Today, arguably the most important question that any prospective luxury African safari traveler can ask is, “Just how comfortable do I want to be?” Specifically, “Do I want air-conditioning, or do I prefer to lie in bed listening to the lions, the hyenas and the grunt of hippo in a nearby lagoon?” Although opulent lodges can now be found throughout East and Southern Africa, the most lavish are still in South Africa. Generally, these are surrounded by intensively managed reserves, which are either wholly or partly fenced. In contrast, the game areas of Botswana, Namibia and Zambia tend to be vast areas of wilderness that have changed relatively little since Europeans first saw them 150 years ago. In my view, for a first luxury African safari it is sensible to opt for a “resort” lodge such as Singita. You will certainly not be unhappy, and even if you discover that being bounced about in a Land Rover or mock-charged by an elephant is not your idea of fun, you will still be able to swim, lie in the sun and eat delicious food. However, if after three or four days you find that you have been bitten by the African bug, on a return trip you can opt for somewhere a little more adventurous.
The ideal location for a second luxury African safari is Botswana’s Okavango Delta. Here, the upscale camps such as Mombo, Abu Camp and Sanctuary Chief’s Camp are extremely comfortable, with spacious and attractive accommodations, but they feel much closer to nature. Permanent structures are not permitted in the Okavango, so wood and canvas are the customary building materials. Okavango camps are not air-conditioned, and communication with the outside world is usually difficult or impossible. The compensation is the excitement of being somewhere truly wild, where vast herds still roam over great distances unimpeded by fences and oblivious to the modern world. Here, you will be surrounded by a primeval Africa that has scarcely changed in the past 20,000 years.
WHERE TO SEE...
Although Africa’s lion population has declined from 100,000 to 20,000 in the past two decades, the continent’s top predators are still present in most major game areas. Lion are frequently encountered in large prides and spend most of the day asleep in the shade of trees, making no effort to conceal themselves or to run away. Nowadays, most upscale lodges and camps make use of radios, so once a pride has been located, the guide will notify his colleagues. This means that in places such as South Africa’s Sabi Sand reserve, finding a lion is virtually guaranteed. Seeing lions hunt or kill is extremely unusual, however, and some people, accustomed to TV wildlife specials that took years to film, go home bitterly disappointed. The most spectacular of Africa’s lions are the black-maned males in Tanzania’s Serengeti National Park. The Serengeti also has huge prides, up to 25 strong, whereas in more arid areas, lions tend to form much smaller groups or to live solitary existences.
Arguably the most beautiful and alluring of all the cats — and my own personal favorite — leopard are often very elusive. Largely nocturnal, they are shy and hide in thick vegetation during the day. In a few places, however, leopard have become habituated to humans and are routinely seen in daylight. This is especially the case in Sabi Sand, where both Londolozi and Singita are famous for their frequent sightings. In Zambia’s South Luangwa National Park, night drives are permitted, and it is possible to find leopard with a spotlight. (Sanctuary Puku Ridge Camp is the Harper-recommended property nearby.) However, my own best leopard sightings have been at Mombo in the Okavango Delta, where one morning I saw five individuals, including a female, killing an impala in broad daylight on the camp’s airstrip!
Perhaps 15,000 cheetah remain in the wild, with the largest single population (2,500) being in Namibia. There, visitors to Etosha National Park have a good chance of a sighting, though cheetah tend to be elusive if there are lion in the vicinity. (The Harper-recommended property close to Etosha is Little Ongava camp.) However, nothing quite compares with finding cheetah on the immense grass plains of East Africa, in Kenya’s Maasai Mara reserve or Tanzania’s Serengeti National Park.
Despite a recent increase in ivory poaching, elephant are still present in most major African game areas. The greatest concentrations are found in Botswana’s Chobe National Park, where around 50,000 elephant congregate on the banks of the Chobe River during the May-October dry season. During the rainy months, the elephant spread out, with some large herds migrating for hundreds of miles. An unusually dense elephant population is also to be found in Addo National Park in the Eastern Cape province of South Africa. (There, Gorah Elephant Camp is a Harper-recommended property.)
Botswana’s Okavango Delta is home to nearly 450 recorded bird species. Another birder’s paradise is the Lower Zambezi Valley — the river forms the boundary between Zambia and Zimbabwe — where the profusion of large and colorful species must be seen to be believed. There are few more spectacular sights in nature than a flock of crimson carmine bee-eaters, several thousand strong, congregating above their nest site on the sandy banks of the Zambezi.
WHAT TO PACK
“On safari, everyone remembers to take a camera — although many people neglect the mandatory 400mm lens — forgetting that the truly essential piece of equipment is a pair of good binoculars. Friends who own safari camps have traditionally sworn by Leitz products. However, if money is no object, I suggest you opt for Swarovski’s EL 8.5×42. Also remember to take your own bird identification books and field guides: The lodges never have enough copies.” – A.H.
Here is a suggested packing list for an African safari:
WHEN TO VISIT
SOUTHERN AFRICA - Travel in Southern Africa can be tiring, not least because of the heat at certain times of year. The principal safari areas are best visited during the cool, dry season from April to August. During this period, the weather is agreeable, the bush has thinned (making game viewing easier) and the animals are forced to congregate near permanent sources of water. The rainy season from December to March should be avoided.
EASTERN AFRICA - Wildlife-viewing is generally excellent throughout the year in the Masai Mara and Ngorongoro Crater. However, game-viewing opportunities peak from January-April in the southern Serengeti and from June-October in the northern Serengeti. This variation is due to the Great Migration of several million wildebeest, zebra and gazelle. The times to avoid in Kenya and Tanzania are the long rains in April and May and the short rains in November.
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