African Safari Explained: What, Why, Where, When, and How much
“African safari is an expedition or a trip, usually by tourists, to observe animals in their natural habitat.”
These natural habitats can be national parks or game reserves such as Kruger national park in South Africa, Masai Mara in Kenya, and Serengeti in Tanzania. For the sake of basic understanding, I will limit my examples to these Top 3 safari destinations that are also my personal favorites.
Serengeti National Park, Tanzania
Serengeti in Tanzania is one of the famous national parks in the world. It spans thousands of kilometers where animals including Simba and Mufasa live and hunt freely. They don’t belong to an owner and they roam wherever they like. You might as well call them wildlife citizens of Tanzania because they live there and are protected by rights in that country.
So as a tourist in Africa, the way to see them is to go on a safari.
Types of Safaris
There are different forms of African safaris. The most notable ones are walking safari, hiking, or the most popular, game-drives.
A walking safari involves you, your fellow travelers and a qualified guide along with an armed game scout that will take you to the best spots in the park to see wildlife or picturesque views. Like any other type of safari, walking safaris may either be a private tour or a group wherein you join other travelers.
Hiking safari, on the other hand, is when you go on a trekking expedition to experience the mountains like Mount Kilimanjaro, Mount Kenya and the Drakensburg mountains. Usually, people combine these safaris with game-drives.
Game-drives are a staple safari activity. You explore parks and game reserves by riding a vehicle with a pop-up roof. A tour guide/driver will come with you to drive for several hours in search of wildlife. You will literally drive from between 5-6 hrs. a day and whenever your guide sees a Lion, elephant, or any wildlife, you will stop to see them and/or take photos from inside your vehicle (through the pop-up roof).
Unlike in a zoo, there’s no set place to see the animals. Nobody knows where they will be hanging out at any time of the day, but your professional guide who’ve had years of training and experience spotting wildlife would know where they “might” be. This is why it’s important to have a good tour guide or else you will miss seeing the animals.
Game Drive Safari in Tanzania
Before I traveled to Africa and did my first safari, my only knowledge of the wild are those that I see from National Geographic channel or Animal Planet. My closest encounter would be from the not-so-many ZOOS that I’ve been too.
It was so surreal to see animals in their own habitat where they live freely. It’s like finally meeting a celebrity you’ve only known and seen your whole life on TV. I was starstruck to see Mufasa come to life gracefully walking in the savannah to join his pride. My jaw dropped when I saw a towering Giraffe up close, and elephants walking past our vehicle felt like a Jumanji experience. All the while, Enya’s Storm in Africa song literally played in my head as I witness all of it.
You can see temples, museums, and beaches everywhere but an African safari is a completely different experience. It’s out of the ordinary where it feels like traveling to another planet — Animal Planet. The Lion King movie is fiction but the setting and the casts are all based on reality. So if you go to Kenya or Tanzania, you’ll actually see the real setting and meet the full cast of Lion King… or maybe even more.
If you get the chance, think no further and just go. African safari is something you should do at least once in your lifetime.
Safari road trip in the Animal Planet
There are several African countries where you can do a safari but the top ones are:
Kenya, Tanzania, and South Africa
There are several African countries where you can do a safari. South Africa is a popular safari destination being more developed and more-friendly for tourists who want to have more flexibility in doing their own safari. In fact, self-drive safaris is common here. This means that you can drive your own vehicle because the park has sign posts and even have restaurants and gas stations within the area.
In my case, I personally prefer Kenya or Tanzania if you want to experience a full African cultural immersion. The fact that it’s not as developed, and not as accessible all adds to the African charm. You will see tribes and hundred-old traditions that still survive and the overall ambience screams Africa better than anywhere else. But this also means you have to depend on a tour operator to arrange for everything including accommodation and meals for the whole duration of your safari. The good thing is, you can always tell them what you want to experience, what you want to see and where you want to go so they could design an itinerary that fits your liking.
Around 500 USD per person for a 5 days safari (all-inclusive), meaning all meals, tours, and budget accommodation are included
Around 1000 USD per person for a 5 days safari (all-inclusive), meaning all meals, tours, and budget accommodation are included
Around 1500 USD per person for a 5 days safari (all-inclusive), meaning all meals, tours, and luxury accommodation are included
The budget for a safari in South Africa will depend on the activities you ought to experience. If you add a hot air balloon ride or a helicopter tour, for example, prices can soar up to 400 USD for the helicopter add-on alone. Accommodation also affect the entire budget. If you choose a no-frills camping safari, 120-200 USD per person per day would suffice. If you go for the ultra-luxe tented camps, prices can go as high as 1000 USD per person per day or even more.
