It’s impossible not to like giraffes. Their languid manner and slightly puzzled expressions have entranced us since one was shipped to a disbelieving Italy in the 1400s. It is an animal so peculiar in appearance that its scientific name - Giraffa camelopardalis - reflects its perceived similarity to both a camel and… a leopard.
It was a tame giraffe called Sweetie Pie that lured this London-born writer to Africa: I was a nature-obsessed boy on safari and Sweetie Pie’s appearance next to the Land Rover created such an impression that I resolved there and then to live in Africa as soon as possible.
Sweetie Pie - along with all other giraffes - is the world’s tallest living animal. They can reach up to a dizzy 20 feet or 5.5 metres and yet giraffes are hopeless at being dangerous. I once saw a dozing giraffe suddenly sneeze, giving itself such a fright that it ran off with its legs going in different directions like a cow on stilts!
A safari simply doesn’t feel complete without a giraffe sighting. They once ranged all over Africa but with habitats shrinking, giraffes are increasingly concentrated into specific reserves in East and Southern Africa. If you’re wondering where to go in Africa to see giraffes, better choose the kind of destination where they are famously abundant.
#1 Giraffe Manor, Kenya
Not only are you guaranteed giraffe sightings at Giraffe Manor; you’ll have them literally eating out of your hand. A historic guesthouse set in a quiet Nairobi neighbourhood, Giraffe Manor lies in 56 hectares of parkland and has become a sanctuary for Rothschild’s giraffe, a sub-species so rare that almost half its numbers live in zoos.
Sitting down for breakfast is the big event of the day. Floor-to-ceiling windows let the African sunshine pour in but they also allow curious giraffes to investigate – don’t be alarmed if a 6-foot neck appears above your table. They will enjoy being fed special pellets and, after breakfast, you can simply stroll over to the next-door Giraffe Centre for more close-up encounters.
#2 Etosha National Park, Namibia
Flat, open and covered in thorny acacia trees, Namibia’s Etosha National Park is classic giraffe country. My advice is to head for a waterhole - Etosha’s arid climate concentrates its wildlife around the meagre surface water sources. To witness the careful contortions required for a giraffe has to get a sip of water, an Etosha waterhole is the place to visit.
A thirsty giraffe begins by gazing around. Waterholes are a favourite spot for lions to ambush their prey, and a drinking giraffe - splay-legged and head down - is about as vulnerable as nature gets. Hordes of other animals keep you entertained while you wait – nervy impala, jostling zebra and rapier-horned oryx - until the giraffe starts to shuffle and squat before lowering its head to drink. Valves in the neck close to prevent a catastrophic rush of blood to the head but after a few sips the giraffe snaps back into full height as if it has suddenly remembered something important. A quick look around and the painstaking process of lowering that endless neck to the water's surface begins all over again. Other giraffes reportedly often act as 'lookouts', taking turns to drink while the others seems to keep watch.
Accessible as part of an organised tour or self-drive adventure, an Etosha safari combines easily with regional highlights such as the Sossusvlei sand dunes, Botswana’s Chobe River and Victoria Falls.
#3 Private Kruger Reserves, South Africa
Africa’s most reliable Big 5 sightings and luxurious exclusivity are the two main reasons to visit the private reserves that border the Kruger National Park. I’d like to add a third: giraffe spotting.
Not only are there plenty of giraffes around in the open woodlands of the Kruger but, given the stellar reputation of the reserves’ guides, this is the place where you’ll really learn about them. Expert rangers show you how to identify their ‘browse-line’ – where they have been feeding on a tree – and how to interpret their behaviour, including ‘necking’ – the odd way that male giraffes fight. They’ll let you in on the secrets of distinguishing between males and females (it’s all about hairy horns but I don’t want to give away too much) and how they cope with eating leaves protected by 3-inch thorns.
Simple to access from Johannesburg and Cape Town, the private Kruger reserves allow off-road driving so you’re guaranteed to get as close to giraffes as you like; they are also full of Africa’s biggest predators, ensuring plenty of game-viewing thrills.
#4 Selous Game Reserve, Tanzania
Bigger than Switzerland, Tanzania’s monster-sized Selous Reserve lies firmly off the beaten track. A raw, mostly undeveloped wilderness best avoided during the summer rainy season, it’s a fly-in destination suited for experienced safari travellers. Why should you visit it? Because the Selous is so jam-packed with giraffe that it is affectionately known as Giraffic Park.
Thousands upon thousands of giraffe, arguably forming Africa’s greatest concentration, live in the Selous, nearly all of them north of the Rufiji River, the lifeline that runs through the reserve. It really is where to go in Africa to see giraffe. A handful of lodges offer game drives and boat cruises supplemented by walks and even fly-camping adventures, and guides are allowed to drive off-road for fill-the-viewfinder photographs. Visit during the June to October dry season when animals of all description crowd the Rufiji, not least giraffes, arriving at the river banks in herds of up to several dozen each.
#5 Okavango Delta, Botswana
Believe it or not, but a giraffe can run at speeds of up to 60kmh (37mph). While their normal walking gait - moving both legs on one side of the body at the same time - is distinctly abnormal in the animal world, it’s definitely the gallop that looks the oddest. Rocking back and forth on its hind and front legs with its long neck moving like a metronome to counter momentum, a sprinting giraffe appears to be moving in slow motion.
The problem, however, is that a giraffe in full flight is only briefly observed before it inevitably disappears into the bush. A visit to the Okavango Delta, a freshwater wetland at the heart of the Kalahari, is home to large numbers of giraffe all year round, it is here you have the chance to enjoy a bird’s-eye perspective. Helicopter safaris skim over the Delta’s glittering floodplains, and it’s never long before your sharp-eyed pilot spots a herd and swings in for a closer look, putting you in prime position to observe their mesmerising, rocking-horse locomotion.