Top 10 African Safari Experiences

If you could choose one experience - one special moment - in Africa, what would it be? Tricky question, isn't it? So imagine the head-scratching, floor-pacing and heated debate that went into Travel Africa's ultimate safari experiences.

From the shores of the Mediterranean to the snows of Kilimanjaro; from mountain gorillas to whale sharks, and from rafting to pony trekking, we've sifted the highlights of this extraordinarily rich and diverse continent to bring you the best of the best. And if that wasn't enough of a challenge, we've also graded them, from No. 10 to No. 1.

Controversial? We hope so. Part of the magic of Africa is that it stirs such strong emotions - so let us know what your No. 1 is. Are we way off the mark? What's on your African dream list?

Here follows the Top 10 -1

Watch the Sun Rise over the Pyramids

©Steffen Gundermann

When I first saw the pyramids, I thought they were overrated. Trying to avoid groups of sunburned tourists, I found myself surrounded by hawkers hoping to sell me postcards, put me on a camel or act as a guide. It was impossible to separate this tawdry reality from the majesty of the monuments themselves - until, at the end of a long Cairo night, a friend and I roared off into the Giza desert on a motorbike.

From the saddle, I watched as the first light brought those iconic shapes to life, turning them grey, then pink, then deep orange. As I sat contemplating mortality and history, a camel loped into view, adding to the picture-perfect scene. As it came closer, its turbaned rider yelled: 'Hey lady, you want papyrus?' - Siona Jenkins.

Experience Ngorongoro

The magic begins the moment you pass through the Lodoare Gate and the pristine cloud forests of the crater highlands close in around you. But as the red dirt road winds steeply skywards, nothing prepares you for the moment when you reach the rim and look down for the first time into the lost world below.

Once, Ngorongoro stood taller than Kilimanjaro. Now all that remains is a giant caldera, 23km wide, whose 600m-high walls encircle an East African microcosm of plains, swamps, flamingo lakes and fever trees, complete with its own resident lion prides, rare black rhinos and some of the biggest tuskers you will ever see. To spend a day here in their company is just about as close to paradise as you can get. - Brian Jackman.

Canoe Down the Zambezi

The Zambezi Valley is a slice of African heaven. The broad river meanders between papyrus-fringed islands, overlooked by the Zambian Escarpment. As you paddle gently along, carmine bee-eaters rise up in brilliant clouds from their colonies in the steep sandy riverbank.

Malachite kingfishers fizz past in a blur of tiny wings. Herds of buffalo graze the flood plain close to the river's edge, surrounded by a halo of egrets. Low and quiet in a canoe, you can glide right up to bathing elephants without disturbing them. At the end of the day they make their way back to the shore, crossing the river in line with their trunks raised. And as the sun slides down the sky, the river turns the colour of molten gold. The perfect end to another perfect day. - John Warburton-Lee.

Star Gaze in the Kalahari

'Walk out there, lie on your back and watch the stars come out,' It seemed a simple enough instruction, but there was nowhere to reach or aim for, so I simply paced a hundred steps across Botswana's Makgakgadi Pans, stopped, then stretched out on the salt crust.

First to emerge were the pointers, so-called because they point to the Southern Cross. The bright brief life of a shooting star flared overhead as Scorpio dipped its curling tail to the east. Then a satellite drifted from the west, voyaging across the glittering arch of the Milky Way until it disappeared, snuffed out by the moon's glow.

An hour passed, perhaps two. The only sound was the gentle pulsing of blood in my ears. People have walked out here in a trance. One person even dropped his watch because the ticking was too distracting. I could understand why. There can be few places left in the world so totally removed from the noise, pollution and clutter of modern life. The Makgakgadi Pans is a rare wilderness, somewhere where nothing means everything. - William Gray.

Take a Ferry Trip to Robben Island

Few places are more evocative of Africa's recent history than the once notorious prison on Robben Island where Nelson Mandela and other ANC members were incarcerated during the years of apartheid.

Robben Island prison provides a poignant reminder of the past - blended with admiration for people like Mandela. With its rich past of daring escapes and great minds, Robben Island has almost become a place of pilgrimage.

And as if peering into Mandela's old prison cell wasn't emotional enough, the return crossing by ferry to the mainland takes you into one of the world's most spectacular harbours. There can be few sights in Africa more uplifting and inspiring than Table Mountain rearing above Cape Town's waterfront. - William Gray & Charlene Smith.

