The best places — and times — to go on safari

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

I hoped that would be the case as we drove through Kenya’s Masai Mara National Reserve in a four-wheel-drive jeep in the middle of a sunny downpour.

In the seven years I’ve been a travel journalist in Africa, the safari experience has always been one of my favorites. Wildlife is Africa’s treasure and tourists love to observe animals, especially cats, in their natural habitats.

Travel journalist Harriet Akinyi observes a herd of elephants during a safari at Mugie Conservancy, Kenya.

Source: Harriet Akinyi

There are 10 countries in Africa that focus heavily on wildlife: Kenya (my homeland), Tanzania, South Africa, Uganda, Mozambique, Botswana, Zambia, Zimbabwe, Malawi , Namibia and Rwanda.

Here are the highlights that I recommend.


For over 25 years, professional safari guide Geoff Mayes has been taking tourists to Africa’s best parks. He believes many choose Kenya – and particularly the Masai Mara – for their first trip to Africa because it is a safe and fairly accessible country.

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

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“It’s easier to fly to Kenya, which puts it at the top of people’s priority list,” he said. “A safari experience in Kenya will also be able to meet travelers’ expectations in terms of catching the ‘Big Five.’

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

And “if you come to the Masai Mara, you will see elephants, leopards and lions,” he explained as we walked through it.

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

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

Harriet Akinyi enjoys breakfast in the bush overlooking rhinos after a safari at Solio Conservancy in Kenya.

Source: Harriet Akinyi

Tsavo National Park, the largest park in Kenya, is one of the largest wildlife reserves in the world. This was highlighted by President Barack Obama in the five-part Netflix documentary series “Our Great National Parks.”

South Africa

Kenya is not the only country where I have been on safari.

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

A safari in Kruger National Park, South Africa.

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There are 20 national parks, including the worldthe famous Kruger National Park, which is home to the “big five” game of Africa: lions, leopards, elephants, rhinos and buffalo.

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

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

I also went to Addo, the largest park in the Eastern Cape and the third largest in South Africa, famous for its elephants. According to the head of Ncediso Nogaya, a game warden in Addo, October to April is the best time to visit.

“We are most likely to receive rains from May to September and although the season is excellent because it provides food for wildlife… the path could be slippery and muddy,” he noted.


Uganda is known for its diverse wildlife and stunning landscapes in its 10 national parks and 12 game reserves. Among the national parks, seven are located in savannahs and three in forests. In these three, one can track mountain gorillas in Mgahinga National Park and Bwindi Impenetrable National Park.

There are now about 1,000 mountain gorillas, more than half of which live in Uganda, according to the Uganda Wildlife Authority.

Jason Edwards | Photodisc | Getty Images

My favorite memories at Queen Elizabeth National Park are tracking chimpanzees in the Kyambura Gorge, watching lions climbing trees and a herd of elephants marching majestically across the plains, and watching buffalo, warthogs , hippos and Nile crocodiles during a cruise on the Kazinga canal.

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

I loved my safari experience at Lake Mburo National Park, even though it is 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-horned Ankole cattle in Lake Mburo National Park, Uganda.

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Additionally, “this is the only national park in Uganda where impalas live,” he added. “This is also where you will find the big-horned Ankole cows.”


Located in eastern Rwanda, Akagera National Park is a protected wetland and the last refuge for savannah-adapted species in Rwanda. Visitors to the park can take boat safaris along Lake Ilhema, Rwanda’s second largest lake, to observe wildlife and birds.

Weaver birds and nests above Lake Ihema, Rwanda.

Inti St. Clair | Photodisc | Getty Images

Travelers looking for mountain gorillas usually head to Volcanoes National Park in the north of the country. It is also home to golden monkeys and is famous for hiking and mountaineering.

Recently inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage List, Nyungwe National Park is another part worth exploring. It is located in the southwest of Rwanda and is known for its chimpanzees and colobus monkeys. It is also popular for canopy walks on a suspension bridge about 70 meters (230 feet) above the forest floor.

Although the parks can be visited all year round, it is best to avoid April as this is usually the time when Rwanda receives heavy rains.


Botswana is a booming ecotourism destination: visitors are drawn to the vast elephant herds of Chobe National Park and canoe wildlife safaris in the Okavango Delta.

A herd of elephants in Chobe National Park, Botswana.

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The Big Five can also be seen in Moremi Nature Reserve, Nxai Pan National Park, Makgadikgadi Pans National Park and the 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 Serengeti National Park, Tanzania.

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My first time there was during calving season, when wildebeest and 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.


Besides the famous Hwange National Park, I also visited Matobo National Park, which is home to a great diversity of wildlife and many white rhinos. The area around the 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 the dry season, from June to October. This is 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 also be very rewarding.

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

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