East Africa vs. Southern Africa: Where to go on Safari
We often get asked about where to go on safari, and whether you end up visiting Southern Africa or East Africa depends largely on what you’re after.
East Africa, which encompasses Kenya, Tanzania and Rwanda, is famed for its incredible native tribes and impressive wildlife encounters such as the Great Migration and the Mountain Gorillas.
Southern Africa includes Botswana, South Africa, Zambia, Zimbabwe, Namibia and Mozambique. Safari experiences across Southern Africa are varied, from Botswana’s lush Okavango Delta to the plains of South Africa. The region also offers a lot beyond safaris, from world wonder Victoria Falls on the Zambia-Zimbabwe border to Mozambique’s pristine beaches.
Whatever you're after, the safari experiences on offer in both Southern and East Africa are truly inspirational.
Safaris, landscapes and animals
East Africa safaris
Most notable about safaris in East Africa are the high density of animals you find out on the plains. This isn’t limited to just the Great Migration; in Kenya and Tanzania, you’ll often come across huge herds of animals while on safari.
While in East Africa, you can always head to the jungle in Rwanda or Uganda to hike in search of the mountain gorillas. Seeing them up close and personal is an unbelievable experience and a real privilege – there are only about 800 left on the planet, so your being there helps funds efforts to protect them. It’s also a different way to see animals in Africa: you have to hike through the jungle to get to them – it’s a far cry from spending the day in a safari car, but it’s well worth the effort.
The Great Wildebeest Migration is also a primary reason travellers go on safari in Kenya’s Maasai Mara and Tanzania’s Serengeti Park. Every year over two million wildebeest, along with zebras and antelopes, follow a migratory pattern (crossing between the parks some time between July and September) in what is the largest overland migration on earth. It’s thought to be one of the most incredible spectacles in the natural world.
Southern Africa safaris
The landscape in Southern Africa is extremely varied, from the plains of South Africa to the Okavango Delta of Botswana to the deserts of Namibia. Because of this, the types of safari you can do are varied – from exciting game drives to long, leisurely sunset boat rides to educational walking safaris. No two safari parks or game reserves are the same, and you could spend a lifetime exploring what each of them has to offer.
Animals tend to be found in smaller herds, and there is lots of variety – in one day, you can easily see the Big Five as well as more obscure species. Mozambique also boasts a unique opportunity to view marine life, with its surrounding waters providing opportunities to dive with dolphins, whale sharks and many more.
Activities and culture
Culture and activities in southern Africa
Possibly Southern Africa’s most enticing draw, Victoria Falls is locally known as Mosi-oa-Tunya, meaning the smoke that thunders. The aptly named Falls don’t disappoint, with the cascading waters constituting one of the Natural Seven Wonders of the World. Visit between March and May to see the Falls at their most impressive, when the water is at its highest, as Zambia and Zimbabwe’s rainy seasons ensure that waters are plentiful. For the opportunity to witness a spectacular lunar rainbow over the Falls, be sure to visit between April and July, when there is sufficient spray to create the natural phenomenon during the early hours.
South Africa itself benefits from a range of different activities on offer, from historic cities such as Cape Town to the beautiful Winelands. In Cape Town, scale Table Mountain for spectacular city views or enjoy a scenic drive to the rugged Chapman’s Peak for views out on to the ocean. In the Winelands, you can explore a range of vineyards and peruse the picturesque towns and villages that many original Dutch settlers made home.
Beyond game viewing, there are also opportunities to responsibly interact with wildlife in Southern Africa, with Stanley’s Camp on the Okavango Delta hosting elephant walking tours in Botswana. In Zambia, walking safaris across the South Luangwa National Park boast unrivalled opportunities to see the Big Five. Mozambique’s beaches too deserve a special mention, as its hundreds of miles of unspoilt coastline create an authentic picture postcard retreat.
There are generally fewer cultural experiences in Southern Africa than in East Africa but this has little bearing on where to go on safari, as you can still discover some fascinating tribal customs if you look hard enough. At the end of April in Zambia, the Lozi people celebrate the traditional Kuomboka Festival. As it’s the end of the rainy season, the Zambezi flooding the plains marks the move of the Lozi king from floodplain to higher ground. If you visit during this time, you might hear the sound of royal Maoma drums echoing through the atmosphere the day before the festival. A walk with the San bushmen in Botswana is also a great way to get an authentic glimpse into local life, with the opportunity to hear how this native group have lived in harmony with their natural environment for at least 20,000 years.
