I was six years old when the book Born Free was published. A year later, though just a beginning reader, I worked my way through the book, enthralled by the images of Joy Adamson and the lioness Elsa. You can imagine my thrill when Born Free, the award winning movie was released. Images of Kenya imprinted on my young mind and my desire to go on safari in East Africa became a lifelong dream.
Africa is open! It’s time to make your African safari dreams come true. Don’t waste another minute – book a group tour, plan your own DIY safari driving tour, or contact Rhino Africa, as we did, to put together the trip you’ve been dreaming of!
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You know how people say they caught the ‘travel bug’? Well, beware the ‘safari bug’! Once you’ve spent time in Africa you will want to go back again and again. We enjoyed a spectacular Southern Africa safari several years ago, with a week in Cape Town and the winelands, and 10 days on safari in Botswana and South Africa. But Africa called us back, and we justified the trip by noting that the reserves in South Africa differ greatly from the enormous fabled parks of East Africa – the Serengeti National Park in Tanzania and the Masai Mara National Reserve in Kenya.
Classic Safari in East Africa -The Serengeti and the Mara
The Serengeti is possibly the most well-known of the African parks and was among the first designated UNESCO world heritage sites. It is located in Northern Tanzania and consists of 5700 mi² (14,763 km2) of extensive grasslands, and acacia woodland savanna. Kenya’s Masai Mara (583 mi²) extends this protected ecosystem to the north, with grasslands giving way to undulating hills in the Mara. These two reserves are home of the world’s greatest wildlife spectacle, the Great Migration. Millions of wildebeest and zebras circle endlessly over 1200 miles seeking water and fresh grazing lands. This moving ‘buffet’ supports one of the largest predator populations in Africa – with lions, cheetahs, leopards, crocodiles, etc. all easily viewed in the wide-open expanses of the parks.
The name Serengeti comes from the Maasai word 'siringet' which means "the place where the land runs on forever." These parks were originally the land of the Maasai people who were forcibly removed from the reserve in 1959. Communities of Maasai continue to live in traditional village in both Southern Kenya and Northern and Central Tanzania.
Wildlife of the Serengeti Plains
Given all the attention on the Great Migration, it’s easy to think that’s all there is. But East Africa offers so much more! There is wildlife everywhere. Your guide will take you to the river to see a crossing, but he/she will also take you into wooded areas in the hopes of finding a leopard resting in a tree.. You’ll drive through miles of savanna rich with elephants, ostrich, and a cornucopia of hooved animals. And you’ll see some of the most unusual birds on the planet.
The lions are definitely top dogs in these reserves. They lounge around in the open without any concern for the Safari vehicles or the humans within. We were thrilled to come across a large pride, including 4 cubs, right beside the track in the Masai Mara. In the Serengeti we saw several ‘courting’ couples and a female with week old cubs. Definitely a highlight!
Keep an eye out for cheetah stalking their prey. Cheetahs are the fastest land animal and at full speed may cover 23 feet in a single stride. The animal will wait until his (hoped for) dinner is 200-300 feet away before beginning the chase. If successful, the cheetah will begin eating immediately as larger predators will usually steal the kill.
Your Day on Safari During the Great Migration
The daily routine in the camps during the wildebeest migration is quite different than days on safari in Southern Africa. Those game drives started before dawn, with a lazy afternoon in camp before additional game drives into the evenings.
In East Africa, you will breakfast in camp, and spend the day on the savanna. Your guide will pack a picnic breakfast or lunch depending on the schedule planned. Expect to return to camp in the mid to late afternoon, depending on how successful your game drive has been. This is when you might get the opportunity to visit a Maasai village. Be sure to pack all you expect you’ll need for your game drive.
Three factors cause a change in scheduling:
- the game lodges are generally located outside the reserves, so it makes sense to limit commuting time to the parks.
- the guides, hoping to share a river crossing with their clients, will schedule a good part of the day to be out by the river. (sitting in a game vehicle, waiting for the unpredictable wildebeest to make a move, is a good time to enjoy the bird life in the area!)
- many reserves ‘close’ in the evening and don’t allow night drives.
The Ngorongoro Crater
Most safaris in East Africa will include a visit to the UNESCO listed Ngorongoro Conservation Area. This is a highly visited spot for good reason. The variety of ecosystems within the 102 mi² (264 km2) caldera gives a time challenged traveler outstanding wildlife viewing in a limited area. (Note: though called a crater, this is actually a caldera, the result of a volcanic explosion millions of years ago.)
There are no lodges within the caldera and only two entrances, so be prepared for long waits to get into the area. The rules for game drives are more stringent than in most other reserves- no open vehicles, no leaving the vehicle for any reason, picnicking in a designated location only (where there are restrooms). For these reasons, most visitors only spend one full day to the Ngorongoro area. But do plan for that day! It’s an amazing spot!
Note: there are no leopards in the Ngorongoro Conservation area, but there are plenty on lions!
More than just game drives…
- Visit a Maasai village if you have the opportunity. You’ll learn of their traditions, values, and diet (almost everything from cattle!). Responsible and sustainable travel acknowledges the people of the land and supports their work.
- If you’re interested in ballooning over the savanna, the Serengeti National Park or the Masai Mara National Reserve are the places to visit. The uninterrupted views are ideal for this activity.
Our East African Safari Experience
We began our trip in Kenya, primarily because we’d long wanted to visit the Sheldrick Family Wildlife Trust in Nairobi, a group we’ve been supporting for many years. From Nairobi we traveled to Sanctuary Olonana in the Mara. This truly exceptional lodge is located outside of the reserve but on the Mara river.
Our first evening in the reserve we came across a herd of almost 100 elephants. It was incredibly poignant to see intact elephant families after spending time with the orphans at Sheldrick Wildlife Trust.
