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Choosing Your Destination - Southern versus East Africa

While it's possible for people on an unusually long trip (a month or longer) to visit both Southern and East Africa, most people choose to focus on one region. There is so much to see in both Southern and East Africa that exploring one or two countries in depth is much more rewarding than skimming the highlights of multiple countries or regions.

From a safari standpoint Southern Africa includes Botswana, Malawi, Namibia, South Africa, Zambia, and Zimbabwe. East Africa includes Kenya and Tanzania. We arrange safaris to all Southern African countries except Malawi, and to Tanzania in East Africa.

Uganda and Rwanda, known for their superb gorilla-tracking safaris, are located in Central Africa. They can be reached from either Southern or East Africa, though the logistics are simpler when coming from East Africa. We are happy to arrange a gorilla-tracking extension to your safari.

While a book could be written on the subtle differences between Southern and East Africa, we've created a brief outline of the major points here:

Landscapes and Geography
  • Southern Africa is characterised by an extraordinary variety of environments from the wetlands of the Okavango Delta (Botswana) to the white sands of the Kalahari Desert (Botswana / South Africa / Namibia) and the red sands of the Namib Desert (Namibia). It also includes the classic bushveld of the greater Kruger National Park (South Africa) and the mighty Zambezi River and Victoria Falls (Zambia and Zimbabwe), as well as the wild coasts of South Africa and Namibia.

  • East Africa is dominated by the wide-open plains and forested grasslands of the Serengeti / Maasai Mara ecosystem. It also includes forested grassland (Tarangire / Selous), classic bushveld (Selous), subtropical rain forest (Mahale) and the unique Ngorongoro Crater. Soda lakes offer breeding grounds for flamingos, while Mount Kilimanjaro, the tallest mountain in Africa (5,985 metres / 19,340 feet) towers over Northern Tanzania.
Weather and Climate
  • The game-viewing regions in Southern Africa have one rainy season (generally between November and March) with the remainder of the year relatively dry. Cape Town has its own weather patterns, with rain from June through August. Most safari camps stay open throughout the year.

  • East Africa has two rainy seasons: the short rains (generally from October to December) and the long rains (generally from March to May) with dry seasons in between. Many camps close during the long rains when the roads become impassable.

  • For more detail on weather and climate, please visit the When to Go page in the planning section of our website.

While the wildlife species found in Southern and East Africa are essentially the same and the major predators and plains game can be seen in both regions, there are certain species which are more numerous or easily seen in particular regions. There are also some animals that are endemic (localised) to one region or the other.
  • Southern Africa offers a much better chance to see leopards (particularly in the Sabi Sands in South Africa) and rhinos (also in the Sabi Sands). During the dry season, enormous herds of elephant and buffalo can be seen in Botswana and Zimbabwe, and huge hippo pods crowd the Luangwa River in Zambia. Botswana offers the best opportunities to observe relaxed packs of rare African wild dogs, including young pups. Lechwe and sitatunga are water-adapted antelope endemic to Southern Africa.

  • East Africa is home to the Great Migration, a spectacle unmatched anywhere on earth - tens of thousands of wildebeest and zebra moving between the Serengeti in Tanzania and the Maasai Mara in Kenya. Cheetahs are more easily seen on the wide-open plains, and have been known to use safari vehicles as lookout posts. Thomson's and Grant's gazelles are endemic to East Africa.
On Safari

In addition to being geographically separate, Southern and East Africa have very different safari styles. Some people prefer one to the other - we think that both styles have their own unique appeal.

Note that while it is possible to do a 'Southern Africa' style safari in East Africa (and vice-versa), this will be more expensive than doing the style of safari typical of the region where you are travelling.

Southern Africa
  • Travellers normally fly from camp to camp, though in some cases it is possible to drive. In some countries flying is the only choice (e.g. Botswana). The flights themselves are a key part of the safari experience, providing a bird's-eye view of the environment. The vast scale of some wilderness areas, such as the Skeleton Coast and Namib Desert dunes in Namibia, can only be truly appreciated from the air.

