Which country to choose for your first safari?

Africa for beginners

Elephants in the Mara Triangle in Kenya

(Last update: March 2024.) It’s one of those tasks, that seems impossible at first. You want to go on your first safari and have to select the perfect country in Africa… but there’s so many options! Kenya, Tanzania, South Africa, Botswana – those might be the first that come to mind. In this post we’ll share the gist of it for every country, that we visited so far (this will be amended whenever we visit a new country) to give you a first orientation.

Lion pride in the Maasai Mara in Kenya

So, you finally want to see wild lions with your own eyes?
Let’s see where you could go on your first safari.

Which country to choose for your first safari?

Namibia: Safaris, sand dunes & incredible landscapes

Why to go to Namibia for your first safari

Namibia was our first ever safari destination – that’s why it holds a special place in our hearts. The Etosha National Park is the most famous area within Namibia, but we preferred our experiences in the private game reserve of Erindi (a guided safari wins compared to a self drive for us). The bonus with Namibia is: It’s very safe & easy to travel (also independently – we rented a 4×4 for a road trip and drove everywhere ourselves including the desert). Namibia is also an affordable destination for your first safari. If you’re not sure a safari is for you, Namibia offers more than just safari experiences to discover. You can climb sand dunes, visit flamingo colonies or fly a hot air balloon over the world famous Sossusvlei. Namibia is also a photographer’s paradise because of its incredibly diverse landscapes!

Sossuvlei Namibia

Namibia is more than just a safari destination – there’s sand dunes & much more to discover!

Why not to go to Namibia for your first safari

There’s no good reason not to visit Namibia when it comes to safaris. From very affordable self-drive safaris with scenic camping spots to high end luxury lodges for fly-in safaris – Namibia has it all. If you drive yourself you might be challenged by the vastness of the country and long distances spent on the road, but you can always upgrade to flights and select fly-in camps (if money isn’t the issue 😉 ). We loved the road trip as the drives through the endless mars-like landscapes felt like a very remote adventure.

Check our guide for 3 weeks in Namibia!

Namibia Safari Destination

Namibia’s green season in April is particularly exciting!

Zambia: The real Africa – safaris off-the-beaten path

Why to go to Zambia for your first safari

Zambia was the second country we visited on a safari and it’s the polar opposite of Namibia. Zambia is truly off-the-beaten path, so you’ll be able to immerse yourself in true wilderness – often on your very own. There are a few of the very best National Parks (30% of Zambia is protected land!) – all brimming with wildlife and offering exquisite owner-run camps and lodges with truly personal service and expert guiding. Additional to the safari adventures you can (and should) also visit the mighty Victoria Falls – one of the seven natural wonders of the world. Zambia is also the birthplace of the walking safari, here you’ll really feel close to nature. Therefore Zambia is perfect if you are looking for an authentic wilderness adventure, that brings you back to the roots of Africa’s original and remote bush. We suggest to start your trip in Lower Zambezi National Park and then either combine South Luangwa National Park or Kafue National Park and the epic remote Busanga Plains.

Leopard in South Luangwa National Park Zambia

Seeing a leopard in the wild can come true in the South Luangwa National Park in Zambia.
It’s also dubbed the “Valley of the Leopard”.

Why not to go to Zambia for your first safari

While Zambia’s tourism industry isn’t as developed as in other safari destinations, there are already a multitude of different kinds of accommodations – from very basic fly-camps to luxurious lodges. Yet, they all have something in common: They aren’t cheap! That is down to many reasons, two of them being how remote everything is and also the taxation of experiences. So you might want to skip Zambia if you have a very tight budget. Park fees and internal flights can also add up in Zambia, but the investment is well worth it – you’re supporting the sustainable development of the tourism industry in a country that is still rather untouched. And you will have much more privacy and intimacy than in more developed safari destinations!

Check our 9 reasons why Zambia should be on your bucket list and our expert tips for a safari in Zambia!

Hippo in the Lower Zambezi National Park Zambia

Zambia’s  Lower Zambezi National Park alongside the Zambezi River offers unparalleled river safaris.

Botswana: Luxury safaris beyond comparison

Why to go to Botswana for your first safari

The third African country we visited on a safari was Botswana. Botswana is famous for its “high quality, low impact” tourism model. With a rather low volume of tourists they create a huge turnover – meaning, basically, it’s not cheap to travel through Botswana. You can easily spend 10.000 dollars per person for one week here, but we assure you it will be worth it! There are never any guarantees, but we had some of our most successful game drives in Chobe National Park and the Okavango Delta (seeing the much-sought-after lions, wild dogs and leopards nearly every day). Botswana also has the biggest elephant population of any African country. The wildlife is really plentiful in the North of Botswana, there are private concessions offering exclusive wildlife encounters – and you’ll be able to stay in some of the most amazing lodges in Africa. To top things off you can visit the iconic Makgadikgadi Pan and sleep out under the Milky Way, see the meerkat colonies and some of the world’s oldest Baobab tree giants.

andBeyond Sandibe in the Okavango Delta Botswana

Botswana doesn’t only offer wildlife encounters deluxe, but also some of the most incredible luxury lodges.

