SUMATRA POSTCARD

 

ULTIMATE GUIDE TO PLANNING YOUR FIRST AFRICAN SAFARI

 

Planning the perfect safari can be a daunting process — especially if you’re the do-it-yourself type like me. This is probably why the number one question I get asked by people is “where’s the best place to go on a safari in Africa?”, which, if I’m honest, is the travel question I dread the most because there’s just no quick way to answer it.

 

The fact of the matter is, there are so many incredible safari destinations throughout Africa and picking the best option really does depend on a number of factors. So in an effort to help anyone out there who is planning their first African safari I’ve finally put together the Ultimate Guide To Planning Your First African Safari. Here goes… 

 

Table of Contents

 

Part One: Safari Terminology

 

Part Two: Pre-Planning Questions

 

Part Three: When To Go On Safari

 

Part Four: Where To Go On Safari

 

Part Five: What To Pack On Safari

 

Part Six: Visas & Health Requirements 

 

 

Part One

SAFARI TERMINOLOGY

 

Where to go safari in Africa

Guided safari in Murchison Falls National Park, Uganda. Photo by me.

 

Before we dive into the good stuff,  I thought it might be a good idea to first go over some commonly used safari terms that you might come across during the planning process: 

 

Game Drive – This is just another term for “safari”. Going on a game drive is, in fact, the same thing as going on a safari.  

 

The Big Five – You’re going to hear this term a lot. It refers to the following five species: African elephant, Cape buffalo, African leopard, African lion, and African rhino (both black and white, although some might argue just black rhino).

 

The Little Five – Same concept of the Big Five but made up of the following little game species: elephant shrew, buffalo weaver, leopard tortoise, antlion, and rhino beetle.

 

The Bush – Short for ‘the bushveld’, the bush is generally used to refer to the wildlife areas where safaris take place. While the bushveld technically is a very specific type of habitat found in South Africa, its nickname gets thrown around pretty casually all over Africa.  

 

Sundowner – Basically refers to Africa’s version of happy hour at sunset. You’ll usually enjoy a sundowner out in the bush at the tail-end of a game drive (look at that, we’re already putting your new vocab to use)!

 

Tracker – This person usually sits in a special seat on the front of the safari vehicle and helps the safari guide/driver spot wildlife.

 

Self-Drive Safari – A self-driving safari is exactly what it sounds like, you drive yourself around in your own (usually rented) vehicle on safari. In most cases, and when it’s allowed, this is a cheaper alternative to traditionally guided safaris.

 

Overlanding – If you ask Wikipedia it’ll say that overlanding describes self-reliant adventure travel to remote destinations where the journey is the primary goal’. Basically, it just means living out of a vehicle while traveling (you can check out our overlanding setup in Part Two).

 

Rest Camp – a camp inside a national park.

 

Rondavel or Banda – A traditional bungalow or hut with a thatch roof. You’ll find this budget-friendly accommodation option in many of Africa’s top safari parks.

 

 

Top Tanzania safari destination

Giraffe on safari in Tarangeri National Park, Tanzania. Photo by me.

 

Part Two

PRE-PLANNING

 

Before we break down the top safari destinations in Africa, here are a few key things to consider:

 

WHAT KIND OF EXPERIENCE DO YOU WANT?

 

The Overall Experience

 

One of the best ways to narrow down where you’ll go on a safari is to think about how you’d like to spend your downtime. While the actual “safari” part of your trip may be what we’re focusing on in this post, the reality is, a lot of your time in Africa won’t be spent on safari. Therefore, you’ll need to decide what you want your overall experience to be like.

 

Are you looking for a romantic getaway? Perhaps a family-friendly holiday? Do you want a rugged adventure or are you strictly interested in getting pampered at a luxury lodge? While most of Africa’s top safari destinations offer a little something for everyone, some destinations are just better suited to deliver a luxury experience, or an off-the-beaten-path experience, or a kid-friendly experience than others.

 

Places like Kruger National Park in South Africa offer great options for those traveling with, whereas somewhere like Serengeti National Park in Tanzania — not so much. If you want luxury and romance then Botswana’s private reserves might be the call, but if adventure is what you’re after then I’d suggest starting your safari search in Zambia or Zimbabwe.

 

The Wildlife Factor

 

Perhaps you’re less concerned with what you’ll do in your downtime and more interested in what kind of African wildlife you’ll see on safari? If that is the case, then wildlife should be the driving factor for picking your safari destination.

 

While most of Africa’s popular safari destinations boast the Big Five, each has its own unique offerings in terms of native wildlife species. If cheetahs are your thing then start by looking into safari options in Kenya or Namibia. If you love elephants, Botswana’s where it’s at. If you’re a primate lover (like me) check out safari options in Uganda or Rwanda, that way you can easily add something like gorilla trekking to your itinerary.

 

Guided vs. Self-Driving Safaris

 

Another aspect to think about early on in the planning process is whether you want a guided safari experience (where you can just sit back and relax) or if you’d prefer to DIY the whole thing and self-drive.

 

8 times out of 10 I would suggest going the guided safari route for anyone heading to Africa for their first time. It’s just easier, safer, and in many ways more enjoyable than having to navigate everything yourself. Typically, the nightly rates at most mid-range to luxury safari lodges include two guided game drives per day — one in the morning and another in the late afternoon. They’ll provide the safari vehicle, driver/guide, tracker, and the beverages and snacks. If for some reason game drives aren’t included in your stay (maybe you’re going to be camping and/or you just want to do a day visit), guided games drives are usually offered on a for-hire basis by local tour operators and national parks.

