Planning Your Safari - Where to GO

Planning a safari, especially your first safari, can seem overwhelming. You probably have limited recommendations from trusted sources because maybe you don’t know many people who have gone on one. 

That’s how I felt planning my first trip. But now having traveled to many of Africa’s top safari destinations, I hope to provide you with some tips to help you choose your destination.

When it comes to planning an African safari, you have LOTS of options. So choosing the country is a good place to start. Safaris are mostly done in Kenya, Tanzania, Rwanda, Uganda, Botswana, Zambia, Zimbabwe, Namibia, and South Africa - basically the whole of Southern and East Africa.

So how do you chose? First, you need to answer some questions to guide you to the right place.

When are you going?

Climate, particularly rainfall, can strongly dictate the quality of a safari season in most areas. The dry season is typically regarded as the “best” time for safari because it’s easier to view animals when the vegetation is dried out and animals congregate around water. I would take that advice with a grain of salt however. If your calendar is completely flexible, then yes, generally speaking I would recommend the dry season (unless you want to view migratory birds, then the summer months are the better choice). September for example is regarded as a great month for most of Southern Africa. That being said, game viewing is completely random and unpredictable no matter when and where you are. I have personally had incredible sightings during wetter months, so don’t write off a safari if you’re looking to travel during that time, but do be prepared that there may be some rain and also vegetation may be thicker. Certain destinations like the Okavango Delta and South Luangwa are more seasonal due to flooding, so make sure you have your facts about how climate will affect your safari during your chosen time.

What do you want to see? Is there a certain animal that tops the list?

It used to happen to me all the time. Guests would come to the lodge where I worked in the Sabi Sands and be desperate to see cheetahs. Sometimes I didn’t have the heart to tell them that we only see them about twice a year. They don’t occur in that type of habitat and would only rarely wander through. For the Big Five, they had definitely come to the right place, but for cheetah, other places even within South Africa like Madikwe Game Reserve would have been a better choice.

Different habitats support different animals. Do your research first and if there is something specific you want to see, make sure it occurs where you are going. Elephants are common in most safari destinations but rhinos, leopards, cheetahs, and wild dogs are only found or more likely to be seen in specific areas.

And tigers don’t exist at all in the wild in Africa!

How remote are you willing to go?

Ease of access is a pretty big consideration when you’re already traveling very far to get somewhere. I am from California, which is basically as far away from Southern Africa as possible, so I deeply sympathize with long travel days. It shouldn’t be the only consideration, but it’s definitely worth a mention. Certain safari destinations are just easier to get to. For example, many countries have a direct flight into Johannesburg, South Africa. Nairobi in Kenya is also fairly straightforward to get to from most destinations. Some of the other countries mentioned above require more connections, more time, and often more money. That deterrent is part of the reason people choose them - their wilderness areas may be more remote and with fewer people. In my experience, most first time safari-ers choose South Africa, Kenya, and Tanzania. If travel time isn’t a big consideration and you want to do something more unique, Zimbabwe and Zambia are great choices to consider.

Otherwise, depending on the kind of trip you want, here are some of my recommendations:

If this is your one and only safari of your lifetime and viewing the most amount of animals, particularly with a photographic perspective is important to you:

Kenya

If you watched a wildlife documentary of sweeping grasslands with hundreds of animals where a cheetah is helping her cub make its first kill, it was most likely filmed in Kenya. This is where I did my first safari, and well, it sold me. Kenya has a long history of safaris and may be the best destination if you want to pack in as much wildlife as you can. Kenya has a lot to offer, although it usually comes at a cost of sharing your incredible experiences with a lot of others. For “big tuskers” (a.k.a elephants with huge tusks that have mostly been wiped out by poaching), against the gorgeous backdrop of Mount Kilimanjaro, check out Amboseli. For everything else, try Masai Mara and its adjacent private conservancies. Combining one or both of these areas, with some of the other smaller parks can also make for a great itinerary.

If you want to have epic Big Five game viewing in a country that is easy to travel in and also plug in other activities like city or beach time:

South Africa

South Africa is a very popular travel destination - and with good reason. There’s a lot of options for great game viewing and accommodation, and also offers other activities to the schedule, including Cape Town and the Winelands. As an English speaking (and culturally Westernized) country, it is also easy to travel in. My top choice is the Kruger National Park and adjacent private conservancies (Sabi Sand - have to give the incredible Lion Sands a mention!, Klaserie, Manyaleti and Timbivati). Be aware that the bush is thicker in South Africa than the open grasslands you may have seen in the documentaries. Many of the areas have riverine habitat which supports a high density of leopards. Sabi Sands is regarded as one of the best places in the world to view these otherwise elusive cats, and I can personally attest to the truth in that.

If you are ready to get off the beaten path and experience incredible game viewing in a remote wilderness area:

Zambia (more affordable)

Zambia is home to several National Parks with excellent game viewing. It’s most renowned, South Luangwa, has certainly earned it’s reputation. It is excellent for predator game viewing, including lion, leopard, and wild dog. It is a seasonal destination, with best game viewing during July - November. Beware, temperatures soar starting from October, but if you are willing to brave the heat, you will be rewarded, potentially even with something as rare as witnessing a kill. South Luangwa also has a green season, where a few of the camps are open and most game viewing is done on foot or by boat.

Botswana (more expensive)

Botswana has incredible options for safari, most notably the Okavango Delta and surrounding areas. Botswana has received a lot of attention for sustainable ecotourism. The prices are high in Botswana and as a result, impact on the landscape from tourism is lessened. The Okavango Delta is a massive area on a floodplain that attracts some of the best game viewing in the world. It’s also unbelievably, spectacularly beautiful. Depending on the time of year, you can also do boat or mekoro (think canoe) - based safaris. Other than the usual animals, the Delta is well known for sightings of wild dogs, leopards, and lions, most of which have certain interesting behaviors that have been specially adapted to living around lots of water (ie - lions crossing rivers!) Camps in the Delta are expensive and remote, and usually involve a transfer via small plane from Maun and between camps. Chobe National Park

If you want to get on foot with wildlife:

Zimbabwe

Mana Pools Zimbabwe is THE place for close encounters on foot with wildlife in Africa. As far as I know, it’s the also the only National Park in Africa where you can walk yourself unaccompanied by a ranger, although unless you’re experienced, I wouldn’t recommend it. Predators like lions and wild dogs are very accustomed to people on foot so are less likely to run than in other places when you approach them, which can lead to an incredible experience unlike vehicle-based safaris. You won’t get as close, which may have certain disadvantages for photography, but will lead to experiences you will never forget.

you want to meet our closest ancestors: Rwanda or Uganda

Gorilla trekking in Rwanda or Uganda can be combined with more traditional safaris in Queen Elizabeth (Uganda) or Akegera (I have from a trusted source that leopard viewing is a well-kept secret in Akegara. 


Honorable Mention:

Tanzania and Namibia are also great choices depending on your priorities. Tanzania has excellent game viewing, particularly in the Serengeti. My only pause is the fact that it requires a yellow fever certification which is slightly annoying for travel to other places in the future. Nambia is also excellent, but tends to be less proflici in game viewing outside of Etosha National Park. It’s known for desert, landscapes, and cultural experiences.

If you still need help, message me at charlotteonsafari@gmail.com. I do full service safari planning and can help you plan the safari of a lifetime.

Charlotte Arthun