How safari travel in Africa is bouncing back

With the world at large — and the travel industry in particular — slowly adjusting to the new normal, Africa is ready and waiting to welcome visitors.

By Emma Gregg
Published 31 Mar 2021, 08:00 BST
Hartmann’s mountain zebra, Namibia.

Hartmann’s mountain zebra in Namibia, in southwest Africa. Anyone who goes on safari in Africa can witness scenes like this.

Photograph by Getty Images

A taut-bodied cheetah stalks through the grassland before breaking into a sprint. A lilac-breasted roller, bright as a rainbow, grabs an insect, mid-flight. An elephant kicks up the dust in the golden light of late afternoon. A Samburu guide, resplendent in feathers and beads, leads his guests across the savannah on foot. The chance to witness scenes like these isn’t the sole preserve of wildlife experts and documentary makers. For anyone who goes on safari in Africa, it’s within reach.

Many of us discovered or rediscovered the joys of nature during the Covid-19 lockdown. Even though we couldn’t venture beyond the parks and gardens near our homes, our appreciation of wildlife and the changing seasons blossomed. According to The People and Nature Survey for England, launched in 2020 and led by Natural England, 41% of English adults say visiting green and natural spaces has been increasingly important to their wellbeing since Covid-19 struck.

It’s no wonder, then, that travel pundits are predicting a surge in interest in overseas wildlife-watching and nature-based holidays once we’re free to travel safely. For those seeking a crowd-free outdoor adventure with clean air, big skies and superb hospitality, an African safari delivers. As a bonus, Africa is home to some of the world’s most exciting emerging destinations for food, wine, music and art.

Bloubergstrand Beach, Cape Town, South Africa. For those dreaming of a relaxing safari, there's the option of going on gentle drives among elephants and gazelles, with a few days lounging on an Indian Ocean beach at the end.

Photograph by AWL Images

Your safari, your way

Blissfully remote, Africa’s best safari camps and lodges have always been well-versed in safety and self-sufficiency. Run by well-trained staff, they tend to be spacious, with secluded tents or chalets and airy, open-sided communal areas, making distancing a breeze. On safari, you spend little time indoors: the days whirl by in a flurry of nature drives, exciting bushwalks, healthy breakfasts and outdoor picnics.

If you’re among the growing number of travellers intending to holiday in a bubble, just say the word: private air or road transfers are available on request, as are fully-staffed lodges or camps for a single party’s exclusive use. South Africa, Botswana, Namibia and Kenya have alluring options, tucked into beautiful reserves. Imagine sharing a gorgeous little timber-and-thatch lodge with your closest friends — and nobody else. From early morning drives with your personal safari guide and midday dips in a private infinity pool to sumptuous braais (barbecues) under the stars, you’re free to do exactly as you choose.

Heaven knows, Africa’s wilderness regions need visitors. In a regular year, the continent’s international tourism industry generates around $120bn (£86bn), representing around 7% of the continent’s gross income. Importantly, foreign visitors keep vital conservation projects and rural communities — the guardians of pristine wilderness areas — afloat. In some African countries, domestic tourism is growing, but not fast enough to cover the vast costs associated with preserving habitats and tackling human-wildlife conflict, poaching and deforestation.

In 2020, international arrivals dwindled to a trickle. With no guests to look after, safari companies had to fall back on savings and donations. Meanwhile, their staff kept busy by supporting villagers with essential transport and supplies. They’re eager for business to resume. In other words, a well-chosen African safari is not just good for your own body and soul — it’s a desperately-needed boost for Africa’s fortunes, too.

Young Samburu warriors, resplendent in feathers and beads, lead guests across the savannah on foot.

Photograph by Getty Images

Staying healthy and safe

When Covid-19 variant B.1.351 was detected in South Africa, it was a major setback for a tourism industry that was already on its knees. However, African nations have a good deal of experience in dealing with health crises. During the first wave of the pandemic, South Africa, Namibia, Rwanda, Mauritius and the Seychelles, among others, were quick to set up strict entry and testing protocols. At the time of writing, they and the continent’s other leading tourism destinations have experienced far lower Covid-19-related deaths per 100,000 citizens than Europe or the USA. By March 2021, the proportion of South Africa’s population that had died from the virus (approximately 87 per 100,000) was well under half the UK figure (approximately 184 per 100,000). Meanwhile, Moderna is preparing to trial a booster vaccination, designed to be effective against the B.1.351 variant, and Pfizer and Oxford-AstraZeneca are expected to follow suit.

With emergency medical services in limited supply in many parts of Africa, particularly in the rural areas, it’s natural to be as concerned about the safety of your African hosts as about your own. The wisest advice, for now, is to delay your trip until your entire party has been fully vaccinated against Covid-19, and to follow official guidance on pre-departure testing and other precautions. Safari companies were efficient at arranging tests in 2020 and can offer updates on local requirements. You should also consult your GP or travel clinic about other health precautions well in advance. In some destinations, it’s always been advisable to take anti-malarials.

A tropical breakfast consisting of fresh fruit, coffee and fried eggs in Tanzania. The East African country is a popular destination, with wide-open spaces such as the Serengeti and the Ngorongoro Crater beckon as well as Zanzibar.

Photograph by Getty Images

Mapping out your dream trip

If you’re planning your first visit and wondering where to go, consider how wild and energetic or soothing and rejuvenating you’d like your trip to be. Are you dreaming of a relaxing safari, taking gentle drives among elephants and gazelles, perhaps with a few days lounging on an Indian Ocean beach at the end? If so, you’ll love Kenya’s blockbuster reserves — the Maasai Mara, Amboseli and Tsavo, for example — and its charming beach hotels. Or there’s Tanzania, where wide-open spaces such as the Serengeti and the Ngorongoro Crater beckon, and Zanzibar invites you to leave all your worries behind.

Increasingly, however, visitors are choosing something more active and adventurous. South Africa, Namibia, Zambia and Zimbabwe, for example, have plenty to offer hiking, cycling and paddling enthusiasts. You could zoom along South Africa’s Garden Route to KwaZulu Natal for forest hikes, scuba diving, surfing and zip-lining, followed by a close-to-nature camping safari in a pristine reserve. Or there’s Namibia’s Namib Desert: vast and mysterious, it’s fascinating to explore by four-wheel-drive vehicle or on foot. The Zambezi in Zambia and Zimbabwe is an adventure-seeker’s dream: here, you can test your mettle on an adventurous rafting or kayaking trip. You could even climb Mount Kenya or Kilimanjaro. Hikers who are well-suited to high altitudes can make it to Kili’s rocky summit — Africa’s highest peak — in five to seven days.

While safari holidays grab the limelight, Africa’s potential for cultural holidays that are enjoyable, responsible and sustainable is steadily expanding. For total immersion, Cape Town is hard to beat: it’s home to a thriving creative and bohemian community, Africa’s unmissable new contemporary art museum (Zeitz MOCAA) and some of the best restaurants on the continent. Ethiopia, meanwhile, has genuinely unique architecture, festivals and food. Alternatively, you could sample the daily rhythms of West Africa in Ghana, Senegal, Sierra Leone or The Gambia. Exploring overland, this is a great region to learn about village lifestyles and tribal customs, trying your hand at music-making or crafts. Best of all, you can make up for all those much-missed festivals by dancing till dawn at open-air clubs.

As featured in the 2021 edition of National Geographic Traveller (UK) The Africa Collection

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