Is there anything more suitable to escape the daily hustle and bustle than roaming one of many insanely beautiful national parks on the African continent? If you ask me….no, there’s not. These pockets of pure natural happiness, gems of a bygone era where the animal kingdom was the only kingdom to be found on this tiny little planet. Don’t get me wrong, there’s an abundance of slices that can provide me a decent of joy, but only when you are truly experiencing the natural beauty that’s within many of these parks you’ll discover that each and every one of them is unique in their own way and deliver sights and memories which are incomparable.
Hence why I want to highlight 5 of my favorite national parks on the continent which will leave you breathless from the moment you set foot in them. And because I’m a nice guy (just take my word for it) I’ll even throw in some tips for accommodation that is almost on par with the natural beauty of the surrounding area.
Okavango Delta, Botswana
Also known as the “Jewel of the Kalahari” this unique and lush area in northern Botswana is truly remarkable. Being the largest inland delta in the world, it provides much needed water in an area that is otherwise very dry, creating a massive green oasis for wildlife to roam and thrive. And because of the massive amounts of water that come into it, you’ll soon find out that getting to your lodge is going to be dome by either helicopter or small aircraft. But don’t let this be a downside, on the contrary! From the air you get an amazing view and you’ll even be able to spot your first wildlife.
During the winter months, the largest amount of water reaches the delta, flooding several plains and creating a maze of small channels through which you can navigate in a mokoro (wooden canoe). What surprised me the most when I visited the Okavango Delta first, was the cheer amount of animals that we encountered during our whole stay. Everything from elephants and giraffe to lions, leopards and wild dogs. Without a doubt one of the national parks in Africa where wildlife is the most abundant. Another fun thing to do here is a heli safari, which allows you to discover large chunks of the area while spotting plenty of animals.
While it might not be the most accessible, it is one of the places in Africa where luxury safari camps are as plentiful as the wildlife. One of my favorites is Mombo Camp. Its prime location in the middle of the Moremi game reserve which is situated within the Okavango Delta is one of reasons why you want to stay here, but equally the fact of knowing that this is one of the most eco-friendly camps in Botswana makes for a good reason to consider mombo camp. Not to mention the beautiful suites that provide views of the floodplains and from where you’ll regularly spot animals walking past or grazing in the not so far distance.
Virunga, Democratic Republic of Congo
Created in 1925 it’s the oldest national park on the African continent, and till today it is still one of the most diverse and mind-blowing places to visit in the whole wide world. Unfortunately the park had to deal with a lot of troubled times in this part of Africa, resulting in low visitor numbers, a more fragile infrastructure and often a life outside the spotlight. But times have changed and since 2010 the African Conservation Fund took over the management of the park. Since then there have been lots of initiatives to make it more accessible and tourist friendly, but also the documentary movie “Virunga” put the park once again firmly on the map. Big shots like Leonardo DiCaprio and others also helped to create more awareness and much needed funds in order to maintain the conservation initiatives that have continuously been going on.
Virunga is one of the three places in the world where you can see the mountain gorillas in their natural habitat, with the other two being located just across the border in Uganda and Rwanda. It also holds a treasure of other animals that roam around freely in the park like elephants, lions, hippos and so much more yet getting a chance to see any of the later is hard due to the ongoing security issues and lack of infrastructure. But trust me, I visited the park for the gorillas and it didn’t disappoint a single second. On top of that you’ll get the insane chance to climb the Nyiragongo volcano which holds the largest active volcano lake. And to add that extra sprinkle of adventure you’ll be sleeping on the edge of the crater while listening to the rumbling of mother earth’s belly. Truly an insane experience which is unrivalled anywhere in the world.
While there aren’t many options to choose from when it comes to accommodation, Mikeno Lodge will not let you down. This is simultaneously the place where you’ll find the Senkwekwe centre, the only place in the world where they take care of orphaned mountain gorillas. So during your stay and in between the activities you’ll be able to visit the center and see what an amazing job they are doing. Each of the 12 bungalows at Mikeno lodge will provide you with all the amenities and luxury you need, and the chef will make sure none of the guests will start any trekking with a hungry feeling. My favorite spot though (besides sitting a few feet away from the gorillas or on the craters edge of the volcano) is sitting around the giant fireplace at the lodge, overlooking the lush green canopy while sipping your favorite tipple.
Namib Naukluft, Namibia
Everyone recognises the images from Sossusvlei where these old trees standing in the middle of a dried up basin surrounded by towering red sand dunes. Well, this is one small part of the massive Namib desert which is equally the oldest desert in the world. And in order to protect this area, Namibia decided in 1979 to create the Namib Naukluft national park which is situated in the southwest of the country. Visiting this place is truly like stepping into a whole new world, where humankind hasn’t interfered with nature and where the sun and wind are calling the shots.
