kokoua National Park, home to rare forest elephants and the highest density of Africa’s western lowland gorillas.
Zimbabwe: After years of political turmoil, Zimbabwe is starting to regain its footing. Investors are renovating properties at Victoria Falls and Lake Kariba, while independent operators now offer cross-border trips to Zambia.
Some of our favorite operators have put together signature trips for T+L readers (prices reflect per person rates). Use the code TLExclusive to book any trip on this page.
A primate-centric adventure—including cameos by tree-climbing lions—with a stay at Bwindi Lodge in the Virunga Mountains.
Volcanoes Safaris volcanoessafaris.com; 7 nights from $3,820
A Samburu cultural experience and camping with wild camels bookend days spent game-spotting in Laikipia and the Northern Frontier District.
Journeys by Design journeysbydesign.com; 6 nights from $6,295
A camp-to-camp river voyage through Lower Zambezi National Park by canoe (for up-close encounters with hippos, buffalo, and elephants) culminating at Victoria Falls.
Explore Inc. exploreafrica.net; 7 nights from $3,075
A walking safari in the Selous Game Reserve, with views of the wildebeest migration and a night spent camping (and stargazing) in riverside tents.
Nomad Tanzania nomad-tanzania.com; 7 nights from $5,850
Travel by land and air, ballooning over the Sossusvlei dunes and spotting black rhinos, desert elephants, and cheetahs in Damaraland and Etosha National Park.
Geographic Expeditions geoex.com; 10 nights from $3,145
Kids can spot meerkats, befriend Bushmen, and search for fossils at family-friendly Camp Kalahari.
Classic Safari classicafrica.com; 4 nights from $816 for children, $1,632 for adults
Take a vineyard and art tour of the Winelands, explore the Cradle of Humankind fossils, and end with a safari through Sabi Sand Private Game Reserve.
Cape Insights capeinsights.com; 9 nights from $5,295
A safari operator with 70 camps in nine countries, Wilderness has been a champion of responsible travel in Africa for nearly 30 years. Overseeing a portfolio of more than 7.4 million acres of protected land, Wilderness supports 40 projects that benefit 1,250 endangered species, including Namibia’s black rhino population. In addition, many of the operator’s sustainable camps (which utilize solar panels and rainwater-harvesting techniques) are created as joint ventures with the local communities, who share profits while also receiving skills training and employment.
George Mavroudis Safaris
Leads custom, private, luxury tented safaris in Tanzania and specializes in both wildlife viewing and cultural experiences. Itineraries—from 14 to 21 days, including visits to four or five wildlife and cultural areas—are arranged based on your activity level and interests. Prices vary depending on the number of people; for six, the cost per person per day is $870, including accommodation, meals, guides, transportation, and a visit to the Hadza. Additional excursions can be added at extra cost. The company also operates Lukuba Island Lodge on Lake Victoria, an ideal base for hiking, bird-watching, and visiting local fishing villages.
Journeys by Design
Journeys by Design specializes in bespoke itineraries to the region, which often include a stay at Selous's Sand Rivers Camp and guided walking safaris along the hippo- and crocodile-inhabited Rufiji River. Will Jones spent 25 years in six African countries before returning to the U.K. to open a shop dealing exclusively with the continent he knows best. T+L Trip pick Origins of Man Safari. Tour the Great Rift Valley with legendary paleontologist Richard Leakey.
Since 1966, the Pinto family of Kenya and New York has been welcoming guests to Africa with an extraordinary level of service and in-country expertise. Guide Alan Petersen has led David Beckham and Robert De Niro. T+L Trip pick Discover Africa’s Heritage. Visit unesco-protected areas such as Kenya’s Lake Nakuru and Zanzibar’s Stone Town.
Masai Mara National Reserve
At the Masai Mara National Reserve you're sure to see lions, elephants, and rhinos.
Serra Cafema Camp
Kenya Lemarti's Camp
Nairobi-based fashion designer Anna Trzebinski is also dabbling in the world of hotels, opening the tented Lemarti’s Camp near Kenya’s Laikipia Plateau in 2007. She stitches tents of locally loomed cotton in the same workshop where she creates beaded tunics and accessories inspired by indigenous Kenyan designs. Set on platforms above a river bend, the camp’s tents are furnished with tables and beds built with wood from dhow boats, and decorated with African-themed found objets d’art: crocodile skulls, elephant shoulder blades, beaded walking sticks and clubs. “For me, a tent should be the veil between you and Mother Africa, a sheer shield to protect but not in any way disconnect you from her presence. To be under canvas on a comfortable bed, with the smell of acacia blossoms —in the old safari days this was intoxicating enough, but now we have the ability to improve on the concept.”
