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Southern Africa vs. East Africa: Comparing and Contrasting the Safari Experience

  • Tuesday, May 18, 2004

While working in the tourism industry, we were often asked: "Should I go on safari to East Africa or Southern Africa?" The answer is never easy because there are many factors to consider.

First, let me define the regions: East Africa encompasses Kenya, Tanzania, Zanzibar, Uganda, Rwanda, and Burundi (although some people consider the latter three as Central Africa). Southern Africa includes South Africa, Zambia, Zimbabwe, Botswana, Namibia, and Mozambique.

To begin, let's look at recent safari history. Up until the 1980s, East Africa was the preferred destination for adventurers and wildlife enthusiasts. Then, Botswana was little known, Rhodesia (Zimbabwe) was politically unstable, and South Africa was under the oppression of apartheid. In contrast, East Africa offered wonderful wildlife experiences, low human populations, and wide open spaces.

In 1990, Nelson Mandela was released from prison and the new South Africa was born. Meanwhile, this decade brought political unrest in Congo and Uganda, massacres consumed Rwanda, famine hit Ethiopia, and bombings occurred in Kenya. These events affected all of East Africa. All the while, the rand (South Africa's monetary unit) began to depreciate, making Southern Africa more affordable and attractive.

When you consider terrain and destinations, the regions are very different. East Africa boasts magnificent landscapes including Tanzania's Mt. Kilimanjaro, Ngorongoro Crater, the Serengeti Plains, the montane rain forests of Uganda and Rwanda, Kenya's Maasai Mara, and many more.

Southern Africa is diverse as well. The area includes: the wetlands of Botswana's Okavango Delta, the semi-arid Kalahari Desert, the Skeleton Coast of Namibia, the roaring thunder of Victoria Falls, the red dunes at Sossusvlei, the numerous national parks of northern Zimbabwe, and the ever popular Kruger National Park in South Africa.

With the exception of several birds and a few mammal species, most of the popular wildlife can be seen in both regions. The major difference is in how many you will see. For example, in Southern Africa, you would never see the huge numbers of zebra and wildebeest that you would in the Serengeti. In contrast, East Africa does not have the enormous populations of elephants found in Botswana.

Weather is another differentiating factor. Rain can have a significant effect on a safari. In East Africa, October is the beginning of the short rains, while April brings long rains. Many camps and areas shut down because they become difficult to access. In Southern Africa, while each country varies, the general rains (tropical storms) come between November and March. Most camps stay open year round. The temperatures are more or less the same. May through August tend to be the cooler months in both regions.

One of the main differences between the regions is the lodges and vehicles. Parts of East Africa have earned the reputation of being over-saturated with hotel-style lodges and vehicles. Southern Africa, on the other hand, has always offered a very private safari experience with low-density tourism. The majority of the lodges are luxury tent-style camps.

Budget is also an important factor. With the rand getting stronger, Southern Africa is getting more expensive. However, mobile or overland safaris are very popular in both regions and give the economy traveler the opportunity to experience the bush.

Another issue is cultural tourism. Here, East Africa by far has the upper hand. The local people of East Africa are much more involved in the tourism industry. Opportunities to witness Maasai or Samburu tribal living are more common. In Southern Africa it is very difficult to witness Bushmen and Himba people living traditionally.

Both regions have a lot to offer. Although the safari industry began in East Africa and expanded to Southern Africa, today both regions are learning from each other's successes. They are fine tuning the overall wilderness experience and offering travelers unique opportunities to witness the beauty of the African continent and wildlife.

One final note - as wilderness areas are slowly being destroyed, it will only become more difficult to take advantage of what Africa has to offer. Thankfully, AWF and other organizations are working to preserve and protect these precious lands and the animals that call them home.

If you're considering a safari, please contact Craig Sholley at [email protected] or visit AWF's Safari Planner at www.awf.org/safari. Our next safari is August 28 - September 8, 2004 in Southern Africa.

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