Top 5 First Time Safari Destinations

By Sarah Mayger


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Top 5 First Time Safari Destinations

An African safari makes an appearance on most traveller’s bucket lists and the continent boasts an exceptional choice of destinations home to amazing wildlife, fascinating cultures and breath-taking landscapes. The problem is choosing where to go! With so many options, planning your first trip can feel overwhelming.

It’s important to understand what you are looking for in a safari destination. Which animals would you like to see? What kind of safari do you want to go on – 4x4, walking, horseback? How long do you want to go for? And are you looking for a destination with activities beyond the safari?

Once you have these things in mind, you can begin to narrow down which countries are best suited to you. There are several countries that are particularly good for those embarking on their first safari and as experts in African safaris, we’re here to tell you which places are great for your first trip and answer all your first-time safari questions!

Our top picks are:

  • South Africa
  • Kenya
  • Tanzania
  • Zambia
  • Botswana
Rhino in South Africa Rhino in South Africa

South Africa

Why is this a good destination for first timers?

South Africa provides the most advanced safari industry on the continent. The standard of accommodation is high, infrastructure is good, providers are reputable, professional and experienced and the prices are reasonable. South Africa is also home to an astonishing diversity of wildlife. In its parks and reserves, you can easily see the Big 5 game (lion, leopard, elephant, rhino and buffalo) in a limited time and on its coastline, the marine Big 5 (whale, penguin, shark, seal and dolphin) can be spotted. Pair this with the huge variety of other draws such as wine tours, Table Mountain and the famous Garden Route and its easy to see why people return again and again. It’s also the only malaria-free safari destination making it perfect for families.

Where are the best places to go?

Kruger National Park and KwaZulu Natal for safaris and land mammal encounters. The Western Cape and Garden Route for spotting marine life and shark cage diving – if you dare!

Which animals can I see?

Lion, leopard, elephant, buffalo and rhino, birdlife, zebra, giraffe, wild dog, cheetah, hyena, whale, penguin, shark, seal and dolphin.

What kind of safari can I go on?

Safaris in South Africa are typically done in a 4x4 vehicle.

When is the best time to go?

The climate is pleasant year-round but May-September in Kruger National Park are particularly dry so animals congregate at waterholes in large numbers and the chances of seeing all the species on your list are higher.

How long should I go for?

8-12 days is perfect for first timers as it gives ample time to explore and see all the exciting things on offer. We recommend a minimum of 3 days in Kruger National Park and 6 days to cover the Garden Route without rushing. A few nights in Cape Town is also a great way to enjoy South Africa city life.

What should I be aware of?

South Africa does have a reputation for crime, particularly in Johannesburg however most visitors don’t encounter any problems. If you stick to the national parks and private reserves then the risks are very low.

 

Elephants in Kenya Elephants in Kenya

Kenya

Why is this a good destination for first timers?

Kenya has a long history as a safari destination and is a very advanced tourist destination. The infrastructure is very good, the country and parks are extremely easy to access and there is a consistently high standard of service and accommodation. The country is home to a great variety of spectacular wildlife and fascinating cultures which can both be discovered on the plains of the Masai Mara and this is where the Great Wildebeest Migration culminates. Fantastic conservation initiatives that have been working hard since the severe poaching crisis in the 70s and 80s have led to a high concentration of game so chances of spotting animals in strong numbers is high. One of Africa’s most popular safari destinations is a great place to dip your toe into the safari pond. There are also long stretches of stunning coastline and incredible hikes through the Great Rift Valley.

Where are the best places to go?

For safaris and game viewing: Masai Mara and Samburu and Shaba National Parks which both have award winning game lodges For beaches: Mombasa, Malindi and Lamu. We recommend the beautiful Watamu Beach and Diani Beach For hikes and scenery: Great Rift Valley. 

What animals can I see?

Lion, leopard, elephant, rhino, buffalo, cheetah, hyena, jackals, bat-eared fox, giraffe, zebra, warthog, hartebeest, gazelle, impala.

What kind of safari can I go on?

Most safaris are in a 4x4 vehicle but there are also horseback safari options in in Amboseli or Chyulu Hills. Chyulu Hills is better for families and beginner riders.

When is the best time to go?

The Masai Mara has great game viewing year-round and the temperatures in Kenya are fairly consistent throughout the year however March-May is the season for long rains. High season is September-January on the coast and July-November in the parks. The annual Wildebeest Migration arrives between August and October.

How long should I go for?

8-14 days depending on how much time you have and your budget, but there is plenty to fill a two-week trip especially if you’d like to finish with a few days on one of the paradisiacal beaches.

What should I be aware of?

It can get very busy and more expensive during the high season. The country has taken a mass-market approach to tourism which can make parks very crowded however, visiting private reserves allows you to steer clear of too many other tourists – although they are quite pricey. A number of vaccines are recommended before travel and malaria precautions are essential.

Great Wildebeest Migration in Tanzania Great Wildebeest Migration in Tanzania

Tanzania

Why is this a good destination for first timers?

