In Birding the Dark Continent of Africa, I provided an overview of this superb continent. Now I will suggest my opinions for the first 10 African countries to visit, in descending order of priority.
Most first-time visitors to Africa understandably also wish to see the megafauna, so it makes sense to narrow it down to southern or East Africa.
1) SOUTH AFRICA
The number one country for a first time visit to Africa might well be South Africa. South Africa is an amazingly picturesque country with lots of mountains, beautiful white sand beaches and so much more. The overall experience of being in this country is wonderful and we find that birders often return here as often as they can, even once they’ve seen most of the birds. It’s a big country, though and takes many weeks of pure birding to get to grips with the species, which is of course a good excuse to return and to have another good time in a wonderful country.
South Africa has the Big 5, as well as an amazing diversity of smaller mammals. The Kruger National Park and the Zululand game reserves have considerable numbers of smaller mammal species as well. Given a 2-week birding tour starting in Durban and ending in Johannesburg, one will see all these mammals and also end up with a respectable bird list of around 400 species. Adding the Cape, one of the most scenically spectacular corners of the continent, you might add another 100-150 bird species, whales and more.
South Africa is relatively inexpensive, and has a vast network of friendly and comfortable B&B’s. It’s easy enough to bird the country on a self-drive, but it’s often more efficient to link up with a birding tour operator. For more reading about the essential parts of South Africa that need to be covered, I will post a series of suggested itineraries, below, in the If You Go box. If you have limited time and just want to see the big mammals and a ton of birds, then a tour of the Kruger Escarpment area is an excellent adventure.
The alternative to starting first in South Africa is to do what my company calls “An Introduction to Africa,” which is a week in Tanzania. In fact, if you have more than about a week, Tanzania is arguably the best country to visit second but giving it at least 2.5 weeks if possible. By birding Tanzania, you’ll add a host of East African endemics, and also most of the 20 country endemics. You can also see your first Miombo (south-central African) endemic birds in Tanzania. And, you’ll see a great many of Africa’s big (and small) animals, along with some of the continent’s most famous sites. These include the Great Rift Valley and its flamingo-filled lakes, the Serengeti with its relatively easy to see Big Cats & Wildebeest migration, Ngorongoro Crater and last but not least, Kiliminjaro, one of the world’s most massive isolated mountains. Africa’s highest mountain rises straight out of the wildlife-riddled plains below, to a dizzying 19,341 feet above sea level.
If in the long run you plan on visiting several other African countries as well, 12 days here is enough to generate the essential Ugandan birds (Shoebill, the Albertine Rift endemics, Green-breasted Pitta, etc.) plus mammals (especially Gorillas and Chimps but the country also has magnificent Colobus Monkeys and more). Even 19 days in Uganda would certainly not be wasted! In this little country called “The Pearl of Africa” you’ll find the people fluent in English and even friendlier than in other parts of Africa, and you’ll also see the Albertine (or Western) Rift, Bwindi Impenetrable Forest, the source of the Nile at Jinja, Africa’s biggest lake (Victoria) and vast Papyrus Swamps inhabited by Shoebill, a monstrous birds placed by some authorities in its own order because it’s so different from any other species on earth.
Next, a West African country is probably in order. Even if you’ve already done the first three countries mentioned above, if you now visit West Africa for the first time you’ll still get literally hundreds of life birds. West Africa is rougher than southern or eastern Africa and you’ll find that accommodation is more basic – but at most birding sites you’ll still get a (barely) adequate level of comfort including hot water showers – if you join an organized birding tour. Cameroon is arguably the best West African starter country, since you’ll see the country endemics, as well as the more widespread West African rainforest species, and also many Sahelian birds. If you’re a serious world birder, you’ll also need to visit one of the Upper Guinea Forest countries at some stage or another in your African birding career. Ghana is probably the best one because its local guides have staked out the birds there more than elsewhere on the Bulge of Africa, and it is English-speaking and all in all rather easy to visit. It is historically rich, but you’ll be sobered since the history is not pretty and is dominated by memories of the slave trade.
Ghana is less strenuous than Cameroon and if you only ever bird a single West African country, Ghana is not a bad one to choose. The third West African country that comes most highly recommended is Gabon. It has Lowland Gorillas, Mandrills, arguably West Africa’s best mammal viewing in general, and a huge diversity of birds, quite a number of which you won’t see in Cameroon or Ghana. It’s a pricey country but many people who are interested in wildlife as a whole rather than specifically birds make it their top West African country to consider. Two of Africa’s richest islands for endemic birds are within Gabon’s offshore territory – Principe and Sao Tome. These islands have many exciting birds found nowhere else in the world.
Namibia is a must-visit African country since it is so very unique, with the world’s oldest desert including the highest sand dunes in the world, which are a spectacular red color, other massive sand dunes coming right down to the sea, rugged desert mountains along the Namibian Escarpment, desert elephants and rhinos, one of the world’s greatest game parks and my personal favorite of all of Africa’s parks, the vast Etosha National Park. And, last but not least, Namibia has a whole bunch of birds that are only found there or in adjacent Angola.
While in Namibia, it is easy to foray briefly into Botswana to see PEL’S FISHING OWL, one of Africa’s most sought-after birds, Slaty Egret, a Botswana near-endemic, and tons more, in the nearby panhandle of the Okavango Delta. And, since you’re so close to one of the world’s most impressive waterfalls, Victoria Falls, a 2-day foray to this site either from the Zambian or Zimbabwean side is very worthwhile and will anyway add lots of new birds to your burgeoning list. I recommend something like an 18-days tour to bird Namibia/the Okavango/Victoria Falls. By the way, Botswana is the “Gabon” of southern Africa – expensive, not all that strategic for birds (after you’ve spent a couple of days there tacked onto your Namibian tour), but absolutely brilliant for those into general wildlife viewing and photography rather than just birds.