Eastern Vs Southern Africa Safari - Which Is Best?

One of the biggest questions to ask when you're considering a safari in Africa is: east or south?

East Africa encompasses KenyaTanzaniaUganda and Rwanda and the aficionados will point to the game-filled plains and the annual wildebeest migration as East Africa's major drawcards.

Southern Africa consists of NamibiaBotswanaZambiaZimbabwe and South Africa and argues varied landscapes and wildlife as the main attractions... While also being prime luxury safari territory. As a child my ideals of Africa were based on East Africa with its postcard landscapes, and it was these images that shaped my 20-year career in the safari industry.

I have been privileged to experience much of what Africa has to offer as a safari travel destination, not only in the capacity as guide but also as a visitor. It's through my own observations and taking notice of the effect Africa has on visitors that I'll try answer the question of an East versus Southern African safari.

The Original Safari

It is of course in East Africa where the concept of safari was born and with iconic names such as the Masai Mara, Serengeti National Park and the Ngorongoro Crater, East Africa was long considered the classic safari destination by non-African visitors. These safaris, glamorised by legendary authors such as Hemingway and Ruark as well as in movies, revolved around decadent hunting trips where porters carried all equipment and your creature comforts into the bush.

Some of the first non-hunting visitors however travelled through what is now the Kruger National Park in South Africa as early as the 1920's, and it is in the Kruger region that the present day concept of luxury safari travel was born in the 1980's.

Gorilla trekking in the forests of Uganda Gorilla trekking in the forests of Uganda
A young Maasai warrior in Kenya A young Maasai warrior in Kenya
Huge herds of wildebeest with predators hot on their hooves - the Serengeti Plains Huge herds of wildebeest with predators hot on their hooves - the Serengeti Plains

The Luxury Safari Experience

Safari travel today, perhaps controversially, is far removed from the Hollywood-style safaris of the past with the emphasis moving toward brand of the lodge rather than the destination and wildlife. It is the level of luxury which claims visitors, the superiority of the guiding and the mouth-watering flavours on a dinner plate that keeps them coming back - not to say incredible Big 5 sightings don't!

Southern Africa leads the way in this luxury safari travel with brands such as Singita and Londolozi, although East Africa is not far behind with many of the well known safari brand names moving into the region. The future of safari now involves luxury and wellness spas with, in my opinion, wildlife in many ways becoming a side show.

East Africa safaris have begun to encapsulate the romance of the original tented experience. And by drawing on the luxurious safari elements of its southern neighbours, authentic tented safaris in the Masai Mara Serengeti now compete with the premier luxury lodges in the Kruger.

Amazing Big 5 game viewing in Kruger Amazing Big 5 game viewing in Kruger
Luxury accommodation at Singita Lebombo Luxury accommodation at Singita Lebombo
Family-friendly, malaria-free safaris at Madikwe Game Reserve in South Africa Family-friendly, malaria-free safaris at Madikwe Game Reserve in South Africa

Which is best? East or Southern Africa?

As with every debate, there are pros and cons to choosing either destination. Deciding which is going to suit you best is easier if you look at each region's drawcards - after all, one man's rugged tented safari, could be another's agoraphobic nightmare; one woman's luxury spa experience could be too close to another's urban lifestyle for comfort.

So why choose an East African safari?

The Greatest Show on Earth - the annual wildebeest migration involving millions of animals, which can easily be included in a Kenya & Tanzania safari combination.

Classic postcard African scenery of rolling savannahs and acacia trees.

Large numbers of game on the open plains.

The views of, or the chance to climb Mount Kilimanjaro, Africa's highest mountain.

Cultures such as the Maasai who maintain a traditional way of life.

Many exciting new areas opening up in northern Kenya and southern Tanzania.

Gorillas and chimpanzees in the mountains and forest areas.

A beautiful coastline makes the region ideal for a bush and beach vacation.

Relatively short international flights into Nairobi in Kenya.

Mount Kilimanjaro frames Amboseli National Park Mount Kilimanjaro frames Amboseli National Park

So why choose a Southern Africa safari?

A great diversity of landscapes, from the Namib Desert in Namibia, to the Okavango Delta in Botswana

Intimate safaris in private concession areas allowing for 'up close' game experiences

Open safari vehicles for easier game viewing

Zambia and Zimbabwe in particular are renowned for walking safaris

Seeing Victoria Falls, one of the seven wonders of the natural world

A wide range of accommodation from five star luxury to 'roughing-it' camping

Seeing wildlife in unique ways - from a mokoro (dug-out canoe) or from the back of an elephant

Easily combined with a trip to one of the world's most popular cities, Cape Town, or South Africa's coast.


Clearly both destinations have their highlights, and are not necessarily in competition with each other; unless you have a particular interest. If it's gorillas you want to see then East Africa is the place, but if it's whales then your choice will be Southern Africa.

As an opportunity to experience the wildlife and landscapes of Africa, both regions offer a superb safari vacation. But back to the question 'Where is the best place to experience the ultimate safari?'. My answer is the same as it was ten years ago: that the question is not 'where should I go on safari in Africa' but rather 'how soon?'.