Safaris In East Africa.
Africa is one of the best places in the world to see nature at its best. Being out in the wild African savannah and forest, observing and listening to the animals, is an experience that you will never forget.
I have travelled overland from Ethiopia to South Africa two times now, once in 2010, and again in 2013. I used public transport all the time, and went on numerous safaris, as I very much enjoy being out in the wilderness. I wrote about a lot of the experiences from the 2013 journey, and wanted to write about all of them together, to share my passion for the wilds of Africa.
So that’s what you will find here, a look into some of the best safari experiences you can have in Africa.
1. The Serengeti National Park
The word Serengeti conjures up images of vast African savannah. Situated in North Tanzania covering a huge area, it is the quintessential safari experience. If I had to tell someone where to go if they could do only one safari, then the Serengeti is it. Entering by a four wheeled drive vehicle, you will find no paved roads, and the dust flies everywhere as you bounce around. Flat plains slowly give way to savannah with rocky outcrops, and some forested areas perfect for animals to hide in.
There is a huge amount of wildlife here, and you will have a good chance of spotting the elusive leopard. There are plenty of lions to be found, and cheetahs are also common. The savannah and its long grass, with the rocky vantage points to spot prey, is perfect hunting ground for the big cats. If lucky you can see the cats stalking and chasing, or at the least feeding on a kill already made. At the right time of year, normally around July and August, there is the mass migration of wildebeast, one of the greatest wildlife shows on earth.
Camping in the Serengeti is the best option as there are no fences around the campsite, leaving you vulnerable to nature, and providing the ultimate outdoor experience. Hearing the sounds of wildlife all around as you try to sleep, with just a thin piece of fabric between you and the animals, is absolutely thrilling, especially when you hear the roar of a lion, or the cackle of hyenas very close by.
Most people stay in the centre of the park and base themselves in one area, for the best chance to see the animals. If the safari drivers/guides hear of good wildlife sightings in other areas, then they will take you there instead.
You could organise a Serengeti safari with companies online before coming, but it’s better to arrange one on arrival in Arusha, the main staging point into the Serengeti. The benefit with arranging a safari on arrival is you will be able to bargain down the price a bit. With so many safari companies in Arusha, there is plenty of competition to choose from.
I would stay at least two nights in the Serengeti, the distances are huge to travel, and one night may seem a bit rushed. I have personally done two safaris there, and two nights makes a big difference to the overall experience. With good bargaining skills you can get a budget safari for about $140 a day (2013 price), including everything. Those looking for more luxury will have to spend quite a bit more.
A visit is highly recommended.
2. The Masai Mara National Reserve
The Masai Mara in Kenya is essentially a small extension of the Serengeti in Tanzania. As such you will get a great safari, with wide open savannah stretching across the horizon. It’s also relatively easy to see the big cats there, lions seem to be everywhere, and the occasional cheetah can be seen.
There are huge herds of buffalo and wildebeast around, and again if you are lucky at the right time of year, you can see the wildebeast migration. Off course where there are large herds, there are the predators waiting to hunt them. The Serengeti and Masai Mara are world famous for a reason, they are prime spots to see predators in action.
The best place to organise a safari is in Nairobi on arrival, where as in Arusha, you can bargain with companies for a cheaper deal. A budget safari used to cost around $120 a day (2013 price), including everything, but now minivans are no longer used, so the price may have gone up a bit, due to four wheeled drive cars replacing them.
The safari companies will put you together with a group if you are by yourself, but if there is four of you already, then you could just take public transport to the entrance to the Masai Mara and organise a vehicle, driver, and permits from there. That would be a little cheaper, just make sure you have a group to do so.
3. South Luangwa National Park
Situated in the north of Zambia, South Luangwa National Park is a very different kind of safari destination, compared to the Serengeti and Masai Mara. Instead of vast savannah, it’s more of a forested place, punctuated by grassy areas and the large Luangwa river.
Don’t expect big herds of zebra and wildebeast, or large prides of lions, in South Luangwa it feels more like a personal experience, with smaller encounters with the wildlife. Staying at a lodge on the side of the river, the natural border to the park, you can see hippos lounging around in the river during the day, and listen to them feed on grass around camp at night, with their noisy grunts booming across the landscape.