Compared to East Africa, South Africa is more affordable with an even wider range of accommodation options. Park fees are also cheaper and you can always opt to self-drive. Although frankly, self-driving or doing-it-yourself doesn’t automatically mean it’s the cheaper option. It often can be, but sometimes, all-inclusive packages from tour operators can be less expensive as well. So it’s better to weigh your options first.
Kenya versus Tanzania
Kenya is usually cheaper because it’s common to do a group-joining safari, meaning if you’re alone, you can join other travelers and therefore pay a lower cost. Masai Mara, the most popular park in Kenya, is smaller hence, it’s easier to spot animals. It’s the best place to see the Big 5* too. Tanzania usually only offer private safaris so it’s more expensive especially if you’re traveling alone. Serengeti, the famous park in the country and probably all over Africa, is much bigger so you have to drive farther and the search for wildlife usually takes longer. Overall, both countries has its own charm with Kenya being more affordable and accessible.
Basically, all safaris are the same, meaning they visit the same parks and game reserves. The only difference in each safari is the accommodation, which is usually classified into BUDGET, MIDRANGE and LUXURY. The rates also differ as levels of service vary from one tour operator to another.
|Safari Accommodation||Description||Sample Lodges|
|BUDGET||This is the basic type of accommodation. You can either choose to stay in a budget lodge or tented camp where you can enjoy basic amenities, or you can go camping in one of the park’s campsites. A common restroom is usually shared by all campers in that site.||South Africa: Satara Rest Camp|
Tanzania: Ikoma Safari Camp
Kenya: Enchoro Wildlife Camp
|MIDRANGE||Mid-range accommodations can range from basic hotel-like lodges to simple tented camps with a slight touch of luxury. The differences between this and budget accommodation are the amenities at your disposal, the size of the room and the location/view of your lodge/camp.||South Africa: Notten’s Bush Camp|
Tanzania: Serengeti Acacia Camps
Kenya: Mara Bush Camp
|LUXURY||Luxury accommodations are high-end lodges and exclusive luxe tented camps with first-class amenities. It usually comes with an own private lounge, a classy bathroom and sometimes even a butler! Some camps and lodges also have private swimming pools and jacuzzis.||South Africa: Singita Sweni Game Lodge|
Tanzania: Mwiba River Lodge
Kenya: Ngerende Island Lodge
*BIG 5– Lion, Elephant, Rhinoceros, Leopard, Buffalo. These are the most difficult to see and therefore usually makes up the Must-see wildlife when in Africa.
Game Drive Safari in Tanzania
Between May and September- best time to see wildlife in Kruger or other safari parks
Kenya and Tanzania
Between June and October- wildlife viewing in either country is at its prime
June to August– best season to see the wildebeest Migration
As year-round destinations, South Africa, Tanzania and Kenya promise excellent holidays, meaning you can go on a safari at anytime of the year. But, considering factors like rain and wildlife viewing quality, the best times to visit these countries may vary. Also, if you’re eyeing to see the top wildlife events such as the Great Migration, you should know when and where to go for you to be able to catch it.
South Africa has a varying regional climate although it is mostly sunny and warm with cool nights. The best time to see wildlife in Kruger or other safari parks is between May and September when animals congregate around watering holes and there are less tourist crowds. If you want to add other activities in your trip, July to November is ideal for whale watching while November to February is splendid in the Cape.
Being by the Equator, both Tanzania and Kenya share the same climate classified into wet and dry seasons. With less vegetation during dry season, particularly between June and October, wildlife viewing in either country is at its prime. You can easily spot wildlife around you and it’s almost always a guarantee that many of them are around the watering holes. This is also an optimal time to see the Great wildebeest Migration in the Serengeti in Tanzania. By this time, the herds have reached the Western Corridor and then by end of July to late September, they will be experiencing the toughest feat of their journey: the Mara River crossing. For October and early November, Masai Mara in Kenya is the place to go as the surviving herds celebrate their survival in a feast of fresh grasses.
