Kenya, Tanzania or South Africa: which is the best safari destination?
One of the most common questions we get, is “where in Africa should I travel to?” Whilst a seemingly simple question, the answer is perhaps even simpler: “it depends on what you want to see!” Word around town is that Africa’s three most popular destinations are: Kenya (23%), Tanzania (22%) and South Africa (21%). The most popular attractions and activities included seeing the Big Five (26%), visiting Victoria Falls (14%), meeting locals (10%), visiting Cape Town (9%) and gorilla trekking (8%). If you are stuck deciding between Kenya, Tanzania or South Africa, here’s some things to keep in mind when choosing your safari destination.
East vs South Africa: same continent, yet worlds apart?
East Africa: savannah grasslands as far as the eye can see
The first thing that sets South Africa apart from the other two, is its geographical location and the resulting difference in ecosystems and biodiversity. Kenya and Tanzania are neighbours, and situated in the general region know as East Africa. On the shared land border where southern Kenya meets northern Tanzania, the outstretched savannah grasslands epitomise the classic, never-ending safari landscape we all know and love from movies like Out of Africa and even Disney’s classic animation, The Lion King. Both countries’ most famous game reserves share this border, the Masaai Mara National Reserve in Kenya, and the Serengeti National Park in Tanzania.
Travelling in opposite directions, the landscape becomes increasingly arid, accommodations more rustic, and wildlife density naturally less. Whether you are travelling north to Mount Kenya and the Laikipia Plateau or south into Tanzania, these regions are known for their undisturbed wilderness and raw beauty, ideal for intrepid explorers and safari veterans. It also allows you to experience a more pure and untamed version of East Africa away from the crowds. Journey beyond Tanzania's mainland to the Zanzibar Archipelago, also known as the ’spice islands’ for a tropical paradise that offers a cultural experience as vibrant as its coral reefs.
South Africa: a biodiversity wonderland
South Africa, on the other hand, is the third most biodiverse country in the world and now officially ‘The Greatest Country in the World’ according to this year’s Telegraph Travel Awards! Its diverse range of biomes - from forests to deserts, estuaries and marine systems, is home to over 95,000 known species. And the safari landscape in South Africa is just as diverse; nowhere in Africa can you see as many biomes in just one day! &Beyond Phinda Private Game Reserve in Kwazulu-Natal province for instance, is home to seven distinct ecological zones, within an area of “just” 23 000 hectares. The Greater Kruger's private reserves deliver Africa's most reliable Big 5 game viewing with world-class guiding, while Cape Town and its surrounding wine valleys provide an elegant, Mediterranean twist. Pristine bush, idyllic beaches, craggy mountains, forested slopes, endless open plains and hilly countryside give way to awe-inspiring landscapes that are host to a multitude of wildlife and activities.
Weather-wise, east Africa is characterised by two wet seasons (April to May and November) and two dry seasons (June to October and December to March). The wet seasons are know for extensive flooding of the otherwise dry landscapes. South Africa's summer rainfall and dry winters, mean that the safari-high-season falls between May-September, when the dry winter vegetation creates optimal game viewing conditions. But if you’re not scared of a few raindrops, the popping, lush greenery and stunning flowing rivers make South Africa a spectacular safari destination even during the hotter summer months.
All three countries offer Big Five game viewing in most game reserves. However, they each have their specialities! The Mara-Serengeti eco-system spans across the Kenyan-Tanzanian border and is known as prime Great Migration territory. The famed natural spectacle of millions of animals moving across the savannah plains in an endless search of rain and the fresh grass that follows, is one of the major draw-cards to East Africa. The choice between Kenya and Tanzania is made largely based on the time of year you are travelling to see the Great Migration: Tanzania is a good year-round Migration destination, whereas Kenya’s Masaai Mara is best from July-September.
If you are looking to spot unique species, northern Kenya’s Laikipia region has surged in popularity, as the first black leopard in over 100 years was photographed there in 2018. Wild Wonderful World Director Jonty Bozas was lucky enough to get this beautiful shot on a safari to Laikipia in 2022.
Other unique species you’ll encounter in Kenya are Reticulated Giraffe, Gerenuk, Somali Ostrich, and Grevy’s Zebra, the Pink Flamingos of Lake Nakuru or the famous Tusker Elephants of Amboseli National Park. Tanzania’s Mahala Mountains next to the famous Lake Tanganyika are home to a 1,000 or so chimpanzees, and offer an excellent opportunity for chimpanzee trekking without having to travel to Uganda’s Kibale Forest. Or see the tree climbing lions of Lake Manyara National Park of Tanzania, one of only two populations in Africa.