 

The 2 out of 10 times that I would suggest first-timers to opt for self-driving safaris over guided safaris is if: 1. they’re on a tight budget, and/or 2. they’re looking for a bit more adventure.

 

With that said, both scenarios really depend on the safari destination. If we’re talking about somewhere like South Africa then heck yeah, self-driving gets my vote for anyone on a budget. Road conditions in the country are good, its parks are well-developed and managed, and renting a vehicle is easy and affordable (mainly because you don’t really have to rent a 4×4 vehicle — which can be pricey — to get around). But if we’re talking about places like Namibia, Zimbabwe, or Zambia — where wildlife parks are a bit more off the beaten track and even experienced 4×4-drivers get stranded regularly — then I would probably only suggest self-driving for first-time visitors if they’re experienced adventurers.

 

Sidenote

 

Personally, I’d choose self-driving over guided safaris any day. My fiancé and I do a lot of photography and videography while we’re on safari so we need the freedom and flexibility that comes with doing our own thing… If we want to stop and watch a dung beetle push around its prized ball of poop for an hour then guess what? We totally can because we’re self-driving. 

 

 

Self-Driving Safari Tanzania

Our overlanding setup during our 7-month road trip in Africa. Photo by Zander.

 

HOW MUCH TIME DO YOU HAVE?

 

When visiting Africa for the first time, chances are you’ll want to combine your safari experience(s) with other activities, sightseeing destinations, etc. (which I totally recommend for your first time in Africa). Just keep in mind that driving to and from one destination to another can be a real time killer in most African countries because of not-so-good road conditions (among other things), so you’ll want to budget your time wisely. Even for those with the budget to fly between destinations time can still be an issue, as many commercial carriers offer limited flight schedules. Obviously if you plan to just charter private flights everywhere this part doesn’t really pertain to you, but the next part might, ya baller.

 

Minimum-Stay Suggestions

 

As a general rule of thumb, if you plan to do the whole safari thing plus other activities/sightseeing then about two weeks (10 full-days minimum) is a solid amount of time to properly enjoy your first time in Africa.

 

Whatever you ultimately decide to pack your itinerary with, do yourself a favor and at least try to budget enough time for four half-day game drives (two morning safaris and two afternoon/evening safaris) or two full-day game drives. No game drive is ever the same and there’s a good chance it’ll take more than a couple of safaris for you to spot all the wildlife on your list.

 

Lastly, and this might be obvious but it’s worth stating, if you’re pressed for time (and chartering private flights isn’t an option) it’s probably a good idea to rule out Africa’s more remote safari destinations early on. Also, choosing a smaller park like Kenya’s Maasai Mara versus larger parks like the Serengeti in Tanzania — where you could easily spend a full week or more — is probably a good idea for those with limited vacation time.  

 

HOW MUCH CAN YOU SPEND?

 

Unless you’re the rugged backpacker/public transportation-type then traveling to and around Africa is not cheap, especially if you’re planning to go on safari. Sure, there ways to have an awesome safari experience on a budget, but it’s important to set really realistic expectations as to what kind of experience we’re talking about.

 

In the next section I provide some specific recommendations for every budget, but for now, here’s an overview…

 

The Ballers

 

For most folks, when they first picture themselves on an African safari they’re usually picturing the quintessential (and overly romanticized) Out of Africa experience. I’m talking private game drives in a colonial-style safari vehicle, champagne breakfasts out in the bush, decked out safari tents, lantern-lit dinners, outdoor bathtubs overlooking a watering hole, etc. etc. — all of which does exist, for people that can afford $1000 or more per person, per day. If that’s you and a 5-star safari experience is what you want then Botswana is a great country to start your safari research. But if you’re like me and that kind of safari is out of your budget (or maybe it’s not but you just don’t want to spend like that), don’t worry, there are plenty of other more affordable options where you can still enjoy the full safari experience, just a little toned down.

 

The Mid-Rangers

 

On average, mid-range accommodations (inclusive of 3 meals and 2 game drives a day) will run you between $250 – $500 per person, per day. While I’ll go into more detail in the next section, generally speaking, I’ve found South Africa to offer some of the best mid-range options in terms of variety and availability. Zambia and Zimbabwe also have some great mid-range safari options that give you a lot of bang for your buck, but selections are a bit more limited and geared more towards the adventure traveler than the luxury traveler. Tanzania and Kenya have some good mid-range options as well, but they tend to be more expensive overall because of transportation logistics and higher park fees.

 

The Budgeters

 

If you ask me, the most budget-friendly option is to do a self-driving safari and camp at night. On the low end, I’d suggest budgeting about $100 a day ($150 a day for two people) if you go this route. Bear in mind, however, that the cost of a self-driving/camping safari can be much more than this, especially if you rent a fully-equipped, camping-ready 4×4 vehicle (many average around $120-$150 a day) and plan to visit parks with high entry and conservation fees (like the Ngorongoro Conservation Area which charges a $295 entry fee per vehicle on top of its regular park fees).  

 

If the dreams you have about your first African safari are grander than self-driving and camping —  and you can swing about $200 per person, per day — there are options. Private game reserves around Kruger National Park (South Africa), as well as places around South Luangwa National Park (Zambia), are a great place to start your search if your budget falls under this umbrella.

