The 10 Best Safari Destinations for First-timers to Africa

There are close to 300 national parks in Africa, each offering something extraordinary, but which one should you go to first?
Written by Matthew Sterne
04 March 2021

It can be tricky to understand what the best options are when planning your first trip to Africa.

While internet research is handy, it’s always more efficient to talk to an expert. Safaris are highly specialised trips and our experienced team, who have been all over Africa, can break down the different options for you simply and easily.

The first thing we suggest is to choose between East Africa and Southern Africa. East Africa consists of Tanzania and Kenya – think sprawling plains, huge herds of game and silhouetted acacia trees – as well as the mountain gorillas of Rwanda and Uganda. Southern Africa consists of South Africa, Botswana, Zambia, Zimbabwe, Malawi, Namibia and Mozambique. Generally speaking, Southern Africa offers more intimate Big Five safari experiences.

The parks all differ across a range of factors – from accessibility to wildlife and landscapes, the type and cost of accommodation and the option to self-drive or not. Some parks are better suited to family safaris, with easy access and child-friendly lodges, while others will inspire your inner explorer, with wilderness camping and few other visitors in sight. Once you’re a seasoned safari fan you may start looking beyond the Big Five, seeking out painted wolves or pangolins, or perhaps alternative experiences such as walking or boat safaris. Before then though, these are your best bets for your first taste of Africa.

1. Maasai Mara

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A visit with the Maasai people, whose tribal home is within the park, is often cited as a highlight of a trip for overseas travellers. Source|andBeyond

Iconic, spectacular and wildly popular, the Maasai Mara is what many uninitiated safari-goers imagine when they think of Africa. With rolling grasslands and scattered acacia woodland home to the Big Five, the vistas and game viewing are exceptional. Its beauty has contributed to its biggest drawback – hordes of tourists jockeying for better positions, which is particularly chaotic during the Great Migration when millions of zebra and wildebeest roll through the area to thunderous effect. For a more exclusive experience, head to upmarket camps in the west. Rough roads and seasonal flooding rule out self-drive for first-timers.

2. Serengeti and Ngorongoro Crater

Serengeti means ‘endless plains’ in Swahili. Source | Singita

Sharing a border with the Maasai Mara, the Serengeti has a similar landscape and feel to it, offers the same scale of the Great Migration and predator sightings. The major difference is 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’s a greater habitat variety. It also means that visitors are a little thinner on the ground than in the Mara. Home to Africa’s highest concentration of cats, you’ll seldom see as much wildlife as you do in the Serengeti ecosystem. All visits likely include a stop at Ngorongoro Crater, a volcanic caldera that harbours an improbable concentration of wildlife – including lions, elephants and black rhinos.

3. Okavango Delta

A mokoro is propelled through the shallow waters of the delta by standing in the stern and pushing with a pole, in the same manner as punting. Source | andBeyond

The wild heart of Africa, the Okavango Delta offers an unrivalled sense of magic and discovery. Considered one of Africa’s more expensive safari destinations, the lodges here focus on high-income, low-impact safaris as opposed to the mass-market safaris on offer in other destinations. The result is an unbeatable level of exclusivity, high-quality sightings and a personal approach to safari where clients will see very few other travellers. Africa’s largest inland delta is an immense oasis where a mokoro ride will see you float past elephants, hippos and lions at eye level.

4. Kruger National Park

The guides and trackers who work at the luxury lodges in the Kruger National Park, especially in the Sabi Sand concession, are amongst the best in the world. Source | Singita

Kruger is the most famous park in South Africa and one of the best places in Africa to see the Big Five, as well as cheetah and painted wolf. This huge park encompasses a vast array of habitats, over 500 species of birds, and more mammals than any other African game reserve. The secret is the habitat variety, from hills and savannah to woodland and riverine forest. Home to some of the finest luxury lodges on the continent, top-paying visitors are treated to intimate bush getaways and world-class guides. First-timers and budget travellers will probably find this to be Africa’s easiest and most rewarding safari destination.

