Author/Contact: Craig R. Sholley
Who hasn't dreamed of going on a wildlife-viewing safari to sub-Saharan Africa? Inspired by the wish to observe exotic animals in their natural environment … the promise of grand adventure … and the opportunity to experience traditional African culture … each of us has a unique vision for our African "trip of a lifetime."
But where to start? The continent is vast and the terrain breathtakingly varied, with thousands of fascinating wildlife species. Every African country is unique in the quality of its parks and reserves, roads and other infrastructure, visitor accommodations and receptivity to tourists. Creating an itinerary and arranging travel logistics can intimidate even the most enthusiastic tourist.
"First-time visitors tend to have certain expectations about the wildlife they want to see and the people they will encounter," observes Craig Sholley, a conservationist with an extensive background in safari planning who recently joined AWF as a full-time staff member. "So I usually direct them toward Kenya, Tanzania, maybe South Africa, and Botswana and/or Namibia."
Sholley says most people want to see Africa's "Big Five" group of animals - buffaloes, elephants, leopards, lions and rhinos. Determining such specific interests and the kind of personal experience you desire will help you shape an itinerary and will make overall planning of your safari a more manageable process.
African, or Cape, buffaloes were once popular trophies for hunters, and these large and often dangerous animals have continued to capture the imagination. The buffaloes found abundantly in Kenya and Tanzania are the savanna type; the smaller forest buffaloes exist only in West Africa.
Kenya's Amboseli National Park tops Sholley's list of the best places in East Africa to view elephants "up close." In Amboseli because of long-term behavioral research, the animals are accustomed to visitors. Tarangire National Park in Tanzania is an increasingly popular tourist destination: The striking landscape features many uniquely beautiful baobab trees and more than 2,600 elephants and other animals roam the park. Visitors can see elephants travel to and from the river every morning and evening to drink, bathe and play.
You can view leopards and lions in many locations. The vast Serengeti plains host leopards, lions and cheetahs; Serengeti National Park in Tanzania extends into Kenya's Maasai Mara. In Tanzania, Ngorongoro Crater, said to be the world's largest intact crater, boasts a large population of carnivores - lions, cheetahs, leopards and three species of jackals.
Find the waterways, and you'll discover hippos and, if you plan carefully, rhinos. You can see black and white rhinos at Kenya's Lake Nakuru and at Lewa Downs, a private ranch and rhino sanctuary in central Kenya.
For some, no safari would be complete without encountering the magnificent mountain gorillas. Sholley himself worked in Rwanda with the late Dian Fossey in 1979-1980 in her efforts to protect the gorillas. He later directed the project that evolved into the International Gorilla Conservation Program (IGCP) - a joint program of AWF, Fauna and Flora International and the World Wide Fund for Nature.
Although many first-time visitors travel to Africa primarily to see large mammals, the continent also is home to big, wondrously colored birds - for example, bee eaters, ostriches and bustards. Even if you're not a birder, be prepared to be impressed by Africa's avian population, warns Sholley. "I've escorted many people with no interest in birds who became great enthusiasts. It's impossible to ignore a congregation of flamingos or crowned cranes - or to fail to appreciate their beauty."
You can enjoy birding in all the national parks in Kenya and Tanzania, but Queen Elizabeth Park in Uganda is probably the best place in Africa to see birds. The 770 square miles of plains, rivers, lakes, swamps, forests and craters feature 540 bird species - including pelicans and kingfishers - and also host buffaloes, chimpanzees, elephants, hippos and tree-climbing lions.