The Kalahari Bushmen are Botswana’s native hunter-gatherers, traditionally relying heavily on game in the Central Kalahari Game Reserve. Combined with the central Kalahari’s magnificent salt pans, listening to the bushmen’s stories and rituals – including how they use Botswana’s plants for food and healing – makes for a fascinating experience.
Culture and activities in East Africa
Activities in East Africa are mainly centred around wildlife, with plenty of opportunities to witness the Great Wildebeest Migration and spot the Big Five. Of course, there is also Tanzania’s great Mount Kilimanjaro, Africa’s highest peak and a great draw for adventurous types. Kenya and Tanzania in particular also lend themselves particularly well to landscape photography, with wide open plains in the Serengeti and majestic views of Kilimanjaro from Kenya’s Amboseli National Park. Great Plains camps across Kenya and Tanzania offer professional camera equipment for guests to use during their stay, meaning East Africa may be advantageous if you’re a budding landscape photographer wondering where to go on safari.
Along with wildlife, East Africa has a wealth of cultural experiences to offer. With Kenya being home to more than 40 native ethnic groups, you can get up close and personal with the Maasai tribe in southern Kenya or the Samburu in the north. In Kenya’s Maasai Mara, the Maasai’s distinctive red shawls are a common sight. At many properties across the region, local guides often come from these tribes, which also serves to support the local economy while giving you an authentic Kenyan experience.
Lodges in southern Africa
From close encounters with elusive wildlife in South Africa’s Sabi Sands Game Reserve to stargazing on Botswana’s Makgadikgadi Pans, Southern Africa’s lodges have a wealth of unique experiences to offer.
At Sabi Sands, photography enthusiasts can spend time capturing images of the sought-after Big Five. Popular amongst families, Kruger National Park’s Ngala Safari Lodge provides activities tailored for children and comes complete with spacious family suites. Families considering where to go on safari should head to Madikwe Game Reserve, as it’s malaria-free.
One of the primary tourist draws in Southern Africa is the impressive Victoria Falls. Combine wildlife watching along the Zambezi at the Royal Chundu River Lodge with the unique African experience of dining outside at a traditional boma for a relaxing way to experience the Falls. If you’re honeymooning, one of the most romantic places to stay in the area is welcoming Tongabezi.
Travel back in time with a stay at Botswana’s legendary Jack’s Camp, where you can stargaze over the expansive salt pans of Makgadikgadi, with no interruption from social media. If wildlife is more your thing, experience your own private game drive from the Kalahari Plains Camp, during which you might spot everything from cheetah to gemsbok. A walk with the local San bushmen is also a great way to get an authentic glimpse into local life.
Lodges in East Africa
In Kenya, staying at The Safari Collection’s luxurious properties is a great way to bridge the gap between an exclusive escape and an authentic experience. In the Samburu region, Sasaab Lodge offers relaxation in the form of its own Spa Saab, as well as unique insights into the lives of local families.
Perhaps East Africa’s most enticing draw, The Great Wildebeest Migration can be witnessed from northern Tanzania’s Singita Mara Camp. That it’s an environmentally conscious, off-the-grid camp with year-round opportunities for wildlife spotting makes Singita one of the most feel-good places to stay in East Africa.
Tracking the endangered Mountain Gorillas and Golden Monkeys in Rwanda’s spectacular Volcanoes National Park is another bucket-list experience in East Africa. Set amongst an eroded volcanic cone, Bisate Lodge’s six forest villas provide panoramic views across rolling hills and guided village walks amongst the local community.
When should I visit?
The best time to visit southern Africa
Weather is often an important factor to consider when you’re wondering where to go on safari. For the most predictable weather in South Africa, aim to visit between April and May or September and October, as the whole country sees moderate temperatures during these periods. May to October is a particularly good time of year for safaris in Kruger National Park and Sabi Sands Game Reserve, as lower grasses and great visibility increase opportunities for wildlife sightings. However, newborn animals often abound in the wetter summer months, when watering holes also become fuller.
Although Botswana is a great destination to visit for safari year-round, July and October are the best months for avoiding the crowds. The best weather is between April to May, as temperatures are neither extremely hot (October to November) nor particularly wet (January to February). Low season is between December and April, so be aware that some camps close down during this period.
