The 10 national parks you have to visit in Africa
The African continent is known for its vast expanses of wilderness and wildlife. Here's
where to go to experience them
Close encounters with baby gorillas. Catching up with giraffes on foot. Scaling the largest sand dunes on planet earth. Africa’s many and fantastical national parks represent a peerless showcase of all that is magical about this continent and its dizzying abundance of nature. Here’s out pick of the prettiest parks…
Although named after a chain of dormant volcanoes, this Rwandan slice of paradise is best known for its mountain gorillas. Around a dozen families of wild mountain gorillas inhabit this park, and can be seen up-close on guided hikes ranging from 30 minutes to over four hours. Legendary conservationist Dian Fossey – author of Gorillas in the Mist – lived, worked and died here, leaving a important legacy. For instance, tourist revenue from the park is now funnelled into local schools and other initiatives, such as compensation for farmers who might otherwise come into conflict with these gentle giants.
Properly gigantic at 13,500 km2, Odzala-Kokoua National Park is a mesmerising introduction to the Congo basin, the second largest rainforest in the world. Fairly teeming with charismatic megafauna – forest elephants, buffalo, western lowland gorillas, and over 430 bird species – a real highlight here is the opportunity to canoe down the Lekoli river, a watery highway that scythes through the undergrowth providing discreet sightings of everything from iridescent clouds of butterflies to giant forest hogs. It’ll really float your boat.
Ever heard of a ‘walking safari’? Basically, rather than zooming about the bush in a noisy jeep, you set off on foot for a few days getting acquainted nature from eye level. Follow a sensibly armed tracker across South Luangwa National Park, Zambia, and encounter giraffes, lions, elephants, porcupines, fish eagles, hyena, termites and literally countless other creatures great and small. Jeep safaris will always have their place, of course, but this is a concept that really has legs.
The largest national park in Africa – covering nigh-on 50,000 square kilometres from Atlantic Ocean to the Great Escarpment – also incorporates the world’s oldest desert. The Namib desert is famous in its own right for its soaring dunes, the biggest in the world, that are also vividly coloured red-orange thanks to the sands’s constituent iron oxide. Why are they so high? Keen winds from the Atlantic coast, which also sweep in the mist that’s the main water source around here.
When most people think of ‘African National Parks’, the picture they summon in their mind is quite likely the Serengeti. The name means ‘endless plains’ in the Masai tongue, and at 15k square kilometres it’s certainly roomy, playing host as it does to the epic annual Great Migration of 750,000 zebras, 1.2 million wildebeests and many thousands of other grazing migrants. You’ve a very decent chance of spotting the ‘big five’ – lion, leopard, elephant, buffalo and black rhino – here, although the rhinos consider it wise to hang back. And they have a point.
Sitting in the basin of the majestic Great Rift Valley, Lake Nakuru National park is alive with hypnotic natural specimens, from white rhinos to leopards to myriad birds and insects teeming in its broad forests. Undeniably, the big draw is its flamingo population, which descends in million-strong flocks to gorge on algae and other miniature morsels. Their numbers can fluctuate, bear in mind, based on rainfall, and a couple of years back they barely showed up at all. Though they definitely will again, in fuschia.
This set-aside region within the terrifically-named Bwindi Impenetrable Forest was first established as a national park in 1932, though it’s since been greatly expanded. It’s a haven for all sorts of life, not least chimpanzees, but it’s bird-fanciers who flock here in greatest numbers. Binoculars in hand, they try to bag sightings of choice specimens such as the dorky blue-headed sunbird, glamorous African harrier Hawk or cinnamon-chested bee-eater. Well worth a flight.
The national park formerly known as Cape Peninsular provides a moody, photogenic backdrop to the city of Cape Town. And sure, there’s interesting fauna here, in the shape of baboons and even, uniquely in Africa, penguins. But the real showstoppers are the flowers. Around 1,500 species, including the beguiling scarlet Red Disa orchid and carious endemic varieties of ‘fynbos’, scrubby but delicate bushes that explode into colour and fragrance around springtime, plus painted ladies and the magisterial King Protea. Blooming sensational.
Rightly world renowned as a game reserve and home for many thousands of elephants, buffalo, leopards and rhinos, what’s less well known is that Kruger National Park also has intriguing evidence of ancient human habitation. Kruger’s cave paintings, created thousands of years ago by the hunter-gatherer San people, depict holy animals including eland antelopes, frolicking also some odd human-like figures with long, streamer-like tails, said to be the result of sacred visions received and reinterpreted by shamans.
There’s something rather pure and edenic about Amboseli National Park in Kenya. For one thing, take that incomparable backdrop – snow-capped Kilamanjaro, rising like Olympus, just as the song says. Over huge stretches it’s parched, and positively sulphurous around the wetlands, but in the vicinity of the park’s oases life is deliriously abundant with lions, buffalo, impala and cheetah among the merry megafauna. One of the biggest bull elephants ever recorded, with mighty tusks reaching to the ground, roamed amicably among awestruck tourists until very recently. His name was Tim. Never forget.