In Africa, there are so many national parks, nature reserves and protected areas which offer amazing safari experiences, but which places and parks are the best? Where can you see the famous big 5 and which have the most stunning landscapes? Well, it is really difficult to choose just a few, sometimes seeing the animals also has something to do with the luck factor and it also depends on how many days you spend exploring each park. Since I´m still a little bit disappointed that we had to cancel our African adventure to Kenya and Tanzania last summer, but incredibly grateful I was already able to visit some of the other parks, I put together a list of the best African safari parks which might give some of you an idea where to go next, or simply give you another reason for daydreaming about distant lands and natural wonders. Based on my personal experiences and online research, here are my top ones.
1. KRUGER NATIONAL PARK, South Africa
ONE OF THE LARGEST NATIONAL PARKS IN AFRICA offers one of the best safari experience on the continent and is home to a wide variety of wildlife. It is also often described as the best safari park even though the animals are sometimes harder to spot due to its RATHER BUSHY LANDSCAPES in oppose to other, more open savannah parks in other African countries. If you love to explore with either your own or a rented vehicle, Kruger is a great choice, because the roads are in good shape and it is EASY TO GO AROUND ON YOUR OWN without a guide. We´ve done so as well during our longer South African road trip and loved our time in the park. The down side of his is that there are lots of vehicles in the park and it can actually get quite crowded sometimes. I suggest planning at least 3 days for visiting the park and staying in different areas.
Kruger NP is located around 400km FROM JOHANNESBURG international airport towards north-east and is very close to the border with Mozambique. There are also a couple of smaller airports closer to the park and over 10 GATES through which you can enter Kruger NP area. You can sleep in CAMP SITES or SAFARI LODGES and you will have to pay an ENTRY FEE for every day of your stay in the park.
2. CHOBE NATIONAL PARK, Botswana
Another UNIQUE NATIONAL PARK, which, although not the largest in Botswana, it was the first one and is THE MOST BIOLOGICALLY DIVERSE PARK IN THE COUNTRY. It is mostly known for an EXTREMELY LARGE ELEPHANT POPULATION (well over 100.000), which are definitely the stars of this park, although we can see many other animals as well including almost 500 species of birds. A great thing to do here is to TAKE A BOAT SAFARI ON CHOBE RIVER and / or a SCENIC FLIGHT OVER THE AREA. The ROADS IN THIS PART OF BOTSWANA are actually in good shape and it is okay to drive on your own with a rented vehicle. Landscape wise you can expect savannah, open grasslands, swamps and floodplains, marshes and more. There are also plenty of LODGES AND CAMP SITES INSIDE THE PARK.
There is a DAILY ENTRY FEE and you can enter through MANY GATES – most visitors come in through Kasane town, or other gates along the border with Namibia, but it is also possible to enter from the Zambia or Zimbabwe. Many travellers include Chobe NP into their Namibian itinerary and if enough time add a visit to the already mentioned VICTORIA FALLS as well.
3. ETOSHA NATIONAL PARK, Namibia
THE LARGEST AND MOST IMPORTANT NATIONAL PARK IN NAMIBIA has a truly distinguished landscape with extremely SPARSE VEGETATION and many waterholes. The (artificial) WATERHOLES are a great place to observe wildlife especially early in the morning or just before sunset, making it fairly easy to spot different kinds of animals, including the big 5. In translation, the name “Etosha” means “the big white square” as it is located on a SALT PAN so large it can be seen from space and once you´re there you see that the name really fits. The ROADS THROUGHOUT THE PARK ARE IN GOOD SHAPE and it is easy to DRIVE AROUND ON YOUR OWN. As we were travelling through Namibia with a rented car, this was perfect for us and we were very lucky with animal spotting during our visit. Personally it is one of my favourite African parks I´ve been to so far.
Located around 400km FROM WINDHOEK international airport towards north, close to the border with Angola. You can enter the park through 4 GATES and you have to pay a DAILY ENTRY FEE for passengers and vehicle. It is possible to sleep close to one of the gates but outside the park, or choose a place to stay inside the national park.