As for South Africa, where do we even begin… The Kruger National Park and adjoining private nature reserves are the last stronghold for the African Rhino, with the largest population of wild rhino found here. The wildlife density in this area is second to none, with almost guaranteed exceptional sightings of not only the Big Five, but the "Magnificent Seven" - Elephant, Lion, Leopard, Buffalo, Wild Dog and Cheetah.
Find the renowned White Lions of the Timbavati or spend hours with Africa’s most relaxed wild Leopard population in the Sabi Sands. The red soils of the Kalahari Game Reserve offer opportunity to see rare species like Aardvark, Bat-Eared Fox, Brown Hyena and one of the very few populations of Meerkats in South Africa. Or visit Kwandwe Private Game Reserve, the epitome of successful conservation and transformation of run-down, overgrazed and overexploited farmland, into a pristine wilderness area that is a haven for wildlife of all shapes and sizes.
South Africa’s diverse safari landscape means that the country is a year-round destination. From June to September, expect cool, dry weather on safari. The Cape Whale Season runs from June to December, with southern right and humpback whales seen along the south coast from Cape Town to Mossel Bay. Visit the Cape Penguin colony and city of Cape Town between December and March to enjoy optimal summery weather conditions.
Local Culture and Activities
From the Masaai in Southern Kenya, to the Samburu people to the north and the Tanzanian Datoga and Hadzabe tribes to the south, the local East African tribes are amongst the oldest and most colourful cultures in Africa. The melting pot of cultures in South Africa becomes clear as soon as you step foot in the country. A true rainbow nation, its ancient cultures have evolved into the modern cultural hotspot it is today.
All three countries offer excellent, classic game viewing from an open-top 4x4 vehicle. The Kenyan safari industry is the most established in Africa. However, this also means that during peak season, especially in the public parks, you can expect a huge influx of vehicles rushing to get to a safari sighting. Working with an experienced safari expert will enable you to avoid the masses and ensure access to the best game viewing areas in Kenya at the right times. Tanzania’s Serengeti and Ngorogoro Crater offers something for everyone. If you’re looking for away-from-the-crowds luxury accommodation combined with classic East African safari landscapes, the Grumeti Reserve is our top-recommendation.
An excellent overlanding destination, South Africa lends itself perfectly to self-drive adventurers wanting to explore the Greater Kruger Region. For those in search of the ultimate luxury game drive experience, with surprises around every corner and first-class, Big Five game viewing, we recommend staying in one of the private nature reserves with open boundaries to the Kruger Park.
Hot air balloon flights provide an unforgettable view across the Mara-Serengeti National Parks. In Kenya, adventurous travellers can embark on multi-day walking safaris with camels; or fly by helicopter to the beautiful Lake Turkana. Horse riding enthusiasts will find many more options in Kenya than in Tanzania. Of course, you can climb Africa’s highest (Mount Kilimanjaro, Tanzania) and second-highest peaks (Mount Kenya) and visit world-famous conservation organisations such as the Sheldrick Wildlife Trust in Kenya. Tanzania is the only out of the three offering Chimpanzee treks, sunset cruises and tiger fishing in its southern parks. South Africa offers excellent walking safaris, from multi-day primitive trails in the wilderness of the Kruger National Park to walking excursions from luxury lodges. Learn the ancient art of tracking animals in the bush, rub shoulders with wine makers from the oldest new-world wine lands and immerse yourself in the culture of this rainbow nation.
They’re all great!
If you’re still undecided, flip a coin! Whichever destination you choose, all countries are top-notch safari destinations, with fascinating, vast and ecologically diverse landscapes, wildlife and cultures. If you want to add conservation experiences to your safari and learn about what it takes to keep this pristine wilderness thriving, all three destinations offer this possibility. Worried about safety? Both Kenya and South Africa are amongst our top-safest African safari destinations.
In short: if you are looking for the openness of the great savannah plains, dotted with wildebeest, zebra, giraffe, buffalo and elephant, both Tanzania and Kenya will steal your heart. If you are looking for world-class game drive safaris, with surprises around every corner and thrilling tracking experiences in the bush veld, easily combined with the cultural hodgepodge of the Mother City of Cape Town, South Africa will deliver with gusto.
As always, choosing your optimal itinerary, unique lodges and accommodation with outstanding service and a multitude of safari activities on offer, will ensure that your safari is the best it can be, no matter the country. Or combine East and South Africa, and see the best of both worlds in one trip! Air connections between the two regions are readily available and offer the shortest transfer times between these bucket-list destinations.
Written by Evelyn Poole