Where to Go on Your First Safari | GeoEx
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Where to Go on Your First Safari

By GeoEx Staff | October 25, 2022

Zebras on the floor of the Ngorongoro Crater, Tanzania

We love getting calls from guests who are ready to plan their first safari. Our very first conversation can span thousands of geographic miles as we compare different countries’ wildlife, weather, cultural experiences, and luxury. Four famous locations are often on the table: Botswana’s Okavango Delta, Tanzania’s Serengeti National Park, Kenya’s Maasai Mara National Reserve, and South Africa’s Kruger National Park. With abundant wildlife in all, they can be tough to compare. This guide can help you choose the best location for your first safari.

Your Guide to Safari Destinations

Our experts have detailed the main differences between the most iconic safari destinations and what to expect from each place. Perhaps you are dreaming of a view of the waterhole from your tent, or on a quest to see a rare honey badger—the finer details can be explored with one of our trip designers—but this overview is an excellent place to start.

Botswana’s Okavango Delta

Mother and baby hippo in the waters of the Okavango Delta, Botswana

The Okavango Delta in four key points:

  • Exclusive
  • Beauty
  • Wilderness
  • Splurge

What’s Special about Botswana

The channels of the Okavango Delta transform the Kalahari Desert into a life-giving wonderland. Nowhere else does water play such a large role in your safari, whether you’re cruising through wetlands scouting for elephants, driving through arid sagebrush toward a waterhole frequented by thirsty lions, or photographing the sparkling Delta at sunrise while listening to the grunts of hippo.

Peaceful Botswana is famous for exclusivity. The Delta is protected by enormous private reserves that are home to just a few safari camps. Rivers and channels restrict roads, limiting access except by aircraft. This gives you total immersion in the vast wilderness. It also gives Botswana its reputation as one of the costliest safaris. One way to stay on-budget in Botswana is by joining a small group trip. Our Bountiful Botswana itinerary is designed to be the perfect first safari for travelers and includes Victoria Falls in neighboring Zambia.

The Botswana Wildlife Experience

Wildlife is abundant, and on a GeoEx trip, crowds are minimal. Unlike in Tanzania or Kenya, you won’t usually see massive herds of different species all at once. Instead, different camps highlight diverse microhabitats and animals. A “water camp” on an island is great for hippo, crocodile, and birds, while a “land camp” surrounded by grass or woodland is better for lion or leopard.

Leopard and giraffe against dramatic skies, Okavango Delta, Botswana

Botswana Safari Design

Getting to Botswana requires several flights, making a safari shorter than a week unrealistic. You may visit two or more camps that highlight different parts of the Okavango Delta and nearby concessions. Depending on the season, you may extend to the Kalahari Desert or Victoria Falls. Our sample custom itinerary, Wilds of Botswana, incorporates several of these areas in 10 days.

Variety in Botswana

A well-rounded Okavango Delta safari includes game drives by day and night, short safari walks, and seasonally-available boat and mokoro (canoe) safaris. Adventure can be amplified with scenic helicopter trips. The focus is on nature. There’s less emphasis on cultural exchange with the indigenous people in Botswana, and no city exploration unless you add time in South Africa.

Botswana Lodging

Botswana is home to some of Africa’s most famous safari camps and lodges, many of which have stewarded prime habitat for decades and earned reputations for magnificent wildlife and exclusivity. Their desirability means that they should be booked well in advance. Even the most luxurious camps are designed to be light on the Earth, inviting the sights and sounds of the bush into a spacious and comfortable refuge of wood, canvas, and natural textiles. Unlike in South Africa, it’s still not common to find super-fast WiFi, modernist architecture, or large spa facilities in Botswana.

*For more on the different accommodation options on safari and where you’ll encounter them, see our safari accommodation glossary.

