An African safari is a once in a lifetime experience. Heading out into the savannah or jungle and seeing native animals up close in the wild is a rare privilege. Africa is home to a host of iconic creatures including lions, elephants, zebra, giraffes, rhinos and thousands more. As well as watching them roam free, you can enjoy the beautiful scenery of this continent’s national parks. The only problem is, with so many great safari locations available in Africa, how do you choose between them? In this article we’ll help by comparing the top three countries to visit on an African safari: Kenya, Tanzania and South Africa.
First, let’s take a brief overview of these countries before we get into direct comparisons:
This little country sits just below Kenya, in the east of Africa, and is considered one of the best safari locations in the world thanks to its heavily populated national parks. It’s home to the famous Serengeti plains and Ngorongoro Crater. In the far north, next to the Kenyan border is Mount Kilimanjaro, a distinctive mountain which is the tallest in Africa and a world-famous trekking destination. Tanzania is a poor but beautiful and friendly country, with tourism bringing a much-needed boost to the local economy.
Lions seen in the wildlife Safari in Kenya. Photo by Paul
Kenya, in East Africa, has a wide variety of wildlife reserves and far more tourists than Tanzania. In general it is a more developed country than Tanzania. Kenya’s most famous national park is the Masai Mara, which is joined to Tanzania’s Serengeti region and like that park is host to the annual wildebeest migration every year. Over 4% of Kenya’s total area is made up of wildlife reserves. You can also find Mount Kenya here, which is a popular, easier trekking alternative to Kilimanjaro in Tanzania. In the north the country is arid, meaning you can find different species unique to this area. Nairobi, Kenya’s capital, is East Africa’s international flight hub. This detailed article on planning a Kenya safari is more insightful and will help you plan your safari.
South Africa is quite different to the East African countries. It has a much more varied climate with a range of seasons rather than just wet and dry. This means a varied and lusher landscape compared to Tanzania and Kenya. It’s most famous wildlife reserve is the mighty Kruger national park. South Africa has for decades been known as the go-to luxury safari destination with a well-established reputation for wealthy travellers and private tours. By far the most developed country of the three, South Africa is comparable to western countries with a much better infrastructure than East Africa.
The wildlife is the main attraction of an African Safari. Photo by Ivan
As we’re comparing safari experiences, the number one consideration is the wildlife you can expect in these countries.
All three destinations offer you the chance to see the “Big 5” game animals - that’s lions, rhinos, elephants, rhinos and buffalo. In addition you can expect to find African wildlife in abundance in each country, such as zebras, giraffes, wildebeest, antelope, a host of birdlife, and waterlife like hippos and crocodiles. Of course there are variations in the types of wildlife you can see in each country and your chance of seeing them, but rest easy in that whichever country you pick, you will be seeing plenty of the big game animals on safari!
In terms of quantity, Tanzania wins, with an incredibly dense population of game animals. It has a bigger lion population than the other two countries and mighty herds of zebra and wildebeest in the Serengeti. In the Ngorongoro Crater it’s possible to see the Big 5 in this one small location.
Kenya’s Masai Mara is a great place to spot the big cats. In Kenya’s arid north, parks like Samburu and Buffalo Springs are home to unique animals and birds you can’t find in other countries. South Africa has a diverse eco-system and you can see a large variety of animals here as well, with Kruger national park being particularly famous for hosting many big game animals.
A Rhino seen on an African Safari in Kenya. Photo by m&m
If you want to see the famous Wildebeest Migration, where over a million of these animals travel annually to new pastures, you need to head for Kenya’s Masai Mara, or Tanzania’s Serengeti in the months of October/September. The iconic migration river crossing occurs at the Mara river in the Masai Mara. Check in advance for specific migration timings, a week or two off and you might see nothing. Be aware that this is an extremely popular event for tourists so book well in advance. This article covers the wildebeest Migration in far more detail!
Each country has a wide variety of terrain and landscape to offer, with different national parks being radically different from one another. South Africa probably has the most diverse range of landscapes, with the East African countries being more arid and barren. Still, all the countries have great scenery. The East African countries have more wilderness, especially the large Serengeti, Masai Mara and Tsavo parks. South Africa has more fenced parks and private reserves, but that’s not to say you can’t find wilderness in this country too.
Climate-wise, Tanzania and Kenya can be very hot and they have two seasons, wet and dry. April and May are the “long rains” so avoid them during these months when safaris shut down. Other times of year vary in quality for wildlife - the best and busiest months to visit are June-October in dry season when animal spotting is easier. This article explores these differences and the causes in more detail.
For South Africa, the May-August dry season is the best time to visit for wildlife, although this is wintertime and can be very cold. October to April is the wet season in South Africa, animal spotting is more difficult but still ok. November-January are very hot months so it might be best not to visit then, plus, December sees the school holidays, when the parks fill up with local visitors.
