Africa’s coolest animal experiences
Our pick of the best animal encounters you can have on the continent, both in water and on land
Some of the most memorable moments of any visit to the African continent are animal interactions, whether that’s spotting prowling cheetahs from a game drive 4×4 or snorkelling in the rich waters of the Indian Ocean. Here are 10 of Africa’s coolest (and most ethical) animal experiences.
Behind wooden barn doors on a peaceful farm and sanctuary, in South Africa’s Franschhoek Valley, is a pig that’s become world-renowned for her artistic eye. Pigcasso paints canvases with abstract oil paintings that can be bought at the onsite art gallery, OINK. Browse her artworks before meeting the lady herself, as well as the resident cow, Balloo. It’s open from 11am to 4pm every day on a donation-only basis, but you can also book the upstairs barn accommodation for a rural retreat.
The Giraffe Manor, a boutique lodge on the edge of Nairobi’s Giraffe Centre, is one of Africa’s most photographed hotels thanks to its long-necked visitors, who swoop their heads through the dining room windows each morning and evening in the hope of being hand-fed a treat by the awestruck guests. Giraffe-themed decorations adorn the colonial manor house alongside original furnishings and a butterfly-filled garden. You can book for a stay in one of its 12, stately rooms or visit as part of a safari with The Safari Collection.
The ‘wild side’ of Mozambique is Morrungulo Beach, according to Peri-Peri Divers – a scuba and freediving school that takes guests on intrepid dives in the habitats of the Indian Ocean’s largest marine life. The pristine, white-sand beach – two and a half hours’ drive from the better-known Tofo Beach – is celebrated for its unspoilt reefs, which teem with rays, sharks, dolphins and turtles. But for one of the world’s most unique diving experiences, head there between July and October, when you can swim alongside humpback whales.
The Great Migration is the largest animal migration in the world, and one of Africa’s most impressive natural phenomena, which sees over two million wildebeest, zebras and gazelles gallop clockwise across Tanzania’s Serengeti region and the Masai Mara National Reserve in Kenya. The migration never ends, in a constant cycle of wildebeest birthing their calves, searching for fresh pastures and being preyed upon by crocodiles and lions. Asilia Adventures offers a unique way to witness it all: on foot, trekking up to 20km per day across the plains of Serengeti, in the hoofsteps of the animals that migrate past each year.
For many, Africa’s ultimate wildlife experience is trekking through the forested mountains of Rwanda or Uganda in search of silverback mountain gorillas. Munching on vegetation in the thick undergrowth, gorilla families here have multiplied in the past couple of decades after nearing extinction in the 20th century. That’s thanks to conservation efforts, which are boosted by the permits required for visitors keen to spend time with the fuzzy giants. It costs around US$700 for a gorilla permit in Uganda, compared to US$1500 in Rwanda, and Insight Safari Holidays offers the chance to spend four hours with the gorillas in Uganda’s Bwindi Impenetrable Forest, rather than the usual one hour trip.
There’s only one place in the world where you can get up close and personal with African penguins, and it’s at Boulders Beach in Cape Town, South Africa. Its world-famous colony of fuzzy, waddling penguins has grown to around 3,000 since the first pair settled here in the 1980s, but still remains endangered due to pollution and overfishing in the region. You can be sure that your visit here won’t damage their habitat further, as the beach is part of Table Mountain National Park Marine Protected Area and its walkways keep the penguins and their eggs safe.
Cape Cross smells like no other place in Namibia. On the Skeleton Coast directly east from capital Windhoek, this is home to the world’s largest colony of Cape fur seals. Some 200,000 of them congregate on the rocky shoreline year-round, brought there by the abundance of fish in the South Atlantic Ocean’s Benguela current. Arrive in November or December and the coast will be covered in tiny, mewling seal pups. Wear something old: these seals are notoriously stinky, and their strong odour has been known to sink into clothes and last through several washes.
Any child born since 1994 has a soft spot for Timon, the Lion King’s smart-talking meerkat sidekick. At Camp Kalahari, Botswana, guests can see where the writers must have got their inspiration. Families of semi-habituated meerkats show their cheeky, inquisitive personalities on guided walks from the lodge, during which you can spend several hours just sitting metres from the little creatures while they forage for grubs and hunt for scorpions. Though they’re wild, the meerkats are used to having humans close by and are happy being watched for hours on end.
Much has been written about the ethics of elephant interactions in recent years, with campaigns against riding elephants gaining popularity and tourists increasingly keen to invest in their protection. Daphne Sheldrick Elephant Orphanage, in Kenya, is a safe bet. The Sheldrick Wildlife Trust works on anti-poaching, safeguarding the environment, enhancing community awareness and rescuing and hand rearing elephant and rhino orphans across Africa. You can see them caring for the babies during Nairobi Nursery’s public visiting hour – every day from 11am to 12pm.
Mana Pools National Park in northern Zimbabwe is an UNESCO World Heritage Site, but remains one of the least developed safari parks in the country. This means its animal sighting opportunities are plentiful – especially on walking or canoeing safaris. Zambezi Expeditions is a luxury mobile camp run by African Bush Camps, often positioned on the banks of the Zambezi River. As well as attracting visiting elephants and hippos to the camp itself, guests can also go on guided walks and canoe trips. The highlight? Gliding past hippos, their vast frames submerged underwater and only hinted at by their round ears and eyes skimming the surface.