So you’ve decided to take the plunge and tick ‘African safari’ off your bucket list, but not sure exactly where to go to do so? I GOT YOU.
Straight off the cuff, I would say GO TO SOUTH AFRICA FO SHO because personally that’s my favourite country to go on safari. However, that would make for a very short article, and also may not be the best choice for everyone, and also you may not even BELIEVE me seeing as I married a South African ranger and could be a bit biased (I’m so NOT though). So to help you make the right choice for YOU, read on to figure out where is best for you. There’s a good chance it will STILL be South Africa. (Just sayin). Disclaimer: the below is based on my personal experience and what I have read/heard from well-informed sources. If you disagree with something I have said, please by all means point it out in the comment section!
You can pretty much narrow your choices down to South Africa, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Zambia, Namibia, Kenya and Tanzania. Other African countries offer safari experiences, but take it from me, they won’t be as good. Of course if you specifically want to trek with gorillas, you will need to look at Rwanda, Uganda or DRC (Democratic Republic of Congo). But for a real, proper safari experience where you will see the Big 5 (or close to), you will need to visit one (or more!) of the aforementioned seven countries. I have personally been to all of them except Zambia (well technically I’ve been there while cruising the Zambezi but it doesn’t really count). Here’s a run-down:
My FAVOURITE safari destination. Why?
- Best of both worlds with private game reserves and self-driving through Kruger
- There is a great range of extremely high quality private game reserves, this is where you go to get pampered, and go off road to be within metres of the Big 5. There’s nothing more exhilarating than sitting in silence in the dark, while a pride of lions surrounds your vehicle, on the hunt. This was where I found myself on my first night drive at a private game reserve in South Africa – SO MEMORABLE! (so memorable in fact that I ended up marrying the ranger I met that day!)
- Self-driving in Kruger may not sound that appealing, but honestly there is something totally magical about driving around in a normal car on normal roads and then having a lion walk out right in front of your vehicle. It’s CRAZY and AMAZING. (see my top 10 reasons to self-drive Kruger to help convince you)
- The Greater Kruger is as big as a small country (eg. Wales) – it’s the true ‘wilderness’!
- It has the Big 5 and just about everything else. If you spend 1-2 weeks on safari in South Africa, you will almost definitely see the Big 5 (lion, leopard, rhino, buffalo, elephant) and so many other beautiful animals like zebra, giraffe, cheetah, heaps of antelope species and maybe even endangered wild dogs!
- Everyone (well virtually) speaks English, it’s safe to self-drive, roads are typically high quality, food is super cheap and everything is pretty straightforward and easy.
- There are plenty of tourist spots in South Africa including Cape Town, the Garden Route etc that you can add to your Safari adventure to make it an even more special holiday
- Typically easier to get to than other countries as Johannesburg is very well connected from a flight path perspective – for example flying from Sydney Australia it is the only place in Africa we can get to flying direct (without taking a second flight)
- You can choose an option to suit your budget from 5 star game lodges to camping at Kruger for $20 a night (or a mixture)!
- HOWEVER: as South Africa is a popular option for safari – both for international and domestic tourists, prices can be higher at nicer lodges, they can book out and game viewing can be crowded. This is particularly true for the South of Kruger (around Skukuza and Lower Sabie) at peak periods (usually due to domestic tourists more than international).
Truthfully I have only been to Botswana once before and it was a good few years ago. But here’s what makes it a good option:
- Really diverse terrain – from the Kalahari to Okavango Delta to woodland, you can experience amazing landscapes
- Okavango delta – true ‘wilderness’ – camping here is pretty much as close as you can get to nature (this will be truly wild camping – there are no established camp sites and that means NO toilets and NO showers!). Whether you are listening to (and worrying about) hyenas calling while using a dug out drop toilet or running away from an elephant trundling through the bush towards you (, it’s definitely a unique experience camping out with no people for god knows how long (SO FAR).
- Botswana has amazing elephant sightings – so many large herds and fantastic opportunities to see them interacting with water! Visit Chobe for the best chance of amazing elephant sightings.