Why not to go to Botswana for your first safari

You will definitely spend more money in Botswana than in Namibia, but this will directly result in high conservation efforts, protected wildlife and natural resources and development of the country. Is it worth it? Yes, we believe it is! Alternatively Botswana also offers self-drive and camping options (attention: those need to be reserved well in advance due to the limited number!). We drove ourselves from Maun to the Makgadikgadi Pan after our safari in the Okavango Delta and loved this little road trip extension!

Read all about our 9 day Botswana itinerary here!

Elephants in Botswana's Chobe National Park

Nowhere you’ll be able to see as many elephants as in Botswana’s Chobe National Park.

Kenya: Africa in a nutshell

Why to go to Kenya for your first safari

Kenya is the fourth country we visited on a safari. Kenya is on top of the list for most first time safari-goers. It’s very safe and easy to travel and has a longstanding safari history and well-developed infrastructure. The Maasai Mara is one of the most iconic safari destinations in all of Africa and its landscapes served as backdrop to so many famous Africa movies. If you’re dreaming of “Out of Africa” style safaris, this is the right choice for you. On top you can easily combine a safari with a beach vacation as the coastline of Kenya offers some of the most pristine beaches. If you want to avoid the crowds (that are sometimes a bit notorious in the Maasai Mara) we recommend to opt for the Mara Triangle, Tsavo and the North of Kenya like Laikipia and Lewa.

Sunset in the Mara Triangle in KenyaThis is what Kenya is famous for – a scene like straight out of any Africa movie.

Why not to go to Kenya for your first safari

If you visit the Maasai Mara during the peak season (while the great migration with it’s millions of wildebeests from July to October) you might be disappointed by how many visitors and cars can be squeezed inside the national reserve. In fact it can get quite busy. We have only visited Kenya in the low season – once in January and once in March (both times during the COVID-19 pandemic) – and still were surrounded by 10 cars when we went to a leopard or lion sighting. Our guides told us that that’s in fact nothing and usually there can be up to 50 cars around if they spot a leopard or at the crossings at the Mara river. The Maasai Mara management is now planning to put new measures in place to restrict cars at a sighting and manage the flow of visitors better alongside increasing the park fees. It will be interesting to see how this will impact the experience. So if you visit Kenya make sure to be prepared for a less remote experience, or make sure to go off-the-beaten path in places like the North (Laikipia, Lewa) or to private concessions or opt for the Mara Triangle within the greater Maasai Mara reserve.

Read all about our 2 week Kenya itinerary!

The famous paradise tribe had 9 cubs this yearJanuary is baby season in the Maasai Mara!

Rwanda: From Big 5 to chimpanzee and gorilla trekking

Why to go to Rwanda for your first safari

Since the devastating genocide Rwanda went through an unprecedented transformation and is now a peaceful and plentiful country to travel to. The relatively small size of the country makes it easy to travel and cover different regions in a relatively short amount of time. For first time visitors you can check off the Big 5 during a safari in Akagera National Park, which is one of the most prominent example how a national park can go from depletion to ample wildlife through effective conservation and community involvement. And if you’re ready for more of an adventure you can then visit Nyungwe National Park to go chimpanzee trekking and Volcanoes National Park to trek with gorillas. Both experiences for a lifetime! And all within a relatively small country that’s easy to navigate by car.

Chimpanzee in Nyungwe National Park in Rwanda

Why not to go to Rwanda for your first safari

Many consider Rwanda a destination for more seasoned travellers, because it wasn’t as plentiful as neighbouring Tanzania with its Serengeti ecosystem. Yet, times are changing and Rwanda is catching up quickly. Akagera is thriving and slowly developing as an interesting Big 5 destination (tsetse flies aside) while Nyungwe and Volcanoes National Park are dotted with incredible local camps as well as luxury lodges. And with the repopulation of Akagera National Park and it’s status as Big 5 park you can now combine a classic plains safari with the jungle treks in one trip in one country, no border crossings or multi-country visas necessary. So the only reason against Rwanda can be the high prices for the gorilla trekking experience (think 1,500 USD per person just for the permit). Neighbouring Uganda offers a more affordable gorilla trekking option (at 700 USD permit prices).

Read all about our Rwanda itinerary!

