The dilemma as to where to go in Africa has been a perennial question to many travelers all over the world: Southern Africa vs East Africa. When we say Southern Africa, it doesn’t mean the country South Africa as most first-timers would think. Southern Africa covers Botswana, Namibia, Zimbabwe, Zambia, Mozambique, Malawi and South Africa. East Africa, on the other hand, is comprised of Tanzania, Kenya, Uganda and Rwanda. Note we are only mentioning top safari countries in both regions.
Southern Africa vs East Africa
Each region and country offers many attractions – some on the same concept and others totally unique. Your decision as to which African region is best for you will depend on what kind of traveler you are, what you intend to see, what you want to do and how much you’re willing to spend.
Here are the major factors to consider:
- Animal diversity and concentration
- Safari Style
- Protected Areas
- Price of Safari
- Exciting Activities
Animal diversity and concentration
You can see the Big Five in both regions and a world-class birdlife can also be guaranteed in any area. The big difference comes to some unique animal sightings as well as its concentration.
- Southern Africa: You will certainly not see millions of wildebeests, zebras and gazelles in this part of Africa. However, this is the perfect place to encounter vast herds of elephants. Also, animals in Southern Africa are more habituated to vehicles and visitors. This means that they can continue whatever they want to do regardless if any vehicle is just a few meters away.
- East Africa: There is nowhere else in the world where you can see the Great Wildebeest Migration but here. With millions of wildebeests, zebras, antelopes, kudus and gazelles thundering across the plains of Serengeti and Masai Mara, plus a lot of predators lurking around to make a kill, it is no wonder why this annual event is deemed the world’s greatest spectacle. Many travelers who have been to both regions also claim that East Africa has a higher density in wildlife compared to Southern Africa. Example, a traveler who went to Botswana spent 10 days before they spotted a lion and it took numerous wildlife drives for them to see a dozen. In Tanzania, that same traveler found about 44 lions in just 5 days.
Whether you want to revel in the beauty of the “classic Africa” in East Africa or the paradise that is Southern Africa, you are in for some remarkable sceneries. But, to show you the contrasting sides of each region, here’s a short summary of how their sceneries might differ — albeit being both breathtaking.
- Southern Africa: A biodiverse destination, Southern Africa boasts of a wetland paradise in Okavango Delta, semi-arid savannah in Kalahari Desert, red dunes in Sossusvlei, majestic thunder of Victoria Falls, intriguing history in Skeleton Coast in Namibia and of course the stunning sunset in Zambezi River.
- East Africa: When one imagines Africa, the typical scenery that comes to mind is that of East Africa’s. Rolling savannahs and acacia trees, landscapes with gorgeous backdrops of Mount Kilimanjaro and the ever-so-unique Ngorongoro Crater, the vibrant flamingoes-infested soda lakes, the montane rainforests of Uganda and Rwanda, and so much more.
One of the main highlights of any trip to Africa is game driving. Here is a quick peek on how different the vehicles used in Southern Africa and East Africa are.
- Southern Africa: Open-sided Land Cruisers are usually used in this region. Since most game drives are short, with just about 20 miles radius from the lodge, this vehicle is ideal for close and intimate encounters with the animals in the wild.
- East Africa: Travelers spend a lot of time in the vehicle because game drives usually last for an entire day and traveling between parks can take a few hours or so. Also, the drives take you to rural and urban environments. Because of these, open vehicles are not recommended. The usual vehicles used in East Africa are closed vehicles with pop-up roofs and large windows to allow excellent game viewing while still maintaining comfort and security.
One of the biggest difference in Southern Africa and East Africa is this. One is lodge-centered and the other is operator-centered.
- Southern Africa: With a lodge-centered safari style, your entire tour is arranged by the lodge or camp you’re staying. The lodge provides your vehicles as well as your guides and drivers. Most of the time, game drives start early in the morning and end in the afternoon (or sometimes even at lunchtime) where you can go around the lodge’s vicinity or just enjoy your time in your camp/lodge. You will be with the same guides until you transfer to another camp/lodge to visit another area. The operator-centered safari style in East Africa can’t be found in Southern Africa except in Namibia.
- East Africa: With an operator-centered safari style, you’re always on the move to maximize your safari experience and your lodge/camp will just usually serve as a place to sleep in (unless you allot half a day or more to laze around, or have your itinerary tailored to your preferences). Your tour will be organized by a tour operator who will provide you with guides/drivers and will arrange your accommodation depending on your budget (usually categorized as budget, mid-range and luxury). This means that no matter how many various areas or parks you visit, you will be under the care of one company, and maybe even have the same tour guide/driver all throughout.
