2021 East Africa Safari Travel Guide - Kenya and Tanzania
For many, the thought of organizing a safari trip is daunting, often delaying this once-in-a-lifetime experience infinitely. This postponing is often due to the price tag associated with such a trip and the lack of tools and resources to make it easier to create something you are comfortable with. A Safari is indeed a very onerous investment, but it does not have to cost you “half of your yearly salary” as I often hear.
You can find a myriad of pre-packaged bundles for safaris, all more expensive than the last one. The trick is to do lots of research, have local contacts and be ready to get your hands dirty to get the best deals by removing all the middle-men fees.
WandrHop spent quite some time in both Kenya and Tanzania, visited all the parks and created friendships with many local vendors, lodge owners and guides, make sure to use our expertise when it’s time to plan your safari. We will not only save you time and money--we’ll also handcraft a personal safari itinerary just for you. The itinerary, the lodges, the guide, and the car are paramount issues that need to be agreed upon and negotiated pre-departure. Many safari-goers fall into the trap of buying pre-packaged safaris only to be extremely disappointed. Contact us and let’s get your trip of a lifetime on the road!
East Africa vs. South Africa: where is the best safari experience?
This very question is usually the first one that pops up whenever someone is ready to start planning a safari. The answer is easy: East Africa.
Kenya & Tanzania offer true, authentic safaris with game reserves and parks that have been in existence for as long as the animals living there have existed. What do I mean by true and authentic? The Masai Mara (Kenya) and the Serengeti (Tanzania), for example, are fence-free.
Parks like the Kruger National Park in South Africa are fenced in, meaning that if you walk/drive far enough in any direction you’ll hit an electrified fence. In East Africa, however, animals are free to roam as they please and as they have always done, protecting hundreds of years of migration behaviors. Additionally, parks like the Serengeti and Masai Mara offer year-round opportunities to see the Big Five (in their natural and authentic environment) but also the Wildebeest Migration that continuously happens between the two parks.
That being said, the above recommendation is strictly related to the question “Where is the best safari experience?” Should you want to add Victoria Falls and Cape Town to your itinerary, for instance, a South Africa safari is probably more suited to the itinerary because of the distance. Although... what is an extra five-hour flight when you are already this far!?
In terms of add-ons to your safari itinerary in Kenya and Tanzania... Granted you are spending 2 weeks or more in the region, we highly recommend Gorilla trekking in Rwanda or visiting the nearby paradise tropical islands of Zanzibar or Seychelles.
Should I go to Kenya or Tanzania?
This is best answered by looking at your budget and time constraints, because ultimately our answer will always be: why choose? Do both!
Kenya and Tanzania offer amazing game-viewing and diverse landscapes. Do not think for one second that the safari days are repetitive. If planned well, each day is a new adventure. You won’t even know the definition of boredom.
There are many differences between Kenya and Tanzania (outside of the non-safari destinations like Zanzibar etc.). From the landscape to the religions, the two countries are very unique. Despite being home to similar nomadic tribes (that belong to neither country) and the gigantic migration paths for wild animals, the people and cultures are different.
Something else worth noting is the relations between the two countries. These two countries are known for their competitive spirit against one another. How does it impact your travel you might ask? Well, that means that you do not want to hire a guide and a car from Kenya to drive you across the border and into Tanzania. For one, most drivers and guides will often decline to do it. If they do agree, it will mean many, many stops on the road at all the security checkpoints. As our Kenya guide mentioned “If I were to drive you into Tanzania, they would stop the car every few miles, search the car, open my luggage etc. all because we are driving a car with Kenyan plates.”
Is Kenya Better?
Now to the part where I may offend some... If you must pick only one: choose Kenya! Although both countries may be similar on the surface, Kenya, although slightly more expensive, boosts a much better travel infrastructure with outstanding lodges and camps.
