Have you always dreamed of going on an African safari? Perhaps you want to book a safari honeymoon, or just head off on a romantic adventure that will provide memories for a lifetime. Whatever sort of trip you want to take, you’ll first need to choose where to go on safari in Africa.
It can be tough to figure out which country in Africa is best for safari, and the choice really depends on what you’re looking for in your trip. Two of the top African safari destinations are Kenya and South Africa. In this article, we’ll give an overview of both and try to answer the question, is Kenya or South Africa better for safari?
To choose between South Africa and Kenya for your safari, think about what type of trip you want. While both countries offer the chance to see amazing wildlife, there are some definite differences. For example, if you hate to camp and want to stay in lodges but don’t have a big budget, you’ll want to safari in South Africa. If you’ve always dreamed of seeing the Great Migration in person, you’ll need to choose Kenya. If you’re concerned about getting malaria, you’ll want to pick South Africa.
Read on to learn more about safaris in Kenya and South Africa to see which one is best for you.
Kenya vs. South Africa For Safari
If you’re interested in history, culture, or architecture, you may want to choose a safari in Kenya. It has more than 40 different ethnic groups and offers opportunities to get immersed in local culture. You can also visit amazing ancient ports and medieval ruins in Kenya.
Try adding a stop in Gedi along the coast—often called Kenya’s “Machu Pichu”—where a number of Swahili buildings that date to the thirteenth century have been excavated, including a mosque, a palace, tombs, and a fort. There are also ruins in Kenya at Takwa, Namoratunga, Mnarani, and Thimlich Ohinga.
If you want a wilder, more authentic experience and the chance to get a little closer to wildlife, Kenya is your best choice for a safari as well, especially if you prefer to camp rather than stay in a luxury lodge. In South Africa, the reserves and parks are fenced and do not have the same wild, remote feel that they do in Kenya.
However, if you prefer to stay in a lodge and you don’t have a big budget for your safari trip, you’ll want to choose South Africa. Tent camping is most common on Kenyan safaris, and lodge options in Kenya tend to be expensive. South Africa offers many affordable lodge options.
Kenya is located in east Africa, which has a relatively cool and dry climate and abundant wildlife. This makes Kenya is a great safari destination year-round. You will see something regardless of what time of year you visit.
If you want to drive yourself on safari, you should pick South Africa. It’s not easy to drive yourself in Kenya, as roads are not good and most areas only allow guided tours. South Africa’s Kruger National Park and Pilanesberg are better for self-driving.
You can get a little closer to animals on safaris in Kenya, as drivers and guides are allowed to approach wildlife. In South Africa, you are generally restricted to a certain distance.
If you’re concerned about contracting a tropical disease like malaria, you may want to choose South Africa. It is the only African country that has several malaria-free safari destinations. Malaria preventive medicine is only required in some areas of South Africa. In addition to the usual childhood immunizations, vaccinations against measles, hepatitis, rabies, and typhoid are recommended for travel to South Africa. For travel to Kenya, you will definitely need to take malaria medicine, and the following vaccinations are recommended or required: polio, measles, mumps, hepatitis, meningitis, typhoid, cholera, yellow fever, pneumonia, shingles, and Tdap (tetanus, diphtheria, and pertussis).
South Africa is more family-friendly than Kenya, and a better option for first-time safari goers. The roads are better and South Africa’s infrastructure is more developed.
Both countries are along the coast if you want to do water sports or visit the beach along with your safari. South Africa has more developed beach resorts, while Kenya has ancient ports and ruins that date back to the medieval age.
Both countries are easily accessible to U.S. travelers. You can apply online for an electronic visa to enter Kenya. You don’t need a visa to enter South Africa if you’re staying less than 90 days.
Safaris in Kenya
Kenya is the birthplace of safaris and has a higher percentage of its land dedicated to national parks and wildlife reserves than South Africa does. With abundant wildlife, open plains, and temperate climate, Kenya is a year-round safari destination. Many visitors get to see one of the “Big Five”—elephants, leopards, lions, African buffalo, and rhinoceroses—within just a few days of arriving.
And then there’s the Great Migration. Each year in late July to August, millions of wildebeest, hundreds of thousands of gazelles and zebras, and thousands of eland move from the Serengeti to Kenya’s Masai Mara. Then they move back to the Serengeti during the end of October to early November. This stunning sight is on many people’s bucket list.
