An insider’s guide to Africa’s top 10 best-kept secrets


The truth is, anyone who has been on safari will tell you to go exactly where they went - because here is a fun little secret; everyone has an amazing time on safari. A lot of people therefore flock to the famous names to check them off a list, whilst casually glossing over some of the lesser-known and most spectacular experiences on the continent.

After travelling far and wide in Africa, I have compiled together my favourite pockets of true wilderness which hopefully might inspire you to get well and truly off that beaten tourist track on your next adventure.

1. Ruaha National Park, Tanzania

Ruaha is magnificent. Burnt red earth studded with towering, ancient baobabs —  you could go here simply to marvel at the raw and unruly landscapes. It just so happens though, that the wildlife here is seriously explosive.  It really does rival the game viewing in parks such as the famed Serengeti in the north, but with hardly any tourists. Ruaha is truly Tanzania’s – and in my view – Africa’s best kept secret. It really does deserve it’s place as number one on the list. There have been a lot of television programmes featuring Ruaha in recent years, so plan your adventure soon or you just might miss out on the very thing which makes it so special.

2. Liuwa Plains, Zambia

Liuwa Plains is eerily wild. For those who have done a bit of everything in Africa, Liuwa takes guests on a completely different adventure. It’s remote and wild nature takes you back in time to the golden era of safari. Stay at either the new luxurious King Lewinika permanent lodge, or fly camp under the stars exploring these wild plains — whatever your style, make sure you visit in November when the plains literally burst with life. What will await you has to be one of the finest safari locations on the continent; endless hazy plains marbled in lagoons and freckled with flora, the rumbling hooves of the second biggest wildebeest migration on the continent, the flutter of flight as hundreds of cranes take off into the misty moonlight, the cackling of hyenas in their 50 strong clans, red lechwe, zebra, buffalo, cheetah, wild dog… And pretty much all any safari enthusiast could want in a destination. For a wild experience which definitely doesn’t do anything in halves, it has to be Liuwa.

3. Simien Mountains National Park, Ethiopia

Step in a time warp to what feels like, and probably is, nature’s most spectacular and ancient core — there is a reason that Ethiopia is believed to be the cradle of mankind, and nowhere better encapsulates this narrative than when standing on the misty, jagged horizon of the Simien Mountains. It is not just the dramatic landscapes which make this mountain range so special, but also the array of endemic species such as Gelada monkeys, Walia Ibex and Ethiopian Wold. Ethopia offers a raw insight into the less travelled African wilderness, and is a perfect choice for those who seek unique adventure, spectacular scenes and well, something a little different.

6. Sao Tome and Principe

Sao Tome and Principe is Africa’s undiscovered Atlantic gem. Alike with the famous Galapagos Islands off Ecuador, these islands have never been connected to the mainland. As such, they have their own eco-system which is completely unique – for the ecology enthusiast, Sao Tome and Principe is Eden. The isolation of the islands also means that the wildlife (as with the Galapagos) are relatively unafraid of humans. Not wild, but  not afraid either, you can get up close and personal to a variety of species here. It is not a white-sand beach destination, but a playground for nature lovers seeking the ultimate tropical island adventure.

7. Mahale Mountains, Tanzania

Mahale is a world apart. Pictured here is the charming Greystoke Mahale which is the place to stay in this remote mountainous wilderness — caught between the shimmer of the crystal clear Lake Tanganyika and the hum of the leafy labyrinth behind; it is a truly singular spot for wilderness and wildlife lovers alike. Here, you have the best chance in the world of coming face to face with wild mountain Chimpanzees. Mahale offers a rare glimpse into the fundamentals human nature— watch as these astonishing primates interact; the way they lunge, then charge, battle, muzzle, play, swing and barge at one another has to be the most exhilarating wildlife experiences the world has to offer. Strip back from the whirs of modern life to find simplicity and solace in these magnificent creatures; all with a guide who has followed them for years —  Mahale offers one of the most unique, educational and grounding wildlife experiences in 2019.

8. Makgadikgadi Pans, Botswana

Makgadikgadi — the area of Botswana whose name translates to “dry, thirsty place” is one of the most extreme and surprising environments on the continent. Waking up in the dry dawn of the expansive surrounding lunar landscape is a very special experience, and the activities you can enjoy in the Pans are endless. From fly-camping under the starry skies after galloping into the sunset on horse back, to quad biking with the whole family, or to waking up with a habituated meerkat cuddling up to you; the Makgadikgadi Pans really is as uniquely off the beaten track you can get in Africa.

9. Mana Pools, Zimbabwe

Elephants wallow, wild dogs hunt, lions sleep and leopards prowl through this beautifully watery, enchanting, yet staggeringly action-packed part of Zimbabwe. Whilst most flock to Botswana, Mana Pools offers the privacy and seclusion of the luxurious Okavango Delta, but for half the price. Mana Pools is best for those who crave true African wilderness, pink reflections on the mighty Zambezi and wildlife in abundance. In other words, everyone who has ever considered a safari should look at Mana Pools!

