Where should I go on my African safari? East Africa vs Southern Africa
For the uninitiated, the prospect of going on safari in Africa invariably conjures images inspired by Hollywood – flat-topped acacias dotting endless grasslands upon which herds of antelope graze, weary of lurking predators and oppressed by unrelenting heat. Where should I go on my African safari? Keep reading to learn the differences between East Africa vs Southern Africa.
While there is an element of truth in this perception, it fails to take into consideration both the size and geographic diversity that constitute the African continent. Covering an area three times the size of the continental US, the landscape varies dramatically: from arid deserts to rainforests and from pancake-flat salt pans to towering snow-capped volcanoes. These factors combined mean that the continent is home to a great diversity of fauna and flora, which varies in density from one region to the next.
It is fair to say that for the average person visiting Africa for the first time, it is markedly different from what they are used to. As the presumed cradle of mankind, its people, fauna, flora, and landscapes have been shaped over millennia, in many ways distinct from anywhere else on Earth. At the same time, the legacy of trade and colonialism has imbued it with elements of faraway places, giving it a cosmopolitan flavor recognizable to many.
Perhaps for these reasons, or something wholly more atavistic, many visitors feel as if they have experienced a homecoming of sorts. Invariably, Africa defies expectations. Some are taken aback by the sensory impressions. Others by the mixed evidence of both the developed and developing world.
Since many who visit Africa do so in order to go on safari (and that’s what we at Fair Trade Safaris are all about), this article will examine the numerous differences (and some of the similarities) in choosing whether to focus your vacation in one of the two key wildlife regions: East Africa – specifically Kenya and Tanzania, or southern Africa – primarily the neighboring countries of Botswana and South Africa (although the region includes Namibia, Zambia, Zimbabwe, and Mozambique.
Quality of Wildlife
Wildlife spotting (or game viewing, as it is known locally) is excellent in both East and Southern Africa. If you’ve only ever seen Africa’s wildlife on television or at a zoo, chances are that whatever you see will have an impact. At least to begin with. Whether rightly or wrongly, many people’s perceptions are conceived through what they see in the media, perhaps not appreciating that behind every clip of a cheetah strolling across the savanna (much less streaking after an antelope) are many hours of patience. Those that expect a “Discovery-style” experience of back-to-back drama and excitement will learn that Nature does not ascribe to the modern ‘On Demand’ trend.
That said, the joy of safari is that you literally have no idea what each minute has in store. Another media influence to be weary of is an over-emphasis or focus on certain species. Realistically though, certain species, such as the Big 5 (Lion, Leopard, Elephant, Buffalo, and Rhino) and other predators are on most people’s bucket lists. And, your guide will most certainly be aware of this and make an effort to find these notable species.
In East Africa’s iconic parks, such as Serengeti, Maasai Mara, and Ngorongoro, game viewing is typically excellent. The largely open grasslands mean that animals are more easily spotted, particularly during the Dry Season. Note that some species, such as leopards, prefer thickets but are occasionally found in the open. All members of the Big 5 are present – although rhinoceros are rare (and highly endangered).
Predator sightings are a regular occurrence, with healthy populations of lions, cheetahs, and spotted hyenas. Leopards, by virtue of their habitat preference, excellent camouflage and stealthy habits are always a special treat. Of Africa’s large carnivores, African wild dogs are seldom seen, struggling to survive due to human impacts on their need for huge territorial ranges.
General game sightings are prolific and varied, made up of large herds of wildebeest, zebras, various antelopes, giraffes, and warthogs – to name a few. Kenya and Tanzania are home to well over a thousand bird species, making this a birdwatching haven of renown.
Game viewing in both South Africa and Botswana is also excellent. The critical difference is that you may have to ‘work harder’ to spot animals, as the predominant vegetation type is mixed woodland, which doesn’t offer the same endless vistas typical of East Africa. Once again, the dry season provides the best sighting opportunities and the trees and shrubs lose their leaves, making wildlife easier to spot.