Take a Walk on the Wildside

A walking safari makes you feel alive, every sense alert, aware of the smell of wild thyme as you brush past and the crack of twigs underfoot, watchful for buffalo, wary of lions. You have the time to wonder at spiders' webs, watch the hysterical antics of dung beetles and unravel the fascinating interrelationships of species in the company of one of Africa's great guides.

Nothing is more thrilling than being close to big game. The most exciting safari I  have ever experienced was tracking rhino on foot through the thick jesse bush of Zimbabwe's Matusadona, with John Stevens as my guide. For hour upon hour, I revelled in a masterclass of bushcraft as he followed the faint trail of clues (the hint of spoor in the sand, a scuffed mark on a rock, tiny broken mopane stems) until we were heart-stoppingly close to the rhino. - John Warburton-Lee.

Stand on the Roof of Africa

The sound of crystalline snow crunching beneath your boots seems slightly surreal when you consider you are just a short distance south of the Equator. Lean forward, make that final effort and drag your weary body up the final slope to the Roof of Africa.

Climbing Mt Kilimanjaro is a slog by anyone's standards, but the panorama from Uhuru Peak, at 5896m, the highest point in Africa, justifies every effort. You are standing on the rim of a volcanic crater; peering over the edge of a precipice. A thousand feet below, the crater floor is coated in rime ice.

Behind this great white plain, stepped tiers of ice cascade towards the inner cone of the Reusch Crater. Looking outwards, you can see to infinity. Many thousands of feet below on the African plains, safari-goers will be framing photographs of elephant and giraffe against the huge domed mountain on whose summit you are standing.

The ascent from arid plains through humid forest and alpine meadows to this icy wasteland takes you on an extraordinary journey: fascinating flora, arduous trekking, extravagant scenery - utterly rewarding. - John Warburton-Lee.

Feel the Earth Move at Victoria Falls

The small boat moved swiftly downstream, threading between rocky islets where crocodiles basked in the sun. Mini-rapids chuckled beneath the hull, jostling the boat, goading it onwards. I felt the cool kiss of spray and watched, transfixed, as we hurried across a channel that slid into misty oblivion a stone's throw ahead.

As soon as I felt the crunch of the bow on land, I leapt ashore. But like me, Livingstone Island trembled. Perched on the very lip of Victoria Falls, this tiny island marks the spot where, in 1853, Dr David Livingstone first set eyes on The Smoke that Thunders.

Deafened by the roaring cataracts and oblivious even to the sightseeing helicopters overhead, I shuffled to the very brink of the abyss. Dr Livingstone probably struck an epic pose when he stood here 150 years ago.

But as I peered through rainbows that seemed close enough to touch, and saw the great plumes of white water cascading from my feet to explode in the gorge 100m below, I felt intrepid enough. - William Gray.

Make Eye Contact with a Gorilla

Our eyes met. This is a mammal thing, the direct stare. With predators such as lions it sends a chill down your spine, with prey animals you feel protective, but with a gorilla you are dealing with an equal; intelligence meets intelligence. There is no wildlife experience like it - believe me.

Evolution has enabled us to read faces as well as words. We look into a stranger's eyes to judge whether he is friendly or hostile. And what do we read in a gorilla's eyes? Trust, mainly; curiosity and sometimes nonchalance, but not hostility. A male silverback gorilla is built like a killer; he can weigh 200kg, yet here he is squatting on his haunches eating wild celery or playing with his youngsters. What a shame mankind continued to evolve. - Hilary Bradt.

View Gorilla Treks in Uganda and Rwanda

Experience the Great Migration

The Serengeti is quintessential Africa: big skies, rolling plains, prolific wildlife. Out here in this vast wilderness, roughly the size of Ireland, you can see for miles in any direction. But what really elevates the Serengeti above any other African highlight is the annual migration.

Between May and June, over one million wildebeest and 200,000 zebra trek north towards Kenya. It is a breathtaking spectacle - a free-spirited celebration of a bygone Africa; a place and time devoid of human barriers. Driven by deep-rooted instinct, the herds darken the boundless plains of the Serengeti, spreading across the savannah like shadows of passing clouds.

Predators are never far behind. Lion, hyena and wild dog pick off the stragglers and the weak - and when the migration is forced to cross the Grumeti River, many more will fall prey to crocodiles. Yet despite all the hardships the wildebeest and zebra must face, there is nothing more reliable - or reassuring - than the Serengeti migration. It is the living, breathing, pulsing icon of Africa. - William Gray & David Rogers.

And, finally...if you can't wait a lifetime to do all of them, take at least two years out and drive from Cape to Cairo the long way round!

Copyright © 2004 Travel Africa Magazine. All rights reserved. Reproduction in whole or in part without the permission of the author is prohibited.

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