The best places — and best times — to take a safari

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In some African cultures, the combination of rain and sunshine means that a leopard and a lioness have given birth to a cub.  

I was hoping that this was the case as we traversed Kenya’s Maasai Mara National Reserve in a four-wheel drive jeep in the midst of a sunny downpour.

In the seven years that I’ve been a travel journalist in Africa, the game drive experience has always been one of my favorites.  Wildlife is Africa’s treasure, and tourists revel in watching the animals — particularly the cats — in their natural habitats.

Travel journalist Harriet Akinyi watches a herd of elephants in a game drive at Mugie Conservancy, Kenya.

Source: Harriet Akinyi

There are 10 countries in Africa that have a strong wildlife focus: Kenya (my motherland), Tanzania, South Africa, Uganda, Mozambique, Botswana, Zambia, Zimbabwe, Malawi, Namibia and Rwanda.

Here are highlights that I recommend.


For more than 25 years, professional safari guide Geoff Mayes has taken tourists to the best parks in Africa. He believes that many choose Kenya — and in particular, Maasai Mara — for their first trip to Africa because it’s safe and fairly accessible.

Known as one of the eight wonders of the world because of the wildebeest migration, Masaai Mara is one of Africa’s most renowned parks, said travel journalist Harriet Akinyi.

Wldavies | E+ | Getty Images

“It’s easier to catch flights to Kenya, making it high on peoples’ bucket list,” he said. “Also a game drive experience in Kenya will be able to meet the travelers’ expectations in terms of catching ‘the Big Five.'”

Less than an hour flight from the capital city of Nairobi is Nairobi National Park, where there’s a good chance of seeing lions and rhinos, he said.  

And “if you come to the Maasai Mara, you’ll see the elephants and leopards and lions,” he explained as we drove through it.

In total, Kenya has 25 national parks and 16 national game reserves with countless private conservancies, which are smaller, private-owned wildlife reserves.

Amboseli National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is known for its massive elephant population and spectacular views of Mount Kilimanjaro.

Harriet Akinyi having a bush breakfast with a view of the rhinos after a game drive in Solio Conservancy in Kenya.

Source: Harriet Akinyi

South Africa

Kenya is not the only country where I’ve gone on game drives.

South Africa is another and is home to some of the oldest and most iconic national parks in Africa. It’s a year-round safari destination, but the best game-viewing conditions are in the cooler winter months from May to September.

A game drive at Kruger National Park, South Africa.

Luis Davilla | Photodisc | Getty Images

There are 20 national parks, including the worldfamous Kruger National Park — which has Africa’s “Big Five” game animals: lions, leopards, elephants, rhino and buffaloes.

There’s also Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park, near the border of Botswana, and Pilanesberg National Park. The latter is about 150 kilometers (93 miles) from Johannesburg. It’s smaller than Kruger, but rich in wildlife — and, fascinatingly, it’s inside the crater of an ancient volcano believed to be some 1.2 billion years old.

Another highlight, Hluhluwe-iMfolozi Park, has the “Big Five” as well as a thriving population of African wild dogs.

I’ve also been to Addo — the biggest park in the Eastern Cape and third-largest in South Africa — which is famous for its elephants. According to Ncediso Headman Nogaya, a game guard at Addo, October to April is the best time to visit.

“We are more likely to receive rains from May to September and while the season is great because it gives food to the wildlife … it might be a slippery drive and muddy,” he noted.


Around 1,000 mountain gorillas exist today, more than half which live in Uganda, according to the Uganda Wildlife Authority.

Jason Edwards | Photodisc | Getty Images

My favorite memories at Queen Elizabeth National Park are of tracking chimpanzees in Kyambura Gorge, watching tree-climbing lions and a herd of elephants walking majestically on the plains, and observing buffaloes, warthogs, hippos and Nile crocodiles while cruising the Kazinga Channel.  

Another park to consider is the Kidepo Valley National Park, with its sweeping plains and valleys overshadowed by the brooding Mount Morungole. The mountain is sacred to the Ik tribe, one of the smallest tribes in Uganda. The park ranks among the best birding safari destinations in the country too.

I loved my game drive experience at Lake Mburo National Park, even though it’s one of the smallest national parks in the country.

It’s the only park where travelers can enjoy boat cruises, walking safaris and horseback riding, tour operator Dennis Kahungu told CNBC Travel.

A group of big horn Ankole Cattle in Lake Mburo National Park, Uganda.

Christopher Kidd | Photodisc | Getty Images

Plus “it’s the only national park in Uganda with the impalas,” he said. “It’s also where you will find the big horned Ankole cows.”


Located in eastern Rwanda, Akagera National Park is a protected wetland and the last remaining refuge for savannah-adapted species in Rwanda. Park visitors can take boat safaris along Lake Ilhema, the second largest lake in Rwanda, for wildlife and birdwatching.

Weaver birds and nests over Lake Ihema, Rwanda.

Inti St. Clair | Photodisc | Getty Images

Travelers in search of mountain gorillas usually go to Volcanoes National Park in the northern part of the country. It’s also home to golden monkeys, and well regarded for hiking and mountain climbing.

Recently inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage List, Nyungwe National Park is another part to explore and is situated in southwest Rwanda and is known for its chimpanzees and colobus monkeys. It’s also popular for canopy walks on a suspended bridge some 70 meters (230 feet) above the forest floor.

While the parks can be visited all year round, it’s best to avoid April, as that’s when Rwanda typically receives heavy rains.


Botswana is a fast-emerging ecotourism destination — visitors are drawn to the vast elephant herds of Chobe National Park and the canoe-based wildlife safaris in the Okavango Delta.

A herd of elephants at Chobe National Park, Botswana.

Williececogo | Moment | Getty Images

One can also see the “Big Five” at Moremi Nature Reserve, Nxai Pan National Park, Makgadikgadi Pans National Park as well as Central Kalahari Game Reserve.


In Tanzania, I visited the iconic UNESCO-listed Serengeti National Park, which rivals Kenya for one of the best wildlife experiences in Africa.

Tourists watch a herd of wildebeest from a land cruiser in the Serengeti National Park, Tanzania.

Patrick J. Endres | Corbis Documentary | Getty Images

My first time there was during the calving season when the wildebeests and the zebras give birth on their way to Kenya during the Great Migration.

Another wonder is the Ngorongoro Crater, one of the largest calderas in the world.

Some consider it one of the best places to go on safari in Africa.


Apart from the renowned Hwange National Park, I have also visited Matobo National Park, which has a wide diversity of fauna and plenty of white rhinos. The area around Matobo Hills is home to the remains of early settlements and the graves of historical figures like Cecil Rhodes.

The rock formation in Matobo National Park in Zimbabwe, Africa, which is home to the grave of Cecil Rhodes.

Westend61 | Getty Images

The best time to visit the parks is during the dry season, from June to October. That’s when the bush is thinner — making wildlife easier to spot.

Mayes said the best time for safaris in Kenya and Tanzania is, of course, during the migration season. But he recommends visiting Zimbabwe and Zambia from July to October.

In other parts of the continent, months like February, June and September can be very rewarding too.

“The wildlife is fantastic and there are fewer vehicles around,” he said. “And you can often benefit from a low season price structure which of course is always nice.”

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