I’ve been travelling in Africa for many years. The excitement never dulls. The memorable moments just keep coming. It is always fresh. It always feels electrically alive...
Wildlife and culture draw visitors to Africa. And the travel industry is seeing demand for Africa front and centre in “big travel” plans for 2023 as post-pandemic Australians look for the sort of epic travel experiences they’ve been missing for the last two years. As we reported recently, an Imagine Holidays spokesman says: “It is probably our most successful destination at the moment.”
Africa is the world’s second-biggest continent and a complex pastiche of countries. On diverse landscapes that cover more than 20 per cent of the Earth’s land area, there are 55 members of the African Union. Those countries and their cultures are, to me, as diverse as the nations of Europe.
One big drive behind most travel to east and southern Africa is to see wildlife. It is there in volume — grass plains full of grazing animals, predators looking at them, slowly wagging their tails, and still healthy biodiversity. The most important questions are “where” and “when” and our guide should help you to start working that out.
Readers have often told me they find the prospect of planning travel to Africa daunting. And I often think that’s because they try to include too much. The African continent is our regional neighbour and it doesn’t have to be a once in a lifetime journey. So think in smaller bites. Pick two stable countries to start with.
From my African notebooks …
LYING WITH LIONS
Lions are lazy.
They do a lot of sleeping.
In fact, the big male lying on his back in the shade of a tree, legs akimbo, front paws floppy, is snoring slightly.
Lions might stay in one place for seven hours . . . nine hours . . . 15 hours . . . the time changes according to what each wildlife guide I travel with in Tanzania has witnessed.
But with this comes the revelation that lions are mostly benign.
For the vast majority of the time, they behave like pussycats.
They live and stroll within sight of impala, zebra and wildebeest, herds with young — meals on the hoof. But the days generally pass quietly.
There will be a flick for flies, and I see a big male slap an annoying cub that wants to play.
But when hungry, they seem to switch on — nose up, ears forward, stare intense, shoulders pumped. Suddenly the power in their fully muscular bodies is evident.
They will rise, quickly hunt, kill, eat, and then fall back into reverie.
There is the practicality of using every available calorie, of course.
But I might interpret that as a kind of respect for the life — for the meal. Death on these savannahs is honoured by a carcass being fully devoured. Nothing is wasted.
This is not killing for sport or revenge, but for the practicality of continuing existence.
After eating, I see lions flop down on their sides, their distended stomachs spilling on to the ground.
When they lie on their backs, their tummies are so full that they fall down to their sides.
You might think this a tall tale, but the acacia tree this giraffe is nibbling on is sending a message to the other trees around it, warning them they could be next.
For the acacia has released ethylene gas to let its companions know there’s a grazer about.
A giraffe, roaming freely, will on average browse only about one acacia in 10, avoiding trees that are downwind.
And while it’s issuing a warning, the acacia is busy defending itself, too. For within five to 10 minutes of a giraffe beginning to eat, the tree releases a tannin which not only has a bitter taste and scent, but can harm the animal’s health.
All that is despite the fact that this Masai giraffe in Tarangire National Park, Tanzania, is already behaving responsibly.
One of the earliest farmers or gardeners, it carefully and quite sparingly eats a few leaves from the top of the tree, where the thorns are soft. It’s just giving it a light and careful prune and, at the same time, stimulating growth.
The giraffe genus evolved seven to eight million years ago, giraffes can eat more than 20kg of acacia leaves and twigs a day, yet the trees here still flourish.
ELEPHANTS IN MUD
First I notice one African elephant, partly obscured by a mopane tree, just flicking a little mud up on her back.
And then she moves forward, kneels and starts digging with her tusks. It is just a small waterhole to start with, almost invisible in these grasslands, but soon she has opened it up.
She digs in her front feet, stirring up the waterhole into a chocolate thickshake.
Then she flicks and squirts the now slick mud. Her ears, like big, heavily veined cabbage leaves, are soon brown and slick. It is said that when an elephant fans those ears, some almost as big as a car bonnet, it can cool the blood by up to 3C.
And she is soon joined by two young elephants. They stand either side and watch as she drops right into the mud hole and wallows around.
Just how many elephants can you get into one small bath?
More and elephants in this family group come, until there are seven of them, body on body, loving the mud.
I am in South Luangwa National Park in Zambia.
A LEOPARD’S TALE
The leopard’s tail is curled up, white tip bobbing above the long grass, the telltale sign that it’s not hunting, but it still causes a commotion. Right across this savannah of Zambia, alarms are sounding.
