How to safari in 2022: five new ways to explore

From off-grid tours in electric vehicles to voyages into some of Africa’s biodiverse forests, deserts and coastlines, there’s a raft of new options for exhilarating, purposeful, eco-minded trips, which plug you into local life.

A herd of female impala in the Masai Mara, Kenya.

Photograph by AWL Images
By Emma Gregg
Published 18 Jun 2022, 06:03 BST

A safari can deepen our connection with the natural world, and the newest trips offer wildlife-watchers far more than just a twice-daily drive in a diesel truck.

Shaped by the life-giving rhythms of Africa’s rivers and rains, safaris have an annual ebb and flow. The quieter seasons — whose timing varies from region to region — bring renewal, with staff refurbishing lodges and camps, joining training courses or simply taking time out to reconnect with their families and farms. Nobody could have predicted that in 2020 a global pandemic would deliver the longest low season in living memory, but when that occurred, African safari destinations didn’t sit still.

Confident that when international visitors returned, they’d be hungry for the healing power of nature, safari operators started rustling up life-affirming new activities and fresh places to stay with serious sustainability credentials. With many now welcoming their first guests, there’s never been a better time to visit.

1. The silent safari

In Africa’s safari heartlands, green-thinking lodges, camps and operators have taken the first, tentative steps in a quiet revolution: ditching diesel-powered transport, and switching to solar instead. It will take time before solar-charged electric safari vehicles, boats and bikes are the norm rather than a novelty on Africa’s rivers, lakes and tracks, not least because they’re pricey to buy or convert. But they’re out there, if you know where to look, and once you’ve discovered how smooth, silent and wildlife-friendly they are, you’ll never want to go back to a diesel-powered ride.

Green Safaris in Zambia has been all-electric for some time and a handful of off-grid lodges and operators in Botswana and South Africa have made the change, too. It’s Nairobi that looks set to become Africa’s electric transport tech hub, however, allowing Kenya‘s operators to catch up and possibly overtake. In November 2021, Tourism Cabinet Secretary Najib Balala announced that by 2030, in the interests of air quality and lower carbon emissions, the only vehicles allowed into Kenya’s national parks would be those powered by fossil-free renewable energy. Promising on many levels, this plan will be music to the ears of anyone who’s ever struggled to hear their guide over the roar of the engine when exploring in a 4x4.

A bush and beach safari is a best-of-both-worlds kind of trip, combining a classic wildlife-watching adventure (in big cat country, perhaps) with a blissful few days of birdwatching, snorkelling, scuba diving or sailing on Africa’s glittering shores.

Along the breezy Atlantic coastlines of West and southwest Africa, the intriguing tropical backwaters of the Gulf of Guinea and the languid Indian Ocean shores of East and South Africa lie busy public beaches that double as marketplaces, meet-ups, transport hubs, fisheries and open-air gyms. In the quieter spots, the sands are pale, palm-fringed and seductively peaceful, inviting you to relax.

Some of Africa’s most interesting emerging tourism destinations lie on these shores. While snoozing on the sand is always an option, there are also marine conservation projects to investigate, some of which offer participation in species surveys and coastal clean-ups. Initiatives such as the Bazaruto Center for Scientific Studies and the Marine Megafauna Foundation in Mozambique, the Island Conservation Society in the Seychelles, the Madagascar Research and Conservation Institute, and the Southern African Foundation for the Conservation of Coastal Birds in South Africa, for example, support coastal communities in protecting endangered turtles, cetaceans, coral reefs, mangrove creeks and even penguins.

3. The cutting-edge safari

For some, a safari will always have nostalgic appeal, recalling the days when the wilderness was wilder, mighty-tusked elephants and muscular lion dynasties were abundant and climate change had yet to take hold.

But others have been itching to give safaris an aesthetic and philosophical update, chucking out the trappings of colonial-era hunting trips (from terms such as ‘Big Five’ and ‘game drive’ to dusty old trophies and water-guzzling roll-top baths) in favour of ultra-green, solar-powered camps with airy contemporary spaces, dotted with upcycled furnishings and local art.

While the famous 'Big Five' (elephants, rhinos, buffalos, lions and leopards) will always be thrilling to watch — and some reserves take great pride in protecting the full set — the best safari guides are celebrating ecosystems in their entirety. Low-impact activities such as bushwalks, canoe trips and e-bike rides, for example, allow you to appreciate the little things, from sweet-scented wild herbs and delicate birds’ nests to immaculately marked chameleons.

Excitingly, Indigenous guides from tribes such as the Maasai, Samburu, Nama and Khoikhoi, whose knowledge of the natural world is ancestral rather than purely academic, are increasingly sharing their stories, offering a precious chance to view Africa’s magnificent landscapes through the eyes of those who know them inside out.

In Africa, primate-watching is the new birdwatching. It’s challenging, it leads you into thrillingly remote, leafy habitats, and it’s best done on foot, with camera and binoculars in hand.

While every African habitat is precious, few are as irreplaceable as the forest homes of our distant relatives the gorillas, chimpanzees, bonobos, monkeys, bushbabies and lemurs. Trees can be replanted – indeed, in certain parts of Africa where poverty or hardwood poaching have caused deforestation, this is underway, with carbon offset schemes increasingly footing the bill. Rwanda is setting a fine example and, despite numerous setbacks, there’s still hope that the breathtakingly ambitious Great Green Wall initiative, which is planting trees from Senegal to Djibouti, will have a meaningful impact. However, countless forest wildlife species remain at risk, and mighty hardwoods such as rosewood and mahogany will take decades to replace.

Exploring forests as a tourist is an exciting way to learn more, while enabling forest communities to earn a sustainable living from guiding and hospitality. By keeping trees standing and reconnecting natural corridors, these communities help prevent biodiversity loss, landscape erosion and drought. For critically important forests such as those in Madagascar, the Congo Basin and the Albertine Rift, such trips offer a glimmer of hope.

5. The purposeful safari

According to Themba Khumalo of South African Tourism, meaningful outdoor experiences are the future. It makes perfect sense: Africa’s best safari operators have close relationships with conservationists, ecologists, wildlife researchers and vets, many of whom relish the chance to share their insights. Including tourists in the loop through talks, demonstrations and hands-on activities is a great way to spread conservation messages and, crucially, raise much-needed funds. While any guided bushwalk or 4x4 drive can be fascinatingly educational – this is Africa, after all, and there’s always something going on – a sprinkling of science or habitat management theory can definitely deepen the experience.

In South Africa’s carefully managed, high-end private reserves, conservation safaris are a natural fit: here, wildlife monitoring procedures such as camera trap surveys, radio collaring and DNA sampling take place regularly, and paying volunteers can get involved.

Other good options for conservation-minded tourists include Africa’s below-the-radar parks. Choose an emerging destination where wildlife translocations are underway, and you’ll help repair damage done by poaching, logging or livestock rearing in the recent past. Excellent rewilding hotspots to consider include Kenya, Rwanda, Mozambique and Chad, where leading conservation organisations Peace Parks and African Parks  play pivotal roles.

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