If you are looking for the ideal destination for an authentic African safari then they don’t get better than these three. The Kruger National Park, the Serengeti National Park and the Masai Mara National Reserve each offer a range of experiences and adventures to suit every kind of traveller – from honeymooners and solos to families and friends; from budget-friendly to the-sky’s-the-limit.
Because we’ve been travelling to these incredible wildernesses since 1998, we can break down a complicated subject into easy-to-understand components so that you can choose the right destination for your safari to Africa.
LOCATION AND LANDSCAPE
Let’s start with the broadest of distinctions: the Kruger lies in South Africa whereas you travel to Tanzania for the Serengeti and Kenya for the Masai Mara. Tanzania and Kenya border each other – in fact, the Mara and Serengeti share an unfenced border for animals but not humans – and are considered part of East Africa.
South Africa is in the broader area known as Southern Africa, which also includes other safari heavyweights like Botswana, Zimbabwe and Zambia. Kruger shares borders with private reserves like the Sabi Sands, Timbavati, MalaMala and Thornybush; once again, this freedom to move is for the wildlife, not people.
They are all served by international flights and the logistics – road and air transfers between camps – work well. In South Africa, you’ll fly into Johannesburg, Africa’s wealthiest city, and then either be driven or fly to one of Kruger’s numerous airstrips on a short-haul flight. South Africa is great for self-drivers so you can pick up a rental car at OR Tambo International Airport if you’re feeling adventurous!
For Tanzania, you’ll fly into Kilimanjaro International Airport and overnight in the lively town of Arusha; in Kenya, head to the capital of Nairobi before flying on a light aircraft to the Mara.
All three destinations lie in savannah habitats, which are open grassland with varying degrees of tree cover and thicket. The more open the landscape, the easier it is to see the animals. Cheetahs also prefer open plains so they can run down their prey. On the other hand, leopards prefer an area with trees so they can drag their quarry into the branches and then fall asleep on a sturdy bough.
|Don’t expect vast sweeping savannahs like you see in Out of Africa: the vegetation here is thicker than in East Africa and much of the landscape is open woodland or denser acacia scrub. It is beautiful and is studded with giant trees (perfect for leopards to hang out in) and rocky hills known as ‘koppies’ that are often the territory of klipspringers, small, monogamous antelope that mate for life.||Vast rolling plains characterise the Masai Mara landscape, complete with solitary thorn trees and distant purple hills. This is the stuff of Out of Africa and the sunsets are some of the most evocative you’ll see. There are fewer trees because, over centuries, elephants have knocked many of them down.||Like the Masai Mara – just much, much bigger. The Serengeti is a land of beautiful open savannah as well as some tangled woodland and scrubby hill country. ‘Seregenti’ means ‘the land that moves forever’ or the ‘land that goes on forever’ – some people feel the same about the sky here. This is truly ‘big sky’ country.|
An African safari is always going to be a significant investment, no matter which one you choose, so it’s crucial to match the right destination, accommodation and experience to your expectations.
The rule of thumb is, that the more you are able to pay, the more exclusive and private your safari becomes – and, generally, the better the quality of your wildlife viewing (this is because exclusivity means fewer vehicles to track the animals, meaning they feel less ‘hemmed in’. National parks allow visitors to drive their own cars so sightings like leopards and lions attract a lot of spectators. In more private areas, the number of game-drive vehicles are closely monitored – usually only two are allowed at a time. The contra argument is that animals that are around a lot of vehicles all the time are more relaxed and less likely to run off. You can have spectacular sightings no matter where you go – this unpredictability is part of what makes a safari so exciting).
The Kruger is a large public-access national park that you can safely self-drive around. But for almost guaranteed close-up encounters with the Big 5 with barely another visitor around, you should consider the private reserves adjoining the Kruger. The same applies in East Africa: private conservancies or concessions in the Masai Mara and Serengeti offer exclusive safaris away from what can be very crowded public areas, especially when the migrating wildebeest are passing through. Although the Serengeti is a huge area, many visitors want to be around the Mara River to the north, which is where the wildebeest are heading at mid-year.