4. AMBOSELI NATIONAL PARK, Kenya
The second most popular Kenyan park, just after Masai Mara offers a unique experience – mostly because of its awesome location just under the mighty KILIMANJARO, which is THE HIGHEST FREE STANDING MOUNTAIN IN THE WORLD. Many visitors combine a hike to the top of Kilimanjaro with a safari in Amboseli, due to its proximity. Amboseli is most know for its ELEPHANTS, many of them are very old and have been a subject of research for the past decades. But fear not, there are plenty of other magnificent animals to see – from buffalo, lions, cheetahs, hyenas, giraffes, zebras, wildebeest, impala to around 400 species of birds. There are several SWAMPS in the park, but otherwise vegetation is rather sparse, which makes this area one of the best regarding the chances of spotting animals.
Amboseli is located around 250km SOUTH OF NAIROBI (4hrs drive), on the border with Tanzania. You can SELF-DRIVE to and in the park, but the most common way to do it is to have a rented car with a driver who also acts like your personal guide. There are 4 GATES leading into the park, there are of course ENTRY FEES you need to pay to enter. You can sleep inside the park, besides more expensive LODGES, there are also CAMP SITES.
5. MURCHISSON FALLS NATIONAL PARK, Uganda
As THE LARGEST PARK IN UGANDA, which got the name after its IMPRESSIVE WATERFALLS on the VICTORIA NILE RIVER,it offers a great safari experience in the north-west of the country. You can see the waterfalls from the top (includes a little bit of easy hiking) or from the river below. I can say both views are equally impressive although the boat ride includes seeing loads of animals on the way. As for the animals – I´ve actually really loved this park and we got to see many. Including leopards, large numbers of elephants, hippos and Roskilde giraffes (actually one of the largest populations of in Africa), as well as buffalo, zebra, gazelle and others. Unfortunately did not see the lions even though 4 out of BIG 5 ANIMALS excluding the rhino live in the park. Make sure you visit the ZIWA RHINO SANCTUARY close to the national park if you wish to see the rhinos. It is also a great place for BIRD WATCHING, with around 450 bird species found in the park.
There are 6 GATES through which you can enter the park – the best way to visit is either with A RENTED 4WD CAR or within an ORGANISED GUIDED TOUR, which can be organized from the country´s capital city KAMPALA or other offices in different Ugandan towns. We visited the park with a 4wd Toyota on our own and slept in very basic TENT ACOMMODATION inside the park, but there are many different budget and more luxurious options.
6. SOUTH LUANGWA NATIONAL PARK, Zambia
This is ZAMBIA´S BEST AND MOST VISITED NATIONAL PARK and yet it remains a TRUE HIDDEN GEM. It is by far not as visited as some of the other parks across Africa, it has NO FENCES, it is quite REMOTE and you can expect PURE WILDERNESS with no other visitors around. Many camps inside the park where you can sleep are not fenced as well, so you can really be close to the nature and the animals. The park is most known for its HIPPOS, CROCODILES and LEOPARDS, GIRAFFE, ELEPHANTS and BUFFALOES, as well as around 400 species of BIRDS. but there are other animals as well – which and how many you get to see usually depends on the dry (larger animals, which gather at water holes, lagoons and Luangwa river) and rainy seasons (great for bird lovers).
South Luangwa NP is located almost 600km FROM LUSAKA (around 10hrs drive), towards north-east, close to the border with Mozambique and Malawi. It is possible to rent a car and SELF-DRIVE in Zambia, but you can reach this national park with PUBLIC TRANSPORT (bus or minibus) from various directions. The nearest smaller airport is a 30min drive away. There are 2 MAIN GATES through which you enter the park and you need to pay the ENTRY FEE (significantly lower in comparison to some other parks in Africa). There are plenty of AFFORDABLE ACCOMMODATION possibilities inside the park itself, making it A GREAT BUDGET SAFARI DESTINATION.
