Sunday, April 23, 2017

Stanley's Travels in Review: Top 13 Camping Spots

Thunder Bay, April 20

When you're on a long overland trip, camping out of your vehicle, at first you don't pay as much attention to where you're camping as you do to what you see during the day, but over time you start to appreciate the finer points of a campsite that make it just right.  After all, you end up spending a lot of time in and around your campsite, so it's always a bonus if it's a memorably beautiful spot with a great sunset, splendid views, a roaring campfire, a feeling of isolation and no noisy neighbours.  Looking back on Stanley's Travels, I realize that it wasn't until about halfway through the trip that we really started to appreciate some of the incredible places that we got to park Stanley.  I think that on our next loop through Africa, we will try to arrange the trip to spend as much time as possible in beautiful places in the middle of nowhere, enjoying the surroundings, eating well and having sundowners and crackling fires.

I was going to make this a top 10 list, but as I went through the preliminary list, I got to the point where I didn't want to cut out any of these great places to camp, so I made it a baker's dozen of great places to camp instead.

1.  Nsobe Camp, Bangweulu Wetlands--Zambia

In the shade of our own termite mound on the edge of the plains

Cycling through the lechwe herds

Pancakes cooking on an open fire
This inexpensive, isolated campsite was absolutely perfect for us.  After a long, tough slog along a rough track to get there, Nsobe was a wonderful refuge.  On the edge of a huge grassland plain, a number of isolated campsites are each tucked into the shade of a couple of trees growing out of the top of a giant termite mound, the only shelter for miles.  It's pitch-black at night, making for great stargazing, and the staff bring firewood and heat water for showers.  The sites are far enough apart that you're barely aware of other people, while in July, when we were there, distant grass fires make for dramatic sunsets and flickering firelight at night.  You feel as though you're alone in the middle of nowhere, with thousands of black lechwe antelope and thousands of smaller grassland birds all around.  Just 8 km away is the ranger station at Chikuni, where you set off on foot to look for rare shoebills in the papyrus swamps, while wattled and crowned cranes dot the grasslands nearby. It a wonderful place to stay, and it's hard to tear yourself away once you've arrived.

A perfect place to camp!

Smoke-enhanced sunset

2.  Wild Campsite #2, Damaraland--Namibia

Location, location, location

Hardy desert trees
We camped wild a few times in Namibia, Botswana and Zimbabwe, but we really should have done it more often. Damaraland, the strip of semi-desert (karoo) inland from the Skeleton Coast, was perfect for just pulling off the track and finding a spot to set up for the night.  When we return for more adventures in Stanley, Damaraland will likely be the first place we head.  This particular campsite, just off a very rough 4WD track that we followed from Brandberg West to Twyfelfontein, was wonderful.  We stopped atop a small rise that gave sweeping views over the surrounding desert plains.  We were surrounded by rare prehistoric-looking welwitschia plants, and when we walked along the nearby dry riverbed we saw lots of droppings and footprints of desert-dwelling black rhinos, although we didn't spot the animals themselves.  There was a sense of complete middle-of-nowhere-ness that was exactly what we wanted.  Although we weren't that far off the track, there is only about one vehicle a day using that track, and we saw no other humans for a day and a half.  Sitting around a flickering campfire watching satellites and meteors moving across the Milky Way was an unforgettable experience.

Late afternoon light on the nearby hills

3.  Ngepi Camp, Campsite #22--Namibia

Another perfect view over the Kavango River

Great road sign
This was a place that we loved so much the first time that we came back again a second time.  The Kavango River in the Caprivi Strip of northeastern Namibia is an idyllic place to sit back and watch the river flow, maybe with a fishing line in the river or with a birdwatching guidebook in your lap. There are a lot of campsites along the river, both on the Namibian and the Botswanan side of the border, and I'm sure a lot of them are fairly similar in terms of views, isolation and beauty, but Ngepi really won a special place in our hearts.  The people that run the place are exceptionally friendly, funny and efficient, and the hilarious signs all around the camp are worth searching out.  The particular campsite that we took the second time we stayed there, #22, is the furthest from the main lodge and as a result is the quietest and most isolated.  You hear hippos grunting and splashing in the river nearby (and out on the grass at night, once you're in bed), and elephants and leopards calling from across the river in the national park.  The firepits are well-made, and the views out over the Kavango are fabulous.  The entire property is a birdwatcher's dream, with dozens of species skulking in the bush or splashing around in the river.  The campsites are pretty widely separated, particularly as you get towards #22, and the overland trucks which are the mainstay of Ngepi's business model are all housed at the other end of the camp, so that you barely notice their presence.  It was such a peaceful, beautiful, restful place that we chose it for our last destination of the trip in March, 2017. I'm sure we'll be back again in the future!

Note:  Since my camera gear had been stolen by this point, the photos here come from other sources: one from Alli's Excellent Adventures, and the other from Angel and Quail on Trail.

