East Africa Safari Guide: Tanzania and Kenya
Tanzania and Kenya: At a Glance “Africa is my dream!” Is an expression I hear from quite a few people. Africa is a beautiful, diverse, continent with much to offer. Many people go with the intention of seeing the wildlife, but have no idea where to start or how to plan. The most popular route is in East Africa, in Tanzania and Kenya. After living on and off in Tanzania for the past few years, I've had my fair share of safari experiences. So if you've ever dreamed of seeing lions stalking their prey at sunset, elephants roaming majestically across your path, hyenas cackling, or millions of zebras and wildebeest sprinting through the grass – this article is for you. “Safari” means “journey” in Swahili, the main language spoken in Tanzania and Kenya. In this area of Africa is where you'll find big names parks, like the Serengeti and Maasai Mara. The typical safari route starting in Tanzania will be the “Northern Circuit”: Tarangire National Park, home of the Baobab Trees and large populations of Elephants. Then into Ngorongoro Crater, one of the largest volcanic craters on earth. The crater is home to over 30,000 animals, it has the densest lion population in the world, and it is your best shot at seeing a Rhino. After the Crater, onto Serengeti National Park, which is famous for many reasons. From here, depending on your time and budget you can cross into Kenya to visit Maasai Mara.
Luxury SafarisBecause of these well-known parks, most safari companies cater to high-end, luxury, tourists. If you have the money, you can easily find an all-inclusive, package tour to multiple game reserves. These tours will often give you one price to include everything from your pick up/drop off at the airport, 3-meals a day plus coffee and snacks, lodging, park entry fees, and transportation. If having someone plan your whole trip for you is your perfect vacation, this is for you. However, be prepared to spend a few hundred USD per day. Luxury safaris cost luxury prices. Tourism is the leading economic contributor in Tanzania, bringing in about one billion USD, and it's no surprise why! Both countries have an Association of Tour Operators, located Here for Kenya and Here for Tanzania. Simply input your dates, parks of interest, and they'll generate a quote and safari company options for you! I also have personal experience (and a bit of an emotional connection) with Klub Afriko. This is a small, Tanzanian-owned safari company with a quaint hotel in Arusha, where you'll most likely spend 1-2 nights before/after your safari. As far as luxury safaris go, they are also a bit less expensive than some of the bigger companies in the area. I've done multiple safaris with them in the Northern Circuit of Tanzania, and can vouch for their hard work and knowledgeable guides. No matter who you book with, all of your guides/companies will be set on showing you “The Big 5” – Africa's top animals: Elephant, Lion, Cape Buffalo, Leopard, and Rhino. If you're a backpacker like me, don't get discouraged! There are plenty of ways to save money while on safari, if you put in the work.
SeasonsThe first thing you should do when planning is decide when to go. High/Low seasons have their pros and cons. In high (dry) season, June-October, your chances of seeing wildlife increase, but so do your chances of seeing dozens of other tourist safari cars crowding the same cheetah lying near the road. If you're set on seeing the Wildebeest migration, this takes place in June-July, and it is a sight NOT to be missed if you get the chance. This time is also when your safari prices will be higher. If money is really tight, you can still have an excellent safari in low (rainy) season. I did a 6-day safari in rainy season in 2015, and was able to see The Big 5, and more. Though you will read otherwise, I think April/May is the a good time to go, because prices are a bit lower, but its not raining 24/7 like in January or February. Once you decide when to go, your next step to getting a budget safari is to find a group.
Make Friends and be FlexibleThe park entry fees are pricey as is, but you also have to pay for the car entrance fee (land cruiser, seat about 5-8 people). If you find other travelers with the same interests, sharing a car will make for a price cut on the car entrance fee. My next bit of advice is one that I have to remind myself of sometimes – being flexible. For someone like me, it's really tempting to go online, search a company, and book the safari really far in advance to have everything planned. While the stability of this is nice, it's also usually more expensive. One of the best ways you can book is to wander around Arusha, popping into tour companies/travel agencies, and negotiating a price. This is also a good way to meet other travelers with the same interest. If your dates/time is flexible, this is your best bet.
AccommodationThese companies will offer multiple accommodation options. The first, and most expensive, is the “Glamping Option”. Some companies can provide “tent” complete with beds, small furniture, and electricity. The next is to stay in the lodges within the parks, which can be nice if you're not the most outdoorsy-person. But my personal favorite (and the cheapest) option is camping. If you're going to go on safari, why not fall asleep with the sounds of the animals around you? I admit it's not for everyone, but it sure makes for a great adventure (and usually some great stories!) The other safari option is sometimes called Overland, or Mobile Safari, where you will be joined by other tourists, and these are often participatory – you will be expected to help pitch tents, clean dishes, etc. Additionally, Tanzania has 16 national parks, but many people only come to see the Northern Circuit (Serengeti, Ngorongoro, Tarangire) and miss out on some awesome wildlife in Southern Tanzania. These less-travelled parks, like Selous, are typically cheaper to visit, but still offer the same animal viewing. And Kenya has 23 national parks, many of which are unheard of to most tourists, and therefore overlooked. Most of these parks can be visited by doing it yourself, if you're up for the challenge. You can rent a car (if you're comfortable with rough roads!), register yourself in the parks campsites, and explore the parks on your own. If you choose to stay in a hotel near to the parks, outside the gate, this will also cut costs on accommodation within them. However, keep in mind you will have to pay entrance fees each time you re-enter the park. This is a great option for Nairobi National Park in Kenya, which you can do a day trip into before returning to your hotel that night.
- Self-camping: Not all parks allow self-camping. For an up-to-date list, check out Tanzania Accommodation and Kenya Accommodation for more information.
- Entrance fees: these are good for every 24-hours in the park. The less-visited parks, like Nairobi National Park (Kenya) and the southern National Parks (Tanzania) can cost as little as $30-$40. The Northern Circuit (Tanzania) and Maasai Mara (Kenya) are $60 at the time of writing this. This also depends on the time of season, and if you're driving your own car you will have to pay an additional vehicle fee.
- Guides: a guide can make or break your trip! Most companies have experienced, knowledgable drivers who will usually double as your guide. If you can meet beforehand, do so. A good guide can spot wildlife in places you wouldn't even think to look. I've had safari guides who practically sense the wildlife, and will suddenly drive off in a direction that looks like absolutely nothing to me until closer look.
- Tipping: Tip your guides! Especially if they have been good at pointing out wildlife to you. I recommend about 10USD per person, per day to guides/drivers, 5-10USD per person, per day to cooks and other help you may have at your camp. For luxury safaris, you will have more people to tip (house keeping, trackers, etc) and you might be expected to tip a little more than 10USD.
- Visas: Keep in mind, if you are doing both Tanzania and Kenya, (Serengeti – Maasai Mara, or vice versa) you will be expected to have your passport and visa situations sorted out. Depending on where you are from, these can be pricey and might have to be organized in advance.
- Malaria: many tourists worry about malaria, and for good reason. Some strains of malaria can knock you out for the count and ruin your well-planned trip. While treatment is easily available in large cities and clinics all over Kenya and Tanzania, it's best come prepared. Be sure to speak with your doctor before your trip and bring the necessary medication with you.