By late December to early March, the wildebeest calving season in southern Serengeti, Tanzania ensues. This is another event, which is part of the Great Migration, that should not be overlooked because predator action is guaranteed to be at its finest — from predator-prey action to predator vs predator activity.
The Great Migration is a special event that most people dream of seeing firsthand. I never once thought I would be able to witness such incredible wildlife event but I did. And you should, too. The animal movement is spectacular beyond words… About two millions wildebeests, zebras and gazelles move across the plains to find better grazing while opportunistic predators like lions, hyenas, cheetahs, leopards and Nile crocodiles prowl in anticipation for food. So if you want to really experience the wild life, don’t miss out on the Great Migration.
HOW TO GET THERE
Kenya and South Africa are the biggest hubs in Africa because their major international airports are linked to the rest of the world by many major airlines. Due to competition, flights to these countries are also cheaper compared to flights towards Tanzania, Uganda and other African safari countries.
To South Africa
The main gateway to a safari in South Africa is Tambo International Airport (JNB) in Johannesburg. From the US, direct flights are only offered by South African Airways and Delta Airways. Flights depart from New York (JFK) and Washington Dulles or for Delta flights, it departs from Atlanta. From UK and Europe, several flights from almost all major airport offers daily flights to JNB. There are other international airports, too, like Cape Town and Durban international airports but these are usually for those who would like to explore other parts of South Africa. For example, if you’re planning to start your tour with wining and dining and exploring the Garden Route, your best bet is to fly to Cape Town international airport.
In Kenya, the main airport is Jomo Kenyatta International Airport (NBO) in Nairobi. This is one of the busiest airports in Africa and is another popular point of entry for many tourists across the globe. From the US, you can fly directly to Nairobi from New York (JFK) via Kenya Airways or you can take connecting flights from other cities like New Jersey (EWR), Washington Dulles (IAD), San Diego (SAN), Washington DC (DCA), Baltimore (BWI) and Chicago (ORD) via airlines such as KLM, Qatar Airways, United, Egyptair and Turkish Airlines. Like flying to South Africa from UK and other parts in Europe, you can get several flights from almost every major airport including Heathrow, Glasgow, Manchester, Amsterdam and Zurich. For travelers from Asia, Australia and New Zealand, the most common stopover point is Middle East, particularly Dubai.
There is another airport in Kenya which is the Moi International Airport in Mombasa. This airport is popular for those who want to start their safari with a visit to Kenya’s coastal areas.
Flying to Tanzania may be more expensive compared to South Africa and Kenya and flights, although plenty, aren’t as much available. What other people do is they book a flight via Nairobi or Johannesburg and then take a connecting flight to Tanzania, which is usually cheaper than a direct flight. The main airports in Tanzania are Kilimanjaro International Airport (JRO) in Arusha, which is perfect for those who are exploring the northern circuit safari parks (Serengeti, Mount Kilimanjaro, Lake Manyara National Park, Ngorongoro Crater, etc.); and Julius Nyerere International Airport (DAR) in Dar es Salaam, which is the most ideal entry hub for those seeking to discover Tanzania’s remote southern safari parks (Selous, Ruaha, Mikumi, etc.) or fly to Zanzibar.
From Europe, you can fly from UK airports such as LHR and LGW or from Amsterdam to Dar es Salaam. No flights are available straight to Kilimanjaro so the most advisable way of getting there is to take a connecting flight via Nairobi or Dar es Salaam. From the US, travelers can take connecting or multiple-stop flights via Amsterdam, UK or Istanbul. Travelers from Asia can depart from Hanoi in Vietnam, Bangkok in Thailand or Mumbai in India. Flights to both DAR and JRO are available from there.
The costs of flights may vary but to give you an overview, US to Johannesburg round trip fares can go as low as $680 and UK to Johannesburg as low as $570 (£428). For flights to Nairobi, you can get roundtrip tickets from US for about $750 and from UK for about $533 (£400). The flights to Tanzania will generally cost more especially if you’re flying to Kilimanjaro International Airport in Arusha. However, you can also score as low as $650 for a round trip fare from Amsterdam to Dar es Salaam. Of course, factors like season of travel and travel mileage can alter price range so it’s better if you check the prices with your preferred airlines first.
Photo Credits: Gosheni Safaris Africa