- The country is less populated than other countries and tourism is kept to modest levels thanks to a conservation-minded president, so this can improve your safari sightings
- You can see the Big 5 and much more here – the diversity of animals compares closely with South Africa, however when I did my safari in Botswana (including Moremi, Chobe and Okavango Delta) I missed out on leopard (I did see one in the distance on a tree but couldn’t get photos), rhino and cheetah. That was quite a while ago but compare it to my first safari in South Africa where I saw the Big 5 in my first two days … and I usually see Big 5 within 2 days in Kruger self-driving too (in fact often you see them in one day). From my personal experience game viewing is better in South Africa, whether at a private game reserve or Kruger. I have never self-driven Botswana though (something for the future!)
- Taking a boat ride down the Zambezi or Chobe river is awesome, and odds are you will have awesome elephant sightings – that’s something you don’t get in many other countries (including South Africa)
- The people in Botswana are some of my favourite in the world – so happy and friendly
- It’s one of the safest countries in South Africa, thanks to being one of the richest and best governed
- HOWEVER: Note that Botswana is typically a more expensive option for your safari than other countries, although you can definitely do it on a budget by self driving and camping!
I just visited Namibia for the first time a few months ago and we drove around ourselves experiencing most of the country – I loved it and I do recommend it as another AWESOME safari option…
- It is AMAZING for photographs (albeit some of the man-made waterholes are a bit ugly) – because there is less foliage and animals concentrate around waterholes, it offers fantastic photographic opportunities. The photos I brought home from just three nights in Etosha are better than the pics from a whole week in South Africa (that particular trip)
- It offers AMAZING sunsets – this is pretty much a hallmark of Africa in general, but the sunsets in Namibia were particularly breath-taking
- It is AMAZING for plains game – if you are looking for large herds of zebra, wildebeest, springbok, impala and even giraffes – this is a good place to go. There are so many of them!
- It is also of course AMAZING for animals drinking – you won’t find better opportunities to capture a diverse range of animals drinking than in Namibia (particularly during the peak dry season)
- It’s good for elephants, but I would say South Africa, Botswana and probably Zimbabwe/Zambia are better, particularly for large herds.
- It’s great for lions and hyenas
- It’s good for black rhino (difficult to find in other Southern countries) – particularly if you stay at Okaukeujo for at least one night (they are there every night at the waterhole after dusk)
- It’s OK for cheetahs – you have to know where to look, but we had two sightings (100m apart from each other at Twee Palms)
- Outside peak times, it is much less crazy than south of Kruger (though north of Kruger is always nice and quiet)
- Country is so picturesque & one of the safest in Africa, very easy to self-drive
- Very low population density
- It’s terrible for leopards – don’t bother as finding a leopard is a bit like winning the lottery (OK maybe not quite that unlikely)
- There are no buffalo, wild dogs or crocodiles (I think) – this means you can’t see the Big 5 or Big 7
- There is not the same high quality options for private game reserve / off-roading as ZA – although you can stay in luxury places just outside Etosha but they cannot offroad either. So in that sense, the quality of game viewing may be lower than a private game reserve in South Africa
- There’s few camps inside the park to choose from compared with Kruger
- It can get quite congested at busy times at popular waterholes (given the nature of it is to hang out at waterholes to see the best game viewing)
Kenya & Tanzania
East Africa is definitely representative of the ‘traditional’ safari experience from an open plains, great migration perspective. This is where you go to find thousands of wildebeest and great open plains with a big rock and a lion holding up a lion cub and such (or something a bit like that…). What makes these countries a good option?