All members of the Big 5 are present. South Africa offers the world’s best opportunity to see both black and white rhinoceros, although the population is under unrelenting pressure from poachers. As such, there has been an extensive dehorning program (across Africa), so any rhino you do see may be lacking its most notable feature. Elephants are notably abundant, particularly in Botswana’s Okavango Delta and Chobe National Park, as well as in South Africa’s Kruger National Park.
Predator sightings in both South Africa and Botswana are phenomenal. South Africa’s privately owned Sabi-Sands reserve is regarded by many as the best place on Earth to see leopards. Both countries have relatively healthy populations of African wild dogs and are the go-to destinations if you’d like to see these highly intelligent and gregarious canids in action. Visitors can also expect great sightings of lions, cheetahs, and spotted hyenas.
While you won’t see migrating herds of wildebeest on the scale seen in East Africa, sightings of general game species including the aforementioned, along with zebra (there’s a 25,000 strong migration in Botswana), various antelope species, giraffes, warthogs, etc. The subregion lists over 900 species of birds, of which 50 are found only in South Africa.
Authentic Safari Experience
Once again, to those unfamiliar with what to expect, the thrill of seeing free-roaming wildlife and staying in a remote camp in Africa defies any frame of reference. It is an almost overwhelming sensory experience of sights, sounds, and scents. As the proverbial home of safaris, many feel that East Africa offers a more authentic experience – at least one that aligns with common perceptions. Still, others feel that the sheer remoteness and low density of tourists in Botswana (along with Zambia and Zimbabwe) have redefined the perception of authenticity.
Both East Africa and Botswana are still relatively wild, meaning that their national parks and reserves are unfenced, allowing the natural movement of wildlife (and, conversely, cattle grazing in these areas). Below, we outline the essential differences between the two focus areas;
East Africa offers an impression of Africa that most closely aligns with popular perceptions – rolling savannah grasslands. It is an excellent choice if you’re happy to ‘rough it’ a bit, and don’t mind the heat. The Serengeti and Maasai Mara are popularly regarded as icons of the African plains.
Due to the fact that the wildlife reserves (and many camps/lodges) in South Africa are fenced, some feel it offers a less authentic experience. This is compounded by occasional signs of infrastructure, such as power lines and man-made dams. These factors are not an issue at most reserves in Botswana, which are unfenced.
The safari industry has seen massive growth over the past few decades. And with that, the abundance and variety of accommodation on offer has mushroomed too. Safari accommodation options range from self-drive/self-catered camping, overland tours, and government rest camps, all the way up to ultra-luxurious (with every conceivable perk).
Essentially all standards of accommodation are catered to. These vary from modestly priced (but comfortable) to high-end luxury. For the most part, fixed (brick-and-mortar) structures are not allowed in national parks. Accordingly, most accommodations will feature a spacious safari-style tent with an en suite bathroom. So-called Glamping (glamor camping) dominates the market, with multi-room units that are tents in name only. On private concessions, and outside of national parks, some lodges feature brick-and-mortar accommodations.
Both South Africa and Botswana cater to all standards of accommodations, from modestly priced to high-end. In South Africa, most lodges offer brick-and-mortar accommodations, although several offer the luxury tent format found in East Africa. Like East Africa, Botswana’s government prefers not to allow fixed structures, so most camps offer the glamping style mentioned above.
As is universal in the hospitality industry, pricing varies greatly. Factors that can have an effect include location, competition, level of service, and whether it is the high or low season. Within each safari type, there are options ranging from affordable to high-end, and the level of luxury and exclusivity will reflect in the premium. There are also multiple hidden factors, such as the cost of transportation of goods to remote areas, which might skew the perception of value.
Both East and Southern Africa are priced to address various levels of affordability. In some instances, the rates offered are inclusive of such things as meals, transfers, activities, and your physical accommodation. Of the countries discussed, South Africa probably offers the best value for money, while Botswana – where the government advocates a low-density/high-value tourism model, is the most expensive. There are of course localized exceptions.
