What we'll cover in this article
In a world of impossible choices, choosing between Kenya and Tanzania must be one of the hardest. Both countries offer sensational scenery, fantastic game viewing, different aspects of the Great Wildebeest Migration and a series of bucket-list activities that defy comparison (did you know you can go chimp trekking in Tanzania, for example?).
Because we’ve been visiting both countries since 1998, we can break down:
- How to choose based on your timing and the Migration
- Which is better for first-time safari-goers
- Which is better for children
As always, our top advice when faced with two equally enticing choices is to really make use of the services of your personal Africa Safari Expert. He or she will be able to take your budget, timing and hopes for your trip and tailor-make a special itinerary just for you and your party. When it comes to travel in Africa, there’s no ‘one-size-fits-all’. As a unique continent, we believe that every journey here is also unique.
1. How to choose if you can only travel at a certain time of the year and want to see the Wildebeest Migration
Lucky you – this is one the easiest choices to make! If you can only travel in, say, February, then you will be definitely heading to the Serengeti in Tanzania because that’s where hundreds of thousands of wildebeest (along with other grazers like zebra, Thomson’s gazelle and topi) will be having thousands of adorable calves. To take advantage of their wobbly legs, predators like lions, leopards, cheetahs, wild dogs and spotted hyenas move in, making this one of the most bittersweet moments in the Migration year.
If you can only travel later in the year, like in November, then, once again, the choice is made for you: you’ll be heading to the Masai Mara in Kenya. That’s where the majority of the wildebeest will be, taking advantage of the fresh grazing after the first spring rains.
Essentially, you will have to go where the wildebeest are. You can’t decide you want to see the Migration in March in the Mara – they simply won’t be there!
2. Which to choose if it’s your first time to Africa
There are many factors at play here so it’s best to start with your preferences:
If you don’t like flying
Some travellers are nervous fliers. Once you’ve landed at Arusha (Tanzania) or Nairobi (Kenya), you may have to hop in a light aircraft (sometimes a 6-seater or even smaller) to get to your next destination. If you’d rather not fly in very small planes but drive, then we recommend Tanzania. The world-famous Northern Circuit has several major parks close enough together to make driving possible. From Arusha, you can be driven to Tarangire, Lake Manyara, the Serengeti and the Ngorongoro Crater.
The Rift Valley scenery is magnificent but plan your trip carefully if you want a chance of catching Manyara’s famous flamingos – the lake can completely dry up during winter.
Although Kenya is a smaller country, it’s national parks and reserves are much more scattered so it’s much faster, more comfortable and logistically better to fly between destinations. It is possible to drive from Nairobi to Amboseli but a chunk of your safari will then be spent in car rather than game watching.
If you want to get off-the-beaten track
Even some first-timers to Africa want to experience something ‘different’. If you love adventure and not following the proverbial tourist herd, then you’re really spoilt for choice as either option is excellent as long as you avoid Tanzania’s Northern Circuit and Kenya’s Masai Mara over the mid-year peak season (from about July to October).
In Tanzania, head for wonderful places like Selous (one of the biggest national parks in the world). Even at peak season, you’ll often have sightings all to yourself. Selous is so large that you’ll only be able to explore a small percentage of it. This is a fantastic location to go boating on the Rufiji River and fly-camping in the evening (spending a night out in the bush with just a mattress and a mozzie net!).
Possibly Tanzania’s best-kept secret, only one percent of its safari visitors find their way to Ruaha National Park. Its recorded bird count is off the charts, with 570 species awaiting avid and beginner birders looking to full their checklist with big ticks.
For a truly remote experience, fly down to Katavi, home to some of biggest herds of buffalo on the planet and an exhilarating display of plains game.
An extraordinary experience in Tanzania is also found in the exceptional Mahale Mountains, where you can trek habituated chimpanzees through pristine rainforest, before settling in at your lakeside ‘beach hut’ for the night.
In Kenya, break away from the most popular reserves like the Masai Mara and Amboseli to discover hidden gems like Samburu and private conservancies like Lewa and Laikipia. Kenya has more conservancies and private reserves than Tanzania so your choice of activities is much wider: off-roading, guided nature walks, night drives, sleep-outs and fly-camping are all possible in conservancies or private reserves.
Samburu is an arid area to the north where you can find five endemic species known as the Samburu Special 5 (beisa oryx, Somali ostrich, Grevy’s zebra, gerenuk and reticulated giraffe).
Lewa is an astounding private reserve known for its successful rhino conservation while Laikipia also presents intrepid travellers with something different.
If you really want to experience Africa, leave the 4x4 back at the lodge and venture out on camel- or horseback, or get into the saddle of a mountain bike. If you want something truly different, climb into the cockpit of a vintage biplane to cruise over the acacia-dotted plains…
If you want a ‘bush-and-beach’ break
Although both have coastlines, if you want an island experience, we’d suggest Tanzania. Zanzibar (the birthplace of Queen’s Freddie Mercury) is the obvious choice for its wide variety of accommodation and activities. If you want more exclusivity, sparkling waters, incredible diving and exceptional service, then head to Mnemba.
If you want an authentic ‘African island’, experience, then look no further than Pemba. Pemba may be more ‘rugged’ than Zanzibar or Mnemba but it houses one of the most extraordinary lodge suites in the world: the Underwater Room at The Manta Resort. Moored off-shore, the roof of your floating suite serves as a sun deck while your bedroom is below the water, shielded by large glass windows that allow you to see the incredible marine life that drifts past, like turtles, Spanish dancers and clownfish.
