Beyond the Big Five: alternative safari experiences
Once you have had your fill of Big Five game drives, your trip doesn’t have to end there. Whichever country you’re visiting, there are many other experiences that can make rewarding additions or alternatives to your Africa safari, as our specialists explain below.
In Tanzania, some Maasai communities are beginning to welcome visitors who want to learn about their culture and way of life. Game drives can take on a different focus in Zimbabwe’s Hwange National Park, here, the waterholes are fed by man-made pumps. Then there are the mountainous regions of South Africa, which can provide a backdrop to peaceful retreats or a playground for hikers.
Things to do in Africa beyond a wildlife safari
Northern Tanzania: Immerse yourself in Maasai culture
By Africa specialist Arista
Africa Amini Life’s Maasai Lodge with Mount Kilimanjaro in the distance
Approaching Africa Amini Life’s Maasai Lodge, two hours’ drive from Kilimanjaro Airport, the setting blew me away. Dotted across volcanic savannah plains in northern Tanzania, the lodge’s round mud-and-thatch huts blend into the landscape. Triangular hills rise like pimples and, on a clear day, the hazy outline of Mount Kilimanjaro can be seen, while Mount Meru looks on in the other direction.
The lodge is part of Austrian-registered NGO Africa Amini Alama’s efforts to help Tanzania’s Maasai communities benefit from foreign visitors — all the staff are from local villages, and profits from your stay are fed back into their communities.
I was given a warm Maasai welcome as men and women lined up like a rainbow in their traditional clothing and sang their greeting. The Maasai drink animal blood during special occasions and the lodge manager, himself a Maasai warrior, invited me to drink a substitute of a vegetable-based liquid dyed with beetroot from a large horn.
From the outside, my hut’s clay walls, thatched roof and wooden door all echoed the same shade of greyish-brown. This made it all the more special when I stepped inside. Unlike traditional Maasai huts, mine had windows that let in plenty of natural light. All the furniture was wooden, while brightly patterned cushions, beaded dreamcatchers, embroidered animal skins and woven rugs added character. Every inch of space had been used in a tasteful and practical way, split into separate compartments for the bedroom, sitting area and bathroom.
The lodge itself has a sauna, pool and massage area. Seats are set out at secluded viewpoints overlooking the plains, and there’s a large dining hut. While the meals are geared toward Western visitors, you can try aspects of Maasai food such as ugali, a maize dish that accompanies most meals.
The best part of my stay was the opportunity to join in Maasai activities. On a nature walk, a Maasai guide showed me various plants and explained their medicinal uses. He even broke off some aloe vera to apply to a tsetse bite on my ankle: it was gone within a couple of days.
We then returned to the lodge to watch a spear-throwing competition. The competing Maasai warriors sung, danced and laughed at each other’s attempts to hit the target (a rolled-up bale of grass hung in a tree). I had a go myself, with little success. Afterwards, it was the Maasai women’s turn to sing and dance as the sun set.
South Africa: Retreat to Bushmans Kloof in the Cederberg Mountains
By Africa specialist Toby
Bushmans Kloof is a wilderness retreat hidden among the foothills of the 500-million-year-old Cederberg Mountains. I’ve found that the property works well both as an alternative to a Big Five safari and simply as a place to relax after a busy spell in Cape Town, which is three hours’ drive south.
The 16 rooms and suites are exceptionally spacious. Each has a private patio looking out over the leafy gardens and rocky landscape beyond. During your stay, you can make use of the four pools, the library and the spa, which includes a steam room and an open massage gazebo overlooking the countryside.
The Homestead is the property’s fine-dining restaurant, and a number of other dining experiences can be arranged, from candlelit dinners in the shallow waters of the Boontjies River to alfresco meals atop a cliff overlooking the valley. I sat down for high tea to a pile of patisserie-style cakes, pastries and sandwiches.
With no real predators here, animals (and guests) are free to roam the extensive grounds, which are surrounded by vivid red and yellow rock formations. While the reserve lacks big game, several rare wildlife species have been reintroduced here. On afternoon game drives or just as you’re walking around you might see Burchell’s and Cape mountain zebra, African wildcat and Cape and bat-eared foxes, as well as ostriches, red hartebeest and bontebok.
The birdlife here was one of the biggest joys of my stay. With the reserve home to more than 150 species, there’s every chance of spotting brightly plumed sunbirds flitting through the sky and African fish eagles circling overhead. Breakfasting outside one morning, I noticed a weaver bird making its distinctive woven nest in a tree above my head.
It’s up to you how you spend your days: archery, canoeing, cycling and hiking all vie for your time. Guides can take you out on foot to learn about the area’s rare flora, including the endemic fynbos vegetation. Or you can venture out to some of the ancient rock art sites nearby. Painted up to 10,000 years ago by ancestral San (Bushmen) tribes, they depict hunting scenes and cultural rituals.
Zimbabwe: Head out on a pump run in Hwange National Park
By Africa specialist Iain
Hwange National Park
During my safari in Hwange National Park, I learned that lion, leopard, buffalo and huge herds of elephant wouldn’t be there at all during the dry season (June to October) if it wasn’t for the park’s system of man-made pumps. Since Hwange’s natural surface water began drying up completely, more than 70 years ago, these pumps have stopped waterholes from turning to dust by drawing water up from below ground.
While windmills were originally used to power the pumps, today they run on diesel. As you approach a waterhole, you can sometimes hear them at work: the so-called ‘heartbeat of Hwange’.
