East Africa offers a wealth of immersively memorable safari experiences that allow you to adventures the region’s magnificent wilderness, immerse in its myriad rich cultures, and wash in its charm beyond the usual safari holidays.
From the majestic big game-drive adventures to encounters with intelligent apes in misty mountain forests, here are East Africa’s top safari experiences that should make your summer bucket list.
What is an Africa safari without a game drive to search for the Big 5 megafauna, Africa’s undisputed safari superstars? The top safari experience that eagerly attracts tourists on dawn and dusk game-viewing adventures on the East African savannah plains is to set eyes on the majestic big five beasts.
Colonial trophy hunters interestingly coined the term in the 1800s to represent animals considered most challenging and dangerous to hunt on foot; lion, leopard, elephant, African buffalo, and rhinoceros. Today tourists regard the Big 5 to be the most adventurous to hunt with a high-tech camera in the back of a four-by-four safari truck.
Some will argue that zebras, giraffes and kudu are prettier to watch than buffalo herds or that it’s simpler to find cheetah than the leopard. But glimpsing at any of the Big Five roaming wild and free on the savannah plains remains a mind-blowing thrill at the top of safari experiences on most travellers’ summer bucket lists.
Only a few national parks in East Africa still harbour all the five animals and assure an epic game-viewing experience on the safari trip. Each one offers a different safari experience, and the top of the list is Serengeti and Masai Mara, East Africa’s most adventurous safari destinations.
While you can see all the Big Five in the Serengeti-Mara ecosystem, the lion sightings are exceptional. The protected triangle supports one of the largest concentrations of lions on the continent, supported by large herds of buffalo, wildebeest, zebra, antelope, elephant, and rivalled large leopard and cheetah populations.
Other travellers would prefer to stay away from the crowded Serengeti-Mara. Nonetheless, an adventure in Mara bordering privately-owned conservancies promises epic bushwalk safari experiences. Although the conservancies don’t necessarily focus on seeing the Big Five, a walk with a Maasai warrior, looking for prints and droppings left by wild beasts, will leave you enthralled.
If the Mara-Serengeti is not for you, Tanzania’s Ngorongoro Crator offers equally breathtaking Big 5 safari experiences. Alternatively, going for the gorilla trekking adventure in the Virunga rainforests will bring you close to the low-key BIG Five adventures in Uganda’s Murchison Falls National Park or Rwanda’s Akagera National Park without leaving the country.
Few safari experiences can match stealthily trekking giant apes in misty mountain forests and then sitting silently 32 ft from a 400 pounds silverback mountain gorilla while watching over his family.
The chills of excitement that wash over your whole body after a long, sweaty scramble through the impenetrable as your guide ushers you quietly into the clearing to meet the dark-furred bodies against the greener will stay with you for a lifetime.
Gorilla trekking excursions of small groups of eight tourists head out in the early mornings, following the footsteps of a local expert tracker to find the gorillas as they have their mid-morning break. When you find the gorilla family, the rangers carefully guide you to find a comfortable spot a safe 10 meters away to watch our evolutionary relatives.
Hillocks of black fur protrude from the glossy greenery with swollen bellies. Above the drip-drip of the foliage come sporadic snores, soft grunts, and farts break the wind. You’ve never felt so alive in the stillness of the age-old jungle. You inch forward and reach for your camera.
Mountain gorillas live in two small isolated locations in East Africa, and they are endangered, with a little more than 1000 individuals surviving in the cold mountains at between 8,000 to 13,000 feet. Some of the mountain gorillas are confined to the Virunga Mountain, a cluster of forested volcanoes straddling the Rwanda, Uganda and DRC borders. Another half of the population roams around the rift valley mountains in Bwindi Impenetrable National Park located in Uganda.
Because we’re closely related to these intelligent apes, the energy drenching adventure up the mountains to spend a few moments with them is worth making your top summer bucket lits safari experiences.
