Dictionaries define a safari as an overland journey or hunting expedition in Africa. The word safari is derived from the Arabic, safara, meaning `to travel'. But how have safaris developed since the days depicted in old sepia photographs of men in pith helmets standing, rifle in hand, framed by the massive tusks of the elephant they have shot -- tusks the like of which we will never see again?
Safaris have always been and remain a romance with the wild. For the vast majority of people today, the motivation is to venture into unspoilt wilderness and experience nature up close, following the conservationists' creed of `taking only photographs and leaving only footprints', rather than trophy hunting.
Here we set out to consider the main options for photographic safaris. The picture is not comprehensive. Rwanda's Parc de l'Akagera for example, would rival any reserve in Africa for its beauty and the rich diversity of its wildlife, but it lies far off the beaten track and so is accessible to only the most determined travellers. Cameroon, Zaire, Malawi, Mozambique and Ethiopia similarly have fantastic opportunities for viewing wildlife but they too are outside the mainstream.
Kenya is the spiritual home "of safari and still the most popular safari destination for first time visitors bent on seeing the `Big Five' of lion, leopard, elephant, rhinoceros and buffalo, and the vast herds of plains game. For some years Kenya has suffered a reputation for woefully over-crowded parks. While it is undeniably true that an intimidating stream of minibuses pour out of the large lodges in the Masai Mara and Amboseli National Park, with a little local knowledge and effort you can escape the crowds and enjoy the wildlife in perfect peace. Those prepared to venture beyond the standard safari itineraries will find a country which has an incredibly diverse range of ecosystems with stunning unspoilt scenery, fabulous wildlife and one of the few places in Africa with a strong traditional tribal life.
Kenya's prime draw is the 1,800 [km.sup.2] of rolling plains and rounded hills of the Masai Mara. Each year, from July to October, the Masai Mara is the scene of the greatest animal migration on Earth as hundreds of thousands of wildebeest and Common zebra cross the Mara River from neighbouring Serengeti in search of fresh grazing. The massed plains game attract Kenya's highest population of predators, particularly lion and cheetah.
Equally popular and accessible from Nairobi, Amboseli is compact and offers easy, reliable game viewing from a vehicle against the classic backdrop of snow-capped Mt Kilimanjaro. The park is famous for its large herds of elephant and has plentiful plains game and predators. Slightly farther southeast, Tsavo East and West once held some of the largest concentrations of elephant in Africa until a combination of prolonged drought and uncontrolled poaching decimated the herds in the 1970s and 80s. Tsavo is a vast wilderness area and although nothing like back to its former game levels, it is gradually rehabilitating and offers an escape from the crowds.
Africa's Rift Valley runs through the length of Kenya. On the valley floor, freshwater and alkaline soda lakes support a staggering array of birdlife. The soda lakes, Nakuru, Bogoria and Magadi, are rich in blue-green algae which attract millions of deep pink Lesser Flamingoes and crustaceans and insect larvae which draw the paler Greater Flamingoes while pelicans swarm after shoals of fish.
In the centre of the country, the alpine moorland and montane forests of Mt Kenya and the Aberdares conceal rare Bongo Antelope, Red Duiker, suni, bushbuck, Giant forest Hog and Colobus Monkeys.
North of Mt Kenya, the landscape becomes increasingly dramatic and arid. Samburu Reserve and Meru National Park, together with a number of private ranches such as Lewa Downs, provide the chance to see Beisa Oryx, the tightly striped Grevy's Zebra, Reticulated Giraffe and gerenuk. For bird watchers there are Somali Bee-eaters, Rosy-patched Shrike, Golden-breasted Starling and Golden Pipit. The far north is a wild and desolate region of scrub desert, dry river beds and barren lava fields waiting to be explored as you cross the Chalbi Desert towards Lake Turkana, Kenya's Jade Sea.
Tanzania has arguably the best known wildlife reserves in the world; the Serengeti and the Ngorongoro Crater. It also contains some of Africa's largest protected areas yet it receives less visitors than Kenya. Safaris in Tanzania tend to be more expensive due to the higher costs of both international and internal flights, and higher park entry fees. You can expect to spend more time in vehicles getting from place to place and there is nowhere near the range of lodges found across the border, nor are lodge standards on the whole as high. But all of these negative factors are more than compensated by the space and wildness.
