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East Africa: First Timers Guide

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East Africa is one of the most diverse geographical regions in Africa. Its home to Mount Kilimanjaro -Africa’s highest mountain range, Lake Victoria- Africa’s largest fresh water lake and its tropical Ssese islands, source of the Nile -the world’s longest river, the Great East African and Albertine rift valleys, huge plains of lush savanna grasslands, semi-arid deserts, tropical forests, volcanoes, glaciers, Indian Ocean beaches and islands, unique culture and wildlife including big five mammals and great apes – the mountain gorillas and chimpanzees.

A safari through East Africa is a life changing journey through one of Africa’s fascinating regions.

Destination East Africa is made up of Uganda, Kenya, Rwanda and Tanzania which are the top safari destinations. Each country offers the opportunity to have an authentic African safari experience with great wildlife encounters, culture and adventure.

For the first time traveler, it’s important to understand what each country has to offer while planning an East African safari. It’s easy to decide where to go with advice from an expert tour operator to guide you on planning a travel itinerary.

Finding the best destination for your East African safari depends on a number of things. But one thing for sure is high safety and security for tourists due to the economic and political cooperation of East African community. All East African destinations, Uganda, Rwanda, Kenya and Tanzania are safe for tourists.

What do you like to do on your East African safari? Primate tracking (gorillas and chimpanzees), big five safaris, witnessing wildebeest migration, white water rafting, mountain climbing just name it. Once you figure out what you want to do and the travel time then it becomes very easy to plan an itinerary that will fulfill your interests and budget.

In East Africa, traveling on safari is generally done on the road covering long distances and spending some time in the vehicle. Fly-in-safaris by charter planes are expensive.

Uganda, Rwanda and Kenya enjoy a joint tourism visa. If you have plans of visiting multiple countries in East Africa, the East African single tourist visa makes it easier for tourists to gain free entry and exit between the three countries. Take note that Tanzania is not part of the east African single visa.

Important tips for first timer’s visitors

Plan in advance

One of the most important tips or visiting east Africa for the first time is to plan at least 3-5 months in advance. Regardless of the destination you wish to visit, be sure to find a registered tour operator to organize a tailor made trip. However that’s not to say you can’t self-drive. If you are really planning a self-drive safari, then you should deal particularly with a car rental company that specializes in self-drive holidays instead of a general tour company.

What to pack

Bring clothes and accessories depending on the activities, while keeping your luggage light. Your clothes should also be easy to dry when washed and does not need ironing since most lodges use solar energy or generator. While many parts of East Africa are hot, don’t underestimate how cold it can be in the rain forests. For jungle adventures like gorilla tracking in the mist covered Bwindi and chimpanzee tracking in Kibale, Nyungwe or Gombe stream you will need hiking boots, long pants and sleeved shirts/ T-shirts, rain jacket for walks in the dense rain forests like Bwindi and Kibale. You need essentials like mosquito repellent, sweater and sunscreen. If you are on honeymoon beach activities or swimming pools, you will need swimsuits. Don’t forget that east Africa has cosmopolitan cities that need decent clothes especially if you are going for city tours, or venues like theaters, museums. Visitors can find craft shops where to shop for crafts and souvenirs.

There’s much more to do than wildlife safaris

Although the wildlife viewing national parks like Serengeti and Masai mara, top most visitors bucket list, there are other adventures to try even on budget. For instance chimpanzee tracking in Uganda, honeymoon vacation in Zanzibar, Lake Victoria Sesse islands, hiking Virunga volcanoes in Uganda and Rwanda, visiting local communities such as Batwa pygmies and Masai among others.

Tanzania and Kenya

Tanzania and Kenya are home to classic savannah wilderness parks offering wildlife viewing especially big five safaris and wildebeest migration which is found nowhere else on earth. Top destinations the greatest wildlife spectacle on earth – witness wildebeest are Masai Mara wildlife reserve in Kenya and Serengeti national park Tanzania.

The two countries lie on the coast of the Indian Ocean with beautiful beaches and islands such as Zanzibar islands off the coast of Tanzania and Mombasa in Kenya. Both places offer a classic combination of wildlife viewing, relaxation, honeymoon and water sports such as diving, snorkeling and surfing.

Shorter and longer itineraries can combine both Kenya and Tanzania since the two countries’ borders are joined together by the serengeti ecosystem. If you have one week itinerary for example, you could spend 4 days in Kenya and go all the way to Tanzania. However visitors can dedicate an itinerary exploring one country at the time.

Kenya

Kenya is an incredible country for wildlife safaris due to a greater number of about 45 national parks and several other reserves. Southwestern part of Kenya is the most popular safari region. It includes Lake Nakuru famous for flamingos and Masai mara wildlife reserve which offers a chance to witness wildebeest migration between August and October and spot the five mammals: lion, leopard, rhino, buffalo and elephant. There are fantastic short tours of 2-4 days for mara and nakuru. Though it all depends on what you want to see.

With a number of other parks to add on such as, Sambulu national reserve, Lake Amboseli, Lake Naivasha, Tsavo national park, travelers have plenty of wildlife safari options to explore Kenya’s natural wonders.

In addition to wildlife safaris, Kenya has hiking and trekking opportunities. The country’s tallest mountain Mount Kenya at 5199 meters above sea level,

After enjoying game viewing safari in the parks, the beautiful beaches in Mombasa along the coast of Indian Ocean is an ideal place to enjoy and relax your safari.

Kenya is also packed with exciting cultural experiences. Visit the traditional masai warriors who have an ancient culture rooted deep into cattle keeping life. lamu islands and diani beach resort offer a taste of Kenyan Swahili culture.

Its tourism infrastructure is well developed with the capital Nairobi being the hub of East Africa.