The delicate impala look in the leopard’s direction, heads cocked, barking. Puku antelope are whistling shrilly. Yellow gibbons are howling and screaming. The African sacred ibis are honking.
The cat is out of the bag.
This is why this slinky leopard relies on stealth — once it has been spotted, dinner’s off.
It had come out of the low forest in South Luanga National Park cautiously, frozen and watched the two nearest impala, trying to not be spotted. But when they do, the game is over.
The leopard walks on through the grass, through the ruckus, and into the mopane forest, looking for somewhere quiet. Somewhere where it might just creep up on a bit of takeaway.
And, very quickly, everyone calms down. Instead of all looking pointedly in one direction, the hundred impala are back gazing all around. The puku are timid, but their whistling peters out and they go back to grazing, too.
It’s like this on the plains of Africa. Animals live together, within sight of one another, mostly minding their own business, until a carnivorous predator is hungry.
DRIVE WITH A DIFFERENCE
It is a game drive with a difference. Normally we’d muster in the cold and dark of an African morning, sipping tea and nibbling pastries; people in muted colours waiting to tuck under rugs in an open sided safari four-wheel-drive vehicle. The drivers would head to familiar wildlife haunts and guides would spot and narrate the landscape and the lives of the lions, leopards, cheetahs, giraffes, elephants, rhino and impala living upon it.
But this morning I’m climbing into an aluminium dinghy. Yes, this is a game drive with a difference, for I am on the Chobe River, and the game drive will bring us face to face with the animals that come down to the river to drink.
I have started our journey into Africa on the Chobe River, which is the border between Botswana and Namibia, and close to where Zambia and the Victoria Falls end of Zimbabwe meet, for good reason for this.
Chobe National Park is not only a confluence of big fresh water and wildlife, but of some of the most stable and predictable countries on the African continent.
WHEN TO GO
Good months for wildlife in Kruger National Park are from May to September. The Western Cape and Cape Town should be sunny and dry from November to March.
Clear skies and greenery should be on the cards as we head though March, April and May, while June to August are peak season for safaris, but warmer. Rains usually come from December.
It rains mainly from December to late February, then continuing to dry and heat up until the end of August.
It’s pleasant and dry all year, but from the end of March to May are really good months. Expect it to be dry and cool from June to August.
Rains should have cleared by April or May and by June or July, it can be very cool at night. August and September are good months, when the game starts to gather around water. You don’t have to be far from Victoria Falls to see it all happen.
The Masai Mara wildebeest and zebra migration comes through in July and August, as animals arrive from the Serengeti. Expect clear skies and a cool climate because so much of the country is high.
Tanzania is big — 1220km from north to south and almost the same across, so the climate varies throughout the country. The dry season is from June to October. June and July are good for the wildebeest migration, as the herds start to move north across the Serengeti. But remember that late January and early February they head back south. Rain usually comes in November and December.
Visitors can trek to see the mountain gorillas all year but June to September and then December to February are the most popular times, in drier months.
Once again, June to September are good for gorilla treks. The best wildlife viewing is from June to August, then December to February.
Peak season is generally December and January, though it is looking pretty busy all this year and next. But it is also good between October and April, so it might be worth thinking outside the box, to avoid the busiest times.
Spring, between mid March and May, and autumn, from September to October, are good times to aim for. The weather’s warm but pleasant. Summer can be very hot, and winter surprisingly cold.
The real icons are Kruger National Park and the Cape Region. Cape Town, backing up to Table Mountain, looks out towards Robben Island, where political prisoners, including Nelson Mandela, were held during the apartheid era.
There are day trips from Cape Town to the inland grape growing and winemaking region, with Stellenbosch and Franschhoek at its heart, and distinctive Cape Dutch architecture.
The Western Cape is on the end of the Garden Route — a drive along the south coast to Knysna, Hermanus, Mossel Bay, Plettenberg Bay and Nature’s Valley, ending in George.
The Cape has distinctive weather. It’s dry and sunny from November to March — a good time to visit. (Neighbouring regions might still be in wet season.) But my local friends insist that March, April and May are perfect — the wind drops and it’s mild, and it is less-visited then.
We have a separate story on Kruger National Park, which has many more than 1000 lions, 1000 leopards, over 100 cheetahs and at least 13,500 elephants … and giraffes, rhinos, hippos and buffaloes, of course.
The best months for wildlife are from May to September, in the dry season.
Botswana is the home of the elephant. There are big herds, and serious efforts to protect them from poachers. It is estimated that 45 per cent of Botswana is protected conservation land.
Chobe National Park has a lot of elephants and is also very good for big cats — lions, leopards and cheetahs.