Responsibility for the pumps is shared out between the park’s camps. Dedicated pump attendants visit each one to top up the oil and fuel, conduct a monthly service and generally ensure that they’re running smoothly. Some camps offer guests the chance to incorporate ‘pump runs’ into their game drives, where you see the pumps in action and hear how they operate.
A pump run involves an all-day trip, so you’re able to venture farther than you would on morning or afternoon game drives, visiting different parts of the park. What’s more, the animals can sense when the water is fresh and will flock to the waterholes you’re attending to.
Jumping into an open 4x4 with a guide, you’re taken out to two or three waterholes. Once there, you drop off rations and supplies for the attendants and can watch them maintaining the pumps, perhaps having a go at topping up the oil yourself.
You’re then free to watch wildlife drinking and bathing in the waterhole. During the heat of the day, the big cats tend to lie in shady areas, so antelope, giraffe, zebra and gazelle take the chance to drink in relative safety alongside elephant herds. You’re also likely to see a variety of birdlife, from large raptors to tiny bee-eaters.
You’re provided with a generous picnic lunch by one of the waterholes, before the leisurely game drive back toward the lodge, stopping for sundowners next to another waterhole en route.
Zambia: Local life in Kawaza Village in South Luangwa
By Africa specialist Harriet
Kawaza village school
Safaris often bypass the culture of whichever country you’re in, as you tend to fly in and out of parks and reserves without venturing further afield. That’s just the reason my visit to Kawaza Village, just outside Zambia’s South Luangwa National Park, stood out.
Visits to the village help to fund local amenities such as the clinic and the school, which now has more than 1,000 students, a well-stocked library and a computer room.
Set just off the main road running between Mfuwe Airport and the park, Kawaza is easily accessible before or after a safari. The village still feels remote, comprising just a handful of mud-and-thatch rondavels surrounded by crop fields.
You can either visit with a guide during an afternoon or stay overnight in your own rondavel. These are set slightly away from the main village for privacy, and are very basic: be prepared to use long-drop toilets and to wash in a bowl of warm water. However, this does open your eyes to the everyday life of the local Kunda people.
Your time in Kawaza can be tailored to your particular interests, but will usually include a visit to the nearby school. As well as meeting some of the students, I chatted with the head, who talked about the positive impacts that visitors have had on the school and wider community.
You might also have the chance to attend a church service, visit a traditional healer, tend the surrounding fields or help to cook nshima (maize porridge).
I got to join a group of local families for a traditional lunch. We all sat in a circle inside the chitenge (an open-sided shelter with a thatched roof) and were served nshima with chicken, local greens and beans. It’s customary to eat with your hands; I was shown how to use the nshima to scoop up the other ingredients. The women then got everyone involved in traditional drumming; their laughter and enthusiasm was infectious.
South Africa: Hike through the Drakensberg Mountains
By Africa specialist Cara
Giant's Castle, Drakensberg Mountains
Needless to say, the scenery on this three-day guided hike is incredible: the landscape was much greener than I’d expected and rises almost vertically to form the mountains’ peaks. Some taper into knobbly triangular points, others suddenly level off so they look like man-made walls of rock.
My hike began a day after arriving at the Cavern — a spa resort in the foothills of the Northern Drakensberg, around three and a half hours’ drive from Durban or four and a half hours from Johannesburg.
After breakfast, I set off with my guide and a small group of others for the 15 km (9.3 mile) hike to our next bed for the night, Witsieshoek Mountain Lodge in Royal Natal National Park. The journey took around six hours and ascended 1,273 m (4,177 ft) in total, but with plenty of stops it felt manageable. Your luggage is transferred to the lodge separately so all you need is a backpack, with porters on-hand should you need them.
The first stage of the hike was fairly steep, as the foothills transformed into fully fledged mountains. But, once we’d reached the top of our first ascent, we were rewarded with far-reaching views over the mountains and the valley below: this was the reason I was here.
We stopped for a picnic lunch along the way. As we walked, I couldn’t help pausing every so often to take in my surroundings. At one point, we saw an endangered bearded vulture, its huge wings outstretched as it drew circles in the sky. We arrived at the lodge in the mid-afternoon, weary yet exhilarated.
The next day, after a 25-minute drive to the foot of the Sentinel massif, we set off on our hike to Africa’s tallest waterfall, Tugela Falls — a seven-hour round trip covering around 17 km (11 miles).
After following the winding path up to the base of the massif, those with a good level of fitness and an adventurous streak can climb a series of chain ladders up the rock face. Alternatively, an easier gully route leads you to the same escarpment.
The hike takes you through the Drakensberg Amphitheatre, whose sheer cliff face rises 1,220 m (4,000 ft) along its 5 km (3 mile) length. Walking in the shadow of this huge wall of rock, I’ve never felt so small. Sounds echo against the valley sides and, following rainfall, wispy waterfalls spill into rivers littered with rocks and boulders. I was lucky that it had rained recently as the falls are often dry.
Tugela Falls, while not particularly powerful, is so tall that it’s hard to capture in one photograph and the water appears to fall in slow motion. After a picnic lunch, we returned to our start point to travel back to the lodge.
The next morning signalled our final four-hour hike through Royal Natal National Park. Heading north, we ascended 391 m (1,283 ft) in total, stopping for a picnic lunch en route. We were then driven back to the Cavern, where we went our separate ways.