An African safari trip remains one of my most satisfying travel memories. A mix of thrilling game drives interspersed with chances to meet the local people brought all the clichés to vivid life, while revealing its share of new surprises. When I returned home to Toronto however (no slide nights – don’t be that guy), one tough but important question kept coming up.
Isn’t Africa problematic for LGBTQ travellers and locals?
I knew why people were asking. Several prominent African politicians have made headlines with their rhetoric against LGBTQ people in recent years, and it’s hard to ignore the dangers faced by local people who belong to these groups. Hate crimes are prevalent, many people are forced to flee their home villages or even countries, and any degree of activism is fraught with danger. Even some countries that have welcomed LGBTQ refugees, such as Kenya, retain anti-gay laws.
In many parts of Africa, homosexuality is viewed as an ‘unAfrican’ western phenomenon. That’s ironic given Africa’s history shows same-sex relationships were very much a part of pre-colonial society, and most modern hostility can be directly traced to leftover colonial laws mixed with the influence of evangelical preachers from the west.
Still, where does that leave the LGBTQ traveller embarking on an African safari? In terms of safety, there is very little to fear in any of Africa’s popular destinations. LGBTQ travellers are unlikely to face hostility or discrimination from those in the tourism industry, who have “seen it all before.” Few travellers come to Africa for the cities, but discretion is advised if you venture independently beyond your hotel. Earnest displays of public affection are frowned upon regardless of orientation in Africa.
Some globetrotters though may simply be uncomfortable visiting countries where life for local LGBTQ people is so precarious. But remember, Africa is a big place. Situations vary between different countries, even seeming contradictory at times. A trip to Africa is a life-changing experience nobody should be forced to sit out. For travellers hesitant to visit certain countries, here are five of Africa’s most LGBTQ friendly options for making that dream trip a reality.
Legal situation: All forms of anti-gay discrimination are banned in South Africa, gender identity is protected under anti-discrimination law, and same-sex marriage has been legal since 2006. A degree of societal homophobia remains, but visitors are unlikely to experience discrimination.
Why you should go: Besides being the most LGBTQ-friendly option, South Africa is an ideal destination for the Africa beginner. It offers a wide range of accommodations to suit every budget, well maintained roads for self-drive vacations, superb wine regions, an endlessly diverse landscape, plentiful flights to both Johannesburg and Cape Town, and much more. Most African destinations offer a particular kind of Africa experience, but a South Africa trip can be whatever you want it to be. Excellent flight connections make South Africa an ideal jumping off point for exploring the neighbouring countries too.
Where you should go: With so many reasons to visit, we’re focusing on safari spots in this article. Kruger National Park in South Africa’s northeast is the shining star. Nearby Mala Mala and Sabi Sands Game Reserves offer a slightly more upscale experience with plenty of big cats. Phinda Game Reserve deserves your attention as well, provided you’re happy to splash out for a fully inclusive safari package. Your reward? Probably South Africa’s best opportunity to spot each of the Big Five, and all three big cats (lions, cheetahs, and leopards). Rhinos are the main draw at Hluhluwe-Imfolozi, also a particularly good park for self-drivers thanks to its sealed roads.
When you should go: Wildlife viewing in South Africa is at its best during the (southern) winter months from May to September.
Why you might not: A stay in South Africa’s cities requires a few precautions you might not need in other parts of the world. The same well-developed infrastructure that makes the country so appealing also brings larger crowds.
Legal situation: In June 2019, Botswana abolished its laws against same-sex relations, though Botswana’s government has since challenged the ruling. LGBTQ people also enjoy some legal protections, while the constitution has protected the right to change legal gender since 2017.
Why you should go: Some Africa die-hards will say if you only do one African safari in your life, go to Botswana. This stable and relatively wealthy Southern African nation is known for its wetlands, particularly the UNESCO World Heritage listed Okavango Delta, and Chobe National Park. Big factors in Botswana’s favour are its low density approach to tourism, an abundance of eco-friendly lodge options, and incredibly diverse scenery, from lush river deltas to dry deserts and saltpans. Botswana also outlaws game hunting of any kind.
