Hidden Gems and Local Secrets From The Safari Guides
Hidden gems, local secrets and features that make wildlife viewing extra special will elevate your safari from ‘good’ to ‘extraordinary’. As out-and-out-Africa specialists we’ve got access to all sorts of behind the scenes information to help us tailor incredible safari holidays. For this article though, we thought we’d ask some in-country specialists – in other words the safari guides themselves – what makes their particular patches so special.
Hwange National Park is renowned for its incredible diversity of wildlife and is where Sibs Sibanda guides for Imvelo Safari Lodges. ‘There are over 45,000 elephant in Hwange which makes tracking them on foot an absolutely thrilling experience – to see the large herds from ground level is exceptional,’ he says. ‘One of the other beauties of Hwange is the difference in topography as you move from the north to the south. This means the concentrations of species change and it’s a similar experience to being in different national parks, but all rolled into one. A particular favourite of mine are the famous Ngamo Plains, close to Bomani and Camelthorn Lodges in southern Hwange. The grass never grows very high on these beautiful wide open plains, which makes them an excellent spot for year-round game viewing. The large teak woodland habitat is pretty special too, providing sightings of different species.’
The shores around Lake Kariba – the largest man-made lake on Earth – offer myriad spectacular vantage points and Bumi Hills Safari Lodge has one of the finest. We asked Nicholas Gaunge, one of the guides here, what he thinks makes this area so special. ‘I love that our guests can see the beautiful scenery and wildlife on the shoreline from the lodge – the seasonal fluctuation of the water levels ensures that the shoreline is a rich grazing ground attracting lots of wildlife, so there’s always something to see. In my view one of Bumi’s best hidden secrets is the chance to learn about the Tonga culture which can be unbundled by the local elders. This community enjoy sharing the richness and complexities of the historic events that took place in the Zambezi valley.’
Matusadona National Park, also bordering Lake Kariba, has only a handful of camps and one of our favourites is the privately owned Musango Safari Camp. Steve and Wendy Edwards have made their home here and know every inch of the area. Steve says, ‘the combination of the lake with a wildlife rich shoreline and easily approachable wildlife, especially by boat, ensures superb wildlife encounters. There are waterfalls in our concession too, which are unusual around the lake.’ As if current wildlife sightings aren’t exciting enough, there are dinosaur fossils here too. ‘One of my fossil discoveries was a new dinosaur to sub-Saharan Africa,’ says Steve.
The magical riverine woodlands and floodplains of Mana Pools is another of Zimbabwe’s gems. Reggie Mafa and Steve Chinoi, who both guide out of Kanga Camp, highlight the remote setting of this classic tented property. Steve goes on to say that, ‘the Kanga Pan is the only source of permanent water in a 12 mile radius. This consistency draws wildlife to the pan, especially in the dry season, like a magnet.’ Reggie’s pick is away from the wildlife; ‘not far from Kanga there is an old village site where Chief Dandawa and his people lived before Mana Pools was declared a national park. There is little left of the structure, but we usually find pieces of pottery and explain to our guests about the history of the area.’
Mana Pools specialist and charismatic guide, Stretch Ferreria, suggests ‘taking a day trip to Chitake Springs near the escarpment where there are high concentrations of lion, big herds of buffalo and which is a very pretty place later in the season. Look for dinosaur fossils up the Chitake River and visit the iconic group of baobabs which were where used by the local tribes’ people.’ His own property, Goliath Camp, is situated in a spectacular site on the edge of the mighty Zambezi River, shaded by beautiful mahogany and albida trees. It’s a terrific spot where guests can see wildlife in front of the camp crossing to the islands throughout the day. A gentle afternoon canoe trail with Stretch gives a whole different side to viewing the wildlife along the river while the elephant bulls that go vertical up on their back feet, only seen in Mana Pools, are another of his top picks.
Ake Lindstrom, our Kilimanjaro climb partner in Tanzania, is an expert mountaineer and one of East Africa’s most knowledgeable guides. ‘Lake Alice on Mount Kenya for fly fishing (for trout), Sanjan gorge on the edge of the Serengeti plains for rock climbing and the Enduimet wildlife area in Tanzania for cycling with elephants,’ are among his hidden gems. In the Ngorongoro Conservation Area you can hike, cycle, hang out with the Masai and see a rhino all in one day which is pretty special. Lesser known, but still with a great mix are Loliondo and Enduimet where wildlife, people and adventure can all be engaged at the same place and time. Some of the adventures we offer are unique – we concentrate on mountains and mountain biking at Summits (the adventure arm of the company) community based tourism at Lake Natron Camp. I really think that one of the most special aspects of what we do is our commitment to the community. You don’t see it right away, but you feel it in the guides and people that you meet when you are with us.’
