For the animals
The Big Five – lion, leopard, elephant, rhino and water buffalo – may feel like the most important animals to see on your first safari in Eastern or Southern Africa, but there are so many fascinating things to see beyond That List. There’s the Small Five for example – lion ant, leopard tortoise, elephant shrew, rhino beetle and buffalo weaver bird. And the Ugly Five – vultures, wildebeest, warthog, marabou stork and hyena. And a spectrum of weird, wonderful and wacky creatures in between.
For the birds
The sheer diversity, the extraordinary colours (take a bow, lilac-breasted roller) and sometimes seemingly bizarre behaviour of Africa’s birdlife are mesmerising. In their courtship dances, the turkey-sized Corey Bustard creates what looks like a balloon of white feathers around its long neck, while the red crested Khoran flies vertically straight up into the air then performs a ‘suicide’ plunge to earth, spreading its wings only just in time.
For the sense of entering another creature’s world
The experience of sitting quietly in a safari vehicle as a herd of elephants moves around you, rumbling messages to each other as they munch through small tress and bushes can be extraordinarily moving.
For the thrill of the chase
The adrenaline-charge of watching big cats hunt will stay with you – the team strategising, the stealthy approach and then the coordinated attack by a group of lionesses is chillingly detached but unforgettable. Look a lion in the eye and you will see an expression of utterly ruthless power.
For watching animal behaviour
Spending an hour in one place – maybe even in your camp – and just seeing what happens can prove as fascinating as a game drive. Look closely and you might see a squadron of army ants on single-file manoeuvres over hundreds of feet, or a dung beetle heaving its little ball of elephant droppings uphill. Brightly coloured weaver birds may be busy crafting dew-drop shaped nests in trees above your head. Sit tight at a waterhole and you could be treated to a parade of animals coming down in groups to drink, species by species, as if for Noah’s Ark: zebra, wildebeest, giraffe, and all types of antelope: pretty impala, curly-horned kudu or smartly-dressed oryx.
For the landscapes
Kenya has its Rift Valley, South Africa has Table Mountain, Botswana has the Okavango Delta, Tanzania has the Ngorongoro Crater– there are so many iconic landscapes to choose from. In all of them, the horizon seems to stretch so much wider, the blue-sky arches so much higher – everything feels intensified in Africa. Namibia offers special pleasures: the world’s highest sand dunes and a seemingly barren landscape that’s full of subtle colour and life and has a calming, rare sense of emptiness. If you are reasonably fit, a walking safari will really immerse you in the scene. You’ll be led by expert guides and probably only cover about 6 miles a day as there is so much to stop, examine and talk about when you’re on foot: find out which tree roots can slake thirst, which make good toothpicks and which will give your stomach quite a turn if you even breathe in its smoke on a fire.
For the fabulous places to stay
Lavishly appointed lodges and luxurious tented camps abound – and its hard to beat the wow of sitting down to a delicious dinner on a table set with white linen and candelabra in the middle of the bush, with the sounds of the night around you. Beautifully styled, many properties offer memorable features such as outdoor showers and floor-to ceiling glass bathrooms overlooking the bush. More mid-priced properties tend to be larger scale but if they are based around a water-hole, you’ll have great game viewing opportunities throughout the day. Cheaper options can have a great sense of camp-fire camaraderie and get you really close to nature – we had elephant come into our very basic fly-camp one night, to eat the fruit of a nearby Amarula tree. A good way to stretch the budget is to mix a few days stay in lower priced places with a blow-out night at one of the full-on luxury properties. That way you’ll really appreciate it!
For the food and wine
South Africa’s wine is legendary (add a stay in Cape Town to your safari and take a trip out to the beautiful vineyards in Franschhoek and Stellenbosch) and the standard of dining is generally high. Carnivores tend to rule on safaris and it’s not the best place for vegetarians although it’s improving. Kudu steak will delight the meat-eaters however and impala stew cooked on an open fire under a canopy of stars will never taste so good.
For the wonderful personal service
At the luxury end, the service is intuitive and faultless. And there are many mid-priced options that provide personal and thoughtful service too. In government-run camps (such as Okaukuejo in Namibia’s Etosha National Park), things may be patchier, but these are often found at particular waterholes where the outstanding wildlife viewing compensates for any other shortcomings. Experienced companies with on-the-ground knowledge like Africa Sky can help you through the maze of properties on offer to create an itinerary that’s tailored to meet your priorities and price-range.
For seeing it while it’s still there
We’ve all read about the challenges that Africa’s wildlife faces from human encroachment and, sadly, poaching. There are some wonderful places that are working hard to give hard-pressed species a second chance, such as the AfriCat Foundation at Okonjima in Namibia where cheetahs are rehabilitated into converted farmland (it’s well worth a visit – you can track radio-collared cheetah on foot and leopard by truck). But if you’d like your grandkids to see Africa’s extraordinary wildlife in the wild, now is a great time to go. There’s no time like the present!
Silver Travel Advisor recommends Africa Sky
See also, Top Ten Tips for taking your first Safari.