4.  Kapishya Hot Springs--Zambia

Hot spring perfection!
This is another oasis in the wilds of northern Zambia that was hard to tear ourselves away from.  We stayed there for three nights and could easily have stayed longer.  The big attraction is, of course, the hot springs, a big rustic pool with hot water bubbling up through the sandy bottom.  We spent hours relaxing there under the forest canopy, watching kingfishers darting along the river.  The grounds make for great birdwatching, and there is lovely walking to be done in the bush that surrounds the lodge.  The campsite is quite removed from the lodge and wasn't at all busy when we were there, so we felt more or less on our own.  Great views out over the river, lots of firewood to stoke up a campfire, and a feeling of peace and tranquility that is very seductive.

It was impossible to drag Terri out of the water!

5.  Kori Campsite #3, CKGR--Botswana

A rather comical slender mongoose

Birds lured in by our portable bird watertrough
The southern parks in Botswana (the Central Kalahari Game Reserve and the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park) are amazing places and not much visited compared to the parks in the north of the country.  The Botswana DWNP have done a great job of providing a relatively small number of very isolated rustic campsites (the only facilities are a firepit and a long-drop toilet) out in the middle of nowhere, with no fences separating you from the animals.  Kori Campsite, in the Deception Valley, was absolutely perfect; with the nearest campsite at least half a kilometre away, you're not really aware of other people.  There's plenty of game around, just over the track in the grasslands of a nearby pan:  big kori bustards and secretarybirds, playful bat-eared foxes and jackals, lots of springbok and gemsbok.  Right in the campsite there are slender mongooses and plenty of birdlife, including playful yellow-billed hornbills.  It really feels like being a San hunter-gatherer as you sit around your flickering campfire under the stars, listening to the yips of jackals and hyenas in the night.  Most of the campsites in the CKGR and the Botswanan side of the KTP are similar, and it's worth putting in the effort ahead of time to try to book these sites for some unforgettable nights out in these arid Edens.

Terri loving our pre-dinner stroll across the grasslands

6.  Pomene Lodge Campground--Mozambique

Setting up camp

Flamingoes in the lagoon
Perfect view out towards the beach
We had heard of Pomene for years before our trip, as it was the subject of a nature documentary that we saw on TV when we were living in Switzerland.  We were almost talked out of going there by travellers who said that it wasn't worth the long sandy drive, but we decided in the end to go.  We were very glad that we went, as it was a superb place.  Out at the end of a 60-kilometre sand track that needed our tires deflated almost to zero, Pomene Lodge is located at the end of a sandy spit lying between the Indian Ocean on one side and a beautiful lagoon on the other.  Our campsite looked out towards the ocean, out of which we watched a full moon rise, and a brief stroll brought us out to a perfect sunset-viewing spot looking west over the lagoon.  There were hardly any other campers around, and it was quiet, peaceful and very beautiful.  Every morning women from the local village would walk by with fresh fruit (including amazing passion fruit), bread and fish for us to buy.  We rented sea kayaks from the lodge and had a wonderful paddle across the lagoon and up a forest-lined river.  There was great birdwatching, with flamingoes in the lagoon, and we spotted dolphins frolicking in the lagoon mouth a couple of times.  A long but beautiful hike down the beach gets you to the old ruined Portuguese-era hotel at the point, and (more to the point) the amazing blowholes.  Well worth the trudge.  All in all, it was a very elemental, naturally stunning setting, and we would gladly have spent more time camped at Pomene if we hadn't run out of money (they only take cash at the lodge).  
Ho hum; another perfect sunset

7.  Leeupan Bush Camp--South Africa

Nice setting for Stanley 

Sociable weaver nest complex
This place occupies a special place in our hearts.  We first heard of it in October from a fellow camper in Upington, Northern Cape, South Africa.  We had passed it by as we left Botswana and entered South Africa, and we were too lazy to drive back north to visit it.  It remained on our mental radar, though, and when we beat a retreat from persistent rainy weather in January, we took a detour into the middle of nowhere specifically to camp at Leeupan, and ended up staying three wonderful nights.

Leeupan is located close to the Botswana border, not far from the village of Van Zylsrus, right in the heart of the South African section of the Kalahari.  The landscape consists of a series of red sand dunes running parallel to each other, covered with typical African bush vegetation.  The campsite is on the other side of the main gravel road from the Leeupan farm, and so it's very, very quiet.  There are some basic facilities (flush toilets, showers), but the main appeal is the isolation, the wildlife and the stars at night.  When we were there it was pretty hot during the day, and Terri escaped from the heat by soaking in the "swimming pool", which was really the water reservoir but which served the purpose of cooling us off.  The sunsets were spectacular, and there was plenty of firewood around to stoke up a decent-sized blaze every night.  The evening temperatures dropped to a very pleasant cool, and we sat out every night beside the fire watching for satellites passing overhead and for eyes glinting in the night on the ground, as nocturnal grazers (mostly springbok, but also a springhaas) came in for water at the little drinking trough that the owners have set up.  It was a perfect temperature to sleep at night with our roof hatch open, letting the stars and the moon bathe our faces with a faint glow.

