Discovering Africa’s great wildernesses is becoming more and more accessible to travellers who use wheelchairs. But going on safari is still a logistically complicated undertaking so we’ve put together our top advice and suitable accommodation for mobility-impaired travellers.
Good to know before you book
Go to South Africa
This stunning country is the most advanced on the continent and is miles ahead in terms of understanding the needs of differentially-abled people and having the resources to make your journey as smooth and comfortable as possible. It has world-renowned wildlife areas like the Kruger National Park as well as plenty of other things to see and do, like exploring Cape Town and the Winelands.
Its hotels, sightseeing spots, airports and restaurants are the most suitable for wheelchair users compared to other countries. There is also a more extensive medical network in case of emergencies. More and more places are suitable for wheelchairs – Table Mountain, for example, has wheelchair access and a mile of walkways at the summit. Some beaches even have ‘beach wheelchairs’ that can be pushed over the sand and into the sea.
Consider a road-based itinerary
Africa is a huge place and distances between airports and safari areas are sometimes so great that flying is your only option. The planes used, however, are light aircraft that seat few people and may not capable of accommodating travellers who can’t be removed from a wheelchair (chairs may also not be able to be transported if the hold is too small or strict weight limits are in place to ensure safety).
If you can’t be accommodated in a small plane, then consider a road safari with a driver-guide in a 4x4 vehicle. There are plenty of places where this is suitable or even more cost-effective – be sure, however, to check that your accommodation en route can cater to your specific needs:
- Kruger The drive from Johannesburg’s international airport to the Kruger National Park takes about six hours. Once you’re in the Kruger, you can be transferred by road between whatever lodges you’re staying at. In the vicinity is also the beautiful Panorama Route, so-called for its scenic vistas that look out over unusual geographic formations like God’s Window, the Bourke’s Luck Potholes and the Three Rondavels.
- Namibia This amazing country is a driving dream. Roads are generally well maintained and the circuit that takes you from the capital, Windhoek, to highlights like Sossusvlei, Swakopmund and the incomparable Etosha National Park is very favoured by self-drivers.
- Tanzania A safari big hitter, Tanzania’s ‘Northern Circuit’ is another top safari area that can be navigated by road. Starting in Arusha, you’ll go through jaw-dropping spots like Lake Manyara, Tarangire National Park and two of the most outstanding wildlife reserves in the world: the Serengeti and Ngorongoro Crater. The Crater has some of the easiest Big 5 game viewing in the world – it’s not unusual to see elephant, leopard, lion, buffalo and rhino on a single game drive – and the Serengeti is, of course, famous for the annual Wildebeest Migration from about December to June, depending on where you go.
- The Garden Route A stretch of some of South Africa’s prettiest coastline, the Garden Route is lined with golden beaches, dense forest and craggy outcrops, all buffeted by the warm Indian Ocean. Highlights include season whale watching from about August, fresh oysters, animal sanctuaries, ostrich farms and charming accommodation that showcases Africa’s famous hospitality.
Yes, you can go gorilla trekking!
If there’s one thing Africans know how to do, it’s ‘make a plan’. And so it is with gorilla trekking. Some rangers will accommodate wheelchair-using travellers in special seats so they can be carried to experience the sheer thrill and delight of seeing gorilla families at play. Often the ‘porters’ or ‘bearers’ who carry the chairs are former poachers who now are actively involved in the preservation of Africa’s great apes – truly a win-win situation.
Be upfront about your needs
Our Safari Experts are trained to hone-in our clients’ needs, wants and expectations from Day One – its how we’ve delivered hundreds of thousands of successful African safaris since 1998. Don’t be shy of detailing what you need to be in place to have a comfortable vacation: your personal Safari Expert will try their utmost to make it happen. Clear communication is vital – if you need a commode, a roll-in shower or an inter-connecting suite for a helper, please don’t be shy to say so. We’ve even rented wheelchairs for mobility-impaired clients for their holiday to South Africa. Our aim is to deliver a safari that delights you in every way possible.
Be open to the safari lodges that can accommodate you
Not every lodge or camp is equipped to provide wheelchair users with efficient service. Look for camps and lodges that have or are the following:
- Not built on cliffs or hilltops Accommodation built on the side of mountains is likely to have multiple levels and lots of staircases – lifts or elevators are unknown in the middle of the bush!