It’s fun waking up to elephants in camp, as long as you stay in your lodge accommodation for safety that is. You may even come across a hippo in the swimming pool! If there during the dry season the river almost disappears, and you can see large groups of elephants crossing it. In South Luangwa they use vehicles that are all open, they have no roof or sides, as is often the case in other safari destinations. This leaves you completely exposed to the animals around you, making for some interesting close encounters.
It’s also possible to do night safaris there, something not allowed in many places. You drive around with a ranger on the front with a flashlight, scanning the darkness for animals eyes to spot. The great thing about this experience is you can witness some animals that are mostly nocturnal, such as lions, being much more active. The big cats mostly hunt at night, using their night vision to great effect. Seeing a large male lion only several metres away from your exposed limbs at night, is something you will never forget!
The best way to stay in South Luangwa on a budget is to bring your own tent, otherwise some camps have dorms, but don’t count on it. The great thing about the place from a budget perspective, is that you can choose how many times you want to go out on safari, as long as you don’t have an all inclusive deal that is. A typical four hour safari will cost about $40 with $30 park entrance fee (2013 price).
With your own tent, cooking your own food, going on the occasional safari, you can get by relatively cheaply. Just being there by the banks of the river watching the wildlife around, is more than enough reason to stay a few days, even without safaris. For getting deep into the African bush and having close encounters with wildlife without breaking the bank, South Luangwa is highly recommended from a budget point of view, and is a very beautiful place to be.
4. Ngorongoro Conservation Area
Ngorongoro is one of those magical places in the world. Situated in North Tanzania, it is a huge crater full off wildlife, with the largest density of lions in Africa. It is breathtakingly beautiful in all weather. Sometimes you will get a clear sunny day, and other times the clouds will roll over the top of the crater rim, making the place feel like a fantasy land.
There is a small lake in the centre, with the rest being dry grasslands and swamp. In the lake there are often many flamingos, and there is a big herd of wildebeast that are apparently always there. There are no cheetahs to be seen, and you would be lucky to spot a leopard, but there are plenty of lions.
The real wildlife thrill here would be to spot one of the resident rhinos. On my first visit there I didn’t see any, but the second time I saw three, so you never know what you will get. That’s wildlife for you, always unpredictable.
If driving into the Serengeti on a safari from Arusha, you will pass through Ngorongoro Conservation Area, driving on the craters rim. Most people going to the Serengeti will do a one day safari in Ngorongoro on the way back, as you pass through that region anyway. One day is enough to get a feel for the place as it’s not that big.
When sleeping there you will be on top of the crater rim, where you can see a great sunrise if the weather permits it. On the budget safaris means you will be camping out, again great fun for feeling close to the animals. Listening to the sound of zebras munching away on grass right next to your tent, or the roar of a lion close by, is out of this world.
Safaris to Ngorongoro are mostly the same as the Serengeti, setting you back around $130-140 for a budget one (2013 price). This area is one of the most beautiful places in Africa, so be sure to go there on a Serengeti safari.
5. Tarangire National Park
Back to north Tanzania again, where Tarangire National Park is situated. This safari destination is not that far from the Serengeti and Ngorongoro, so can easily be added on to those excursions. The national park is well known for its large elephant population, and it’s easy too see why when you enter, they are everywhere. If you like elephants, this is the place to be.
By the river that runs through the park, you can see the elephants bathing in the mud to cool down, splashing themselves to keep there back covered from the strong African sun. There is also the usual mix of animals, such as wildebeast and zebra, and the occasional cheetah.
Tarangire is a very pleasant place to visit, with trees spread over grassy areas, but not too dense, allowing for more easy sightings off animals.One day in the park is enough to get a feel for it, just visiting the northern part, and using the money saved from not visiting the rest to go to the Serengeti. You can, as with the Serengeti and Ngorongoro, organise a safari in Arusha.
If you are in Arusha and trying to figure out wether to add Tarangire to a Serengeti safari, and doing just one night in the Serengeti instead, don’t. Use that extra money for two nights in the Serengeti, trust me on this. Having said that, if you can afford it, then Tarangire is worth a visit.
6. Lake Nakuru National Park
So if you have been on safaris and not managed to see the elusive rhino, then Lake Nakuru National Park in South-West Kenya is where you need to be. It is well known for its rhino population and the ease at which you can see them. You would have to be very lucky to see the rare black rhino, but the white rhinos are more easily found.
