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There are few travelers who haven’t dreamed of jetting off to Africa to witness wildlife that they’ve only seen on-screen or in zoos. It’s famous for the remarkable diversity and richness of animals with everything from zebras, giraffes, lions, and leopards to gorillas, hyenas, elephants, hippos, penguins, and whales. Of course, as the world’s second-largest continent, how do you know where to go for optimal sightings? To plan your bucket-list trip, you’ll want to put at least one of these places on your itinerary.
Boulders Beach - Simon's Town, South Africa
Located just outside Simon’s Town, a suburb of Cape Town on the Cape Peninsula in South Africa, Boulders Beach is famous for its penguins. There are thousands of African penguins here with summer the peak time to visit. You might even see one of the adorable birds featured in the documentary “Penguin Town,” in addition to being able to swim in the calm, clear blue waters with the ancient granite boulders protecting it from the wind and large waves.
Amakhala Game Reserve - Eastern Cape, South Africa
Amakhala is a private game reserve with 18,000 acres inhabited by cheetahs, giraffes, elephants, zebras, wildebeest, lions, rhinos, monkeys, buffaloes, various antelope species, and more. It offers day safaris and overnight accommodation options with expert guides who will help you track the animals and tell you more about what you’re seeing. There are night drives for viewing nocturnal creatures and cruises on Bushman’s River too.
Ngorongoro Crater - Tanzania
Ngorongoro Crater is where you’re practically guaranteed to see leopard, lion, elephant, rhino, and buffalo, otherwise known as the “Big Five.” Hyenas, cheetahs, jackals, serval cats, and wild dogs are all here too. In the Conservation Area, over 550 bird species have been recorded. If you visit in January you’ll be able to experience the remarkable sights and sounds of thunderous hooves traversing the landscape as over a million wildebeest and several thousand zebra make their annual migration. Plus, the high walls of the crater itself are covered in forest, while the floor includes swamps, glades, acacia forest, and even a lake.
Volcanoes National Park - Rwanda
The small country of Rwanda in the heart of Africa is home to mountains and hills that are enveloped in mist every morning and inhabited by gorillas, which is where “Gorillas in the Mist” came from. Volcanoes National Park is nestled here in the forest, home to two-thirds of surviving mountain gorillas with the latest population estimates at just 880. There are groups of gorillas available for scientists to study and 10 groups that are accessible to tourists via operators that run tours tracking the silverbacks and their troupes.
Kruger National Park - South Africa
Kruger is a top destination for wildlife in Africa, with a good chance to see the “Big Five” along with hippos, crocs, and giraffes, among many other animals. In fact, it boasts the greatest variety of wildlife you’ll find anywhere on the continent, with 145 different mammal species. There are countless species of birds too, including massive raptors and eagles, colorful hornbills, and parrots. Plus, it’s easily accessible and well-maintained, ideal for a more affordable self-drive safari.
Plettenberg Bay, South Africa
Plettenberg Bay is one of the best places to see humpback whales, Southern right whales, and Bottlenose dolphins. You can often spot them from Whale Tail Point, but for closer encounters, head out on a whale watching tour. There are many Cape fur seals and you can even jump in and swim with them while they perform their underwater acrobatics in the seal colony at the Robberg Nature Reserve. One can hike the Robberg trail for the chance to spot more than 100 bird species, mongoose, and marine life, including whales, dolphins, seals, great white sharks, and Cape clawless otters.
Lake Nakuru National Park - Kenya
Located in one of Kenya’s most popular national parks, Lake Nakuru was once famous for its flamingos, with millions taking advantage of the lake’s algae to feast on. Population numbers have decreased in recent years due to rising water levels, but the park is still well worth visiting for its wildlife and landscapes that include rocky escarpments soaring over waterfalls, acacia forest, wooded hills, and euphorbia trees. Waterbucks, hippos, baboons, many different monkey species, impalas, giraffes, and white rhinos are frequently spotted too. Lion Hill, Baboon Cliff, and Out of Africa are great viewpoints for picnicking while enjoying the sights.
Moholoholo Rehabilitation Center
The Moholoholo Rehabilitation Center offers a different experience. Rather than track animals, you’ll get to enjoy close encounters with lions, leopards, and other creatures who are being cared for after being orphaned or injured. The center has been featured in many TV shows, including “Wild Orphans” a National Geographic Channel series about its young animals. The primary philosophy here is that awareness is key for saving the quickly disappearing wildlife on our planet.
Solio Game Reserve - Nyeri, Kenya
Nestled in the valley between the slopes of Mount Kenya and the rolling peaks of the Aberdare Mountains in north-central Kenya, Solio Reserve is the oldest private rhino sanctuary, was created in 1970 to protect around 250 black and white rhinos. It’s widely regarded as the best destination to marvel at these increasingly rare species. If you stay at Solio Game Lodge, which sits right within the 16,800-acre reserve, you can also visit the adjacent Ol Pejeta Conservancy, a mixed wildlife and cattle ranch operation with four of the world’s seven known northern white rhinos and 88 eastern black rhinos.
Hwange National Park - Zimbabwe
Zimbabwe’s largest national park, Hwange covers 3.4 million areas and is inhabited by one of the densest concentrations of wildlife in all of Africa. It’s home to roughly 100 different mammal species, with an abundance of elephants, wild dogs, and buffalo, while giraffes, cheetahs, leopards, and lions are frequently seen too. The elephants are the star of the show with the largest population you’ll find anywhere. Top viewing is between July and October when wildlife gathers around the water holes. There are guided bush walks, sunset, and night drives available for taking it all in.
Maasai Mara National Reserve - Kenya
The Maasai Mara National Reserve is like a real-life “Out of Africa,” with nearly endless savannah plains where diverse wildlife roams. Big families of elephants, buffaloes, lions, and hippos are commonly spotted between July and October, the same time when one can witness wildebeest, zebra, and gazelle that stampede across the plains in search of greener grass. Horse riding safaris are possible here – you’ll ride polo ponies right alongside zebras and wildebeests, passing elephants, giraffes, lions, and more.
Serengeti National Park - Tanzania
Serengeti National Park is one of the most famous in all of Africa, known as one of the top spots to experience the two million animals that make the more than 1,800-mile-long journey as part of the world’s largest migration. It includes large numbers of zebra, eland, impala, Thomson’s gazelle, and Grant’s gazelle, with August and September the best time to catch it. There are opportunities for sightings of elephants, lions, and leopards too, while the sunrises are absolutely stunning.
Madikwe Game Reserve - South Africa
Located near the border of Botswana in South Africa, Madikwe Game Reserve offers a more traditional safari experience in a 270-square-mile area of open plains and rocky outcrops, with few large trees, in part because of the many elephants here. On game drives, you’ll see few other vehicles but you can expect to spot the Big Five, especially if you’re here on a multi-day trip. Other animals regularly sighted include spotted hyenas, giraffes, hippos, zebras, baboons, kudus, and impalas. There are also more than 400 species of birds, including large flocks of yellow-throated sandgrouse on the plains.
Ruaha National Park - Tanzania
Ruaha feels like Africa of long ago, home to all the major safari animals other than rhinos. It has a wild, untamed feel with the highlight wild dogs as this is one of the few places in the world where they can be seen. There are many different types of antelope, including rarer species like sable and roan, along with buffalo, lion, and Grant’s gazelle.