Serengeti National Park covers 14,500[km.sup.2] of open plains dotted with rock outcrops, acacia woodland and scrub. During the migration from November to June, there are an estimated 1.5 million wildebeest, 350,000 Thomson's Gazelle and 200,000 Common Zebra. The best time to visit is in February when up to 8,000 ungulate calves are born every day. More than anywhere else in Africa, you are conscious of the constant cycle of birth, life and death as the herds and their entourage of predators move continually in pursuit of fresh grazing.
A short distance to the east lies one of the most spectacular wildlife haunts in Africa, the Ngorongoro Crater, the world's second biggest caldera. The views from the rim are breathtaking, while deep inside, the crater floor teems with game. The grassy plains, shallow brackish lakes, swamps and forest hold all of the Big Five and most of the major n species of plains game, as well as Grant's Gazelle, eland, cheetah, hyena and Wild Dog. Farther east again, Lake Manyara National Park is renowned for its diverse birdlife and tree-climbing lions. It was here that Ian and Oria Douglas Hamilton conducted their ground-breaking research into the social structure and identification techniques of elephant in the 1970s.
Tanzania's southern circuit centres on Ruaha National Park and Selous Game Reserve. Africa's largest reserve, the Selous is a massive 55,000[km.sup.2] of trackless wilderness covered by brachystegia and miombo woodland, palm-fringed swamp and sand rivers. Most of the reserve remains inaccessible and is dedicated to hunting. The few lodges catering for photographic clients cluster around the confluence of the Great Ruaha and Rufiji rivers at the northern end of the park. This is Africa in the raw. Go quietly and you may be rewarded with sightings of packs of Wild Dog, large prides of lion, elephant, Brindled Wildebeest, Lichstenstein's Hartebeest, kudu, Roan and Sable Antelope.
In the west of Tanzania, on the shores of Lake Tanganyika, lie two small isolated reserves, Gombe and Mahale Mountains. The former is the site of Jane Goodall's research station, and both are home to substantial chimpanzee populations. Their montane forest, grassland and alpine bamboo also accommodate Red Colobus Monkeys, Defassa Waterbuck, buffalo and leopard.
Uganda is re-entering the safari scene, now that its security situation is generally improving and the game-stocks are gradually being restored after years of poaching. Uganda is known for its lush vegetation, rolling grassy plains, lakes, swamps and tropical forests. Bwindi Impenetrable Forest and Mgahinga in the west of the country contain 50 per cent of the total population of mountain gorillas as well as a large number of other primates. Elsewhere, Murchison Falls and Queen Elizabeth National Parks have expansive scenery, growing populations of game such as elephant and lion as well as endemic Uganda Kob and Jackson's Hartebeest. It is one of the few places you may be lucky enough to see a shoebill.
Zambia has recently come to the fore as one of the most popular safari destinations for those seeking more remote, unspoilt areas with guaranteed quality game viewing. The season is limited -- most camps operate from June to October -- and costs can be high due to the need to charter flights into remote areas. Most excitingly there are a number of areas that remain largely unexplored.
The ox bow lakes, forest and plains of Luangwa Valley are host to huge concentrations of game and were the inspiration for many of David Shepherd's African paintings. Luangwa was gazetted to protect the endemic Thornicroft's Giraffe and is also known for its high concentrations of leopard. The southern end of the South Luangwa National Park can be overly busy but move north and it is untouched. The legendary guide, Norman Carr, pioneered walking safaris here which are still a feature of a visit to Luangwa based from remote bush camps. Night drives using spotlights search for leopard but also provide the possibility of seeing civet, Honey Badger, porcupine, aardvark and Pennant Winged Nightjars.
To the west, Kafue National Park covers 22,000 [km.sup.2] of classic grassland and seasonally flooded swamp separated by the permanent waters of the Kafue and Lunga rivers. It is rich in game with large herds of Red Lechwe, puku, Defassa Waterbuck, Lichstenstein's Hartebeest and Roan Antelope. Birdlife includes the endangered Wattled Crane.