This park is situated around a lake surrounded by hills. It’s quite heavily forested in many places, which can make spotting some wildlife difficult. However there is one huge grassy area on the southern part of the lake, and this is where many animals congregate, and will give you the best chance to see rhinos. Flamingos can be seen around the lake as well.
Don’t expect huge groups of wildlife that would be seen on the savannah, none of that is there. The park itself is impressive, with the lake shimmering in the sun, waterfalls around, and the deep greenery of the forest.
To organise a safari you can easily show up at the nearby city of Nakuru. A budget safari after doing some bargaining, would cost around $120 (2013 price) a day, including everything. You can add a trip to Lake Nakuru to a Masai Mara safari organised in Nairobi if you are short on time. One day is enough to visit as the park is not so big. It’s worth going for the rhino sightings alone, the beauty of the place is a bonus.
7. Chobe National Park
Chobe National Park is located in North-East Botswana, near the Zambian and Zimbabwe borders. It has a large river running through it which always has water, even in the dry season. This makes it a great place to get out on a boat to spot hippos and elephants, and maybe even some rare wild dogs if you are very fortunate.
Going out on the river is indeed what most people do, as it’s nice to get a different perspective from being on the water, rather than looking from a vehicle on land. Having said that, a vehicle safari is still fun, although the area away from the river is a lot more forested, making it harder to see some animals, like in every destination with forest.
Safaris to Chobe are easily organised from within Botswana, and even across the border in Zambia at Livingstone. Livingstone is the town next to Victoria Falls, which is very popular with tourists, and so many of them arrange day trips from there. In fact if you are in Chobe then you should definitely do the reverse, and have at least a day trip to see the impressive Victoria Falls.
Advice Before Going On A safari
What To Wear
Some people seem to think they have to get proper clothing for a safari, but the reality is you don’t need to worry. Clothing can be expensive, so you want to avoid buying new stuff. You can easily just show up in the clothes you have and go on safari, simple as that.
It’s best to try and wear the darker coloured clothes that you have, as animals could be alarmed at very bright colours, especially red. You don’t need all green and khaki clothes though. If your entire collection off clothes only consists of bright red colours, I would first question your fashion taste, and second suggest at that point buying a cheap green t-shirt, just in case.
Take a sunhat with you to protect your head from the fierce African sun. I just wear a baseball cap myself, with sun lotion for the neck, but those who burn easily may want to get a wide brimmed sunhat.
For shoes don’t bother with heavy and sweaty boots, just wear running trainers, much more comfortable. You could even just wear sandals or flip-flops, as you will often be standing up on the seats in the vehicle to view the wildlife. The only time you may want boots to protect your feet, is if you were to spend weeks and weeks walking through the bush. But for most people on safari, that won’t be the case.
Equipment To Bring
Bringing a pair of binoculars is a good idea. If you don’t do many safaris then a cheap pair will be fine, but invest in a decent pair of binoculars if you think you will do a lot of wildlife watching in the future. $100 can get you a decent enough pair for those on a budget.
The drivers that take you on safari will normally have a pair of binoculars with them, but it’s best they keep that for themselves to help spot the wildlife for you. Your fellow passengers may have some binoculars, but it could get messy with just one pair to share!
You will want to have a camera with a good zoom lens, as the animals will often be far away. Most compact cameras have a good zoom lens these days, and if you have a dslr there will be options for tele-photo lenses. If you are a long term traveller not planning on many wildlife experiences, then lugging around a huge tele-photo lens is just not worth it. Instead of the large tele-photo lens, get a cheaper compact camera with a good zoom as a backup for those moments, unless you really want the best photos you can get.
I personally use a Sony Alpha a7II This is the perfect travel camera, as it’s not to be big and heavy, and the zoom lenses are quite lightweight in comparison to a bulky and heavy dslr’s lenses, while still allowing for good image quality.
Get Into The Wilds Of Africa.
So I hope this article was interesting enough for you, and my passion for Africa and its wildlife came through in my words. Maybe someday you will get to experience a thrilling African safari for yourself, you will never regret it. Unless you end up eaten by a lion off course!
Really good book on African safaris – Fodor’s The Complete Guide to African Safaris: with South Africa, Kenya, Tanzania, Botswana, Namibia, Rwanda & the Seychelles (Full-color Travel Guide)
Seriously fun book to read – Whatever You Do, Don’t Run: True Tales Of A Botswana Safari Guide
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