Tanzania boasts some of the finest national parks in Africa, with immense concentrations of game and incredible views of the iconic Mount Kilimanjaro. It has several amazing off-the-beaten-track parks where tourist numbers are fewer and game encounters more exclusive and there is plenty of culture and chances to engage with local tribes. The Great Wildebeest Migration sees 1.7 million animals thunder across the Serengeti plains en route for Kenya, an unmissable experience. Located a short hop from the idyllic Zanzibar, it is an excellent place to combine a safari with a beach break. Safaris are intense and exhilarating and a few days on a palm-fringed beach at the end is the perfect way to unwind before heading back to real life. A true bucket list destination.

Where are the best places to go?

For first-time safari goers, we recommend the Northern Circuit which encompasses Serengeti National Park, Ngorongoro Crater and Kilimanjaro. Take a boat or light aircraft to Zanzibar for some post-safari luxury relaxation.

What type of animals can I see?

Wildebeest (in astonishing numbers!), zebra, hippo, buffalo, giraffe, antelope, lion, cheetah, leopard, gazelle.

What kind of safari can I go on?

Safaris are typically in 4x4 vehicles.

When is the best time to go?

Tanzania is a year-round destination and has long rains in April and May and short rains in November. The best time for game viewing varies by area but the most popular time to visit is between June and October. The Great Migration is best seen between December and July.

How long should I go for?

8-12 days or up to 14 days if you wish to pair it with a Zanzibar beach break.

What should I be aware of?

There are very limited options outside of a 4x4 safari so there is less variety than other destinations which offer boat, walking and horseback safaris.

Leopard in Zambia Leopard in Zambia

Zambia

Why is this a good destination for first timers?

Safaris in Zambia place a strong focus on adventurous activities such as walking safaris between camps, and so are best suited to more active travellers. The country is famous for its excellent walking safaris and is the perfect choice for anyone wanting to explore on foot. The guides have a reputation for being passionate, enthusiastic, friendly and extremely knowledgeable. Accommodation is small and family-run and the overall vibe of a safari in Zambia is authenticity and intimacy. The safari industry is reasonably well-developed, and camps and lodges are comfortable and well-priced. You can also access one of the seven natural wonders of the world – the Victoria Falls.

Where are the best places to go?

For walking safaris, you can’t beat South Luangwa National Park, here you can travel between camps on foot. Lower Zambezi National Park is also a great place to see wildlife.

What type of animals can I see?

Leopard, lion, wild dog, elephant, buffalo, cheetah, giraffe, hippo, hyena.

What kind of safari can I go on?

4x4 vehicle safari, walking safari and boat or canoe safaris along the Zambezi river.

When is the best time to go?

May-October has warm sunny days and chilly nights with excellent game viewing and is the season for walking safaris. November-April is wet season and the rains can make some of the remote areas hard to access and some camps are closed. But all-weather camps remain open and the park is transformed into a verdant woodland at this time.

How long should I go for?

9-12 days, closer to 12 if you are planning to travel between camps on foot.

What should I be aware of?

A Zambian safari can be too adventurous or intense for some, especially first timers. Many people wait until their second or third safari to visit Zambia. Some parks and accommodation are closed during the wet months.

Buffalo in Botswana Buffalo in Botswana

Botswana

Why is this a good destination for first timers?

Botswana is an exceptionally beautiful country at all times of the year. From the vast wetlands of the Okavango Delta to the baobab-dotted, golden Kalahari desert. In the rainy season, the landscape erupts into vibrant shades of green and the wildlife gathers to feast on the fresh vegetation. Safaris in Botswana are an intimate affair. The country focuses on high-income, low-impact safaris so while you might part with a little extra cash, you are rewarded with high-quality animal encounters and exclusive personal treatment. Your chances of bumping into other tourists? Minimal.

Where are the best places to go?

For year-round game viewing: Chobe National Park and Moremi Game Reserve, In the dry season: Okavango Delta In green season: Kalahari Game Reserve.

What type of animals can I see?

Lion, leopard, elephant, rhino, buffalo, giraffe, antelope, zebra, hippo, puku, wildebeest

What kind of safari can I go on?

Boat and canoe safaris are available on the Okavango Delta, and walking safaris, night safaris and 4x4 safaris are available across the parks and reserves.

When is the best time to go?

Botswana can be visited year-round. July-October is dry season and the best time to witness large herds gathering at waterholes. December-March is green season which is a particularly beautiful time of year and the best time for spotting birds. It can be rainy in these months, but prices are generally lower and game viewing is still good especially in Kalahari as game migrates south in search of water.

How long should I go for?

8-12 days depending how many of the parks and reserves you wish to cover.

What should I be aware of?

Botswana is famous for being Africa’s most expensive safari destination. However, if you travel during green season, the prices can be a lot lower.

Finally, what should I pack?

Our travel specialist have been on many safaris covering all of our fantastic destinations. Here is their expert list for what to pop in your suitcase.

  • Casual but comfortable clothes. Loose-fitting is best to keep you cool
  • Clothes made from cotton rather than synthetic materials – particularly during the hot, dry summer months as they will help to keep you much cooler.
  • Safari trousers – ones that zip of at the knees are very useful
  • Fleece or warm jacket for the evenings and early morning safaris
  • Binoculars to watch game from afar
  • Camera, or smartphone, with reasonable zoom
  • Mosquito repellent
  • Sunscreen
  • A hat with a wide rim
  • Sturdy but breathable shoes
  • Any prescription medication, glasses or sunglasses
  • Swimsuit
  • A light raincoat if you are travelling during the rains

Feeling inspired? 

Browse our exciting range of safari holidays.

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