If the accommodations alone are not enough to convince you to choose Kenya, the country is home to the Masai Mara (which, if you did not know and are hesitating between the Mara and Serengeti, are the same, just separated by a border), the Giraffe Manor in Nairobi, Lake Naivasha, Hell’s Gate National Park and Amboseli Park.
Amboseli Park, which is often overlooked, should be a staple for any Kenyan itinerary as the park offers the best views of Kilimanjaro. The mountain is actually situated in Tanzania but it is best viewed from the Kenyan side, where hundreds of elephants, hippos, zebras, giraffes, monkeys, flamingos, and thousands of birds live.
It does not mean Tanzania is not worth it--far from it! Should you choose only one, choose Kenya but it is highly recommended to add a Tanzania side trip. Mostly because Tanzania is home to Ngorongoro, one of the largest calderas on earth, intact and home to many species including the endangered black rhino. Ngorongoro is an immense territory comprising several craters and parks and conservation areas, to the south of the Serengeti.
If you are short on time, you should consider completing the top Kenyan attractions (including at least the Masai Mara for 3 to 4 full days and Amboseli for 2 days) and organize a 2-3 day Tanzania adventure focusing on the Ngorongoro area (crater + parks). Instead of driving the painful 7h + border control, we do recommend air-transfer to Arusha and then drive to complete the Ngorongoro experience.
Depending on the lodge you choose (ask your WandrHop concierge for advice and tips for the best lodges in the area), you can organize for them to pick you up from the regional airport and not waste any time.
How long should the safari be?
Safaris tend to be expensive, that’s why you should make the most out of your time there. Don’t be afraid to add days to your itinerary. There are many different species and types of animals in different areas of the two countries, so it’s in your best interest to hit the road and visit more than just the Mara or the Serengeti. That means that a Safari trip should be at least 5-6 days if you only do Kenya or at least 7-8 days if you are adding Tanzania.
Note that I mean full game-drive days and do not include any time of the days spent in Nairobi on arrival or pre-departure. Of course, you can trim 2 days off overall if you are splurging on a full air-transport-only type vacation, which in essence saves some time but there’s something beautiful about driving across the country too. The decision should be based on your preferences, budget and time constraints. You can also do a mix of land and air transport throughout your safari and avoid some high-traffic areas and make the entire process even more seamless.
When to go on a Safari in East Africa
If your dream is to witness the grandiosity that is the Great Wildebeest Migration crossing of the Grumeti River (Tanzania) or the Mara River (Kenya), anytime between June and August is the perfect time to visit. This timeframe also coincides with the dry seasons which is great for two reasons. First, the weather is clement and perfect for photography. Secondly, the dryer months mean less water holes throughout the parks, hence making it easier to find the animals on a game drive.
Note that the Great Migration viewing is not necessarily a given based on when you go during that time frame or where you are. Similar to planning a trip to Japan for Cherry Blossom, if your goal is not necessarily to see it, it is preferable to book for another time that may be better for you and remove any possibility of disappointment.
The best time to go to enjoy both a dry climate, sunshine, low rain, a lot less tourists and hence better rates is anytime between late December to late February. The short rains of November will have just stopped and provided a beautiful green landscape, which also coincides with the Wildebeest & Zebra calving season (in the Southern Serengeti) meaning a lot of newborns and young ones roaming the tall grass.
This is a great time to visit both Kenya and Tanzania as you’ll often be completely alone with the animals. Imagine spending 2 hours with a family of elephants or lions, just you and them, which is a widely different experience in the summer months where you can have up to 20 cars around a family of cheetahs, taking turns capturing photos.
Two Things to Negotiate Pre-Departure
1. Private Safari is Highly Recommended
I don’t recommend booking a safari where you will be paired with other people to share a car. If you have the means, private safaris are well worth it. If you would prefer a comfortable ride with the ability to tailor your itinerary however you like, stop whenever you want, or focus on specific animals, private is the way to go. Can you imagine getting stuck with another group that only came to focus on birds when all you care about are the Top Five?
