For many, an African safari represents a once-in-a-lifetime dream trip. We've rounded up some of the best that the continent has to offer, but with a warning that after you've experienced any of these safari adventures, once in a lifetime—or, for that matter, one entire lifetime—may just not be enough.
Khwai River Lodge—Okavango Delta, Botswana
Set the bar high on your safari experience right from the start. One of Botswana's oldest lodges, Khwai River Lodge was founded by Harry Selby (later immortalized in Hemingway's The Snows of Kilimanjaro) at his favorite campsite. Selby knew how to pick a spot, and this true classic remains a prime location for elephants, hippos, and countless savanna species, and is a known predator hot spot. A private concession, Khwai offers night drives and walks in addition to the standard game drives, which are limited to just six guests per vehicle (making every seat a "window" seat). The lodge's "tent" accommodation is so luxurious (with comforts like AC and Wi-Fi) that apart from the unhindered view of the Khwai River meandering by, you might forget that you're smack dab in the middle of a vast wilderness.
Hmmm . . . tracking gorillas in the forest or following a lion pride along the Zambezi? It's an apples and oranges dilemma, but you can't lose with either of these options.
Gorilla Tracking—Bwindi Impenetrable Forest, Uganda
Few experiences can rival that of sweating it out up steep tropical hills and slipping down muddy ravines in search of mountain gorillas. Think you're hard core? Head to Uganda's Bwindi Impenetrable National Park: the name of this World Heritage Site says it all. The terrain's steep slopes, covered in dense foliage, require a stout heart (and stronger legs), but the hour you'll spend with these magnificent animals will make light of the Impenetrable Forest's rigors. Your suffering will be but a distant memory once you've returned to Bwindi Lodge—separated from the jungle by a mere stream, it's not uncommon for the gorillas to pay a visit to the eco-lodge's front door. (Tip: Book your mountain gorilla trek with the experts at Volcanoes Safari).
Stalking Giants with Goliath—Mana Pools, Zimbabwe
Ever dreamed of tracking a lion pride on foot or paddling up to an elephant in a canoe? A trip with Goliath Safaris in Zimbabwe's legendary Mana Pools National Park is your golden ticket. Operating seasonally (May to November) on the banks of the Zambezi River, this owner-operated luxury tented camp recalls the original safari concept: a true wilderness experience with a focus on getting up close and personal. Walks are led by renowned guide Stretch Ferreira, whose 30 years in the park ensure that guests experience the terrain—whether tracking predators or walking with old elephant bulls—as the animals do. While catering to the adventurous, Goliath doesn't skimp on luxuries, such as comfortable en suite tents just a stone's throw from the river's edge, and excellent meals.
For Luxury Seekers
Singita Sasakwa—Grumeti Reserve/Serengeti, Tanzania
Across Africa, the name Singita is synonymous with over-the-top luxury in sublime settings. Of its four properties gracing the Serengeti's Grumeti Reserve, Singita's flagship Tanzanian lodge is Sasakwa. The view across the majestic Serengeti plains from Sasakwa's spacious veranda will make your heart soar, while the East African-inspired elegance of the main manor house (all mahogany paneling and chandeliers, set against zebra-skin throws and finely woven grass mats) will tickle every Out of Africa fantasy you've ever harbored. Eight equally show-stopping "cottages" (each with its own infinity pool), and a super-luxurious spa and gym complete the picture.
Singita Boulders—Sabi Sand Reserve, South Africa
The one thing you can be sure of on safari? You won't go hungry. Most high-end lodges serve four meals a day, striving to make every one of them memorable. At the top of the foodie pile stands Singita Boulders Lodge in the famous Sabi Sand Reserve. Catering to clients' every culinary need (Fish-eating vegan? No problem.), Chef Scott Ratrray's kitchen happily adjusts menus with flair. Fresh juices and baked goods are the norm, and locally sourced produce and meat support both the community and the quality of what's on your plate. Diners can expect mains like pork belly with crackling, foie gras, truffle pâté, and apple compote. Meanwhile, Boulders's wine cellar showcases an impressive selection of premium vintages. Bon appétit!
Royal Chundu Island Lodge—Zambezi River, Zambia
The safari as honeymoon has come into vogue as a great way to combine two trip-of-a-lifetime journeys into one spectacular burst of pleasure. Situated on a private 9-mile stretch of the Zambezi River, just upstream from the spectacular Victoria Falls, Royal Chundu Island Lodge is the perfect honeymoon retreat. Nestled amid an ancient baobab and Jackalberry forest on Katambura Private Island, four luxurious villas look out to private decks with open-air baths and stunning views of the river. When you're ready to emerge, a plethora of activities like sunset cruises on the Zambezi, visits to Vic Falls, game viewing in nearby Chobe National Park, fly-fishing, and river rafting, are all available to share with your sweetheart.
For the Budget-Conscious
SANParks—Kruger National Park, South Africa
Planning a safari on anything less than an earl's fortune can seem like an impossible task. But if you can live without the copper tubs and polished silver, and simply want to get into the bush and see African wildlife, South Africa's national parks system offers some amazing options. The pick of the bunch must be the renowned Kruger National Park. Access-wise, this is likely the most affordable park in its class (rent an economy vehicle from Johannesburg airport to avoid additional flights). Kruger also offers a huge variety of accommodation, from well-resourced campsites ($20/night for the site; bring your own tent), to comfortable safari tents and huts that will only set you back about $50/night for two. Campsites are situated to optimize game viewing, and Satara, Tamboti, and Lower Sabie are recommended for large cat sightings.
Mara Intrepids Camp—Masai Mara, Kenya
Though a safari can sound like a great family holiday, bumping around in vehicles appreciating vast landscapes is a pastime which, let's face it, can be a bore for the more youthful among us. There are also a lot of strict policies limiting kids' participation, as real dangers attend very young children in predator-filled areas. Thankfully, Mara Intrepids Camp runs two excellent kids programs (split by age)—children love the expert naturalist guides (they are Masai warriors, after all), who teach survival skills, plant lore, and more. A 45-minute flight from Nairobi, the luxury camp is located at the confluence of the renowned Masai Mara's top game-viewing areas, ensuring spectacular viewing for the grown-ups too.
More Insider Safari Tips
Want to know what to wear on safari? Check out What to Pack on Safari article.
We've also rounded up our favorite books to help you gear up for the big adventure.
For even more safari tips, read last year's safari planner guide.
Photo Credits: Khwai River Lodge: Frameworx/Orient-Express Hotels Ltd; TK; Goliath Safaris: Courtesy of Goliath Safaris; Singita Sasaskwa: Courtesy of Relais & Chateaux; Singita Boulders: Courtesy of Relais & Chateaux; Royal Chundu Island Lodge: Courtesy of Royal Chundu; Kruger NP Skukuza main camp: Courtesy of Siyabona Africa; Mara Intrepids: Courtesy of Heritage Hotels