Africa is one of the best places in the world to see nature at its best, and safaris in East Africa is the ultimate destination for a wildlife experience like no other.
Being out in the wild African savannah and forest, observing and listening to the animals, you will never forget it.
The word ‘safari’ is Swahili and means a journey.
I have travelled overland from Ethiopia to South Africa two times and went on numerous safaris (around 30), as I 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 with advice to share my passion for African wildlife and the safari experience overall.
Not all safari destinations are covered here as most people going for a safari in East Africa will only go on a few, so these are just some of the best ones (in my opinion) that you can do.
If you’re just interested in what to pack for a safari, then jump halfway down the post for a guide on safari packing essentials.
Map of East Africa
Safaris In East Africa
1. The Serengeti National Park
The word Serengeti conjures up images of vast African savannah. Situated in North Tanzania covering a huge area, visiting the Serengeti National Park it is the quintessential safari experience.
In fact I would say it’s the best African safari you can do. Even possibly the best safari in the world.
Definitely the best safari in East Africa (along with the neighbouring Masai Mara in Kenya).
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.
Easily the best Tanzanian safari and one of the best safaris in East Africa.
Backpacking in Tanzania is one of the best countries in Africa for it.
Guide for the region:
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.
Of 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 including everything, but now minivans are no longer used, so the price has 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 but just make sure you have a group to do so.
Otherwise if you just want to head out straight on a Masai Mara safari in Kenya then you can book a Masai Mara safari here.
The Masai Mara is the best safari in Kenya.
A combination of a Kenya and Tanzania safari is unbeatable going on safaris in East Africa. Or Africa as a whole for that matter.
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 in one of South Luangwa National Parks lodges on the side of the river which is the natural border to the park, you can see hippos lounging around during the day, and listen to them feed on grass around the camp at night.
The hippos 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 not far away from your exposed limbs at night while out hunting is something you will never forget.
The best way to stay in South Luangwa on a budget is to bring your own tent for camping, 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 around $40 with a $30 park entrance fee.
It’s one of the more affordable African Safari options you can do as you’re not paying to be out all the time.
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.
Good guidebook for the area:
4. Ngorongoro Conservation Area
The Ngorongoro conservation Area 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’s 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 when out on a safari in East Africa (or anywhere for that matter)!
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.
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 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 near the Zambian border with Botswana.
I included it here as many people visiting South Luangwa National Park will most likely end up at Victoria Falls at some point in Zambia, as it’s one of Zambia’s main attractions.
As such Chobe can be done as a day safari from there. And it’s fun!
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.
If you are in Livingstone and want to do a day trip safari from there you can book a Chobe safari here.
8. The Okavango Delta
The Okavango Delta is a massive delta (hence the name) filled with waterways in the north of Botswana.
Ok, technically Botswana isn’t in East Africa but the Okavango Delta is such a unique place, and close enough to Zambia (in East Africa), that it’s on the list.
Think of it as a bonus destination.
It can be seen from a vehicle, a local canoe called the mokoro, by speedboat, or from the air.
Going by air gives you a the experience of flying in a small propellor plane for an ‘aerial safari’.
From the plane you obviously won’t be able to see the large cats or any of the smaller animals, but large herds of elephants are easily spotted.
Otherwise for a more up close encounter with wildlife in the Okavango Delta take one of the mokoro canoes with a local guide into the waterways.
Just drifting along in the canoe is peaceful by itself, keeping an eye on the water banks for wildlife.
On shore later on you can camp in the bush overnight and go on walking safaris. It’s one of the best places to experience being in the wilds of Africa.
Getting to the Okavango Delta is done from the main jumping off point in the town of Maun.
Maun can be reached from Chobe National Park area reasonably easy.
Use the same guide mentioned for Chobe to help plan a trip there.
Advice For A Safari in East Africa
What To Bring on Safari
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 if you can help it.
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 the 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 at least buying a green t-shirt.
Definitely take a sunhat with you to protect your head from the fierce African sun.
I just wear a baseball cap myself and put sun lotion on my the neck, but those who burn easily should 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 go on walking safaris a lot or were to spend weeks and weeks out in the bush.
But for most people on safari that won’t be the case.
Bringing a pair of binoculars is a very good idea.
$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.
Safari Packing List
Going into more detail for a safari packing list.
These items are all you will need for a safari in Kenya, Tanzania, Zambia, and Botswana, and any other safari destinations in Africa you may do.
Use existing items where you can, otherwise you can purchase them on Amazon through the links included here (affiliate) if necessary, or your local outdoor shop.
These are just suggestions and most of the items I have used myself.
The Tilley Endurables range of wide brimmed cotton hats are some of the best you can get for the outdoors.
It makes for the perfect hat for a safari in East Africa (or anywhere hot and sunny for that matter).
Otherwise like myself take a sun cap like the Outdoor Research one, and use strong 50 strength sun lotion on any exposed skin.
Whatever you do make sure you have head protection with you.
It’s very important to protect from the strong African sun.
These are some good African Safari clothing tips.
Just take a regular t-shirt, or shirt for wearing, as long as it’s neutral coloured (no bright colours as mentioned before).
In the evenings and early morning when you will mostly be on safari it can be cool, so bring a lightweight fleece with you like the north face one.