James Christian and Kerry Glen run Karisia Safaris and operate wonderfully charismatic camel supported walking safaris in Kenya. Interestingly, James pointed to photography when we asked for his thoughts on what makes their safaris so special. ‘Walking safaris provide an alternative view of the wildlife. In particular, photography takes on a different aspect. Because the animals can’t generally be approached as close as you would in a vehicle, images taken on foot tend to be more contextual – the animals are often framed by their environment which makes them quite unique and different from the close-up portraits photographers might get from a vehicle. You get to see the small things too, that are easy to overlook in a vehicle. Many birds, insects, reptiles and tracks are quite inaccessible while zooming past in the Land Rover. Lots of our most interesting wildlife sightings are made after tracking an animal through its own country, places no car has a hope of finding.
Being part of a team is pretty special too. All the guys who work on the safari, from the guides and trackers to the youngest new herder, are all immediately familiar faces. As a group we move, and as a group we sometimes laugh at the shared experiences and stories that unfold around our temporary camps. The story of the leopard that decided to jump on a camel’s back, but was swiftly thrown to the dust, is still told often, years and years later.’
With over 25 years’ guiding in the Masai Mara, including presenting duties on BBC’s Big Cat Live, Jackson Looseyia and Dominic Nchoe, owners of Tanguila Camp, are well qualified to give their guests a truly authentic insight into Masai culture, customs and beliefs as well as the fauna and flora here. When asked what features make the area around Tanguila particularly good for wildlife viewing, Jackson refers the salt lick, one of the few natural ones in the area – being in front of camp. This, he says, ‘means elephant, giraffe, hippo, buffalo, zebra, eland, and many smaller antelope visit almost daily. We can easily access some of the wildebeest migration river crossing points too, so it’s a great spot for super all round wildlife viewing.’
We work regularly with Ultimate Safaris in Namibia. Their ethos echoes our own and the team of experts, passionate about all aspects of this glorious country, is among the best in the field. We asked Jason Nott, one of the lead guides for his hidden gems and local secrets. ‘Damaraland has always been one of my favourite places to guide. The region allows for spectacular wildlife viewing of desert adapted species, and these sightings are amplified by the ever changing environment. In fact, the search for these species in such a unique environment is often even more exciting than the sighting itself. I’m excited about the brand new Onduli Ridge, an as yet undiscovered gem, which will allow access to amazing safari activities. These include tracking desert adapted wildlife (especially black rhino and elephant), exploration of the local area on foot and by E-bike, and visits to the pre-historic rock engravings at Twyfelfontein. What makes this camp particularly special is its remote location, away from the normal hustle and bustle in the Twyfelfontein area, while still allowing access to some of the most fascinating and largely uncharted wildlife areas in the region. Away from Damaraland, Etosha National Park is the obvious place to get great wildlife sightings, with a large variety of species congregating around water points allowing for some interesting and unusual interactions.’
Family safaris are something of a speciality at Aardvark Safaris. We’ve planned hundreds of family holidays for our clients, and organised plenty for ourselves too. It was interesting to hear from Nina Scott at Tanda Tula that it’s the topography of the Timbavati (a private wilderness just bordering the famous Kruger National Park) that lends this area to perfect family safaris. ‘The wide variety of flora creates the ideal breeding ground for immense species diversity and abundance of wildlife. The animals are “easy” to spot which the kids absolutely love and every game drive teaches them so many new things. And frankly, happy kids equals happy parents.’ It’s a simple point, but one that’s easy to overlook in the planning stages if you’re not talking to a specialist.
Deb Tittle is without question one of Africa’s leading safari guides. Over the last 22 years she’s led nearly 3,000 walking safaris through the African wilderness. Having honed her skills working with renowned safari guides Robin Pope and Derek Shenton, she now runs her own operation at Mapazi Camp in a remote corner of Zambia’s South Luangwa National Park. On hidden gems and local secrets she says, ‘honestly, I consider our little bush camp, to be a hidden gem. A dedicated walking safari experience on such a small, personal level is something that any bush-lover should try. I chose to specialise in walking safaris because the experience of tracking, finding and observing big game on foot is much more absorbing, for both guide and guests. Without the safety bubble of a vehicle, one has to give due respect to animals and heighten your awareness in order to approach and observe those with far superior senses. It’s a fun, rewarding and healthy way to safari.’
It’s the Bangweulu Swamps, famous for the extraordinary shoebill and Kasanka National Park, with its equally extraordinary bat migration, that top the list of Zambia’s hidden gems for Keyala Phiri, senior safari manager and guide at Robin Pope Safaris. He also highlights the gorgeous river-front position of Nkwali Camp as being pretty special. ‘The sweeping pools right in front of camp attract all sorts of wildlife. We have great views of a well–used elephant crossing point, and have even got a resident hippo who we’ve nicknamed Humphrey.’
If our guides have insipred you with their top tips and hidden gems, do get in touch, we would be delighted to help you plan a holiday to include some of their recommendations. Our team of experts have travelled widely throughout Africa. They can offer expert advice on every type of safari holiday. Chatting to people by phone or email is what we do best. We listen, we explain, we answer all sorts of questions even those you didn’t know to ask, and finally we make suggestions. If this is your first time to Africa or your twenty first, we have a team standing by to help make the planning easy and the journey the best ever. Please get in touch whatever stage you’re at.