East Africa Wildlife Safaris: Kenya, Uganda, DR Congo Gorillas

A close encounter with a giraffe at the Nairobi Giraffe Centre, Kenya, East Africa

Kenya’s Nairobi Giraffe Centre is one way to start an East African Safari with a close encounter. Giraffes eat by curling their tongues around something and pulling. This nosy beast took a fancy to the camera but might have had some difficulty digesting it.

East Africa Wildlife

East Africa is full of perfectly beastly animals going about their daily chores in huge parks. Millions of them, mooching and munching, fighting and fleeing, it’s all go in this animal kingdom. And East Africa’s hotspot is Kenya’s Maasai Mara (aka Masai) National Park, a brilliant place to watch wild things en masse that can’t be surpassed – except perhaps by Namibia’s Etosha National Park.

How to do an African safari

• Don’t stay in one of the big hotels. The Mara reserve encompasses almost 600 square miles of open grass plains, but in the east around Talek, Sekenani and Olumuna gates there are huge hotels and lodges that inevitably lead to equally huge convoys of Kombis and Toyotas trundling off in a long line in the morning, all looking for the same beasts at the same time.

• Do stay in the smaller camps which are usually tented camps rather than lodges and hotels. These can be found in the conservancies lining the park’s borders: Naboisho, Olare Orok, Mara North, Motorogi and Ol Kinyei. Private owners have done deals with the Maasai landowners and created relatively uninhabited wildernesses, where there is only one tent for every 700 acres.

• Crowds tend to gather around the relatively rare predators; as far as other wildlife is concerned – elephants, giraffe, zebra, wildebeest, hyenas and so on – there is no shortage of these so tourists can get a lot more space and sense of isolation even in busy game parks like Masai Mara and Serengeti, with an experienced and knowledgeable guide.

• A good guide (human, as opposed to book! ) is invaluable in any of East Africa’s game parks, leading you to dramatic scenes and rarer animals before the herds of camera-wallies arrive, as well as providing information and lifestyle snippets of the beasts you come across. This is definitely worth paying a premium for!

• The best guides plan the day to avoid crowds, heading out early and leaving sights when other vehicles arrive.

• Try to get away from the must-see Big Five mentality and appreciate the magnificent landscapes as well as birds, flowers and trees.

• Sometimes it’s better to go to more popular safari places where the animals are accustomed to human spectators and don’t flee at the sight of the first safari truck. You could find yourself, for example, on an expensive, personal safari in a remote location where there are not only fewer animals around but all of them run for their lives as soon as your wheels get within half a mile.

• If you are travelling individually or on a budget head for Nairobi (Kenya) or Arusha (Tanzania) and pick up a tour or wildlife-safari package there.

Why Uganda?

Confrontation between elephants and Land Rover in Uganda

Elephants face down our Land Rover in Uganda’s Queen Elizabeth National Park.

Best Uganda Wildlife

The main tourist wildlife reserve in Uganda is Queen Elizabeth National Park and claims to have one of the highest bio-diversity ratings in the world. It’s home to large numbers of hippopotami, elephants, leopards, lions and chimpanzees. A total of 95 species of mammal and over 500 species of birds. The area around Ishasha is famous for its tree-climbing lions, whose males sport black manes, a feature unique to the lions in this area.
The reserve, sometimes called ‘the Pearl of Africa’ is very picturesque, with volcanic craters, grassy plains, tropical forest and the Kazinga Channel.

East Africa weather

The climate in the elevated Mara-Serengeti plains which are at an altitude of 1, 500m-2, 200m (5, 000-7, 000ft), is generally mild and comfortable compared to the hot and humid coastal areas.
Sunshine is common throughout the year though it’s cooler during the night at higher elevations.

The best months to see East Africa wildlife are January – February and June – September, the dry months. January and February are hotter months and the grass will be shorter and wildlife therefore more visible (we went in January), while June to September is cooler. The huge migration of wildebeest, zebra and attendant carnivores from Serengeti north into the Maasai Mara takes place around July and August every year.

Avoid the rainy months of March-May and October-December, though the days are still warm. The plains get very muddy and difficult to tour, visibility is right off, high grass conceals animals and mosquitoes flourish.
The hottest period is February through March and the coolest is July through August, but temperatures on the plains normally stay at comfortable lows of 15C and highs of 30C.

Gorilla family chat, Virunga, DR Congo, East Africa

A gorilla family in a nest high in Virunga National Park, Democratic Republic of Congo, aka Zaire.

Virunga National Park is home to about 200 of the world’s remaining 790 Mountain Gorillas. A gorilla family can number from four to fifty individuals headed by a single dominant adult male known as the ‘Silverback’, a name derived from the grey hair that develops on a male’s back as it reaches adulthood.
The Silverback is responsible for protecting the family from predators or other threats, including solitary Silverbacks intent on claiming females as their own.
Some families contain more than one Silverback, but only one is dominant and that male alone is responsible for mating with the adult females of the group.

Why Kenya?

A lion pride eating a wildebeest on the Maasai Mara in Kenya, East Africa

A traditional breakfast of wildebeest tartare in the Maasai Mara (also Masai) National Reserve. Lions often eat gazelle, antelope and zebra when they must, but wildebeest sashimi provides a big, tasty meal for the whole pride without too much hassle. Good enough until the next unwary, cat loving photographer jumps down from a jeep.

Kenya Wildlife and Local Tribes

***Masai Mara. Huge, flat and loaded with beasts of every description, including herds of jeeps. This used to be the world’s best wildlife experience, then things fell apart under the local council but are now back on track under private management. The Mara is still on the receiving end of the million beast migration June-September, the ultimate wildlife experience? The Mara is a bad day’s drive from Nairobi, or an expensive flight.