 

Extra Tip

 

To help stretch your budget consider traveling during a destination’s low-season. Many lodges and tour operators offer heavily discounted rates during their slower (usually rainy) months, so it’s worth looking into. Just keep in mind that not all parts of Africa experience the same high and low season so you’ll need to do a little digging once you narrow down your top destination(s).

 

Vultures watch over the wildebeest migration in Serengeti National Park, Tanzania. Photo byb me.

 

Part Three

WHEN TO GO ON SAFARI

 

Choosing the right place for your first safari is going to depend on a number of factors. Many of them we already covered in Part Two: Pre-Planning, but two other important factors to consider are weather and time of year. 

 

Africa’s seasons are essentially the opposite of North America’s, and in most African countries there are really only two distinct seasons: dry season (winter) and wet season (summer). In East Africa, the long rains tend to happen in April and May, while Southern Africa’s heavier rains fall between December and March.

 

Generally speaking, the best time to go on a safari is during a region’s dry season when the grass is shorter and the water is scarce, forcing wildlife to congregate around remaining water sources which make them easier to spot. Dirt roads are also dry during the winter making them easier and safer to navigate — an important factor to keep in mind for anyone considering self-driving safaris. The dry season isn’t without its drawbacks, however, as parks tend to be much more crowded and temperatures can easily soar past 100°F.

 

While the dry season might be the preferred time to go on a safari, that doesn’t mean that the wet season has to be avoided completely. Sure, rainy season-travelers can usually expect to endure higher humidity, more mosquitos, and the occasional flooding, but there are also some advantages that come with the rains. Landscapes become lush and flowers bloom during the summertime, and for many of Africa’s popular safari destinations, this is the best time of year to see young animals. Lastly, for travelers on a budget, the rainy season usually means discounted rates.

 

Another important factor to consider when deciding what time of year to go on safari is the wildlife. Some of the most epic wildlife experiences — like the Great Migration when two million wildebeest move from the plains of the Serengeti in Tanzania to the grasslands of the Masai Mara in Kenya — happen at very specific times of the year.

 

Part Four

WHERE TO GO ON SAFARI

 

First and foremost, and I know this might seem silly to some of you but it just has to be addressed, Africa is not a country. It is a continent made up of 54 different countries (including internationally recognized territories and states) and at some point in the safari planning process, you will need to pick one (or more than one) to visit. 

 

Now, with that said, here’s an overview of Africa’s top safari destinations for first-timers:

 

SOUTHERN AFRICA

Top Destinations

 

1. South Africa ~ a little something for everyone

 

 

Self-Driving Safari Kruger

Views from a self-driving safari in Kruger National Park, South Africa. Photo by me.

 

Overview

 

Without a doubt, South Africa boasts the continent’s most developed safari industry, making it the go-to safari destination for first-time safari-goers. The country is known for its exceptional wildlife viewing year round, including high concentrations of Big Five species.

 

South Africa is an ideal choice for travelers who are crunched for time because its parks are easy to get to from all major airports. It is also a great choice for people traveling with children because it’s the only country in Africa with malaria-free parks. The safari options are here plentiful, ranging from budget-friendly options to ultra luxury options and everything in-between.

 

In addition to its fantastic wildlife viewing, South Africa offers beautiful beaches, trendy cities and a whole lot more. Popular activities and attractions include whale watching, shark cage diving, a world-renowned wine country and the famous Garden Route (for more info check out 10 Must-Do Stops Along South Africa’s Garden Route).

 

The only downside I can see about South Africa is that it lacks an authentic safari-vibe. While some might view how developed the country is and how western tourist-friendly its parks are (there are literally full-service restaurants inside its famed Kruger National Park) as a positive thing, others might argue it’s not as wild as some of the other popular destinations on this list.

 

Best Parks For Going On Safari

 

South Africa has a total of 43 different wildlife parks and reserves. Top safari destination include:

 

Kruger National Park  – Classic safari, great abundance of all major safari animals including Big Five

 

Sabi Sand Game Reserve (Greater Kruger area) – Area consisting of multiple private reserves, classic safari, excellent Big Five viewing

 

Mala Mala Game Reserve (Greater Kruger area) – Classic safari, private reserve, abundant wildlife, Big Five

 

Hluhluwe-Imfolozi Game Reserve – Classic safari, Big Five, known for its large rhino population

 

Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park – Classic safari, all bit cat present (this is a transfrontier park with Botswana)

 

Phinda Game Reserve – Classic safari, abundant wildlife including Big Five

 

Best Time To Go

 

Generally speaking, South Africa is considered a year-round destination due to its varying regional climates and wide variety of tourist attractions outside of its parks. For wildlife safaris the optimal time to visit is from:

 

May to September (all parks)

 

High Season: October to March

 

For a little more South Africa-inspo, check out my Africa Diaries ~ South Africa vlog and my Instagram Stories: South Africa Part 1 and South Africa Part 2.

 

Visiting penguins in South Africa

Visiting the African penguins of Boulders Beach, South Africa. Photo by Zander.

 

2. Botswana ~ exclusive authenticity

 

Overview

 

What South Africa lacks in the authenticity department Botswana makes up for — it just does so at a price.

 

This stunning destination is known for being one of Africa’s most expensive places to go on safari, but for good reason. Compared to other hotspots that go for a more mass-market appeal, Botswana is known for its high-income, low-impact approach to its safari industry. In turn, tourists get a much more authentic and personalized experience that many describe as the ‘real Africa’.

