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Southern Africa's best boutique safari reserves
Love the smell of elephant manure in the morning? It's even better when experienced in Africa's smaller reserves
The Serengeti, the Maasai Mara -- perhaps Africa's best known safari destinations.
But East Africa doesn't have a monopoly on acacia tree horizons and dusty lion trails.
For some smaller, private and luxury reserves look south of the equator, where many tour groups and management companies maintain some of Africa's highest quality parks.
The animals are healthy, the service is impeccable -- best of all the tourists are few, and always satisfied.
Lower Zambezi National Park, Zambia
With neighboring Zimbabwe’s tourism reputation is still in recovery mode, Zambia is the new kid on the block for intimate safari experiences.
One of the best places to experience its savannah beauty is in the Chongwe River House, located deep in the Lower Zambezi National Park, a highly original creation using ferro walls, river stones and contorted branches in its construction.
Wild game is rampant here with elephants in sight almost daily -- you can watch them from your outdoor pool.
The hosts can also arrange tiger fishing trips.
Hippos frequently take a stroll over the camp's front lawn.
Chongwe River House, Plot 48, Acacia Road, Eureka Park, Lusaka, Zambia; +260 211 841051; www.chongweriverhouse.com
Hwange National Park, Zimbabwe
Stories that the economic implosion of the last decade has decimated the wildlife population of Zimbabwe are exaggerated.
In Hwange, which, at nearly 15,000 square kilometers is the nation’s largest national park, it’s still possible to spot leopard, giraffe, hyenas, lions and tens of thousands of elephants that migrate through the park on their way to Botswana each year.
The luxury tented suites at The Hide rest camp fuse contemporary chic with an atavistic colonial feel -- the owners will take you out on night drives to nearby watering holes to watch the animals whose lives go on unchanged in this turbulent country.
The Hide, 74 Steppes Road, Chisipite, Harare, Zimbabwe; +263 4 498835-6; www.thehide.com
Mthethomusha Game Reserve, South Africa
People flock to the world renowned Kruger National Park, but there’s just as much chance of seeing the Big Five in the all but deserted Mthethomusha Game Reserve, which borders its more famous neighbor in the heart of Mpumalanga Province.
Here you’ll find numerous 2,000-year-old rock paintings daubed by the San people hidden in caves -- new ones are being discovered every year.
As well as the Big Five, game includes zebra, waterbuck and the occasional pack of wild dogs.
Night drives along the floors of the valleys that rip across the reserve can be followed up with a feast of traditional South African dishes, such as ostrich steak at the Bongani Mountain Lodge.
Bongani Mountain Lodge, P.O. Box 41, Kaapmuiden, 1295; +27 13 764 3577; www.bonganimountainlodge.co.za
Mundulea Nature Reserve, Namibia
A decade ago, this remote corner of Namibia was just a collection of cattle farms. Now, under the ownership of conservation guru Bruno Nebe, this region of vast plains and jagged hills in the south east of the nation, next to the sprawling Otavi mountain range, has been restored to its previous state of wild ruggedness.
You might see a black rhino called Hooker, as well as leopard, eland, impala and zebra, among others, before heading back to the discreet bush camp with a roaring fire and furniture carved from weeping wattle trees.
For information and tours contact Turnstone Tours, P.O. Box 307, Swakopmund, Namibia; +264 64 403123; www.mundulea.com
Gorongosa National Park, Mozambique
Luxury resorts are scattered liberally along the pristine Indian coastline of Mozambique, yet the country's interior has been all but forgotten by visitors.
Back in the 1960s the likes of Cary Grant visited Gorongosa National Park.
Decades of civil war all but destroyed the big game population, but since peace in the early 1990s progress has been made with the desert plains and mountain ranges now alive with the lions, sable, waterbuck, kudu and crocodile.
Zimbabwean couple Rob and Jocelyn Janisch recently opened the low-key Explore Gorongosa tented safari camp and arrange drives and walks around a park that, they hope, will once again be considered the most beautiful in Africa.
For information and tours contact Explore Gorongosa; +27 21 813 9534; www.exploregorongosa.com
Thanda Private Game Reserve, South Africa
Close to the Indian Ocean in the heart of northern Zululand, Thanda Private Game Reserve has populations of warthog and black rhino, as well as the Big Five, all of which reside in an area formerly used as a cattle farm now restored to wild, pristine bush.
The unique and vibrant culture of the Zulu people who inhabit this stretch of Eastern South Africa is celebrated in the Thanda Lodge.
Contact Thanda Private Game Reserve, +27 (0)87 806 1210; www.thanda.com
Liwonde National Park, Malawi
Miniscule Malawi is best known for its gargantuan eponymous lake, but the Liwonde National Park in the center of this landlocked nation also offers an old fashioned safari experience where the animals do as they please -- they’re not yet used to cars and humans.
Buffalo, elephant and crocodiles four meters long reside here and the park is also home to a rhino sanctuary protecting the beasts who have recently been re-introduced to the wild.
During the wet season (January to March) the park transforms from parched bush into a dripping vista of green with cobalt lakes, wallowing hippos and skittish zebra and antelope.
For trip information contact Tribes Travel; +44 1473 890499; www.tribes.co.uk
Mokolodi Nature Reserve, Botswana
Chobe National Park and the Okavango Delta get all the plaudits from visitors to tranquil Botswana, leaving the south of the country all but untouched by tourism.
The Mokolodi Nature Reserve is gloriously free of 4x4s, creating a solitary experience amid the white rhino, giraffe, leopard and impala in a landscape of swamps, lakes and scrub.
The park is mentioned in Alexander McCall Smith’s "Number One Ladies Detective Agency" books and you can recline with a thumb-eared copy at night in the park’s traditional, no-frills rondavels (thatched huts) named after the author.
Mokolodi Nature Reserve, Gaborone, Botswana; +267 316 1955/6; www.mokolodi.com
Hlane Royal National Park, Swaziland
One of the smallest countries in Africa, Swaziland has an excellent range of undisturbed parks and reserves, the liveliest of which is the Hlane Royal National Park located in the hot, dusty eastern lowveld of the country.
Owned by King Mswati III (Africa’s last absolute monarch), part of the reserve is fenced off as his own personal hunting reserve.
The rest is open for all to spot lion, rhino, cheetah, hyena and leopard through the wild thorny bush.
Accommodation in the Ndlovu Camp is rustic wooden lodges with a game-viewing terrace and the chance to go on walks into the bush with guides where you can get within touching distance of some of the more friendly elephants.
Trips can be booked through Jenman African Safaris, P.O. Box 36146, Glosderry, 7702, Cape Town, South Africa; +27 (0)21 683 7826; www.jenmansafaris.com
Aquila Private Game Reserve, South Africa
This is one of the few game reserves within easy reach of Cape Town on South Africa's southernmost tip.
In a region more famously known for its beach life and vineyards, Aquilia is located in a 7,500-hectare area of the southern Karoo semi-desert region and is home to all of the Big Five, as well as hippo, giraffe and more than 170 species of bird.
Accommodation is in luxurious wooden chalets, complete with balconies, built in the hillside with al fresco showers and huge fireplaces.
There's also the option to escape the traditional game-viewing experience from the back of a safari truck -- Aquila offers safari treks through the bush on horseback or quad bike.
For information and tours contact Aquila Private Game Reserve, P.O. Box 1861, Cape Town, 8000; +27 (0) 21 430 7260; www.aquilasafari.com