Ooh La La cooling her belly
There were lots of leopard tortoises and birds to be seen, including a very impressive sociable weaver nest complex, but the unique feature of Leeupan that had us driving a couple of hundred kilometres out of our way is that it's next to the Kalahari Meerkat Project property.  These are the meerkats featured in the nature documentary series Meerkat Manor, and Leeupan was the only place that we saw these ridiculously cute social mongooses in the wild. We talked to Lorraine, the very friendly owner, and told her that we were eager to see meerkats.  She talked to her farm workers, and they indicated the vague area that they had last seen the meerkats.  We went for a stroll in the late afternoon and suddenly there were a dozen meerkats under the leadership of the indomitable Ooh La Laa scuttling around energetically, frantically digging into the sand in search of scorpions and crickets to eat.  We stood and watched them for a good long while until one of the Kalahari Meerkat Project volunteers came around to do her evening behavioural observations and we had to leave.  It was a special encounter and was the icing on the cake of a beautiful camping spot.

We love meerkats!

8.  Bruintjieskraal Campsite #12, Baviaanskloof--South Africa

Not a bad place to park
We stayed here for only one night, as we were in a hurry to escape rain and get up towards the Kalahari and Namibia.  It was, however, an incredibly beautiful isolated campsite with a swimming hole and fishing spot right next to the vehicle.  There is a covered private kitchen area that would be useful when the weather is poor, and an excellent private ablution block.  There are a number of campsites spread along the length of the river, but #12 is by far the largest and most isolated; we couldn't hear or see any of the other guests in this popular weekend retreat from Port Elizabeth.  The scenery is very pretty, as the campsite is set in a narrow gorge (a kloof, in Afrikaans; hence the name). It's also a good base for hiking and mountain biking.  It's certainly a place that we would go back to if we found ourselves in that corner of South Africa again.

Morning view from our campsite

9.  Pontoon Camp, Kasanka National Park--Zambia

The campsite attendants stoking up our fires

We were out of cooking gas, so we used the open fire
Pontoon Camp is a beautiful spot in lovely Kasanka National Park.  It's right on the edge of a marsh lined with dense papyrus reeds, into and out of which slip the normally shy sitatunga which are the most aquatic of the antelope family.  Every morning and evening they would make an appearance, coming out onto the grass to graze.  There were lots of waterbirds as well, particularly the coppery-tailed coucal and the African jacana.  The campsite is in the middle of absolutely nowhere, and there are only 3 spots, each with its own showers and toilets and fire pits, widely enough spaced that you don't really notice your neighbours.  It's very quiet and the night is full of owls, bats and spiders whose eyes sparkle in your flashlight beam.  The campground has a couple of attendants who kindle fires, heat the water for showers and generally take care of you hand and foot.  Highly recommended.

Sitatunga buck

10.  Otjiwa Lodge, (Campsite #10)--Namibia

Well-constructed campsite, well stocked with firewood
This was another place we liked so much that we came back a second time.  It's only about 2 hours north of Windhoek, and we stayed here a couple of times when returning to the city.  Otjiwa is a private game reserve with a fancy lodge but also 10 well-maintained campsites.  We stayed both times in campsite 10, the one furthest from the lodge and other campers, and it was magical.  There's great bush for walking, lots of birds and a feeling that you're much further away from civilization than you really are.  Both nights we stayed here we had great braais (barbecues) over the campfire and sat out under the stars in perfect contentment.  We don't have any photos that I took here, so I lifted a couple of photos from the excellent Tracks For Africa website.

11.  Khami Ruins Campsite--Zimbabwe

Lovely location under the trees

We stayed here almost by accident.  We had planned to visit Khami, some of the most atmospheric historical ruins in Africa, but when we got there, we saw what looked like a perfect place to camp at a little picnic site.  We asked at the site office and it turned out it was set up for camping, despite the lack of a sign.  It turned out to be a wonderful spot, very atmospheric, under the canopy of some towering trees.  I love camping at historic spots, and we were right between two sets of stone ruins.  We climbed up the hill to one set of ruins to watch a full moon rise, and it was absolutely breathtaking.  

Sunset serenade atop the ruins

12.  Elephant Sands--Botswana

The cottages have a great view over the waterhole

Up close and personal
We ended up spending only one night here, blundering in after dark, guided by our GPS to the nearest campground.  It turned out to be a serendipitous jackpot of a choice.  The campground is very atmospheric, popular with overland groups.  It's built around a big waterhole popular with elephants who wander in at all hours, day and night, to have a drink.  The elephants wander right between the vehicles and tents and buildings and seem completely unconcerned about humans being present.  The bar/restaurant area is a perfect place to sit and watch the elephants drinking, wallowing in mud and doing pachyderm stuff.  It would be great to go back there and spend a couple of days just hanging out with the elephants.

