East Africa’s main safari gateway towns… and how best to fill your time there!
When you’re planning a safari in East Africa, there are several different gateway cities from which to choose. The best choice will depend to some extent on where you’re coming from, but more so on exactly where you’re headed. Here we provide an overview of Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda, and Rwanda’s main safari gateways, along with a few suggested activities should you find yourself in transit at any of them with an afternoon or full day to kill.
The capital of Kenya, Nairobi stands at an altitude of 6,000ft in the lush, well-watered, and surprisingly temperate central highlands below Mount Kenya. Its Jomo Kenyatta International Airport is East Africa’s busiest flight hub and the starting point for most safaris in Kenya and many in northern Tanzania. As might be expected of a city of 4.5 million, it can feel rather congested and few tourists spend longer there than they need. Despite that, Nairobi hosts some very attractive suburban hotels and restaurants, and it is bordered by the remarkable Nairobi National Park, where free-ranging lions and black rhinos live within eyeshot of the city’s skyscrapers.
What to do in Nairobi: History buffs should make a beeline for the excellent Nairobi National Museum and Karen Blixen Museum, the latter set in the colonial homestead where the Out of Africa author lived from 1918 to 1931. Alternatively, you can get intimate with baby elephants at the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust Orphanage or eyeball the world’s tallest animal from an elevated platform at the AFEW Giraffe Centre.
Kenya’s largest and most historic port, Mombasa was founded in medieval times and is the site of the 16th-century Fort Jesus, a Portuguese-built edifice now inscribed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The city’s Moi International Airport is less popular as a safari gateway than its counterpart in Nairobi, but Mombasa does offer good access to Tsavo, which is Kenya’s largest national park and home to all the Big Five, and it is also the hub of the country’s beach tourism industry.
What to do in Mombasa: Fort Jesus is well worth exploring, as are the atmospheric alleys of nearby Old Mombasa. Further afield, Diani Beach, lined with swaying palms and resort hotels, offers superb snorkeling and diving, while elephants, buffaloes, and the rare sable antelope all roam freely in Shimba Hills National Reserve.
Most safaris to the Serengeti and elsewhere in northern Tanzania leave from Arusha, a relatively small, green city that boasts a memorable setting below the 14,968ft volcanic peak of Mount Meru. Arusha stands an hour’s drive from Kilimanjaro International Airport (KIA), and it is flanked to the west by Arusha Airport, the main hub for flights into the nearby national parks. Although Arusha is equipped with plenty of hotels, restaurants, supermarkets, and craft shops, many tourists prefer to stay at one of the many lodges that lie on the leafy foot slopes of Mount Meru towards KIA.
What to do in Arusha: If you have a spare half day or more, head out to Arusha National Park, which protects the forested eastern slopes and peak of Mount Meru. Depending on how energetic you feel, activities here include a moderately demanding hike into Meru’s old caldera through the collapsed eastern wall, canoeing on the beautiful Momella Lakes, or game drives in search of buffalo, elephant, and the near-endemic Kilimanjaro colobus monkey.
An alternative springboard for exploring Tanzania’s northern safari circuit, Moshi is smaller, hotter, and drier than Arusha, but it lies roughly the same distance from KIA. Moshi is most popular as a base for summiting nearby Kilimanjaro, a demanding hike that requires a minimum of five days. Clouds permitting, Moshi also offers incredible views of this iconic landmark, which is not only the highest peak in Africa at 19,341ft but also the tallest freestanding mountain anywhere in the world.
What to do in Moshi: If you don’t plan on a full Kilimanjaro hike, try the Shira Plateau Day Trail, a guided 5-mile walk that takes you above the 11,500ft contour and offers spectacular frame-filling views of the great mountain’s upper slopes. Alternatively, guided day walks to various waterfalls in the vicinity of Marangu offer a great opportunity for hikers to adjust to the altitude.
Dar es Salaam
Founded in the 1860s by the Sultan of Zanzibar, Dar es Salaam was the capital of Tanzania until 1996 and it still rivals Nairobi as East Africa’s largest and most vibrant city and Mombasa as its most important Indian Ocean port. Dar es Salaam’s Julius Nyerere International Airport is the most convenient air gateway for southern safaris to Nyerere, Ruaha, and Mikumi National Parks, and only 20 minutes by air (or around one hour by ferry) to the alluring Spice Island of Zanzibar. Dar es Salaam is less convenient for safaris to the Serengeti and the northern circuit.
What to do in Dar es Salaam: Highlights of the characterful city center include the National Museum, Kivukoni Fish Market, a 19th-century Bavarian-style Lutheran Church, a harborfront Old Boma built-in 1867 (now capped by a chilled rooftop restaurant), and the cluster of Hindu temples and vegetarian restaurants on Kisutu Street. For more beach-minded visitors, a motorized dhow plies back and forth several times daily between the Slipway Mall and Bongoyo Island, which is protected in a marine reserve.
Entebbe and Kampala
The twin cities of Kampala and Entebbe set 25 miles apart in the Lake Victoria hinterland, form the main springboard for safaris and gorilla tracking in Uganda. Entebbe hosts the country’s only international airport, and its lush setting on Lake Victoria makes it a more attractive prospect to most visitors than Kampala, which is the national capital and by far the larger city.
What to do in Entebbe and Kampala: The lakeside jungle of Entebbe Botanical Garden is home to colobus monkeys and a wide variety of birds including the stunning great blue turaco. Worthwhile day trips out of Entebbe or Kampala include a motorboat excursion to Ngamba Island Chimp Sanctuary or being poled by dugout canoe into the community-protected Mabamba Swamp, where you’re almost certain to see the localized shoebill.
As the site of Rwanda’s only international airport, the capital Kigali is a popular springboard for gorilla tracking and other safaris, not only within Rwanda but also across the border in southwest Uganda. Kigali lies close enough to all the national parks (and to the Uganda border) that many visitors never spend a night there, but this attractively green and hilly city has a justified reputation as being the safest and cleanest anywhere in Africa.
What to do in Kigali: Most visitors pay their respects at the grim Kigali Genocide Memorial Museum, which commemorates the genocide that claimed up to one million lives in 1994. For wildlife enthusiasts, Umusambi Village is a well-run nature reserve that protects a swampy area where the likes of grey crowned crane, palm nut vulture and black-headed gonolek can be seen from a well-maintained network of walkways.