Tanzania’s Serengeti National Park

Herds of wildebeest in the Grumeti Reserve, Serengeti, Tanzania

The Serengeti in four key points:

  • Savannah
  • Seasonal
  • Great Migration
  • Iconic

What’s Special about Tanzania

Nine months out of the year, Tanzania’s Serengeti National Park is home to the Great Migration of millions of wildebeest, zebra, and gazelle. This famous natural phenomenon occurs nowhere else on Earth except Kenya, which shares part of the Migration’s route.

Still, Tanzania is so ecologically rich that the Serengeti is usually just one stop on the “northern circuit,” an itinerary that links the country’s most famous wildlife areas. These include Ngorongoro Crater—where lions, elephants, and rhinos dwell inside a breathtaking caldera—and Tarangire, home to baobab trees and elephant herds. Travelers who value variety may favor Tanzania, where you can also experience the country’s legacy of primate research (Jane Goodall studied chimpanzees in the western rainforests) and the tropical waters and Islamic culture of Zanzibar.

Chimpanzee in Mahale National Park, Tanzania

The Tanzania Wildlife Experience

In the right season, you can step outside your Serengeti safari tent and see animals spreading across the savannah to the horizon. The key word is “season:” wildlife migrates around the Serengeti, and it’s critical to be in the right place at the right time or you’ll have a quiet safari. As a public park, the Serengeti attracts more crowds than the Okavango Delta. Expect to see other vehicles and consider mixing national parks with private reserves.

Elephant mother and calf in the grasses of the Serengeti, Tanzania

Tanzania Safari Design

The classic “northern circuit” of Tanzania’s best parks, including the Serengeti, is worthy of more than a week. Our sample custom itinerary, the Nature of Tanzania, balances popular parks with more intimate reserves in 11 days. You’ll need to add another 3-4 days if you wish to visit Zanzibar.

Variety in Tanzania

Within national parks, activities are limited to daytime game drives; more flexibility is allowed on private reserves. Tanzania is a good choice to get an introduction to traditional culture from the Maasai or Hadzabe people, especially if you stay at a camp with close relationships with these communities, but local culture is not as integrated into your trip as it is in Kenya.

Tanzania Lodging

This is the home of the classic canvas tented camp. Within that category, there’s a range of luxury. Many Serengeti camps are “mobile,” meaning they are dismantled and rebuilt twice-yearly to follow the Great Migration. Permanent lodges built on private reserves can invest in more luxury. Multiple camps may be owned by larger safari companies, like Nomad or Asilia. Combining camps within a single company’s portfolio can open up discounts or promotional rates, but it can also mean each location might feel repetitive.

Kenya’s Maasai Mara National Reserve

Antelope at sunset in the Maasai Mara, Kenya

The Maasai Mara in four key points:

  • Great Migration
  • Year-round
  • Culture
  • Adventure

What’s Special about Kenya

Kenya, particularly its Maasai Mara National Reserve, has inspired countless safaris. A proud multicultural country with diverse landscapes and people, Kenya is what many people picture when they imagine Africa, and the country has hooked many GeoEx staff and guests on Africa forever. It’s why our 12-day Kenya sample itinerary is entitled Essence of a Continent.

The Maasai Mara is the setting of much of the film Out of Africa and the inspiration for The Lion King. It’s a savannah nourished by rivers that sustain year-round wildlife, even outside of the Great Migration when millions of wildebeest, zebra, and gazelle are in residence. It’s an integral part of a Kenya safari, but a first-time itinerary should go beyond this park in pursuit of adventure, culture, and privacy.

The Kenya Wildlife Experience

A benefit to visiting the Maasai Mara is the sheer volume of animals inhabiting the park all year. The volume of species also attracts volumes of visitors, particularly when the Great Migration is in residence. In northern Kenya’s private game reserves, the census of animals may not compare to the Mara, but you’ll have a more intimate experience, with fewer vehicles.

Maasai warriors jumping and lion in the Maasai Mara, Kenya

Kenya Safari Design

Kenya safaris can range from a week to a month. A good itinerary will include ample time in the magnificent Maasai Mara. Balance the magnitude of wildlife in the Mara with quieter reserves in Kenya, including Laikipia, Namunyak, the Mathews Range, or the cloud forest of the Chyulu Hills.

