Serengeti, Maasai Mara, Kruger – everyone who’s ever dreamt of going to Africa will know these safari big-hitters. Famous for their wildlife, they’re also famous for hordes of visitors that flock to them in convoys of Land Cruisers. If you want to get away from the masses, these are the best little-visited African national parks, each with extraordinary wildlife but far fewer humans.
If you’re after a private viewing of wildebeest, head to Liuwa Plain in remote western Zambia, home to the second largest wildebeest migration on the continent: some 45,000 roam the expansive golden plains following seasonal floods.
It’s also home to a staggering 700 hyenas, which – although renowned for being scavengers – are the main predators here. They’re fascinating to watch in their family groups, hunting, playing and socialising together. The true star of the show, however, is Lady Liuwa, a much-loved lioness whose survival for nine years as the park’s only lion was the subject of a National Geographic documentary.
Ethiopia's extraordinary Bale Mountains are home to some quirky creatures including black-maned lions, giant forest hogs and an unusual black leopard. In the mystical, lichen-draped Harenna Forest, researchers have even discovered a new venomous snake previously unknown to science.
Also unique to Bale are the thousands of giant mole rats. As ugly as the name suggests, they’re a favourite food of the Ethiopian wolf, the world’s rarest canid. Only around 400 of these beautiful, elegant wolves are still alive, but on the chilly Sanetti Plateau they’re as easy to spot as an urban fox in a big city.
Although not a national park, the Laikipia Plateau is a series of neighbouring private conservancies, in total roughly the size of Wales, sitting in the shadows of Mount Kenya. Wildlife is thriving here and conservation and community development go hand in hand.
In Nalare Conservancy, try exploring the bush on a camel safari from Sabuk Lodge with no other tourists in sight. Or check out the chimp sanctuary and see the Big Five – leopards, elephants, lions, buffalo and rhinos – at Ol Pejeta Conservancy: it’s the biggest rhino sanctuary in East Africa.
If you think Namibia is all parched deserts and dunes, think again: Bwabwata National Park, on the Caprivi Strip, is a vivid streak of lush wetlands and savannah lying between the Okavango and Kwando Rivers and one of the quietest of Africa's national parks.
Bordering Botswana’s Chobe National Park but a world away from its convoys of jeeps and riverboats, the area shares much of Chobe’s wildlife but with fewer crowds.
Huge herds of elephants, buffalo, big cats, antelopes and some 430 species of birds come to enjoy its peace and quiet.
Malawi might not be first to spring to mind as a safari destination, but that will soon change. Conservation organisation African Parks is working on restoring both Liwonde and Nkhotakota reserves.
In the last two years, Nkhotakota has become home to 520 elephants translocated from Liwonde and Majete, along with several hundred antelopes. At Liwonde, you can track rhinos with researchers and with the reintroduction of lions that has been kicked off in the past few months, it has become a Big Five reserve – a fitting complement to its natural beauty dominated by the Shire River.
A sunset boat cruise allows great sightings of elephants, hippos, crocs, waterbucks and a whole host of exciting birdlife.
Passionate about primates? Then head to Mahale, one of the prettiest African national parks. Rugged mountains draped in pristine forests drop down to the turquoise Lake Tanganyika surrounded by white-sand beaches.
Around a thousand chimpanzees live in these forests. Researchers have studied the Mimikire group since the 1960s, so they’re fairly used to people: sightings are virtually guaranteed and very relaxed.
You might spot other primates too, like red colobus and blue monkeys, or take a boat onto the lake and swim in its clear waters. In Tanzania’s far west, it’s not easy to reach, but is absolutely worth the time and expense to get there.
Gorongosa is a story of war and peace, of decimation and incredible restoration. Once Africa’s top safari destination, Mozambique lost virtually everything in a bitter civil war: 90% of wildlife had been killed by the mid 1990s.
American philanthropist Greg Carr stepped in to save the park and today Gorongosa is bursting with life: it’s been called “the most diverse park in the world”.
Sadly, local unrest flares occasionally, but if you can get here safely you’ll be blown away by the passion, romance and history of the place – as well as by its fabulous wildlife.
With swathes of savannah just like the Serengeti, herds of elephants in their hundreds and buffalos in their thousands, Kidepo should by rights be swarming with tourists too. But its remoteness in the far northeast of Uganda means that only determined travellers come here – despite having some of the most dependable wildlife spotting opportunities in any of the African national parks.
Their reward is a vast and varied wilderness that’s home to four of the Big Five (there are no rhinos) and the only place in Uganda where kudu, eland and cheetah can be seen. Keep an eye out too for tree-climbing lions in the Narus Valley, who can be seen escaping the heat by hiding among branches.
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