The Zambezi Valley is one of Africa's major geographical features and prime draws. It is an area of extraordinary beauty and fabulously rich wildlife. The River Zambezi forms the border between Zambia and Zimbabwe. The two countries share part of the Upper Zambezi; the Victoria Falls; Lake Kariba, and the quiet waters of the Lower Zambezi.
On the Zambian side, the Zambezi Valley is less developed and remains blissfully peaceful. You can spend days taking in the Zambezi's sensational scenery and wildlife in Lower Zambezi National Park without seeing other visitors
Zimbabwe offers more variety in terms of styles of safari than any other country. Its menu of walking, riding, canoeing, boating and traditional vehicle safaris appeals to all ages. Despite a noticeable hiking of prices by lodges recently, Zimbabwe is a suitable venue for all budgets especially if you take advantage of the national park cottages. An established infrastructure of scheduled internal flights has kept travel costs reasonable and the climate allows for almost an all-year-round safari.
The Zambezi Valley provides the main focus for safaris in Zimbabwe, coupled with a visit to the Victoria Falls. Canoe trips are the best way to experience the Zambezi. Paddling quietly along narrow side channels you negotiate your way round pods of hippos to get within feet of elephant and buffalo feeding on grassy islands. Birdlife is rich with African Skimmers, Fish Eagles, many types of heron and colonies of Carmine Bee-eaters. Kariba's lake shore supports huge herds of buffalo as well as elephant, kudu and waterbuck and the predators are never far away. The rugged hills and thick bush of Matusadona National Park overlooking Lake Kariba provide for excellent walking and the chance to track rhino on foot under the supervision of an expert guide.
Mana Pools National Park on the banks of the Lower Zambezi must qualify as one of Africa's most beautiful parks. The shaded pools, carpeted in hyacinth and lilies, attract game to drink throughout the day. Shy bushbuck, kudu, eland, impala, and elephant all take their turn while buffalo and waterbuck make their way to the sandy banks of the Zambezi. Elephants, foraging for acacia pods, wander through the tented camps overlooking the river.
Away from the Zambezi, the most visited park is Hwange, approximately the size of Belgium, and known for it heavy concentrations of game, particularly elephant and buffalo, and packs of endangered Wild Dog. Matopos National Park provides a very different landscape of wind sculpted granite hills and rock kopjes with both Black and White Rhino, a high concentration of raptors and ancient bushmen cave paintings. The montane forests of the Eastern Highlands are home to a variety of rare endemic birds, some species of antelope and leopard, and provide top-class trout fishing.
Botswana remains almost totally wild and unspoilt, partly due to its immense size and tiny population and partly due to a conscious policy by the government to pursue high cost and low volume tourism. It is a place of great contrasts from the arid salt pans, sandveld and scrub of the Kalahari to the huge water wilderness of the Okovango Delta. Internal charter flights are expensive as are park entry fees and it is essential to have a four-wheel-drive vehicle in all parks.
Botswana's biggest draw is the Okovango Delta, an incomparable melting pot for wildlife created by the outflow of the Okovango River bringing flood waters from the Angolan Highlands each year. It is only from the air, looking down at the maze of clear, reed-fringed channels, lagoons, palm-studded islands, permanent and seasonal swamps, and endless floodplains that you begin to grasp the scale of the delta.
Moremi Wildlife Reserve covers about a third of the Okovango Delta. Game viewing is conducted by vehicle, boat and mokorro, a dug-out canoe. In a single morning you can see lion, leopard, cheetah, Wild Dog and unlimited plains' game. Birdlife is similarly unequalled.
To the east, up to 50,000 elephants converge on the floodplains of Chobe National Park in the dry season. Single herds can number up to 500 animals. Chobe has resident populations of rare and endangered Roan Antelope, Sable Antelope, kudu and lechwe.
