Growing up, Africa always played a big role in our imaginations. Beautiful and primeval, the birthplace of life, it is a quintessential destination for those who long for the wilderness and all the rawness it brings.
The word "safari" traditionally meant journey in Swahili. Since Africa has so many areas where you can encounter wild animals in their natural habitat, just choosing one can be an arduous process.
To help narrow down choices, we've picked some of our favorites. But no matter what you choose, remember, in the bush, one can never truly know what new experiences each day will bring - perhaps even all of Africa's Big Five - lion, leopard, elephant, black rhinoceros, and African buffalo.
From Tanzania to South Africa, here are some of the best safaris to head down for in Africa to satiate your lust for adventure.
One of Africa’s finest parks and famous for its massive annual migration of wildebeest and zebra, Serengeti is synonymous with classic African scenery. Spread over 12,000 square miles - Serengeti means "endless plains" in the Maasai language - the best time to visit the Unesco World Heritage Site is June and July to watch over two million wildebeest, zebra and gazelle migrate from the Serengeti to the Maasai Mara Reserve in Kenya.
The Serengeti ecosystem is one of the oldest ecosystems on the planet and is significant as its weather patterns, fauna and flora are believed to have changed very little for as long as a million years or more. Serengeti is also famous for its campsites and lodges that will manage to keep just about every kind of traveler happy.
Lake Manyara National Park, Tanzania
One of Tanzania's smaller parks, Manyara is an excellent example of the Tanzanian safari experience. The safari runs for 50 km along the base of the 600-metre high Rift Valley.
Among the highlights of the park are tree-climbing lions, baboon troops and flamingoes. Compared to Serengeti, it gets fewer visitors as it is seen as a soft safari, but it perfect for a first taste of Africa. Reaching there is relatively easy too, it's a 90-minute drive from Arusha and around an hour from the Ngorongoro Crater.
The dry season (July to October) is the best time to be able to see the larger mammals that inhabit the park, whereas November to June is better for those who are avid bird watchers.
Tarangire National Park, Tanzania
With gently rolling grasslands dotted with majestic trees, Tarangire National Park, which is described as one of Africa's "most underrated parks" is a haven for viewing elephant migration. Located in the Manyara region, only a fraction of travelers reach the park as compared to the others in Tanzania itself Game season (June to October) is the perfect time to view wildlife like the towering African elephants and giraffes, as well as the mass migration where animals migrate to the park for water from the Tarangire River. Other animals that can be found nowhere else in Tanzania are also spotted occasionally, from tree climbing pythons, the rare African wild dog and the fringe-eared oryx. Owing to its swamp network in the eastern and southern regions of the park, it is a birder's paradise.
Easily accessible from Arusha or from Lake Manyara, visitors even get a chance to views ancient rock paintings while marking on guided walking safaris. Since many travelers miss it altogether, leaving much of the Tarangire untouched, the quiet of the park allows for a very authentic experience.
Maasai Mara National Reserve, Kenya
At the border of Tanzania, Maasai Mara National Reserve is Kenya's essential safari destination where you can easily spot all of the Big Five. With several different ecosystems to offer and an abundance of big cats, the safari makes for a trip of a lifetime. The mass migration that begins in Serengeti continues as hordes of wildebeest, gazelle and their natural predators cross the magnificent Mara River between July and October.
Hyenas, jackals, buffalos, wildebeest, elephants, giraffes, and antelopes can be seen in very large numbers, as can many other species of birds and reptiles. 'The Mara' as it is called by those who have witnessed its awe inducing beauty, is an ideal photographic safari. Travelers can also get an extra taste of what life is like among the Maasai people as special experiences include trips to traditional villages.
Ngorongoro Conservation Area, Tanzania
The Ngorongoro Conservation Area, a World Heritage Site, is an eye-opening experience largely because of it volcanic crater, which is the largest unbroken caldera on Earth. The bowl-like depression acts as a congregation point for all sorts for over 20,000 species, including the Big Five, rose-coloured flamingoes, the critically endangered black rhinos and one of the largest tusker elephants. In fact, UNESCO has deemed it as "one of the greatest natural wonders of the planet". It is said that you do not even have to leave your lodge or camp to see the wildlife wonders the conservation area has to offer.
Importantly, the area has been instrumental for studying life and human evolution because of a paleoanthropological site known as Olduvai Gorge, which holds some of the oldest evidence of human life.
In fact, the Maasai tribespeople still live in the area, as do the Hadza, a hunter-gathers who have a unique clicking language. Those visiting can stay in nearby Karatu with its relatively few tourists and go on biking and walking tours.
Kruger National Park, South Africa
Kruger National Park is the flagship park of South Africa and is spread over nearly 2 million hectares of land. Situated near the border of Mozambique, it is a great option for first time visitors to Africa, particularly for its many varieties of accommodation, from basic camping sites to luxury stays. Initially opened to control hunting in 1898. The best time to visit the park, where one can grab a sight of the Big Five and the vulnerable South African cheetah, is between October and March. Visiting the northern sector of the park is a rewarding experience by those willing to make the effort as the wilderness looks truly untouched as compared to the southern sector, which sees an endless stream of tourists for most of the year. Another defining feature is the Sabie River, where you can even spot the occasional leopard.