Tanzania

Tanzania is a wildlife hotspot in East Africa and home to great wildebeest migration, big five animals and chimpanzees. Besides wildlife, Tanzania safari highlights also include the ancient Olduvai Gorge an archeological site where fossils of the oldest humans were discovered, the 8th wonder of the world– Ngorongoro crater, the world’s largest un-flooded caldera, and the Zanzibar islands off the coast in the Indian Ocean. Tanzania offers a combination of beach and bush. Africa’s highest mountain, Mount Kilimanjaro is breathtaking and a paradise for hikers.

Tanzania is large and divided into three safari circuits which give a clear picture of where to go on safari.

The northern circuit is the most popular for visitors attracted to its wildebeest migration experience and big five safaris. It includes Serengeti national park, Ngorongoro conservation area, Lake Manyara national park, Tarangire and Arusha town where most visitors begin from. Visitors, who intend to explore the northern circuit, can either fly to Kilimanjaro airport or Arusha airport to begin their safari. Arusha town however makes a good starting point due to its close proximity to Arusha national park. An itinerary of 7 days for the entire circuit mostly starts in Arusha, to Lake Manyara or tarangire to Ngorongoro crater and ends in Serengeti. The route works great in reverse as well.

Visitors with special interest for instance witnessing the wildebeest migration, an itinerary of 3-4 days are enough to explore different sections of Serengeti national park for ultimate wildlife experience. Wildebeest migration is seen in Seronera valley central Serengeti national park during April to May. While in June the wildebeest can be seen crossing the crocodile infested Grummeti River.

The southern safari circuit

This circuit isn’t so much popular due to the fact the top attractions are in the north- big five and wildebeest. The southern circuit however offers diverse wildlife including the African wild dog which isn’t found in the north. Thus visitors go to southern circuit to try out different activities experiences like boat rides, walking safaris and experience a different part of Tanzania with less tourist crowds, diverse wildlife and landscapes.

It includes parks like Ruaha, Selous game reserve and Mikumi national park which are easier to access from Dar-es-Salaam city.

The western safari circuit

This circuit is unique from others, it offers chimpanzee tracking experience in Mahale Mountains and gombe stream national park. These parks are located in remote areas along the coast of Indian Ocean and accessible by charter flight and boat.

Uganda

Uganda, the pearl of Africa is a great choice to see Africa’s great apes; the mountain gorillas and the chimpanzees as well as enjoy savannah game viewing and white water rafting.

The country is located astride the equator (12 hours of the sun everyday) with warm tropical climate which is favorable for tourists. It’s a great destination you can visit anytime of the year, however there are two seasons to take note. The dry season (December to February and June to September) are the best months if you are planning to do wildlife activities like gorilla tracking. The rest of the months, April to May and October to November experience heavy rainfall thus it’s a low season for most travelers.

The country has 10 national parks and 13 wildlife reserves which provide habitat for diverse wildlife including over 1060 bird species and it’s truly a paradise for bird watching enthusiasts. Uganda also has the highest concentration of 13 species of primates including largest population of chimpanzee in Africa found in kibale forest national park.

Visitors can get very close to gorillas, particularly the habituated gorilla families in their natural habitat in Bwindi impenetrable forest national park which is home to 400 gorillas about half of the world’s mountain gorillas and in Mgahinga Gorilla National Park. Uganda’s affordable gorilla permits and large number of 17 habituated gorilla families makes it a better option over Rwanda when it comes to gorilla tracking safaris. However there’s much to see than gorillas.

Uganda is also home to source of the Nile world’s longest river which offers world class white water rafting and kayaking in Jinja city located about 80 km east of the capital Kampala.

With one week itinerary, it’s possible to explore the highlights of Uganda safaris including gorilla tracking in Bwindi or Mgahinga, chimpanzee tracking in kibale forest national park and game drives and boat cruise. The popular western Uganda safari circuit takes in Murchison falls national park, kibale forest national park for chimps and primates, Queen Elizabeth national park, Bwindi and Lake Mburo plus a bonus to chill and relax at Lake Bunyonyi.

Rwanda

Rwanda is fast developing into a high end tourism destination. Its modern infrastructure makes it easy to get around and even connect across borders to Uganda and DR Congo. For instance take advantage of arriving at Kigali and tracing gorillas in Uganda. It has a visa on arrival system for all travelers from around the world which makes it easy to travel for first time visitors.

Despite the fact that Rwanda has only four national parks, the country offer outstanding wildlife viewing experiences including mountain gorilla tracking, chimpanzee tracking, volcano hiking and wildlife safaris. The top destination for Rwanda is volcanoes national park, a habitat for endangered mountain gorillas. The park has 10 habituated gorilla families and offers high end gorilla tracking experience with a cost of a gorilla permit at $1500 per person. Besides gorilla tracking, visitors who do make it to volcanoes the rewards are great. There’s golden monkey tracking and the Virunga Volcanoes landscape is stunning and provides great hiking opportunities.

Another highlight of Rwandan safari is chimpanzees found in Nyungwe forest national park located in the southwest. Nyungwe forest national park provides chimpanzee tracking experience. Other highlights in the park are the canopy walks which allow visitor to walk on the suspension bridges between canopies where most of the 12 species of primates including stronghold of 300 black and white colobus monkeys can be spotted. There are also beautiful nature walks and hikes to waterfalls deep into Nyungwe forest you can discover its bird species over 400 recorded.

Away from the tropical forests and primates, is Akagera national park the only savanna park in Rwanda. The vast open and woodland savanna, rivers, lakes and wetlands, are home to huge herds of elephants, buffaloes and several species of antelopes, hippos, crocodiles and over 500 species of birds. It’s the only place to consider in Rwanda for game drive safaris.