13.  Chelinda Campsite, Nyika Plateau--Malawi

Sitting around our campfire

Terri trying to charm the passing elands into posing for a photo
This remote campsite, high up (almost 2000 metres above sea level) is in a very pretty area.  The campsites each have a roofed structure to spread out in on rainy days, and have fabulous views out over the plateau.  Eland, bushbuck, reedbuck, zebra and roan antelope all wander by the campsite, and the bushbuck were right beside Stanley when we woke up.  The campsite staff light campfires before dawn and before sunset, and they're necessary to take the edge off the mountain chill.  Lovely hiking and cycling around the campsite, with lots of animals to see, particularly herds of roan, the loveliest of antelope.

Bushbuck in our campsite

I think the remoteness and wilderness in a country like Malawi where overpopulation presses against you more visibly than in the rest of southern Africa is a welcome relief.  As well the mix of cold and wildlife is unusual for most of Africa and is something special.  I am a big fan of the Nyika Plateau.

Elands passing by the campsite

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Stanley's Travels in Review: Top 10 National Parks and Wildlife Areas

Thunder Bay, April 18

So as snow belts down outside, lashed by Arctic winds, it seems like a good time to look back longingly on a year spent living mostly outdoors in Africa, sleeping inside our faithful bakkie and camper combination "Stanley", and visiting as many of the great wildlife spots in southern Africa.  I thought it might be useful for any of my faithful readers who might be thinking of an African odyssey of their own to have a look at what Terri and I thought were the top 10 spots along our route to see wildlife.  We were lucky to visit many, if not most, of the great national parks and other wildlife hotspots of the southern end of the continent, and these are the ones that stuck most in our minds.

I've embedded a Google Map in the post, so you can have a look to see where these various parks are located; hope that's useful.

1.  Chobe Riverfront, Chobe National Park (Botswana)

Buffalo in the early-morning dust

Chobe is the great remaining stronghold of the African elephant
This is really the epicentre of large-scale big game in all of southern Africa.  Botswana is the country that has done best at preserving its elephants and its other big game, and Chobe is the jewel in its wildlife crown.  There are something like 350,000 African elephants left in the wild, according to the Great Elephant Census, completed in 2016.  Of those, something like 130,000 are in Botswana (that's about a third of the entire continent's population) and of those, something like 60,000 are in Chobe.  So something like one-sixth of all the African elephants in the wild are found inside this one park, many of them concentrated around the Chobe River.  You will likely never see such huge numbers of elephants in one place anywhere other than Chobe.  If only for this reason, Chobe would be worth visiting, but it's got equally impressive numbers of almost every charismatic megafauna species.  If you go to only one African wildlife park, you really should make it Chobe.
A well-fed Nile crocodile
Lioness hunting in Chobe
It is a big park, but particularly in the very dry conditions that we encountered in September, 2016 the animals are almost all right along the Chobe River, in incredible numbers and concentrations.  In the course of a day's game-driving, you're sure to see thousands of impala, hundreds of elephants, lots of lechwe, waterbuck, puku, kudu and buffalo, along with more waterbirds than you can see almost anywhere in Africa.  There's also a very good chance of seeing lions and a good chance of spotting wild dogs (endangered and hard to see most places), along with some possibility of seeing roan and sable antelope.

An African darter takes flight
One of the most enjoyable ways to see the wildlife and the birds is on a river cruise.  The town of Kasane, on the edge of Chobe, has lots of operators offering boat trips, and they're not that expensive. We went twice with Kalahari Tours, and both times I took hundreds of photos.  There's a common 24-hour package deal with a river cruise, lunch, an afternoon game drive, an overnight at a private campsite in the park (no more than 16 guests at a campsite on a given night) and then another morning game drive.  We did this with our group of KLAS students back in March, 2016 and it was an overwhelming non-stop series of "wow!" moments. 
A seriously muddy buffalo
It's difficult (that is, impossible) to get camping reservations for the campsites inside the park, unless you start a year ahead of time.  We didn't do that, but we found quickly that you can stay outside the park and do day trips into the park every day, despite what you read in guidebooks and online.  There are tons of places to stay in and around the town of Kasane, but it's quieter and nicer on the western side of the park.  We particularly liked camping at Mwandi View, about 20 km south of the western end of Chobe Riverfront.
Magnificent male sable antelope
Southern carmine bee-eaters
Another campsite that's well-nigh impossible to get reservations at is Savuti, deep in the interior of the park.  It's a long, tough, dusty, sandy slog through the park to get there, and we didn't make it.  We didn't have Savuti camping reservations, so we were going to have to try to power right through the park and out the south side to Dijara Community Campsite in one day.  Mechanical issues with Stanley scotched this plan, and in retrospect that was no bad thing, as the longer drive around on paved road through Nata and Maun was beautiful and interesting.  We met a number of people who did the dusty grind through Savuti and saw almost no animals to reward them for some pretty hard 4WD driving.
Queleas in front of the sun over the Chobe River

2. Khwai River Conservancy (Botswana)

Posing leopard

Baby elephant protected by adults
This is a small area immediately adjacent to the much larger Moremi Game Reserve in northern Botswana, just to the south of the Savuti sector of Chobe National Park.  We visited it in September, 2016, basing ourselves just to the south at Dijara Community Campsite.  It was an amazing place to visit, a real jewel of wildlife.  