The arid reaches of the Kalahari has some spectacularly wild and remote game viewing areas. The vast surreal beauty of the salt pans at Nxai Pan and Makgadikgadi Pans with their islands of baobab trees attract huge concentrations of birdlife in the rainy season. During migration Kalahari lions follow huge herds of zebra and wildebeest which pour in to the area in search of fresh grass. Resident populations of springbok, gemsbok, elephant and giraffe mean that there is always some action.
Central Kalahari Game Reserve, southern Africa's answer to the Serengeti, sees thousands of springbok and gemsbok congregate during the summer rains. Plans to link this with the newly incorporated Kgalagadi Transfrontier Conservation Area to the southwest could make this the ultimate wild safari.
Namibia's landscape has a savage grandeur unlike that of any other African country. Lashed by the Atlantic Ocean, the Skeleton Coast forms a hostile fringe along the Namib Desert, a 120 km-wide strip of sand dunes, gravel plains, deep canyons and jagged mountains, running the length of the country. The fauna and flora that exist in this harsh and unforgiving desert environment only do so as a result of developing life systems that enable them to withstand temperatures that can top 45 [degrees] C and in years when the rains fail, survive solely on moisture derived from fog and humidity. Thus you can find desert-adapted elephant, lion and rhino, small mammals that have developed a hot weather hibernation regime and invertebrates and plants whose eggs and seeds respectively can withstand prolonged periods of drought. Inland, a high central plateau drops eastward towards the vegetated dunes of the Kalahari Desert.
The greatest concentrations of game in Namibia are found in Etosha National Park, an enormous silvery depression ringed by perennial springs. All of the common herbivores (springbok are by far the most numerous) and their main predators are found here along with Black-faced Impala, Damara Dik-dik, Roan Antelope, Red Hartebeest and Black Rhino. The Skeleton Coast is best experienced by fly-in safari if you can afford it, while the Huab Valley in Damaraland is the best place to see desert elephant.
The minimalist environment of the Namib Naukluft Park, which incorporates much of the Namib Desert, contains baking gravel plains, high rock outcrops and plunging, convoluted dry river systems. Here you find the most extreme desert-adapted fauna and flora including Hartmann's Mountain Zebra, chameleons, 1,000 year-old welwitschia mirabilis and quiver trees. Farther south at Sossusvlei are some of the highest dunes in the world where incredibly, animals such as gemsbok, side-winding snakes and fog-basking beetles still manage to survive.
Somewhat surprisingly for a country with such extreme landforms, Namibia lends itself to self-drive safaris using campsites or lodges for accommodation. Roads are excellent and many of the prime areas are accessible by two-wheel-drive vehicles.
South Africa has a broad variety of national parks and reserves, encompassing extremely diverse ecosystems, with stunning landscapes and rich wildlife, yet it is not a main safari destination. In many ways victim of its own success, South Africa's level of sophistication has removed much of the feeling of wildness. As a result safaris tend to be tacked on to tourists' itineraries whose primary focus are the vineyards of the Cape, the dramatic coastline of `the garden route' or Zulu and Boer War battle fields.
Kruger National Park is South Africa's best-known and biggest park at 19,000 [km.sup.2]. It claims the largest variety of animal species of any park in the continent with 137 mammal species and more than 450 species of birds. Less attractive, is the 1,880 km of tarred and gravel roads and an accommodation network designed to cater for up to 3,000 visitors per day. There are a variety of private game reserves with extremely luxurious lodges along the western boundary of Kruger which offer the same range of game with no crowds.
KwaZulu Natal has several parks and reserves including Hluhluwe-Umfolozi which has played a major role in saving White and Black Rhino through its successful programme of breeding and relocation Mkuzi, Itala, Tembe Elephant Park, and the coastal St Lucia and Maputa-land Reserves which are known for leatherback turtles. South Africa's wildest parks are in the northwest. These include the mountain desert of Richtersveld National Park; Augrabies Falls National Park; and the Kalahari Gemsbok National Park which has recently been incorporated with Botswana's Kalahari Gemsbok Park into the Kgalagadi Trans-Frontier Conservation Area.
South Africa is a viable destination for the budget traveller as there is an extensive system of public transport, inexpensive self-catering accommodation and an exchange rate with the rand which means that your pound goes an awfully long way.