Tanzania is also home to an island ominously named ‘Mafia’… don’t despair, it houses a luxurious beach villa known as Thanda Island with all sorts of extravagances like a cigar humidor, wine cellar and helipad amid pristine beach forest. If you’re planning a blowout celebration with family and friends, this is the place to be.
If you’re on a tight budget
While both offer great off-season deals, Kenya is probably more budget-friendly for the average traveller. It’s a numbers game: Kenya has done much more on the international stage to promote itself, which means more flights, more types of accommodation and more safari lovers (don’t think this means crowded though. Africa is not a place of enormous hotels with thousands of rooms - a 40-room lodge in Kenya is considered unusual and gigantic! The most crowded place on safari will be the Mara River during the Migration crossing; even then, it will be less traffic than the average city intersection).
Your Africa Safari Expert will help you spend your money wisely, choosing suitable accommodation in wildlife areas, perhaps cutting extras like a private pool at your room in favour of a ‘splurge excursion’ like a hot-air balloon safari.
Don’t overlook parks and reserves during the off-season when the Migration has moved on – you could find great offers in places like Selous.
If you want to have sightings all to yourself
There are two options here: go during the off-peak Green Season or go private.
As always with Africa, nothing is quite that simple. The southern Serengeti during the Green Season (about December to March) could be busy as that’s where the Wildebeest Migration is: the females are giving birth and the males gearing up to rut. So, head for the Masai Mara. It’ll rain from time to time but the land will be green, the air clear, and birds and babies will abound. Plus there will be few other travellers around so you will likely have sightings pretty much to yourself. How can you resist watching a coalition of cheetahs stalking their prey or relaxing after a demanding hunt and a satisfying meal?
Both Kenya and Tanzania have private enclaves but there are probably more choices in Kenya. In Tanzania, the Grumeti Reserve on the Grumeti River is famous for ultra-luxe accommodation in a spectacular setting (one lodge here even has a full tennis court, a very unusual facility in East Africa). At about mid-year, the wildebeest pass through, crossing the Grumeti on their way to the Mara.
There is also Mwiba Wildlife Reserve, which is within driving distance to the Ngorongoro Conservation Area and the southern Serengeti. A short drive from Tarangire National Park is the Burunge concession run by the local Maasai community, another enclave with low numbers.
In Kenya, the private areas are superstars like the Lewa Wildlife Conservancy and Loisaba in the Laikipia area. Drier than their southern counterparts, they attract safari lovers like Prince William and Kate Middleton to their astoundingly success conservation projects.
The Masai Mara is also a patchwork of conservancies like Ol Kinyei, Motorogi, Olare Orok and Ol Chorro. These give you the best of both worlds: you can head into the national reserve if great sightings or the Migration are being had there but can venture back into the conservancy if things start getting a little crowded.
If you want to enjoy some city life
Then definitely head to Kenya. Tanzania’s capital – Dodoma – doesn’t even feature on the safari map and other cities like Dar es Salaam and Mombasa can be easily bypassed on light aircraft flights if you’re heading to the Tanzanian coast. Almost all safari travellers go via Arusha, a charming but small town.
Nairobi, on the other hand, is a thriving and enormous metropolis that’s so big it can support its own national park (Nairobi National Park has four of the Big 5 – there are no elephants – and delightful tented accommodation that’s perfect for an overnight stay).
You’ll likely stay in the upscale neighbourhood of Karen, a leafy enclave known for old mansions, tall trees and storied history. It’s a good base as it is home to two of Africa’s most popular attractions: the Daphne Sheldrick Elephant Orphanage and The Giraffe Centre. At the Elephant Orphanage, you can adopt sick, injured or orphaned ellies as they are nursed back to health while The Giraffe Centre supports the conservation of endangered Rothschild’s giraffes.
The city also has plenty of great shopping spots like Kitengela Glass, Kazuri Beads – as worn by Meryl Streep – and Matbronze Sculpture, where you can buy everything from delicate Kenyan flowers moulded in bronze to a life-sized gerenuk nibbling a thorn tree.
Many clients are hesitant to spend a night in an African city but are often overwhelmed by the hospitality and variety. Nairobi also has several upscale restaurants and we arrange an experienced English-speaking driver-guide to ensure you can simply sit back and enjoy the ride.
If you want to do a classic circuit
Then head for Tanzania, whose Northern Circuit starts in Arusha and combines the two blockbusters – the Serengeti and Ngorongoro Crater – with Tarangire and Lake Manyara, the former an elephant paradise, the latter a haven for rhino. A driver-guide can escort you for the entire journey. It’s best, however, to go on game drives with the guides from the lodge you’re staying at as they are more au fait with the animals’ movements and will be better placed to find them far more quickly than a non-resident guide.
3. Which to choose if you’re travelling with young children
A lot depends on the child: some youngsters are regular transatlantic jetsetters and will slot in to any environment easily. If it’s your first safari, however, then plump for Kenya. Lodges are generally more laidback and there are usually more activities on offer, everything from mountain biking in private concessions to soccer games with the Maasai villagers. Nairobi is also packed with things to do – being able to tell your friends back home that you ‘kissed’ a giraffe or adopted an elephant baby brother or sister is bound to be a big hit.
The other reason for choosing Kenya is that it far more common to fly into your destinations. Children do generally not enjoy spending three or four hours or more in a vehicle on dirt roads – it is always best to cut travelling time down to a minimum when small children are part of the party.
Like all great choices in life, there is no ‘wrong’ choice here. Your Africa Safari Expert will guide you in selecting the country and the area that makes the most sense based on your budget, time available and interests. The best part is, once you’ve seen Kenya, you’re bound to want to visit Tanzania next, and vice versa. No matter which you choose, you’ll experience Africa’s wonderful hospitality and incredible wildlife.