8 of the best safari destinations in Africa

CNN  — 

With so many spectacular game reserves to choose from, determining the ultimate once-in-a-lifetime African safari experience is no easy task for travelers.

From Tanzania’s protected Serengeti National Park, to Botswana’s brutally wild Kalahari Desert, here’s our pick of eight of the finest national parks Africa has to offer.

Serengeti National Park, Tanzania

Serengeti National Park is Africa as you always imagined it, a pristine landscape of swaying savannah, dotted with flat-topped acacia and speckled with great roving herds.

The Serengeti is the setting for the Great Migration (normally from June to July and January to February,) considered the greatest wildlife spectacle on earth when over two million wildebeest, zebra and gazelle chase the rains.

A UNESCO World Heritage Site, this area offers the same sort of phenomenal predator sightings that you’d expect from the neighboring Masai Mara National Park in Kenya (part of the same ecosystem,) but lion and cheetah chases at Serengeti are often enjoyed without another vehicle in sight.

Some visitors might be frustrated by the great expanses of plains to be covered between sightings, but the feeling of being just a dot in the immensity of Africa is part of the appeal.

For first-timers: Safari novices might want to consider starting their Tanzania trip with a day or two at Ngorongoro Crater, where the Big Five (lion, elephant, buffalo, rhino and leopard) are often all visible in a single morning’s game drive. After that the pressure is off – they can sit back and take the thrill of the Serengeti as a bonus.

For old hands: Allow more time for the Serengeti to really get under your skin and head for the less visited areas near Namiri Plains or around the Grumeti River. An often-overlooked alternative to the Serengeti is Tanzania’s Selous Game Reserve, which offers world class lion and painted dog (or wild dog) sightings.

For more information on Tanzania safaris, visits Safari Bookings.

Kidepo Valley National Park, Uganda

Kidepo Valley National Park boast at least 86 mammal species.

Kidepo Valley National Park might be the most beautiful park in all Africa.

With the sweeping plains of Kidepo and Narus Valleys overshadowed by the brooding mountainscape of Mount Morungole (the sacred peak of the mysterious Ik people,) this park has huge appeal just for scenery alone.

Tag on incredible animal sightings and tiny visitor numbers, and you have a winner.

The voracious Kidepo lions prey on roving herds of more than 4,000 buffalo (the total population in the park is said to be about 13,000) and you will often see herds of elephants moving majestically along the valleys.

The park’s isolation is off-putting for many, but the 12-hour road trip from Kampala, Uganda’s capital, (or a fairly expensive private charter flight) is a small price to pay to discover one of Africa’s genuine hidden gems.

For first-timers: If the journey to Kidepo is not appealing, Murchison Falls National Park is hard to beat for the sheer drama of the falls themselves and for the easy wildlife viewing from cruise boats.

For old hands: Even for those who’ve seen everything else that Africa has to offer, Uganda is perhaps the best destination on the planet for ape watching. Gorilla viewing at Bwindi Impenetrable National Park is a life changing experience and chimpanzees can be tracked on foot at Kaniyo Pabidi.

For more information on Uganda safaris, visit Natural World Safaris.

Hwange National Park, Zimbabwe

Hwange is Zimbabwe's biggest national park, covering more than 14,600 square kilometers.

Hwange National Park is arguably the most underrated wildlife park in Africa.

Zimbabwe’s biggest national park (with almost the same land area as Hawaii) is said to boast a greater diversity of mammals (108 species) than any other national park in the world.

It has the greatest concentration of big land animals anywhere on the planet, yet sees so few tourists that the vast elephant population (roughly 46,000) outnumbers foreign visitors by almost 200 to one.

Hwange is also prime predator territory with “super prides” numbering more than 20 lions (powerful enough even to hunt young elephants,) hyenas, leopards and the enchanting painted dogs.

For first-timers: Combine with a lakeside vacation at Lake Kariba or an introductory safari at Zambezi National Park which, despite its diminutive size, offers a chance to see elephant, giraffe, buffalo, hippo, crocs and even lion within a stone’s throw of the legendary Victoria Falls.

For old hands: Mana Pools National Park has incredible density of wildlife and (guided or unguided) canoeing and walking activities provide a burst of adrenalin for even the most dedicated wilderness thrill seeker.

For more information on Zimbabwe safaris, visit African Bush Camps.

Samburu National Reserve, Kenya

Often overshadowed in the minds of visitors by the celebrated Masai Mara, Samburu National Reserve offers a wilder side of the Kenyan safari experience.

The Samburu people (frequently confused with their southern cousins, the Maasai) offer a similarly colorful cultural appeal in what was once Kenya’s Northern Frontier District, but few villages see many visitors and the Samburu’s sense of hospitality remains legendary.

Apart from the premier league wildlife sightings that draw most visitors to southern Kenya, Samburu National Reserve is also home to an impressive “second division” which local guides call the Samburu Special Five (featuring Beisa oryx, reticulated giraffe, Grevy’s zebra, Somali ostrich and the elegant gerenuk antelope.)

For first-timers: The Masai Mara National Reserve – sometimes called “the greatest wildlife real estate on Earth” – is a must-see sight for any wildlife fan.

Rather than placing an emphasis on staying at a camp in the center of the (unfenced) park, it’s worth considering staying on a private concession which can offer experiences such as walking safaris and night drives featuring the same wildlife but with a level of exclusivity rarely found in the heart of the world-famous Mara.

For old hands: The 150-kilometer long Matthews Range is barely known, yet this jungle-clad “island in the sky” has been described as a “biological bonanza,” a place where you can walk in the presence of lions, buffalo and the world’s densest concentration of melanistic black panthers.

For more information on Kenya safaris, visit Porini Safari Camps.

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Kalahari Desert, Botswana

Kalahari Desert covers most of Botswana as well as parts of Namibia and regions of South Africa.