Going on an African safari is a once-in-a-lifetime adventure, but choosing between East Africa and Southern Africa can be a daunting task. From a vast variety of landscapes and diverse ecosystems to rewarding wildlife and enriching cultural encounters, both regions offer unforgettable safari experiences. But there are also some key differences. How do you choose the right safari destination? And which is better — an East African safari or a Southern African safari?

In this blog, we highlight the main differences between a safari in East Africa and Southern Africa so that you can make an informed decision about the right destination for your ultimate African adventure.

East Africa vs. Southern Africa

Before we delve into the main differences between an East Africa and Southern Africa safari, let's take a quick look at which popular safari destinations make up both regions.

East Africa is home to Kenya and Tanzania, two of Africa's most famous wildlife destinations, and home to the Great Migration. It also encompasses the mountainous rainforests of Rwanda and Uganda which offer gorilla trekking safaris. A popular add-on to an East African safari is the tropical beach paradise of Zanzibar.

Southern African safari destinations include South Africa, Botswana, Namibia, Zimbabwe, Zambia, Malawi and Mozambique. These destinations are all quite different and diverse.

Landscapes: Sweeping vistas vs. Eclectic mix of landscapes

Renowned for its iconic savannas and rolling grasslands, there is more to East Africa's landscape than the open spaces and vast plains that characterise most of Kenya's Maasai Mara National Reserve and Tanzania's sprawling Serengeti National Park. But if vast open plains are what you want to see, then East Africa is the destination for you.

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Serengeti sunset, East Africa

(Image: Hu Chen I Unsplash)

Lake Nakuru and Lake Naivasha in Kenya and Lake Manyara in Tanzania are part of a string of sparkling, forest-fringed lakes in the Great Rift Valley, which boast a startling range of habitats that provide refuge to all manner of wildlife from tree-climbing lions to massive flocks of pink-plumed flamingos.

Kenya's Amboseli National Park on the border with Tanzania is a mosaic of swamps and sweeping savannas presided over by snowcapped Mount Kilimanjaro in the distance. Karatu, a small town in Tanzania that serves as the gateway to the Ngorongoro Conservation Area and nearby Lake Manyara National Park, is surrounded by lush coffee plantations.

The lush jungles of Uganda and Rwanda, along with some of southern Tanzania's greenest and most beautiful national parks like Katavi, Mahale Mountains or Nyerere national parks, contrast starkly with the dusty, rugged savanna of Ruaha or Tarangire national parks with their majestic baobabs.

And what about Southern Africa? If wide open spaces and vast plains make your heart sing, then head for Namibia, which is home to the beautiful Etosha National Park and the ancient Namib Desert with its towering red dunes, as well as the desolate Skeleton Coast, a long stretch of coastline whose windswept dunes give way to rugged canyons and mountain ranges.

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Dead Vlei in Nambia, Southern Africa

(Image: TonW I Pixabay)

Botswana boasts surprisingly diverse terrain ranging from the woodlands, marshes, and winding waterways of the famous Okavango Delta, to the fertile floodplains of the Linyanti and Chobe regions. And then you have the remote Kalahari Desert and the hauntingly barren salt pans of the Makgadikgadi Pans that burst to life with the summer rains.

Also in Southern Africa, you can visit "The Smoke that Thunders", the place where the mighty Zambezi River plunges over the edge of a nearly two-kilometre-wide basalt cliff between Zambia and Zimbabwe to create one of the most awe-inspiring curtains of falling water in the world called the Victoria Falls. Zambia and Zimbabwe are both epic safari destinations, characterized mostly by savanna woodland and riverine floodplains.

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Victoria Falls, Southern Africa

(Image: Flight of the Angels Helicopter Experience)

South Africa's ever-changing landscapes weave a beautiful tapestry of bushveld and savanna, forest and desert, majestic mountain ranges, coastal wetlands, and endless unspoilt beaches.

The variety in Southern Africa provides a more eclectic mix of landscapes, offering something for everyone. East Africa is mostly associated with sweeping vistas and vast open plains dotted with umbrella thorns, which evoke the nostalgia of the quintessential safari experience.