- It is often easier to spot animals (like Namibia) because the vegetation is less dense and there are more open plains
- The scenery and terrain is more beautiful in general within game reserves
- If you are lucky you can see the coveted Black rhino – I got to see one once in Kenya (but admittedly our driver illegally went a bit off road to do so)
- Great for lion sightings, and probably the best chance to see a kill
- Great for photos due to the spectacular and sparsely vegetated terrain
- I would say it’s generally not as good as South Africa for leopards and cheetah, although I did have an amazing sighting of a cheetah and cubs in Kenya. I also saw a leopard in a tree in Tanzania – so both cats exist, just in my experience they are more prevalent in South Africa (private game reserve and in Kruger)
- You cannot off-road, so while you can see animals more easily at times due to the flatter, sparser terrain, the animals have to come to you or be near the road to get a high quality sighting (or your driver has to break the rules, which is VERY NAUGHTY)
- There’s no limit to vehicles at any sighting – can end up as free for all particularly during peak periods – this is particularly true in the Maasai Mara during the months of the great migration
- Not as good for elephants as southern African countries (they are still there and you will almost definitely see them, just not as many and not as many large herds – in my experience)
- Nairobi and Dar es salaam are super intimidating cities! I didn’t feel comfortable in either (though I was there by myself and probably a bit of a wuss)
- Safety is becoming more of an issue in Eastern Africa, particularly in Kenya where there have been some high profile terrorist attacks recently. I would consult government travel advice before booking a trip here now.
Zimbabwe & Zambia
I’ve also only been to Zimbabwe once and it was more to visit Victoria Falls and then travel to Botswana for safari. So I haven’t personally been on safari in Zimbabwe and I probably don’t have much of a right to talk about it! Similarly I haven’t been to Zambia except on a boat in the Zambezi so pretty much totally unqualified to talk about either country with respect to the safari experience. HOWEVER plenty of people write shit about things they know nothing about (think: political status updates on Facebook) so why not me? Here are a few points, it’s by no means exhaustive so if you are seriously considering one of the Z’ers for your safari you may want to do a little more research 🙂
- Not so long ago the political instability made Zimbabwe a dangerous place to visit, but tourism is back on track now
- Zimbabwe and Zambia are home to Victoria Falls, one of the Seven Natural Wonders of the World – a spectacular waterfall, if you like that sort of thing (personally I thought it was nice but nothing compared to being up close and personal with a lion in the wild… but that’s just me)
- Hwange National Park (Zim) is the largest game park – it is large enough to have diverse landscapes and is home to the Big 5 – the game diversity is comparable to other countries like South Africa and Botswana
- Given tourism is still recovering in Zimbabwe and either country is not usually the 1st, 2nd or 3rd choice for a safari destination for most people, it can be a more quiet option where you avoid crowds and get quality game viewing privacy. Who doesn’t want to spend some quality 1:1 time with a nice big male lion? I DO
- Both countries are great for river cruises and seeing game in the water (esp elephants)!
- In Zambia most safari camps/lodges are very small, so more intimate and service focused – it’s typically considered a bit more ‘remote’ and ‘wild’ than other countries!
- The poorer quality of roads in Zambia means that you may need to utilise charter flights to get to the national parks – which could be more expensive
- There’s great diversity in activities you can engage in in both these countries – from canoeing safaris, to walking safaris to going on a night safari via 4WD
- Overall Zambia and Zimbabwe are a bit more ‘rugged’ and probably well suited for those who are returning to Africa and are looking for something a bit more ‘off the beaten track’then
I don’t know how much that helped you but let me just close by saying – if you are heading to Africa for your first safari experience and you are looking for a good balance of comfort (ie not roughing it too much) and quality wildlife viewing, you cannot go wrong with South Africa. Mix it up and spend a few nights in a private game reserve (pampering, luxury and amazing wildlife viewing up close and personal) and some self-driving in Kruger (cheaper but exciting and still great game viewing). If you spend 5-10 days (or more if you can afford it) in this way you will undoubtedly see everything you were hoping for and more! There are options to suit every budget and it’s one of the best places to find some of the more elusive animals like leopard and cheetah.
If you are looking for more amazing scenery and open plains to add to your wildlife adventure consider Namibia (but you won’t get Big 5 or probably leopard) or Kenya/Tanzania. Personally my game viewing hasn’t been as good and you may miss the awesome private game reserve opportunity – but the chances of seeing a kill and getting some amazing pics are higher (you will still get amazing pics in South Africa though). Zambia and Zimbabwe are good options for people who have already been on safari and want to experience something a bit more wild.
Whatever country you choose, you won’t go wrong – any African safari will be an experience YOU WILL NEVER FORGET!