A is for ANIMALS…
An African safari doesn’t have to be all about animals; it can be about botany, or bowling along on a motorbike like Charley Boorman. Equally, it can be about meeting the locals and swapping stories around a campfire. But for many visitors, wildlife-watching tops the agenda.
To guarantee the best possible experience, it’s worth researching destinations and operators carefully. Nature documentaries may have led you to assume Africa is one vast, wildlife-rich wilderness. In fact, the best wildlife habitats are thinly scattered and while many are accessible to travellers on an average budget, some are the preserve of hardcore adventurers, film-makers and the private-jet set.
Location and expertise, of course, are key. For varied and intense wildlife-watching on relatively modest means, the best plan is to visit one or two of the longest-established conservancies, parks or reserves with a proficient guide. An affable wildlife expert who knows the locale inside out can make a good trip unforgettable.
… and ANGOLA
Although it’s now rare to see the words wildlife, safari and Angola in the same sentence, it was once famed for its giant elephants (a 12-ton male was spotted here in 1974). However, poaching during Angola’s 27-year-long civil war has decimated its animal population.
Angola has now been at peace for over a decade. Conservation-wise, it’s still in recovery, but a few safari companies are venturing here, such as Rockjumper, whose bird-watching tours can be booked via Responsibletravel.com. www.rockjumperbirding.com www.responsibletravel.com
B is for BIG FIVE … and BOTSWANA…
Some safari-goers just want to see the Big Five. This term — coined by hunters for elephant, lion, buffalo, leopard and rhino (their most-prized trophies) — has become a safari marketing tag. If you’re set on seeing the lot on one trip, head for Tsavo West or the Ol Pejeta Conservancy in Kenya, or Greater Kruger in South Africa.
But box-ticking can divert you from a host of reserves lacking the Big Five but still delivering extraordinary sights, such as stately giraffes, sparring antelopes and sprinting cheetahs. In Botswana, for example, where rhinos are scarce, the wildlife-watching is outstanding. Specialists include Abercrombie & Kent and Ker & Downey.www.abercrombiekent.co.uk www.kerdowneybotswana.com
It’s amazing what a trained scout can spot in the distance as you squint and strain for clues, but see only a thicket, sandbank and shadows.
To give yourself a fighting chance of spotting things from afar, then, you’ll need a decent pair of binoculars. After all, you can’t rely on animals alone to deliver an action-packed experience right beside you — plus, some of the most extraordinary things you’ll see on safari are over in a flash, leaving no time for sharing. A light, compact 10×26 or 8×42 pair of binoculars will be perfect.
C is for CENTRAL AFRICAN REPUBLIC … and CONGO
Unseen birds hoot down from the forest canopy. Butterflies shimmer over my path like clouds of confetti. But there’s no time to stop and admire the absorbing details of this pungent, dripping forest.
I’m racing to keep up with my Ba’Aka pygmy guide, who has a good idea of where the gorillas we’re searching for spent the night. It’s a trek, so there’s no time to lose. Ducking under lianas that have me bent double, he sets a cracking pace. Trying not to trip over roots and logs, I squelch along as fast as my mud-caked boots allow. My guide, meanwhile, is in flip-flops.
We’re in the Dzanga-Sangha Special Reserve, in the Central African Republic (CAR). This steamy corner of Africa, far from the usual safari circuit, is in the only region where western lowland gorillas can be found in the wild.
At last, we stop and peer through the foliage. A few metres away, a silverback calmly displays his muscular bulk. Beyond him, his wives feed while youngsters tumble on the ground and spin on vines like kids in a playground. It’s a while before I remember to breathe.
It takes over three years to habituate lowland gorillas to humans. Until recently, Dzanga-Sangha was the only place where visitors had a good chance of seeing them. But there’s now a second tract of forest to try, over the border in the Republic of Congo: the Odzala-Kokoua National Park. Odzala-Kokoua is the latest chunk of over 29 million acres of tropical woodlands and wetlands in the country to be protected under the Ramsar Convention, and conservation tourism specialist Wilderness Safaris has just built a pair of camps here.
Natural World Safaris offers 12-day bespoke wildlife adventures in CAR and Congo from £5,595 per person, excluding international flights. www.naturalworldsafaris.com
Read more in the April 2013 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)