Infrastructure: Well-established tourism infrastructure Vs. Authentic and intimate safari experience

East Africa is known for its well-established tourism infrastructure, particularly in Kenya and Tanzania's most popular safari circuits. These regions have a wide range of lodges, camps, and well-maintained roads. In peak season, this can also mean significant congestion. The most popular game reserves experience quite a bit of vehicle pressure, and most of the large, resort-style hotels with many rooms experience high occupancy levels, particularly from July to September.

Tanzania's remote Southern Circuit, which includes Ruaha National Park, Selous Game Reserve, Katavi National Park and the Mahale Mountains National Park on the shores of Lake Tanganyika, is not as well-known as the country's popular northern parks, making the Southern Circuit a drawcard for experienced safari-goers who want to avoid the masses.

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Wild and remote South Luangwa National Park, Zambia

(Image: Mfuwe Lodge)

Southern Africa, on the other hand, offers a mix of highly developed tourism hubs and more rustic experiences that cater to a wider range of budgets.

If you venture beyond the tourist-friendly towns of Livingstone and Victoria Falls, you will find that Zambia and Zimbabwe offer a more rustic safari experience, and both of these countries are well known for walking safaris. Game reserves and safari camps are often located in remote areas best accessed by light aircraft.

The upside of this is that your safari experience is likely to be more authentic and intimate as there is little chance you will experience the type of congestion seen in the Serengeti, Masai Mara and South Africa's Kruger National Park during peak tourist season.

The same is true of Botswana. Many camps in remote areas can only be reached by air, and Botswana has opted for a more exclusive, low-volume, high-budget safari experience, with minimal environmental impact. With the exception of the Chobe River region, a safari in Botswana is typically less busy, but more expensive.

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Chapman's Peak, Cape Town, South Africa

South Africa is the most developed nation in the region. The tourism infrastructure in South Africa is excellent, and the country's major transport networks will get tourists to their destination safely and on time, whether it's a guided tour, a domestic flight or self-drive. It is also by far the most affordable safari destination in Africa.

Because the infrastructure in Southern Africa, while generally robust, can vary depending on the specific country and region, we recommend that you work with a reputable safari operator who understands the local conditions. Whether you prefer a more affordable and accessible safari experience or a more authentic and remote safari adventure, Southern Africa has you covered.

Wildlife and game-viewing experience: Predator-prey interactions Vs. The Big Five

When it comes to biodiversity, both East and Southern Africa compare favourably. It's the composition of wildlife that differs.

East Africa is renowned for its vast herds of wildebeest and other plains game during the Great Migration, which reaches a crescendo between July and September when writhing masses of game attempt the river crossings in Tanzania's northern Serengeti as well as Kenya's Masai Mara. From January to March, you can witness the calving season in the southern Serengeti and Ndutu regions, a bountiful time which attracts many predators.

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Chimp trekking in Tanzania's Mahale Mountain National Park

(Image: Greystoke Mahale)

Only East Africa offers the opportunity to do a gorilla or chimp trekking safari. Gorilla trekking is limited to specific mountainous rainforests in Uganda and Rwanda, and chimp trekking can only be done in protected forests in Uganda, Rwanda and Tanzania.

Southern Africa is home to a larger variety of species, including the Big Five, and is famous for its rhino conservation efforts. The game-viewing experience in East Africa often centres around large herds and predator-prey interactions, while Southern Africa offers a more diverse variety of species in a wide range of habitats. If you wish to see specific species, such as cheetah, rhino, wild dogs, or leopards, there are certain game reserves which offer better opportunities than others.

Safari vehicles: Closed safari vehicles Vs. Open safari vehicles

The choice of safari vehicles can impact your overall experience. In East Africa, you may encounter both open and closed safari vehicles depending on the type of safari. If your safari starts in Arusha or Nairobi, your driver/guide will collect you in a closed safari vehicle, as open-sided vehicles are not allowed to drive on public roads.

The closed safari vehicles used in East Africa typically have large passenger windows and pop-open roofs, offering protection from the elements. This type of small group safari option is highly recommended for those on a budget who want to keep costs down by saving on flights between lodges and splitting the cost of the vehicle between four to six travellers.