Ultra-luxurious safari lodges can be among the most expensive accommodations in Africa but a safari doesn’t have to break your bank; there are affordable ways of enjoying these destinations without sacrificing experience and comfort. Plenty of mid-range safaris are available that consist of fly-drive combinations or small group overland expeditions. No matter that your budget, it is always best to let a safari expert help you plan so that they can let you know where to save and where to splurge: some travellers would rather stay in a cheaper tented camp so they can stay longer while others want to have extras like Wi-Fi, private plunge pools or air conditioning. Changing the time of year you travel from high to low season can also radically reduce costs.
|Home to some of the most luxurious and expensive safari lodges in the business, the Kruger’s private reserves can also be surprisingly affordable if you know where to go and you still enjoy excellent Big 5 sightings from well-appointed camps. The most affordable way to experience the Kruger National Park is on a self-drive safari: we recommend flying to the Kruger and picking a car up there if you don’t wish to drive from Joburg, as Johannesburg is locally known.||Masai Mara tours are often ‘fly-in’ itineraries to maximise time on safari but an affordable option is a small group overland tour. Led by a driver/guide, these safaris give everyone a window seat in a specially modified 4X4 or minibus, allowing you to sit back and enjoy the views. The Masai Mara is not recommended as a self-drive destination as there is little signposting, roads are untarred and there are no nearby gas stations, garages or shops.||The Serengeti’s size means that a fly-in itinerary is the most effective way to spend as much time on safari but it adds to the price of your safari. Like the Masai Mara, small group safaris in a 4X4 with a pop-up roof are a popular way to keep costs down. Self-driving safaris are not recommended for the same reason as the Mara.|
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Safari accommodation ranges from walk-in tents with beds and en suite bathrooms to palatial villas with tennis courts and butler service. You’ll head out on morning and afternoon game drives with sharp-eyed guides but since lodges often overlook a waterhole or river, you can enjoy great ‘armchair safaris’ or ‘bush TV’ as well. Food and most drinks are usually part of the tariff and with several high-quality meals a day on offer, you won’t need to pack extra snacks (in fact, it’s best not to bring any as keeping food in your room is a sure-fire way to attract vervet monkeys and baboons!). At Go2Africa, we prefer to ensure that our itineraries are all-inclusive upfront so there are no ‘surprises’ when you get to your camp.
Accommodation in these destinations ranges from large almost ‘resort-style’ establishments to thatched lodges and tented camps complete with flickering lanterns and old-fashioned bucket showers. More and more are going off the grid to take advantage of Africa’s abundant solar energy.
|A vast range of experience and price: choose from intimate honeymoon hideaways, family-friendly lodges and exclusive-use villas with private chef and guide. But strip away the luxurious add-ons like the gym, spa and private pool and you find some very well-priced accommodation. Good for small, informal camps and great for kids.||Ranging from tented camps to large resort-style lodges, accommodation in the central and eastern Masai Mara is busy during Migration season from July on; we recommend more exclusive camps in the reserve’s northern private concessions. If you want to see the Wildebeest Migration, choose the most relevant accommodation for that time of year and book well in advance. Mobile camps are exactly that: they move so that they are always near a mega herd of bellowing gnu.||Camps are often placed on the path of the Migration so you’ll need to match a camp with the right time of year if you want to see the wildebeest. Book accommodation well (up to a year) in advance for the Migration’s big event: the crossing of the Grumeti and Mara Rivers. Choose from private hilltop villas, mobile camps that follow the Migration and honeymoon retreats with yoga sessions and spa treatments.|
WILDLIFE: BIG 5 AND WILDEBEEST MIGRATION
The wildlife of each destination is world-renowned. The Kruger offers classic heavyweight game viewing and in particular the Big 5 - lion, elephant, rhino, leopard and buffalo – often all on the same day. The Serengeti and Masai Mara, however, share the stage for Africa’s greatest natural spectacle – the annual Wildebeest Migration.
Sightings of lion, leopard, elephant, rhino and buffalo are most reliable in the Kruger, which also has the widest variety of antelope species. It does not, however, have any natural event akin to the Migration.
All three are home to hundreds of recorded species of birds. The Kruger’s diverse landscape offers shelter to myriad kingfisher species (pied, malachite, giant etc), lilac-breasted rollers, carmine bee-eaters, raptors like eagles, vultures and owls, and waterfowl along its dams and rivers. No matter where you choose, remember that birdwatching is always more spectacular in summer (from about October to April) when all the migrant species are resident and there is plenty of food about.
|Kruger’s private reserves such as the Sabi Sands, Timbavati and Thornybush offer Africa’s best Big 5 sightings, especially for the most elusive member of the group, the leopard. The area’s hillocks, rocky outcrops and plentiful trees are prime leopard territory. This is also the easiest place to see rhinos (it is the only option to see white rhino and the world’s greatest haven for black) and it reputedly has the densest elephant population of the three.
Expect excellent general game viewing all year round with chances to see rare and endangered animals such as African wild dogs, cheetah and sable antelope – and it’s one of Africa’s top birdwatching destinations.
|Lions, elephant and buffalo are relatively easy to find in the Masai Mara but leopard and especially rhino are a little harder. The lack of trees and thicket means you have to work harder (rhinos feel the cold and like to move to dense brush at night to stay warm).