 

While Botswana’s main game parks can get pretty busy during peak tourist season (May – September) its private reserves offer some of the most exclusive safari experiences in all of Africa. If that sounds like your kind of safari (and you’re not too restricted budget-wise) check out the private reserves of the Okavango Delta and Linyanti areas, where only people staying in those game reserves are allowed to go on safari. In addition to its excellent game viewing opportunities, those who visit Botswana can also enjoy activities like boating, nature hikes, canoeing, fishing and more.

 

Best Parks For Going On Safari

 

Botswana has a total of 14 different wildlife parks and reserves. Top safari destinations include:

 

Okavango Delta – Canoe, boat and classic safari, Big 5 (rhino in Moremi)

 

Moremi Game Reserve (Okavango Delta area) – Classic safari, nonprofit private game reserve, rhino & cheetah, no lion

 

Chobe National Park – Boat and classic safari, tons of elephants, Big 5 (rhino is rare)

 

Central Kalahari Game Reserve – Classic safari, all big cats (best time to visit is after summer rains)

 

Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park – Classic safari, all big cats (this is a transfrontier park with South Africa)

 

Best Time To Go

 

March to May (all parks)

 

June to September (Okavango Delta and Chobe National Park)

 

High season: July to October (Only Chobe National Park gets really crowded)

 

3. Namibia ~ desert vibes

 

Overview

 

Not your typical safari destination, Namibia is famous for its desert landscapes and stunning scenery. While I wouldn’t normally recommend this country for someone’s first safari, if you’re looking for a different kind of game drive experience then this sandy oasis might be a unique choice.

 

While animal populations here are more scare than in neighboring countries, the wildlife sightings are extremely rewarding if you know where to look. Specifically, the Etosha pan is a seasonal wildlife magnet where tourists can expect to see large groups of wildebeest, zebra, lion, and elephant congregating during the dry season. The only downside to this park is that the safari experience is much more commercial than somewhere like Botswana. Formore exclusive and personalized experiences it’s probably a good idea to check out some of the private reserves bordering Etosha.

 

In terms of wildlife, Namibia is known for having excellent cheetah sightings, so if that’s your thing it’s definitely worth adding this destination to your maybe-list.  The country is also home to the endangered desert black rhino and desert elephant — both of which are considered pretty incredible wildlife sightings in the safari world.

 

Best Parks For Going On Safari

 

Namibia has a total of 13 different wildlife parks and reserves. Top safari destinations include:

 

Etosha National Park – Classic safari, four of the Big Five (no buffalo), abundant wildlife during the dry season

 

Zambezi Region (formerly Caprivi Strip)– An area containing multiple parks, four of the Big Five (no rhino) elephant, giraffe, antelope species, many bird species

 

Waterberg Plateau Park Walking and classic safari, rhino, leopard, cheetah and antelope species

 

Namib-Naukluft -Beautiful desert scenery, spectacular sand dunes, wildlife present but scarce

 

Skeleton Coast -Beautiful desert coastline, marine wildlife, seal colony, big wildlife is present but scarce

 

Damaraland (Kunene Region) – Beautiful desert scenery, rhino, desert elephant, lion, antelope species present but overall wildlife is scarce

 

Best Time To Go

 

June to October (all parks)

 

High season: July to October (Etosha National Park gets crowded)

 

4. Zambia ~ adventure is calling

 

North Luangwa National Park pontoon

Crossing the Luangwa River on a man-operated pontoon. Photo by Zander.

 

Overview

 

Famous for its walking safaris, Zambia is where you’ll find some of the best, most knowable guides in all of Africa. I wouldn’t typically pitch this safari destination to first-timers, but for those with an adventurous spirit who aren’t interested in an overly commercialized destination, Zambia just might be a dope choice.

 

In addition to its classic safaris and famous walking safaris, Zambia also offers excellent night game drives as well as boating and canoe safaris on the Zambezi River. Here you’ll find lots of safari favorites like lion, leopards, elephant, zebra, hippo, and buffalo. Zambia is also home to the geographically isolated and rare Rhodesian giraffe (aka Thornicroft’s giraffe), of which only 550 are estimated to live in the wild. That said, don’t expect to see much in terms of cheetah or wild dog, and when it comes to rhino sightings can be equally scarce as populations are confined to a small handful of parks. 

 

What I really love about Zambia is the focus on small eco-friendly bush camps and low-density tourism, both of which make for a truly awesome wildness vibe. Accommodations and wildlife adventure activities are pretty affordable here too, which is always a plus. For a lot of tourists, Zambia’s biggest draw is the ability to easily add a trip to Victoria Falls to your safari itinerary (or vice versa).

 

Extra Tip

 

For any adventurous folks out there who find themselves self-driving through the country, be sure to add Kapishya Hot Springs as a stopover. This hidden gem is hands-down one of my favorite places in all of Africa to spend a weekend. 

 

Best Parks For Going On Safari

 

Zambia has a total of 14 different wildlife parks and reserves. Top safari destinations include:

 

South Luangwa Walking and classic safari, abundant wildlife, Thornicroft’s giraffe, four of the Big Five (no rhino)

 

Kafue Walking, boat and classic safari, cheetah, four of the Big Five (no rhino), no giraffe

 

Lower Zambezi Canoe and classic safari, four of the Big 5 (no rhino), no giraffe

 

Luambe National Park – Walking and classic safari, four of the Big 5 (no rhino), no giraffe

 

North Luangwa – Walking and classic safari, Big Five (rhino in protected zone only), no giraffe

 

Best Time To Go

 

May to September (all parks)

 

High season: July to October (only Victoria Falls gets really busy)

 

For a little more Zambia-inspo, check out my Zambia Instagram Story.

