Discover the 5 best African safari tours

A heavily underlined entry on any wildlife lover’s bucket list and the guaranteed vacation of a lifetime is, of course, an authentic African safari. With as many as 54 countries on the continent, however, knowing where to embark on one is not so clear cut. Choose from the tried-and-tested ‘Big 5’ tours of South Africa, an easy road trip from the cultural hub of Johannesburg, or venture out into the mountain regions of Rwanda for intimate sightings of wild gorillas. Whichever it is, you’ll want to bring your best camera to capture anything from a real-life lion chase to a yawning hippo in full HD. We level up our lenses, layer on the khaki and settle in for a bumpy ride as we travel across the savannah in search of the best African photo safari tours.

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Etosha National Park, Namibia | Photo: J.P Desvigne

LGBTQ Travellers in Africa

The continent has something of a bad rap when it comes to the subject of LGBT rights, with anti-gay sentiment and hate crimes sadly a reality for locals, leading Europe and North America to accept a number of LGBTQ refugees from the region. Despite the obvious anxiety, you might feel at vacationing in Africa, it is certainly possible to have a carefree time, particularly with an understanding of cultural norms and awareness of cities where tolerance is growing.

Historically speaking, there is much evidence that pre-colonial African society engaged in same-sex relationships, but nowadays, the result of decades of colonial law and evangelical influence in government seems to have moved much of the continent in the opposite direction. Kenya is one such country to still uphold anti-gay legislation, but in terms of safety, as visitors to Africa, it’s unlikely you’ll experience outright hostility or discrimination, particularly from those working in the tourism industry. Nevertheless, discretion is advised if moving far from the tourist areas and keeping PDA to a minimum (regardless of orientation) is also a good call.

South Africa | Photo: Austin Distel

Photo: Austin Distel

Travel Tips

Any avid wildlife watcher will tell you that the best sightings occur in the dry season when big game and thirsty herds converge on the same few pockets of wetland remaining. With all the animals in one place and far less vegetation to serve as camouflage, you are almost certain to catch sight of the most prized African wildlife.

If travelling in rainy season between November and March, as well as fewer tourists, you’ll be rewarded with better sightings of birds and baby mammals, with fantastic horizon views at sunset and sundown. East Africa is not so easily split into two seasons, particularly in Luangwa Valley with its ‘emerald season’ safaris and post-rainy season tours in the Kalahari. South Africa’s Kruger meanwhile is a bestseller all year round.

What to pack

When packing for African gay safari, consider clothes that are lightweight yet longline, covering your arms and legs to protect against pesky insects after dark. Neutral colours such as khaki are a must if you want to avoid the attention of both predators and tsetse flies, which are attracted to white and bright or dark colours respectively. Invest in a good pair of binoculars in order to bring distant views to life, while a torch is a useful addition for navigating the pitch black camps come nightfall. When booking your trip be sure to note whether electricity is provided, as not all facilities will offer this. If not, consider what else you’ll need to see you through the night, such as spare batteries for your phone, camera and torch. Newbies to the world of wildlife photography should note the usefulness of a beanbag to minimise camera shake while in the jeep.

Photo: Rachel Lees

How to stay safe

Throughout your trip, be sure to follow the guidance of your hosts, keeping your hands, arms and legs within the vehicle at all times, as Toy Story Barbie will tell you. That way, there will be little to fear even with a pride of lions just feet away – elephants require a little more legroom, however. When adventuring on foot, stay close to your guide, staying away from open water to avoid run-ins with crocodiles and hippos. Don’t feed the wildlife and be careful not to store food in your tent as scavengers – such as baboons – may sniff it out.

Before travelling, check with your GP to see the risks of infectious disease in your destination. Most places in sub-Saharan Africa will require some form of anti-malarial, excluding Namibia’s Damaraland and Malawi’s Nyika Plateau. South Africa is the only country in Africa to offer ‘malaria-free’ safaris, including those based in the eastern and northern cape.

How to safari responsibly

With thousands of African safari tours on offer, it can be hard to know which tours are in line with sustainable practices and considerate of animal welfare. To make sure your operator is a good one, look for their responsible tourism policy on either their website or brochure, which should underline their approach to conservation and carbon offset, and whether they support the local community. Otherwise, if travelling independently, ask about local community projects you can contribute to while also ensuring not to leave any litter while on safari or at camp.

