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The secret seven: Lesser-known safari destinations

Think you know African safaris? Think again. While classic destinations such as Kenya, Tanzania and Botswana’s mega-bucks reserves grab the lions’ share of big game-spotting tourists, lesser-known nations are coming out of the bush with innovative walking safaris, regenerated game parks and pioneering eco-retreats

The secret seven: Lesser-known safari destinations
Lion cubs. Image: Corbis.

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An African safari trip is a storyteller’s dream. A few days immersed in the sights, sounds and smells of the bush can deliver unexpected experiences, stirring instincts you perhaps didn’t realise you had.

There’s something profoundly thrilling about locking eyes with a lion on the prowl, hearing the bellow of an angry elephant or catching the ripe, musky whiff of sun-baked earth after a sudden storm. If you love waking with the thought, ‘I wonder what will happen today?’ and ending the day with a fresh batch of campfire tales, you’ll want to return again and again.

Africa’s big-hitting wildlife destinations — Kenya, Tanzania, Botswana, Zambia and South Africa — have perfected the art of safari. By offering fun, no-frills trips, ultra-luxurious escapes and everything in between, they cater for all tastes. But they’re by no means the only places to go. Dotted around the safari heartlands are less-visited nations, each offering something different. These are the ones to try for unusual habitats, rare species on a trip that’s not too polished or predictable.

There’s much to be said for choosing lesser-known safari destinations. The more outside interest in these places, the greater steps governments and communities may take to make conservation a priority.

 

Lesser known safari destinations - African elephants, Hwange National Park

African elephants, Hwange National Park, Zimbabwe. Image: AWL Images.

01 Zimbabwe

Where elephants rule and lions roar

Where: Hwange National Park
Great for: Old school wildlife watching

“If I spot a dangerous animal in the distance, you might see me do this,” says Sibs Sibanda, our guide, pulling a little pouch of ash out of his pocket. He shakes it to test the breeze. “If the ash drifts away from the animal, that’s a good sign — it’s upwind of us.”

“And if it drifts towards it?”

“We stay together, and we stay calm. I’ll let you know exactly what to do.”

We’ve picked a good day for our bushwalk — still, bright and clear. Cape turtle doves coo softly from false mopane trees, a southern ground hornbill booms in the distance and raindrops from a predawn downpour cling prettily to the grass. It’s a scene as innocent as a spring morning in the English countryside. With no animals to be seen, it’s hard to imagine we have anything to worry about. But we all know enough about the African wilderness to realise things aren’t necessarily quite what they seem. As Sibs delivers his safety briefing in firm, measured tones, we pay careful attention.

“What in particular should we watch out for?” I ask.

“Lions, out in the open,” says Sibs. “They hate it when the grass is wet.”

Until now, there’s been a mildly gung-ho mood in our little group. But the thought of a face-to-face encounter with a huge, damp, grumpy cat is sobering. When Sibs says it’s time to go, we obediently fall into single file, alert to further instructions.

This is our second morning in Hwange National Park, a swathe of arid woodland and grassland as vast as Yorkshire and Lancashire combined. Founded in the 1920s, it was once one of southern Africa’s prime wildlife destinations, but it’s been off the radar for most overseas visitors since the early 2000s, when political uncertainty and rampant inflation caused Zimbabwe’s tourism industry to hit the buffers. Woefully underfunded, the park has limped along, its wildlife suffering additionally from water shortages and poaching by impoverished locals, desperate for food.

Despite being home to more elephants than it can handle, Hwange has a strangely empty, frontier feel. But with EU sanctions now lifted, constitutional reform in progress and economic recovery on the cards, its fortunes may be about to turn. Our first day in the park was spent exploring in an open-sided safari vehicle — bumping along tracks shaded by magnificent teak trees, our eyes peeled for lions, elephants, giraffes and anything else that cared to show itself.

