Choosing a safari can be a safari in itself.
Often it’s a stealthy operation that involves extensive prep work, a great deal of roaming and, occasionally, disappointment.
To make it easier, we’ve examined the honors in the 2015 Safari Awards — the Oscars of the safari industry — and gathered 10 of our favorite finalists.
These are the adventures that excel in location, animal encounters, social and environmental responsibility and offer something different.
More than 4,000 travel agents, writers and operators were invited to nominate the best safaris across 20 categories.
Here’s our best of the best:
Norman Carr Walking Safari (Zambia)
Encounters with animals don’t get closer than when they’re done on foot.
While this may seem daunting to the safari newcomer, multi-award winner Norman Carr Walking Safari has 60 years of experience in the Luangwa Valley.
The winner of the “best safari experience in Africa” and “best walking safari” categories for Zambia in the 2015 Safari Awards offers a different perspective for small groups trekking from camp to camp along the Luwi River.
Travelers stay in remote but comfortable chalets before tracking lions, buffalo and leopard through early morning mists in this unchanged wilderness.
Norman Carr Walking Safari, Luangwa Valley, Zambia; +26 021 624 6025; seven-night packages from $2,285 per person, plus flights and park fees,10-night package taking in five camps from $4,500 per person
Goliath Safaris Luxury Tented Camp (Zimbabwe)
Being in the wilderness doesn’t have to mean stinting on comfort.
That said, guide Stretch Ferreira has ensured Goliath Safaris Luxury Tented Camp is rated one of the best in Zimbabwe for more than just pillows.
En suite tents with teak finishes and open-air showers, right beside the Mana Pools conservation area, ensure guests are close to the action and emerge fresh to face wildlife that includes hippo, elephant, lion, leopard and wild dogs.
Goliath has just been voted “best walking safari” in the country by customers with accolades for its guides and cuisine.
Rigid routines are ditched for guest-led adventure, on foot and canoe under the unique auspices of Ferreira and his 30 years experience.
Goliath Safaris Luxury Tented Camp, +263 4 882373; from $640 (per person, per night) inclusive of activities, but excluding park fees
African Horseback Safaris (Botswana)
Exploring the 450,000 acres of untouched nature in the Okavango Delta on horseback is a great way to spare both feet and the environment.
Two decades in, African Horseback Safaris has bagged awards for its exhilarating rides beside big game stars such as elephant, zebra and giraffe.
Relying on hooves instead of wheels, its equine adventures are largely unaffected by the annual flooding that makes many parts of the delta inaccessible to vehicles.
The finely tuned horses drop their heads to graze and to signal other animals in the area to relax while riders get an eyeful.
At the camp, each en suite safari tent boasts an elevated deck for a view of the floodplains.
African Horseback Safaris, Macatoo Camp, Botswana; +267 686 1523; from $695 per person, per night
Tongole Wilderness Lodge (Malawi)
When it comes to pocketing our travel dollars, it’s good to know safari hosts have an eye on the local community, too.
Tongole Wilderness Lodge manages to help those around it without skimping on the comfort at its eco-lodge within the Miombo woodlands of the Nkhotakota Wildlife Reserve, Malawi’s oldest protected area.
From here, treks explore the bush and canoe trips take in the Bua River to see monkeys, waterbuck, wart hogs and elephants alongside 280 bird species.
The lodge — voted Malawi’s “best value safari property,” “best ecologically responsible” and “best community focused” in the latest Safari Awards — can also take visitors into the village community to meet local people, including a school supported by the Tongole Foundation.
Tongole Wilderness Lodge, Nkhotakota, Malawi; +44 208 123 0301; from $335 (per person, per night), including activities, food and most drinks
Samode Safari Lodge (India)
For those who seeking to tick tigers off their must-see list, Bandhavgarh National Park beckons
There’s a high density of big cats, alongside barking deer, chinkaras, wolf, guar, bear and cheetal deer in this forested location in central India.
Right next to the forest, Samode Safari Lodge is a sophisticated gateway to a stream and marsh-blessed landscape best explored by jeep.