Kenya also has Mount Kenya, one of the two tallest mountains in Africa. National parks and private reserves have a wilder feel in Kenya, and you have more opportunities to get closer to animals. Accommodations on safaris in Kenya tend to be authentic lodges and tented camps.
Best safari destinations in Kenya
Many travelers start their Kenya safari visit in the capital of Kenya, Nairobi. It is Africa’s fourth largest city and features the world’s only urban game reserve close to the center of the city, Nairobi National Park.
Nairobi is a fascinating city and you may want to stay here for a few days before or after your safari. There are some luxurious hotels along the edge of Nairobi National Park. Or for a unique experience, stay at Giraffe Manor in the Langata suburb and greet the giraffes as they poke their heads in the windows to get a treat each day!
Nairobi National Park is one of the most accessible wildlife experiences in Africa. In as little as a half-day trip, you can spot iconic species like leopards, lions, hyenas, Cape buffalos, eastern black rhinos, zebras, wildebeests, baboons, gazelles, impala, Masai giraffe, ostrich, hippos, Grant’s zebra, cheetahs, and several other mammals.
Mombasa is Kenya’s largest coastal city and another great starting point for a Kenyan safari. If you’re short on time, you can take a day trip to Tsavo East, which is Kenya’s largest national park. The park is generally flat with dry plains and features the Yatta Plateau and Lugard Falls. It is one of the world’s largest game reserves offering unspoiled wilderness to vast numbers of animals. The most famous mammals here are the Tsavo lions, a unique breed in which the adult males often lack manes. You can also see elephants, rhino, buffalo, leopards, pods of hippos, crocodiles, waterbucks, lesser kudu, gerenuk, and more than 500 bird species.
If you have more time, you can also visit Tsavo West National Park, located next to Tsavo East. They form the Tsavo Conservation Area. Tsavo West is a more popular destination thanks to its Mzima springs, amazing scenery, and rich and varied wildlife. There are also better road systems, rock climbing potential, and a rhino reserve as well as guided walks on along the Tsavo River. Tsavo West has a wide variety of wildlife including the eastern black rhinoceros, Cape buffalo, hippos, leopards, lions, and elephants. There are also many smaller animals including lesser kudu, hartebeest, bushbaby, and Masai giraffe.
Masai Mara National Reserve is one of the most well-known safari destinations in Africa. Located in the southwest part of Kenya and covering 583 square miles, it has wide open plains and an abundance of wildlife such as leopards, lions, cheetahs, zebras, hyenas, elephants, black rhinos, giraffes, baboons, jackals, impala, gazelles, eland, hyenas, crocodiles, and more. You’re pretty much guaranteed to see the “Big Five” here. You can also see the magnificent Great Migration here during late July to August and late October to November.
Consider staying at a private conservancy instead of the national reserve, for fewer crowds plus options that aren’t allowed in the national reserve like night game drives, bush walks, and off-road game viewing.
Amboseli National Park is the second most popular national park in Kenya after the Masai Mara National Reserve and is said to have the best wildlife viewing in the world. The area is home to African bush elephants, impalas, lions, spotted hyenas, cheetahs, Cape buffalo, Masai giraffe, Grant’s zebra, blue wildebeests and more than 400 species of birds. The park is accessible all year round. You can get some spectacular photographs here, as it sits at the foot of Mount Kilimanjaro.
Samburu National Reserve in the northern desert has rocky landscape and is home to lions, cheetahs, leopards, hippos, Cape buffalo, elephants, Nile crocodiles, baboons, impalas, and gazelles, as well as the recently reintroduced black rhino. It is also home to the Special Five: Grevy’s zebra, long-neck gerenuk, Somali ostrich, Beisa oryx, and reticulated giraffe. Samburu is a less crowded option and is near two other parks, Buffalo Springs and Shaba. There are luxury camps here.
Olare Motorogi Conservancy has more than 35,000 acres of plains, grassland, and hills. Owned by more than 300 Maasai landowners, this area has one of the highest concentrations of big cats in Africa. There are also more than 300 species of bird. You can stay at the Mahali Mzuri luxury tented camp here.