From the start, it was obvious that Hwange is not like other flagship parks. Elsewhere in Africa, animals are so used to vehicles that elephants gaze mildly into your camera lens and lions laze about in plain sight. Game drives can sometimes be, dare I say it, a bit dull. But in Hwange, things are different. Here, the elephants don’t just gaze — they toss their ears and advance emphatically, to show you who’s boss — and the lions make themselves scarce. Tourists, it seems, do the same. The only other vehicle we saw all day was from our own safari lodge, Davison’s Camp. We waved madly, like long-lost friends.

Like most of Hwange’s private safari camps, Davison’s is luxurious enough to satisfy the well-off Americans who kept coming to Zimbabwe while so many others stayed away. But unlike some of the top-end camps in neighbouring South Africa, Botswana and Zambia, it’s unfenced, eco-friendly and unfussy. Ignoring recent fads for showy architectural details, bright fabrics and found-object sculptures, it has comfy canvas tents with polished floors and broad decks. Vintage photos and leather sofas lend old school, no-nonsense charm to the main tent, where there’s always a decanter of sherry left out by the smiling staff for pre-dinner drinks. Open on one side, it looks out onto grasslands where elephants graze freely.

Bushwalking in lion and elephant country isn’t to be taken lightly, so I was delighted when Sibs, a highly qualified Ndebele guide, agreed to take us out.

Primed for adventure, we follow Sibs along winding paths, made by antelopes and blue wildebeest. Magpie shrikes whistle at us as we pass, and wild herbs release their scent. “Look — a giraffe walked this way,” says Sibs, pointing to a hoofprint in the sand. “There are no rain patterns or dew in the spoor, so it must have been less than an hour ago.”

We discover other tracks: waterbuck, eland and elephant. “You can tell from the way the front and back prints coincide she was walking slowly,” says Sibs, pointing to the elephant track. “That’s because she had a youngster with her — here!” Sure enough, there are mini-me tracks close to the big ones.

Once we’re safely back in camp, I ask Sibs how often he’s found himself in a really worrying situation while out on a bushwalk in Hwange. He’s gently evasive. “I’ve been in danger,” he says, “but it’s not really in my nature to be scared at the time. I just focus on what I have to do. It’s only later that I might look back and think, that was close.”

“Have you ever been caught by surprise?”

“When I’m not really expecting anything — that’s when I’m most alert.”

The lions elude us all day, but after dark they at last make their presence felt, roaring throatily once we’re tucked up in our tents. They’re too far away to be any cause for concern, yet my heart does a somersault each time. This venerable park may have been through tough times, but it’s thoroughly wild at heart — and there’s nothing more thrilling than that.

How to do it
Expert Africa offers three-nights at Davison’s Camp, Hwange National Park, from £2,080 per person, including flights with British Airways or South African Airways from Heathrow to Victoria Falls via Johannesburg.

The mainstream alternative
For a safari in a blockbuster destination, try Tanzania’s Selous Game Reserve, Botswana’s Chobe National Park or Zambia’s South Luangwa National Park, which is excellent for walking safaris and rustic bush camps.

 

Lesser known safari destinations - Namibia Kunene Region

Namibia Kunene Region. Image: Emma Gregg

02 Namibia

Life In The Desert

Where: Kunene Region
Great for: Driving the dunes

After a day driving through scorched, cinnamon-coloured Namib landscapes, we spot an animal that’s as brown as the crumpled peaks beyond — an elephant, pacing slowly along the sand as if focused on conserving energy with every step. As we watch, more appear — an extended family of females and youngsters, the tiniest just months old.

We’re in Kunene, in Namibia’s northwest corner, a remote and starkly beautiful region of rugged, arid mountains scored by sandy seasonal river gorges, snaking their way towards the Atlantic coast. To the region’s desert-adapted elephants, these valleys serve both as highways and sources of water. The feet of desert elephants, which are larger than those of savannah elephants, are sensitive to the tiny vibrations that signal there’s a subterranean watercourse somewhere below. If the signal is strong enough, they dig with their tusks, and drink.