 

5. Zimbabwe ~ the ‘up-and-comer’

 

Zimbabwe safari

Game drive views at Imire Rhino & Wildlife Sanctuary in Zimbabwe. Photo by Zander.

 

Overview

 

If I had written this post a couple of years ago I might have left Zimbabwe (or ‘Zim’, as I like to call it) out as a safari destination, especially for first-timers. But a lot has changed in the country ever since its former President (who ruled for 30 years) was ousted in 2017, and I can honestly say that not only is Zim safe but it’s home to some of the kindest, hardest working people on the continent and some of the wildest camps in all of Africa.

 

While the country’s safari industry still has a ways to go before it’s competing with some of Africa top safari destinations, it is going to get there. In the meantime, what makes Zimbabwe such a cool safari destination is that you can get a lot of bang for your buck in the country.

 

Like Zambia, Zimbabwe is one of the best places for walking safaris. And despite that fact that tourists are few and prices here are competitive, the main parks are really well cared for and very much worth visiting. Specifically, Hwange and Mana Pools are two Zimbabwe safari destinations not to be missed.

 

Extra Tip

 

There are also some really cool conservation projects at work in Zimbabwe, like Imire Rhino & Wildlife Conservation and Free To Be Wild Sanctuary, which make for great stopovers. Visitors can easily add Victoria Falls to their itineraries as well.

 

Best Parks For Going On Safari

 

Zimbabwe has a total of 8 different wildlife parks and reserves. Top safari destinations include:

 

Hwange National Park – Classic safari, abundance of all major safari animals including the Big Five

 

Mana Pools National Park – Walking, canoe and classic safaris, four of the Big Five (no rhino), wild dog also present

 

Matusadona National Park – Walking, boat and classic safari, Big Five, lots of elephants, no giraffe

 

Gonarezhou National Park – Classic safari, Big Five (rhino rare), cheetah present

 

Matobo National Park – Classic safari, rhino, leopard, cheetah, giraffe and antelope species can be found here

 

Best Time To Go

 

May to September (all parks)

 

High season: July to October (but only Victoria Falls gets really busy)

 

For a little more Zimbabwe-inspo, check out my Zimbabwe Instagram Story.

 

EAST AFRICA

Top Destinations

 

6. Tanzania ~ for cat lovers

 

Best Africa Safari DEstinations

Two lions preparing to mate in Serengeti National Park, Tanzania. Photo by Zander.

 

Overview

 

Tanzania is an excellent overall choice for first-time safari-goers. The country has a well-developed safari industry and boasts some of the highest concentrations of wildlife. For all the big cat lovers out there, Tanzania is also one of the best places to spot Africa’s iconic feline species. In fact, I’ve never seen as many lions during one game in all my life as I did when visiting Serengeti National Park (our first sighting was two male lions, second was two lionesses- one was pregnant, third was a female with 3 cubs, fourth was a single male lion, fifth was a male and female mating, sixth was two male lions eating a kill — and that’s all on top of two cheetah sightings in the exact same day). So yeah, it’s safe to say that if big cats are your thing, Tanzania is where it’s at.

 

But cats aren’t the only big wildlife draw to Tanzania. Every year safari-goers flock to the plains of the Serengeti to witness the annual Great Wildebeest Migration, where more than 1.5 million wildebeest, 250,000 zebra, and numerous other animals make their way through the park. The migration makes its way to Tanzania between June and July and again between January and February, so if this is something you’re interested in witnessing (which it totally should be because it’s absolutely jaw-dropping to see in person) be sure to plan well in advance as many of the best places (especially the affordable ones) book up fast.

 

The country has three main safari circuits, the popular Northern Safari Circuit (Serengeti, Ngorongoro, Mount Kilimanjaro, Lake Manyara and Tarangire), the Southern Safari Circuit (Ruaha and Selous Game Reserve), and the Western Safari Circut (Mahale Mountains National Park which is home to some of the last remaining wild chimpanzees in Africa and the Katavi National Park where safari goers are privileged to find the rare roan and sable antelope species). Game drives here tend to be by vehicle, with few opportunities to get out on foot or go on boating safaris as one can in most of Southern Africa’s safari destinations. But if you ask me, the cultural experience, like community visits with local tribes such as the Maasai, makes up for the sparse diversity of safari activities.

 

Alternatively, you can always add a picture perfect beach experience to your Tanzania holiday (check out the island options in the Zanzibar archipelago). And for anyone feeling extra adventurous, I can’t forget to mention that Tanzania is also home to the continent’s tallest mountain, Mount Kilimanjaro, so you might want to pack your hiking boots.

 

The final thing I’ll add about Tanzania is that its most popular safari parks have some of the highest entrance fees in Africa, specifically Ngorongoro Crater which charges a $295 entrance fee per vehicle per day — on top of a $71 entrance fee per adult.