When you book a private safari, you can choose the dates and times however you wish, edit the itinerary down to the lodges, meals, time spent in specific areas and all additional activities you desire. In many locations, you may decide to spend more time to do a side attraction (biking amongst giraffes and buffaloes at Lake Naivasha’s Hell’s Gate National Park or a walking safari with a ranger on the rim of the Ngorongoro crater etc.).
Contact your WandrHop concierge today to start building an itinerary that works for you, based on our deep knowledge of the region and contacts with local communities of rangers, guides, and drivers.
So, it is very important that you set that expectation from the start and ensure the word “Private” is in all the documentations and bills you need to pay to go through with the safari.
Choose your car carefully.
There are three types of cars you’ll find. If you are not careful, you will end up with an old minivan for the duration of your trip. Trust us, you do not want that!
a) Land Cruiser (Toyota Safari Cars) with pop-up roof
Since you will spend most of your days in the vehicle, it is imperative you choose the Land Cruiser. These specific cars have a pop-up roof so you can stand and have 360-degree views during the game drives. Additionally these cars have AC and outlets for you to charge your camera batteries, phones etc. during the long, which are sometimes more than 10-hour days. They are also a lot safer, especially during the few off-road trips you may take, crossing rivers and ditches. You will want a car that will not get stuck for 5 hours and therefore ruin half of your day.
b) Open Safari Vehicles
The Open safari vehicles are fun cars and you do not need to stand, just sit on your seat and be one with nature. The cons: Less easy to take videos and pictures using a bean bag for stability when taking pictures that way, a lot less protection from the wild but mostly from the dust! Usually these cars are only provided when you book the game drives directly with the lodges within the parks (as you can’t drive long distances on highways with this type of car).
c) Minivan with pop-up roof
Finally, the one to avoid at all costs: the minivan! Small, not very comfortable and although they have 4x4, the chances of getting stuck in mud with these are much higher than with the Land Cruiser. It is worth paying the relative fee to upgrade to an actual safari car.
If you book your trip with Wandrhop, rest assured we will always negotiate the best cars possible for the trip.
2. Be Very Purposeful in Choosing Accommodations
Most times you will be provided with a set of accommodations for your trip based on the itinerary you have drafted with your WandrHop agent or coming directly from the local agent in charge of the logistics.
Note that most local agents have benefits to push certain lodges or camps for you to stay at, therefore it is primordial that you review the details of all the places you will stay at (Website, TripAdvisor, YouTube etc.) and be comfortable.
There are many options for lodging everywhere you will go and you should definitely prepare a few alternatives (or have WandrHop provide you with them). We will then negotiate the best rates and make sure you get the deal that’s right for you without being pressured by the local agents into booking lodges you may not like.
Safari Packing List
One word: layers! It will be cold at night (especially in the Masai Mara) and you will need a warm jacket for the early morning game drives. As soon as the sun rises, the temperature will start going up quite fast and the layers can disappear. Below is the safari packing list we recommend to all our fellow travelers (excluding any personal medication and clothing):
Important Documents: printed itinerary, passport, ID, proof of payment
Healthcare: malaria tablets, motion sickness pills, traveler's diarrhea prevention, bug repellent, anti-septic cream, hand sanitizer, sunscreen, aloe vera
Food & Beverage: snacks (granola bars, beef jerky, etc.), insulated water bottle (not plastic)
COVID-19 Prevention: N95 masks, cloth face masks, hand sanitizer (you simply can't have enough)
Handy Accessories: flashlight, binoculars, UK adapters (multi-entry), pens
Camera Accessories: camera, lenses, photography bean bag, 4 camera batteries + charger + cables, 2 large SD cards, microfiber cleaning cloth, external hard drive (1TB), laptop, SD card reader
For Tipping: pre-stuffed envelopes for each lodge/campsite and tips for your guides
When it comes to clothing, only bring clothes you are comfortable in, you will be sitting a lot and/or standing in the heat and you need to feel good! Cotton and other easy-dry materials are key. In terms of colors: Whites, Beiges and khakis are the preferred ones as they do not attract some of the not-so-friendly insects out there, including the tsetse flies. Finally, bring a pair of shoes to wear during the day and at least one other pair to wear at the lodges and campsites.
