So you want to go on Safari: East versus Southern Africa

Posted by on June 21st, 2021

For many, the thought of an African safari evokes powerful images: an elephant silhouetted against the orange glow of a sunset, a lion with his mane softly blowing with the grasses of the Serengeti, or the dramatic river crossings of the Great Migration. You know you want to go to Africa for these iconic experiences, but with so much to see, deciding where to focus for your first trip to this massive and varied continent can be tricky.

A family of elephants in Tarangire National park, Tanzania

The two main regions for a safari are East and Southern Africa, and each offers a distinct experience. For most travelers considering a first or even a second trip to the continent, the countries of interest in East Africa are Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda, and Rwanda. In Southern Africa, you would most likely consider South Africa, Botswana, Zambia, Zimbabwe, and Namibia. There are, of course, also some unique outliers to consider, when designing a trip that looks beyond a safari. Click here to view a few of the options.

There are several key factors to consider when choosing the perfect safari location. Your Vaya Specialist will guide you through every detail related to your specific passions and interests, but in the meantime, here are some of the main differences.

Lodge-Based versus Operator-Based Safaris

Kichwa Tembo_safari

Kichwa Tembo safari

This is truly one of the biggest and most important differences between the two regions. In Southern Africa, all your safari game drives are organized by the lodge or camp where you are staying. This generally means you fly in to the lodge, whether that be on a commercial flight or a smaller safari bush plane. When you arrive, you will meet your expert safari guide and tracker, who are based at that lodge and know the surrounding area intimately. This team will be responsible for your morning and afternoon game drives in and around the reserve on which that lodge sits, for the duration of your stay.

In East Africa you are typically on the move in a different way, traveling from one national park to the next with a dedicated vehicle and expert guide who will make that journey with you. When you arrive at a lodge, you can enjoy all the amenities, and live out the safari experience, but you have your own vehicle and guide that you arrived with, and who will coordinate your game drives. In this scenario, you can have the lodge pack you a lunch and be out all day. All this being said, you can also fly into lodges in East Africa and have a similar experience to Southern Africa, where you are hosted during your stay by excellent guides and open vehicles who are based at that specific lodge.


Lemala Kuria Hills_safari vehicle

Lemala Kuria Hills safari vehicle

The highlight of any safari is viewing the incredible wildlife, and to do that you need transport. While both regions have custom-built safari vehicles for the ultimate game viewing experience, they are quite different in appearance. In East Africa, because you travel from park to park, you will often be on regular roads. These in-between journeys offer a powerful snapshot of local life as you pass colorful markets, local villages, and tribes, and are sometimes the best part of the trip, but they also mean that you need a vehicle that can handle any type of travel. In East Africa, safari vehicles are designed for comfort on any road. With large, oversized windows, and a top that pops up and off, you will feel like you are right there with the animals, but when closed, safe enough to travel anywhere. East African vehicles can hold 6 people, each in their own comfortable captain’s chair, with an aisle down the center of the car. A small fridge is often found between the two back seats and holds refreshments to enjoy along the road. Clever storage for water bottles, binoculars, maps or bird books are in each seatback, with charging ports located throughout the vehicle to make sure you never miss a photographic moment due to low battery. As mentioned, this vehicle is with you the whole way and is just for you and your travel companions.

In Southern Africa, with vehicles and guides being based at specific lodges, it allows for a very different style. Here you will find safari vehicles that are completely open and have no doors, windows, or roofs. They are often designed to be tiered, like stadium seating, with the last row being the highest (and the bumpiest!). At some lodges these can hold up to 12 people, so make sure to ask if this is the case – ideally you want no more than 6 people so everyone gets a “window” seat. Any good luxury lodge or operator wouldn’t dream of more than that, and many offer safaris with just 4 passengers. At many lodges, the vehicle does come with an optional sun/shade cover that can be attached, which is often key for a day in the African sun, even though game drives are early morning and later afternoon. (See a typical day on safari by clicking here.) If you do fly into a lodge or safari location in East Africa, you will find safari vehicles very similar to those in Southern Africa.

No matter where you are, both types of vehicles are designed for the best possible game viewing – it is just nice to know the differences as you consider your potential destinations.


A pride of lions drinking at a watering hole

Although both areas of the continent offer an abundance of iconic wildlife, there are some important differences to note. For many people, the Great Migration is synonymous with an African Safari. This natural phenomenon consists of millions of zebra and wildebeest completing an annual journey around the Serengeti-Maasai Mara ecosystem. Depending on the time of year, you would have the best chance to witness this migration in either Kenya or Tanzania. You can read more about the migration here. While certain areas or reserves are known for their sightings of a specific animal (for example, leopards in Sabi Sands, South Africa), you are never guaranteed a sighting regardless of where you choose to travel. The thrill of the search and discovery is truly what safari is all about. The vast national parks of East Africa are known for their density of wildlife, but it is spread out over a much larger area than some of the smaller private reserves and concessions you may find further south.

The world’s last remaining mountain gorillas live in the tropical forests that cover a small corner of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Rwanda, and Uganda, so if an encounter with these magnificent creatures is on your list, then plan to spend some time in East Africa. There are very easy safari flight connections that can get you to the gorillas from a more traditional, savannah-focused safari in either Kenya or Tanzania.

