Venturing to the African continent to spot the Big Five on safari is, of course, one of most popular reasons to travel to Africa. As a recent safari convert (not that I was ever opposed to the idea) who just went on a fully immersive four-day wildlife experience with African Travel, Inc., I saw the value firsthand of choosing a game reserve removed from the most popular safari destinations. Kruger National Park, for example, is perhaps the top South African safari destination. And there’s a lot of value that comes with choosing such a well-attended safari spot; most game drives are staffed by two experienced guides, and there are plenty of luxury accommodations to choose from and a high probability of spotting the animals you most want to see.
That said, for travelers looking for a more intimate, off-the-beaten-path safari experience, I consulted president of African Travel, Inc. Sherwin Banda on his top picks. African Travel, Inc. is a luxury safari operator under The Travel Corporation, a prolific travel brand celebrating 100 years of service in 2020. African Travel, Inc. itself has been in business for more than 40 years, with Banda at the helm for the last five. The luxury safari operator is now in 17 African destinations—both the most popular and the lesser-known—making them the true experts on up-and-coming safari destinations.
Banda points out that while it may seem as though the African travel market is rapidly expanding, it still accounts for a record-low amount of global tourism. “When we look at statistics, global travel only constitutes less than 10% of travel to the African continent,” he says.
Even with the rising luxe safari-and-tented-camp trend, the tourism market in Africa is comparatively undersaturated. The takeaway? Now’s the time to book your African safari. From Banda’s perspective, these are the best off-the-beaten-path safari destinations in Africa:
Namibia is Banda’s first pick for a must-visit African safari destination. He says it’s “often referred to as the driest place on earth, but what most people don’t know is that even though it’s such a dry place and has the world’s oldest desert, it has the largest population of cheetah in the world.”
Cheetahs are technically not one of the Big Five—leopards have a spot on the coveted list alongside elephants, water buffalo, rhino, and lions. However, after seeing the Big Five and cheetah on my safari with African Travel, Inc., I can report with good authority that they’re one of the most interesting animals to observe up close.
Banda says that in Namibia, you have the “push and pull between the desert and the ocean.” You might discover a shipwreck in the middle of the desert, because the dry plain you’re standing on was once ocean. While in Namibia, Banda reminds travelers to learn not only about the animals native to the area, but the customs of the local Himba tribe, who—per Banda—live “in the same way they did 100 years ago.”
The Namibia itinerary to consider: Deserts and Dunes of Namibia, an exploration of Sossusvlei’s sand dunes, the wildlife sanctuary at Etosha National Park, and the Skeleton Coast.
According to Banda, Rwanda is the hottest safari destination at the moment, because “for the first time in more than 30 years, the primates have surpassed 1,000 in the wild.”
While you may come for the gorillas, visitors to Rwanda also have the opportunity to learn about the Rwandan people, and how their country is faring in the genocide aftermath. Banda says the nation is committed to shaping a new narrative “on the back of some of the horrific stories of their past.”
“They no longer identify as tribes, they all identify as Rwandans,” Banda adds. “They spread the message ‘never again on our watch.’”
The safari crowd will also want to spend time in Kigali to get a sense of day-to-day life in urban Rwanda. Banda says that one of the most remarkable parts of Rwandan culture is its “sustainability in action.” Often touted as the “cleanest place on the African continent,” according to Banda, “every Rwandan citizen has to spend one hour on Saturday cleaning their local community.”
The Rwanda itinerary to consider: Rwanda in the Mist, where you’ll hike to see “gorillas in the mist” and the rainforests of Parc National des Volcans.
Banda says Madagascar is often referred to as the ‘eighth continent’ because “the wildlife in Madagascar is unique to this destination and five percent of the world’s wildlife can only be found in Madagascar.”
Unlike any other destination in the world, Banda stresses the majesty of Madagascar’s biodiversity, between their flora and fauna and the wildlife experiences that await at Andasibe Mantadia National Park. Andasibe is one of the most popular parks in Madagascar, home to no fewer than 11 species of lemur.
Madagascar has never had the level of luxury accommodations that nearby destinations like Mauritius or the Seychelles boast. Banda characterizes Madagascar as a “truly adventurous destination that has captured the hearts and minds of travelers looking for an experience off the beaten path.”
The Madagascar itinerary to consider: Magical Madagascar, an active itinerary that takes travelers through Andasibe Mantadia National Park to the Mandrare River.
Tanzania and Kenya
Banda is particularly passionate about visiting Tanzania and Kenya in the low season. Typically, safari-goers travel in high season to see wildlife herds migrate, but Banda reports that the larger herds in both countries actually don’t migrate. Those willing to travel outside of peak travel times will find that the low season “opens the destination up—there’s fewer people, more competitive pricing, and you get to experience the wildlife that some people don't get to see,” Banda says.
While the rainy season is historically the low season in Tanzania and Kenya, following the rain, the animals go through their birthing cycle.
“Africa is open 365 days a year,” Banda says—which is a true mantra of African safari industry. “The animals aren’t going anywhere.”