 

Best Parks For Going On Safari

 

Tanzania has a total of 13 different wildlife parks and reserves. Top safari destinations include:

 

Serengeti National Park – Classic safari, Big Five (rhino rare), tons of big cats, annual wildebeest migration

 

Ngorongoro Crater – Classic safari, abundant wildlife in the volcanic crater including Big Five

 

Ruaha National Park – Walking and classic safaris, four of Big Five (no rhino), cheetah & wild dog also present

 

Katavi National Park – Walking and classic safari, four of Big Five (no rhino), lots of wildlife during dry season

 

Lake Manyara National Park – Classic safari, four of Big Five (no rhino), big cats are hard to spot

 

Tarangire National Park – Classic Safari, four of Big Five (no rhino), abundant wildlife during the dry season

 

Selous Game Reserve – Walking, boat and classic safari, Big Five, healthy pop of wild dogs

 

Gombe National Park – Chimpanzee tracking, other primate species are also present

 

Mahale Mountains National Park – Chimpanzee tracking, several major safari animals are also present but rarely seen

 

Best Time To Go

 

June to October (Great Migration from June to Jul & January to February)

 

High season: July to March (Northern Safari Circuit parks get crowded)

 

For a little more Tanzania-inspo, check out my Tanzania Instagram Story.

 

7. Kenya ~ conservation hotspot

 

Top Safari Destinations Kenya

Young elephants in Kenya’s Amboseli National Park. Photo by me.

 

Overview

 

Kenya is one destination that ticks a lot of boxes for first-time safari-goers. Not only does it boast incredible wildlife viewing opportunities, but Kenya also offers visitors the option to easily add-on a beach getaway and/or an adventurous hike up Mount Kilimanjaro. It’s famed Masai Mara National Reserve is also home to the Great Wildebeest Migration, but here the wildlife spectacle happens late July through early October.

 

Migration aside, Kenya has a huge concentration of wildlife year round. While big cats sightings aren’t as common here (well except for lion, there’s plenty of those) when compared to somewhere like the Serengeti in Tanzania, other sizable species like giraffe, hippo, and elephant are plentiful. Safari favorites like the wild dog and rhino can be found in many of Kenya’s parks and reserves, they just happen to be a bit more elusive as well.

 

The big appeal for a lot of first-timers is how well-developed Kenya’s safari industry is — it’s very similar to South Africa’s. Accommodation options are plentiful and diverse which makes it possible to have a great safari experience on any reasonable budget. This mass-market approach to wildlife tourism does make Kenya one of the busier safari destinations in Africa, but thankfully there are a handful of privately operated conservancies (much like in Botswana) that offer low-density tourism options for a more exclusive and personalized experience, at a price of course.

 

Last but not least, what I love most about Kenya is how committed it is community-based conservation, and if you choose to visit there’s no doubt you’ll hear stories and see examples of how tourism gives back to local communities. To learn more about some of Kenya’s community-based conservation efforts check out THIS post.

 

Best Parks For Going On Safari

 

Kenya has a total of 26 different wildlife parks and reserves. Top safari destinations include:

 

Masai Mara National Reserve – Classic safari, Big Five (rhino rare), many big cats, wildebeest migration

 

Amboseli National Park – Classic safari, Big Five, famous for its views of Mount Kilimanjaro

 

Lake Nakuru National Park – Classic safari, black and white rhino, family-friendly park

 

Samburu National Park- Classic safari, four of the Big Five (no rhino), adjoining Buffalo Springs without fences

 

Buffalo Springs National Reserve –  Classic safari, 4 of the Big 5 (no rhino), adjoining Samburu NR without fences

 

Aberdare National Park- Classic safari, Big 5 present (lion difficult to spot)

 

Ol Pejeta Conservancy (Laikipia) – Classic safari, private reserve, Big Five, chimpanzee sanctuary

 

Lewa Wildlife Conservancy (Laikipia) – Classic safari, private reserve, Big Five

 

Best Time To Go

 

June to October, January to February

 

High season: July to November, January, and February

 

9. Uganda & 10. Rwanda ~ endangered mountain gorillas, need I say more?

 

Best places to go on safari in Africa

Endangered mountain gorilla in Bwindi Impenetrable National Park, Uganda. Photo by me.

 

Both destinations are world-famous for being one of only three places in the world where you can see endangered mountain gorillas in the wild (the other is the Democratic Republic of Congo, aka DRC). People often design itineraries featuring gorilla trekking as an add-on to a Kenya or Tanzania safari, but if you ask me, both Uganda and Rwanda are worthy of a standalone safari destination in their own right.

 

UGANDA

 

Overview

 

If you follow me on social media then you know how much I love Uganda. And while I wouldn’t normally suggest it as a safari destination or first-timers, if you have gorilla trekking on your travel bucket list then Uganda might be a perfect choice. You can check out this In-Depth Guide To Gorilla Trekking in Uganda for more information about this once-in-a-lifetime experience.

 

Of the three mountain gorilla trekking destinations, Uganda offers the most diversity in terms of wildlife experiences, including classic, boat and hot air balloon safari experiences. Queen Elizabeth National Park and Murchison Falls National Park are home to four of the Big Five (no rhino) and offer both classic and boat safaris (in Murchison Falls the boat safari is on the famous Nile River). But it’s definitely Uganda’s Bwindi Impenetrable National Park and Mgahinga National Park  — both of which offer renowned gorilla trekking experiences — that are the country’s biggest draws. For any birders out there, Uganda also offers some of the best birding in all of Africa.

 

It’s important to keep in mind that Uganda’s safari industry isn’t as developed as most of the other destinations on this list, and the wildlife isn’t going to be as abundant as it is in places like Kenya and Tanzania. That said, if you’re open to more off-the-beaten-path experiences and would appreciate a bit of diversity for your first Africa-itinerary, then I’d definitely check out Uganda. If you don’t make it here for your first safari experience I’d definitely consider it for your next one.

 

If Uganda has piqued your interest, be sure to check out my post on 8 Must-Do Wild Things In Uganda.