  • Most game-viewing areas are private, with strict capacity controls to prevent crowding. They are usually divided into huge private concessions with only one or two small camps or lodges averaging 10-16 guests, ensuring that crowding is never an issue.

  • Guides are based in the camps, giving them excellent local knowledge. They will know the territories of the resident lions and leopards and will be aware of the daily movements of herds of elephants and buffalo. Local knowledge is especially important when attempting to locate elusive species such as the African wild dog. You'll normally have a different guide at each camp, though it is possible to arrange for a specialist private guide to accompany you throughout your trip.

  • Camps and lodges tend to be very small - it's very rare to find places with more than 12 rooms, and there are a number of camps with only three or four rooms. These are intimate, friendly places with a very personal feel to them.

  • Open-sided 4x4 Land Cruisers or Land Rovers are used for game-viewing, maximising viewing opportunities. Ponchos and temporary canvas roofs are used in case of rain, but the sides and top are normally left entirely open, creating a sense of intimacy with the bush. You will normally share your vehicle with a small number of other guests, though it is possible to book a private vehicle.

  • The number of vehicles at a sighting is normally limited to three, allowing plenty of room for optimal photography and, more important, allowing the animals to behave naturally without feeling crowded or stressed.
East Africa
  • Travellers usually drive from camp to camp. The drives offer plentiful opportunities for interaction with local people as you pass through villages, but can be long, hot, dusty, and hard on the back.

    • While many East African operators do purely ground-based safaris, we prefer to combine flying and driving to make the most of your time and ensure that you don't end up doing the infamous 'Roads of Tanzania Safari.' After all, you're there to see the wildlife, not the roads!

  • While most game-viewing areas are public and have no capacity controls (which can result in crowding) there are also more remote areas with few visitors - but a thorough knowledge of the parks is needed to find them. There are also a small but growing number of private areas, such as Grumeti Reserves, where vehicle numbers are strictly limited and an exclusive experience similar to that available in Southern Africa can be had.

    • We work with a select number of companies with expert knowledge of the parks and conservation areas who make finding these remote and uncrowded areas a priority.

  • On most ground-based safaris you will have a single driver-guide, enabling you to have the same guide throughout your trip. If you do a fly-in itinerary, you will have a camp-based guide like those in Southern Africa.

  • Although many travellers stay in huge 'safari chain hotels', there are also lovely small camps and lodges which offer a much more authentic bush experience.

    • We use only small camps and lodges on our East African safaris. This makes our East African itineraries more expensive than those offered by operators who use the chain hotels, but in our opinion gives far better value for money in terms of your experience of being in the bush.

  • Most vehicles will be closed, with permanent roofs and sides. In addition to 4x4 vehicles (Land Rovers and Land Cruisers), you'll see mini-vans and mini-buses. Closed vehicles will have pop-top roofs, and travellers can stand up and look out of the hatch to view wildlife and take photographs. On a driving itinerary you'll have a private vehicle; on a fly-in itinerary you will share your vehicle with a small number of other guests as you would in a Southern African camp, though it is possible to book a private vehicle.

    • We never use mini-vans on our East African safaris other than for city transfers. On safari, our vehicles are spacious 4x4 extended Land Rovers or Land Cruisers.

    • When possible, open vehicles are used (open vehicles are not permitted in the Ngorongoro Crater, on the roads between the parks, or in most areas of the national parks, but are permitted in privately owned areas and designated 'wilderness areas' within the parks). Open vehicles usually have open sides and canvas roofs with flaps that can be rolled down to close the sides in inclement weather.

  • In the public parks there are no regulations on the number of vehicles at a sighting which can result in many vehicles jockeying for the best position (especially at predator sightings). It can be difficult to get photos without vehicles in the background, and in the worst cases this can disturb the animals and disrupt their behaviour.

    • The companies we work with know where to find sightings in areas with fewer vehicles, and prefer to do their drives in these remote areas. They do not condone crowding animals at sightings and will not 'call in' hordes of other vehicles over the radio when an interesting sighting occurs.