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Comparing Safaris – Same Same, but Different

Chad Cocking | A Week In Pictures

I have been back at work for almost three weeks now, and my time in Kenya is already starting to feel like a distant memory.  My trip has come up in discussions with my guests on several occasions during the past few weeks when they ask about how different the safari experience is in East Africa. I thought that it may be worth sharing my personal opinions about these differences in a blog.

Now let me begin by saying that if you have never done a safari before, almost all safari experiences are going to leave you speechless.  Many people only ever get to see Africa’s wildlife in zoos or whilst watching documentaries about the wilds of Africa, so when they eventually arrive on this special continent and get to see these iconic creatures with their own eyes – and living in their natural environments – it is incredibly overwhelming, irrespective of where one gets to experience it.

Across Africa, most safaris are based around the same basic model, and in most of East and Southern Africa’s iconic reserves, guests will get to see the same kinds of wildlife.  Yet despite these similarities, the safari experiences are notably different.  For the purpose of this blog, the difference in the safari experience is based on the actual game drives, the landscapes and the game viewing as opposed to the levels of luxury, service and quality of the cuisine at the various camps and lodges.  Now these latter elements do make a big difference to the enjoyment of ones’ safari experience but are greatly affected by budget and person preferences.  Luckily, the animals don’t know what we pay to see them so treat all of us as equals!

For many people that have yet to visit Africa, an idea has been planted in their minds of vast wide-open plains dotted with the occasional flat-topped acacia tree poking out above a sea of golden grasses.  And this is indeed the very scenes that greet people visiting the grasslands of East Africa’s Serengeti and Maasai Mara ecosystem.  With its open scenery and abundance of wildlife, it is the ideal place for film-makers to make the documentaries that are brought to people across the globe.  With this expectation in mind, some guests are quite surprised to see just how many trees and bushes we have in the Greater Kruger’s woodland savannah ecosystem.  These differing environments do play host to unique species in each habitat type, but many of the species – like lions, cheetahs, leopards, buffalos, giraffes and elephants to name a few – can be found in both Eastern and Southern Africa.  For me, these differing habitats alter how one sets about in search of the game, and it gives a tangibly different feeling to the safari.

With uninterrupted views in east Africa’s grasslands, big game can often be spotted literally miles away – elephant and buffalo herds can be seen grazing on the distant horizons with ease.  Lions and cheetahs stand out as they sit atop the numerous termite mounds, and if they have moved to taller grassy areas, the presence of a few safari vehicles usually alerts one to the presence of a high-profile sighting.

This is great for game viewing, and a dream for wildlife photographers, especially after the migratory herds have moved through the area and mowed the tall grasses down to the length of a well-trimmed lawn,  that is not easily replicated in the Kruger Park.  For me though, what makes the South African safari exciting is the element of surprise.  With the wooded nature of the Greater Kruger’s savannahs, visibility is much reduced compared to East Africa, but this translates into a feeling of suspense as one has no idea what could be waiting around the next corner, behind the next bush, or resting under a tree only a hundred metres away.  As a guide here, it is this feeling that keeps me excited for the entire duration of a drive – just not knowing what to expect!  This is seldom truer than when your tracker – something not used in East Africa – is following fresh tracks for a pride of lions in the early morning, knowing that they could be popping into view at any minute…and if not this minute, then maybe the next!  Having spoken to many guests over the years that have experienced both safaris, it appears that is clearly not just me that feels that this is a special element of a South African safari.

And yes, while the presence of bushes and trees can make photographing animals with clean, uniform backgrounds more challenging, there are certainly no shortage of photographic opportunities when on safari here.  One of the major benefits of doing a safari in a private game reserve such as here in the Timbavati is that the guides can drive off road and get much closer to Big 5 and other high-profile species than one can in the national parks of both Southern and East Africa.  This allows guides to position the vehicle for the best photographic opportunities, as well as to sensitively follow animals as they go about their business without much regard for our presence.  With less flexibility, when visiting national reserves such as the Serengeti guests must hope that the game is found close to the roads to get better viewing and photographic breaks.

Another benefit of visiting private reserves as opposed to national parks in either of the regions is that the guides limit the number of vehicles viewing the animals to only two – or occasionally three – vehicles at a time.  This gives guests the chance to enjoy a far more intimate experience with the animals, and not to feel like they are sitting in a traffic jam as can occur in some instances in national parks – I have experienced this with more than 40 vehicles vying to see a lion!  On the open plains of East Africa one can often see vehicles – even if they are far away – due to the open nature of the landscapes.  In a place like Tanda Tula, not only are we not overrun with vehicles, but due to the cover provided by the trees, it does mean that we do not see too many other game viewers whilst out on safari, and that contributes a great deal to the feeling of solitude when out exploring these beautiful landscapes.

While east Africa might have more safari vehicles that Kruger’s private concessions, they do also undoubtedly have more animals.  The massive herds of zebra and wildebeest that abound are always a sight to behold, but in some ways, this almost becomes a negative aspect as one quickly becomes blasé about seeing them – hey, we sometimes feel the same way about impalas or elephants here when we see them so often.  At Tanda Tula, we still get excited about stopping to watch our herds of zebras and wildebeest herds each drive, and it is here that the level of guiding skills found at such camps also becomes invaluable, as guides don’t just seek to share facts, but rather act as interpreters of the scenes in front of the guests and allow them to gain a better understanding of the interconnections of the entire natural system that they are observing.

So, as you can see, the experiences between safari’s in South Africa and east Africa are different – subtle, but still distinctive.  Neither one better than the other, they are just different.  I am a Kruger-boy through and through and will always be biased towards my home in the Timbavati and the 3,5 million hectares of wilderness that surround it.  I still love visiting East Africa and will hopefully continue to do so for many years to come.  The great thing about any of those trips is that at least I know I am always flying back home to Tanda Tula, and that is well worth getting excited about!

Now we hope you will come and experience a Tanda Tula safari for yourself in the near future!

Until next time…

Cheers

Chad

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