Cheap African Safari you say?
Everybody dreams of going to East Africa and living the lion king fantasy we all had as children growing up. Turn on your television and you will see the vast plains of the Serengeti; its jumping wildebeests and yawning lions. It’s hard seeing this and thinking “I would love to go but it’s too expensive”. Well you’re not alone, most travelers believe that East African Safaris are only for the wealthy, but there are actually many ways to travel here and see all the big five (lion, elephant, leopard, rhino, giraffe); just like those bazooka-sized-camera touting, rich tourists do.
Flights to East Africa
Flights into East Africa are not cheap but if you fly from a hub you can greatly reduce prices; for example if you are flying from North America then Dubai and Frankfurt are your hubs that usually can offer discount flights if you book at the right time. Try using www.Kayak.com or www.skyscanner.com to find cheap flights to either of these hubs and then to Nairobi in Kenya or Dar Es Salaam (from Dar Es Salaam you must get a bus to Arusha) in Tanzania. You should check prices often as they can fluctuate greatly, but I always find that booking three months in advance is good for finding a discount and not ending up paying too much because of all the flights being fully booked. Once and awhile discount flights through London and Doha will also show up but I find the latter two are cheaper more frequently.
Choosing a country for your safari
There are two countries in East Africa that offer the quintessential safari experience let’s take a look at these and see what they have to offer.
Kenya: The tune of Lion King’s circle of life will be playing in your head as this is where East Africa’s most “authentic” safari expeditions take place. Kenya’s most popular parks Masai Mara and Amboseli are post card perfect image that you imagine. Masai Mara is very similar to the Serengeti in the scenery department, but it’s more heavily visited because of its proximity to Nairobi making it a cheaper option. Obviously not as good of an option because you’re sharing it with others. One interesting aspect to Masai Mara is that the Masai people are living within its borders and still live a very traditional life here; so making a cultural excursion here can add some diversity to your safari. The other place named here is Amboseli; which is also very close to Nairobi. Its draws are seeing hundreds of huge tusked elephants with the backdrop of Mt. Kilimanjaro. Amboseli can be an amazing budget choice and highly recommended to combine it with Masai Mara if you have time.
Tanzania: More than one third of this nation belongs to National wildlife reserve parks. Tanzania is also home to the Serengeti, Africa’s most famous park. But there are so many parks in Tanzania that choosing one can be difficult. For being on a budget purpose I recommend the Serengeti and Ngorongoro crater. First the Serengeti, a vast open savannah teeming with wildlife. The Serengeti is the most picturesque part of East Africa and offers a high chance of seeing all the big five and if you have the time and came during the right season then you have the chance of seeing one of Africa’s great wonders the Wildebeest Migration. The Serengeti happens to be far from Arusha, which is the safari town most people base themselves out of due to its close proximity to the parks. Serengeti’s distance and vast size is usually only visited by longer safaris booked by more expensive companies; but if you want that real African feeling experience this is where it is found. My next favourite park is the Ngorongoro crate. Ngorongoro is a large emerald green crater that cuts deep into the earth. Venture down into the centre of the crater and it reveals itself as a wildlife reserve ready to compete with any of Africa’s National Parks. Ngorongoro is exceptionally beautiful due to the massive forested crater walls that surround the park giving it a very unique feel to its geographical location. The odds of spotting wildlife here are incredibly high, as the park is not so big and the animals all cluster together near the few watering holes. Ngorongoro is very close to Arusha making it a great budget destination as it can be reached very easily.