10. The Skeleton Coast, Namibia

The Skeleton Coast has earnt it’s name. Scattered along this barren and formidable coastline sit a number of shipwrecks which encapsulate the eerie and indescribable atmosphere this area exudes. The Skeleton Coast is a canvas of silky sands in the sky, and rare opportunities endemic to this intriguing land. It’s beauty therefore is not in the quantity of wildlife, but about the quality of your unique experiences; catch a glimpse of seal eating lions, desert adapted hyenas and the skeletons of the past which have been engulfed by Africa’s isolated wild, wild west.

Marc Harris is Managing Director of Africa Odyssey. Africa Oydssey is run by a team of award-winning experts offering tailor-made African safari holidays.

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Comments (14)

  1. Nick says:

    I have always been fascinated by the idea of The Skeleton Coast. It would be brilliant to take a camera along the coast, there must be some amazing photos to take of the broken and rusting remains of ships. There’s something fascinating about where an ocean ends and a continent begins.

    • Marc Harris says:

      Yes the Skeleton Coast is really unique! The landscapes and harsh contrasts are fantastic for photographers. The stories of the shipwrecks also make it such an interesting place – if you are into the stories behind the shipwrecks, google MV Dunedin Star. It’s a really unbelievable tale.

  2. Carolyn says:

    That’s so true. Wherever people go on safari they then become a great fan of that place.

    Even if you don’t see a whole load of wildlife on a safari there’s always the excitement of the search.

    • Marc Harris says:

      Yes – safaris are always unbelievable experiences because you will always experience something completely unique. I think that is what takes people back again and again – no game drive is ever the same and landscapes are always changing.

  3. Ivor Hunter says:

    People at Mahale must be expecting Sir David Attenborough to turn up at any moment to quietly whisper about the chimpanzees. As they seem so unaware of human beings it would be such a privilege to watch their natural behaviour.

    • Karen says:

      It wouldn’t be easy choosing from all of these amazing experiences but if I were to chose one I would want to go to Mahale too. Watching the chimpanzees and getting to know them would be brilliant.

      I’m a bit wary of the normal safari experience where you are just ticking off the Big Five. I would much rather stay put and focus on one species. Over time you’d probably get to recognise individual characters and gain some understanding of the dynamics of the tribe.

    • Marc Harris says:

      I completely agree with you both! Mahale is up there with the most enriching wildlife experiences on the planet. The Chimps as well as the Mountain Gorillas in Rwanda have been by definite top wildlife experiences – there is nothing quite like watching primates and appreciating their similarities to us humans.

  4. Carol Snyder says:

    I have been on eight safaris and really agree with these suggestions. Mahal was wonderful.

    • Marc Harris says:

      Yes, Mahale is unbelievable – where have you been on your safaris? Sounds like you are a fellow safari addict!

  5. Tim says:

    Many people will willingly travel a long way for the wildness of Ruaha and The Liuwa Plains. Sadly, it’s becoming harder and harder to find vast unspoilt landscapes. Everywhere I go I get the feeling that mankind is managing the environment more and more, sometimes I think that we are turning the whole planet into a theme park. I totally agree that it’s best to go and experience these vast theme parks whilst their still exist in their primeval glory.

    • Marc Harris says:

      It is quite sad – though, we are lucky enough that there still are these pockets of true wilderness. They are there to be enjoyed! Some places like the Masai Mara and the Kruger have gone a bit overboard though – more like a Zoo in some places, and less of a wild experience.

  6. Laura Swinton says:

    I wonder if The Lion King is having an effect on tourism in Africa? I vaguely recall reading about how it could help with the lion crisis, because of Disney setting up a conversation effort, the Protect the Pride initiative, which I think is fantastic. But I’ve also read it gets a few things wrong regarding the African Savannah. It’s interesting to learn more about the gems of Africa that we don’t necessarily hear all that much about, and I can’t help but think that’s almost a good thing because it helps keep some of these places unspoilt by mass tourism. Like with the islands Sao Tome & Principe, their eco-systems are precious and the wildlife, the beaches, are treasures that should be protected at any cost.

    • Marc Harris says:

      I think The Lion Kins is having a good effect – it is always good to inspire people to want to visit the African wilderness for themselves. After all, tourism helps conservation and keeps everything a float!

  7. C. Angelo says:

    One thing I’ve remembered that a friend of mine who lives in Tanzania once said, Africa has a lot of beautiful gems hidden in its islands. Quite frankly, there are a lot of stunning sceneries that I can only see in the country. No wonder these places are kept hidden and aren’t that much well known to people because if it did, it would lose its essence and tranquility. If you want to experience a getaway that you’ll feel like you’ve been ‘at one’ with nature then you should go to East Africa and experience all of their wonders and how nature pictures its beauty through jaw-dropping islands, crystal clear waters, and stunning mountains.

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