How expensive are these countries? Well, if you are just talking about spending money there, South Africa is slightly more expensive, but Kenya isn’t too far behind. Tanzania is a little cheaper. However, when on holiday the local economies don’t have a big impact, as you’ll be paying for tours, safaris and accommodation. In these areas, there’s not much to separate the three countries and prices are constantly in flux. Unfortunately with prices there’s no easy comparisons to be made. Each country caters for a wide array of traveller budgets and it’s possible to safari on a tight budget or go all-out in total luxury whichever location you decide on.
Balloon Safaris are a great way to view the massive scale at which wildlife moves. Photo by Rene
In terms of safari experience, South Africa has by far the biggest range of luxury safari options, as it firmly established itself as the safari luxury destination of choice many years ago. Lodges are the most common type of safari accommodation there and private and exclusive tours and reserves are easy to find.
One nice feature of South African safaris is that they usually have smaller, open-sided vehicles making wildlife viewing very easy. The safari experience tends to be quite different in South Africa too, with most safaris run by the accommodation/park that you’re staying in. They use their own guides and drivers to explore the area around your lodge, so you’ll usually be in the same location for a few days at least. In Kenya and Tanzania you’ll be always on the move, staying at different sites as you explore the parks and chase the wildlife, which is a thrill in itself.
Kenya offers luxury too, there’s just not as many options as South Africa, and you can find a wide range of accommodation options there to suit any budget. Tanzania in recent years is catching up to Kenya in the luxury regard, but is traditionally more focussed on camping style accommodation (whether that’s luxury camping or normal tents) rather than lodges.
One thing to consider is that you can save time and money depending on the flight that you choose. This might influence whether you opt for East or South Africa especially if you are closer to one or the other. Kenya and Tanzania are usually reached by flying into Nairobi, Kenya. The most popular flights to South Africa either arrive at Cape Town or Johannesburg.
Obviously visitor numbers on safari vary depending on the time of year. Kenya is the busiest of the three countries for tourists thanks to its excellent self-promotion. Many of its parks, aside from the Masai Mara, are smaller, meaning that there are a lot of people in the same space.
Tanzania, on the other hand, has less tourists, bigger parks and more animals, so you will see lesser people by far. The big exceptions though are the most famous; Ngorongoro Crater - which is always packed - and the southern Serengeti where all the camps and lodges are located. Wildebeest Migration season in both Kenya and Tanzania is extremely busy (at Masai Mara and in the Serengeti).
South Africa, although very popular with tourists, has big parks that are well spread out. It also has many private reserves. This means a more intimate safari experience where you will generally encounter less people, although the downside is that some of the private reserves are fenced, giving a more managed feel to the experience. The bigger national parks of course do not have this problem. South Africa also imposes a restriction on the number of vehicles allowed to view animals at once, removing the plague, often experienced in Tanzania and Kenya, of rings of 4x4s and minivans clustered around sightings.
To avoid the crowds regardless of the country you opt for, visit in low season, or ideally in the shoulder seasons just before or after the peak season. That way, you get cheaper prices, less people and you’ll still have good wildlife viewing conditions.
One big factor to consider, is whether a safari is the only thing you’ll be doing on your holiday. Tanzania, Kenya and South Africa have lots of other great sights and activities which might appeal to you - we’ll list some you might be interested here.
Of course, you don’t have to settle for just one country. It’s very common for people to combine Kenya and Tanzania in one trip thanks to their proximity. Some safari tours , for example, visit the Masai Mara in Kenya, then head south into Tanzania to see Ngorongoro Crater and the Serengeti. The countries are adjacent so travelling between the major parks is fairly fast.
Combining South Africa and Kenya or Tanzania is less common, but it's still an option you may want to consider, especially if you are taking a longer holiday. South Africa is quite different to East Africa so it makes for a nice varied African experience if you do both!
If you do want to combine countries, be sure to check visa and immunization requirements for each place you’re visiting before you go.
Catching an intimate and rare moment with Giraffes in Africa. Photo by MudflapDC
There’s no right answer to which country is better to visit on safari - Tanzania, Kenya or South Africa. If it’s purely wildlife you are after, Tanzania offers the best opportunities to see it all reliably and in larger quantities than Kenya and South Africa. However, those countries are both great in their own ways whilst still providing loads of great wildlife opportunities, and it’s going to be down to your personal tastes as to what is best for you. Keep in mind that landscape, habitat and variety will also affect your safari experience.
When planning your safari, it’s probably best to have some goals in mind (i.e. wildlife focused, mixed safari/relaxation, and so on). Consider if there’s other activities you’d like to do aside from a safari, or if there are places you’d like to see during the trip, to help guide your decision. Browse tour itineraries for both East and South Africa, and see what appeals to you - this can help you tailor your plans more specifically.
But what’s certain is that Tanzania, Kenya and South Africa all have a lot going for them, and whichever you choose, you’re going to have a great safari and a fantastic time! We hope you found this article useful and enjoy your trip planning! For more details, options and pricing, you can always check out AlienAdv.com or get in touch with us via email ! Once you've chosen your destination, this Safari packing list guide will come in handy!