Unique Features and Experiences
As discussed, each of the destinations mentioned has in common abundant wildlife and gorgeous landscapes. They are geographically distinct, however, and offer unique attractions that may be a deciding factor for prospective travelers. For instance, South Africa is sometimes referred to as ‘Africa Lite’, due to its excellent infrastructure. Modern airports, high-quality roads, and technological sophistication mean it offers the familiar with an African twist. Tanzania on the other hand, is more quintessentially African. The raw energy of the continent is as evident in the can-do enthusiasm of the locals as it is in the dusty tracks that cross the land. From a safari/vacation perspective, the following features and experiences stand out in the two regions discussed:
- The Great Wildebeest Migration – The seasonal movement of around two million wildebeest, zebra, and other antelope as they move between the plains of the Serengeti and Maasai Mara in search of grazing. The high point of the migration is the various river crossings, where the herd must run the gauntlet of swift water, hungry crocodiles, and other lurking predators.
- Mt. Kilimanjaro is a beautiful snow-capped extinct volcano. As the highest peak in Africa, it attracts trekkers from around the globe to tackle multi-day ascents.
- Zanzibar Island combines eclectic cultures, amazing cuisine, and beautiful beaches & ocean (for diving/snorkeling, water sports, etc.)
- Cape Town is consistently ranked as one of the most beautiful cities in the world. The plethora of activities nearby makes it a destination in its own right.
- The Cape Winelands (near Cape Town) rival Napa Valley in terms of beauty, cuisine, and quality of the vineyards and wines. Great for couples and wine lovers.
- The Garden Route is fantastic – especially for adventure-seekers, couples and honeymooners. Winter heralds the arrival of migrating whales, easily spotted from land or on boat trips.
- Victoria Falls – a South African travel package can be easily combined with a visit to Botswana and/or Victoria Falls (in Zambia/Zimbabwe), which is one of the Seven Natural Wonders of the World. The area is also a mecca of adventure activities, from bungee jumping to whitewater rafting.
- Okavango Delta – A UNESCO World Heritage Site, this inland delta is a pristine haven for wildlife.
- Namib Desert – The world’s oldest desert is home to the tallest sand dunes, amazing desert-adapted wildlife, and surreal landscapes.
Geography and Climate
The East African landscape is characterized by vast savannas, dramatic rift valleys, and iconic mountain ranges such as Kilimanjaro. The climate tends to be drier and more predictable, with distinct wet and dry seasons.
The geography of Southern Africa includes diverse terrains, from deserts like the Namib to lush wetlands like the Okavango Delta. The climate can be more variable, with regions experiencing different rainfall patterns.
Best Time to Go
While the summer weather might hold the most appeal for winter-weary northerners, the best time to go on safari is during the southern Winter. Most often, safari drives set out in the early morning and late afternoon, when the animals are more likely to be active when the temperature is cooler. Warm clothing is essential for these activities, and long-sleeved shirts and trousers should be worn after dark to prevent mosquito bites.
The best time to go on a safari in East Africa is from June to October, when the weather is dry and sunny, and the wildlife is easier to spot. However, some exceptions may apply depending on the specific destination and activity
Due to climatic variations over the sub-region, the best time to visit varies depending on location. In the case of South Africa, it is recommended to visit between May and September, at which time sparse vegetation makes spotting wildlife easier. However, in Botswana, the best time to go is from June to October.
The Choice Is Yours. And You’ll Always Be Right
Whether you decide to go on safari in East or Southern Africa, you are unlikely to be disappointed by the experience. In both regions, the local governments have long realized the importance of tourism to their economies, and have been proactive in making visitors feel welcome and well looked after. The support infrastructure, including transport, logistics, and emergency services are well catered for. Likewise, the property owners and safari operators have a wealth of experience in providing a world-class experience, both with regard to the various safari activities and the accommodations and service on offer.
With the possible exception of the spectacle of the Great Wildebeest Migration, the wildlife viewing experiences are excellent in both regions, separated only by patience and opportunity. As one of the leading adventure holiday options worldwide, you can’t go far wrong booking your safari in either location. One thing you can be assured of is that once you have experienced one region, you will want to visit the other. To paraphrase a famous safari quote, “Of all the things that could bite you on safari, the safari bug is the most prolific.”