Right, you are an avid reader of National Geographic, your TV is set to the Discovery Channel and you’ve seen Out of Africa more times than any other movie. So you finally decide to tick your greatest dream off of your list and go on a safari in East Africa. But where do you start? How do you get around? And what time of year is best?
In this guide, we will discuss the big questions that first-time visitors to East Africa face, the different options available and how to make the most of your once-in-a-lifetime trip.
How To Go
One of the first things you will need to decide on is how you are going to get around. There are four options available; scheduled, road, fly-in or a mix.
A scheduled trip is one where you can join a group with a maximum of seven people where you will share the vehicle and driver-guide costs between you and the group. This is the most affordable way of travelling. This scheduled safari is done by road with a predetermined route and no flexibility. With a scheduled safari, you will save on costs but will be limited as you have to follow a set itinerary and stay at predetermined lodges.
The second option is to do a private safari by road where it is only you and your travel party in the vehicle with your personal driver-guide. This is a more expensive way of doing it but then you have the flexibility to stay at different lodges and you get to determine which national parks you would like to visit.
The third way is to fly into the national parks (or as close to the national parks as you can in some cases) and then be met and transferred by the lodge’s vehicle to the lodge. The game drives are then conducted in the lodge’s safari vehicles. This is the most convenient and allows you to see the most variety of lodges.
You are also able to customise your trip in a way that it is a mix between a private road safari and flying.
Where To Go
East Africa is an unbelievably rich region of abundant wildlife and fantastic wildernesses. Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda and Rwanda all possess their own unique wonders. Africa’s tallest mountains, biggest lakes and richest savannahs are prominent features, but there is an almost infinite supply of attractions on offer to visitors. These are just a few of the region’s chief attractions;
The Great Migration in the Masai Mara and Serengeti
The vast Serengeti–Mara ecosystem, shared by both Kenya and Tanzania, is home to the largest concentration of large mammals on earth and plays host to “The Greatest Show on Earth”, The Great Migration. The Masai Mara is situated in the south-eastern corner of Kenya while the Serengeti is in the north of Tanzania. Both of these incredible parks offer great viewing at any time of year due to the abundance of the wildlife and immensity of the parks.
The Bwindi Impenetrable Forest in Uganda and Volcanoes National Park in Rwanda are the two premier places in the world to come into contact with the magnificent and endangered mountain gorilla. Trek through the lush and ecologically diverse rainforests to enjoy an experience with these remarkable creatures.
Africa’s Garden of Eden, the Ngorongoro Crater, is a natural amphitheatre which plays host to a procession of wild animals. This unique and fascinating place is the world’s largest unbroken caldera which was formed when its volcano top erupted, leaving fertile plains in its place. Before this happened, it was actually the highest mountain in Africa, towering over the nearby Kilimanjaro.
From its snow-capped peak to elephants and giraffe basking in the forests and plains below, Mount Kilimanjaro is one of the truly iconic images of Africa. Wild animals roam the plains below the dormant volcanic mountain while adventurous hikers attempt to summit the roof of Africa.
Zanzibar Island is a dream destination. With a fascinating history, the mesmerising Stone Town and stunning beaches, Zanzibar offers visitors an ideal holiday destination. A popular way to end a safari is to spend it on one of Zanzibar’s magnificent beaches or untouched islands along the Indian Ocean.
When To G0
The seasons are fairly complex in East Africa and deciding on when to go depends on what safari experience you would like. There are two rainy seasons in the northern circuit of Tanzania and Kenya. One from November to December, and another from March to May. July to October is the most popular time to visit these areas, but it should be noted that there is a considerable benefit to travelling in the off-season period. The reserves are much less crowded, especially the popular Ngorongoro reserve, which allows for much better and easier access to the animals.
The Great Migration
Each year around 1.5 million wildebeests and 300,000 zebras – along with other antelope – gather up their young and start their long trek from Tanzania’s Serengeti Plains, further north to Kenya’s Masai Mara National Reserve. The animals cross the plains and rivers in search of food and water as the seasons change. This is considered the main attraction of the migration – the spectacular sight of thousands of animals galloping across the plains and fording the raging, crocodile-infested rivers.
