The places that take your breath away
1 Ngorongoro Crater
A spectacular natural arena for one of Africa’s greatest concentrations of wildlife, Ngorongoro Crater is a vast caldera, up to 19km wide and surrounded by 600m-high walls. In addition to large herds of zebra, buffalo and antelope, the crater has over 30 black rhino and a thriving population of elephant – including some impressive tuskers. At least 500 hyena prowl the crater’s grasslands, competing with the 60-odd lions for the position of top hunter. A few cheetah manage to hold out amongst these bolder predators, while leopard are sometimes seen in the forest of yellow-bark fever trees. Bat-eared fox and golden jackal are regularly spotted, while hippo are a regular feature of the swamp area. Flamingos and other waders can be found around Lake Magadi, but the plains are also teeming with birds, including kori bustard, crowned crane and rosy-throated longclaw.
2 Okavango Delta
Reaching like a green-fingered hand into the Kalahari, the Okavango is a water-wilderness of floodplains, reedbeds, papyrus swamps and wooded islands – a unique inland delta laced with a vein-like network of channels. Expanding and shrinking with the seasonal ebb and flow of floodwaters from Angola, the Okavango is one of Africa’s most enigmatic wildlife destinations. From tiny frogs perched on reed stems to herds of lechwe splashing through the shallows, the delta supports a wealth of species. You’ll find abundant birdlife, the big five and one of the continent’s largest surviving populations of African wild dog.
3 Namib Desert
The world’s driest and most ancient desert, the Namib was spawned by the relentless waves of the Skeleton Coast some fifty million years ago. If enough rain falls on the mountains to the east, the Tsauchab River springs to life and rages towards the desert, a flash flood tearing through Sesriem Canyon before surging along the Corridor. But the rejuvenated river never reaches the coast. At Sossusvlei it is choked by a range of immense sand dunes. On the rare occasions (roughly once every ten years) when the vlei, or clay pan, is full it forms a natural oasis teeming with flamingos, dragonflies, frogs and other wildlife.
4 Victoria Falls
Mosi-oa-Tunya, ‘The Smoke that Thunders’, was how the local Makololo people described Victoria Falls, and explorers were equally spellbound. “Scenes so lovely must have been gazed upon by angels in their flight,” wrote Dr David Livingstone when, in 1855, he became the first European to explore the area around the Falls. Over 100m high, 1,700m wide and disgorging up to 500 million litres of water every minute, this World Heritage Site has become Africa’s undisputed adventure capital. On the Zambian side of the Falls, Knife Edge Bridge leads to a spectacular viewpoint of the Eastern Cataracts, but getting airborne in a helicopter is the best way to fully appreciate the scale of this natural wonder. Downstream of the Falls, the Terminator, Devil’s Toilet Bowl, Gnashing Jaws of Death and other grade five rapids conspire to form the world’s wildest one-day whitewater rafting experience.
5 The Great Migration
The stage is set: 40,000 square kilometres of tawny savannah, flushed green in places by recent rains and scattered here and there with acacia woodland and jumbled rocky outcrops. A few rivers claw their way across the plains, while distant hills and volcanoes pimple an otherwise unblemished horizon, stretched taut beneath towering African skies. Enter the leading cast: 1.5 million wildebeest, 500,000 Thomson’s gazelle, and 200,000 plains zebra. Waiting in the wings, lion, cheetah, hyena and crocodile prepare for their killer cameos. The supporting cast completes the scene: everything from the hippo to the dung beetle has a role to play in this wildlife extravaganza. Essentially, the Great Migration is an endless search for food. The grazers move to where the grass is freshest – and that depends on where the rains have fallen. It’s the weather that controls the herds, spinning them in a giant clockwise rotation through the Serengeti-Mara ecosystem. Red tape is trampled under some eight million hooves as the ungulate legions cross back and forth between Tanzania and Kenya. Nor do they respect the boundaries of the two flagship reserves in the area (the Serengeti National Park and Masai Mara National Reserve), instead spilling out into neighbouring conservancies to mingle with Maasai cattle.
6 Ethiopian Highlands
With stomach-churning escarpments, broad river valleys and mountain plateaux rising to over 4000m, the Simien Mountains have some of Africa’s most dramatic scenery. Allow anything from three to 10 days for a trek taking in Geech Abyss and 4543m Ras Dashen, keeping an eye out for the area’s indigenous wildlife. Large groups of 500 or more gelada baboons – formed by several harems joining together – graze grassy meadows, retreating at dusk to sheer cliff faces which offer better protection against predators. Walia ibex also inhabit precipices and knife-edge ridges beyond the reach of the highly endangered, coyote-sized Ethiopian wolf. Among the 180 species of birds in the Simien Mountains, two of the most conspicuous are the lammergeier and thick-billed raven.
7 Luangwa Valley
Covering 9050 square kilometres of woodland, grassland and wetland, South Luangwa National Park is a veritable Eden, teeming with over 60 species of mammals and well over 500 species of birds. The endemic Thornicroft’s giraffe and Cookson’s wildebeest are found here. South Luangwa also supports around 15,000 elephant and one of Africa’s densest leopard populations. Lion and hyena are also abundant, while antelopes range from bushbuck and waterbuck to sable and roan. Pods of hippo clog lagoons and river channels, particularly during the hot, dry season in September and October when enormous flocks of red-billed queleas stream across the valley, gathering to drink around dwindling pools. Carmine bee-eaters arrive to nest around this time – technicoloured heralds of the imminent rains.
One of the world’s greatest floral spectacles, the mass flowering of Namaqualand transforms a vast swathe of semi-arid desert in the Western and Northern Cape Provinces into a petal patchwork each August and September. The region’s showcase reserve, Namaqua National Park has 3500 plant species – a third of which are found nowhere else. Bulbs, daisies, succulents and grasses carpet the plains, attracting butterflies and nectar-sipping sunbirds. The world’s smallest tortoise, the Namaqua speckled padloper, can be found here, along with meerkat, porcupine, klipspringer, aardwolf and the endangered Hartman’s Zebra. Goegap Nature Reserve is particularly good for succulents and birds like black eagle, while West Coast National Park is frequently carpeted in spring daisies.
9 Mt Kilimanjaro
Rising in magnificent isolation, the largest freestanding volcanic mass in the world towers 4877m above the plains of Kenya and Tanzania – reaching a height of 5895m. The Roof of Africa has three main volcanic peaks (Kibo, Mawenzi, and Shira), while its slopes are clad in distinct vegetation zones, ranging from cultivated foothills, montane forest, heath and moorland to alpine desert and snow-capped summit. Every year, around 25,000 people attempt to scale Kilimanjaro – around two-thirds are successful. The oldest person to reach the summit has been 87-year-old Frenchman Valtee Daniel, while the fastest verified ascent is by Italian Bruno Brunod, who reached Uhuru Peak in 5:38:40. The safest way to scale Kili is to plan a slow ascent of around five days to allow for altitude acclimatisation.
10 Rift Valley Lakes
One of the world’s great ornithological spectacles, saline Lake Bogoria is wreathed in pink by hundreds of thousands of lesser flamingo and smaller numbers of greater flamingo. Lake Nakuru is also pretty in pink, albeit with fewer flamingos, while the papyrus-fringed freshwater lakes of Baringo and Naivasha are aflutter with African fish eagles, pied kingfishers, pelicans, storks, ducks, herons and cormorants. Kenya’s Rift Valley Lake National Parks also support abundant mammals – notably greater kudu at Bogoria, and Rothschild’s giraffe and both black and white rhino at Nakuru.