Safari holiday should be on everyone’s wish list of life’s greatest adventures. In Swahili, the lingua franca of East Africa, the word itself translates as “going on a journey”. Today it means taking the camera and going to the last place on earth where wildlife exists in its old abundance to reach out and touch the wild, to spend time in the sun and under the stars and come face to face with Africa’s wildlife, not behind bars but moving free as the wind across the savannah – these are what make this a holiday like no other.
But if you are planning a once-in-a-lifetime sojourn in the bush it has to be East Africa. Nowhere else are animals so visible as on the high plains of the Maasai Mara and Serengeti, and the land itself is quite something. To look down into the immense basin of the Ngorongoro Crater is like standing at the gates of heaven.
East Africa and Kenya in particular has a safari industry that is backed up by an efficient tourist infrastructure with a dazzling choice of camps and lodges to suit all budgets and travelling by road helps keep the cost down and is a good way of seeing more of East Africa. This is, after all, where modern safaris were invented back in the twenties when there were no roads and accommodation.
It was the old-time trophy hunters who called Africa’s most dangerous game the Big Five: elephant, Cape buffalo, rhino, lion and leopard. Today, together with other charismatic species such as cheetah and the endangered wild dog, they sit at the top of most must-see lists. The big cats can be elusive and half the fun is searching for them. Antelopes, zebras and giraffes are more abundant and just as beautiful. Don’t forget the birds, at least 1,000 species, or the “Small Five” (buffalo weaver, elephant shrew, ant lion, rhino beetle and leopard tortoise).
Going up market opens up all kinds of possibilities, including direct flights into the bush by light aircraft that cut out long road journeys and game drives with expert local guides in open four-wheel-drive vehicles purpose-built for better viewing. Travelling with a professional guide can make a world of difference to your holiday. The elite few at the top of their game can charge a fortune per day, but it doesn’t have to cost you the earth since African Outback Wildlife Safaris employs only the best and most experienced driver guides that accompany you through out your safari.
On safari you have the opportunity to stay at East Africa’s most exclusive luxury camps and lodges or a combination: a sojourn in Big Five country followed by a chance to relax beside Mombasa on the shores of the Indian Ocean.
Kenya’s most popular safari destination is the Maasai Mara National Reserve. This is where the BBC’s Big Cat Diary is filmed, and there is nowhere better for close encounters with lion, cheetah and leopard. Very different are the dry country parks of northern Kenya. Samburu is renowned for elephant, Grevy’s Zebra, Reticulated Giraffe, Gerenuk, Somali Ostrich,Beisa Oryx, while Meru was the home of Elsa, the Born Free lioness, and Lake Nakuru National Park is a showcase for flamingo and rhino. Tsavo is so big it is split into two parks, Tsavo East and Tsavo West, and combines well with a trip to Kenya’s glorious Indian Ocean coast. Also well worth considering are Laikipia and Amboseli.
The most popular time is in the dry season from June to October, the African winter and dawn game drives are very popular. April and May are best avoided: this is the climax of East Africa’s rainy season, when bush roads become impassable and camps close down. The annual wildebeest migration takes place in Kenya’s Maasai Mara reserve between July and October when the herds spend the dry season crossing and recrossing the Mara River in their search for fresh grazing. As a spectacle it is matched only when upwards of a million wildebeest and 250,000 zebras gather on the rain-soaked plains of the southern Serengeti to give birth in February.
Tanzania welcomes visitors with wonderful views of Kilimanjaro, Africa’s highest mountain (19,000ft). Kilimanjaro airport or nearby Arusha town are the main departure points serving the northern safari circuit by road and air. Allow a full day to explore Lake Manyara National Park and at least another for the Ngorongoro Crater before setting foot in the Serengeti. This park is huge approximately, 14,000square kilometres, so you need to plan carefully if you want to see the migration. Afterwards, where better to relax than Zanzibar with its coral-sand beaches and barefoot beach lodges?