The area is vast, so make sure you take your time to truly discover it. One of my favorite things to do (besides visiting the earlier mentioned Sossusvlei) is climbing on some of the large sand dunes. Here you’ll find some of the highest sand dunes in the world reaching heights well above 300 meters. You can even climb some of them, for example the famous Big Daddy or Dune 45. Just know you’ll still find those red sand grains weeks later at your place and they will instantly put a smile on your face. While it’s one of most dry places on this earth, you will still be surprised by the amount of wildlife that lives in this part of Namibia. Oryx, zebra and even leopards are just a few of the animals you might spot during your visit.
And while the harsh climate might make it near impossible to survive in this area, there’s no need to be roughing it when staying here. The &beyond Sossusvlei Desert Lodge is the perfect place if you want to discover the area while enjoying all the modern day luxuries….and then some! Being heralded as one of the finest in the country it offers amazing views over the dunes and gravel plains from everywhere in the lodge, be it the dining area or your private pool. On top of that they offer amazing cuisine and boast an amazing wine cellar where I would happily spend a full vacation if it wasn’t for the amazing area it was located in. They also offer all kinds of cool experiences going from desert drives and stargazing (this is one of the best places in the world to do so) to e-biking and flying over this vast landscape in a hot air balloon. Truly a stunning place to stay!
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Kruger, South Africa
The Kruger national park doesn’t need any introduction unless you’ve been living under a rock for several decades and a documentary for you is a fancy word for some sort of stationary. Otherwise you know this is by far the most well-known national park in South Africa and it was equally the first park to be recognised in 1926. Its infrastructure is often a point of debate as many don’t like the fact that is can accommodate Such large numbers of visitors thanks to its rest camps, tarred roads, shops,… and to be honest I generally agree. However on the other hand it allows a lot of people the chance to discover this amazing place on a budget which is rare when we talk about safaris and game reserves, and I’m a firm believe that we need to show this natural wonder to as as many as possible in order to bring awareness to the fragile state some of the wildlife is situated in.
There’s also something called the Greater Kruger National Park and this comprises all the privately owned game reserves which border Kruger National Park to the west, often without any fencing allowing the animals to roam freely from one part of the park to another. These game reserves like Sabi Sands, Thornybush, Timbavati and so on surely ring a bell to those who have a keen interest in safari and wildlife. In these privately owned reserves you’ll find dirt roads and luxury lodges instead of tarred roads, rest camps and so on. Guests are also not allowed to drive themselves in them which instantly avoids any unruly behavior which sometimes can be witnessed in Kruger. Nonetheless, the main reason for visiting this area of South Africa is being among the wildlife and believe me when I say it’s around in abundance, irrelevant if you visit the big park or one of the privately owned on the side.
One of my favorite lodges in this area is the Royal Malewane which is part of the luxurious Royal Portfolio. It offers 3 different options: The Lodge, The Farmstead or Waterside. Irrelevant of which one you prefer or choose, it will be a stylish, high-end and fun affair topped off with an amazing guiding team that is widely regarded as the most qualified in Africa. The unique style from Liz Biden (one of the owners) can be found in every nook and cranny, remembering your stay will be one to. And if the amazing game drives, wonderful suites and impeccable guest service aren’t enough you’ll be glad to know that the culinary delights that color your day at every given moment will surely have you come back in a heartbeat, not to mention the amazing wines and spirits they serve with it! Truly a magical place that equals the beauty of the park it is located in.
Maasai Mara, Kenya
Another big name on this list is the Maasai Mara which is actually not a national park but instead a national game reserve named in honor of the beautiful Maasai tribe that has been living here for centuries. It is very similar to the other famous national park being the Serengeti which is located in Tanzania and this is because they border each other with no visible or physical fence, allowing the wildlife to migrate from one part to the other. The culmination of it all happens during the great migration when hundreds of thousands of wildebeest and zebra cross the Grumeti and Mara river in order to reach new grassland. So it shouldn’t come as a surprise that it is one of the seven natural wonders of Africa and equally one of the ten wonders of the world.
Unlike many of the safaris you’ll experience in South Africa, Zimbabwe and so on the Maasai Mara mostly consist of large plains where the animals are roaming around, often just grazing the hours away. Of course, predators are always on the lookout and this allows for some spectacular sightings. Large herds of wildebeest, gazelles, zebra and so on are the perfect food source for lions, cheetah and leopards, and as a result there’s a big chance of spotting some of the elusive big cats.
The game reserve might not be as massive as Kruger or the Okavango, but it still offers a wide variety of accommodation going from basic all the way to ultra luxurious with all the bells and whistles. While it’s impossible to pick a favourite, I do feel like Elewana Sand River Masai Mara is the perfect lodge that blends details referring back to the old days with modern comfort and luxury. Its location near a river also guarantees some amazing wildlife sightings from the comfort of your luxurious tent. One thing you can’t deny yourself when visiting this slice of heaven is a balloon safari over the reserve, as it is truly something spectacular.