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Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe

We're cruising along the Zambezi River, between Zambia and Zimbabwe. A hippo surfaces like a cork, alongside, wiggles his ears and yawns a gaping smile. Snorting, he submerges like a submarine in a cloud of bubbles. On the riverbank, a trio of elephants lumber to the water's edge to drink, their massive bodies silhouetted against the molten gold of the setting sun.

Moremi Game Reserve, Botswana

Thankful for the shade from the canvas roof of our four-wheel-drive vehicle, we point our telephoto lenses towards the waterhole. A lioness has just ambushed a springbok.

Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

As she emerges with the antelope, a male lion steals her kill, with little concern that her cubs will go unfed. The King of Beasts proudly strides away with his meal, within meters of our rapidly clicking cameras.

Kruger National Park, South Africa

An impala darts across the road in front of our van. We brake to avoid hitting it. Before we can resume our drive, a cheetah races past, in fast pursuit.

Whether you are travelling by water or by land, an African safari is guaranteed to provide memorable experiences. After several safaris to Africa, we've learned that what you see depends not only on luck, but also on where you go, when you go, how you travel and where you stay.

There is a vast difference between a safari in East Africa and one in southern Africa, for example. While Kenya and Tanzania boast huge herds of grazing wildebeest, zebra and other grazers, southern Africa offers more diversity, but in smaller groups. Because Botswana features three different habitats—desert, delta and savannah—it showcases a veritable Noah's Ark of species. Driving through the Moremi Game Reserve is like flipping through a picture book of Animals A to Z.

National parks and private game reserves

Reading animal guidebook in safari vehicle.
Reading animal guidebook in safari vehicle.
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

Before going on safari, read the guidebooks. (We like the informative Lonely Planet series because they include an animal identification guide and are readily available in bookstores.)

National parks have rules. In South Africa's Kruger National Park, you can drive your own vehicle but it must be fully enclosed with no open windows, and driving off-road is forbidden. A dusk to dawn curfew for private vehicles is strictly enforced.

Private game parks, on the edge of Kruger, and many national parks in Botswana, allow open-sided vehicles which can go off-road to search for animals. Vehicles can safely approach predators because the animals know that they're inedible and harmless. Anyone foolish enough to step outside, however, is at risk of becoming lunch.

Wet or dry season?

When you go to Africa impacts what you will see and how you will see it. The wet season brings magnificent green vistas and newborns, but game is often harder to spot because it disperses into long grasses. On the other hand, the scenery is parched during the dry season, but animals are easier to see because they congregate around sparse waterholes.

Where you stay also determines how you experience Africa. Would you rather wake up to room-service staff bearing breakfast, at a five-star lodge, or an auditory banquet of squeals, squawks and snarls, through the gossamer screen of a safari tent?

Couple in safari tent
Couple in safari tent
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

Safari guides

Without a doubt, the secret to the success of any safari is your guide. From the hoof and paw prints pocking the soil, expert guides can identify the type of animal and how recently it was there, as well as its size.

What draws us back to Africa, again and again, is the surprise element. Once, driving along a sandy road, we encountered a colossal bull elephant coming towards us. Our driver stopped the vehicle. The pachyderm approached the front fender, flapped his ears, raised his trunk, then silently walked around us. Only then did we resume breathing.

Another time, we emerged from a restaurant in Victoria Falls, to find a herd of huge elephants parading through the parking lot. Using their trunks, the tuskers snapped trees, like toothpicks, to more easily reach their succulent leaves. Each elephant carefully avoided touching the parked cars.

African wildlife

One hot afternoon, we focussed our lenses on a lioness, whose belly was distended from a recent feast. Instead of running away, she headed straight to our vehicle and plopped down in its cool shade. After resting for awhile, she stretched, yawned and walked away, dusting our camera lens with the tuft on the end of her tail.

While most people search for "the Big Five," (lion, leopard, rhino, buffalo and elephant), we found other animals equally fascinating. Giraffes seductively amble to thickets of trees. Lowering their long necks, they snake long tongues past razor-sharp thorns to strip off the tender leaves.

Kudus turn their large ears, like satellite dishes, to listen for predators. Skittish zebras melt into the bush when a hunchbacked hyena slinks by. Two waterbucks turn around, revealing white rump markings.

Giraffes with sunset behind. Botswana.
Giraffes with sunset behind. Botswana.
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

Bird watching

Even the small animals kept our cameras clicking overtime. Mongooses dig for food, feet on fast-forward, powdering their coats and sending soil flying in all directions. Mud-caked warthogs trot by our vehicle, their tails at full mast, like exclamation marks.

Birds, we discovered, are an important part of any safari experience. Red-billed oxpeckers hitch rides on the backs of Cape buffalo, in return for eating parasites.

Yellow and black weaver birds create stocking-shaped nests. A white-headed fish eagle swoops over a pond, grasping a perch with its outstretched talons.

The vegetation also caught our interest—a stand of baobab trees, their bark resembling wrinkled elephant skin, a sausage tree dangling bologna-shaped fruits, and a marula tree, surrounded by fallen fruits. Elephants love marula fruits. Amarula, a delicious liqueur, made from the fruit, tastes like Bailey's Irish Cream.

Most enticing of all are the interactions between animals. Horns scrape as impala males duel to defend their harems. Elephants joyfully spray each other with water while bathing in a pool. A lion and lioness rest in the cool shade of a candlepod acacia. Although it looks like he's nibbling her ear, he's more likely whispering something like: "My tummy's growling. Why don't you go catch me a tender young impala?"

Safari in Swahili means journey

The Big Five. Colourful birds and tiny dung beetles. The poignant sun-bleached skull of a giraffe. A brilliant pink Brunsvigia lily, its petals curled like ribbons. On safari, our senses are more alert. We smell fresh sage in the breezes. Shiver as a lion roars at sunset. Keenly scan the bush at night for eyes, gleaming like pairs of jewels. In Swahili, the word safari means "journey." A safari is precisely that—a journey of discovery. No two will ever be alike.

More African safari and wildlife information:

Botswana Walking Safari

Namibia Travel - Flights, Hotels, Safaris and Tours

South Africa Cheetah Encounters and Conservation

Kilimanjaro: A Trekking Guide to Africa's Highest Mountain