The high plains in Laikipia are becoming more and more popular and you can find several conservancies here. Lewa Wildlife Conservancy received media attention in 2010 when Prince William proposed to Kate Middleton while they were on safari here. Located in northern Kenya near the foothills of Mount Kenya, Lewa is considered one of the country’s most successful conservancies. It was formed in 1995 as a wildlife sanctuary and covers an area of 250 square kilometers and is home to a variety of wildlife including sitatungas, Grevy’s zebras, and black rhinos. All the Big Five are included. The park holds more than 12% of Kenya’s population of eastern black rhinoceros and the largest population of Grevy’s zebras in the world.
Loisaba Conservancy is in northern Laikipia and covers 56,000 acres. It is served by two permanent rivers and abundant springs which make the conservancy attractive to wildlife throughout the year. The mission of the conservancy is to enhance and protect critical wildlife diversity, habitat, and abundance within the Loisaba landscape while at the same time supporting sustainable livestock production and improving the lives of the neighboring communities. The Loisaba Conservancy has over 260 bird and 50 mammal species. The common wildlife here includes 800 elephants, herds of buffalo, dozens of endangered Grevy’s zebra, wild dogs, giraffes, and great kudu. The conservancy also has a good population of lions, leopards, and cheetahs.
Namunyak Wildlife Conservancy is an authentic East African wildlife, cultural, and scenic tourist destination. A result of a collaboration between the Northern Rangeland Trust and the Samburu community, the conservancy is 850,000 acres in size and is located within the Matthews Mountain Range, an untouched wilderness. It is home to African wild dogs, gerenuks, Grevy’s zebras, reticulated giraffes, de brazza colobus monkeys, and a range of other endangered species. It also has a good population of elephants, kudus, and buffalo. The main predators are lions and leopards.
South African Safaris
South Africa also has a wide variety of wildlife to see, but you can’t see the Great Migration here. However, South Africa has several malaria-free areas and is a more family-friendly destination. It’s also a great country for first-time safaris.
The best time to see game in South Africa is during the dry season of May to October. Accommodations on South African safaris tend to be modern lodges, ranging from bungalows to luxury buildings. There are even golf courses at some locations.
If you go on safari in South Africa, be sure to visit Cape Town. Considered one of the world’s best cities, it has beaches, mountains, green valleys, and historical landmarks and is a must-see for any visitor to South Africa.
Best safari destinations in South Africa
Tswalu Kalahari Game Reserve is South Africa’s largest private reserve, located in the country’s north amid the dunes and plains of the southern Kalahari desert. Dedicated to restoring the Kalahari, this reserve offers day and night game drives, nature walks, animal tracking, and more. Here you can see more than 85 animal species, including many rare and endangered animals. Wildlife includes zebra, giraffe, warthog, ostrich, oryx, Kalahari black-maned lion, wildebeest, desert black rhino, and African wild dog. You can also see leopards, jackals, hyenas, cheetahs, and Cape buffalo.
Kruger National Park has the most diverse animal population in South Africa. One of the oldest conservation areas in Africa, you are almost sure to see the animals of the Big Five (lions, leopards, elephants, buffalo, and rhinoceroses) most days here. There are also cheetahs and wild dogs. You can stay at lodges on private game reserves within the park.
Along the unfenced border of Kruger National Park, Sabi Sand Private Game Reserve contains Ulusaba, where you can stay in luxury lodges and experience off-road tracking, guided bush walks, and night drives for amazing wildlife encounters. In addition to the Big Five you can see impala, antelopes, hyenas, giraffes, warthogs, and hippos.
Samara Koo Private Reserve is set in the Great Karoo semi-desert, which features flat-topped mountains. This used to be farmland but is now a conservation area and has the Big Five as well as cheetahs that are remarkably accustomed to people. You can also see aardvarks here.
Phinda Private Game Reserve is on the coast near Sodwana Bay, one of the best diving spots in South Africa, if you want to combine your South African safari with a diving or snorkeling excursion. In the reserve, you can see pangolins as well as a variety of wildlife.
Addo Elephant National Park is one of the malaria-free safari locations in South Africa. You can also see the Big Five here, go horseback riding, and go on bush walks with giraffes.
Madikwe Game Reserve is also malaria-free. About a 4-hour drive from Johannesburg, this is a popular family-friendly safari. You can see the Big Five here, as well as cheetahs and more than 350 species of bird.
Now that you’ve learned all about both areas, will you choose South Africa or Kenya for your safari? Let us know in the comments!