By the end of our time in Southern Africa, we thought we were safari gurus. I mean, what first-time Africa travelers go on over 40 safari drives in one visit? From Chobe National Park and the Okavango Delta, to Kruger Park proper and the surrounding wildlife reserves, we thought we knew the drill. Then we went to Tanzania, and our whole concept of how a safari works went straight out the window. There are some big differences, and advantages and disadvantages to both.
- Lodge-centered vs. Operator-centered – This is the biggest single difference. In the south, your entire safari experience is organized by, and executed through, the lodge or camp where you are staying. Your safari drives happen early in the morning and late in the afternoon, with the hot hours of mid-day spent lounging around the lodge. Most of the time, you do loops around the vicinity of the lodge, so location is paramount. Generally, it is the lodge’s vehicles that are used for the safari drives, and the lodge employs the guides and trackers. In the East, however, you’re constantly on the move, and the lodges and camps are simply a place to spend a night or two. The safari experience is organized and executed through a tour operator, who arranges your guide and decides what camps and lodges to stay in. Safari drives may last all day, with the significant commute between parks being your down time.
- Vehicle style– In Southern Africa, most game drives cruise loops within a 20 mile radius of the lodge, keeping on roads within the reserve or park. Safaris here use open-sided Land Cruisers in order to have the most intimate animal encounters possible. The only thing between you and the wildlife is a few feet of open air. Farther east, you spend a lot more time in your safari vehicle. To hit all the parks along the Northern Safari Circuit in Tanzania (Serengeti, Ngorongoro Crater, Lake Manyara and Tarangire), you’ve got to be on the move every couple days, and travel between parks can take a number of hours through urban and rural environments. For this reason, you can’t cruise around in the open-sided jeeps of the South, you need a Land Cruiser that is fully enclosed. But to get good photos of the animals, you also need a windowless vehicle. The solution—pop-top Land Cruisers.
- Fences – There is a lot of controversy about enclosing protected areas throughout Africa. Some argue it’s beneficial, and allows for better protection of the animals. Others think that animals should be free to roam as they always have, even if that means roaming into a village. Down South, just about ever protected area is fenced. These fences might enclose parks the size of small U.S. states, but if you walk far enough in any direction, you’ll hit an electrified fence. In the East, they don’t believe in fences, and animals there are constantly on the move. The migratory patterns of the animals prevent many lodge-centered operations from being sustainable in the East—only certain times of year are animals abundant in this vicinity. To deal with this migratory challenge, they’ve developed my favorite safari accommodation—mobile camps: Temporary tented camps that pick up and move every couple months with the flow of the animals.
- Vehicle concentration – In the South, all of the wildlife reserves and parks have strict rules on the number of safari jeeps that can view a particular animal or group of animals at once—generally no more than three. This is easy to enforce, as all jeeps belong to lodges within the reserve, and all lodges must follow reserve rules (for their own benefit). In the East, however, there is no limit to the number of jeeps at any particular sighting, so it’s possible to see well over a dozen jeeps looking at a pride of lions.
- Animal diversity and quantity – How could I leave this for last? You can find the “Big 5” both East and South, but each region also has its own set of unique fauna. The biggest difference, however, is that there is a much higher density of animals in the East. We went 10 days in Botswana before we saw a lion, and after 40 wildlife drives down South, we were up to 12 or so. In Tanzania, we saw 44 lions over the course of 5 days. This doesn't include the thousands upon thousands of wildebeest and zebras that make up the Great Migration. You can see all of the cool animals in both places but you’ll just see more of them in the East.
So, after all that, which is better? Hard to say. The lodge-centered safaris, open vehicles and low vehicle concentration all favor the South. But, the lack of fences and sheer volume of animals make the East pretty special. Either way, you can’t go wrong.
© Oh, the Places We’ll Go. Reprinted with permission.