After a dozen years living and working throughout Africa—studying monkeys in Kenya’s Samburu National Park, directing Peace Corps operations in Uganda, and passing through nearly every other nation—I learned one indispensable truth about travel here: There are no sure things. The animals may or may not appear; the terrain may or may not be navigable; and the weather can be as unpredictable as the elections. But I also discovered a few places in East and southern Africa that deliver nearly every time I visit. (And these days, who really wants to gamble their hard-won travel dollars?) Within these two vast regions, you’ll find the best parks, the most game, and (no kidding) reliable infrastructure. It’s a dizzying variety, which is why I’ve selected my 12 favorite places—from the slopes of Mount Kenya to Zimbabwe’s Mana Pools—as well as the top outfits to get you where you need to go. Consider these four pages your inside line to travel in Africa.
When it comes to sheer beauty and diverse landscapes—alpine meadows, moorlands, and more than 20 glacial lakes—17,058-foot Mount Kenya (not Kilimanjaro) is the best on the continent. Just below the summit, Point Lenana is surrounded by the snowcapped remains of a shattered volcano. It looks a bit like the Swiss Alps, but with elephants, duikers, and colobus monkeys on the hike up. Adventure Consultants is one of the only outfitters to offer trekking to Point Lenana as well as a 703-foot technical climb up to the Batian summit (nine days, from $4,450 per person; adventureconsultants.com).
Dropping out of the central highlands and into Kenya’s Northern Frontier District, Samburu National Reserve is the most beautiful park in the country. I’m biased, though: I was once based here as a vervet monkey researcher. From Elephant Watch Camp, on the banks of the muddy Ewaso Ngiro River, you’ll spend each day with indigenous guides, observing and tracking elephants as part of an ongoing study by Oria Douglas-Hamilton (who runs the camp too) and her husband, Iain, who has spearheaded elephant conservation efforts in Africa for more than four decades (doubles from $550 per person; elephantwatchsafaris.com).
The crowds flock together like so many egrets in East Africa’s most popular reserve. Eschew the masses and head into the Mara Triangle—a 200-square-mile region bounded by the Tanzania border, the Mara River, and the Oloololo Escarpment of the Rift Valley. In early autumn the wildebeest herds gather here before migrating south, back to the Serengeti. The Mara Serena Safari Lodge offers off-the-front-porch access to wildlife and the Triangle, closer to the action than any other lodge in the Mara (doubles from $575; serenahotels.com).
The Swahilis who inhabit this seven-island archipelago are among the world’s last surviving maritime cultures, and hand-built wooden dhows and donkeys are still their primary mode of transport—there are four cars in the whole island chain. Opt for a daylong dhow safari with a Swahili captain at the helm. Activities include hand-lining red snapper for dinner, snorkeling off empty beaches, and exploring stone villages that date to the days of Sinbad (a.d. 1000). The locally owned Peponi Hotel will make all the arrangements (doubles from $285; peponi-lamu.com).
Every September, tens of thousands of zebras, wildebeests, oryx, and elephants launch their seasonal migration (peaking in November) from Tarangire, a park that package tours often skip because it’s farther from the main safari route. All the better for the rest of us. Bush guide Paul Oliver, who set up Oliver’s Camp, scouted the ideal places to catch the herds in motion. Wildland Adventures, our 2009 top-rated Do-It-All outfitter, is the best group to get you there (Tanzania Luxury Walking Safari, ten days, $5,795 per person; wildlandadventures.com).
Few places in Africa still offer nature on a truly grand scale. At 5,700 square miles, the Serengeti tops this list. You can four-wheel your way for days across grasslands shared by more than two million gazelles and wildebeests, and encounter huge prides of lions camped out on kopjes—granite outcrops that stand like lookout towers above the plains. If there was one park in Africa to spend more time in, this is it. Unique Safaris, owned by local guides, is the Serengeti master (Best of the Serengeti, ten days, from $4,883 per person; uniquesafaris.com).
The bad news: Fewer than 800 mountain gorillas remain in the wild, and they might become extinct in this lifetime. The good news: Nearly every major wildlife conservation group in the world is working overtime to prevent this from happening. At Bwindi Impenetrable National Park, Uganda-based veteran Volcanoes Safaris runs trips for many top international outfitters. Book direct and they’ll arrange a trek in steep, often wet terrain, all for a close encounter with a silverback. Don’t let the sweat or the pricey gorilla-watching permit deter you—this is a life-changing experience (four days, from $2,308 per person, permit included; volcanoessafaris.com).