Where you should go: Chobe, Moremi, and the Okavango in northern Botswana steal the show, with the desert parks of the country’s west close behind. The Okavango Delta is the country’s greatest treasure, with easy sightings of four of the Big Five (you’ll have to look sharp for rhinos), plenty of small camps to choose from, terrific birding, and unique mokoro (canoe) safaris. Chobe National Park is a close second, with excellent viewing despite larger crowds. Located within the Okavango, Moremi Game Reserve justifies its high price tag with wonderful safari opportunities, including an unusually high chance of spotting a leopard or African wild dog.
When you should go: Okavango and Chobe are at their best from June to September, while the dry parks of the Kalahari tend to shine between March and May.
Why you might not: Safari perfection comes at a price. Botswana is a decidedly upscale destination with relatively few budget options on offer. This thins the tourist crowd, easing pressure on the parks and their wildlife, so most visitors agree Botswana is worth the price tag.
Legal situation: Namibia’s law against male same-sex relations is not enforced, and legislation to repeal it has been proposed. Female same-sex relations have never been criminalized, and the right to change legal gender has been protected since 1963.
Why you should go: Namibia is one of Africa’s most starkly beautiful countries. Be ready for desert heat, and subspecies of wildlife uniquely adapted to this environment. A world removed from the lush wetlands of neighbouring Botswana, Namibia is a destination for those who want to see a very different Africa. It’s a good option for budget-conscious travellers too.
Where you should go: Etosha National Park is wildlife central in Namibia, with plentiful elephants, zebra, giraffes, wildebeest, and more. The dry landscape doesn’t lend itself to particularly large herds, but it does mean the animals congregate around common waterholes, creating some fantastic photo ops, particularly during the dry season. You also won’t want to miss the awesome sand dunes and salt and clay pans of Sossusvlei.
When you should go: The dry season, from July to September, offers the best Namibia safari. While Etosha can get crowded at this time, it’s worth persevering for better wildlife sightings.
Why you might not: One more time, it’s hot in Namibia! The animals you’ll see also aren’t your ‘classic’ safari stars. It’s just a very different Africa, best suited to travellers who want to experience Namibia specifically.
Legal situation: Same-sex relations have been legal in Mozambique since 2015, and there are some legal protections against discrimination. To date, no laws protect gender identity expression, but in terms of general acceptance, Mozambique is one of Africa’s most liberal countries.
Why you should go: African beach destinations don’t get much better than Mozambique. Besides being a great place to relax, the coast is lined with colourful reefs teeming with ocean life. The country’s vibrant and often checkered colonial history will intrigue culture vultures as well.
Where you should go: The nation’s most popular park, Gorongosa, has been slow to recover after Mozambique’s civil war, so a Mozambique vacation is more about historic towns and gorgeous beaches than classic safaris. Maputo is a popular city break, while the Quirimbas Archipelago, Bazaruto Archipelago, and Benguerra Island are fabulous spots to unwind from your trip. Your best chance to see wildlife thriving in Mozambique lies underwater, so suit up and grab your snorkel.
Why you might not: Those in search of a classic African safari should look elsewhere. Still, this beautiful, fascinating, and friendly country makes a perfect cultural or beach escape.
Legal situation: No laws have ever existed against same-sex relations in Rwanda, but there are no legal protections or gender identity protections either. Same-sex marriage remains constitutionally banned.
Why you should go: Rwanda is arguably the world’s best place to see wild mountain gorillas. Its only accessible (and cheaper) rival is neighbouring Uganda, which may give some LGBTQ travellers pause. An encounter with a gorilla family in the wild will be a trip you talk about for years to come. Rwanda is also one of Africa’s safest destinations all round.
Where you should go: Rwanda’s not a big country. Volcanoes National Park will almost certainly be the focus of your trip, but if you do pass through the capital, Kigali, stop to pay your respects at the Kigali Memorial Centre to gain a greater understanding of what Rwanda has endured.
When you should go: High altitudes shelter Rwanda’s climate from extreme heat, though you’ll probably want to avoid the long wet season from March to May. June to September is the perfect time to go.
Why you might not: Gorilla trekking permits go for a whopping US$1500 per person. Like Botswana, Rwanda favours high value, low impact tourism, which makes it a great destination for those who can afford it.