Photo: Wade Lambert

1. South Africa

The most LGBTQ-friendly option of our best African safaris, South Africa offers newcomers a perfect introduction to the region. The roads are well-enough maintained to make self-drive trips an easy choice, allowing you to freely explore the wine regions of the Western Cape as well as the stunning natural surrounds of Johannesburg, Cape Town and beyond. Though the cities are a worthy distraction, with lodgings at any budget amongst a cosmopolitan dining and nightlife scene, it’s to the wild you’ll soon want to venture. Choose between public grounds such as Kruger National Park, one of Africa’s largest game reserves in the northeast, or private safari tours. Though Kruger is often busy, it’s here you’ll be able to snap any of the big five in their natural habitat with an array of smaller mammals to please your viewfinder.

For the least hazy views and greenest backdrops, travel between the summer months of November to April, keeping to the coastline and mountains for landscape photography. Otherwise, for the best chance of catching live-action shots of South Africa’s best wildlife, head to the game reserves in winter. While it’s possible to visit public spaces like Kruger National Park on a solo road trip, consider taking a guided safari through private reserves such as Sabi Sand. Though more expensive with less than ideal seating arrangements for long-lens photographers, private tours tend to offer the best sightings of lions, leopards and other big predators, with closer viewpoints and better line-ups.

Photo: Hean Prinsloo

Kruger National Park | Photo: Antony Trivet

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Though Botswana is also home to dry desert and saltpans, it’s the northern wetlands which make for the exciting photography safaris, the Okavango Delta in particular for its ‘Big Five’ population and a wide choice of small, eco-friendly camps

2. Botswana

A contender for the title of best safari in the world is Botswana, a relatively wealthy nation to the south known for its ecotourism industry centred on the UNESCO World Heritage wetlands of the Okavango Delta and its Moremi Game Reserve. Though Botswana is also home to dry desert and saltpans, it’s the northern wetlands which make for the exciting photography safaris, the Okavango Delta in particular for its ‘Big Five’ population and a wide choice of small, eco-friendly camps providing birding and canoe safari opportunities. Coming at a high price due to its remote location, a trip to Moremi is surely worth it for providing encounters with hyenas, giraffes, rhinos and leopards, while the wetter pastures are prime bathing spots for hippos and elephants. Opt for drier or wetter landscapes depending on your preference, staying in swanky lodges with expert guides that sometimes offer night drives and other personalised activities.

Towards the drier regions, Chobe National Park is another top choice thanks to its biodiversity among the lagoons and plains that flank Chobe River. As well as herds of antelope running alongside your jeep, you can expect submerged hippos within Linyanti Marsh, as well as elephant and Cape Buffalo along the river. The third choice for more nomadic wildlife is the Central Kalahari Game Reserve covering 50,000 square kilometres of arid desert, grassland and woodland across the Kalahari. Visit between January to May soon after the rains when grazing springbok, wildebeest and eland take to the grasslands in huge numbers. This yearly spectacle also sees the arrival of predators – namely cheetahs, hyena and black-maned lion – as well as more innocent visitors of ostriches and meerkats.

More progressive than some nations, Botswana has no laws against same-sex relations and even offers some legal protections to LGBTQ people.

Okavango Delta, Botswana | Photo: Colin Watts

Photo: Karabo Mdluli

3. Namibia

In stark contrast to the wetlands of Botswana, Namibia is drier than dry in the desert wilderness of southern Africa. Known as Namibia’s Kruger, Etosha National Park offers a very different Africa than you might otherwise expect, with harsh, dry conditions year-round and zero chance of run-ins with hippos or crocodiles. If you can bear the heat, Namibia is a true gem and Etosha National Park, as well as the nearby area of Northern Damaraland, are both suitable for self-drive gay vacations. Although you will find fewer large herds across the region, the stark desert landscapes comprised of sand dunes, salt flats and clay pans make for some seriously good photo opportunities, such as in Sossusvlei.