Lodging in either parts of Africa may be different although both are now evolving and other lodging types are already popping up from one country to another.
- Southern Africa: Southern Africa is known for its luxury tented camps. These topnotch lodging offers an exclusive safari experience. Compared to East Africa, Southern Africa holds more varied options for lodging although both offer wide-range selections.
- East Africa: East Africa has a diverse range of accommodation choices for every type of traveler – budget, mid-range, luxury. It is popular for its hotel-style lodges although it also has a wealth of exclusive tented camps already..
While weather differs from one country to another, there is a huge difference in Southern and East Africa when it comes to the rainy seasons, and this might help you determine your destination if in case you’re traveling during certain months.
- Southern Africa: Rains generally come around November through March, and temperatures are more or less the same all year-round. Despite the rainfall, most camps stay open to welcome guests. Also, the dry season in Southern Africa is between May and October./li>
- East Africa: April brings long rains around the East. Due to inaccessible roads, many camps and areas close down. If you plan to visit around this time or a little before and after that, you might want to contact your tour operator to clarify on this. Also, there are 2 dry season in East Africa: June to October and January to March.
Quite controversial in many aspects, some areas in Africa are enclosed for protection while others remain open for animals to roam free.
- Southern Africa: Almost every area or park in Southern Africa is fenced. Each area is as big as a small state in North America but if you go far enough, you’ll see an electrified fence.
- East Africa: In East Africa, there are no fences anywhere. Animals can roam freely and animal migration can go as smoothly as they can. This is also an advantage because East Africa offers a multitude of mobile camps where travelers get to follow the movement of animals and set up luxurious tents among the herds of wildlife in the midst of the East African plains.
Flying into and out of Southern Africa and East Africa is easy with frequent multiple flights from all around the world. For this category, Southern Africa wins on this because of the wealth of internationally awarded airports in South Africa and the influx of tourists it receives each year. At the 2017 World Airport Awards held in Amsterdam, Cape Town International Airport (CPT) won Best Airport in Africa. Other South African airports were also prominently featured: King Shaka International (DUR) in Durban ranked second, O.R. Tambo International (JNB) in Johannesburg ranked 3rd, East London Airport (ELS) ranked 6th and Port Elizabeth International Airport (PLZ) ranked 10th. For East Africa, the main hub is Jomo Kenyatta International Airport (JKIA) in Nairobi, the busiest airport in eastern and central Africa and recently just proclaimed as the best improved African airport for the year 2017 during the Airport Service Quality Award (ASQ).
- Southern Africa: There are several direct and indirect flights from Europe to Southern Africa, even more than any other continent. From London, you can fly directly to Johannesburg for 11.5 hours or to Cape Town for 12 hours. Other places of departure for flights to South Africa include Paris and Marseilles and airlines available include Air France and British Airways. Prices typically cost around £1,700 roundtrip. For travelers coming from United States, direct flights to Johannesburg are available in New York, Washington and Atlanta. A nonstop flight to New York to Johannesburg takes about 15 hours and costs around $800 to $1,200 roundtrip via South African Airways.
- East Africa: Nairobi is only an 8.5-hour flight away from London. Airlines that fly to and from UK to Nairobi include Turkish Airlines, Kenya Airways and KLM Royal Dutch Airlines with each flight costing at least £320 one way. Other hubs to Nairobi include Amsterdam, Spain, Brussels, Italy, Switzerland and France. You can also fly directly from UK to Dar es Salaam in Tanzania via British Airways, KLM, Ethiopian Airways, Emirates, South African Airways and many others. Flights go for about 11 hours or more. If coming from the US, you can take the Washington (WAS)-Nairobi (NBO) route for about $730 at least or the Los Angeles (LAX)-Nairobi (NBO) route for about $630 at least. Flight duration can range from 20 hours to even 40 hours, depending on the layovers.
Price of Safari
A few factors may affect safari costs in either country. These factors include the season of travel (Are you visiting on a low or peak season?), number of nights in a safari (How long are you going to stay and what are you going to do?), additional activities you have (Do you plan on adding other exciting activities on top of safari game drives?) and also the time of booking your trip (How early did you book your flight?).
