Safari tours frequently focus on the Big Five, a term originally used by hunters to describe the most difficult animals to kill: lions, elephants, buffaloes, leopards and rhinos. And against the backdrop of broad blue horizons, watching these species roam Africa's savannas can conjure some of the most breathtaking wildlife experiences you're ever likely to have. But this focus falls a long way short of covering all the wildlife that's worth seeing on this vast and varied continent. Head down to the Zambezi River to watch crocodiles digging nests and hippos wallowing in thick mud, or ascend the volcanoes of Rwanda to observe groups of mountain gorillas living in remote mist-swathed rain forests. Just try to bear in mind that the balance between the conservation and destruction of these fragile ecosystems is delicate, so choose your guides and accommodation accordingly.
At first glance, Etosha in Namibia looks an odd choice for a safari, especially during the bone-dry winter months when most travelers visit. Its primary feature is a vast salt pan shimmering in the bright sun, fringed by grasslands, camel thorn trees and waterholes. But these waterholes draw a breathtaking variety of wildlife, including some of Africa's biggest elephants, endangered black rhinos, zebra, wildebeest and antelope among many other species. Lions roam the surrounding grasslands and there's also a good chance of seeing cheetahs and leopards. In the short summer rainy season, Etosha becomes a verdant oasis and a haven for birdlife, with flocks of flamingos drawn to the glimmering pools of algae. Self-drive safaris are possible during the drier winter months (although inadvisable in the summer, when the ground is wet with rain), and several luxury lodges and camps ring the park offering inclusive guided safaris.
The largest game reserve in Zimbabwe, Hwange National Park lies between the Victoria Falls and the Kalahari Desert, and so has a varied and variable terrain composed of mopane woodland, green grasslands, seasonal wetlands and bare, sun-baked earth. This variation places it among the best sites in Africa for seeing big, serious African wildlife: it hosts an abundance of giraffes, elephants, lions, brown hyena, buffaloes and zebra, as well as perhaps the largest population of wild dogs left on the continent. Hwange is also very accessible, with several comfortable lodges and camps, including highly recommended safari destinations such as The Hide.
Volcanoes National Park encompasses an intensely atmospheric landscape in northwest Rwanda, where misty rainforest and bamboo thickets swath the slopes of a series of volcanoes. It was here that Dian Fossey, the world's most famous primatologist, studied gorillas, radically altering our understanding of these gentle mountain giants. Now, these same montane forests – which melt into Virunga National Park in the Democratic Republic of Congo and Mgahinga Gorilla National Park in Uganda – are perhaps the best place in the world to see mountain gorillas in their natural habitat. Treks into the trees depart from a number of points, and sightings, while not guaranteed, are very common, as the forests are relatively open and the gorillas remarkably relaxed.
The Luangwa River runs like an artery through the heart of Zambia's South Luangwa National Park. It supports a huge array of animal and birdlife and is fringed with dense and varied vegetation, all thriving in the fierce southern African sun. You'll see hippos wallowing in the shallows and crocodiles building nests in the sandy riverbank, while prides of up to 30 lions lounge regally around the surrounding grasslands. South Luangwa hosted Africa's first walking safaris, which continue today and are an incredibly immersive way to experience the bush: smell the baked earth, hear trumpeting elephants and watch hard-working dung beetles as you stroll spellbound through this immense life-filled wilderness.
The Lower Zambezi National Park is another sublime Zambian safari site radiating from the banks of a life-giving river, this time the mighty Zambezi. It is a raw, pristine, glorious wilderness, the private game reserve of the Zambian President until 1983 and so protected from the ravages of early unregulated tourism. It's a prettier area than South Luangwa, its landscape carpeted with thick grasslands and supporting leafy clusters of leadwoods, ebonies, acacias and figs. The valley's main predators are lions, leopards and spotted hyenas, while crocodiles lurk in the Zambezi's slow-moving water. Tourism is a little less established in this area than elsewhere on this list, but there is a still a small selection of decent camps and excellent guides.
Kruger lies at the opposite end of the spectrum to the Zambezi Valley – it is one of Africa's most famous game reserves, with a highly developed tourist infrastructure manifested in heaps of luxury lodges serving the finest of wines over sophisticated French dinners. But there is a reason the park has seen such development: it's a magnificent safari site, with more species of mammal than other game reserve including all the Big Five (lions, leopards, rhinos, elephants and buffaloes) along with giraffes, cheetahs, hippos and more. Located in South Africa, the park's southern stretches are more developed, so head north if you want a wilder experience of the bush.
Chobe is situated within the vast Okavango Delta, where the Okavango River cuts into the Kalahari Desert and spreads out across the surrounding landscape, creating a unique array of eco-systems which are contained in this national park. Lush floodplains covered with thick woodland run into lagoon-dotted marshland, while a hot and dry grassy hinterland takes up the remaining space. A dense concentration of creatures inhabits this varied terrain, including over 50,000 elephants, zebra, eland, giraffes, cheetahs and brown hyena, Running through it all is the brilliant blue of the Okavango River, a hub for the region's wildlife and a birdwatcher's paradise.
Every July, the earth in Masai Mara trembles beneath the hooves of more than two million wildebeest, antelopes and zebra, as the Great Migration crosses the border from Tanzania’s Serengeti into neighboring Kenya. And while the Great Migration is truly staggering, safaris in the reserve are a breathtaking experience year round. December to February is another highlight period, as this is the ideal time to see the big cats for which the reserve is justly famous – watch leopards lounging in trees, cheetahs pacing across the open plains, and lions sleeping in the long grass. All this unfolds on a broad, rolling landscape described by the area’s indigenous Masai people as "Mara" – "spotted," an apt description for the vast vistas of scrub and savanna marked by drifting cloud shadows.
In 1913, the American hunter and explorer Stewart White set out to explore the land south of Nairobi. "We walked for miles over burnt out country," he wrote. "Then I saw the green trees of the river, walked two miles more and found myself in paradise." He'd wandered into the Serengeti, known by the Masai people as simply "Siringitu" – "the place where the land moves on forever." Held on a high plateau between the volcanic crater of Ngorongoro in northern Tanzania and the Masai Mara Reserve, it is perhaps the quintessential African safari destination. Lions, cheetahs and buffalo can be seen on the savanna in the south of the park, elephants and giraffe in the woodland to the north, and huge Nile crocodiles and eagles in the swamps around the Grumeti River.
The world's largest caldera occupies the heart of Ngorongoro Conservation Area, a vast crater whose steep sides have created a natural enclosure for an immense variety of wildlife. It's one of the best places in Africa to see the endangered black rhino, who share the space with pretty much every other species of mammal in east Africa. Ngorongoro is also the starting point for the Great Migration: January is a particularly spectacular time to visit, as zebra and wildebeest mass in huge armies in preparation for the journey north. Semi-nomadic Maasai pastoralists also live in the area, and archaeological research has found fascinating evidence of the history of human evolution, including hominid footprints dating back 3.6 million years.