Opened in 2010 in Madhya Pradesh state, the lodge comprises 12 luxury villas and has just won all four categories in the Safari Awards for India including “best safari guiding team” and “best community focused safari property.”
Samode Safari Lodge,Village Mardhari, Post Dhamokar, District Umaria, Madhya Pradesh; +91 141 2632370; the “jungle plan” costs from $444 (per person, per night based on twin sharing) and includes forest guide fees, two scheduled safaris and photographic fees
Nyungwe Forest Lodge (Rwanda)
Some of the planet’s most elusive creatures and plants occupy the ancient forests and mountains around this southwest tea plantation.
Orchids and 13 primate species, including chimpanzees, live among the 200 tree species in the largest remaining tract of uninterrupted forest in Central and East Africa — all viewable on guided walking trails and animal treks.
Other safari activities seek out black and white colobus monkeys, gray-cheeked Mangabey and bird-watching at the Kamiranzovu Waterfall.
Nyungwe Forest Lodge,Rwanda; +27 21 427 5900; voted “best new safari property” in Rwanda in the 2015 Safari Awards, from $295 (per person, per night sharing). Trekking prices given on reservation
Leopard Hills (South Africa)
A six-hour drive from Johannesburg to the edge of the renowned Kruger National Park, Leopard Hills offers safaris through 10,000 hectares of big beast countryside.
The main lodge is sited on a rocky outcrop in the western sector of the Sabi Sand Game Reserve overlooking an active waterhole and magnificent plains where the Big Five reside.
Rates include two drives per day and optional walking safaris with the chance of close-quarter glimpses of rhino, lion, leopard, buffalo and elephant.
Rangers are established photographers and can advise on taking quality safari snaps.
Leopard Hills, Hazy View, Mpumalanga, South Africa; +27 11 326 0739; from $910 (per person, per night). Private guided safari vehicle can be booked for $475 (per day)
Pumba Private Game Reserve & Spa (South Africa)
Hippo, hyena, wildebeest, kudu, eland and antelope are among the attractions at the family-friendly Pumba Private Game Reserve & Spa.
The big draw, however, is the majestic and endangered white lion.
Pumba, a malaria-free haven dedicated to conservation and boosting the local community, operates a white lion-breeding program and is one of just two homes to the beast in the whole of southern Africa.
Accommodation includes the Water Lodge, overlooking Lake Cariega, or Msenge Bush Lodge, looking out over a waterhole and mountain views.
Pumba Private Game Reserve & Spa, Highlands, Lothians Road, Makana Municipality, Port Elizabeth, South Africa; +27 46 603 2000; from $469 (per person, per night) plus $201 (per child) in a Msenge family chalet
Fundu Lagoon (Tanzania)
In addition to the Big Five, Africa boasts great aquatic wildlife and Fundu Lagoon has been collecting plaudits for its accessibility to the stars of the waves.
As well as canoe, boat and walking tours, the twice “best marine safari experience in Africa” winner offers a fully equipped dive center, enabling underwater exploration of coral reefs and wreck-dwelling fish as well as the dolphins, whales and sea turtles.
While the lodge offers “barefoot luxury,” its location on a coastal rainforest makes it easy see flying foxes, colobus monkeys, tropical birds and bush babies, so it’s possible to make like Crusoe, Cousteau or both.
Fundu Lagoon, Pemba, Tanzania; +255 7774 38668; average room prices start at $440 (per person, per night) and include unguided mangrove canoe safaris, a dhow cruise, snorkeling and village treks
Karisia Walking Safaris (Kenya)
Karisia Walking Safaris is an all-inclusive mobile operator with a team of camels guided by Masai and Samburu trackers in the wilds of Laikipia.
Tours roam from broad rivers to mountain forests, with camping in stunning scenery under the stars.
There’s a diverse range of large animals as the habitat changes, with endangered Grevy’s Zebra, reticulated giraffe and highland hartebeest filling viewfinders.
Activities include cultural visits, rock climbing and rafting with a company just voted “best mobile safari” and “best walking safari” in Kenya for the second year running in the Safari Awards.
Karisia Walking Safaris, Nanyuki, Kenya; +254 721 371694; from $400 (per person, per night), with 50% off for children under 16