- Are built on flat stretches of land These are more likely to be on the same level and although they may have a stair or two here and there, these are far easier to deal with via a ramp or a couple of strong staffers. Luckily, flat areas are often in stunning locations like along rivers, on open plains or on pans.
- Have walkways between tents and mess areas Some camps have only sandy or earth walkways, which can be tricky for wheelchairs. Gravel paths can also be hard to navigate. Ask if the accommodation has wooden or paved pathways.
- Have outdoor showers Showering outside is a safari tradition – it’s a lot of fun to be under the sun or moon, and to have nature all around you. Outdoor showers on decks are often a lot more spacious than indoor ones plus there aren’t ledges or doors to navigate.
- Has 24/7 power Although solar lights and lanterns are very romantic, they can be tricky manage. Consider opting for a lodge that has conventional electricity as this will make your life much easier.
- Sit up front Most game-drive vehicles require some climbing, especially ones with raised seating. If possible request to sit upfront with the driver-guide as the seat will be much easier to get in and out of. The bonus is that this provides a much smoother ride – the further back you sit, the bumpier the journey will be especially on dirt or potholed roads.
- Take spares If you can, take items like a puncture-repair kit for your tyres as these won’t be widely or easily available should you spring a leak, for example.
- Get a full medical check-up Chat to your doctor or travel clinic about any concerns around vaccinations, prescriptions and so on before you leave. Activities like gorilla trekking require very good health to ensure human diseases like flu are not passed onto the vulnerable primates.
- Make sure your travel insurance is comprehensive Double check that you are covered sufficiently in the unlikely case of an emergency.
- Secure any equipment in advance If you require oxygen tanks, catheters or any other specialised equipment, ensure that it is available and ready to use in your destination.
- Take copies of your prescriptions Get your doctor or pharmacist to list the generic active ingredient as some medications go under different names across the world.
- Book sooner rather than later Wheelchair-accessible suites are limited as are inter-connecting or family ones, especially during peak season (about July to October). It’s best to book six to nine months in advance to ensure you get the kind of accommodation you want.
- Don’t be shy If you need a push or to have the furniture in your room reconfigured, just ask. Safari staff offer fantastic service and put the comfort and satisfaction of their guests first. Don’t be embarrassed to make a simple or reasonable request that can make your African safari much more pleasant.
- Take as direct a flight as possible It’s worth spending a little extra not to have long layovers or multiple changes of plane.
- Take a day to acclimatize Many travellers are so eager to get on safari as quickly as possible that they discount spending a night in Johannesburg or Nairobi (the capital of Kenya) as a ‘waste’. Our opinion is that no time spent anywhere in Africa is a ‘waste’! A night at a great hotel, with a good night’s sleep and a delicious food, helps you shake off the jet-lag and sets you up for those early morning wake-up calls on safari.
The Big 5 Questions to Ask Your Travel Insurer:
- What are the exceptions to cancelling coverage?
- How much more does 'cancel for any reason' coverage cost?
- What costs will you pay upfront and what will I be liable for?
- When does the coverage begin and end on my journey?
- What are the medical exclusions and exemptions and how much as I covered for?
A selection of the best wheelchair-friendly accommodation in Africa
This is by no means an exhaustive list – your Safari Expert will be able to consult further based on your precise needs. Here are some good options with which to start planning a rough itinerary: some are better for guests who are mobility impaired but still able to stand briefly.
A visit to South Africa is a good way to combine time in Cape Town, one of the world’s most awarded cities, with a Big 5 Kruger Park safari. You can start in either place and aim to spend at least three to four nights in each at a minimum as there is so much to do and see.
The Twelve Apostles Hotel & Spa
Boasting an enviable location overlooking the Atlantic Ocean and the Twelve Apostles mountain range that adjoins Table Mountain, this grand hotel is far away from the bustle of the city.
|Main area||Lifts / elevators to restaurants|
|Bedroom||1 paraplegic-adapted room|
2. Kruger National Park reserves
Shumbalala Game Lodge, Thornybush
Expect 24/7 pampering, friendly staff and spacious suites at Shumbalala, which is found in the heart of the 14 000-hectare and world-famous Thornybush Private Game Reserve.
|Bedroom||1 paraplegic-adapted room|
Kapama Southern Camp
You can fly straight into Kapama Private Game Reserve (if the plane is able accommodate a wheelchair) and take your first game drive on the ride to Southern Camp.
