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An East Africa safari guide

What to know and where to go

East Africa, with its rolling plains, iconic wildlife and magical Out of Africa feeling, epitomises safari for many. The picture-postcard scenery is definitely a drawcard but it’s also home to some of the continent’s most majestic wildlife experiences: The Great Migration, gorilla trekking and the Big Five to name a few… But let’s go back to basics: what countries do we actually mean when we talk about East Africa? How should you start planning a safari to them, what should you do, and what sort of wildlife can you expect? Read on for our ultimate East Africa safari guide…

East Africa safari guide - bisate lodge
Track mountain gorillas in the lush forests of Rwanda. Credit: Bisate Lodge

First things first…

So, what do we mean when we use the term East Africa? Traditionally, the region refers to Kenya and Tanzania. Two of the most famous safari countries on the continent, both are iconic in their own right and very much the heart of East Africa. But today, East Africa will often mean Rwanda and Uganda too – both countries have become much more accessible in recent years and both are the home of incredible gorilla trekking experiences. For the purposes of our East Africa safari guide, we’ll be giving you hints and tips for all four of them.

East Africa safari guide - naibor camp
Explore the wildlife-dotted landscapes of the Masai Mara. Credit: Naibor Camp

Kenya

If you want to talk classic safari destinations, there’s no better place to start than Kenya. A gem for both first-time travellers and those who have been on safari 50 times, Kenya is often described as Africa in a nutshell and it really does have a little bit of everything, from epic wildlife to pristine beaches and vast savannah to craggy mountains (the second highest in Africa if we’re being particular!). In Kenya, you’ll most likely fly to the different parks and reserves but a little bit of driving is also possible – chat to us for details.

East Africa safari guide - ol lentille
Come face to face with gentle giants in Laikipia. Credit: The Sanctuary at Ol Lentille

What should I see and do?

Where would our East Africa safari guide be without a mention of the Masai Mara. Famous the world over, this is the place to come to see the Big Five in Kenya. It’s also the home of the Great Migration during which hundreds of thousands of wildebeest migrate from Tanzania in search of fresh grass – and bringing with them plenty of drama and excitement! Then there’s the conservancies of Laikipia with its mix of world-class conservation and game viewing, Samburu with its colourful warriors and walking safaris, and the views in Amboseli and the Chyulu Hills.

East Africa safari guide - angama mara
Witness the greatest wildlife show on earth. Credit: Angama Mara Camp

How do I do it?

If you’d like to see the Great Migration in the Masai Mara, you’ll have to travel between July and October (more about that here) and our Classic Kenya trip is the one for you. Thanks to its near perfect coastline and the beaches of Diani, Msambweni and Lamu, Kenya is also a great spot for some beachside R&R at the end of your safari – check out the All the Highlights trip if that floats your boat. And if you’d like to embark on something a touch more adventurous, how about exploring Matthew’s Range on the Wilds of Northern Kenya trip or Meru on the Road Less Travelled?

East Africa safari guide - dunia camp
Explore the expansive Serengeti landscape. Credit: Dunia Camp

Tanzania

Tanzania is another one of those fabulous countries that has something to please everyone and despite being home to the kind of wildlife that’s usually reserved for an Attenborough documentary, there are also plenty of hidden gems to discover on your own terms, without the crowds. Spicy Zanzibar and her equally as pretty sister islands are just off the coast if you fancy some cocktail-sipping, sunset-watching, chill out time and did we mention that the road network in Tanzania is pretty damn good, making this one of the best countries in East Africa for a driving safari.

East Africa safari guide - lake manze
Take a cruise along the Rufiji River. Credit: Lake Manze Tented Camp

What should I see and do?

Tanzania hosts the second stage of the Great Migration alongside Kenya’s Masai Mara and the Serengeti is where you should head for if the wildebeest show is on your bucket list. This handy guide features our favourite camps to stay at whilst you wait for the wildebeest. Neighbouring Ngorongoro Crater is also a highlight of Tanzania (the wildlife is out-of-this-world phenomenal) and the surrounding mountains and valleys make for wonderful walking safaris. Further south, the remote beauty of places like Katavi are not to be missed, and neither is a boat cruise down the raging Rufiji River in the Selous or a trip to Ruaha for more walking and to see 10% of the world’s lion population in one, baobab-filled park.

East Africa safari guide - manta resort
Experience the white beaches and sparkling waters of Tanzania’s islands. Credit: Manta Resort

How do I do it?