**Samburu. Less visitors and more romance than the Mara, tho’ slightly less wildlife visible, especially predators. A day’s drive, or flight.

**Amboseli. A small park not far from Nairobi, with a backdrop of Mount Kilimanjaro and plenty of big game, it’s bound to be crowded.

**Tsavo West. The most scenic of the parks, with hills, a pretty oasis and a mass of hippos and crocs.

* Nairobi National Park. Only minutes from the town centre it has most of the must-see creatures except elephant.

**Nairobi Giraffe Centre at Langata, about 3 miles (5 kilometres) from the centre of Nairobi. It’s purpose is to protect the endangered Rothschild giraffe that is found only in the grasslands of East Africa.
The programme has had great success and resulted in the introduction of several breeding pairs of Rothschild Giraffe into Kenyan national parks.
The main attraction for visitors is hand feeding giraffes from a raised observation platform.
Nairobi also has a charity looking after orphaned baby elephants that tourists can visit, the Sheldrick Wildlife Trust.

A view of thosands of wildebeest in Serengeti Park waiting to migrate to Kenya, Tanzania, Africa

Zebra and wildbeeste massing in Tanzania’s Serengeti National Park before the annual migration to Kenya’s Maasai Mara. Photo by David Dennis.

Best Tanzania wildlife

Go North for teeming wildlife, grand scenery and tourist herds photo-grazing everywhere. The dream of a magical, remote safari experience may be killed stone dead if every time you get near something interesting – such as lions chowing down on a fresh wildebeest breakfast – a dozen open-top 4WDs screech up and jostle for pole-picture position. If you decide to go north, which you should, then go with expectations of a wildlife Grand Prix, factoring in thousands of animals pursued by tens of jeeps and you won’t be disappointed.

Go South for less animals, less tourists, worse roads, better ambience, more cost.

***Ngorongoro Conservation Area, a uniquely lush and picturesque volcanic bowl, the largest unbroken caldera in Africa, with its own micro-ecosystem of lakes and forests that attracts many species of animals, including the ‘Big Five’. However, due to Ngorongoro’s relatively small land area human overload may detract from the ambience. Most tourists get there via Arusha.

***Tarangire NP/CA, a massive, somewhat uncared-for game reserve encompassing both a National Park and a Conservation Area (CA), offers almost the number of animals as Serengeti or Ngorongoro but far less tourists and a fine river to boot, in the NP.
Tarangire’s three specialties are elephants, birds (more than any other Tanzanian park, best time for bird-watching is September-March) and baobab trees, those obese, alien and extremely photogenic trees that are not, in fact trees, but super-size succulents. Guided bush walks are offered in Tarangire CA.
Tarangire NP is best July-October, Tarangire CA is best December-March (migration time), also July-October.
Tourists can get there in two hours from Arusha.

**Selous Game Reserve, a well-organised space with varied safaris possible, including walking and boating. Only a limited section is open to tourists but the whole park is the size of Switzerland so that’s not a problem and the number of visitors is way less than up north, so the atmosphere is more exclusive.
The scenery around the Rufiji river is especially attractive and awash with hippo, elephant, zebra, lions and others; most lodges and tented camps lean towards luxury living. Best July-October, the dry season or January-February for bird watching. Get there from Dar es Salaam though roads are bad and flights are encouraged.

**Katavi NP, quiet, remote and undeveloped yet loaded with beasts and birds so Katavi is the place for those who really want to get away from the human hordes, though camps are limited in number and access difficult other than by plane. Best July-October (dry season).

**Ruaha NP, another excellent small park with as much wildlife as big northern reserves but a fraction of the visitors. Bush walks with an armed ranger are a feature of Ruaha. Best July-October (dry season).

Kenya vs Tanzania

Comparisons can be made between Kenya’s Masai Mara and neighbouring Tanzania’s massive Serengeti reserve that shares the same 10, 000 sq miles (25, 000 sq kms) eco-system, but most tourists who have done side-by-side safaris (including us) or traveled both in different years have concluded that Serengeti’s game viewing is good but the Maasai Mara’s is better, while the selection of camps and hotels is also a step up.
Basically if you have time left over from touring the Maasai Mara and want more sights you’re better off heading up to Kenya’s Samburu where the flora and fauna are markedly different.

The Migration

Wildebeest crossing a river from Tanzania into Kenya, Africa

Wildebeest crossing from Tanzania into Kenya. Photo by Eric Inafuku.

The migration’s massive wildlife event involves mainly wildebeest and zebra with accompanying predators as they shift from the drying plains of the Serengeti reserve in Tanzania to the sweet green grasslands of Kenya’s Mara plains between the months of June and August. This is the world’s biggest animal event and worth making a huge effort to see, though the costs are equally huge.

March-April in Kenya also sees a mini migration as 300, 000 zebra and wildebeest mooch away from the Loita Plains. It’s not as dramatic as the Serengeti migration but Rhino Ridge, Topi Plains and large areas of the Olare Orok Conservancy see quite thrilling massed hoofing

When to go there

Very best East Africa wildlife viewing: October-November when there are fewer tourists, the grass is short (best for game viewing) and the migration is still on. June-September is prime migration time but August-September is a particularly busy tourist time and sightings get uncomfortably crowded.
OK: December – February (so-so with small rains and low prices)
Worst: March-May (big rains, animals disperse and long grass conceals the action)

Share