Safari—the Swahili word for journey—recalls visions of bonhomie, banter, long nights by raging bonfires, days of span through fierce savannahs and, of course, the grandest of wild animals. With the hunting aspect fortunately erased, the modern safari defines sustainable and responsible tourism for wildlife lovers, padded with the most luxurious of amenities.
Reminiscent of colonial grandeur and Hemingwayesque anecdotes, the safari remains a classic way to ‘pause’ when the wild calls. Think luxurious private safari lodges, massages in a thatched tent while looking out at giraffes, gourmet meals in the wilderness and feisty feline encounters. Now, as you contemplate the pause, consider our top 5 safari destinations for your next wild vacation…
While Kruger National Park remains South Africa’s most visited game reserve, wildlife lovers in the know swear by Tswalu, the last bastion of the great African wilderness. Tswalu, which means ‘new beginning,’ is the work and passion of Nicky and Strilli Oppenheimer, winners of the prestigious World Wildlife Fund Lonmin Award for environmental conservation. At a whopping 2,50,000 acres, it is the largest private game reserve in the world, preserving over 70 species of mammals and 230 species of birds. Working on the motto ‘to restore the Kalahari to itself,’ Tswalu accepts no more than 30 guests at a time, which should cue you in for the resplendent treats in store. In association with the deluxe Relais & Châteaux, lodging and cuisine are decidedly upscale.
Your African-style thatched roof suite is replete with a lavish bathroom, a complimentary mini-bar, a fireplace, a large outdoor deck and a four-poster bed. Each suite comes with its own butler, ranger guide and Land Rover (forget those shared rides; this is as exclusive as it gets). Besides, your itinerary is completely personalised and flexible. You could soak in the spa leisurely or read by the pool, before setting off on a safari and even picnic in the Kalahari. The reserve has access to some of South Africa’s most precious ecologies along the Diamond Route, which links all conservation initiatives of De Beers and the Oppenheimer family.
WHEN TO GO: Tswalu can be visited all year around, but the best game viewing lasts from May to September-end. Autumn (April to May) is the greenest season and you can witness the savannahs in their full glory.
SAFARI STARS: Desert black rhino, black-maned Kalahari lion, cheetah and colonies of frisky and friendly meerkats who put up an entertaining show with their morning foraging routine. Other sightings may include the elusive aardvark, aardwolf, pangolin and porcupine.
INSIDER TIP: Discover the Kalahari on horseback for a unique perspective of the striking vast landscape of grassy plains and rolling dunes lorded over by the Korannaberg mountains. The animals react differently when you’re accompanied by the horse, allowing for a more intimate experience. Tswalu’s stable provides all the help needed for anyone, from a rank amateur to an expert horseman.
The premier game reserve in the Eastern Cape, Amakhala’s origins go back to the early settlers who farmed sheep and cattle on the wild and hostile Zuurveld. The reserve hosts five of South Africa’s seven biomes, including dense thickets of valley bushveld and thorn-tree savannah to sweeping grasslands, knots of forests and the formidable Nama Karoo. Its 6,500 hectares provide endless opportunities to view the Big Five, along with other wildlife. When you aren’t away on safaris or cruising along the Bushman’s River, there is plenty to enjoy at Amakhala’s four lodges — Bush Lodge, Safari Lodge, Woodbury Lodge and Leeuwenbosch Country House — all of which are certified by Fair Trade in Tourism.
The first two are sumptuously 5-star, featuring private plunge pools, fireplaces, romantic double indoor and outdoor showers and game viewing decks. On a hot, lazy afternoon, make your way to the gorgeous Whisper Room for a leisurely massage treatment. The 4-star Leeuwenbosch Country House is the family home of Dr. William Fowlds — veterinarian and host of Animal Planet’s Vets Go Wild series. Fowlds, who works extensively in documenting the poaching crisis facing the magnificent African rhino, mentors students at the Ranger Training Institute on the reserve. Amakhala also runs a very hands-on Volunteer Programme. As a volunteer you have the opportunity to stay from two weeks to two months. You’ll be immersed into the exciting life of a ranger, from animal identification, tracking, game capture and reserve maintenance to canoeing, boating and learning about Xhosa culture. You could begin the day monitoring the movements of an adult male lion with telemetry and end it downing a beer with your volunteering buddies from across the world at the local pub!
WHEN TO GO: Amakhala is pleasant all year round, but do remember that winters (May to August) can have very cold nights.
SAFARI STARS: Rhinos, lions, elephants, buffalos, cheetahs, giraffes, zebras, wildebeest, the startling kudu antelopes and bat-eared foxes.
INSIDER TIP: Don’t miss out on a chance to travel the world-famous Garden Route while in the Eastern Cape. Amakhala offers a five-night tour that begins at Cape Town/Port Elizabeth, with three-night accommodation at the pristine Plettenberg Bay in the middle of the Garden Route and two-nights at the Amakhala Game Reserve.
Combine the majestic beauty of Botswana’s first national park — Chobe — and one of the world’s leading luxury hotel and hospitality brands — Belmond — and you get an unforgettable adventure. Along with Namibia, Botswana leads Africa’s post-modern safari wave, with a pro-conservation government encouraging low-volume, high-revenue tourism which benefits wildlife and local communities. Chobe National Park is a dynamic, unpredictable and biologically-diverse landscape with the eccentric Savuti Channel — mysteriously dormant for decades — flowing through it.