It's also a fantastic option for families with younger children or a group of friends, especially if they make an exclusive booking. If you're staying at higher-end lodges and flying from camp to camp, game drives will usually be conducted in open-sided safari vehicles by a guide from the lodge.

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Exploring the Serengeti at sunrise in a closed safari vehicle with a pop-open roof

(Image: Hu Chen I Unsplash)

Open-sided safari vehicles generally provide a more immersive experience with unobstructed views. They are perfectly safe. Wild animals are accustomed to these safari vehicles and do not see them as a threat, or as prey. Attacks by wild animals are extremely rare.

Depending on the region and the type of safari, camps and lodges in Southern Africa are often located inside game reserves and private concessions, so game drives are mostly conducted in open safari vehicles with tiered seating, allowing you to feel closer to nature and providing better visibility.

In private game reserves, these open-sided 4×4 safari vehicles sometimes have a removable roof or canopy, which can be taken off during winter but used in summer to protect you from the sun or a rain shower.

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On safari in South Africa in an open safari vehicle

Moreover, in South African private game reserves, many open safari vehicles have a small seat mounted on the front for a "tracker" who assists the safari guide in spotting and tracking animals and reading the dirt roads for animal tracks or droppings.

Other activities: Hot air ballooning over the Serengeti Vs. Whitewater rafting at Victoria Falls

Both East and Southern Africa offer a wide range of activities beyond traditional game drives. A hot air balloon safari over the Serengeti in Tanzania or the Namib Desert in Namibia can add a unique dimension to the safari experience. But if it's a variety of activities you're after, Southern Africa comes out tops.

Zambia's South Luangwa National Park is one of the best places in Southern Africa for walking safaris. Traversed by the Luangwa River, much of the park is only accessible by air, making it a sanctuary for large concentrations of elephants, buffalo, hippos, giraffes, lions and leopards.

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Hot air ballooning over the Namib Desert

(Image: Wilderness Little Kulala)

A South Luangwa walking safari is an authentic, exclusive experience in one of the last remaining untouched corners of the African bush.

Southern Africa also has many water-based game-viewing activities such as mokoro (dugout canoe) safaris in the Okavango Delta, boat cruises along the Chobe River and boat-based safaris on Lake Kariba in Zimbabwe.

Two of our most popular Southern Africa itineraries combine going on safari with a wide range of adventure activities. Our 10-Day Best of Namibia Safari takes in Namibia's most iconic destinations and includes optional extras such as camel rides, scenic flights, quad-biking, dune buggies and tandem or solo skydiving in Swakopmund.

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Whitewater rafting at Victoria Falls

(Image: Chundukwa River Lodge)

Our flexible 6 Day Victoria Falls and Chobe Safari combines three nights at Victoria Falls with two nights on safari at the Chobe National Park in Botswana. In addition to land- and water-based game viewing activities, optional extras include scenic microlight or helicopter flights over the falls, a canoe trip or sunset cruise on the upper Zambezi, whitewater rafting, quad biking, ziplining, gorge swinging or bungee jumping, visits to local markets, or a visit to Livingstone Island and Devil's Pool in Zambia.

Seasons: Distinct wet and dry seasons Vs. Varied climate

The timing of your trip can have a huge impact on what you experience on safari in terms of wildlife and landscapes.

East Africa has distinct wet and dry seasons, with the spectacular Great Migration Mara River crossing occurring between July and September. For a breakdown of how the migration works and the best time to go on a migration safari, take a look at our blog The Great Wildebeest Migration: A Complete Guide.

East Africa experiences two rainy seasons, known as the short rains (from October to December) and the long rains (from March to May).

If a Serengeti safari is on your bucket list but you want to avoid the masses who flock in their hundreds of thousands each year to see the Great Migration, we have put some tips together on how to avoid the crowds on a Serengeti safari.

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Dry season game viewing in Kruger National Park

(Image: Simon Vegter)

Southern Africa, on the other hand, is a bit less seasonal, with only one rainy season or "green season" (from December to April). South Africa's Kruger National Park probably offers the most consistent year-round game viewing quality of any major game reserve in Africa. There is simply no bad time to visit Kruger. However, the dry season from June to September is still the most popular.