The 16,000sqkm of its Okavango Delta has World Heritage status. It is an abundant habitat.
From March onwards are good months for Botswana, and it heats up in September, October and November. I was in Botswana one November and there were temperatures of 40C — but the advantage of that is that wildlife congregates around waterholes.
South Luangwa National Park is my first recommendation. One of the world’s great wildlife sanctuaries, animals are drawn to the oxbow lagoons of the Luangwa River. It has been called the most intact major river system on the African continent. The Zambian Government has put the emphasis on local employment in tourism — guests are surrounded by Zambians.
Most travellers will come for Victoria Falls, because the Zambezi River drops more than 100m and throws up a mist that sometimes can be seen nearly 50km away. No wonder the locals call it “mosi-o-tunya” — “the smoke that thunders”.
By late March to May, the rain season usually has cleared, but the land is still green. Don’t miss the canoe trip on the Zambezi, passing hippos.
There is culture and landscape a visitor is unlikely to forget — the Namib Desert and San Bushmen. San Bushmen and Himba people are used to visitors, and a good way to start is by visiting the Living Culture Foundation Namibia (lcfn.info). It lists the “living museums” which can be visited.
Nairobi is the gateway to the Masai Mara, where the northwards wildebeest and zebra migration across the Serengeti comes to a climax around September. The wildlife of the Masai Mara is fantastic. I’ve seen big elephant herds treading almost silently, lions tagging along behind and a leopard which had hauled a hunted impala 7m up a tree.
Serengeti National Park, the Ngorongoro Crater and Mt Kilimanjaro. It’s all epic.
But for me, Ngorongoro Crater is the best of it. It is the world’s biggest intact volcanic caldera, and full of wildlife. It is estimated that 25,000 animals live in the crater. A photographer’s delight.
The high, jungled Volcanoes National Park is the home of mountain gorillas. Only 80 people a day are permitted to trek to spend an hour with one of 10 gorilla families. Each person pays $US1500 ($2117) for a permit. Part of that goes to local communities and to support gorilla conservation.
I consider Rwanda a very safe country for visitors, though in the capital, the Kigali Genocide Memorial respectfully tells the story of the 1994 genocide.
Mountain gorillas can also be seen in the Bwindi Impenetrable Forest, in a UNESCO World Heritage Site in the south-west. There are more than 300 gorillas — nearly half of the world’s population, which is now probably fewer than 800. Chimpanzee tracking has become more and more popular, particularly in Kibale Forest.
Given the ongoing conflict that’s been going on in Ethiopia, it’s unlikely to be high on visitors’ lists. It began in earnest in the Tigray region in November 2020 and spilt over into Amhara and Afar last year, but is easing. Towns like Lalibela, with its rock-hewn churches are living with the scars. But it cannot go without mention here, because Ethiopia is a fascinating country to visit, with the early roots of Christianity and remains of the earliest found hominids.
Lake Malawi is the main drawcard, and there are some good lodges in Lake Malawi National Park. Malawi has been struggling with poaching, but my area to head is Majete Wildlife Reserve.
The medinas of Marrakech and Fez are tangy labyrinths suffused with the scent of saffron-laced couscous, slow-roasted lamb and savoury tagines.
In Marrakech, there are riads (interior gardens) like Villa Makassar, AnnaYela, Dar Al Assad and La Sultana. But start with at the top of the list — Bahia Palace, El Badi Palace and Souk Semmarine. For something different, visitors really should call in at the Musee Yves Saint Laurent — the French designer loved this city, bought Jardin Majorelle in 1980, and it now houses a collection of his couture.
Short trips take visitors to the Sahara and there are overnight camps.
And, having worked our way north through the continent, we finish with blockbuster Egypt. As I mentioned recently in these pages, it is hugely sought-after at this moment. After years of security concerns before the pandemic, touring companies are back with enthusiasm, and river cruising companies have itineraries to choose from.
Cairo, Valley of the Kings, the Nile, Luxor’s temples and tombs, and Giza’s pyramids (the biggest, Pyramid of Khufu is 138m and was built about 4500 years ago).
The Grand Egyptian Museum is scheduled to open in November, after a decade of planning, building and curating.
Yes, it’s all epic.
A $33 million upgrade of Kruger National Park has begun.
The money will be spent by South Africa National Parks over the next three years, including the renovation and upgrade of more than 110 accommodation units at camps across the park.
While most visitors stay at private safari camps, the SANParks units are a good option.
The Sweni Trails camp will be upgraded and the decks at Skukuza and Olifants camp, which have been chomped by termites, will be repaired.