These river crossings are best seen between July and September. The animals actually cross back and forth continuously between the two areas during this time. In September, the animals cross back into the Serengeti. After September, there is still a tail end of the migration which lags behind the main herds. If you are late you can still
hope to catch the last of them. The animals then go back down to the Serengeti plains from where they came. In January and February, the annual rains hit the Serengeti allowing the female wildebeest herd to start giving birth. By March or April, the area has dried out and become desolate again so the massive grouping of animals are forced to move northwards towards Lake Victoria where they begin the mating season. After this, they once again head back towards the Masai Mara around July and attempt the river crossings once again, and so the cycle continues.
In Tanzania, the best time to witness the migration is probably in February and March. The animals are grazing now and can be seen in their immense numbers. It is good for seeing the animals give birth and to witness the baby animals find their feet. It is at this time that the predator activity is at its highest too.
Kenya has an incredible array of excellent parks and the best time to visit these would be during the dry seasons — January through March and July through October. At that time of year, the climate is mild and dry and the game viewing is at its peak. The animals gather in large numbers around the water holes, rivers and lakes, so they are easier to find. The vegetation is also less lush which allows the animals to be seen easier from a distance. As we said earlier though, the off-seasons can be equally rewarding.
June to November is Tanzania’s main dry season and is the best time for general game viewing. That is also the best time to see the Great Migration in Kenya and the two can be easily incorporated into one itinerary.
Tanzania has two different circuits with differing weather patterns. In the south, there is one rainy season, from November to March. The perfect time to visit is during the June to November dry season as the animals tend to congregate around permanent water and it isn’t so hot and humid.
In the north, there are two rainy seasons, from November to December and from March through May. The
heavy rains fall in April and May, and the lesser rains in November and December. When the heavy rains fall the roads get washed out and the animals become harder to find.
Gorilla trekking in Uganda is a year-round activity but when you’re hiking the rainforests it will be more enjoyable to go in the drier and cooler months of January and February and again from June to September. Although rain is likely all year round, the rainy seasons (March-April and October-November) make the trek up to the gorillas particularly difficult.
Like Uganda, gorilla trekking in Rwanda can be done all year although there are times that are more suitable than others. The best time to visit Rwanda for a gorilla trek is during the short dry season from mid-December to early February or over the long dry season months of June to September. These periods offer the easiest hiking conditions and the lowest malaria risk.
Different Tour Options
Classic Kenya – From the open plains of Masai Mara, the shimmery pink waters of Lake Nakuru and the swamps of Amboseli, this safari takes in three of the most picturesque regions in Kenya. It also provides the perfect opportunity to spot the Big 5 and to capture some diverse scenery.
Dee’s Ultimate Tanzania Experience – Experience the phenomenal Serengeti Migration and Ngorongoro Crater and then depart wildlife central to laze on the white sand beaches of Zanzibar Island. Dee’s luxury 12-day extravaganza has it all!
East African Explorer – This is a 13-day scheduled tour that visits the best that an East Africa safari has to offer. In Kenya, the tour visits the Masai Mara, Lake Nakuru and Amboseli National Park. The tour then crosses over into Tanzania where you will visit Lake Manyara with views over the Great Rift Valley, enjoy the abundant wildlife of the Serengeti and Ngorongoro Crater and finish the tour at the elephant rich Tarangire National park.
Landy’s Tanzanian Sky Safari – This spectacular fly-in romp through Tanzania’s premier game reserves provides the ultimate Tanzanian extravaganza of unparalleled wildlife and landscapes capped off with a stint on a secluded island paradise.
Luxury East Africa Safari – Spend 13 days experiencing the luxury that East Africa offers. Start your journey in Kenya’s capital before travelling to the Maasai Mara. Then head over to the Serengeti before visiting Tanzania’s Ngorongoro Crater. End your journey with a thrilling safari in Tarangire National Park.
Dianne’s Ugandan Expedition – Dianne’s tour takes you into the lush rainforests of Uganda to come in close contact with the magnificent endangered mountain gorillas and chimpanzees. The tour also visits the Big 5 and the world-famous, tree-climbing lions of Queen Elizabeth National Park.
East Africa Tours – To find out more about different tour options available go here. Each person and trip to Africa is unique.
To get the best out of your trip, we recommend that you speak to one of our expert consultants who will be able to help you customise your own East African safari. Once all is said and done maybe you will be the one appearing on the pages of the next National Geographic.
Check out short video below that captures East Africa’s greatest attractions.