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Safaris have come a long way from pith helmets and visions of "Out of Africa." These days, you can r

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Safaris have come a long way from pith helmets and visions of "Out of Africa." These days, you can ride a bike into the enormous Ngorongoro Crater in Tanzania, take a river safari through Botswana's Okavango Delta, drive across the open plains of Kenya's Masai Mara and watch the famous wildebeest migration, or get away from the crowds and sneak up on lions on foot -- with an armed guard, of course


Options vary wildly in terms of animal sightings, landscape, culture and cost. You can camp out in a conventional tent, stay in a kid-friendly lodge, bunk with villagers or splurge on a bush camp in the wilderness where your "tent" comes with a queen-size bed and a shower under the stars. Roughing it is optional in the bush these days.


In many ways, there has never been a better time to visit Africa. The demise of apartheid in the early 1990s and the subsequent end to wars in southern Africa have made South Africa a thriving destination and put countries throughout the region, particularly traditionally peaceful countries such as Zambia and Botswana, back on the tourist map. A sad exception is Zimbabwe, where a once-strong safari industry has suffered along with the rest of the country's economic fortunes. But happily, after more than two months of ethnic violence in Kenya, hopes are high that a power-sharing agreement will return stability to the country and its mammoth travel industry.


In this special section, we compare safari experiences in Kenya, Tanzania, Zambia and South Africa. We tell you how to plan your own safari, with tips on cutting costs, when and where to go, choosing a tour operator and lodging options. Still can't decide? Our Safari-O-Matic chart shows how many of the "Big Five" animals you can find in Africa's most popular national parks plus our picks for other highlights. So go wild.