Technically, only people staying at the Khwai Campsite and the Khwai Lodge are supposed to visit the conservancy, but there is no gate and nobody checking admission tickets, so we drove in from the main road on consecutive days and spent the entire day absolutely open-mouthed with amazement at what we were seeing.  On both days we saw lions and leopards.  Leopards are tough to see; on our entire trip, we only saw leopards seven times, and two of them were here at Khwai.  One of the leopard encounters was really memorable, with a young female leopard spending almost an hour posing in a tree, then walking casually along the ground between the gathered tourist vehicles, passing us at a distance of no more than three metres.  It was amazing, perhaps the best single wildlife encounter of the entire journey.

Handsome male waterbuck
There was a lot of wildlife that wasn't lions or leopards, too.  There were prodigious herds of elephants, sometimes so numerous that they blocked our way for half an hour at a time.  We saw lots of baby elephants trotting along with their mothers, having dust baths or drinking at the river.  There were big herds of impala, lechwe, waterbuck and other ungulates, with tons of waterbirds and raptors to satisfy our birdwatching instincts.  

Magnificent leopard
If you can manage to get reservations in the Khwai campsite, you should stay there, but otherwise the Dijara Campsite is conveniently nearby.  You could even probably camp wild just south of Dijara; pretty much nobody lives there and it's beautiful bush.

We found Khwai to be much more densely packed with game than its more famous neighbour Moremi, and with much less driving involved to see it.  It's an absolute jewel of a spot, and a must-see in northern Botswana.

Our farewell sunset at Khwai

3. Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park (Botswana/South Africa)

Big male lion near Twee Rivieren

Our first view of a brown hyena
That unpronounceable name is just another way of spelling "Kalahari", and it's probably the most impressive of the arid-zone parks in southern Africa.  We visited two sectors of this huge park, one on the eastern edge in Botswana, near Mabuasehube Gate, and one on the South African side near Twee Rivieren.  We absolutely loved this park, and would go back in a heartbeat, trying to get reservations for the more remote and smaller campsites.

A gaggle of baby ostriches

The Kalahari is a magical place, not really a desert (it gets too much rainfall during the rainy season) but with almost no surface water for nine months a year.  The landscape consists of vegetated sand dunes with seasonally flooded pans inbetween.  During the dry season the pans are where the action is, particularly where the wildlife authorities have made waterholes for the animals to drink from. The main grazing species are the desert-adapted gemsbok (also known as the oryx) and the springbok.  There are plenty of ostrich about (we saw a big group of baby ostriches one day; they are impossibly cute), along with the iconic kori bustards and secretarybirds, both striding across the grasslands in search of snakes and rodents.  The predators are more easily seen than elsewhere, with prides of lions (with the dark manes so characteristic of the Kalahari), quite a few leopards and lots of cheetahs.  We also saw several hyenas (relatively hard to see, as they're generally nocturnal; Mark and Delia Owens, of Cry of the Kalahari fame, studied them), spotted hyenas, bat-eared foxes and black-backed jackals.  

Billy, the southern yellow-billed hornbill
If you do go, see if you can get reservations well ahead of time for the isolated campsites around some of the interior pans near Mabuasehube Gate (like Khiding, Monamodi or Mabuasehube Pan), or for the Botswanan campsites near Twee Rivieren (like Rooiputs and Polentswa).  We wanted to drive right across the heart of the park from Mabuasehube to Nossob, but we couldn't get the necessary campsite reservations for Motopi and Nossob.  If we were to do it again, we would want to do this crossing.

Juvenile cheetahs follow their mom off towards the waterhole

Mother cheetah near Rooiputs
Rooiputs is where we had an amazing encounter with a mother cheetah and her two subadult daughters, sitting right beside our vehicle for about 40 minutes.  We also saw a huge pride of at least nine lions near there.  It would be great to camp at Rooiputs for several days and just watch the animals passing by (or through!) the camp.