Different regions experience their peak seasons at various times. If you are considering combining a visit to Victoria Falls in Zimbabwe with a wildlife safari in South Africa's Kruger National Park, it's important to know when the best time to visit Victoria Falls is and what you can expect from the game-viewing experience in Kruger over the same period.

Planning around the specific seasons and the wildlife events you want to witness is crucial. Our African safari travel calendars break down the advantages and disadvantages of each season in the most popular East and Southern Africa safari destinations so that you know what to expect from the game-viewing experience and also what to pack for your safari.

Costs: How much is an African safari?

The cost of a safari can vary widely depending on your choice of accommodation, the duration and number of stops on your trip, the time of year you want to travel, your mode of transport and what activities you would like to include in your itinerary.

Generally, East Africa is more expensive, especially during peak seasons. Southern Africa offers a broader range of options, from budget-friendly to luxury experiences, making it more accessible to a variety of travellers, especially the more price-conscious ones. Botswana is a notable exception, however, and is best suited for those with a generous budget. Keep in mind that most safari destinations (with the exception of South Africa) are priced in USD. South Africa is priced in ZAR, which makes it by far the most affordable safari destination.

We delve into the factors that affect the cost of a safari in East Africa safari compared to a Southern Africa safari here.

Types of accommodation: Classic tented safari camps Vs. High-end luxury lodges

Both East and Southern Africa offer a range of accommodation choices, from budget-friendly safari camps to high-end luxury lodges. East Africa is best known for its iconic Meru-style tented camps, which conjure up nostalgic images of a bygone safari era.

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Tented safari camp in Northern Serengeti, Tanzania

(Image: Singita Mara River Tented Camp)

These elegant, yet comfortable canvas tents on wooden decking, often in the shade of a tree or overlooking a river or waterhole, tend to include ensuite, open-air bathroom facilities. Some are more rustic, particularly seasonal camps that move from one location to the next to follow the great migration. Others are surprisingly luxurious for a tented camp.

Also popular in East Africa are large, resort-style hotels with 50-100 rooms. Southern Africa does not have many large, resort-style accommodation options like this.

Southern Africa offers a wide variety of accommodation options that cater to different preferences and budgets, from budget-friendly contemporary safari lodges and classic tented safari camps to high-end luxury lodges and exclusive-use, private homesteads with a dedicated host, private chef, private safari vehicle, guide and tracker.

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Exclusive-use, private homestead with luxury accommodation for a group of 10 in Tswalu Kalahari Game Reserve, South Africa

(Image: Tarkuni Homestead)

East Africa vs. Southern Africa safari: Let us help you choose the right destination

Choosing between an East Africa and Southern Africa safari ultimately depends on your preferences, interests, and budget. Whether your dream is to witness the drama of a Great Migration river crossing or to volunteer in a hands-on wildlife conservation project alongside qualified rangers and conservationists, each region has something unique to offer.

One thing we do not often recommend, unless you have a lot of time and a large budget, is to try and fit in both East Africa and Southern Africa on the same trip. Including too many different destinations on the same itinerary requires more flights and pushes up your trip costs. If your time or budget is limited, it's better to choose one of them (either East Africa or Southern Africa) and build a great itinerary without having to waste too many days and too much money on traveling between destinations.

Planning an African safari? We're here to help. Let us know what factors matter the most to you — budget, wildlife, landscapes, cultural experiences, or activities — and we will tailor a safari itinerary to match your dream African adventure. Having spent time exploring Africa's game reserves, visiting safari lodges and developing a reliable network of partners throughout East and Southern Africa, our team of safari experts are intimately acquainted with on-the-ground conditions in each destination.

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About the author


Dianne Kokkonidis was born in Johannesburg, grew up in the Transkei and spent years exploring Europe. She returned to South Africa to live on a farm in the Outeniqua Mountains when the call of Africa got too loud to ignore. She comes from a family of storytellers, so it's no surprise she's now found her way into writing about one of the oldest stories known to mankind - the lure of Africa.