Variety in Kenya

Game drives (and perhaps a hot air balloon trip) are the main activity in the Mara, but Kenya’s private reserves are called the “Wild West” because of their adventuresome opportunities. You can hike, quad bike, ride horses, hop aboard a helicopter, or sleep under the stars. Families can spend a day learning beadwork, exploring a village, making fire, or throwing spears under the tutelage of Maasai or Samburu guides. Keen conservationists can join rangers on patrol or bottle-feed young elephants.

Kenya Lodging

Classic tented camps have sprouted around the Maasai Mara alongside mass-market tourism lodges that aren’t GeoEx’s preference. Many camps are located on conservancies owned by the Maasai people, and your guides and staff are often Maasai, proudly wearing their traditional dress. Outside the Mara, you’ll stay in family-run private lodges, often with thatched roofs and vintage safari decor. Each location may have a different style and story, inspiring debates on your favorite accommodation of the trip.

South Africa’s Kruger National Park

Mother rhino and calf in Kruger National Park, Kenya

Kruger National Park in four key points:

  • Accessible
  • Flexible
  • Year-round
  • Luxury

What’s Special about South Africa

South Africa’s Kruger National Park and neighboring private game reserves protect so much land that the so-called “Greater Kruger” is approximately the size of Israel. Within that massive landscape live some of Africa’s highest wildlife densities.

South Africa is a modern industrial nation and the international travel hub of southern Africa. This all contributes to making Kruger one of the most accessible safaris on the continent. The park is a one-hour flight or six-hour drive from Johannesburg and is serviced by frequent flights and good roads. Although Kruger lacks the total-wilderness feel of Botswana or East Africa, it’s among the easiest and most impactful choices for a first-time safari.

The South Africa Wildlife Experience

Even a short safari in Kruger can result in seeing the Big 5 (lion, leopard, rhino, elephant, and African buffalo). Species that are challenging to find elsewhere, like rhino, are regularly spotted here. The private reserves that surround the national park have become famous in their own right for wildlife phenomena, like the white lions of the Timbavati Game Reserve or the relaxed leopards of the Sabi Sands. Most GeoEx guests stay on private reserves, which have unfenced boundaries with the national park, offering wildlife alongside exclusivity.

Bird resting on the nose of a cape buffalo in Kruger, South Africa

South Africa Safari Design

Thanks to South Africa’s excellent infrastructure, it’s feasible to enjoy a short safari extension here. Our Many Worlds of South Africa itinerary suggests 3-4 days at a single Kruger safari lodge, in addition to sampling fine wine, gorgeous beaches, and cosmopolitan cities. If you want more time on safari, you can easily combine multiple lodges in Kruger, or add a flight to one of South Africa’s other excellent national parks, to build a safari-centric itinerary lasting two weeks or more.

Variety in South Africa

Game drives are Kruger’s main attraction, although on the private reserves, it’s possible to get outside the vehicle for safari walks. The cherished tradition of sundowners can be at its best in South Africa as you sip gin and tonics while counting the emerging stars. Luxury lodges boast excellent on-property experiences, including creative outdoor dining, photography workshops, and therapeutic spa treatments.

South Africa Lodging

Kruger was the origin of the luxury safari concept. Opulent lodges boast spas and pools, sturdy walls, lavish decor, and marble bathtubs. Good infrastructure means that WiFi is reliable, air conditioning is standard, and chefs prepare inventive meals with excellent wine lists. (A bonus to the good infrastructure is that this luxury can come at a more accessible price point than remote lodges in Botswana). There are a few more rustic options, but simple tented camps are rare in Kruger.

* * * * *

For GeoEx safari planners, the only thing more exciting than helping to plan your first safari is helping to plan your return safari almost as soon as you’ve returned home. Fill out our interest form or call our team at 888-570-7108, and you’ve taken the first step toward the safari of your dreams.

Safari vehicle and trees at sunset in Kenya
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