Settle at Belmond’s lush Belmond Savute Elephant Lodge for an intimate encounter with the African bush. The lodge has its own swimming pool, outdoor showers and alfresco dining in a traditional boma. Their other options are (and you should experience all three) the Belmond Khwai River Lodge, which sits by floodplains that attract Africa’s largest variety of big game, and the palm-fringed Belmond Eagle Island Lodge, smack dab in the midst of the Okavango Delta (which was recently voted the world’s 1,000th UNESCO World Heritage Site). Recuperate from your daily game rides with a spa treatment on your private suite deck, take a guided walking tour or head out into the lakelands by mokoro canoe; you’ll never be short of activity or ‘pause’ time. The company also offers night touring safaris from Cape Town to Mozambique.
WHEN TO GO: July, August and September present Botswana at its spectacular best.
INSIDER TIP: Book a helicopter ride over the park while the animals roam freely below. Belmond’s experienced staff will then follow up the experience with a secluded picnic in the bush and a fishing expedition for tilapia, bream and tiger fish; before returning to the lodge by motorised boat.
SAFARI STARS: Botswana is home to an estimated 50,000 elephants (perhaps the highest elephant concentration of Africa) and you can see the biggest of them here. Also lording over the landscape are majestic lions, leopards, Klipspringer and puku antelopes, giraffes and cape buffaloes.
An Australian seaside safari doesn’t make it to this list only to provide relief from Africa’s domination over everything wild, vast, gargantuan-eared and ferociously furry. The country is famous for its outdoors and Ningaloo Reef — within the Cape Range National Park — is set on the shores of one of the world’s greatest fringing coral reefs, protecting the most prolific marine life. With wilderness tents for just 18 guests on the property, Sal Salis’s eco credentials are impeccable: expect 100 per cent solar generated power, organic, locally-produced linen on the handmade jarrah beds and organic toiletries. Fringed by coruscating coral and lapped by the lusciously warm waters of the Indian Ocean, there’s an undeniable old world charm here. Spend your nights under the stars and long days underwater socialising — you can swim, snorkel or kayak — with shoals, including playful dolphins. The giant attraction is, of course, between April and July each year, when you have the chance to swim with the chief of them all: the Whale Shark.
Sal Salis has partnered with Ocean Eco Adventures, for the up-close-and-personal experience of swimming with these gentle giants. For expert anglers, you can hook fabulous species like Black, Blue and Stripped Marlin, Spanish Mackerel, Coral Trout, Red Emperor, North West Snapper, Mahi Mahi, Wahoo and Sailfish. If you’re looking at big game, the coastal shallows also provide the best conditions for Australia’s only bonefish fishery. As the water warms up from late September through the summer and autumn, the silvery plump Permit fish turn up on the Bonefish flats, making this the only Australian destination where you can get lucky with either species on the same flats.
WHEN TO GO: The camp is closed annually from 1 December to 14 March, making April to September the best time to visit.
SAFARI STARS: Along with Whale Sharks, Manta Rays and Humpback Whales abound here between July and September.
INSIDER TIP: The cuisine at Sal Salis is the finest you’ll ever have while ‘camping’. Think Teriyaki Emu Rice Paper Rolls, Baked Exmouth Ruby Snapper with Wild Lime Beurre blanc and Chocolate and Almond Torte with Frangellico Garnish and Fresh Berries.
The chefs here take care to cook with bush-influenced produce as much as possible.
If flamboyance and a space-age safari aesthetic are on your radar, pack your bags — and a nifty wardrobe — for this luxury safari camp, 250 kilometres west of Nairobi. A member of Sir Richard Branson’s Virgin Limited Edition Collection, and the youngest on our top list (it opened in 2013) the Mahali Mzuri safari camp scores immediately on location. It is set in a private conservation area within the Motorogi Conservancy in Kenya’s Maasai Mara, within the ecosystem of one of Africa’s most famous game reserves that stretches from Kenya to Tanzania. It is also positioned to advantage, right in the Great Migration path, which allows guests to watch one of the most fascinating natural spectacles in the world from the balconies of their spiffy suites.
Equally fetching are the 12 futuristic tents perched on the lush hillside, all with infinity pools, plush en-suite bathrooms and raised patios with views of the bush and beyond. There’s much luxury at hand, including the dining, lounge and bar area, and the Nasaro spa treatment room offering ‘Africology’ treatments. The main tent features an inviting lounge area with a fireplace, a library of books, iPads, iPod docking stations and speaker systems, a games console and a TV/DVD. If you can pull yourself away from that comfort zone, there are twice-a-day Land Cruiser safari rides on the 13,500 hectares of game land, treks through the wild and cultural trips to meet the local community.
WHEN TO GO: The wildebeest migration continues from July to October. This is the time to ‘pause’ here, for that once-in-a-lifetime experience.
SAFARI STARS: Wildebeest, zebras, gazelles and other game.
INSIDER TIP: Ask for a stunning evening safari, to get a look at the nocturnal game including aardvarks and honey badgers. There’s also a telescope on the camp if you want to study the stars.
Image Source: Tswalu, Amakhala, Belmond Safaris, Sal Salis Australia and Mahali Mzuri
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