Five family-run lodges on 42,000 wilderness acres known for leopard sightings.
Wilderness Safaris Mombo Camp and Little Mombo Camp
Two groups of tents, featuring plunge pools and unshaded decks for prime bird-watching, linked by raised walkways.
Bushmans Kloof Wilderness Reserve
Full-service hideaway with a wellness focus and access to original Bushman art sites, 3 hours from Cape Town.
Room to Book: Deluxes in the 1843 Manor House for historic atmosphere and private terraces.
Abercrombie & Kent
The Abercrombie & Kent travel agency began as an African safari company, founded by Geoffrey Kent and his parents in 1962. Today, the company organizes trips to more than 100 nations across all seven continents, with destinations ranging from Antarctica to the Galápagos Islands. Chosen by Travel + Leisure as one of the Best Adventure-Travel Outfitters of 2010, the agency caters to experienced travelers seeking “extreme adventure.” In addition to the signature African safaris, travel options include a Norwegian dog-sledding excursion, a river cruise along the Nile, and a turtle rescue expedition in Australia. T+L Trip Pick: Wings Over the Migration. Follow the Great Migration, view a private Masai dance performance, and camp near the Ngorongoro Crater.
The plugged-in, South Africa–based luxury outfitter (formerly known as CC Africa) owns 46 lodges and camps across Africa and in India. T+L Trip Pick: Bush Skills Academy at Phinda Private Game Reserve. Learn how to be a big-game ranger.
Ker & Downey
This outfitter aims to provide life-changing experiences through environmental conservation and social philanthropy. This community- and conservation-minded outfitter has led tours through Africa, India, and South America for more than 50 years. T+L Trip pick Primates of Africa. Come within 15 feet of habituated gorillas in the Republic of the Congo and Rwanda.
ol Donyo Lodge
At Kenya's ol Donyo, Great Plains has partnered with the local Masai community to protect the area's wildlife while helping to support neighboring villages. While there, ride alongside a herd of giraffes on a horseback safari. Nights are spent in completely revitalized standalone thatched villas boasting cushy fabrics and elegant decor with views of the savannah below and Mount Kilimanjaro in the distance. The balcony’s day beds make excellent napping spots. Baths feature indoor and outdoor showers and dual vanities. Most villas boast infinity plunge pools. Everything from candlelit dinners under the stars to daily laundry is included in the rates leaving guests with little to worry about beyond seeking out the Big Five.
Nights are spent in completely revitalized standalone thatched villas boasting cushy fabrics and elegant decor with views of the savannah below and Mount Kilimanjaro in the distance. The balcony’s day beds make excellent napping spots. Baths feature indoor and outdoor showers and dual vanities. Most villas boast infinity plunge pools. Everything from candlelit dinners under the stars to daily laundry is included in the rates leaving guests with little to worry about beyond seeking out the Big Five.
This African tour operator is helping to save gorillas and chimpanzees while introducing a sustainable tourism model to post-conflict countries. Four solar-powered eco-lodges serve as a base for conservation and community programs: land around the camps is purchased to create a buffer zone between wildlife and nearby villages, while funding is provided for chimpanzee research, local school programs, and resource management training for farmers.
Operates six supremely stylish yet refreshingly simple camps (as well as the more formal, brick-and-mortar Mfuwe lodge) in South Luangwa National Park, one of Africa’s premier game parks. The company is known for their unspoiled locations, chic and eco-friendly design, excellent food, and ace resident guides. Camps are scattered a few hours’ walking distance apart, and most visitors will stay at several, sometimes hiking from one to the next (bags are delivered by vehicle). Each camp sleeps six to eight guests; meals and activities tend to be communal. Among our favorites: Chamilandu, with open-fronted tree houses facing a prime stretch of the Luangwa River; and Chindeni, with breezy, spacious tents perched over a wildlife-rich lagoon.
With a silent partner like Paul Allen (yes, that Paul Allen) backing Olarro, it’s no wonder this hillside lodge overlooking the Masai Mara is becoming Kenya’s next high-profile hideaway. Designer Anthony Russell has worked his magic on the seven thatched cottages and a two-bedroom villa: the tiled floors resemble giraffe markings, and the billowing fabric ceilings give the feel of a tented camp (without the hassle of having to unzip your door). At this new conservancy the wildlife may not be as prolific as in other parts of Africa, but after-dark safaris with night-vision goggles, as well as a perfect perch to watch the annual wildebeest migration, more than compensate.