Southern ground squirrel

4. Etosha National Park (Namibia)

The vast empty space of Etosha Pan

Early-morning spotted hyena
Etosha is a special place in a very special country.  We visited in February, 2017 just as it was starting to rain, and we were lucky to get out without getting stuck.  The park is based around an immense salt pan that floods during the rainy season and which provides reliable waterholes during the dry season. It's full of springbok and gemsbok and ostrich in the dry short-grass plains in the west of the park, and has lots of other less dry-adapted species in the slightly moister east end of the park. Two specialties of Etosha are the black-faced impala and the Damara dik-dik; we saw lots of the former, but none of the latter. We had amazing encounters with hyenas (two came right up to the car to drink water from a drainage ditch, giving us very up-close views), lions (two lionesses drinking at a waterhole early one morning) and aardwolves (very rarely seen nocturnal hyenas who eat exclusively termites).  

Black-backed jackal

Early-morning pair of lionesses
The feeling of space you get driving out on a causeway into the pan is transcendental, while the birdlife is spectacular, with various raptors, blue cranes, flamingoes and chestnut-banded plovers particular highlights.  The two main rest camps (Okaukuejo and Namutoni) are pretty crowded, but the central one, Halali, is quieter.  All three are built around floodlit waterholes that apparently draw in black rhinos at night; we weren't lucky on that front, but the waterholes are peaceful, beautiful spots to sit.  We didn't venture into the far west of the park, only recently opened up to the general public, but we heard good things about Olifantsrus campsite; if we go back to Etosha, we will check out that area.  


Black-faced impala
Overall Etosha is great, with lots of game, easily-seen predators, good scenery and wonderful birds. It's also well-run and (at least when we were there) not overly busy.

Two aardwolves

5.  Bangweulu Wetlands (Zambia)

Black lechwe herd
This is probably the most obscure of all the places on this list, but don't let that obscurity fool you.  This is a world-class wildlife attraction and pretty much nobody goes there.  You might have this area entirely to yourself.  It's a long, rough drive to get there, and it's in the middle of nowhere, northern Zambia, so the lack of tourist traffic isn't that surprising, but it's not that there's nothing to see.  This area, not really a national park but managed by African Parks and (formerly) the Kasanka Trust as a community-based conservation area, is full of animals.  The main species in terms of numbers are the black lechwe, a graceful and powerful antelope that congregates in groups of tens of thousands on the flat short-grass plains of the area.  We cycled among them on our folding bikes, and it was an amazing experience.  There are also said to be tsessebe (a kind of hartebeest) around, although we didnt' see any.  There are apparently predators to eat the lechwe (lions and leopards and hyenas).  
Fishing village in the marshes

Blinking shoebill
The real attraction of Bangweulu, though, is a very rare species of bird, the very prehistoric-looking shoebill.  If you've never heard of the shoebill, you really need to watch this clip from David Attenborough.  It's a ridiculously rare bird, with only a couple of thousand individuals thought to reside in the wild, scattered from Bangweulu along the lakes of the Rift Valley and up into the impenetrable Sudd swamps of South Sudan.  Bangweulu is one of the very, very few places where shoebills can be seen with any degree of ease, and it's an adventure.  We saw the shoebill twice, setting out on foot to walk through the grasslands, occasionally fording streams or walking across floating mats of vegetation in the papyrus swamps that are the hiding place of this reclusive fish-eating bird.  They look like something out of Jurassic Park, particularly when they roll up their opaque eyelids from below.  We went to see them twice because a computer error made me lose all the photos I had taken on the first visit; luckily our guides found the birds again and even got us closer than the first time.

Terri riding across the grasslands
Terri and Stanley at our campsite in Nsobe
As well as shoebills, there are crowned cranes, wattled cranes and white storks to be seen, along with huge clouds of pratincoles and larks.  It's an ornithologist's dream, and it was great fun to cycle among the birds along the jeep tracks.

The campsite at Nsobe was an outstanding place to stay.  It's really cheap (US$5 per person per night) but well built and well maintained.  Each site is situated beside or on top of a giant termite mound with a shade tree growing out of it.  The sites are very widely spaced, and at night you can barely notice that you have any neighbours.  The night sky is spectacular and the sounds of hyenas fill the darkness and make you a bit nervous.  There were grass fires around when we were there as the locals burn off long grass to stimulate new growth; the flickering fires at dusk and after dark were eerie and more than a bit alarming.