 

Best Parks For Going On Safari

 

Kenya has a total of 26 different wildlife parks and reserves. Top safari destinations include:

 

Bwindi Impenetrable National Park – Mountain gorilla trekking

 

Murchison Falls National Park – Boat and classic safaris, four of the Big Five (no rhino)

 

Queen Elizabeth National Park – Boat and classic safaris, four of the Big Five (no rhino), no giraffe

 

Kibale National Park – Chimpanzee trekking

 

Mgahinga Gorilla National Park – Mountain gorilla trekking

 

Best Time To Go

 

June to August, December to February

 

High season: June to September (but it is rarely crowded)

 

Extra Tip

 

If you love rhinos be sure to pay a visit to Uganda Rhino Fund’s Ziwa Rhino Sanctuary, it’s one of the only two places in the country where you can see rhinos — the other is the Uganda Wildlife Conservation Education Center — and it offers on-foot rhino trekking safaris. Ziwa is located about a 2.5-hour drive to/from the capital city of Kampala and about a 2-hour drive to/from Murchison Falls National Park.

 

For a little more Uganda-inspo check out THIS travel video.

 

RWANDA

 

Overview

 

Rwanda might be one of Africa’s smallest countries but it packs in plenty in terms of wildlife appeal. Its Akagera National Park is one of the coolest conservation comeback stories in all of Africa, where less than 20 years ago the park’s wildlife was wiped out due to Rwandan Civil War. Today, it is not only home to the Big Five but many other safari favorites like giraffe, cheetah, and sable antelope. But like Uganda, its country’s mountain gorillas that are its real draw.

 

Its Volcanoes National Park is the site of famed primatologist Dian Fossey’s Karisoke Research Station, and one of the best places in the world to see these endangered species in the wild. It is also home to the endangered golden monkeys which can be found hiding in the bamboo forests of the park.

 

Rwanda is known for being the most expensive place to go gorilla, but it’s also considered the safest and the easiest place to do it. Being that Rwanda is only about 1.5 times the size of South Africa’s Kruger National Park, almost all points of interest are about a 4-hour drive from the country’s capital, Kigali, making it a good choice for those with more limited time.

 

Thanks to its small size, Rwanda has become known for being one of Africa’s more intimate safari destinations. So if romance and exclusivity are high on your priority list, definitely give this East African safari destination a serious look.

 

Best Parks For Going On Safari

 

Akagera National Park – Classic safari, Big Five

 

Volcanoes National Park – Mountain gorilla trekking, golden monkey trekking

 

Nyungwe Forest National Park – Chimpanzee trekking, excellent birding

 

Best Time To Go

 

Mid-December to February, June to September (all parks)

 

Mid-February to June, mid-September to mid-December (chimp trekking in Nyungwe)

 

 

Top Safari in Africa

Out on safari in Serengeti National Park in Tanzania. Photo by Zander.

 

Part Five

WHAT TO PACK ON SAFARI

 

What you should pack for your first African safari depends on a number of factors (surprise, surprise), including where you’ll be going, what time of year you’ll be traveling, and what kind of safari-related activities you plan to do. I’ll be putting out a detailed safari packing list soon, but for now here are some of my top must-pack items:

 

Warm Layers

 

Emphasis on the layers.

 

Most classic game drive schedules include an early morning safari and late afternoon/evening safari, so you’ll likely find yourself going from cold to hot and/or hot to cold all during the same drive. Therefore, having layers to take off and layers to put on when needed is essential.

 

My version of layering usually consists of a scarf, tank top, long sleeve shirt, and a sweater/jacket on top, leggings or jeans on bottom, and a blanket on standby to throw over my lap when needed. If you’re traveling to Africa during the winter months you can expect the temperates to drop dramatically when the sun goes down, so it’s a good idea to also pack gloves and something to keep your head/ears warm (especially if you’re going to be in an open-air safari vehicle).

 

Extra Tip

 

One of my favorite tricks to keep warm on safari is sticking hand warmers like THESE inside my pockets and gloves. I’ve also gone as far as to pack a classic hot water pouch like THIS and snuggle with it while out on safari.

 

Dark Colors

 

Dull and/or neutral colored clothing is more suitable for safari attire than white and/or bright colors, this is especially important if you plan to go on any walking safaris while you’re in Africa. However, you’ll also want to avoid really dark colors like black and/or dark grays and blues, especially if you’re in a place where tsetse flies are present. These guys are attracted to anything that looks like the dark hide of animals (like buffalo) and they WILL bite anything that resembles it. Just see for yourself…

 

 

(BTW, I told him not to wear that black shirt.)

 

Loose & Long Clothing

 

Wearing loose long-sleeved clothing and long pants can help prevent pests like mosquitos from making direct contact with your skin. Covering up exposed skin in this way is especially important after the sun goes down.

 

Mosquito (and other pests) Repellant 

 

This might be an obvious thing to pack on safari but I’m adding it to this list anyway because it’s definitely something you don’t want to forget. I typically pack a spray version to use on my clothes as well as a lotion-based version to use on my skin.

 

Extra Tip

 

The strongest stuff on the market is going to be something with DEET in it, but personally I don’t like using DEET products as they can be toxic to animals and even people. My favorite deet-free repellant (that works really well) is Avon’s Skin So Soft. To kill two birds with one stone I like to use the sunscreen version.

 

Part Six

VISAS & HEALTH REQUIREMENTS

 

Each of Africa’s 54 countries has different visa rules and health requirements for foreign visitors. If you’re a U.S. citizen, the most up-to-date information for what you’ll need to enter a specific country can be found on the U.S. Department of State’s website (it provides travel information for U.S. passport holders for every country in the world).