We enjoyed a delicious breakfast in camp most mornings and spent the rest of the day enjoying the Masai Mara. On the day that our guide, Anthony, planned our longest drive, he woke us early and treated us to a gourmet breakfast on the savanna. In the late afternoon Anthony took four of us to a Maasai village where we were welcomed with a traditional greeting, entertained with the Maasai’s extraordinary jumping skills, and had the opportunity to hear about Maasai life from the village chief himself.
Serengeti National Park
From Kenya we traveled to Tanzania and to a tented camp, Sanctuary Kichikani Serengeti. This is a migration camp, meaning that the camp moves along with the migratory animals. It is located within the confines of the Serengeti National Park (which explained the nights when herds of wildebeests grazed right outside our tent!)
The full day game drives on the Serengeti were wonderful. Our guide, Dale, enquired about what we’d seen in Kenya and worked hard to find new and unusual wildlife for us to observe. We were able to stay later in the day in the Serengeti and enjoyed several spectacular sunsets (with sundowner cocktails, of course). Women, be forewarned, a full day of game drives requires some creative bathroom stops. I was glad I’d packed a Venus to Mars device.
Ngorongoro Conservation Area
We finished the safari part of our trip with a few days in the the Ngorongoro Conservation Area. As mentioned above, getting into the crater can be challenging, so we were very pleased when our guide decided to spend our first afternoon at Lake Manyara National Park. I had hoped to visit here as it’s an IBA (important bird area 😉 for those of you who aren’t birders)
I was not disappointed. We saw the famous flamingos, two varieties of hornbill, lots of shore birds, and several families of Manyara monkeys. Since our visit, these monkeys have been classified as a new species, separate from other blue monkeys, and is listed as endangered.
Our guide brought along a picnic which we enjoyed before heading into the Ngorongoro Conservation Area.
Other Wildlife Reserves to Consider for Your Safari in East Africa
Kenya, Amboseli National Park – known for its large herds of elephants, but for many, the views of Mount Kilimanjaro are the greatest draw. The mountain, the largest free-standing mountain in Africa, is the backdrop of the park.
Kenya, Tsavo West and East National Parks – these immense reserves are where the Sheldrick Wildlife Trust orphans are eventually resettled. Many people who sponsor Sheldrick orphans will travel with the Trust to Tsavo to get a chance to see the older elephants. These parks are less developed and offer a genuine safari experience.
Tanzania, Tarangire National Park lies just southeast of the Ngorongoro crater. Known for its picturesque baobob trees and birdlife it is home to all the Big 5 animals, and as a less ‘popular’ park, is not as crowded as some of the other reserves.
Rwanda and Uganda (Bwindi Impenetrable Forest National Park) are where to travel to see Mountain Gorillas. We have not taken any safaris in these countries, so cannot recommend areas to visit. Check with your travel agent if you’re hoping to see gorillas.
Behind the Images:
In the Serengeti, the Masai Mara reserve, and the Ngorongoro, expect many vehicles jostling for position whenever there’s a sighting or a river crossing. Though we didn’t feel crowded or uncomfortable, this was quite unlike what we’d experienced on private concessions in Southern Africa.
Note: there are private concessions outside of both national parks. Let us know in the comments if you’d recommend these.
FAQ About a Safari in East Africa
Which country is best for an African safari holiday? – Kenya, South Africa, or Tanzania?
African safaris are extraordinarily enriching no matter the country. So if you’ve an opportunity to go on safari – go!
If you’re looking for the classic African safari, you would do well to choose an East Africa safari. The abundance of wildlife and the ease of viewing sets it apart. If you want to combine safari days with city, vineyard, or beach days, head to South Africa.
We detail destinations for specific interests in 10 Steps to the Perfect Safari in Africa.
When to travel to witness the Great Migration?
Trick question! The migration is a continuous cycle with the animals moving depending on rainfall, etc. The wildebeest calve generally in the month of February on the southeastern Serengeti plains. just north of the Ngorongoro crater. From there they head north through the month of August. In (or around) September they cross the Mara River. This, the dramatic crossing of the river, is what most travelers hope to see. Plan your East Africa safari for September and you’ll also be rewarded with excellent game viewing throughout the parks.
What animals will I see on an East African Safari?
Many travelers go on safari hoping to see the Big Five* – lion, leopard, African buffalo, elephant, and rhino. Of these, you are guaranteed to see lion, elephant and African buffalo on a safari in Tanzania or Kenya. Leopards are much more difficult to see, though they are there. Unfortunately, rhinos, black and white, are rare now. Ranger protect those rare animals that live in the parks. Count yourself lucky if you are able to observe one of these giants on your safari.
Other animals present in the parks of Kenya and Tanzania, but nearly impossible to come across on your game drives, are the pangolin, and the African wild dog – both species listed as Endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature. (We did have several sightings of African wild dog on our Southern Africa safari)
Be assured that you will see dozens of unusual animals while on safari. Kenya currently counts over 160 different species. From banded mongoose to the African elephant, there will be plenty to delight you.
*The designation “big 5” comes from the danger each of the species presented to hunters, and, in our opinion, is irrelevant to today’s safari goers.
Ready to go?
Let us know if you have any more questions about going on a photographic safari in East Africa. We love to share our experience!
What more to say to inspire you to take an East African safari? I don’t think I can say it better than has Brian Jackman, award winning journalist and Britain’s foremost writer on Africa:
“Africa changes you forever, like nowhere on earth. Once you have been there, you will never be the same. But how do you begin to describe its magic to someone who has never felt it? How can you explain the fascination of this vast, dusty continent, whose oldest roads are elephant paths?“Brian Jackman