Which East African country is best for your first safari?
Elephant in Uganda

So you’ve always wanted to go to Africa on safari. Lions, hippos, giraffes, elephants, monkeys, chimps, gorillas—there’s so much to see, so which country is best for the first-time visitor? Ask five different people and you’ll get five opinions. It would be so easy if there were a simple formula you could use to figure it out. Say:

[(quantity of animals) x (time available)]/budget = score of country

But it’s not that simple. There are a lot of factors to consider besides time and budget. First, let’s consider the popular choices in East Africa: Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda, and Rwanda. South Africa (though not East African) is sometimes considered for safaris, but it’s generally considered a touring destination where tourists seek out a multitude of experiences on one trip—such as the Winelands, Cape Town and Johannesburg. While it’s not considered a safari destination per se, it does have Kruger National Park and many “private reserves” where visitors can view wildlife—and so for that reason, I am including thoughts on it here.

Do you want to see gorillas?

Gorilla in Uganda
Gorilla in Uganda

One of the first decisions you need to make is how important the primates are in your plans. If you’ve dreamed of seeing gorillas since watching Gorillas in the Mist then your choices are limited: Uganda and Rwanda. (Yes, you could see them in the Congo but the overwhelming opinion is that the Congo isn’t the safest place to visit now.) If you want to see some or all of the “big five,” along with the primates, then it’s narrowed down to just Uganda.

How about wildebeest or white rhino?

If chimps and gorillas aren’t high on your list, then your choices narrow down to Kenya, Tanzania and South Africa. If you want to witness the famous wildebeest migration river crossing, then you can rule out South Africa. The most optical time to view the migration is from mid-July through mid-October. If the rare white rhino (there are only three left) is high on your list then Kenya is your only choice.

If you look at a map of Kenya and Tanzania you’ll see the majority of the game parks—such as Kenya’s Masai Mara and Tanzania’s Serengeti—are actually part of a single geographical unit, much like Canada’s Prairies and America’s Great Plains. The animals move easily back and forth between the two countries, so you could choose either. (See yesterday’s post to find out about how to get one visa to visit three East African countries.)

How adventurous do you want to be?

Chimp at Kibale National Park in Uganda
Chimp at Kibale National Park in Uganda

The other consideration is to how adventurous you want to be. Kenya and South Africa have been in the safari business for a long time and have it down to a fine art; Tanzania is not far behind. Several of these countries have created conservancies inside their parks. Because wildlife is protected in these areas, it’s not uncommon to see six or seven cars parked around a leopard tree in Kenya’s Masai Mara. The resorts in all three countries offer a wide range of options, from budget to luxurious (how’s $1,900 per person/per night sound?). If you want to escape the crowds and be among the first to visit the potential new “hot” countries, then you’ll definitely want to consider Uganda—where my group’s was often the only car around parked the animals.

What do the travel agents say?

On my recent tour of Uganda and Rwanda with Great Lakes Safaris, I traveled with several travel agents from the US, Canada and South Africa. I asked for their opinions on which country would be best for the first-time visitor.

After a lot of debate, they came to the following conclusions:

  • If you’re traveling with kids, Kenya will probably give you the best bang for your buck. If you’re traveling alone, or as a couple, you might want to consider Tanzania.
  • If you’ve dreamed of climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro, then the choice is simple: Tanzania. Then again, Mt. Kenya (in Kenya) is nothing to sneeze at either, particularly if you’re not quite up to the challenge of Mt. Kilimanjaro.
  • If you’re in an older age bracket (as many of my friends are) you might want to seriously consider South Africa. South Africa is a “first-world” country with state-of-the-art infrastructure and medical facilities. This can be a major consideration for older tourists with medical concerns. Also, South Africa is the only country of the group in which malaria medication is not suggested.
  • Your final decision is an ethical one. If you’re morally against sanctioned big game hunting, then your only choice is Kenya. All the other East African countries sanction limited big game hunting.

Finally: Get a travel agent

Golden monkey
Golden monkey

Once you’ve narrowed down your choices, decided on a timeline, and come up with a budget, it’s time to consider a good travel agent. I can’t emphasize how important it is to work with a travel agent who specializes in Africa. Sure, you could book the lodges yourself, but then what? Many of the lodges don’t include your game drives, so you’ll have to arrange them yourself. And then there are transfers between the lodges and airports and so much more. In my early days of traveling, I believed it would be less expensive to do it myself—until I priced out a whole trip and asked a travel agent give me a quote. The quote was considerably less than what I could do the trip for myself and included many things I had not considered.

The other reason for working with a travel agent familiar with Africa is that he or she can tailor a trip to your particular needs. For instance, if you want to see both the gorillas and “the big five,” your agent might be able to create an itinerary combining Kenya/Tanzania with Uganda. The flight between the two countries is only (at the time of writing) $265! Or you might want to chill out on a beach in Mombasa (Kenya) or Zanzibar (Tanzania). I’m a scuba diver, and on my first trip to Africa my travel agent not only planned a fantastic safari but also arranged for some spectaculars diving all—at a great price!

I can’t tell you which country will be right for your circumstances. But I can tell you one thing: Once you’ve been to Africa you’ll be back. There’s just so much to see and do.


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