Giraffes and zebras in Akagera National Park in Rwanda

Zimbabwe: Elephants encore

Why to go to Zimbabwe for your first safari

Zimbabwe was our sixth country to visit during a safari. Now we only had a glimpse of the country, as we only got to visit Hwange National Park. But generally speaking Zimbabwe offers some extraordinary National Parks and the political situation has also stabilised in recent years. Hwange National Park, renowned for its vast elephant herds and diverse wildlife, offers great game viewing opportunities and ethical safaris. The other drawing point for Zimbabwe is of course the Victoria Falls, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. We’ve seen the falls from both sides (Zambia and Zimbabwe) and can attest to their captivating magic (plus you can take microlight flights and river cruises here as well). Mana Pools National Park, with its unique riverine landscapes, promises unforgettable encounters with elephants who can stand on their hind legs and a chance to explore the Zambezi River up close (that park is still on our bucket list).

On safari in Hwange National Park in Zimbabwe - the elephant paradise

Why not to go to Zimbabwe for your first safari

Zimbabwe used to present challenges due to political instability and infrastructure limitations. We hope that this is changing and are seeing many signs that the country is on the right path, but of course there’s never a guarantee. Akin to Zambia it’s not advisable to go on a self-drive in Zimbabwe (especially not as a safari beginner). Due to the vast distances you have to book a few bush planes for an extended safari in Zimbabwe in different National Parks. Most visitors stick to Victoria Falls and if they venture out then to Zimbabwe’s “Riviera” at Kariba Dam, Matusadona and Mana Pools National Park – as a relatively easy circuit in the North of the country.

Read all about our ethical elephant safari in Hwange and tips from multiple visits of Victoria Falls!

On safari in Hwange National Park in Zimbabwe with African Bush Camps at Somalisa Camp and Somalisa Acacia

South Africa: The origins of safari tourism

Why to go to South Africa for your first safari

For many travelers, South Africa is the first choice when it comes to a safari. For us it was only the seventh country to visit during a safari and we also only stayed at a rather off-the-beaten-path game reserve called Phinda in the Kwazulu-Natal region (North of Durban). Knowing what we know now we understand why South Africa is such an easy choice. The country has a very established safari industry that dates back many generations. With a perfect blend of wilderness and convenience, South Africa basically is an easy introduction to the wonders of a safari. South Africa offers many options for Big 5 encounters in National Parks or privately owned game reserves, but that’s not all! Beyond safaris, South Africa boasts cultural richness, stunning landscapes like the Drakensberg Mountains and Cape Winelands, and vibrant cities such as Cape Town and Johannesburg. This makes it a great choice for a first safari, that you can combine with a road trip or a city visit.

On safari in Phinda Game Reserve in South Africa

Why not to go to South Africa for your first safari

There really aren’t any reasons why not to go on safari in South Africa if it’s your first trip. What many travellers might underestimate are the distances and the size of the country, so if you start in Cape Town it might be best to take a plane to go up to Kruger National Park, Durban or Johannesburg instead of driving (unless you are not pressed for time).

While its origins in hunting safaris are still tangible, there’s now a transition to ecotourism and photographic safaris, but it’s important to know that (trophy) hunting tourism is still prevalent. Yet, those two types of safaris are kept strictly separate, so you won’t be sharing a reserve with hunters if you’re only looking for non-violent encounters.

Poaching is still a huge problem in South Africa, so the lengths to which rangers and reserves have to go to protect especially rhinos is both sad and impressive. We even got to be part in a rhino dehorning mission of a black rhino, which is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity (as shocking and sad as it is at the same time). We believe it’s important to know that ecotourism is a great driver to secure wildlife and help fight poaching – so that’s a very valid reason to travel to South Africa and support game reserves like Phinda in their fight to secure the species.

Rhino dehorning during a safari in Phinda Game Reserve in South Africa

What’s next on our bucket list?

Of course there’s a couple of famous highlights, that we are yet to see and experience – from the Kruger National Park in South Africa to the great migration in the Serengeti. But we learned that venturing off-the-beaten path promises huge rewards when choosing a safari destination!

Mostly we dream about these experiences today:

  • Hiking through the jungle to visit the last remaining wild gorillas in Rwanda, Uganda or the DRC
  • Discover the conservation success story behind Zakouma National Park in Chad
  • See the last wild white lions of Timbavati in South Africa
  • Witness the great Zebra migration in the Makgadikgadi pan in Botswana
  • Experience the second largest wildebeest migration in the Liuwa Plain in Zambia
  • Stay at Naboisho Camp in the area with one of the highest lion concentrations in the world
  • Try out astro photography in the Sossusvlei Desert Lodge

What’s on your Africa bucket list?

A meerkat in the Makgadikgadi in Botswana

We hope you’re inspired to visit Africa and go on your first safari now. You can pin & save this post for later if you’re not 100% ready yet:

Which country to choose for your first safari - a beginner's guide to safari travellingWhich country to choose for your first safari - a beginner's guide to safari travelling

Stay tuned as we’re discovering more African countries and keep this post up to date while doing so!