East African Safari vs Southern African Safari

Africa

African lion couple and safari jeep in Kenya

Want to experience an African safari? There are many choices when it comes to location, and none will disappoint. 

Having travelled to both East Africa and Southern Africa, I have enjoyed safaris in both regions of this amazing continent. I have been asked which region I enjoyed more. The simple answer is both, for different reasons, which I will try to enumerate on in this article.

First of all, let’s consider the major destinations involved. In East Africa, my experience is on both a Kenya safari and a Tanzania safari. In Southern Africa, it is South Africa and Botswana. Next, let’s consider the animal life available for viewing on an African safari. My research tells me that there are over 1100 different species of animals, including reptiles and over 2600 species of birds. That should be enough for everyone.

Animals and Game Viewing

We all want to see the Big five – the lion, the leopard, the rhino, the elephant and the Cape buffalo. These are found in both the east and the south. In statistical terms, Tanzania has the largest quantity of game animals. One of the biggest concentrations of animals is in the Ngorongoro Crater, which is a wonderful game reserve. However, before heading off there, there are several other reasons to consider where to conduct your game viewing. For example, Lake Nakuru in Kenya is home to thousands of pink flamingos and Botswana has the largest amount of elephants.

Zebras, Wildebeest and Jeep in Ngorongoro Crater, Tanzania
Safari jeep in the midst of zebra and wildebeest, Ngorongoro Crater, Tanzania

Let’s now consider how game viewing works. In Southern Africa, you will stay at a lodge or camp and it will be the organizer of your African safari. They will provide the vehicles and the guides who work for the lodge or camp. You will do your viewing within a certain radius of your accommodation and the territory will be known by the guide like the back of his or her hand. The game drives will be in the early morning and the late afternoon, avoiding the hot parts of the day. There will be night game drives when you get to see the nocturnal activities of the animals. One lodge or camp should satisfy the most avid of safari visitors on a Southern Africa vacation. In the evening, you will probably spend time recapping the day with both your fellow travellers and your guide. If you are staying at a private lodge or camp, you will have the opportunity to enjoy a “Sundowner.” This experience happens towards the end of the afternoon drive when your guide will find a safe spot in the bush and set up a bar with a selection of drinks to be consumed while watching the sun set over this magical land.

Kariega Private Game Reserve - sundowners on game drive
Sundowners on a game drive, Kariega Private Game Reserve, South Africa

In East Africa, it is usual to stay at several lodges or camps in order to obtain the true safari experience. A couple of nights at a selection of game parks is the usual way to enjoy an East African safari. This means you will be travelling for several hours getting from one park to the next. Each game park exists in a designated area. The game drives will not be organized by the lodge/camp but by a local tour operator. There is nothing wrong with this – just pointing out the differences in organization. The safari itself could take up most of the day, again, just a different approach.

The vehicles used in Southern Africa are open-sided land cruisers and sometimes, there are only a few feet between you and the wildlife (up close and personal). In East Africa, the vehicles are land cruisers which are usually fully enclosed, but open vehicles are also used especially on fly-in safaris. Another difference, and this was just my impression, the terrain in Southern Africa appeared to be denser in vegetation, while in East Africa, the terrain was more open plain. The latter could be more suitable for observing herds of animals but the bush can reveal all kinds of animals who are perhaps resting or avoiding the sun. Don’t worry about that. Your guide will seek them out. Now we come to a big difference. The game parks in Southern Africa are fenced, meaning the animals can’t stray outside. Don’t get the impression that you are restricted to a small area. These game parks in most cases are quite vast. In East Africa, animals are free to roam wherever they like and are constantly on the move. This means you don’t know what you are going to see exactly. However, remember there are great quantities of animals in this region.

Leopard Crossing Road with Tourists in Jeep, Kruger National Park
Leopard crossing road with tourists in jeep close by, Kruger National Park, South Africa

In Southern Africa, all wildlife reserves and game parks have strict rules on the number of safari vehicles that can view a particular animal or group of animals at once – generally no more than three. This is easy to enforce because all vehicles belong to lodges within the reserve and all lodges must follow reserve rules. The guides communicate over two-way radio to ensure that these rules are adhered to. On an East Africa safari, however, there is no limit to the number of jeeps at any particular sighting, so it could be that you will encounter a whole bunch of vehicles looking at, say, a pride of lions.

Tourists in safari jeeps with big wild elephant crossing dirt road in Amboseli National Park, Kenya
Tourists in safari jeeps with big wild elephant crossing dirt road in Amboseli National Park, Kenya

What About the Weather?

Southern Africa has a more varied climate with a range of seasons. This means that the terrain is usually much more lush and varied compared to East Africa which has two seasons, dry and wet. It is more arid and barren in places. April and May have the heaviest rainfall and a second, “less” wet season occurs in October and November. The dry season from June to September is the time when animals are more easily spotted. That said, I have experienced a safari in East Africa during the wet season and was definitely not disappointed. One incident I experienced at the time was when our vehicle got stuck in the mud and all the male members in the vehicle had to get out and help push it clear. In the far distance, we could see what looked like a group of lions. We queried whether it was a good idea to leave the vehicle and were told we had a choice, push the vehicle or stay stuck here. We opted to push and tell the story when we returned home! One other point about the seasons… a Kenya or Tanzania vacation usually comes with reduced prices during the wet season. In Southern Africa, the dry season is between May and August. Bear in mind, the seasons are in reverse of ours in the Northern Hemisphere. One consideration as to when to visit Kenya and Tanzania is if you want to experience the Great Migration. This is when over a million wildebeest, as well as large numbers of zebra and gazelle move in a clockwise direction looking for water and vegetation. It covers the Serengeti in Tanzania and the Masai Mara in Kenya. The distance altogether is 2900 kilometres/1800 miles in circumference. The animals move from Masai Mara every October and November to Serengeti and return between April and June.

Zebra and wildebeest herds during migration in Serengeti National Park, Tanzania
Zebra and wildebeest herds during migration in Serengeti National Park, Tanzania

Non-Safari Destinations

Another consideration is what destinations to combine with your African safari. In Southern Africa, a safari can easily be combined with non-safari destinations including places like Cape Town in South Africa or Victoria Falls in Zambia and Zimbabwe. In East Africa, there are several excellent beach resorts on the Indian Ocean such as Mombasa and Malindi in Kenya or Zanzibar in Tanzania.

Wooden Boat on Turquoise Water, Zanzibar, Tanzania
Turquoise waters and white sand beaches in Zanzibar, Tanzania

So, there is no real definitive answer to the question East versus Southern on African safaris. It is a personal choice. I would be happy to return to either any time.