Safari Camera Recommendations for Amateur Photographers
Do not take all your pictures and videos with your iPhone!
If you are going with a friend or significant other, ensure that at least one of you has a professional camera. When we took the trip through East Africa to meet with local communities and gather information to bring home, we saw many couples taking pictures with their phones and we were shocked. A safari is not a small investment, once you’ve already spent this much, it is really a shame to not come home with killer pictures or videos! If you do not have a camera or lenses, you can rent them online and send it back once the trip is over.
If you already have a camera (DSLR or mirrorless), again we are not talking about professional wild photographers here, just the average traveler going on a safari, you will need to add a telephoto lens or a powerful zoom lens. In terms or zoom range, highly recommend getting to 200mm zoom minimum! Anything less will be too far, the higher the better of course but you don’t want to overkill it especially for a lens you may not use often going forward.
I do own the Sony Alpha 6100 and bought the Sony E-lens 55-210mm. The combination resulted in amazing pictures and videos and never had a complaint about the zoom. In addition to the camera and lens, a camera bean bag (to increase stability when shooting from the car pop-up roof) and finally tripods (a small one for shooting from the ground and a taller one to shoot scenery or portraits) are also recommended, especially if you intend to shoot the starry nights (you will need a tripod to keep your camera stable for 20 seconds or more while it captures the picture).
Buy a large SD card and shoot everything in Raw
Yes, shooting in RAW will take more space, I took more than 3,000 photos in RAW and 300 videos in 4k and still had way more than half the space available on my SD card (512 GB). So, do not worry about your memory and just shoot in the best quality you can. Shooting RAW means that the quality of the photos on the camera will appear a bit grey and not enhanced, which is fine, because that file now has all the details and data needed once you get home to edit it. You will be able to enhance the colors, the details etc. while having a large picture you could print, frame, and proudly share with friends and family. If you do not own a Photo Editing software yet, I highly recommend Luminar AI. With a one-time fee, you get access to an AI-powered photo editor that delivers stunning results.
See below: pre-editing (RAW file in camera) and post-editing in Luminar AI.
Tipping in East Africa
Tipping is always expected in East Africa. The numbers below are considered “fair.” Should the service be extraordinary, feel free to add more. But I wouldn’t recommend going lower.
Safari Tipping: $10 per day per person for the guide + $5 per day per person for the driver (or $15 per day per person if your guide is also your driver). Pay cash in USD at the end of the trip in an envelope.
Lodge/Camps/Hotels Tipping: $10 per room per night for low to medium luxury camps, $15 per room per night for higher-end lodges. All tips are to be given via the tip box at the reception when you check-out.
In addition to these, you may have to tip some people along the way. People helping you with luggage at the border between Kenya and Tanzania, for instance. You can always say no, but a dollar bill to have someone carry your luggage around while you fill in all the forms and go through security is worth it. So, plan to bring 10-15 $1 bills per person, to have with you whenever you want to tip someone on the spot.
Spending Time with an Authentic Masai Tribe in Kenya
Depending on your level of commitment to immerse yourself in the local culture, you may be interested in getting up close and personal with an authentic Masai tribe.
Note that most of the Masai warriors you will see perform at your camps or lodges by the fire in the evening are not real Masai. As per our guide, more than half of the guys doing those routines at lodges are just there for the tips and pretend to be Masai to please tourists, take a jumping picture with them, share a few stories and go back to their apartments in the town nearby.