More noticeably for most of us, the entrance gates at Pafuri, Punda Maria, Orpen, Phabeni and Numbi will be upgraded and the Phalaborwa Wildlife Activity Hub will be improved.
Some tar roads will be resurfaced, and some unsealed roads regravelled.
More than anything, perhaps, it shows focus and energy going in to what is still, in my opinion, South Africa’s most important national park. Why?
Kruger National Park is the oldest park in Africa, first proclaimed in 1898 as the Sabie Game Reserve by the then president of the Transvaal Republic, Paul Kruger. It was proclaimed a national park in 1926.
It is one of the biggest game reserves in Africa, covering just under 20,000sqkm. It is 350km long and 60km wide.
It is still thought of as the “People’s Park”, with accommodation from budget to luxury lodges.
The park is home to the Big Five (lion, rhino, buffalo, elephant and leopard), 500 bird species and more than 2000 species of plants.
The Crocodile River is its border, with the Limpopo River forming its northern edge. The Lebombo Mountains are along its western flank.
There is lots of evidence that Homo erectus (prehistoric humans) roamed this area between 500,000 and 100,000 years ago. There are more than 250 known cultural heritage sites in the park, including about 130 recorded rock art sites.
WEST TRAVEL CLUB AFRICA TOUR 2023
I never take my blessed life for granted. Who else has the privilege of being asked to come up with a perfect itinerary for southern Africa, and have a team of professionals put it together for them?
Who else could choose the countries in which they have the most confidence, and list absolutely favourite places and experiences . . . like being in the Okavanga Delta in Botswana, staying in a houseboat on the Chobe River, canoeing the Zambezi River and looking for wild dogs in South Luangwa National Park in Zambia? I cherry-pick memories and moments, draw up my dream list, and send it off to the team at Imagine Holidays, our trusted partners in the Africa Travel Club Tour 2023.
After their behind-the-scenes hard work, an email comes back. Everything is planned and listed, with dates and tentative bookings made.
Who else then gets to share all that with other travellers — with you, the readers of our pages? Who else gets to come up with a dream, and make it a reality for others?
This is a special moment for anyone interested in one of the best Africa experiences ever . . .
THIS IS THE PLAN …
We will fly from Perth to Johannesburg, stop overnight then fly to Muan and transfer to the Macahaba Camp in the Okavanga Delta in Botswana for three nights.
Although we will be at nearly 1000m above sea level, under our boots, the Okavanga River has come to a tectonic trough here in the Kalahari. Its water evaporates here, never reaching the sea. That helps to create weather — rainfall in the grasslands. That feeds the grazers; the grazers feed the predators. It’s a wild spot, with one of Africa’s most dense concentrations of wildlife.
We then fly to Kasane and transfer to the Chobe Game Lodge for two nights. We are still in Botswana and essentially have moved up the throat of the Okavanga Delta.
Chobe National Park is simply one of my favourite places in Africa — it’s elephant-city, and colourful and noisy with birds. Hippos wallow. Antelopes are alert and grazing, tails flicking. Lions lope around the outer. All is quiet until hunger kicks in.
And there’s a very important twist to our trip here . . . and this is why the Chobe River is one of my favourite places. For we will be staying for three nights on the Zambezi Queen, a houseboat on the river. This gives us the opportunity for “game drives” in a dinghy. Wildlife comes to the river to drink, so this way, we are seeing all the action and looking them in the eye (rather than the other end!). It’s a great place for bird photography.
We travel on to Victoria Falls, to visit Mosi Oa Tunya National Park, and stay in great comfort. One evening, we’ll stage a special event, and I’ll tell a particular human story about the region.
We then fly on to South Luangwa in Zambia, where I have had some of my best wildlife moments — five giraffe with their necks entwined; a big pack of wild dogs rising from the long grass and setting off to hunt, the many bodies now seemingly one, with a purpose.
Lilac crested rollers; acacia trees; warning others when grazers are about; lion cubs playing in the morning sun; a cheetah motionless, then its tail just flicks …
Africa. I can’t wait.
JOINING THE ADVENTURE …
I’ll be personally leading the tour from Perth, of course. Before we go, I’ll help with preparation and advice on photography gear.
We’re still in the planning stages, and everything isn’t totally locked in yet.
But we are working with our friends at Imagine Holidays on dates in March and April next year.
But we are asking for expressions of interest (and our tours tend to fill quickly). So a quick email to the West Travel Club team at email@example.com will ensure you are first to know when we have dates, price and accommodation and the full itinerary is locked in. There’s no commitment, but if you want to join me in Africa, it might be worth getting your name on the list.