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

Posted by on May 21st, 2021

For many people, the thought of a safari in Africa 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, but with so much to see, deciding where to focus for your first trip to this massive and varied continent can be tricky and there are several key factors to consider.

The two main regions for a safari are East and Southern Africa and each come with a unique set of differences. For most people considering a first, or even a second trip to the continent, the countries of interest in East Africa are Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda, and Rwanda and in Southern Africa, you would most likely consider South Africa, Botswana, Zambia, Zimbabwe, and Namibia. There are of course the unique outliers too when looking for something beyond a safari. Click here to view a few of the options.

There are so many things to consider when choosing the perfect safari location and your Vaya Specialist will happily walk you through each and 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

On Safari in Kenya

This is truly one of the biggest and most important key differences between the two regions. In Southern Africa, all your safari game drives are organized and executed by the lodge or camp you are staying at. 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 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.

Vehicles

Speaking of vehicles, the highlight of any safari is viewing the incredible wildlife, and to do that you need transport which is the next major difference. 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 it also means 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 three 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 points throughout the vehicle too to make sure you never miss a photographic moment. 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.  Around the same size, 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 and any good luxury lodge or operator wouldn’t dream of more than that, with many offering just 4. 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.

No matter where you are both types of vehicles are perfectly designed for the best possible game viewing, it is just nice to know the differences

Wildlife

Although both areas of the continent are sure to delight with an exceptional 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-Masai Mara ecosystem so 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 or 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 to, and it is the thrill of the search that 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 some time will need to be spent 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.

While wildlife is more the overall focus of a trip to East Africa, cosmopolitan cities like Cape Town should not be counted out. 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 the sharks along this stunning coastline. Click here to see 10 reasons to visit Cape Town.

National Parks versus Private Reserves

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 to the Kruger itself, meaning wildlife can roam freely. What this does mean for your trip is that the land you drive on for your game viewing activities is not open to anyone that is 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 Masai 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

Africa is a huge continent with a myriad of 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 Masai Mara are more 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 having 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 people climb, and white sand beaches along the Indian Ocean.

Rwanda and Uganda while best known for the jungle habitats of mountain gorillas and chimpanzees, stunning volcanic lakes, and waterfalls, also 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 stands alone in a safari landscape.

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.

In Southern Africa, you can still have the best game viewing, but a trip here allows for a diversity of experiences as well as wildlife. Fine dining in Cape Town, history comes to life in the townships and museums of Johannesburg, a winetasting or stay in the famous Cape Winelands, whale watching, penguins, art galleries or time along the stunning coastline are all on offer in South Africa right alongside some of the worlds best game viewing.

Victoria Falls is a must-see add-on 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 things on offer here.

Zambia and Zimbabwe have managed to stay under the radar but have always been home to some of the largest, most beautiful national parks, offering those to venture there 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, and as cliché, as it sounds, it will get under your skin and keep calling you back.

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