Adventure, Africa, Kenya, Malawi, Mountain Biking, Safari, South Africa, Zambia

The Best Mountain Biking Safaris

A hundred years ago, the best way to do a safari was on horseback. That way you got to see a little more, and move a little faster than you might if you were on a walking safari, but without the noise and fumes of travelling in a safari vehicle. Fast forward to 2013, when many of us live in cities, and you’re unlikely to find a horse tied up in the back garden.  Bikes however, are everywhere.

Mountain Bike Safari from Tafika, Zambia
Mountain Bike Safari from Tafika, Zambia

With the cycling craze sweeping Britain, almost every household seems to have a bike or three in the garage or taking up space in the hall. On summer afternoons the country lanes are choked with cycles, and early morning commuter trains are full of Brompton bikes. It almost seems extraordinary that it’s taken till now for mountain bike safaris to take off to such an extent.  Now though, a bike or two is the must-have piece of kit in every safari camp. What better way to burn off the endless delicious meals that seem to come almost hourly on safari?

Mountain bike safaris take you from being an outside observer of the bush to being part of it. Race galloping giraffes, smell the dampness of the dust in the early morning, and hear the birds cry as you move silently past. Africa at its best? Absolutely.

Here’s our pick of the very best biking in Africa:

Bush Biking for Beginners: Tafika, Zambia

Mountain Bike Safari from Tafika, ZambiaTafika, in Zambia‘s South Luangwa National Park was where I fell in love with mountain biking safaris- my first one, and the beginning of a serious addiction.

Cycling through the bush with John Coppinger, 20 years my senior and embarrassingly fitter, was a revelation-we could keep up with the zebras without scaring them, hear every branch crackle underfoot, and really, really appreciate the size of an elephant. I’d recommend as an introduction to anyone- you can just pop out for an hour or so on the bikes before a late afternoon game drive- perfect for dipping your toe in the water.

Multi-day mountain biking: Karisia, Kenya

Mountain Bike Safari in KenyaIf you’re a serious mountain-biker and love nothing better than getting dusty, dirty, and down with the animals, then a multi-day mountain biking safari could be the answer.

Together with our friends at Karisia in Kenya, we’ve put together a mountain biking safari in the Laikipia plateau in Kenya. We’ve limited it to 3 days of cycling, followed by some time in a vehicle for the saddle-sore, but we can make it as long as you like.- even cycling between safari lodges instead of flying. While we don’t like to gamble, we’re fairly confident that your warrior guides, and the camels who carry your kit, will keep pace with you no matter how long you want to keep pedalling for!

Serious adventure, Serious luxury: Singita Sabi Sand, South Africa

On safari at Singita Boulders, Sabi Sands, South AfricaSerious adventure needn’t mean a compromise on serious luxury. If you want the adrenaline thrill of cycling down dusty tracks, watching elephants from the saddle, but don’t want to rough it in the evenings, then Singita Sabi Sands is the perfect solution.

Not only are you smack in some of the best leopard-viewing territory in Africa, at the end of the day you’ll be returning to a seriously lovely room, easily large enough for a London estate agent to describe it as a “spacious, one-bedroom apartment”. These come complete with a decanter of something warm, delicious nibbles and a plunge pool to wash off the dust. Singita has a wine cellar to die for (we made sure to sample it on your behalf when we visited), fantastic guides, and a gorgeous area to explore.

Biking and the beach:

Mountain Biking at Pumulani, Lake Malawi

Though we’re huge fans of mountain biking on safari, if you’re just not quite sure about heading into the wilderness on two wheels rather than four, there are some fantastic options for biking that aren’t quite so wild.

A mountain bike is a fantastic way to explore the villages that line the shores of Lake Malawi.  Every single visitor that we’ve ever sent on holiday to Malawi has commented on just how warm and friendly the local are. For once it seems that a country really does live up to the tourist board slogan (in this case- the “warm heart of Africa”). Stepping away from the confines of a vehicle is the ideal way to meet the local community, and make hoards of tiny new friends amongst the children of the villages.

Kenya, Masai Mara

A passionate defence of the Masai Mara

I’ve lost count of the number of times that people who “know” Africa have told me they don’t do Kenya. “Too busy darling. Daphne told me at dinner it’s simply overrun these days.” As I smile and nod, secretly I think “Poor you.”

Yes, it’s true. You can buy a package holiday from Britain, Germany, and most probably Italy to Mombasa. Yes, there are lodges in certain national parks that are a touch “mass market”. So why do “all” these people keep coming to Kenya, even the experienced safari-goers, the ones who’ve done hundreds of luxury safaris? Because it’s utterly wonderful.

Sundowners on a Luxury Safari in the Masai Mara
Sundowners in the Masai Mara from Elephant Pepper Camp

If you’ve explored Kenya as much as we have, you know what to avoid, and where to go. East African beaches are glorious, a fraction of the price of the Caribbean, and wonderfully warm in October when the much of the rest of the world’s sandy shores are shivering under a monsoon. And safari: do all those people who say safari in the Masai Mara’s been “done” never stop to think why so many wildlife documentaries are filmed there, why people travel across the world to spend a few days there and why more than one wildlife expert would choose to do their very last safari there? Could it be because the game viewing’s some of the best in Africa? And let’s be realistic. The best in Africa really means the best in the world.

Wildebeest Migration in the Masai Mara
The Masai Mara (image thanks to the lovely people at Offbeat Mara)

I love Kenya. I adore the Mara. I’ve probably been on safari to 30 or 40 game reserves (and that’s not counting some of the privately-owned tiddlers that count themselves as a “reserve”) and I still adore the Masai Mara. If you think it’s busy, fair enough- head to the utter wilderness of a walking safari in Zambia, the exclusive privacy of Botswana or the remoteness of western Tanzania. But if you want to see the Masai Mara’s ravishing rolling landscape, and the vast volumes of game it at their best, steer clear of the wildebeest migration and the busy season, and go when the cognoscenti go. Pick June, pick January, or pack your raincoat and pick April, May or November. Who cares if you get a bit wet? You’ll have amazing photos with spectacular light under looming atmospheric rain clouds, and best of all, parts of the world’s finest game reserve to yourself. An April guest at Governor’s Camp (smack bang in one of the Masai Mara’s best game viewing areas) stayed with just nine other guests in a camp which has around 30 tents, and a staff to guest ratio of 3:1.

Game drive in the Masai Mara
A game drive from Offbeat Mara Camp (they’re not even paying me- they just have great photos and it really is this good!)

And that’s just the Mara. What about safari in Laikipia, Meru, the Matthews Mountains and Lake Turkana (bet Daphne from the dinner party didn’t go there)? So, for anyone who thinks Kenya’s overrun, that’s OK- I’ll keep her best bits for me.

Africa, Elephants, Kenya, Safari, Tanzania, Zambia

Where to watch elephants

Ellies have a special place in my heart. You can keep your lazy lions, and boring buffaloes (though I’m sure anyone who’s been chased up a tree by an angry dugga boy would say they’re far from boring), it’s a sighting of an elephant that makes my safari.

Walking Safari with Elephants, Okavango Delta, Botswana

Ellies have by far and away the most character in the animal kingdom, though I make an honourable exception for monkeys – anyone who’s ever had the sugar swiped from their morning coffee, or a triple-zipped tent miraculously burgled, can’t fail to admire their cunning. Back to elephants though. Watch an ellie for ten minutes, and we’d challenge anyone not to start anthropomorphising. I’ve seen them wipe their eyes when they’re tired, and stayed in camps where elephants drank from the outside shower. I mean, why would you bother going all of the way to the lake to drink when the water was suddenly on, and right there? In spite of their huge size, an elephant will tread delicately to avoid the smallest, most irritating stone, and frankly, when the hustle of the wildebeest migration‘s around, you’re unlikely to see too many elephants- why hang about with all of the noise going on?

Best of all, elephant memories are indeed long, and it’s not unusual for an ellie to recognise a familiar face from years ago. While safari guides tell the occasional tall tale (especially when a beautiful girl’s involved) I know at least one straight-talking bush lover who has sat in a vehicle and watched, astonished, as an elephant came racing forward, plunging straight into the vehicle with her trunk. Instead of attacking she felt gently round with her trunk to greet the guide, and returned minutes later, gently nudging her young calf forwards to meet a familar friend.

Have I won you over yet? Ooooh, I do hope so! I once planned a safari for an elephant lover, and if I could do so again, these would be my top picks:

Elephants Crossing the Zambezi, near Chongwe, Zambia

Selous Game Reserve, Tanzania & Lower Zambezi National Park, Zambia
These two glorious parks are both dominated by their rivers, and a late afternoon boat safari is one of the great joys of a visit here. More particularly, the chance to witness elephants crossing the river. Several years ago, on a Tanzanian safari, I watched a family crossing the Rufiji River in the Selous. First came the naughty teenagers- rushing forwards to fill their trunks with water and spraying each other. Then, the nervous babies holding their trunks high to keep breathing. Finally, the mummies, hustling everyone forwards with their trunks and keeping the whole show on the road.

The Nairobi Elephant Orphanage, Kenya

This comes with a serious warning. If you’ve never fallen in love, this could be your moment. The young elephants here have all been tragically orphaned, many by poaching, and all have heart-rending stories. We can add a day in Nairobi into any Kenyan safari, and at 11 each morning you can visit for an hour, watching the ellies as they come out for their morning play. Our top tip? We’d seriously consider fostering an elephant. Not only are you helping to support these tiny, brave little fellows, but also, sponsors are often given the chance to visit again in the afternoon, without all of the other tourists.

Walking with Elephants on a luxury safari in Botswana

Stanley’s Camp, Okavango Delta, Botswana
It’s fair to say that a safari in Botswana doesn’t come cheap, but the chance to walk hand in trunk with an elephant as he goes about his day? Well, as MasterCard might say, priceless. As an added extra to a stay at Stanley’s (if you talk to me, I’ll tell you it’s mandatory), you can spend a morning wandering through the bush -or having lunch- with orphans Jabu, Thembi, and Morula, and their adoptive human parents, Doug and Sandi.

Still not sold? Try reading the autobiography of Daphne Sheldrick, a woman who’s devoted much of her life to elephants.