7. MASAI MARA NATIONAL RESERVE, Kenya
ONE OF THE MOST FAMOUS AND VISITED AFRICAN PARKS where, besides Serengeti and Ngorongoro in Tanzania, you can witness THE GREAT MIGRATION. Named after the ancestral inhabitants of this area, the MASAI PEOPLE, it is the number one attraction in Kenya, but the national reserve itself is just a part of a larger ecosystem, which also includes the MARA TRIANGLE and several MASAI CONSERVANCIES. You can see all the BIG 5 ANIMALS here, all year around. The easiest to spot are the larger populations of zebras, wildebeest, giraffes, gazelles, hippos, elephants, hyenas, crocodiles and other, but there are also many other magnificent animals including an indigenous BLACK RHINO, lions, cheetahs, buffalo, leopards and 470 species of birds. The best area to spot the animals are usually the plains around MARA RIVER, but if you want a different perspective you can take a BALOON RIDE over the area.
Masai Mara is located around 300km FROM NAIROBI (almost a 6hrs drive), bordering Serengeti in Tanzania. There are 6 GATES through which you can enter the park, you will have to pay a DAILY ENTRY FEE and you can choose between DIFFERENT TYPES OF ACCOMMODATION inside the park or close to the gates. You can SELF-DRIVE in Mara, but you will need a proper 4WD vehicle – most visitors opt for having a car with a driver which is easily arrangeable from Nairobi or other parts of the country.
8. HWANGE NATIONAL PARK, Zimbabwe
THE LARGEST NATURAL PARK RESERVE IN ZIMBABWE is also one of the first protected areas in Africa and is located close to the famous VICTORIA FALLS. It is home to ONE OF THE LARGEST ELEPHANT HERDS IN AFRICA, but you can see many other majestic animals, including lion, rhino, buffalo, giraffe, hyena, zebra and more. This park is definitely more off the beaten track compared to some of the others mentioned in this post, so it is a good choice for all who seek less touristy destinations. It covers a fairly large are, with different landscapes from the more SANDY DRY SOUTHERN PARTS bordering to Kalahari desert to a more WET GRASSLANDS IN THE NORTH.
Hwange is located far in the WESTERN PARTS OF ZIMBABWE, close to the borders with Zambia, Bostwana and Namibia. The proximity of VICTORIA FALLS makes it a great place to visit if you are already considering visiting the falls – it is only about 1 hour drive away. There is also A SMALLER AIRPORT, the capital city is HARARE is 8hrs drive away. There are 3 MAIN CAMPS inside the park, where you can find different types of ACCOMODATION, including lodges and camp sites. The infrastructure around here seems to be rather simple and you might have to cook on your own, the roads are not in the best shape as well so a good 4WD is essential. There is a DAILY ENTRY FEE which is significantly lower than in some other more known parks.
9. LAKE NAKURU NATIONAL PARK, Kenya
This very unique and amazing national park at LAKE NAKURU is world famous for being the TOP LOCATION FOR BIRD LOVERS as THOUSANDS OF PINK FLAMINGOS (often also more than a million) are nesting on the shores of the lake. They feed on the algae growing in the lake. It is truly a spectacular sight and you get to see lots of other animals besides flamingos and other BIRDS, such as lions, leopards, cheetahs, giraffes, hippos, monkeys, buffalo and other. This park also operates as a SANCTUARY FOR THE ENDANGERED AND RARE BLACK RHINOS, but you can also see the white ones.
Lake Nakuru is located a little less than 200km FROM NAIROBI (3,5hrs drive) towards north and is fairly easily accessible with a rented car. There are 3 GATES and you can expect to pay DAILY ENTRY FEES, ACCOMMODATION is available inside the park as well as in the area around it. This is a great place to visit if you do not have so much time, as it is close and not too difficult to get to from Kenya´s capital.
