Elephants and Lions and Acrobatic Monkeys! Oh, My!
If you’re looking for a one-of-a-kind adventure, go on an African safari. Observing wildlife in its natural habitat from inside an open-air 4x4 — or luxury mobile camp, boat, or even hot-air balloon — is worth the miles, cost, and planning that it takes to get you near a lurking leopard or migrating herd of wildebeest.
Kenya, Tanzania, and Zambia are home to some of the best safari spots to get your up-close-and-personal fix of the Big Five (the lion, leopard, rhino, elephant, and buffalo), and the list goes on. So grab your khaki-colored gear, check out the 10 most-searched destinations by Yahoo’s jungle junkies, and start planning.
The pink flamingos of Lake Nakuru (Photo: Thinkstock)
1. Lake Nakuru
Have you ever seen a pink lake? Lake Nakuru in Kenya is your chance. Famous for the millions of flamingos that flock to its shores, the shallow alkaline lake can actually look fuchsia pink when the birds are in flight. Joining the flamingos are about 450 species of birds and hordes of mammals, including white and endangered black rhinos, leopards, giraffes, buffalo, and tree-dangling pythons. If you want to spot a zebra from your window, stay inside the surrounding Lake Nakuru National Park at the Sarova Lion Hill Game Lodge, or spring for your own cottage at The Sleeping Warrior, which is a short trip from the park.
Black rhino (Photo: Thinkstock)
If you’re looking for an exclusive safari experience, North Luangwa is it. Compared with the more popular South Luangwa, visiting the untouched wild at Zambia’s remote North park is the lesser road traveled (the most convenient way to get there is by flying). With fewer passersby, you’re sure to have unique encounters with a buffalo herd, black rhino, or wildebeest when trekking the terrain — on foot only. Since the park calls for adventure-seekers, visitors should delight in the camping-only lodging. Three camps by the Mwaleshi River — Kutandala, Mwaleshi, and Luangwa North Camp — provide three-to-five-night stays during open season, which is from June to October.
African wild dog (Photo: Thinkstock)
Here’s another hidden gem: About 3.5 hours from Johannesburg lies the fifth-largest game reserve in South Africa and home to about 66 mammals and 300 bird species, yet it remains pretty unknown. All of the Big Five can be spotted at the Madikwe Game Reserve, which opened in 1991, and you might even catch a glimpse of the endangered African wild dog. You can take the tour only if you book a room within the park, but with 30 four- and five-star luxury lodge options to pick from, why dream of staying anywhere else? Book an open-air suite at the Molori Safari Lodge, Madikwe Hills Game Lodge, or Makanyane Safari Lodge and ogle elephants from your private infinity pool, stand-alone bathtub, or massage table.
The view from Beho Beho (Photo: Beho Beho)
The Selous Game Reserve lives up to its title as Africa’s largest game reserve: It’s too big to count the wildlife. A big draw at this Tanzania reserve is a safari tour by boat, which is a popular way to soak in the sights of a passing hippo or crocodile. You can also go fly-camping to catch up with Africa’s largest elephant and wild dog populations by day and sleep under the stars at night. But camping rates second best to the list of topnotch lodging here — some of the most impressive safari stays in all of Africa are at Selous. The luxurious Beho Beho has hot springs and its own airstrip, barefoot lodge Sand Rivers boasts an unbeatable view from a canopy bed inside an open-air hut, and the elegant and secluded Siwandu usually hosts elephants for dinner!
The safari at Walt Disney World (Photo: Scott Smith/Flickr)
Well, not the Kilimanjaro. If you can’t travel across continents with the kids, Animal Kingdom at Walt Disney World in Lake Buena Vista, Florida, simulates a safari trip through the Harambe Wildlife Reserve in Harambe, East Africa, with its Kilimanjaro Safaris — and it does a pretty good job. After a brief introduction, an open-air vehicle takes you on an 18-minute excursion through 100 acres of forest and wetlands. Over 34 species of exotic African wildlife roam free, including antelopes, cheetahs, gazelles, ostriches, and lions. (The pricier VIP safari option sends you out for three hours and promises closer encounters.) After your ride, don’t check out of Africa just yet: Disney’s Animal Kingdom Lodge is designed to make you feel like you’re staying in the heart of Africa. Plus, there’s a pool with a water slide.
Hot-air balloon rides over the Serengeti (Photo: Harvey Barrison/Flickr)
Welcome to the Jurassic Park of all safaris. No, the animals are not going to escape and attack visitors, but the Serengeti is as much of a mecca and popular attraction as the fictional dinosaur park. Located in north Tanzania, the Serengeti is one of the Seven Natural Wonders of Africa as the home of the legendary wildebeest migration, which happens once a year. At Serengeti National Park, you can take a hot-air balloon safari and peer down at packs of hyenas, jackals, and zebras, but the Great Migration is a must. With the expertise of a mobile safari camp, you can track and move with the herd. For luxury, there’s Serengeti Under Canvas, and for adventurers, there’s Serengeti Safari Camp.
Mount Kilimanjaro (Photo: Thinkstock)
If you want to avoid tourists but still want the Tanzania safari experience, head over to Tarangire National Park for its famed herds of elephants, towering baobab trees, and tree-climbing lions. Home to 550 species that even flock here during the dry season, Tarangire also draws in bird lovers — keep an eye out for the yellow-collared lovebird! It’s hard to compete with the proximity of the Tarangire Safari Lodge, where you have a panoramic view from inside the park, but just outside the grounds you can enjoy a view of Mount Kilimanjaro at Tarangire River Camp and take advantage of a handful of tours and excursions that aren’t allowed inside the park.
Blue monkeys (Photo: Thinkstock)
Wait, no elephants or lions? In this Tanzania park covering Mount Meru (the second-highest mountain in Tanzania, after Kilimanjaro), expect a different collection of wildlife. In place of lions and elephants at Arusha National Park are the black-and-white colobus and the blue monkey, the warthog and endless forest-inhabiting birds. There are a handful of lodging and camping options inside the park, but the city of Arusha is nearby and bustling. A home away from home is the Mount Meru Hotel, which has the basic and comfortable feel you’d expect from any five-star business hotel you’d find in a major U.S. city.
The elephants outside River Bend Lodge (Photo: River Bend Lodge)
On the eastern cape of South Africa, the Addo National Elephant Park was originally founded to be a sanctuary for the remaining 16 elephants in the area in 1931. Now home to more than 600 elephants and other wildlife, including the Cape buffalo, lion, and hyena, the Addo is the third-largest national park in South Africa. Inside the park, Addo Rest Camp in the main camping area overlooks the wildlife frequenting the water hole, but the RiverBend Lodge and Gorah Elephant Camp are fancier in-park luxurious options. Just outside the main gate, the Kuzuko Lodge is a dreamy oasis that’s still close enough to hear the howling jackals.
Male lion (Photo: WhlTravel/Flickr)
10. Kruger Park
Also inhabited by Africa’s Big Five, Kruger National Park in South Africa is one of the largest game reserves and home to the largest number of species of large mammals in all of Africa. From luxury three-day family safaris to a spa- and wine-heavy honeymoon package and nearby elephant-back safari camps, there’s no shortage of activities at camp in Kruger Park. The all-inclusive Outpost Lodge in the park has a safari bungalow feel, with private tented camps and suites where guests also get private access to roads within the park. Surrounding the park are also a handful of fenced-in reserves where you can stay and enjoy prime game viewing, including the droolworthy Sabi Sands.