To make things easy for our East Africa safari guide, we’re going to think of Tanzania in four different areas. First up is the north, featuring the Serengeti, Ngorongoro et al. Try the Best Tanzania Great Migration safari for the best route up here – and perhaps add some beach time at the coast too. Our trip Off the beaten track in Southern Tanzania does exactly what it says on the tin and takes you around the southern section of the country to Ruaha and Selous, whilst The Wild West will have you journeying through Katavi and enjoying up-close-and-personal chimpanzee experiences in Mahale. If you fancy donning your driving gloves, we’ve got that covered right here too.

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East Africa safari guide - volcanoes national park
Immerse yourself in the enchanting forest setting of Volcanoes National Park

Rwanda

Rwanda is fast becoming one of our favourite countries to visit – and we’re not just saying that for the East Africa safari guide! The country’s turbulent past is not to be shied away from but today you’ll find a country that’s full of smiles and warm-hearted people, gorilla-packed forests, scenery to take your breath away and more recently, national parks to rival any others in East Africa. Our piece of advice? Don’t listen to those who say Rwanda isn’t for first-timers or indeed a good place for a safari. They’re wrong!

East Africa safari guide - sabyinyo
Trek the mountains of Rwanda for a once-in-a-lifetime wildlife encounter. Credit: Sabyinyo Silverback Lodge

What should I see and do?

Volcanoes National Park should be on all travellers must-visit list in Rwanda. Almost always shrouded in mist, it’s a magical place where you can trek with mountain gorilla and see golden monkey and even elephants. If that doesn’t give you your primate fix, then head to Nyungwe Forest National Park and hike with the chimpanzee that swing (loudly) from the trees. But there really is more to Rwanda than just its furry primates (as this article will tell you). How about visiting the genocide memorial in the capital, Kigali, chilling out on the shores of Lake Kivu, or getting involved in the ground-breaking conservation projects (and game viewing) in the country’s newest and most exciting park, Akagera?

East Africa safari guide - kivu
Take in the views of Rwanda’s glistening Lake Kivu

How do I do it?

Getting around Rwanda usually involves a little bit of flying and a little bit of driving. Be prepared for some long and dusty journeys in some cases – but the rewards at the end are always worth the bumps. A good starting point for Rwanda is The Full Works trip, and for maximum wildlife-watching, don’t be shy to add a stop in Akagera too. Rwanda has good transport links with Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda so if you’d like to combine gorilla trekking with a classic Big Five safari, try A Rwanda and Tanzania combination (this will also give you some beach time in blissful Zanzibar) or Wildlife in Uganda to mix and match your animals…

East Africa safari guide - gorilla forest camp
Get up close with the gorillas of Bwindi Impenetrable Forest. Credit: Sanctuary Gorilla Forest Camp

Uganda

Last but not least for our East Africa safari guide is Uganda. A relatively-recent addition to the safari scene, what the country lacks in roads and restaurants is more than made up for in bucket-list experiences. Gorilla trekking may have put Uganda on the travel map, but delve deeper and you’ll find diverse experiences, rugged and remote safaris and a whole host of fascinating primates, all in one emerald-green bundle.

East Africa safari guide - kibale forest
Explore the lush, chimpanzee-filled Kibale Forest

What should I see and do?

We’ll start with the big one: gorilla trekking. In Uganda, the prime destination to track down the primates is Bwindi Impenetrable Forest and a real bonus of trekking here is the vastly reduced cost of the permits compared to Rwanda (we run through the other differences in this article here if you need some help deciding).  If you’re visiting the gorillas, you may also like to visit the chimpanzees in beautiful Kibale, whilst adrenalin-junkies might like to add Jinja to their itinerary for a spot of white-water rafting and bungee jumping. Nature-lovers should head straight for Queen Elizabeth National Park to spot tree-climbing lions and other storybook wildlife.

East Africa safari guide - jinja
Face the thrilling rapids of Jinja. Credit: Wildwaters Lodge

How do I do it?

Travelling around Uganda is similar to Rwanda and you’ll probably find yourself in a combination of cars and planes. Again, the distances can sometimes be long but they are always broken up by plenty of stops and made enjoyable by the dazzling scenery. Now for trips: if you’ve got primates on the brain, try Primates of Uganda and visit both Kibale for the chimpanzee and Bwindi for the gorilla. If you’d like to get off-the-beaten track to Kidepo Valley, this trip is the one for you, whilst the Source of the Nile will take you right to where the name suggests. But what if you’re hankering after some sun lounging, preferably on a white sand beach and the Indian Ocean lapping at your toes? Well, of course we can do that – it’s right here!

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