10. SERENGETI NATIONAL PARK, Tanzania
Probably the most famous of them all, the amazing Serengeti NP in Tanzania is the place to see ONE OF THE LARGEST ANIMAL MIGRATION IN THE WORLD and is actually the center of a much larger ecosystem, including the NGORONGORO CONSERVATION AREA and MASAI MARA NATIONAL RESERVE in Kenya. The nationla park itself can be divided in 3 AREAS, each with different landscape characteristics, with the most know being the so-called SERENGETI PLAINS where wildebeest, zebra, buffalo, gazelle and other animals occur in extremely large numbers. It is believed to have the LARGEST LION POPULATION with numbers reaching up to 3000 animals. Although it is possible to SELF DRIVE IN SEREGNETI if you have a 4WD car and are an experienced driver, but most visitors take A GUIDED TOUR or visit the park with A RENTED CAR WITH A DRIVER, which is also a very common way of travel in Tanzania. There are 3 GATES through which you can enter the park from Tanzania and 1 GATE where you can enter the park from Kenya (this one seems to not be often closed, so check in advance) and you need to pay a DAILY ENTRY FEE. There is plenty of different ACCOMMODATION FACILITIES INSIDE THE PARK as well as around.
Serengeti is located in northern Tanzania, on the border with Kenya. You can do a trip visiting both countries by FLYING INTO NAIROBI and hiring a car with a driver (or use public transport). Note that if you rent a car it is very difficult to cross the border with it as most rental companies do not allow this. Another option is to fly to KILIMANJARO INT AIRPORT (320km from Serengeti) or ARUSHA AIRPORT which is a bit closer. You can also arrange a GUIDED SAFARI TOUR FROM ZANZIBAR or other parts of the country.
11. KGALAGADI TRANSFRONTIER PARK, Botswana & SA
This park spreads oevr 2 countries, BOTSWANA AND SOUTH AFRICA and is one of the more unique ones due to its specific landscapes. It actually comprises of 2 national parks, the KALAHARI GEMSBOK NP (in South Africa) and GEMSBOK NP (in Botswana). Since a great part of this park is located inside the KALAHARI DESERT, the area is mostly covered in sand dunes with sparse vegetation and lonely trees. There are also lots of dry river beds, but the water is flowing underground, providing good growing conditions for the smaller bushes and grass. We can see lions, cheetahs, leopards, hyenas, larger birds, wildebeest and some other larger animals. In the SA part, this area is also considered to be LION CONSERVATION UNIT.
Note that most of the ACCOMMODATION and other facilities are located on the South African side and the part of the park which is locate din Botswana is more wild. Still, this is a great place for a SELF-DRIVE SAFARI. It is located 10hr drive from JOHANNESBURG, but the closest airport in SA is in UPINGTON – from here, there is only around a 2hr drive to the park. There are DAILY ENTRY FEES to enter the park.
12. NGORONGORO CONSERVATION AREA, Tanzania
ONE OF THE MOST UNIQUE SAFARI PLACES in Africa, as this important conservation area includes THE WORLD´S LARGEST INACTIVE VOLCANIC CALDERA, located within this UNESCO´s World Heritage Site. IT HAS THE HIGHEST PREDATOR DENSITY IN AFRICA, so be prepared to see lots of animals and charge up your camera batteries. There are thousands of animals living in the are (including the BIG 5), but the most magical time is THE TIME OF THE ANNUAL MIGRATION, when over 2mio animals (especially the wildebeest, zebra and gazelles) are moving through this area in search of food. The time of this massive migration, the largest on the planet, is conditioned by rainy seasons and it is happening in a clockwise direction in the areas of Serengeti and Ngorongoro in Tanzania and Masai Mara in Kenya.
Ngorongoro is around 400km FROM NAIROBI, KENYA (in reality this is 8hr drive) and around 200km FROM ARUSHA (3hrs drive). It is good to reach if you are travelling from Masai Mara in Kenya through Serengeti towards Arusha as well. It is possible to drive on your own in Tanzania but bring lots of patience and expect bumpy roads. Most visitors choose an organized tour or a rented car with a local driver. There are ENTRY FEES for vehicles and there are no LODGES in the crater itself, but plenty available on the rim and around.
Obviously there are many more that deserve our attention and I will happily be adding to this list once we´re able to travel to Africa once again, but I think this list is a good start. Please, for your own safety and the sake of all the visitors yet to come, do not forget to act responsibly in the parks and obey their rules of entry and behaviour while exploring on your own.