 

Whatever your country of residence, a few key things to be mindful of are: 1. whether your final safari destination(s) requires you to apply for a visa in advance or if you can do it upon arrival, 2. your passport’s expiration date, 3. how many blank pages you have left in your passport, 4. any required immunizations (and a certified record of them) that you’ll need to enter a specific country.

 

Here’s a quick breakdown of the visa and health requirements for U.S. citizens to enter some of Africa’s most popular safari destinations:

 

South Africa

 

TOURIST VISA REQUIRED: No, if visiting 90 days or less

PASSPORT VALIDITY: 30 days

BLANK PASSPORT PAGES: 2 consecutive empty visa pages per entry

VACCINATIONS: Yellow fever at least 10 days before arrival is required for travelers originating from or transiting through WHO-designated yellow fever countries

 

Botswana

 

TOURIST VISA REQUIRED: No

PASSPORT VALIDITY: 6 months

BLANK PASSPORT PAGES: Three or more unused pages; one blank page per entry

VACCINATIONS: Yes, if entering from yellow fever endemic countries

 

Namibia

 

TOURIST VISA REQUIRED: Yes, planeside visa available for tourists up to 90 days.

PASSPORT VALIDITY: Six months

BLANK PASSPORT PAGES: Six pages

VACCINATIONS: Yellow fever, if traveling from a yellow fever endemic country

 

Zambia

 

TOURIST VISA REQUIRED: Yes

PASSPORT VALIDITY: 6 months

BLANK PASSPORT PAGES: 2 blank pages per entry for Zambia, and South Africa if transiting

VACCINATIONS: Yellow fever, if entering from a yellow fever endemic country

 

Zimbabwe

 

TOURIST VISA REQUIRED: Yes, to be obtained at the port of entry

PASSPORT VALIDITY: No minimum requirement, recommend at least 6 months

BLANK PASSPORT PAGES: Recommend at least 2 blanks pages

VACCINATIONS: Yellow fever, if traveling from/through countries where it is prevalent

 

Tanzania

 

TOURIST VISA REQUIRED: Yes

PASSPORT VALIDITY: 6 months

BLANK PASSPORT PAGES: 1 page

VACCINATIONS: Yellow fever required if traveling from a yellow fever endemic country

 

Kenya

 

TOURIST VISA REQUIRED: Yes

PASSPORT VALIDITY: Six months

BLANK PASSPORT PAGES: Two pages

VACCINATIONS: Yellow Fever

 

Uganda

 

TOURIST VISA REQUIRED: Yes

PASSPORT VALIDITY: 6 months

BLANK PASSPORT PAGES: One page for entry stamp

VACCINATIONS: Yellow Fever; Polio (for children under 5)

 

Rwanda

 

TOURIST VISA REQUIRED: Yes

PASSPORT VALIDITY: 6 months

BLANK PASSPORT PAGES: 1 page

VACCINATIONS: Yellow Fever

 

SHOULD I TAKE ANTI MALARIA PILLS? 

 

Malaria is common in many parts of Africa, and in most cases, it can be prevented with antimalarial drugs. While there aren’t any African countries that currently require visitors to take anti-malaria medication, most travel and medical professionals will advise you to take them if your safari destination has had any recent cases of malaria, especially if you’re traveling during the rainy season.

 

I definitely advise anyone visiting Africa for the first time to consult with a qualified doctor, nurse, or pharmacist in order to decide whether or not to take anti-malaria medication, as well as deciding which one to take. Something important to keep in mind is that you’ll need to begin taking anti-malaria medication prior to arriving in a malarial zone, so it’s best to get a jump on this part of the planning process early.

 

With that said, the first few times I traveled to African countries (specifically South Africa, Uganda, and Kenya) I didn’t take any anti-malaria medication because I was too worried about the possible side effects (which include but are not limited to nausea, vomiting, abdominal pain, upset stomach, headache, diarrhea, weakness, and loss of appetite). Instead, I just took my chances with bite prevention practices like using mosquito repellent, covering up at night, and sleeping under a mosquito net — all of which (luckily) worked out for me just fine.

 

It wasn’t until my recent 7-month road trip in Africa that I decided to take anti-malaria pills for the first time, which didn’t turn out to be all that bad. Specifically, my fiance and I took the daily anti-malaria tablet Mozitech, which we bought in South Africa (it was a lot cheaper to buy them there than in the U.S.) and started taking prior to visiting any malaria zones. Neither of us experienced any noteworthy side effects except for the occasional vivid dream during the first couple of weeks on the pill.

 

FINAL THOUGHTS

 

Where to go on safari in Africa

The views at Croc Valley Camp in South Luangwa National Park, Zambia. Photo by Zander.

 

As the length of this post and the amount of information I tried to cover might have indicated, planning your first African safari can be a lot of work. But if you ask me, it’s absolutely worth the effort if it means that your first safari experience will be everything you want and more.

 

The good news is that with so many incredible safari destinations to choose from in Africa you really can’t go wrong. From South Africa to Tanzania, there’s no shortage of amazing wildlife experiences to be had on this incredible continent. And if you’re anything like me, there’s a good chance that your first African safari won’t be your last.

 

If you have any additional questions about planning your first African safari, or if you’d like to share any additional advice for first-time safari-goers, please feel free to post in the comment section below!

 

 

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Guide To Planning Your First African Safari

 

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