Safaris are above all about experiencing some of the most magnificent wildlife on the planet in its natural environment. The established reputations and marketability of some of the most famous parks, however, has turned them into a mass industry where the most common species you’re likely to see will be your fellow Homo sapiens. When planning your next safari, why not escape these crowds and visit a park where you can have a more intimate relationship with the nature you’ve come to experience. Here are our recommendations for the best unsung parks for the year ahead:
Liwonde National Park – Malawi
The river at sunset in Liwonde National Park © Malawi Travel Marketing Consortium
Dominated by the sluggish Shire River, Liwonde National Park evokes every romantic notion of untrammelled Africa, especially at night, when the air resonates with the uninhibited chirruping of frogs and grunting of hippos. This is the quintessential African river scene. Amongst ancient baobabs, the park, home to hundreds of elephants and thousands of hippos, has a newly erected perimeter fence to protect its larger residents. Under the management of African Parks, who recently relocated hundreds of the park’s burgeoning elephant population to another reserve in Malawi, the reintroduction of predators is planned in the near future. Perhaps Liwonde’s biggest draw, however, is its birdwatching opportunities, with more than 400 species having been recorded.
Ruaha National Park – Tanzania
Elephants at sunset in Ruaha National Park © Brian Harries, Wikimedia Commons
As one of the most biodiverse and rewarding safari destinations in East Africa, Ruaha has a sheer volume and variety of wildlife on show that can be truly spectacular. This is particularly the case towards the end of the dry season, when elephants seem to lurk around every corner. Meanwhile the rugged slopes of Ruaha, studded with mighty baobab trees, underscore a compelling wilderness character that seems increasingly savoury in this day of package safaris and hundred-room game lodges. Ruaha has no shortage of big cats, and it is one of the few places anywhere on the continent to a support a viable population of the endangered African wild dog.
The Bangweulu Wetlands – Zambia
Swamps in the Bangweulu Wetlands © Mehmet Karatay, Wikimedia Commons
This area is often described, in clichéd terms, as one of Africa’s last great wilderness areas. That might be overstating its case a little, but it is certainly a very large and very wild area. It remains home to some 90,000 local people, who still hunt and fish here, as their ancestors have done for centuries. They are as much a part of the landscape as the lily-strewn water channels and floodplains teeming with black lechwe. The Bangweulu area’s big attraction is the unusual and rare shoebill, a massive grey bird sometimes known as the whale-headed stork. African Parks have initiated a successful ‘Shoebill Guardian’ project among the local fishing communities, offering them a financial incentive if they report shoebill nests and help protect them until the birds fledge.
Gonarezhou National Park – Zimbabwe
A view of the Runde River from Chilojo Cliffs © Villiers Steyn, Shutterstock
This park’s name translates from Shona as ‘place of elephants’. Gonarezhou's river floodplains are interspersed with lagoons and riverine forest featuring notable species such as the nyala berry tree, ebony and Natal mahogany. The most scenically dramatic areas are along the Runde River with the majestic, red sandstone Chilojo Cliffs being the most iconic feature. The game has had a difficult time of it in the past with elephants having particularly suffered from widespread hunting and poaching but there is now a great deal of good news too. It’s estimated that the elephant population has risen to around 11,000, and there are at least ten breeding packs of wild dog, equating to something like 120 individuals. This is not Kruger; it’s still a true wilderness area so get there quickly because it’s only a matter of time before Gonarezhou gets ‘discovered’ again.
Akagera National Park – Rwanda
Spot the Big Five while exploring Akagera's rolling hills and forest-fringed lakes © John Dickens
Akagera today is emphatically worth visiting. Since the 2010 formation of the Akagera Management Company the park has seen a dramatic resurgence. Most excitingly of all, perhaps, is the ongoing programme of reintroductions, which has now seen both lions and rhinos once again taking up residence in Akagera for the first time in more than a decade. The park still retains a genuinely off-the-beaten-track character: this is one African game reserve where you can drive for hours without passing another vehicle, never knowing what wildlife encounter might lie around the next corner. It ranks among the most scenic of Africa’s savannah reserves, with its sumptuous forest-fringed lakes, tall mountains and constantly changing vegetation. On top of that, the birdlife is quite phenomenal – for specialist birders, the checklist of almost 500 species includes several good rarities.
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