In order to fully understand the Masai culture, one must immerse! To do so, you have several options, many villages welcome tourists to stop by a couple hours, ask questions and buy souvenirs from the women. The main pro to this option is that you can immerse yourself without spending too much time, as those are often found on the main roads in between main sites, the con is that those are often overly touristy and not always authentic.
You will be greeted along with another group of tourists by a dance that’s being performed 20 times a day and then walked towards the souvenir shop. That being said, this is part of the new-age Masai culture and you can still ask any question you want, they may not all be as nomadic as they used to be or live in the same conditions as they once have but still have many beautiful stories to share.
The better option for the adventurers out there is to find an authentic village and spend an entire day and night with the Masai, one that is not fully focused on tourism (which you can deduct by the number of guest rooms they have – anything above 2 or 3 rooms means this is now a lodge and potentially not an authentic village). You want to ensure that you will not be mixed with 15 other tourists.
Contact your WandrHop concierge so we can plan your stay in our favorite authentic Masai village in Kenya (we also have great options in Tanzania). Our time there in early 2021 was fantastic, it was just us and an entire tribe. We had a delicious lunch under the acacia trees, went on a long hike up a mountain, watched the cattle and zebras roaming around, prepared a fire outside and shared beautiful life stories with the Chief and his wife.
The evening was magical as they prepared a delicious local dish under the stars, sang traditional Masai songs (which are stories or life events they’ve been through). For sunrise, we walked to the women’s village and helped milk the cows (or you can go on a walk with the men to bring some wood etc.), followed by a brief walk up a hill to watch the sunrise on the Masai Mara with our new friends.
Shopping for Souvenirs in East Africa
Do not buy anything on the road-side souvenir shops!
Your driver/guide will likely stop at a few of those places on the way between cities and parks etc. The main purpose is to use the restrooms or grab a coffee, the other purpose is for you to purchase something, often filled with wooden sculptures and beautiful art objects but here’s the catch: the prices are way over-inflated and those guys will do everything to make you pay the max they can get out of you.
Let me give you an example – as we embarked on this trip, I had set my mind to bring back one of those 6 feet tall, carved wooden giraffes.
Prices as seen and negotiated on all the roadside stores we’ve been to in Kenya and Tanzania: For the exact same Giraffe (quality, color etc.) went from $12,000 down to $5,000. The lowest price was after 30 min of intense negotiation. Understandably, these road-side curio shops haven’t been getting many visitors due to COVID-19 and will try to guilt trip you to buy. Unfortunately, I was not ready to spend the price of a small used car for a wooden giraffe.
Price at the artists’ shops in the suburbs of Nairobi: If you go to the source, where most of the tourists do not go, you can get much more realistic prices. For the exact same giraffe (and better because the one I found was a bit taller and had a baby giraffe next to the main one), the price I was able to get was $450 (from $700 asking price). So, it went from $5,000 (roadside) to $450 at the shop. Now, keep in mind that the roadside shop, because highly touristy, takes care of the shipping and is included in the overall price. But our seller was willing to take care of the shipping as well and called a few shipping companies in Nairobi. The additional cost to have it shipped to us in the US was going to be $650 (keep in mind, this is a heavy piece of art). A total of $1,100 to get it from Kenya to our home. Still much better than the $5,000 lowest rate we were able to get on the road.
The sellers will often bring a piece of paper and a pen and write a number on it for the product you want to buy. The number they’ll put will, every time, be outrageous. Think $12,000 for something that should sell for $1,000. The goal is for you to get a sense that this is a luxury item and push you to go much higher than your comfortable highest price for the item, so you’ll end up writing $2,000 even though you know you can’t spend more than $1,000 on the item. So, the best practice is to have a price in mind and to not let them cloud your judgment on the value of the items sold with their proposals. If they go really high, go really low. On the specific negotiation where the seller wrote $12,000 for a giraffe, my response was $15.
In the end we did not buy the giraffe at all and found a gorgeous chess set made from stone with animal figurines, a great purchase and did not end up costing us an arm to ship back home!