The Ultimate Guide to Choosing the Right Safari for You

An elephant sticking its trunk in its own mouth

TripSavvy / Jess Macdonald

Africa is a vast continent, and the possibilities for exploring it are endless. From gorilla-trekking expeditions in Uganda to Big Five game drives in Tanzania, safari experiences are equally diverse. There are many steps to consider when planning your African safari - including deciding what you want to see, how you'd like to travel and how much you're willing to spend. In this article, we take a look at a few of the different safari options on offer, so that you can decide which one best suits your personal preferences. 

Step 1: Decide What You Want to See

The first step to finding the perfect safari vacation is to think carefully about what you want to see. This will dictate when you travel, and also where you travel - after all, you're unlikely to see elephant and rhino if you opt for a camel safari in the Sahara Desert. Similarly, some animals prefer a very specialized type of habitat and can only be found in a handful of different countries. This is true for the critically endangered mountain gorilla, which lives exclusively in the forests of Uganda, Rwanda, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. 

For many first-time safari-goers, ticking off the Big Five is a priority. This term refers to the most iconic large mammals of Southern and East Africa - including lion, leopard, buffalo, rhino, and elephant. Only a few game reserves have sufficient space and the right mix of habitats for all five species to co-exist in harmony. For the highest chance of success, consider booking your safari to the Maasai Mara National Reserve in Kenya; Kruger National Park in South Africa; or the Serengeti National Park in Tanzania. 

If watching predators in action is at the top of your bucket list try Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park, which spans the border between South Africa and Botswana. East Africa's annual Great Migration is another good bet, as the vast herds of migrating wildebeest and zebra inevitably attract a pantheon of hungry lions, leopards, cheetah, and hyena. Namibia's Etosha National Park is one of the best places in the world to spot the critically endangered black rhino; while Botswana's Chobe National Park and Zimbabwe's Hwange National Park are famous for their enormous elephant herds. 

Note: If you're more interested in birds than mammals, check out this list of Southern Africa's best birding spots

Step 2: Decide on Your Mode of Transport 

The most traditional mode of safari transport is, of course, an open-sided 4x4 Jeep. However, if you're looking for a more unique way of getting around, this may become a factor in choosing your destination. Walking safaris are a wonderful way of experiencing the wilderness up close, giving you the chance to truly immerse yourself in the sights, sounds, and scents of the African bush. Zambia's South Luangwa National Park is well-known as one of the best options for walking safaris in Southern Africa. 

Water safaris (usually conducted in a small boat or sometimes even a canoe) are another memorable option and can be an especially good choice for those with an interest in birds. During the dry season, birds and animals of all descriptions flock to the nearest water source, giving you ringside seats to the action. For river safaris, consider Namibia's Caprivi Strip, or the Chobe River in Botswana. The Okavango Delta (also in Botswana) offers opportunities for dugout canoe safaris, while Lake Kariba in Zimbabwe specializes in houseboat safaris. 

Some game reserves also give you the chance to explore on horseback, or even on the back of an elephant. For something a little different, head to North Africa for a camel safari in an arid country like Morocco or Tunisia. While you may not see the same volume of wildlife in the Sahara Desert, the region's magical dune landscapes, and ancient Berber culture more than make up for it. If you've got cash to burn (or if you're saving up for a special anniversary or birthday celebration), a hot air balloon safari is one of the most memorable options of all. The Serengeti is particularly famous for hot air balloon rides. 

Step 3: Decide on Your Desired Level of Independence

The final decision you need to make is whether you want to travel as part of a group, as part of a private guided tour or on your own. There are benefits and drawbacks to each option, and deciding which best suits your personality is important.  

Group tours involve a planned itinerary with set activities allocated to each day of your trip. You'll share your vacation with strangers - which can either be a great way to meet new people or could see you stuck with people that you don't particularly like. One major benefit is the price - shared gas bills and group discounts on accommodation and activities help to reduce the final cost of your trip. Another is the ease of traveling with a guide, who will organize park fees, accommodation, food and routes for you. 

Private guided trips can be a good option for those that want to leave the task of arranging bookings etc to an agency, while also benefiting from the expertise of a knowledgeable guide in the bush. You'll have the freedom to tailor your itinerary to suit your exact interests, and you don't have to worry about group dynamics. The drawback is the cost - private guided safaris are the most expensive option of all.

On the other end of the spectrum, self-drive safaris offer complete independence for a fraction of the cost. You'll be able to go where you want to when you want to. However, some parks may not allow self-drive tours; and you'll need to be entirely self-sufficient when it comes to booking accommodation, organizing your food and gas and choosing your routes. South Africa, Namibia, and Botswana are the best destinations for self-drive safaris.