Chris McIntyre spent three years teaching in a rural school in Zimbabwe before going on to write numerous guidebooks to Namibia, Botswana, Zambia and Zanzibar and to set up the specialist tour operator, Expert Africa. Here he picks his five favourite offbeat safaris:
Wild walking: A 4WD safari will let you see Africa, but on foot you can hear, smell and feel it too. More country ramble than serious hike, the pace is usually gentle with frequent stops to discuss tracks, holes, plants (and animal droppings). The guide is key – part-zoologist, part-entertainer and part-survival expert – and entrusted with your life. For the continent’s premier on-foot experiences, head to Zambia’s Luangwa Valley, Tanzania’s Selous or the simpler, owner-run camps which still survive in Zimbabwe – such as Vundu Camp. A recent highlight here was crawling up to a pack of wild dogs with professional guide Nick Murray; getting nose-to-nose with Africa’s most sought-after predator was spine-tingling. Probably the rarest of the large predators seen on safari, they are also, arguably, the most fun to watch.
Driving yourself: Picture a typically African safari and you’re unlikely to be behind the wheel – but driving around Namibia is perfectly practical. Excellent tar roads and good infrastructure bring easy access to amazing deserts and dunescapes and accommodation that ranges from inexpensive B&Bs by the coast to small guest farms and some of the world’s most stylish wilderness camps. Picnic in the car beside a waterhole in Etosha National Park to watch elephants, lions, giraffes and a huge range of other game. Many love the flexibility and variety of these trips, and a few then graduate to more adventurous trips: Land Rover expeditions across Botswana or Zambia.
Living with the Bushmen: Getting a real insight into a rural person’s life in Africa is hard. Many “cultural villages” offer little more than a rehearsed show and a chance to buy craftwork; even volunteers find meaningful contact difficult. It’s harder still for those on a shorter holiday, so the experience at Nhoma, a tiny San/Bushmen village in Namibia’s Kalahari, stands out. Stay for at least three nights. You’ll sleep in a functional visitors’ camp, but you’ll hunt, gather and spend time with the villagers – and start to understand some of the hardships, the joy and the sheer immediacy of a hunter-gatherer’s way of thinking.
A favourite guide: A top safari guide makes all the difference and many are justly famous, but few know of Bruno Nebe. He started out managing game and studying zoology before fine art, journalism and photography got in the way. Now, clad in a Rastafarian hat rather than standard-issue khaki cap, Bruno seldom looks the part – but he’s as engaging for a curious five-year-old as he is for a visiting professor. Realising his dream to conserve rare sub-species, he built up Mundulea Reserve in Namibia from scratch. Your reason for a visit may be a walking safari, but your memories will be of fascinating discussions on everything from palaeontology to giant pythons.
Going really remote: What draws me back to Africa, time and again, is the feeling of remoteness – to get away from it all. Space is my ultimate luxury. Contenders for my ultimate escape include Tanzania’s Katavi, and parts of the Namib Desert, but first I’d head for the vast grasslands of Liuwa Plain, in the far west of Zambia. Slightly larger than Cornwall, this park sees a few hundred tourists per year, but tens of thousands of migrating wildebeest. It’s costly to reach – but what price would I pay to really get away from it all?
To read the full Expert selection series, see www.ft.com/travel