With chances to see the Big Five, stunning landscapes, walking tours and a whole host of other activities at both national parks, it can be hard to choose where to visit. Which is best? Let's find out...
Famous for: Its indigenous Maasai tribe and the Great Wilderbeest Migration
Number of mammal species: Over 95
Where: South Africa
Famous for: Its rhino conservation research and vastness
Number of mammal species: 147
See the Big Five (lion, leopard, rhinoceros, elephant and Cape buffalo) in Kenya’s Masai Mara National Reserve. Head to Paradise Plain and Leopard Gorge for the big cats, or catch the Great Migration (July to September) when huge herds of wildebeest, zebra and antelope cross the crocodile-infested Mara river.
South Africa’s Kruger National Park is another Big Five reserve, with elephants the prize sighting – there are an estimated 17,000 here. Park conservation research efforts mean you might spot a few shy rhino hiding in the bush, too. What’s more, this is a bird-watching hotspot with over 500 species stalking the skies.
The Masai Mara is a photographer’s dream: vast green plains, blazing orange sunsets and starry skies, all brought to life by the wildlife. To the south-west, the Mara Triangle overlooks miles of open grassland. There’s also the sky-scraping Ngama Hills to the east, the Oloololo Escarpment to the west and the lands around the Mara river.
Spanning 19,000km², the Kruger is by far the bigger reserve, spanning bushveld, mountains and savannah. It can also be done a bit cheaper (if you choose), with paved roads for self-drive trips and cheap government rest camps shrinking budgets. Olifants Rest Camp even peers over its own stretch of river, luring in thirsty elephants.
Avoid the crowds by visiting in the low season – from April to June you’ll usually find fewer people and better rates.
Maasai-guided walking tours and treks on horseback all take place in the private land just outside the reserve. The main draws inside are daytime-only game drives, which are more than enough to thrill wildlife watchers. Alternatively, rise above it all and book a hot-air-balloon sunrise safari at Keekorok, the Mara’s oldest lodge.
Kruger is one of few parks to allow walking safaris within its fences, and strolling with rhinos is not easily forgotten. Even more unique are the bike trails at Olifants, which let you pedal the wilderness while guides reveal the fauna and flora you’d whizz past in a car. Be sure to also take a trip west to the waterfalls of Blyde River Canyon.
Private tracts of land, rented from the Maasai people, fringe the reserve. Known as conservancies, they usually offer better wildlife encounters, night drives and fewer crowds, but at a cost. Most also strictly limit the number of guests, with camps like Mara North’s Kicheche offering walks and wild camping deep in the remote bush.
Kruger is no different, and conservancies there showcase a whole other side to the area and its wildlife. For example, the exclusive Sabi Sand Game Reserve, a conglomeration of smaller private reserves with rather strict borders, is well known for its sightings, and is one of the best places to spot leopards in Africa.
Unbeatable views of iconic predators in the wild– what more can you ask of an African safari? If the Masai Mara has an edge in terms of spectacle (little beats the Great Migration), you’re also reliant on the camps.
The Kruger and its vast sprawl is no less impressive but also allows for more freedom with self-drives and some budget stays.
Neither of these epic stages for the world’s greatest dramas are going to disappoint, so get your cameras and bins at the ready…
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