Home to abundant and diverse wildlife throughout the year, the Mara is especially good for big herds and their predators. Besides large prides of lions, it’s one of the best places in Africa to see cheetah and has great bird watching. Its open plains are perfect for lions’ hunting style. There are plenty of spotted hyenas and grey crested cranes as well as Thomson’s gazelle.
|Like the Masai Mara, you’ll see plenty of lions, buffalo and elephant – leopards, too, if you stay in the Serengeti’s hill country and around the Serenora River – but rhino are increasingly hard to find. Lion prides especially love the Serengeti’s open terrain.
Great for general game viewing at any time of year, the Serengeti has a similar reputation to the Masai Mara for big cats and a bird count of around 500 different species means it ranks among the world’s top birding destinations.
WHEN TO GO / TIMING
Timing is also going to influence your decision and the cost: there are distinct wet (low or green) and dry (high or peak) seasons in each destination; the drier the season, the more expensive the safari and the easier it is to find wildlife. And if you want to view the Wildebeest Migration (especially its more dramatic moments like the mid-year river crossings) then you’ll be paying top prices and will need to book up to a year in advance.
Don’t worry if peak season doesn’t work for you; the more affordable low-season safaris have a special magic too, offering green, bird-filled landscapes and plenty of animals – often with newborns – to see. Low season is also good for avoiding the crowds and for taking spectacular photographs as the lush greenery, bright light and lack of dust give you crisp, exciting images.
Choosing when to go to these destinations is important: the ‘best’ time to go is generally regarded as during their dry seasons, simply because the animals are easier to find. The climate is at its most pleasant (the extreme heat of summer has passed), the malaria risk is very minimal, and game viewing usually easier as animals are concentrated at water sources and vegetation is at its thinnest. You won’t generally see many babies, however, and predators have a field day attacking animals weakened by a lack of food and water
Generally, peak safari season is the southern hemisphere’s winter ie during the northern hemisphere’s summer. The winter in Africa can be cold. Game drives set out before sunrise and return after sunset so pack a warm jacket, a scarf and perhaps even gloves and a beanie.
|The dry season is from May to October with June, July and August as the driest and coolest months. Spotting animals is both easy and rewarding at this time but such is the scale of the wildlife in the private reserves that they offer excellent year-round game viewing. Birdwatching is best between November and April when all the migratory species are around.||Amazing wildlife and a temperate climate make this a year-round destination but there are two rainy seasons: the ‘short’ rains of November (usually very dramatic but short-lived afternoon showers with incredible clouds) and heavier or ‘long’ rains in April and May (many camps close over this period as the black cotton soil is impassable to vehicles). The Wildebeest Migration is in the Masai Mara from around July to November; the dramatic river crossings happen July and August.||The Migration passes through the Serengeti between October and July, crossing the crocodile-infested rivers back to the Masai Mara in July and August. The Serengeti has two rainy seasons like Kenya – October/November and April/May – but its abundant wildlife and temperate climate means it can be visited at any time of year. The animals do not leave when it rains but the crowds do so you may have fantastic sightings all to yourself.|
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Morning and afternoon drives in game-drive vehicles are the main activity in these destinations. A professional guide sits behind the wheel and will identify and explain what you see. Other activities are available too, depending on where you go: the rule of thumb is that you’ll have more activities in private reserves than in the public-access parks (night drives are not permitted in national park, for example, and neither are nature walks). Family-oriented accommodations have plenty of fun activities and educational programmes.
If you are checking into a private safari villa or an exclusive lodge, you might have access to activities like archery, tennis, interactive cooking classes with a private chef, wildlife lectures from experts, photography workshops, guided nature walks, mountain biking or junior rangers’ programmes for the kids.
|Visit the Kruger’s private reserves and you can add guided nature walks and spot-lit night drives to your list of activities. Your guide is permitted to drive off road for exceptional sightings and specialist guides - birdwatchers for example – are often available.||Go to the Masai Mara’s private concessions for night drives and walks with red-robed Maasai warriors in addition to your daytime drives. Interaction with local communities is an important part of the experience and hot-air balloon safaris are popular.||The Serengeti’s private concessions offer night drives, guided walks and off-road driving, and hot-air balloon safaris are widely available. Some of the more exclusive Serengeti concessions offer horse-back safaris, too – a unique way to view wildlife if you are an experienced rider.|
No drone zone Please note at all conservation areas, including national parks, conservancies, concessions and private reserves, are no drone zones unless you have a special permit. Drones interfere with the peace and bother wildlife. Commercial-grade drones have also been known to burst into flames – falling back to earth, the burning drone is major fire hazard in a vulnerable area without access to firefighting equipment. Rangers arrest drone users and confiscate equipment on sight. Please ensure you have all the required official permits and documentation or leave your drone at home.