It may be hard to get to and far from anywhere, but that's part of what makes Bangweulu a must-see wildlife location.
Morning fog

6.  Nyika Plateau (Malawi)

Roan antelope

Common reedbuck
This is another fairly obscure park, way up in the highlands of northern Malawi, but it was surprisingly good for animals as well as having a unique setting and a fabulous camping area.  My friend and former colleague Nathalie used to live in Malawi and raved about Nyika, and we were glad that we took her advice.  
Two elands passing our campsite, one with a twisted horn

Baby bushbuck at our campsite
The plateau rises to 2000 m high above sea level, and 1500 metres above the surface of Lake Malawi. It's cold up there in the winter (we were there in July), especially at night, but the campsite attendants stoke up huge campfires to overcome the chill.  The campsite is unfenced and animals wander right by in large numbers, and sometimes right through the camp.  We woke up to find cute bushbucks right beside Stanley our last morning, and every evening we had elands, zebras, reedbucks and zebras wandering past in the late afternoon light.  Our first evening we were convinced that there was a leopard skulking in the underbrush, causing the reedbucks to issue frantic alarm calls, but we never managed to spot it.
Late-afternoon zebra mother and child

Terri toiling up a hill on the Nyika Plateau
Another nice thing about Nyika is that it's good for cycling; we rode around on our bikes taking pictures of the roan antelopes; it was nice not being confined to our car as is often the case in parks with big predators and elephants around.  We did a bit of hiking as well, although the area right around the lodge was a timber plantation and didn't give much in the way of animals.  From our bikes, we got great views of roan antelopes and eland, both magnificent big antelopes.  The roans are spectacularly coloured, and I was pleased with the photos we got of them.

7.  Kruger National Park (South Africa)

Leopard at Punda Maria

Elephant at sunset
Kruger may be the most famous national park in all of southern Africa.  It's South Africa's flagship park and we spent more time in Kruger (10 nights) than in any other park on our trip.  That said, we both felt that despite Kruger's size and variety, it wasn't as great an overall wildlife experience as some other parks, notably Chobe.  When we were first there, in May, 2016, Kruger was in the grip of a multi-year drought and there was precious little in the way of game to be seen.  We did, in the end, see a reasonable number of elephants and, on our second visit at the end of May, plenty of white rhinos, but there were not that many of the basics:  herds of impala and waterbuck and zebras, big aggregations of buffalo and wildebeest, lots of giraffes.  We would often go a couple of hours an a game drive without seeing much of note.  

Thick-tailed galago (bushbaby)
We found the rest camps to provide some of the best wildlife viewing in the park.  They're often located on riverbanks, and even though most rivers in the park were bone dry, there were still a few waterholes here and there that attracted elephants, waterbuck, buffalo and impala down for a drink.  At night we would wander around the perimeter fences of the camp with a spotlight, looking for nocturnal creatures, and we were rewarded with views of hyenas, a genet, bushbucks and a few impossibly cute bushbabies.  One of our favourite wildlife moments in Kruger was having three thick-tailed galagos (large bushbabies) walk right under my chair and up the tree behind us.  

Parked at a picnic area in the south of the park
African spoonbill
Kruger was outstanding for birds, particularly birds of prey, and over the course of ten days we ended up seeing almost everything we wanted, even our first leopard of the trip on a sunset game drive up at Punda Maria.  I shouldn't be too hard on Kruger; it has a lot of animals, and a lot of different species. It's just that it's hard to see them in great numbers.  The northern half of the park, from Letaba onwards, is much less visited by tourists, as it's a long way from the southern entrances, and is the main elephant population centre of the park.  Unfortunately it's also an area of thick mopane forest, so it's a bit monotonous on the eyes and hard to see the elephants until they're right on top of you.  The far north, from Punda Maria to the Limpopo River, was perhaps our favourite bit of the park, with lots of riverside trees, great birdlife and plenty of elephants, in addition to the leopard.  One of the best features of the park are the picnic sites, always in beautiful locations, good for looking for animals and birds.  We got into the habit of setting off early on game drives, fueled only by tea and coffee and rusks, and then having a big cooked eggs-and-bacon brunch later in the morning at one of the picnic sites.


Tawny eagle
Kruger's campsites are well-run and have everything you need to stay there indefinitely (including well-stocked grocery stores and washing machines), but they are big and a bit crowded.  They're certainly not the place to go for solitude in the wilderness.  There are so-called rustic campsites which are much smaller, quieter and wilder, but they book up very quickly, so we could never get reservations for them.  

Overall Kruger was a good park, well-run and with good infrastructure, but at least while we were there, it didn't knock our socks off with the quantity of animal encounters that we had.  It's still one of Africa's great parks, though, and no trip to southern Africa should exclude it.

Chameleon seen near Punda Maria

8.  Central Kalahari Game Reserve (Botswana)


We didn't, to be honest, have as many predator encounters in the CKGR as we did in the Kgalagadi, but in every other respect the CKGR can hold its own against any other park.  It's remote, it's wild, it has very few tourists and you can live out your hunter-gatherer fantasy around a campsite under the stars that feels pretty unchanged from how it must have felt 10,000 years ago.  
Bat-eared fox

Crimson-breasted shrike
We were able to get campsite reservations at the last minute at the DWNP offices in Maun.  Unlike the Kgalagadi, this park is far enough from the South African border that the number of South African tourists is low enough that the campsites aren't perpetually booked solid.  We camped at Kori Campsite, and it was absolutely idyllic.  The campsites in the CKGR are very far from each other, so that you really have the illusion of being completely alone under the African stars.  The Kalahari is really very beautiful, full of birds (like the kori bustard and the pale chanting goshawk) and very wild feeling.  
Kori bustard