5. Queen Elizabeth National Park

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Queen Elizabeth is the park best known for tree-climbing lions, although the behaviour has also been seen in other parks such as Tanzania’s Manyara National Park. Source | Timbuktu Travel

Uganda is best known for its gorilla trekking, so its game reserves are often overlooked. Yet Queen Elizabeth is truly impressive and has established itself as Uganda’s most diverse park. With tree-climbing lions, 10 primate species and an exceptional 600 species of birds – its diversity far outweighs its compact size. Boat tours along the Kazinga Channel take you up close to hippos, crocs and elephants, while scenic viewpoints reveal a spectacular landscape of craters, relics of the region’s volcanic past. Sightings of chimpanzees and the rare shoebill are often highlights of a visit.

6. South Luangwa

South Luangwa is known as the Valley of the Leopard. Source | Singita

Zambia’s most famous and wildlife-rich park, South Luangwa is also the birthplace of walking safaris in Africa. It’s generally seen as a destination for the more discerning, thanks to its expert guides and small, owner-run lodges promoting an all-round bush experience. Nevertheless, South Luangwa is also a top spot for first-timers. Towards the end of the dry season, wildlife gather in great numbers around the shrinking lagoons, and – with the exception of rhino and cheetah – you can expect easy viewing of a full wildlife spectrum, with the leopard population particularly healthy.

7. Bwindi Impenetrable Forest

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Gorilla trekking permits in Uganda are only a portion of the price compared to those in Rwanda. Source | Singita

Bwindi is home to roughly half of the world’s mountain gorillas and, along with Volcanoes National Park in Rwanda, is the best place to see them. Bwindi is blessed with theatrical landscapes, jagged valleys, lush forests and misty waterfalls. The birding is also excellent here. Insider tip: gorillas often enter Sanctuary Gorilla Forest Camp, which is nestled deep inside the park.

8. Chobe National Park

best-african-experience
The Great Elephant Census of 2016 conducted a large study of African elephants on the continent. Of their findings, Chobe National Park had the highest concentration of elephants out of 18 other countries. Source | andBeyond

A sunset cruise on the Chobe River, as herds upon herds of elephants come to take a dip and have a drink, is one of Africa’s most memorable experiences. Often cited as having the highest density of wildlife in Africa, Chobe is a stronghold of endangered species such as painted wolf, cheetah and brown hyena, while the huge elephant herds have been estimated to total up to 100,000. Lions and hyenas roam the loop roads, while sable are among the many herbivores. The cherry on top? Victoria Falls is just a day trip away.

9. Etosha National Park

best-african-safari
The word “Etosha” comes from a Ndonga word meaning “Great White Place.” Source | Discover Africa

While there are many reasons to visit Etosha, the biggest of them all is to witness the spectacle surrounding its enormous pan – a salt-crusted, dry lakebed that dominates the park, home to 144 mammal species including lions, elephants, rhinos and giraffes. These species jostle for space around the few waterholes, creating a game-viewing spectacle quite unlike any other. Zebra, giraffe, oryx and others all jockey for position, giving way to boisterous elephant herds and cantankerous black rhino while lion prides lurk in ambush. The harsh, semi-arid terrain is not to all tastes, though, with its thorn scrub and vast, shimmering salt pan. And with no rivers, you won’t see any hippos or crocs.

10. Laikipia

Laikipia is a network of around two dozen small private conservancies, most reclaimed from what was formerly community-based or private European-owned ranchland. Source | Discover Africa

The Laikipia Plateau lies at the southern boundary of Kenya’s northern frontier, with dramatic views of snow-capped Mt Kenya to the south. It offers an exclusive Kenya alternative to the Maasai Mara. Lodges – some very imaginative – tempt guests with everything from camel trekking to fishing. It has become a pioneering area for ecotourism, with many properties owned by the local community. The Lewa Wildlife Conservancy is the most notable of the private concessions that all contribute to one enormous conservation initiative, which protects one of Kenya’s healthiest wildlife populations.

Our team of travel writers, safari guides and travel experts have the first-hand knowledge that is so valuable when planning a trip to Africa. Visit this page to choose the type of safari you want and we will put you on a path to Africa. Your journey can start now

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