There is nothing quite like the thrill of an African safari. It's the stillness of the early morning, before the rising sun reaches its peak and casts a heat mirage across the horizon. It's the sound of wild creatures calling in the night and the sense of peace that comes with being surrounded by untamed wilderness. Above all, it's the excitement of the unexpected - in the bush one never knows what new sights and experiences each day will bring. In this article, we look at 10 of the most iconic safari destinations on the continent. Choose one of these for your next African adventure and you won't be disappointed.
Maasai Mara National Reserve, Kenya
Located in the extreme southwest of the country on the border with Tanzania, Maasai Mara National Reserve is Kenya's quintessential safari destination. Covering over 580 square miles/1,500 square kilometers, it's home to the Big Five and is famous for its thriving big cat populations. In particular, the reserve is known as one of the best places to see lions in their natural environment. Special Maasai Mara experiences include visits to traditional Maasai villages and the annual Great Migration. Between July and October, the migration sees approximately two million wildebeest, zebra and other antelope cross from Tanzania to Kenya across the mighty Mara River.
Chobe National Park, Botswana
Chobe National Park lies adjacent to the Okavango Delta in the northwest corner of Botswana. It includes four distinct ecosystems, allowing for an incredibly diverse array of animal and bird life. In particular, the park's Savuti Marsh offers one of Africa's highest year-round concentrations of wildlife. Chobe is especially famous for its elephants, with an estimated 120,000 of the great grey animals living within the park's borders. The best time to visit is during the dry season (April to October), when vast herds of elephant and other animals gather to drink along the banks of the Chobe River. The river also allows for unique boat-based game-viewing and rewarding birding.
Kruger National Park, South Africa
Located in the northeast of the country on the Mozambique border, Kruger National Park is the most famous of all South Africa's many game reserves. As well as the Big Five, the park is home to the vulnerable cheetah, the endangered wild dog and several elusive small cat species. It is a good option for first-time visitors to Africa, with a wide choice of accommodation options (ranging from basic campsites to luxury lodges). With a well-maintained and easily navigated road system, Kruger is also the ideal self-drive safari destination. Keen birders should plan to visit between October and March. At this time, the park provides a temporary home for more than 200 migrant bird species.
South Luangwa National Park, Zambia
In eastern Zambia, South Luangwa National Park is known for incredible walking safaris that offer the chance to get up close to the park's wildlife. It supports healthy herds of antelope and elephant, as well as several large lion prides. River-dwelling species such as hippos and Nile crocodiles thrive here and more than 400 bird species have been recorded in the region. Above all, South Luangwa is arguably the best place in Africa to see wild leopards. The optimum time to visit depends on your priorities; birding is best in the rainy season but game-viewing is best during the dry winter months. At this time, animals congregate on the banks of the Luangwa River in search of precious water.
Okavango Delta, Botswana
The Okavango Delta is a unique inland water system created at the point where the Okavango River flows into the Kalahari Desert basin. It sustains an astonishing variety of wildlife and swells and recedes throughout the year according to the annual rains. The most exciting way to explore is on a traditional canoe or mokoro and the best time to visit is during the annual flood. Confusingly, this coincides with the May to September dry season. At this time, the Delta's animals are confined to the islands created by the flood, making them easier to spot. Highlights include great herds of elephant and antelope, hippos, crocodiles, lions and cheetah. Many of the birds spotted here are endemic.
Serengeti National Park, Tanzania
Serengeti National Park is located in northern Tanzania and shares a border with Kenya's Maasai Mara National Reserve. Its sprawling grasslands make for classic safari panoramas dotted with lone acacia trees and grazing herds of zebra and antelope. These herbivores attract high numbers of predators and the open environment makes this one of the best destinations for watching lions and cheetahs in action. The Serengeti is much larger than the Maasai Mara, and as such often feels less crowded. From November to June, the Serengeti is the main stage for the dramatic Great Migration. At this time, huge herds of zebra and wildebeest gather to graze, mate and give birth.
Bwindi Impenetrable National Park, Uganda
Bwindi Impenetrable National Park is located in southwest Uganda on the edge of the legendary Rift Valley. This dense rainforest is home to nearly half of the world's population of mountain gorillas - a critically endangered subspecies with just over 1,000 individuals remaining in the wild. Here, you can track the park's habituated gorilla groups on foot, allowing you to come face-to-face with these fascinating great apes. Gorilla trekking permits are compulsory and must be booked well in advance. The forest is also home to chimpanzees, baboons and other mammals including elephant and antelope. Its birdlife is similarly diverse, with more than 20 endemic species.
Etosha National Park, Namibia
In northern Namibia lies Etosha National Park, a diverse collection of different habitats arranged around a salt pan so large it can be seen from space. This self-drive park is generally arid and many of the animals here are adapted for life in the desert - including the gemsbok and springbok antelopes. Elephants are commonly spotted and you're likely to see lion, hyena and cheetah. You won't find buffalo or hippo, though - it's simply too dry. Etosha's main highlight is its population of critically endangered black rhino. These remarkable creatures are best spotted at the floodlit waterholes of the three main camps alongside an array of other nocturnal animals. White rhinos are found here too.
Ngorongoro Conservation Area, Tanzania
The Ngorongoro Conservation Area in Tanzania is made exceptional by its volcanic crater - the largest un-flooded and unbroken caldera in the world. This vast depression acts as a natural enclosure for countless wildlife species, including the Big Five. Highlights range from a healthy population of black rhino to some of the largest tusker elephants on the continent. The lake at the center of the crater also hosts huge flocks of rose-colored flamingos, while Maasai tribespeople still live within the conservation area. Another unmissable attraction is the Olduvai Gorge, an important paleoanthropological site that has contributed hugely to our understanding of human evolution.
Hwange National Park, Zimbabwe
Zimbabwe's Hwange National Park covers some 5,655 square miles/14,650 square kilometers of land in the west of the country. It is possibly the least crowded of Southern Africa's major safari destinations, allowing for a heightened sense of adventure and discovery. Hwange's elephant population is legendary, as are its large herds of buffalo. Lion are often spotted here, too. Above all, the park is one of the best places in the world to see the elusive African wild dog, thanks to the presence of several establish packs. Hwange's private game lodges offer a variety of different safari options - including walking safaris, horseback safaris and night safaris.