Finding a company
In Nairobi and Arusha there are countless Safari/tour operators; some are legit and others are a bit sketchy. So how do you find a reliable tour operator at a good price? The best tip is to arrive in either Nairobi or Arusha a few days to a week before so you have the time on your side. Many budget and luxury safari operators are looking to fill that last spot in there jeep and are willing to drop the price more than half of the original price. Having time to look around will also give you the opportunity to decide whether the operator is legit or just a commission monger who will place you in a very unappealing Safari. When you arrive in these tour agencies they will often tell you that they offer great budget tours’ this usually includes being crammed into a van with 10 other tourists and sleeping in tents. In my opinion this is not a great option; not because of sleeping in tents, but because of the overcapacity packed van which will limit your time seeing animals and taking those must needed yawning lion photos. Do not take the first budget tour that you are offered; instead go to many agencies and tell them you are going to continue looking at other places. You will see how fast prices and the trip quality changes. By doing this in Kenya I paid 150 USD for a four day trip into the Masai Mara, we stayed in an expensive lodge and there was only one other person on the tour. We also had the entire jeep to ourselves. Another great tip is to check www.tripadvisor.com for reviews on some of these companies; this will help you sort out which a legit or not.
Which park to go to
Deciding on which park you will want to visit can be a very daunting decision. First think about what is important to you. Seeing the big five? Photographing the animals? Getting it as cheap as possible? After deciding on this you can begin to plan your safari and also which country you will be going to for that particular safari. As a general rule Tanzania is known to be cheaper then Kenya for safaris. This can however can change greatly due to the drop in tourism in Kenya because of political and security issues. The parks I have shown above will be categorized on a table like this. Photography being the chance of getting close up and personal with wildlife and taking photos of them in a perfect backdrop; Spotting wildlife is the chances of seeing the big five and a variety; Authentic experience is having a less crowded and real African safari feel to it and lastly the price.
African Safaris(1 - Being the worst, 5 - Being the best)
|Photography||Spotting Wildlife (Big 5)||Authentic Experience||Price|
I rated Serengeti between a four and five for spotting wildlife and photography because it can really depend on season.
Seasons and when to go on a safari
There are three distinct seasons here for visiting the parks each with their own pros and cons.
First is the dry season (July through September). The dry season is by far the most spectacular time to visit as the water is limited and animals tend to hang out near the watering holes making it easier to predict where they will be; chances of seeing the big five are very high. The dry season is when the Wildebeest migration happens, making it the time of year to witness a once in a lifetime experience. Because there is a high chance of seeing animals in the dry season; therefore the dry season brings MANY tourist and what comes with a huge amount of tourists? Sky rocketing prices; especially for the wildebeest migration. Prices can go for double and sometimes even more!
The second season is the Wet season (March through May), this is the most unappealing time to visit as the weather is usually very rainy and the animals can be very spread out due to the availability of watering holes. The plus side to visiting during this season is there tends to be not very many tourists; meaning that prices are at rock bottom and you usually won’t see any other tourists. If you are interested in seeing African birds this is the best time of year to bird watch.
The last season is the Shoulder Season (June through January). This is my favourite season to visit. Weather is a mix bag but gives the high chance of getting a discount tour, spotting wildlife and seeing fewer tourists. On the flip side there is also the chance for rainy weather, large amounts of bargain hunting tourists and not seeing much wildlife. The shoulder season is a bit of a gamble but if you plan it right you can end up on that luxury Serengeti tour for a fraction of the cost and see all the big five. So check out the seasons weather trends and prices before you go.
Camping or lodging
I am often asked the question whether I preferred camping or lodging. Both have their pros and cons. Camping allows you to experience Africa’s nature and sounds, you tend to be right there beside the laughing hyenas and grunting hippos. Camping also allows you to be more flexible as there are more campsites than lodges. The downside is that you have to face the elements. In the dry season you will usually be OK, but if there is a flash flood or rain you will have to suffer East Africa’s wrath.
Deciding to stay in a Lodge gives you that cover from the elements and usually offers a real African “feel” and delicious African food. The obvious downside is that lodges usually come at a high price. If you follow my advice you can sometimes get lodges very cheap; especially if you travel in the wet or shoulder seasons.
Other national parks
Besides the major National parks I have listed there are many other places; usually where very few tourists make it as they are not as well known. Here are a few to mention: