Everyone knows about the great national parks of eastern and southern Africa – Masai Mara, Kruger and Serengeti all conjure up images of majestic landscapes, packs of lions lazing in the shade and herds of elephants roaming the savannah. But have you heard of Mole, Pendjari and Waza? These wildlife reserves are some of the finest in West Africa – they may not be as famous but the wildlife is just as diverse, safaris cost a fraction of those in eastern and southern Africa and you’re unlikely to be bothered by crowds. Here are our top five blissfully low-key West African parks.

Two elephant bulls in an aggressive confrontation in Mole National Park. Image by Mint Images - Frans Lanting / the Agency Collection / Getty Images.

Parc National de la Pendjari, Benin

Surrounded by the beautiful Atakora Mountains, the Pendjari (www.pendjari.net) is probably the best park in West Africa. It has ‘big-ticket’ wildlife – lions, elephants, cheetahs, baboons – and plenty more for those with the patience to seek it. The infrastructure is fantastic too, with sensational guides and accommodation right at the heart of the park to enjoy drives at sunrise and sunset, when wildlife is at its best. Stay at the lovely ecolodge Pendjari Lodge (www.pendjari-lodge.com), or the more old-fashioned Hôtel de la Pendjari.

To organise your trip to Pendjari, look no further than the excellent Bénin Aventure (www.beninaventure.com).

Réserve de Nazinga, Burkina Faso

It may not be a national park, but it certainly matches the best. The star attractions at Nazinga are its elephants, which you have a good chance of seeing year-round: they love roaming through Ranch de Nazinga, the reserve’s main hotel, and wallowing in the nearby lake (they’ve also been known to swim in the deep lake). Elsewhere in the reserve, you’ll see monkeys, antelope, crocodiles, and a profusion of birds.

You’ll need your own vehicle to get to Nazinga. The best tour operator in Burkina is Couleurs d’Afrique (www.couleurs-afrique.com), who can organise stays in the reserve.

Traditional pirogue passes the mangroves in Makasutu Culture Forest. Image by Andrew Burke / Lonely Planet Images / Getty Images.

Mole National Park, Ghana

The most amazing thing about Mole (www.molemotelgh.com) is how cheap and accessible it is: independent travellers can easily get here by public transport from Tamale, admission fees are under US$10 and walking safaris are standard (although if you did want to go on a game drive, the park has a 4x4 for hire). And then of course there is the Mole Motel, a little overpriced but in an unbeatable location overlooking the park plains, with premium views of what the animals – elephants, warthogs, baboons, antelope, birds – are up to. There is even a swimming pool for a refreshing dip in between outings.

If you don’t fancy trying Ghanaian public transport, Abacar Tours (www.abacar-tours.com) will see you right.

Tiwai Island Wildlife Sanctuary, Sierra Leone

This small island on the Moa River in Sierra Leone is unlike any other reserve or park in West Africa: with 11 species of primate present in the sanctuary (www.tiwaiisland.org), it is one of the very few places in West Africa where you are virtually guaranteed to see chimpanzees and other endangered primates such as the beautiful Colobus and Diana monkeys. There are other rare species such as the endemic pygmy hippopotamus, river otters and more than 130 species of bird. There are guided excursions on the islands and nearby villages, and you can stay the night on a simple, covered platform. The sanctuary is easily reached by taxi from Bo or Kenema but do stay the night in Tiwai if you are using public transport.

Visit Sierra Leone (www.visitsierraleone.org) can help you arrange transport and tours.

Floating lodge at Makasutu in The Gambia by Steve Garvie. CC BY-SA 2.0.

Makasutu Culture Forest, The Gambia

The Gambia is known far and wide for its outstanding birdlife and many seasoned birdwatchers come back here year after year. Makasutu Culture Forest (www.mandinalodges.com/makasutu-forest) is certainly one of the choice picks in the country – although we’re talking shades of superlatives here. This small reserve is a kaleidoscope of The Gambia’s varied landscape and birdlife. You could easily visit from Banjul on a daytrip but if money is no object, treat yourself to a couple of nights at Mandina River Lodge (www.mandinalodges.com), a gorgeous boutique eco-retreat.

Makasutu organises packages with stays at Mandina Lodge; day visitors can use the park’s minibus from nearby Brikama and get the same excellent guides.

Practical tips

  • The best time to see wildlife in West Africa is December to April, when the grass has been burnt (which improves visibility) and the dry season forces animals to congregate around water holes.
  • Tracks are generally impassable in the rainy season (July-September) and parks often close.
  • Entry fees vary from under US$10 in Mole to US$28 for Makasutu, a bargain compared to other parts of Africa.
  • Bring sunscreen and plenty of insect repellent – or wear light, long-sleeved clothing and long trousers.
  • Malaria is present in all national parks: take precautions.
  • Pack binoculars and a wildlife field guide.
This article was published in July 2013 and updated in January 2014. 

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