Zimbabwe’s Victoria Falls reach their peak in April or May, with the dry winter season running from April to October. This time of the year is great for game viewing, as higher visibility means it’s easier to spot animals gathering at waterholes. Make sure you pack warm clothing, though, as nights between June and August are cool. Hwange National Park is also a must visit for seeing large groups of elephants in September and October. Unless watersports are your thing, then rainy season in Zimbabwe (November to March) is best avoided as the wet weather makes park trails and roads difficult to navigate.
Neighbouring Zambia follows a similar pattern to Zimbabwe, with the dry season running from May to November and the wet season falling between December and April. The Zambian side of Victoria Falls is best viewed from March to May, as the end of the rainy season means the Falls’ water volume is plentiful. Although parks are also generally quieter during rainy season, some do close during this period so bear that in mind when planning your trip. May to October is the best time for game viewing and wildlife photography, as the dry season means the vegetation is far less dense.
A landscape photographer’s paradise, Namibia provides ample opportunities for wildlife viewing during the dry winter months (May to September). A lack of rain means that it’s much easier to see animals congregating at waterholes. If you’d rather enjoy a less crowded feel and don’t mind your wildlife spotting being slightly sporadic, aim to visit between December and April. As south Namibia sees very little rain, landscape photographers can find inspiration here year-round.
Mozambique is renowned for its expansive beaches, which are best enjoyed from May to October. Cyclone season lasts from January to February, and the torrential downpours can make it difficult to travel during this time. A great diving destination, Mozambique’s surrounding waters – home to over 1200 species of fish – are at their most interesting from May to September.
The best time to visit East Africa
Weather varies throughout the year in Kenya and the best time to visit depends largely on your reasons for visiting. As the bush is less dense from June to October, you’ll have your greatest shot at seeing the Big Five. For the highest chance of catching the breathtaking Great Wildebeest Migration across the Maasai Mara, July to September is the best time to visit.
You can witness the Great Migration from Tanzania’s Serengeti most likely in June and July. Parks such as Serenora in the Serengeti and the Ngorongoro Crater can feel overrun during the dry season (late June to late October) but it’s the best time of year to visit parks in the south or west. Birdwatching enthusiasts can take full advantage of the wet season from November to February, when vegetation becomes increasingly lush. Although general game spotting may be challenging during the wet season, it’s still a good time to spot animals gathering at watering holes and rivers.
The weather is variable in Rwanda, as the country has two dry seasons and two wet seasons. Understandably, Rwanda’s opportunities for gorilla trekking is what entices travellers. The dry season that runs between mid-December to early February is ideal for this, because the forest terrain is not as treacherous as it tends to be during the wetter months. Drier temperatures also mean a low risk of contracting malaria. However, because it is an equatorial climate the weather is never predictable, so it’s wise to pack waterproofs year-round.
Conservation efforts in Southern Africa
With rhino poaching in South Africa at an all-time high, Great Plains Conservation formed Rhinos Without Borders in collaboration with andBeyond. The aim of the project is to relocate 100 rhinos from poaching hotspots to the relatively safe environment of neighbouring Botswana. The whole project requires a budget of USD 4.5 million, as well as continuing support from both the travel industry and individuals. Jacada is doing our bit to help fund the project with donations from some of the profits of our trips to Africa.
Community development is also a priority for South Africa, with non-profits such as UTHANDO aiming to improve the lives of those residing in impoverished townships in Cape Town. Most recently, Jacada helped to fund the establishment of the new Isiseko Education Centre – a day-care centre – in the township of Mfuleni.
Conservation efforts in East Africa
With only 800 mountain gorillas still left in the wild, protecting East Africa’s endangered gorilla species is more important than ever. As primates are highly susceptible to human diseases, Jacada is raising awareness about the importance of wearing a surgical face mask when interacting with these animals. By masking up for gorillas, travellers can put a stop to gorillas dying, as their deaths are often attributed to something as simple as a common cold.
In Kenya, the Mara Conservancies ensure that the Maasai tribe directly benefits from increasing levels of tourism. In a typical conservancy, land is leased from the Maasai and funds generated by tourism are fed back into the local community, protecting the ecosystem and supporting the local economy.