You’re most likely to go gorilla trekking in Bwindi Impenetrable Forest, which charges $700 for a gorilla permit, or Rwanda’s luxury Volcanoes National Park for $1,500 apiece. Gorilla permits hike the price of the gorilla safari and are very scarce; book your permit months in advance through a trusted local operator like Nkuringo Safari, which manages a fleet of safari 4x4s and a vacation property outside the park. That way, you avoid the local logistics and have an expert handle your entire journey.
Gorilla trekking is not for the feeble strength. Hiking in the dense rainforest undergrowth at high altitudes and on steep, slippery trails will soon have you footsore, muddy and exhausted. However, tantalising clues of steamy droppings, broken twigs and fresh spoor will fuel your excitement to find the big beats.
What brings gorilla trekking to the top of your safari experiences summer bucket-list is the fact that nothing can ever prepare you for the intensity of the encounter with the male silverback in his domain. Many leave in tears of joy, having felt an evolutionary “connection”. While such ideas may be frivolous, there is no denying that sitting among the wild apes, meeting those primitive, intelligent eyes in a face that appears to reflect your own, is an out-of-this-world experience.
The Serengeti-Mara golden plains are undoubtedly the best place to watch the BIG Five, but the most spectacular on its inhabitants are the white-goateed wildebeest. Every year, a timeless drama with a pervasive smell of fear and the instinct to stay alive plays out on these plains, attracting swarms of summer holiday travellers. Of all safari experiences on the East African savannah plain, the Great Migration is only equalled by the Big Five adventures.
This story begins in East Africa’s Great Rift Valley, where the continent is tearing itself apart and being reborn. As the summer reaches its zenith, the Serengeti plains in the Rift Valley’s shadow are threaded with a path of the millions on the move in a constant burning search for fresh grass. Every year, a million wildebeests and more than two hundred thousand zebras, flanked by myriad predators, chase the seasonal rains in a 300,000-mile loop around Kenya and Tanzania, performing an ancient dance that sweeps across the savannah.
The sound of 8,000 hooves coming down on their greatest obstacle, the Mara and Grumeti Rivers, thundering rumble is electrifying. Funnelling down a sheer, dusty drop on the riverbank, the herd roars into the water, tearing at the soil and rupturing trees from their very roots. Locked densely together, this tangle of curled horns elegantly sinks and swirls like a group of debutantes performing a ballroom waltz.
In this harsh gnu drama, even predators are predated. Fierce predators like lions, hyenas, cheetahs and crocodiles blend in the ruckus, taking advantage of the readily served meals.
If you’re hoping to catch the best Great Migration safari experiences, book one of Serengeti’s famous mobile safari camps erected three times a year at selected spots to capture the best sights of the ungulates’ movements.
The best of the bunch is Serengeti Safari Camp and & Beyond’s Serengeti Under Canvas. Others include Asilia’s Olakira, Alex Walker’s Serian, and Ubuntu Camp operating between July to November and December through March.
The Great Migration is a year-round East Africa safari experience. Your best safari experiences of the spectacle will be on the Mara River and Sand River crossings from July until early November. February is calving season; the gnu herds move south to the southeastern Serengeti plains. The herds then move north and arrive in the Grumeti area from May.
Walking in untamed East African jungles with boisterous social chimpanzees on foot is one of the most thrilling safari experiences that should feature on your next summer bucket list. Speedy, agile and vocal, chimpanzee trekking will keep you on your toes as you follow them foraging, hunting, squabbling, fornicating, and grooming.
Realistically, watching chimpanzees in the wild is only possible where researchers have habituated troops to human observers, including in Uganda’s Kibale Forest, Tanzania’s Mahale Mountains, and Rwanda’s Nyungwe Forest.
But, your most adventurous safari experience with chimpanzees will be in Kibale Forest National Park in Uganda, home to five human-habituated troops within easy walking distance.