- Southern Africa: Safari costs vary greatly in Southern Africa. First, it will depend on which country you’re visiting. Second, are you going to multiple countries or just the one? If you’re eyeing for a trip to South Africa, the overall price will depend on how many nights you are spending in a game lodge. Visitors typically go on a holiday with varied destinations/activities such as a visit to the Cape, a trip to KwaZulu Natal and then perhaps a safari in a park or game reserve. On other nights when you’re not on a safari, you can stay at lodges, hotels and even AirBnb. So generally, the one that’ll take the biggest chunk in your budget will be the safari. One night costs about $225 (£160) up to $1500 (£1063) per person per night. If you go to Namibia, safaris usually cost around $600 (£425) per person per night, and in Botswana and Zambia, prices can go even higher as these are more expensive safari destinations.
- East Africa: In East Africa, safaris typically range from about $290 (£205) to $1800 (£1,275) per person per night or even more, depending on factors like whether or not your safari involves flying from one park to another. Park and concession fees are also a significant factor in the cost, especially if you’re visiting Tanzania. If you’re combining your safari with a trip to the beach, beach resorts cost less per night than a stay at game lodges.
There might be some things you are looking into adding to your safari adventure. Here are the things you can do in either regions:
- Southern Africa:
- Extensive walking safaris (South Africa, Zambia, Botswana, Namibia, Zimbabwe)
- Mokoro/Canoe Cruise (Botswana, Mozambique)
- Boating Trips (South Africa, Zambia, Botswana, Namibia, Zimbabwe, Mozambique, Malawi)
- Hot Air Ballooning (South Africa, Namibia, Zambia, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Zambia)
- Kayaking (South Africa)
- Whale watching (Mozambique, South Africa)
- Mountain biking (South Africa, Namibia, Botswana, Zimbabwe)
- Scuba diving, snorkeling, fishing (South Africa, Mozambique)
- Close encounters with penguins (South Africa)
- White water rafting (Zimbabwe, South Africa, Namibia)
- Skydiving (South Africa, Botswana, Namibia, Zambia, Zimbabwe, Mozambique, Malawi)
- Sand boarding (South Africa, Namibia)
- Cage diving with whale sharks (South Africa)
- Wine tasting in Cape Town (South Africa)
- City and cultural tours (South Africa, Botswana, Namibia, Mozambique, Malawi)
- Scenic flights (South Africa)
- Visit waterfalls (Zambia/Zimbabwe)
- East Africa:
- Night game drives (Kenya, Uganda)
- Bush walks (Kenya, Tanzania)
- Boat cruise (Uganda, Kenya, Tanzania)
- Hot Air Ballooning (Tanzania, Kenya)
- Beach getaways (Tanzania, Kenya)
- Gorilla trekking (Uganda, Rwanda)
- Chimpanzee trekking (Rwanda, Uganda)
- Scuba diving, snorkeling, fishing (Tanzania, Kenya)
- Mountain climbing (Tanzania, Kenya, Uganda
- White water rafting (Uganda, Tanzania)
- Skydiving (Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda)
- Diving with dolphins (Tanzania)
- Cave diving (Kenya)
- City and cultural tours (Kenya, Tanzania, Rwanda, Uganda)
Both regions in Africa has its own set of highlights and drawbacks and it really all depends on you – your traveling style, your preferences, your budget, your companions. First-timers almost always opt for Southern Africa, particularly South Africa, as the default choice because of the combination of activities they could do on top of the wildlife safaris.
Southern Africa is also famously deemed safer compared to other regions. In fact, Botswana, Namibia and South Africa are often the leading countries featured when it comes to “safest countries in Africa.” Although Southern Africa is in no doubt a great destination for travelers, East Africa remains to be the heart of wildlife. Not only is it home to the Great Migration, it also continues to live by its name as the quintessential safari destination with a backdrop of the classic Africa.
In 2017, CNN awarded Masai Mara National Reserve in Kenya as the best safari park in Africa. That’s got to be something, right?
So if you are looking for a safari of a lifetime or if you could only do one safari in your life, East Africa is the place to be. If you plan to dip your toes into the safari world and then also have a diverse set of non-safari activities planned out like chase waterfalls in Zambia, go cage diving with the sharks in South Africa or go wine tasting at the Cape, Southern Africa is your best bet.
Check out our Top 5 recommended Tanzania Safari Destinations in 2018 if you’re betting on Tanzania. Else, we also have various tours in Kenya, Uganda, and Namibia.