Managed by South African National Parks (SANParks), Kruger National Park is essentially a self drive destination, making it ideal for an independent safari.
The Central Kalahari Game Reserve, South Africa
Not much prepares you for the soul changing views offered by the Central Kalahari Game Reserve, South Africa. Covering a large part of central Botswana, this is the second largest wildlife reserve in the world at 52,800 square kilometres and is not for the faint hearted. From giant ostriches, kori bustards, secretary birds and abundant birds of prey, to thousands of oryx, springbok and wildebeest, the reserve boasts of a diverse array of wildlife. Lions, cheetahs and jackals are not uncommon sights, nor is the honey badger, one of the world's most tough creatures.
Among one of the most pristine and remote areas in Africa, it looks wild and untouched - there are no shops, no internet coverage or even electricity. Nights are dark enough for you to spend your time staring up at the vast expanse of stars that fill the sky and even trace out patterns in the Milky Way. To gain entry into the reserve, it is important to be equipped with everything you'll need and a 4-wheel-drive vehicle. Bushmen trackers normally accompany visitors, giving them an insight into the history of the land.
Chobe National Park, Botswana
Described as an elephant's playground, with an estimated 120,000 of the great grey animals living within the park's borders, Chobe National Park lies adjacent to the Okavango Delta in the northwest corner of Botswana. With four very distinct ecosystems - the Serondela area, Savuti Marsh area, the Linyanti Marsh and the dry hinterland - it is an explorer's paradise as each area has something to offer.
The best time to visit is the dry season, which lasts from April to October, as that is when thousands of elephants, cape buffaloes and other animals gather to drink along the banks of the Chobe River. Visitors can take a boat cruise down the river, or drive on the road along its edge to see giraffe, lechwe, kudu, puku, lion and leopards.
It is also one Africa's top venues for bird safaris with more than 400 species of birds from the Sacred ibis and Egyptian Geese to the various varieties of kingfishers and eagles.
The main entry point is the border town of Kasane, and while the eastern portions of the park are much busier with more lodges and camps, the western region is remote and lush.
South Luangwa National Park, Zambia
If you're in the mood for walking safaris, look no further than South Luangwa National Park, Zambia's flagship park, which allows for a wilderness experience like no other. The best months to visit are the wetter months (November-April) which are fittingly referred to as the ‘emerald season.
Located in Eastern Zambia, it is a birder's paradise - about 400 species have been recorded - but is also home to herds of antelopes and elephants, majestic lion prides, the extremely endangered African wild dog and unique species of zebra and giraffe.
As the concentration of wildlife that roams near and around the Luangwa River is one of the highest in Africa, there's no chance that you will not see a hippo lazing about in the water. The best time to visit is the dry season as most of the wildlife is driven by a need to move towards the river.
Bwindi Impenetrable National Park, Uganda
Located in southwest Uganda, Bwindi Impenetrable National Park lies on the edge of the renowned Rift Valley. The park is home to the critically endangered subspecies of mountain gorillas. In fact, nearly half the world's population of mountain gorillas can be found in Bwindi along with baboons, chimpanzees, and several other mammals including antelopes and elephants.
You can even track the park's habituated gorilla groups on foot, allowing you to get an up close and personal experience. The varieties of birds are also diverse, as there are more than 20 endemic species.
Special experiences also include a visit to the Batwa pygmies - the indigenous people of Rwanda - that have occupied the area for over 60,000 years. One way to do so is to opt for the Batwa experience, which reenacts how the Batwa lived in the forest before being exiled from their lands when the area was officially converted into a park by the government in 1991.
Hwange National Park, Zimbabwe
One of the least crowded major safari destinations is Hwange National Park. The Park lies on the eastern edge of the Kalahari Desert and is an hour’s drive south of the mighty Victoria Falls. The Park has a lot to offer, particularly when it comes to elephants. There are a lot of options to choose from to get a glimpse of Hwange's glorious 50,000 strong elephant population, which include walking safaris, night safaris and horseback safaris. If luck swings in your favour, there are even chances of catching a glimpse of the elusive African wild dog or even a lion.
With dramatic scenery, the park offers an array of wildlife with around 100 different kinds of mammals and over 500 species of birds. One marked feature of Hwange is its lack of permanent sources of surface water. Instead, animals rely on waterholes, of which a large number dry up during the drought years. Conservation efforts have helped restore a few, but there is still a lot of work to be accomplished.
With good infrastructure in place and camps working hard to put an end to poaching, it's a bit of a DIY park. Making it even easier is the fact that Zimbabwe has some of the friendliest local populations and some excellent game drivers.
Queen Elizabeth National Park, Uganda
Queen Elizabeth National Park is Uganda’s most popular savannah reserve and is perfect for observing Africa's primate population and is best known for its gorilla trekking. Leopard sightings are common, and the Isasha sector is famous for its tree-climbing lion. Huge herds of buffalo and elephant are found in the savannah areas and once can find a staggering 610 bird species.
The park is situated on the foothills of the Ruwenzori Mountains. Tthe most accessible part of the park is the open savannah, however large forest areas like the Kyambura Gorge and the Maramagambo forest in the southeast are open to the public as well.
Though the park suffered because of poaching during recent years, wildlife is returning to it at an astonishing speed. To visit it at its lushest best, March to May and August to December are the best times to embark on your adventure.