The graciously remote Mahale Mountains, with its toes on the pristine beach of Lake Tanganyika, is draped in the luxuriant rainforest, where tracking wild chimpanzees is one of the most stimulating adventure experiences. Mahale is only accessible by boat, which adds to the thrill.
We have a deep, intrinsic attraction to primates like chimps that go beyond opposable thumbs’ mutual owning. Like people, chimps maintain intense relationships through sophisticated social behaviour. They’re fascinating because they appear so human in so many ways. Yet, it’s also the subtle differences we find irresistible. You can’t predict what they’re going to do when walking side-by-side deep in the jungle.
Chimpanzee trekking excursions occur in the mornings and afternoons and typically last 3-4 hours, with up to one hour spent with the chimps. The cost of the chimp tracking permit is $200 per person in Kibale, $100 in Mahale and $90 in Nyungwe.
If wrapping your chimp watching experience with an hour isn’t feasible for you, Kibale offers a chimpanzee habituation experience in southwestern Uganda. Here, you can spend the whole day following a troop currently undergoing the two-year habituation process for $250 apiece.
However, you have to be prepared for a fair bit of swift walking to keep up with the cheezy chimps. Nonetheless, the adventure experience will be worth it for the rewards of a more intimate encounter.
Nkuringo Safaris manages tailor-made chimpanzee safaris that combine well with gorilla trekking adventures in Uganda and Rwanda, two of East Africa’s most enthralling safari experiences on the same trip. You get into the country and spend a night in Entebbe or Kigali, then travel to a safari lodge just outside the park and adventure into the chimp park the following day. You could track gorillas the next day and be on the savannah plains the day after.
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Mobile camping remains a popular safari experience because of its winning combination of an authentic, remote, off-the-beaten-track safari adventure set in some of Africa’s wildest destinations.
Instead of staying in permanent camps and lodges, you stay in a tented camp on the go. Your safari outfitter erects the camp where they expect the best game-viewing safari experiences in private concessions, national parks, and game reserves, moving by road or air every few days to a new location.
Mobile safari camping takes you back to the classic safari basics when trophy hunters explored the deep wilderness for weeks—sleeping in small tents, eating under the stars, pitching in with day-to-day chores and leaving no trace, aside from their footprints.
First-time safari-adventurers will be a little intimidated by the idea of non-permanent tented camps in the wilderness, citing security and comfort concerns. Mobile camps have all the luxury creature comforts you would expect of any lodge and are safe from animal attacks.
An entire crew builds the camp, consisting of large dome tents with camp beds and duvets. A small bedside table provides space for your book and torch. Basic en suite facilities are provided; a canvas basin of water, en suite bush loo and bucket shower will be filled with hot water when you return from game drives.
Mobile safaris are life-changing safari experiences that should be on your summer bucket list adventures this year.
Experience East Africa’s enchanting wilderness from a bird’s eye view, floating silently over the vast grasslands and wetlands in a hot air balloon. Early morning balloon safari experiences are an extraordinary opportunity to relish the exceptional sweeping plains away from the dust and bumps of four-by-four trucks.
Tiny little dots rove across the diverse landscape as you fly over the most magnificent view of dramatically black and white striped zebra, swaggering elephants straying to a waterhole, wiry warthogs foraging in the grassy scrubs and subtle swishes of puffed golden-tails reveal lions floundering under shady trees.
Gently swerve through the air, and your eye darts to every possible corner. Euphoric on adrenalin, this stunning approach to absorbing the home of the wild things is indeed a profound summer adventure experience, where very little can hide from your bird’s eye view.
At dawn, rise as the sun peeps out over the golden savannah plains and float in whichever direction the morning winds take you. Your balloon pilot will control the altitude of your balloon, occasionally flying at treetop or lower heights to offer unique sightings and incredible photo opportunities of the wildlife below.
