Kruger National Park — South Africa
Kruger’s proximity to Africa’s main hub of Johannesburg and its easy accessibility make it a favorite with locals and visitors alike. It’s one of the most popular parks in Africa, and the Kruger camps are definitely the flashiest I’ve ever stayed in. You can take your own car, and many of the roads are paved, but you can also go on game drives on unsealed tracks. The camps are surrounded by electric fences, so you won’t have to fear coming across a large cat if you need a toilet break at night. If the planned extensions into Zimbabwe and Mozambique take place, Kruger will become the largest nature reserve on the planet. Because of its high standards, though, Kruger can sometimes feel like a massive zoo. Try to avoid the school holiday periods when the camps are usually full.
Etosha National Park — Namibia
Etosha (meaning the “great white place of dry water”) in northern Namibia was my first ever safari. The best part is the Okaukeujo camping ground, located near a watering hole that is floodlit at night. Since most of the animals are active at night, you get a good look at their natural behavior. I remember watching a sole rhino having a drink, when an enormous bull elephant entered the frame. The lone rhino swiveled 180 degrees, snorted, scraped all four feet on the dusty ground and charged. The elephant panicked and accelerated into the crunchy Namibian bush. The rhino returned to his spot, finished his drink, and finally waddled off into the darkness.
South Luwangwa National Park — Zambia
While it’s not well known, this isolated part of Zambia is definitely worth the trip. This place makes you feel like you are truly in the wild. The camps are unfenced and situated next to the South Luwangwa River, where you can watch hippos and crocodiles swim past your tent. This is my favorite game park because it lacks the hordes of vehicles you see in so many other parks. South Luwangwa has one of the highest concentrations of leopards — the most elusive member of the Big 5 — and this is the only place in Africa I’ve seen one.
Serengeti National Park and Masai Mara National Park — Tanzania and Kenya
The Serengeti and Masai Mara National Parks are probably the most famous parks in this list, and for good reason. Since most of the landscape is savannah (or flat grasslands), wildlife visibility is very high. The parks adjoin each other across two countries and are best known for the annual wildebeest migration that involves the treacherous crossing of the Mara River, usually around July or August. It’s also easy to spot many of the great cats here. For example, I took the picture above from my car window.
Ngorogoro Crater — Tanzania
This crater formed millions of years ago when a giant volcano exploded. Now it’s a large natural zoo, containing thousands of animals that use this area as a good place to munch on grass and each other. You can camp at the edge of the crater, but don’t walk out of your tent at night. You might walk into a lion, elephant, or warthog! The best thing about the Ngorogoro Crater is the campground itself. Animals freely walk in and out of the crater and often through the unfenced campground. I love trying to fall asleep hearing hungry lions howling in the distance. That’s what makes this place great. It makes you feel alive.
Okavango Delta — Botswana
The Okavango Delta is basically a big swamp that drains inland into the Kalahari Desert. This phenomenon has caused Okavango Delta to be a haven of wildlife such as crocodiles, elephants, and lions. Once again, there are a number of accommodation options here. My favorite has been a permanent tent overlooking the swamp. You can hear elephants and hippos walk past at night. Safaris here are different — they usually involve canoeing in a mokoro (a hollowed-out piece of fiberglass). Once you reach dry land, there are walking safaris throughout the delta, and you will most likely come across animals just doing their thing.
There are many ways to book one of these safaris. You can book directly in the relevant country or before you go. You’ll usually find cheaper options if you book directly in the country. But no matter where you go or how you get there, a safari will be an adventure of a lifetime.