For your best chance of a successful safari, roll up to one of the park’s spring-fed water holes and wait stealthily for thirsty game to arrive, such as zebra, giraffe and Oryx, often followed in wake by elephants and rhinos and bush-lurking lions. The water holes are based near camp and floodlit at night allowing for some pretty cool night-time action without ever having to leave to warmth of the campfire. Meanwhile in north-eastern Damaraland, in addition to the same wildlife as Etosha, you may find all the more geological formations, with dry river valleys and ancient rock art in close range of exclusive lodges and guides that offer the chance to track black rhino on foot. Namibia has a law against male same-sex relations, but this is not enforced and a bill to repeal this has been proposed.

Etosha National Park, Namibia | Photo: Sergi Ferrete

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Far from being the troubled nation, it was twenty years ago, Rwanda today stands as an underappreciated land of rugged national parks and trekking destinations linked by spaced-out cities offering small-town vibes

4. Rwanda

Far from being the troubled nation, it was twenty years ago, Rwanda today stands as an underappreciated land of rugged national parks and trekking destinations linked by spaced-out cities offering small-town vibes. Oft misjudged for its past, Rwanda is both safer and far less visited than neighbouring Uganda, and, if it wasn’t for the permit price (around $1,500USD per person), we’d say Rwanda has to be one of the best places in Africa to see wild mountain gorillas. With higher costs however comes higher value, with the nation’s low-impact tourism industry a particular selling point. Though small, Rwanda offers so much, both within Volcanoes National Park and outside, in the capital city of Kigali for example, where Tutsi memorials offer insight into the amazing resilience of the nation.

Come in June to be rewarded with relatively dry conditions among mountains that shelter the land from Africa’s most extreme temperatures. Embark on a trip to Kigali or go straight to trekking, starting at the Virunga Volcanoes where Gorillas of the Mist was filmed. As well as gorillas, Rwanda’s hilly landscape is surprisingly easy to get around and allows for hiking and chimp trekking excursions paired with boating and kayaking on Lake Kivu nearby to the popular destinations of Uganda, Kenya and Tanzania.

Virunga Mountains, Rwanda | Photo: Tony Coxon

5. Kenya

The next stop on our gay safari is to Kenya’s much-loved Masai Mara game reserve, a beacon of conservation in the region featuring diverse landscapes of grassland and woodland run through with rivers and the migratory paths of Africa’s biggest and best game. Expect to catch sight of lions, cheetahs, elephants, zebras and wildebeest as they go about their daily ablutions and the occasional hunt. As well as seeing the world’s fastest cat go at it, at Masai Mara it’s also possible to see rare black rhino, making it one of the best value experiences in the whole of Africa. One possible downside to its affordability however is that the main section of the park can become crowded with minibuses at peak times. To avoid this, pay a little extra to stay in the more upmarket west side camps. Self-drivers should also be aware that the roads are rough here and seasonal flooding can cause some less than ideal conditions outside of dry season.

One big BUT in Kenya’s natural glory however is its history of human rights transgressions, including poor treatment of the gay community. Don’t be too alarmed but homosexual acts in Kenya are still illegal, with the law outlining up to 14 years in prison for homosexual acts. While this a clear sign that discretion is an absolute must, it should also be said that prosecutions are very rare, particularly among the travelling community. Stay alert to possible blackmailing situations and you should be fine, particularly in the cosmopolitan capital of Nairobi, the centre of LGBT activism in the nation.

Masai Mara National Reserve, Kenya | Photo: David Clode

Masai Mara, Kenya | Photo: Jack Carter

Bonus: Serengeti, Tanzania

A long-established safari destination and our bonus for today is Tanzania, home of the famed Serengeti, the land said to have inspired The Lion King. Re-enact some famous clifftop scenes on Naabi Hill looking out across endless grassland plains to gaze upon the Animal Kingdom’s finest as they travel as one on their migration path. As well as flights of 500 species of bird overhead, expect to see millions of zebra, wildebeest, and various predators –  including lions, leopards and cheetahs – all following the seasons to traverse the 15,000 kilometre open stretch of the Serengeti.

A more epic version of Kenya’s Masai Mara reserve at ten times the size, the Serengeti has the added benefit of spreading the crowds out, though it does get slightly busier towards the centre of the park. Travel to the north or the west for more exclusive options, considering Moru Kopjes for a chance to spot black rhino, and the Ngorongoro Crater for a more diverse landscape of forest and lake still heavily populated with all manner of animal life.

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Serengeti, Tanzania | Photo: Hu Chen

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