|Main area||No stairs|
Lukimbi Safari Lodge
Lying in a 15 000-hectare private concession that takes in three river systems, Lukimbi wins with ultra-luxurious accommodation and sensational game viewing.
|Bedroom||Wheelchair-friendly classic suite over two levels with ramps|
|Bathroom||Bigger tub with bars and handles|
Lion Sands Tinga Lodge
Every suite here as a private deck with a plunge pool that overlooks the Sabie River – keep a look out for pods of plump hippos and other game.
|Main area||Wheelchair-friendly public bathrooms
Game-drive assistance with steps
|Bedroom||5 wheelchair-friendly rooms|
Shower seat available
Sabi Sabi Little Bush Lodge
A lovely, very intimate lodge in a private reserve, Little Bush Lodge is ideal to book on an exclusive-use basis if you are travelling as a sizable group.
|Main area||Ramps in lodge
Special accommodation on game drives
|Bedroom||All furniture at modified height
Dedicated paraplegic unit
|Bathroom||Grab bars in shower and tub
Wheel-in shower stall
Hand-held shower nozzle
Mala Mala Main Lodge
A renowned name in superb safaris, Mala Mala has made a name for itself with excellent service, perfect attention to detail and great game viewing.
|Main area||Ramps to vehicle and room
|Bedroom||Furniture at correct height
No loose rugs
Bed for nurse or aide
|Bathroom||Wheel-in shower plus all fittings|
3. Johannesburg and Pretoria
Castello di Monte, Pretoria
Styled after a decadent Italian palazzo, Castello di Monte is within easy driving distance for OR Tambo International Airport and the Rovos Rail Station.
|Main Area||Ramp to restaurant
Lift / elevator
|Bedroom||1 adapted suite|
Loose chair on request
D’Oreale Grande, Johannesburg
A luxury hotel with all the mod cons, D’Oreale is very close to OR Tambo for early morning or late-night arrivals and departures.
|Bedroom||Special-assistance room with twin beds|
4. Pilanesberg National Park and Sun City
Bakubung Bush Lodge
An upscale lodge in the Pilanesberg, which offers malaria-free game viewing a 3-hour drive from Johannesburg.
|Bedroom||1 paraplegic room with wheelchair available|
The Palace of the Lost City
The premier hotel in Africa’s biggest resort – Sun City – The Palace is an over-the-top extravaganza of swimming pools, statues and domes in beautiful gardens.
|Bedroom||Ground-floor wheelchair-accessible room|
Fordoun Hotel & Spa
A charming country lodge in the KZN Midlands, which is known for its bucolic rural scenes of horse paddocks, quaint pubs, micro-breweries and the exciting history of the Anglo-Zulu and Anglo-Boer Wars.
|Main Area||Paraplegic bathroom in spa
Restaurant on a single level
Golf cart available for mobility-impaired guests
|Bedroom||Spacious rooms with ramps|
|Bathroom||Tourism-grading compliant paraplegic bathroom|
Chobe Game Lodge
Chobe National Park is rightly famous for its massive herds of elephants, especially by the end of the dry season in October when they gather here to enjoy the waters of the Chobe River.
|Bedroom||2 wheelchair-friendly rooms
Rivertrees Country Inn
A lovely thatched lodge in Arusha that’s the perfect starting or ending point for a Northern Circuit road safari.
|Main Area||Public toilet with grab bats
NOTE paths are gravel – assistance required
|Bedroom||1 Garden Room with lowered bed|
|Bathroom||Basin with special tap
Toilet with grab bars
Open shower with grab bars
A down-to-earth lodge with a long pedigree in one of Hwange National Park’s best Big 5 areas.
|Main Area||Single-level decking with ramps
Solid, compacted pathways
Use of front seat on game drives
Full staff assistance
|Bathroom||Easy-access outdoor showers
Shower chair on request
One of Kenya’s most luxurious lodges, which has unbridled views of the Masai Mara’s plains from its position on the escarpment.
|Main Area||All levels fitted with ramps
Private transfer from Nairobi provided
Aircraft boarding assistance
Front seat of game-drive vehicle
|Bedroom||1 accessible tent cleared of superfluous furniture|
|Bathroom||Grab rails in shower and toilet|