BEST SUITED FOR
There is an African safari for every type of traveller but certain destinations are better than others for specific requirements.
|Its premium lodges provide accommodation for the most discerning of travellers but the Kruger is also a great destination for honeymooners as well as families with children of any age. Wildlife photographers will not be disappointed with the quality of sightings in the private reserves and if you simply have to see the Big 5, then here’s where you go. The Kruger is also best for adventurous travellers who want to self-drive in Africa. Independent travellers will have the most chance to ‘do it yourself’ in South Africa.||Popular with honeymooners and with some very exclusive and luxurious camps on offer, the Masai Mara’s iconic landscapes and easy game viewing – especially big cats - makes it a great destination for an introductory safari. Family-friendly camps are better suited for older children rather than very young ones. A good choice to sample a taste of local culture.||Home to some of the most dramatic chapters of the Migration as well as abundant predators, the Serengeti is a photographer’s paradise while its more intimate camps are ideal for romantic travel. Families will find child-friendly accommodation in the Serengeti but we recommend it for older children.|
MALARIA, HEALTH & SAFETY
All three destinations lie within the malarial belt and are home to large wild animals; some accommodation is unfenced and it is not unusual for wildlife to wander through camp. That said, the malarial risk is minimal and can be managed through a course of malaria prophylaxis. Your hosts are well experienced in dealing with furry visitors in camp and guards accompany you to your room at night. The risk of other diseases such as yellow fever is negligible but it’s best to consult your travel clinic before you go.
The main risk is sun stroke. Visitors routinely underestimate the strength of the African sun and enjoy spending long afternoons at the swimming pool sunbathing. Bring sufficiently effective sunblock, a hat and sunglasses.
|There is a very slight risk of malaria during the Kruger’s rainy season – especially between January and April - but virtually none at all during the long dry season from about May to October. Some camps, especially those that take young children, are securely perimeter-fenced for peace of mind.
Most game-drive vehicles around Kruger have open tops and sides, meaning you could be in direct sunlight for up to six hours a day, depending on the weather and season.
|An elevated setting and a temperate climate means few mosquitoes and even fewer malaria-bearing ones (not all species transmit the disease). There is a slight risk of malaria in the Masai Mara’s two rainy seasons but almost none during the dry times of year. Again, precautions like organic insect repellent, and wearing long sleeves and trousers at night, go a long way to preventing getting bitten.||The same elevated location as the Masai Mara means the Serengeti has a healthy climate and is relatively free from malaria, especially over its dry seasons.|
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The Kruger, Masai Mara and Serengeti don’t have to be visited in isolation. Smooth-running logistics combine each with a host of other iconic destinations. Add on another game reserve or two for a different take on Africa’s wildlife and landscapes or perhaps a beach holiday, complete with white-sand beaches, flourishing coral reefs and butler service right down to the ocean’s edge.
|The most popular combination is with Cape Town. You can fly there via Johannesburg and add southern right whales, endangered African penguins, Table Mountain and the Cape Winelands to your itinerary. It’s also simple to combine the Kruger with the Victoria Falls and you can even fly direct to Mozambique and enjoy a spectacular beach holiday in the untouched Bazaruto or Quirimbas archipelagos.||‘Bush-and-beach’ combinations are also easy from the Masai Mara – Kenya’s Indian Ocean coast, dotted with beaches like Diani, Galu and Lamu, is home to family resorts and boutique hotels. You can fly there via Mombasa straight from the Masai Mara. It’s also worth adding on another safari destination – Samburu or Amboseli are especially recommended as they are very different to the Mara - as are the Laikipia Plateau and Lewa Wildlife Conservancy for more exclusive game-viewing experience (Lewa is the best place in Kenya to see rhinos).||The Serengeti is at the heart of Tanzania’s ‘northern circuit’ which also includes the Ngorongoro Crater, Tarangire National Park and Lake Manyara. The Indian Ocean island of Zanzibar is the Serengeti’s natural combination for a bush and beach holiday but why not choose a more unusual combination? Go chimpanzee tracking in the Mahale Mountains or explore the untamed Selous Reserve by 4X4, on foot and by boat. Selous gets only one percent of Tanzania’s visitors, meaning you’ll often be the only vehicle at sightings.|