Gorilla in Uganda

While wildlife tends to be the focus of a trip to East Africa, cosmopolitan cities like Cape Town should not be forgotten. On a trip down the Cape Point peninsula, you will have plenty of opportunities for wildlife encounters: Baboons, ostrich, zebra, eland, and other creatures are all found here, but the real stars are colonies of adorable African Penguins, a must-see on any visit. In the surrounding waters, a variety of whales can be seen from both land and water, you can snorkel with the seals or dive with sharks along this stunning coastline. Click here to see 10 reasons to visit Cape Town.

National Parks versus Private Reserves

Maasai Giraffes (giraffa tippelskirchi) and an Acacia tree on the Selous Game Reserve, Tanzania

Although Kruger National Park in South Africa is one of the most famous in the world, very few tour operators will use lodges that are based in the park itself, preferring the more exclusive private reserves instead. There are many private reserves and almost all are unfenced and adjacent to the Kruger itself, meaning wildlife can roam freely. What this means for your trip is that the land you drive on for your game viewing activities is not open to anyone not staying at that lodge, or on that reserve. While it may be a smaller piece of land to explore, you will never see more than one other vehicle at a sighting, giving your safari a more private feel. In some national parks, particularly at the height of the Great Migration river crossings, you will see lots of other vehicles all vying for the best spot, and it is up to your expert guide to curate the best experience in these cases.

Private concessions exist in both East and Southern Africa but are more commonly used in the South. When on safari on privately managed land, you have a few bonuses. You can off-road, bushwhacking with the vehicle to follow an animal if your guide deems it environmentally appropriate for the area. You are not tied to any park rules of how early or late you can drive, meaning you often have access to a night drive in search of nocturnal creatures.

National Parks are often vast, allowing for more areas to explore and potentially more wildlife to see. There are many parts of the Serengeti or the Maasai Mara where you will rarely see another vehicle on a full day out. For some of the more off-the-beaten-path parks in Zambia or Zimbabwe, this is almost always the case, as these remote landscapes are not on the regular safari radar.

Your Vaya specialist is happy to walk you through all the details of choosing the best lodges in the best location.

Landscape and Activities

Ngorongoro Crater Conservation Area, Tanzania

Africa is a huge continent with myriad landscapes and ecosystems making each region distinct. On any safari in either East or Southern Africa, you will always encounter a diversity of landscapes. The famous East African parks like the Serengeti and the Maasai Mara are mostly open grasslands and savannah, with the occasional rocky Kopje or outcrop. This is where you will snap an iconic photo of a lonely flat-topped acacia tree perfectly outlined by the setting sun. You also have the dramatic backdrop of the Great Rift Valley, with many camps offering endless views from their vantage points along the escarpment. The Ngorongoro Crater and the highlands surrounding it are lush and fertile, and even a little cool at night. Both Kenya and Tanzania have snowcapped mountains (think Kilimanjaro), which many travelers choose to climb, and white sand beaches along the Indian Ocean.

Rwanda and Uganda, while best known for the jungle habitats of mountain gorillas and chimpanzees, also have stunning volcanic lakes and waterfalls, and offer Big 5 Safaris on open savannahs.

If a safari on land and from the water is of interest, then Botswana’s Okavango Delta is one of the best places to be. Cruise the channels of the world’s largest inland delta by boat or traditional mokoro canoe. Botswana truly stands alone in the safari landscape, offering an utterly unique experience.

Zimbabwe and Zambia have remote parks, with both land and water activities as well, and both countries claim to be the home of the walking safari.

For many, East Africa symbolizes the safari and landscape we have all dreamt of, and a trip here will truly focus on the wilderness and being out in National Parks. While there are stunning beaches, and interesting activities in Nairobi and Arusha, the focus is wildlife.

Southern Africa allows for a diversity of cultural experiences as well as exceptional wildlife. Fine dining in Cape Town, history and art in Johannesburg, winetasting in the famous Cape Winelands, whale watching, penguins, art galleries, and time along the stunning coastline are all on offer in South Africa, right alongside some of the world’s best game viewing.

Victoria Falls is a must-see addition to any South Africa trip, and has the added title of The Adventure Capital of Southern Africa. Rafting, canoeing, fishing, river cruising, gorge swings, and microlight flights are just a few of the options in this area.

Zambia and Zimbabwe have mostly managed to stay under the travel radar, but have always been home to some of the largest, most beautiful national parks, offering intrepid travelers an exclusive safari experience.

While Namibia is not the first choice for traditional safari game viewing, its massive red sand dunes, wild Skeleton Coast and vast empty landscapes, and desert-adapted wildlife make it one of the most unique places to travel.

Your Vaya specialist will collaborate with you to ensure that each activity, lodge, and safari location in East or Southern Africa are perfect for you, for your interests, and for the seasonality of the area, ensuring you will always get the most out of your trip.

Regardless of where you choose to go, a safari in Africa is the ultimate travel adventure. As cliché as it sounds, once you visit Africa, these spectacular destinations will keep calling you back.

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