Or take an excellent outdoor wool shirt like the swanndri for the ultimate outdoor shirt, warm and durable.
You need to feel comfortable on safari as you will be sitting and standing a lot. Again wear neutral coloured trousers/shorts.
Fjallraven are a Swedish brand that make some of the best outdoor clothing in the world.
Their Vidda trousers and Abisko shorts are extremely durable for being outdoors and have mosquito resistant fabric.
Otherwise whatever comfortable lightweight trousers you have already will do.
The Brooks shorts are just an example for wearing light running shorts for around camp and into your sleeping bag at night.
Karrimor are an excellent brand that make rugged outdoor gear.
The Predator 30 backpack is an ideal one for an African safari. Durable and strong fabric will protect from the rough bush.
30 litres will be enough space to carry the clothes you need and accessories.
I used a Karrimor Sabre 35 backpack for my journey through Africa, but would most likely get the Predator 30 for the next trip.
Take a backpack for the ease of carrying.
Wheeled cases have no place in the African bush!
Which binoculars to take on safari? Too many choices! This just gives you an idea.
As mentioned before the guides normally have binoculars with them to spot wildlife for you.
But it’s much, much better that you bring your own binoculars for a safari to allow the guides to keep a constant lookout for the animals.
You seriously need binoculars to get the best out of an East Africa safari as many times the animals will be further away to see.
I have the Bushnell ones listed here and they are a good budget choice, averaging around $100.
The Nikon ones are more expensive (around $300) but definitely worth it from the reviews for its excellent optics (Nikon being a camera manufacturer), and getting a good pair for life.
These are two good models I recommend to take, but if you want more of an idea on what binoculars to take on safari then have a look at this post from on binocular reviews.
This is to give you a rough idea of the kind of footwear to bring on a safari in East Africa.
The boots are an example of the kind of rough boots suitable for long periods of walking out in the African bush to protect from thorns, etc.
Flip flops are perfect for inside the safari vehicle and just lounging around camp. Any will do but I personally love Teva flip flops.
But for most people using a pair of trainers/running shoes that you have at home already, or buy before going, will do.
The inov8 ones here are just an example. I use inov8 (u.k. brand) for my journeys.
Darn tough are very durable socks with a lifetime warranty. Enough said.
On any safari water is included in the package cost. However it’s all generally in plastic bottles.
There is way too much plastic polluting the world as it is, so to help counter my own impact on plastic waste, whenever I travel I purify local water as much as possible.
The Steripen is a uv pen that you put in water for around one minute and the uv light kills any bacteria in the water.
The initial cost is high (around $80) but if you get many years of use from it it pays for itself in the money saved from having to buy water in bottles.
It also helps the environment.
A cheaper option is the Sawyer mini water filtration system (around $25). This attaches to an included water pouch and you squeeze the water through it into another bottle.
Take a 38 oz (1 litre) water bottle to hold the water in. Nalgene are well know for their water bottles and the stainless steel one mentioned here is the one I use.
Being out on safari in East Africa you will want some protection for any exposed skin from mosquito/insect bites.
The repellant mentioned here is just a recommendation but in general any repellant with DEET in it will do from any outdoor shop.
If you don’t like the idea of chemical in the repellant (DEET) then you can use more natural repellants for a safari that may include eucalyptus oil or others.
Be aware though the protection will not last as long, or may be less effective, then the DEET one.
Next is an excellent outdoor knife.
In reality you don’t really need a knife if you’re doing these package safaris, as they have cookware with them, and you’re not going to be out in survival situations.
However there’s just something comforting about having a decent outdoor knife with you in the bush of Africa when on safari.
The one I absolutely love and have used for over a decade is the Morakniv companion.
It’s cheap (around $20) but very good quality for the price, and used by outdoor experts around the world as a beginner knife for learners.
Don’t spend loads on an expensive knife that wouldn’t get used much, just get this one. It’s awesome!
As for toiletries for a safari just bring what you would normally use, as in toothbrush, toothpaste, soap, etc.
But having a useful hand washing pocket gel with you is good to keep your hands clean at all times before eating, as you can just keep it in your pocket.
Resources For More Safari Planning
Be sure to take travel insurance just in case something goes wrong. I had a medical emergency on one of my adventures and travel insurance saved me thousands of dollars in medical expenses.
I use World Nomads and find they are excellent. Get a quote:
These are some really good books for helping plan your safaris more, or just for some fun safari reading.
The Fodor’s guide has lots of good information on safaris, and whatever you do don’t run is a hilarious book from a safari guide about some of his more humorous experiences on safari.
While you won’t need bushcraft skills as you will be with a safari guide, it’s always fun to have a read about bushcraft skills when out in the bush.
You always learn something, and who knows maybe you can give some bush skills a try.
Ray Mears is one of my outdoor heroes. He’s a long established expert in outdoor survival and bushcraft techniques.
He has done many TV shows about outdoor experiences, and two excellent ones for being in the African bush on safari is: Bushcraft Season 1 E04 Africa Camp and E05 Africa Safari.
There’s loads more on African experiences as well, so if you can find any of his stuff online then it’s definitely worth a watch.
Safaris in East 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 safari in East Africa for yourself, you will never regret it.
Unless you end up eaten by a lion of course!
A video summing up the best safaris in East Africa:
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