A travel itinerary to Africa is incomplete without excursions into the continent's adventure-filled national parks and game reserves. It is in these reserves that you get to go for bush dinners, game drives, night game drives, walking safaris, and more. However, it is the opportunity to glimpse the continent's most unique wildlife – the Big 5 that make safari tours across Africa truly epic.
The Big 5, namely Lions, Leopards, Elephants, Buffalos, and Rhinoceros, are the most dangerous animals in Africa, which makes game drives through their territories something to highly anticipate. But where in African should you go for a Big 5 safari?
Maasai Mara Game Reserve, Kenya
Located on the southwestern grassland plains of Kenya, the Maasai Mara Game Reserve is one of the top African safari destinations to consider for a Big 5 safari. The park is so surreal that in 2017, it was voted the best national reserve in the whole of Africa.
The Park is situated approximately 280 kilometers from Nairobi, and the best way to get there is to fly into the Mara Serena Airport that is located inside the park. The park is also accessible via 6 hours' drive through the Kenyan Great Rift valley.
The Big 5 are spread throughout the vast grassland and savanna plains of the Mara. During your game drives, you'll encounter numerous lion pride, either on the prowl or sleeping the day away. Elephants and buffalos are also available in large herds.
Rhinos are abundant, though they live in smaller family units. The grassy landscape of the Mara makes it somewhat easy to spot leopards that normally prefer to hide high up the trees.
Besides the Big 5, Maasai Mara also teems with hundreds of other animal species, including Thomson gazelles, wildebeests, zebras, cheetahs, spotted hyenas, etc. The park is also a birds' paradise, playing host to over 470 bird species.
The best time to plan your trip to the Mara is during the iconic Great Migration between July and October. Ideally, plan your trip between July and early August. This is the duration when the migrating herd makes the perilous Mara River crossing - watching the herd struggle to make it past the crocodiles and the raging waters of the Mara River are the climax of a safari holiday in the Mara.
No one knows exactly when the Mara river crossing will occur or what triggers it. Your best bet is to work with Masai Mara based lodges and travel agencies such as MasaiMarasafari.in or AjKenyasafaris.com to help you keep a tab on the location of the herd. Their guides were born and raised in time to witness the dramatic Mara river crossing.
Serengeti National Park, Tanzania
The Serengeti is an extensive park that overlaps with Kenya's Maasai Mara Game Reserve. The park is located 325 kilometers from Arusha and features numerous airstrips that support domestic flights. Examples include Serengeti Kusini, Lobo, and Seronera.
Serengeti is zoned into three regions namely, the Southern Plains, the Western Savanna, and the Northern Serengeti.
The southern plains are predominantly grassland vegetation occupied by grazers, while the western savanna hosts the Grumeti River, which is a habitat for Nile crocodiles and hippos. The Northern Serengeti is where the park borders the Maasai Mara, and you can hire a reputable Kenya tour operator if you wish to make the most of both parks.
The Big 5 can be sighted virtually anywhere within the park. Lions and leopards prefer to keep a close distance from their prey. Therefore, you'll spot them in their numbers around the southern plains and near water points.
Overall, the park boasts around 4,000 lions, 1,000 leopards, 1,000 elephants, and 30,000 buffalos. Unfortunately, rhinos were nearly poached into extinction, and only about 120 were available in the park as of 2013. Sighting them may take some patience.
Like the Mara, the ideal time to go to the Serengeti is during the Great Wildebeest Migration.
Kruger National Park
Kruger National Park is located in the northeastern region of South Africa. The park is among the most diverse in the world, supporting plenty of plant and animal life.
The fastest way to get to Kruger is to fly into the Kruger Mpumalanga International Airport, which is located 40 km from the park's Numbi Gate. You can also fly to Phalaborwa that's situated north of the park, or Hoedspruit, which occupies the central sections.
Three hundred thirty-six tree species thrive in the park, as well as 34 species of amphibians, 49 fish species, 114 different types of reptiles, 147 mammal species, and 507 bird species. The Big 5, by population, includes about 1,500 lions, 1,000 leopards, 350 black rhinos and 8,000 white rhinos, 27,000 African buffalos, and 12,000 elephants. The park has one of the highest elephant and rhino populations in Africa.
Kruger National Park is also home to other animals, such as spotted hyenas, impala, blue wildebeest, waterbuck, hippos, giraffes, zebras, etc.
The best time to go on a Big 5 safari of Kruger National Park is during the drier months of April to September.
The Okavango Delta
Okavango Delta is one of the most popular parks in Botswana. The greatest highlight here is the flooding of the Okavango River, which peaks around June to October.
The best way to get to the Okavango Delta is through a charter flight from Maun Airport, after which you'll take a road or boat transfer, depending on where you're camping.
Okavango Delta is home to over 400 bird species, over 150 reptile species, and about 200 species of mammals. Over the years, lions and leopards in Okavango have acquired special adaptations, such as more profound forequarters, that enable them to pursue their prey across the wetlands. Sadly, years of poaching saw a significant reduction in the number of black rhinos. Only a few are available for sighting on the Chief's Island, where white rhinos also spend their time all-year-round.
Up to one-sixth of the world's elephant population lives in Botswana. However, they don't live around the wetlands all-year-round. If you visit during the flooding season, you'll meet elephant herds migrating to the nearby Savute, Chobe, and Linyanti regions.
The dryer months of May to September are the ideal periods to visit the Okavango.
South Luangwa National Park
South Luangwa National Park is located in the northeastern region of Zambia. The 9,050 square kilometers park is one of Africa safari destinations that hosts all the Big 5, plus plenty of other animal species.
The fastest way to get to South Luangwa is to take a domestic flight into the Mfuwe International Airport, which lies right outside the park. You can also take the 2 hours scenic road drive from Lusaka to the park.
What sets South Luangwa apart from most safari destinations in Africa is its sheer abundance of leopards. The game in South Luangwa is concentrated along the oxbow lagoons that are created due to the meanderings of the Luangwa River. The evergreen vegetation attracts all kinds of grazers, including elephants, rhinoceros, Cape buffalos, warthogs, etc. And in their wake are the park's fiercest predators, such as lions, leopards, and spotted hyenas. Luangwa River is a special habitat for Nile crocodiles and hippos.
South Luangwa also hosts unique animals, namely, Cookson's wildebeest, Thornicroft's giraffe, and Crawshay's zebra, as well as over 400 bird species.
The best time to go on a safari tour of South Luangwa is during the dry season of September to October when the animals are more concentrated along the riverine area.
A leopard perching on a tree
It doesn't matter how adventurous your safari tour may seem, nothing comes close to sighting the Big 5 in their natural elements. The parks we've highlighted above are some of the top destinations to catch a glimpse of Africa's most unique wildlife.