There’s something sublime and otherworldly about Africa’s eastern plains and savannas. This is nature at its most primordial—where animals still roam truly wild and where hundreds of native tribes live much as their ancestors did generations ago.
Expect to return from Africa a changed person. Once you have witnessed a cheetah crouched over its fallen prey or heard the quiet crunch of wild grass as zebras graze near your tent at night, you leave with a better understanding of how fragile, how hard fought, is man’s place atop the animal kingdom. Nor can you forget how giving, how warm, its people are, regardless of how much or how little they possess.
Tucked along the lower half of Africa’s eastern coast, Tanzania and Kenya offer a breathtaking diversity of animals, landscapes and cultures. The countries are home to more national parks and game reserves—some protecting tens of thousands of acres—than anywhere else on the planet.
Choose from the honey-colored grass plains of Serengeti National Park, where the annual migration of 1.5 million wildebeest takes place from December through March, plunge into the dense forests of Mahale Mountain and Gombe Stream national parks to observe large populations of chimpanzees, or explore the Ngorongoro’s volcanic crater, which sinks 2,001 feet/610 meters into the earth. Ngorongoro also has the densest population of lions, though they number only about 60.
As primal as the settings are, seeing Africa doesn’t mean you’ll be sleeping on the ground as the insect life tries to invade your mosquito netting from every angle—unless, of course, that’s how you like to travel.
A safari here can be taken in the lavish traditions of the European explorers, whose travel planning included amenities such as evening drinks in crystal glasses and fine linens on plush beds. Safaris can last as little as a few days or stretch to close to a month. Several tour groups offer “bespoke tours” that allow you to structure your trip to your liking.
As breathtaking and indulgent as high-end East Africa can be, navigating it is not for amateurs. Unlike many other parts of the world, you can’t merely choose a hotel and use it as a base to launch your own explorations. No visitors, except perhaps the most foolhardy, attempt to drive themselves around the Serengeti, casually befriend some Maasai cowherds or pop over to another lodge for dinner.
Instead, the top safaris and lodges are worlds unto themselves. The experience unfolds entirely from the place you stay: their guides and drivers, their schedules and their relationship with native communities. That’s why choosing the right one is paramount.
To begin your explorations, fly to Kilimanjaro International Airport (ICAO: HTKJ) or Arusha Airport (ICAO: HTAR) in Tanzania, or Jomo Kenyatta International Airport (ICAO: HKJK) in Nairobi, Kenya.
If you’re planning a longer stay, you’ll want to use a tour operator to plan your itinerary and logistics. Most safari-goers stay at multiple parks and camps, which involve short flights between them. Operators will introduce you to their personal connections and steer you safely toward the lodge or camp that’s your best fit.
Founded by third-generation Kenyans in 1966, Micato Safaris is still the luxury leader in the region. Explore Africa, another top choice for exclusive, adventurous offerings throughout the continent, can organize experiences like a private flight over Mount Kenya.
High-end safari operators will handle your transfers and guide you toward safe, comfortable hotels suited to your tastes, such as the design-forward Tribe Hotel in Nairobi. The Tribe is designed around a contemporary interpretation of traditional nomadic culture and has niceties like a spa, swimming pool and rooftop bar. Also consider the Arusha Coffee Lodge; its accommodations are on a working coffee farm in the rolling foothills below Mount Meru, a rugged, towering jewel in the heart of Arusha National Park.
Easily Accessible Wildlife Experiences
Nairobi offers two gentle introductions to Africa, and both can be done in a day.
The goal of Giraffe Manor, in a Nairobi suburb, is to get visitors up close to these strangely agile creatures. We mean close, as in a giraffe licking your face. The hotel portion occupies a beautiful 1930s-style manor whose “Out of Africa” romance is so profound that each of the 10 rooms is named for some aspect of author Karen Blixen’s life. But that’s not the draw here. What is: the resident Rothschild’s giraffes, who amble gracefully around the grounds, peer into guest-room windows and stretch their necks over to nibble off dinner plates at the rooftop lounge. At the adjacent educational center, guests can learn about the endangered animals and feed them for a brilliant photo-op. Guests are encouraged to place a pellet between their teeth, though visitors not looking to be kissed can use their hand. Nearby, the Daphne Sheldrick Elephant Orphanage offers tours to see baby pachyderms being raised—even bottle-fed—by humans.
Serengeti: Epic Migration
When most people think of East Africa, they think of massive herds of animals thundering across endless savannas. (Serengeti is in fact a native word for “endless plain.”)
The wildebeests share the 12,000-square-mile/31,080-square-kilometer area with a menagerie of wildlife, including lions, cheetahs, hippos, gazelles and, though small in size, the often-ferocious honey badger.
The zebras begin to play optical illusions as they stand in opposite-facing pairs, both for protection from predators and to swat flies from each other’s faces using their tails, and make for reliably charming photos. Safaris often will leave camp before sunrise or at dusk, hours when the animals are more active.
Smart operators will get you to an accommodation close to the action. For a different take on the landscape, book a sunrise flight with Serengeti Balloon Safaris, which ends with another quintessential African experience: champagne breakfast in the bush.
Maasai Mara: Vibrant Culture
Tanzania and Kenya are home to hundreds of tribes, none more well-known than the seminomadic Maasai. Some safaris include dinners with the Maasai, famous as warriors and cowherds, and often just as curious about their visitors as the visitors are about the Maasai.
Two of the best places to encounter the culture are in and around the Maasai Mara National Reserve in southwest Kenya and the Ngorongoro Conservation Area in Tanzania.
Another option is to book at a camp that has excellent community relations. Before Sir Richard Branson opened his Mahali Mzuri safari camp in 2013, he ingratiated himself so thoroughly that he was named an honorary Maasai in a late-night ceremony of dancing and revelry. That means Branson’s game trackers and guides are Maasai who grew up in the region and know the land better than anyone.
Ol Jogi Home: A Taste of the Billionaire Life
On the other end of the spectrum is the chance to live billionaire style. The Wildenstein family recently opened their home in Kenya’s Laikipia Plateau to the public. The lifestyle is lavish, but it also offers one of the most immersive African wildlife experiences to be had.
The private property spans 58,000 acres/23,472 hectares, meaning that 14 guests at the villa won’t see anyone else or be subject to the restrictions surrounding bush walks and night drives found in many parks and conservancies. Ol Jogi is also uniquely rich in wildlife, especially the severely endangered black rhino, thanks to the extensive conservation work done by Alec Wildenstein (grandson of Donald Wildenstein, the famous billionaire art dealer).
Spotting stalking lions and leaping gazelles in their natural habitat is exhilarating, but all that hot, dusty bumping around in Land Cruisers can be draining. Many visitors round out their vacation with a beach flop on Zanzibar or Lamu, but Tanzania’s inland options offer a more distinctive flavor of the country. Just outside the Ngorongoro Crater, Gibb’s Farm was established as a coffee farm in the 1920s. With 17 beautifully furnished cottages, an organic vegetable plot and gorgeously manicured flower gardens—not to mention striking views of the working coffee fields and the Ngorongoro Forest below—Gibb’s Farm is refined, intimate and possibly the most bucolic place in East Africa.
If soft, sandy beaches are your preferred way to end a trip, head for Lupita Island off western Tanzania. Nestled on Lake Tanganyika, the second-largest freshwater lake in the world (bonus: no salt in your eyes), Lupita is a private-island playground with 13 open-air African-inspired “cottages” starting at 1,600 square feet/149 square meters, and toys such as vintage telescopes, scuba gear and a helicopter to help you enjoy your stay.
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