When the real adventure excitement kicks in, you will probably ascend to 1000 ft or more to see the vast magnificence and spectacular panorama of East Africa’s wilderness. The tranquil silences between the ballon’s engine burns are something to savour—for everything quiets down to bird-song silences, and the crisp breeze washes years of worry off your face as you gently float to emotional heaven.
The best hot air balloon safari experiences for your summer bucket list will occur in the Serengeti and Masai Mara, and a one-hour trip will cost about $400 to $600 per person, depending on your base camp.
Balloon excursions usually set off at dawn, about 0530, and carry between 4 to 16 people. Usually, the price includes a transfer from your safari camp and a hot breakfast at balloon touchdown.
Uganda offers a cheaper low-key balloon safari experience in Murchison Falls National Park for about $380 per person. It’s an excellent opportunity for those visiting the gorilla trekking destination and hoping the watch the Big Five.
You might have seen elegant pictures of the Maasai in National Geographic magazines or coffee table books – tall, dark and crimson-clad, squinting into the sun or leaping high off the ground. While most East Africa’s ethnic groups have evolved to modern lifestyles and moved to overpopulated cities, the Maasai maintain their time-honoured way of life—living off their cattle, migrating with the seasons and maintaining ancient customs and social structures.
It is entirely possible to hike for hours, or even days, across wildlife-filled savannahs with a Maasai warrior as your companion. The point of the bushwalk safari experience is not so much the walk itself but rather the opportunity to enrich your cultural experiences by knowing the Maasai people and their culture and how they harmoniously live in the wilderness.
A bushwalking adventure with the Maasai is one of East Africa’s top cultural safari experiences that transports you back into the evolution of human cultures and gives you a very much appreciation of a simpler way of living and a new perspective on humanity.
These walks are available in private concessions at Loita Hills just east of the Masai Mara and across Kenya’s vast Tarangire National Park plains.
You’ll most likely find Masai guides at most safari camps and lodges at guides, not only for their fascinating stories but also for security, as they know these lands and the animals’ behaviour better than any westerner. You can arrange half-day bushwalking safari experiences with your tour operator or through the reserves and Masailand conservancies.
Nothing beats walking barefoot on the white-sand beaches of Zanzibar after those active, adventurous safari experiences in East Africa’s wilderness. Resounding the name is as evocative and almost aromatic as the spices that made this Indian Ocean archipelago historical holiday attraction. Zanzibar islands feature ancient Omani architecture, vibrant Islam-informed cultures, and the purest white sand beaches.
Make sure you check out Stone Town, aka Mji Mkongwe, for a historical picture, sound, feel, taste, and smell of East Africa’s old Swahili trading towns. With soothing adhān Islamic calls to prayer saturating the air and atmospheric winding old alleys fragrant with spices at every turn, this settlement is the heart and soul of the island, perfect for a solo or couple’s slothful tour.
Admire elegant stone buildings, sip chai and coffee from cheerful vendors, and eat fresh fish dinners laced with coconut. Stone Town mixes Persian, Arabic, Indian and European heritage to create glamorous safari experiences for summer bucket lits travellers.
If you’re the kind of summer traveller that enjoys sinking your toes into coral sands as pure and pale as caster sugar, then you must stay Nungwi, on the northwestern tip of Zanzibar. Check out DoubleTree Resort by Hilton. Amazingly, the place has a few lodges immersed in tropical gardens, beach cottages and sea-view restaurants with few tourists’ crowds and casual islanders.
The Swahili island has water sports for the summer adventurers. Other holiday safari experiences that you’ll find include sundown cruises and deep-sea fishing excursions in search of leaping sailfish and mean-looking bull dorado.
Zanzibar hotel prices range from about $180 per person at an excellent beach hotel such as Pongwe to $500 per person at one of Xanadu’s private villas.
If you don’t want to leave the East African mainland but still want the beach holiday comforts after your inland safari experiences, check out Tanzania’s mainland coast. One such is Rus Kutani—which we think is the ultimate honeymoon spot and one of our firm favourites of $400 per person per night.