Namibia’s desert elephants are elusive, but the dry Huab River is one of the best places to encounter them. As we explore by 4WD, we keep passing big, broad footprints in the sand and finding heaps of dung in the dappled shade of camelthorn trees. Camelthorn pods, pale and curved like cashew nuts, are a favourite snack for elephants in Southern Africa. The Huab herds have clearly been enjoying them to the full.

Our base in southern Kunene is Damaraland Camp, a 10-room luxury retreat — its modern, understated design lets the landscape do the talking. The pride of Torra Conservancy, this camp is a model of conservation-focused, community-based tourism, managed by one of Africa’s most enlightened safari companies, Wilderness Safaris, and staffed by clued-up, motivated locals. Ten percent of turnover goes to a local trust, ensuring the community has good reason to keep this fragile environment pristine.

Further north, there’s more desert magic at Serra Cafema, one of Namibia’s remotest and most bewitching camps, perched at the end of the Hartmann Valley, an undulating ocean of sand. The Kunene River powers past the camp with unexpected force, but within metres of its albida-shaded banks the desert resumes and every species we encounter seems to be the product of some miracle or other. Fascinated, we hear how tenebrionid beetles harvest moisture from fog-laden early morning breezes, discover bug-eyed Namaqua chameleons and admire the chiselled silhouettes of oryx.

How to do it
Wildlife Worldwide offers a seven-night flying safari staying at Little Kulala, Damaraland Camp and Serra Cafema from £4,195pp, excluding international flights. South African Airways flies from Heathrow to Windhoek via Johannesburg.

The mainstream alternative
While the Namib Desert is unique, Namibia’s other vast desert, the Kalahari, spreads into Botswana and northwest South Africa, both of which have appealing desert lodges. Within Namibia, the leading safari destination is Etosha National Park. Already superb, over $41m (£25.4m) has been spent improving its infrastructure over the past five years.

 

Lesser known safari destinations - Ibo Island, Mozambique

Ibo Island, Mozambique. Image: Emma Gregg

03 Mozambique

Bush, beach & beyond

Where: Mozambique Niassa Reserve and the northern coast
Great for: Sea and safari

In recent years, safari enthusiasts had high hopes for Gorongosa National Park in central Mozambique — once one of Africa’s top wildlife strongholds. Philanthropists spent millions restoring Mozambique Niassa Reserve in the 2000s, relocating animals, beefing up security and reversing damage done by years of civil war. So far, attempts to re-establish its tourism infrastructure have faltered, but Gorongosa’s supporters press on. In the mean time, you can enjoy a rough-edged Mozambican safari in Niassa Reserve in the far north.

This tangle of deciduous woodlands is easily Mozambique’s largest conservation area and a prime habitat for birds and rare animals such as sable antelopes and wild dogs. It’s also home to over 12,000 elephants. At Lugenda Wilderness Camp, one of the most remote retreats in the country, elephants often amble past the tents to munch on wild figs.

To wash away the dust in the most appealing way possible, head east to Mozambique’s northern Indian Ocean coast, where mainland eco-lodges Guludo and Nuarro and barefoot-luxury island lodges Ibo, Vamizi and Medjumbe invite you to relax. With village visits, birding, whale-watching and diving to choose from, this is the perfect tropical escape.

How to do it
Tribes Travel offers 11-night bush-and-beach safaris in Mozambique from £3,445 per person, excluding flights. South African Airways flies from Heathrow to Pemba via Johannesburg.

The mainstream alternative
In Tanzania, combine a Serengeti safari with a few days blissing out on the island of Zanzibar. Or try South Africa — while you won’t find tropical islands here, there are fine Indian Ocean beaches in KwaZulu Natal and the northeastern parks and reserves offer first class wildlife-watching.


Read more in the December 2014 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)

 

 

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