Slender mongoose
As in the Kgalagadi, the pans are where the action is, and where the best campsites are.  We didn't try to drive all the way across the CKGR from Deception Valley (where Kori is) to Xade, but if we go back, that will be on the list.  We didn't make it all the way down to Piper Pan, which was a pity since we met people coming from there who said that it had a big pride of resident lions.  We had to make do with lots of springbok and gemsbok, a few wildebeest, plenty of mongooses and bat-eared foxes and jackals, and lots of smaller stuff.  The isolation and pristine beauty of the Kalahari is amazing, and I would gladly go back to spend more quality time there.

The all-important campfire

9.  Hluhluwe-Imfolozi Park (South Africa)

The green hills of Hluhluwe

Some skinny-looking white rhinos
This is a place that we heard about a lot from South African wildlife enthusiasts.  We ended up adding it to our itinerary around the New Year, and I wish we had had more time to spend there.  These two parks (which are really one larger park, divided in two by a highway) are where the white rhino was rescued from extinction back around 1900; there were fewer than 50 individuals left in the wild in 1895, all in Imfolozi, and now there are over 20,000, all descended from those few survivors. In the 1950s and 1960s Ian Player, the older brother of golfer Gary Player, led Operation Rhino, repopulating other parks with white rhinos from Imfolozi and reducing the chances of extinction (at least until today's murderous assault on the rhinos).

Elephants in the distance
Imfolozi and Hluhluwe are very hilly and green, located in the moist coastal area of KwaZulu-Natal.  Driving around the parks the scenery is strikingly beautiful, much more so than in most of Kruger.  The hills are steep and dramatic, and are a great place to spot white rhinos.  Both days that we were in the park, we saw plenty of white rhinos, along with lots of impala, zebras, giraffes and buffalo.  There were elephants around, but we didn't see too many, except at a distance down in the river valley.  We heard that in the northern sector of Imfolozi there are a couple of packs of wild dogs, but despite having a good look around, we had no luck on that front.  In general, though, there are a lot of animals around and you are guaranteed lots of wildlife encounters, especially with white rhinos.
Baby zebra
The only drawback to visiting Hluhluwe-Imfolozi is that there is no camping inside the park.  If you want to sleep in the park, you have to fork out the money to sleep indoors in a lodge.  There are plenty of campgrounds not too far from the park; we stayed at lovely Bushbaby Lodge, about a half hour's drive from the Hluhluwe entrance.

Supercilious giraffe

10.  Kasanka National Park (Zambia)

Sitatunga buck seen from our campsite


This is another slightly obscure park in northern Zambia.  It's a success story in rehabilitation, as it was once more or less abandoned to poachers and encroachment.  The private Kasanka Trust brought it back to life and now it's a well-run park full of animals. We spent a couple of nights camped at idyllic Pontoon Campsite, where we were spoiled by attentive service by the attendants (lighting fires, getting the hot water going) and by having the normally shy and secretive sitatunga antelopes wander out every evening and morning to say hello.  This was the only place that we saw these beautiful creatures.

Canoeing near Luwombwa
The rest of the park has plenty of puku, as well as a herd of sable antelope that we didn't get a very good look at.  We headed up to Luwombwa Fishing Lodge, hired a canoe and spent a fun couple of hours paddling up and down the river, spotting lots of kingfishers and bee-eaters and enjoying being out of our car.  Lots of birds, including coppery-tailed coucals and the lovely African pygmy kingfisher.  The park landscape is striking, with patches of bush interrupted by dambos, seasonally flooded grasslands punctuated by thousands of very small, narrow termite mounds.
Dambo with tiny termite mounds

Malachite kingfisher
What Kasanka is most famous for is its massive bat gathering which takes place every November and December, with something like 7 million bats gathering from parts unknown (presumably the jungles of the DRC) for a couple of months of feeding and breeding.  It must be an amazing spectacle, and if we're ever in the neighbourhood at the right time of year, we'll certainly be there!

The Rest

We visited a number of other parks, most of which had their good points, but these ten stuck in our minds in particular.  There were several parks that we chose not to visit (Lower Zambezi, South Luangwa, Hwane) that are probably very impressive but which we didn't think would give us much that we hadn't already seen and experienced.  We never made it to Addo Elephant Park, which is supposed to be really beautiful and full of elephants.  There were others like Kafue National Park (in Zambia) that just didn't impress us very much.  Liuwa Plain in Zambia was interesting, but if you don't go there in October, November and December there are almost no animals to see; we didn't think the slender pickings justified the tough sand driving that we had to do to navigate the park.  And finally Gorongosa National Park in Mozambique is supposed to be beautiful and full of endemic birds, but with the renewed civil conflict in Mozambique in 2016, it was a no-go area.