Africa’s 10 best national parks
Whether you're an Africa neophyte or a veteran of the savannah, there are fewer things harder to resist than a ride into the wild, cameras loaded, khakis pressed.
But not all plains are created equal.
1. Maasai Mara National Reserve, Kenya
Best for: Big cats and the great migration.
The Maasai Mara national Reserve, also known as "The Mara," is the venue for arguably the most astounding wildlife spectacle on earth.
Every year during the great migration an estimated 2.5 million animals make a round-trip journey of 2,000 kilometers across the Serengeti ecosystem between Tanzania and Kenya.
The Mara has been described as the most prolific wildlife real-estate on earth and is perhaps Africa’s greatest safari destination.
Similarly, the Serengeti, which is contiguous with The Mara to the south, is one of Africa’s truly untamed wildernesses, with seemingly endless expanses of swaying savannah where plains herds graze and lions and cheetah maintain a vigil from their lookout kopjes.
For more info: www.maasaimara.com
2. Central Kalahari Game Reserve, Botswana
Best for: Untamed, limitless desert wilderness and the tough Kalahari lions.
Botswana’s Central Kalahari Game Reserve is Africa at its rawest. The San Bushmen have lived here for an estimated 30,000 years and the first explorers knew this area as "the plains where courage fails."
There are only a few lodges that allow an opportunity to explore the reserve without the safety net of a full-blown four-wheel drive expedition vehicle and in this area you could not feel farther removed from the crowds and tour buses of other parks.
In the heart of the Kalahari you camp within earshot of roaring lions, in the certain knowledge that there will rarely be anyone else within 50 kilometers.
For more info: www.botswanatourism.co.bw
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3. Kidepo Valley National Park, Uganda
Best for: Spectacular landscapes and great buffalo herds.
With sprawling savannah and soaring mountains, Kidepo National Park might be the most picturesque park in Africa.
Sharing borders with Sudan and Kenya’s Northern Frontier District, it is Uganda’s most beautiful, remote and least-explored park. Kidepo was once the playground of the late president Idi Amin and you can still visit the haunting ruins of a lodge that could just as easily have been designed as a massive bunker.
Those who take the trouble to get here are rewarded with phenomenal wildlife sightings and a level of exclusivity that can rarely be had at any cost in neighboring countries.
For more info: www.ugandawildlife.org
4. Ngorongoro Crater Conservation Area, Tanzania
Best for: Near guaranteed sightings of the "Big Five" (elephant, lion, buffalo, rhino and leopard).
Tanzania’s Ngorongoro Crater could be the most compact wildlife venue on the planet. From the first spellbinding glimpse of the crater and the stomach-churning descent down the inner walls, your senses are assaulted by Africa at its most intense.
During a single morning you can easily rack up unforgettable sightings of elephant, rhino, buffalo, lion and leopard.
If this is your first time on safari it can be the perfect choice but aficionados complain that this amazing little "lost world" makes it all too easy.
For more info: www.ngorongorocrater.org
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5. Etosha National Park, Namibia
Best for: Cheetah spotting and waterhole stakeouts.
Etosha National Park is Namibia’s premier wildlife venue and one of Africa’s most hypnotic landscapes.
The park takes its name from a local word meaning "Great White Place" and the startling white pan (which was a lake bed 12 million years ago) covers about a quarter of Etosha’s 22,300 square kilometers.
The key to wildlife spotting here is to focus on the waterholes that dot these lizard-baking, mirage-haunted plains.
Etosha is home to the Big Five, vast herds of gazelle and antelope and (depending on season) more than 300 species of birds.
For more info: www.etoshanationalpark.co.za
6. National Parks along Gambia River, The Gambia
Best for: Bird watching and West African aquatic wildlife.
The Gambia is effectively little more than the opposing banks of West Africa’s greatest river, but the six national parks strung along Gambia River constitute one of Africa’s most unexpected safari venues.
The country has traditionally been written off by safari connoisseurs as "hunted out" but its reputation as a safari destination has been sadly understated.
Not only is it a paradise for bird-watchers (with almost 600 species) but its bush is home to monkey, baboon and chimpanzee, and its crocodile-infested waters offer rarer sightings like African otter and manatee.
For more info: www.accessgambia.com
7. Ahaggar National Park, Algeria
Best for: Tuareg nomadic culture and vast, sweeping Sahara landscapes.
On a map of North Africa, Algeria’s Ahaggar National Park is where the "H" would be in "SAHARA."
This immense park is 40 times the size of the entire Gambian nation but, far from being a massive wasteland, the center of the world’s greatest desert is a diverse area, boasting classic dunes and a 3,000-meter mountain range.
Despite its reputation, security is rarely a problem in this area: as the local Tuareg people are quick to point out, in this vast country you’re further from Algiers than you would be if you’d stayed in London.
For more info: www.algeria.com
8. Kruger National Park, South Africa
Best for: Accessible wilderness and activity safaris.
Kruger National Park, South Africa’s flagship park, is famous for the great diversity of habitats (16 macro eco-zones have been recognized here) that can be found in the 300 kilometers of wilderness that lie between the Limpopo and the Crocodile rivers.
Kruger is the most accessible and best equipped of Africa’s great parks and makes an ideal venue for self-drive safaris, since it is well signposted, well maintained and even boasts restaurants and gas stations.
Apart from wonderful wildlife sightings, other great adventure draw-cards of Kruger are its range of multi-day hiking trails and mountain-biking tours.
For more info: www.krugerpark.co.za
9. Okavango Delta, Botswana
Best for: Huge crocodiles and mokoro (dugout) safaris.
Okavango Delta, the world’s biggest inland delta, is a wetland wilderness that is almost the same size as Israel.
Here the waters that fell as highland rains in far-off Angola are finally swallowed by the sands of Botswana’s Kalahari.
A waterborne safari, paddling over the clear waters (no murky swamps or mangroves in the Okavango) in a mokoro dugout can either be an unforgettably serene experience or one of Africa’s most nerve-wracking wildlife encounters … depending on the proximity of the Delta’s great pods of hippos and its six-meter crocs.
For more info: www.okavangodelta.com
10. Perinet Reserve, Madagascar
Best for: Giant lemur and many of Madagascar’s unique creatures.
Perinet Reserve is the ideal place for the safari buff who claims to have seen it all. An astounding 80 percent of Madagascar’s wildlife can be found only on the mysterious "island of the moon."
Perinet is the location of the country’s greatest tracts of Indian Ocean rainforest and the only place to see the giant indri.
This great fluffy, black-and-white lemur (looking like a seven-year-old child in a panda suit) sends up a haunting siren call that carries far across the mist-shrouded canopy. It is one of the most unforgettable sounds of the African wilderness.
For more info: www.rainbowtours.co.uk
Originally published August 2012, updated April 7, 2013.