You’re bumping along in the back of a game drive vehicle, the air thrumming to the sound of cicadas as the first rays of sun settle on the treetops. Ahead of you, the sand is criss-crossed with tracks; the hoof and paw prints of the herds and prides that regularly walk through this dry riverbed.
Your tracker holds up his hand, and the chatter in the Land Rover abruptly halts as all eyes turn towards the leopard emerging from the long, dry grass. Your guide cuts the engine and you sit there, heart in your throat, as the big cat walks towards the vehicle and for a moment - just a moment - fixes you in its golden stare.
The leopard saunters on, passing within a few metres of where you sit, and your guide restarts the engine as the excited chatter returns with everyone checking their photos and footage. But something happened when you made eye contact with that leopard, something that no photo or video can capture: the air seems crisper, your senses sharper, you feel more connected to this untamed place.
It’s these experiences that make us safari addicts return to the bush again and again. These encounters with animals in the wild – watching a herd of elephant on a riverbank or hearing the roar of a lion at night – that thrill and excite us in a way that no beach holiday or city escape ever can.
So draw your chair closer to the campfire as I share with you Africa’s ultimate wildlife experiences. Tick one of these off your bucket list, and you’ll soon be back for more.
Big 5 Game Drives in the Sabi Sands Reserve
South Africa’s Sabi Sands Reserve has one of the highest densities of wildlife found anywhere in southern Africa, making it a top choice for a big game safari. Sharing an unfenced border with the Kruger National Park, the 65,000 ha Sabi Sands is made up of a number of private reserves including many of the leading names in luxury safaris: Singita, Londolozi and Lion Sands.
Days here are spent on morning and afternoon game drives, with an excellent chance of seeing all of Africa’s Big 5 (lion, leopard, rhino, elephant and buffalo) sometimes in a single drive! And if you like a bit of pampering on holiday (and who doesn’t!) you’ll be happy to hear that in the Sabi Sands, those so-close-I-can-touch-them wildlife encounters are accompanied by luxury with an African twist: a massage on your private deck while an elephant browses the nearby trees or gourmet meal and fine wine served under a sky bright with stars.
Best Time to Go: The dry winter season months of May to October. During this time the animals tend to gather at Sabi Sands rivers and permanent waterholes, not only that but the drier, sparser vegetation makes for easier game viewing.
Best Combined With: The beautiful city of Cape Town. Try the 8-day Luxury Cape Town & Sabi Sands Safari which starts at the elegant Cape Grace before whisking you away to Savanna Private Reserve in the Sabi Sands. Or round off your beach-and-safari holiday with a few days in sunny Mozambique on this 12-day Classic Cape Town, Safari & Beach Holiday.
Watching the Great Migration River Crossings
Every year around 1.5 million wildebeest set off from the Serengeti to the Masai Mara in their circular search for greener pastures. This annual migration is billed as the 'Greatest Wildlife Show on Earth', and anyone who finds themselves surrounded by these vast herds or watches a life-threatening river crossing is sure to add their voices to the rave reviews.
The Mara River is the greatest hurdle that the herds face on their epic 2,900 km journey. Tension mounts as the wildebeest gather on the riverbank, understandably nervous considering the fast-flowing water and awaiting crocodiles. Then, as if by some secret signal, the first few animals take the plunge and suddenly there’s a column of bellowing beasts surging towards the far bank, as crocs glide in to pick off the young and the weak.
Best Time to Go: The movement of the herds is dictated by the rains, but they usually arrive in the northern Serengeti in August with frequent Mara River crossings occurring from late August to late September. This is an understandably popular event on the wildlife calendar - book early!
Best Combined With: I’d recommend a stay in both the Serengeti and Masai Mara. This 11-day Luxury East Africa Safari also includes the wildlife-packed Ngorongoro Crater, or if your main focus is the river crossings then opt for the Masai Mara Tented Safari – a top choice for keen photographers!
Trekking to See the Endangered Mountain Gorillas
It is estimated that there are between 700 and 800 mountain gorillas left in the wild, half of which live in family groups deep in the forests of Uganda, Rwanda and the DRC. Getting to see these highly endangered animals is not easy or cheap, so is it worth it? Absolutely! This incredibly moving experience should sit high on the bucket list of any safari enthusiast.
There's a reason they call it trekking, since getting to the gorillas generally involves slippery paths, hills and mud as your tracker hacks through thick vegetation. But then you see them and any hardship instantly evaporates as you spend an incredible hour watching the mothers groom and the babies scamper about, all under the grumpy-old-man gaze of a great silverback.
Best Time to Go: Gorillas can be seen at any time of year, but for less of that squelshy mud plan to travel in one of Uganda or Rwanda’s two dry seasons: mid-December to February or June to September.
Best Combined With: A big game safari on the Serengeti or Masai Mara Plains. Or perhaps both like this 16-day East Africa Game Parks & Gorillas Safari which combines gorilla trekking at welcoming Sabyinyo Silverback Lodge on the foothills of the Virunga Volcanoes with a safari at Singita Faru Faru and the opulent Ngorongoro Crater Lodge.
Walking Safaris in Zambia’s South Luangwa
The birthplace of walking safaris, Zambia’s South Luangwa is still one of the best places in Africa to track wildlife on foot. You feel more a part of your surroundings when you walk through the wild, away from the distracting noise of an engine. Focus in on the smaller creatures you may have zoomed past in a vehicle as your guide explains how everything fits together, the clever survival tricks of a plant or behavior pattern of a nearby animal.
Don't get me wrong: chances are you will come across big game too, and there's nothing like the thrill of crouching down close to a pod of grunting hippo or feeling the earth tremble slightly as a herd of zebra gallop by! And if the thought of walking through big cat country makes you somewhat nervous, rest assured that Zambia’s highly trained (and armed) walking safari guides have spent years learning the secrets of the bush and are without doubt amongst the best in the business.
Best Time to Go: Again the dry season is best (from May to October) although I’d recommend the earlier months of May to early August, as after that the daytime temperatures start to soar.
Best Combined With: Once again I’d recommend Victoria Falls, it’s a must-visit destination and well connected too. The South Luangwa is also perfect with a few peaceful days in Zambia’s Lower Zambezi National Park; take a look at this 9-day Luxury Zambia Safari to find out more.
Relaxing Cruise on the Chobe River
For fantastic elephant sightings you can’t do better than Botswana’s Chobe National Park. Some 70,000 live in the Chobe Region, the greatest concentration of elephant found anywhere in Africa. And while Chobe’s game drives are excellent (particularly in the remote Savuti region), what this national park is best known for is its river safaris.
Drift up close to elephant as they bathe and drink at the water’s edge, completely unfazed by your presence. There’s plenty of other wildlife too from the buffalo, zebra and impala grazing on grassy floodplains to the twitching ears of hippo and colourful flash of a kingfisher. Early evening cruises are particularly popular; floating along peacefully watching wildlife and nibbling on snack as the sun sinks cherry-red towards the horizon.
Best Time to Go: Travel during the dry season months of May to October when wildlife congregates around the Chobe River and it’s not unusual to see herds of up to a hundred elephant gathered at the water’s edge.
Best Combined With: Thundering Victoria Falls. This luxurious 7-day African River Dreams takes you to a Relais & Chateaux lodge near Vic Falls and a stylish house boat actually on the Chobe River, while the Discover Livingstone & Botswana includes a few days in the Okavango Delta.