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Watching animals in their natural habitat with the savanna air whistling past your ears is a heavenly experience.
That is why game drives, which started in the 1920s in Africa, are still the greatest tourist attraction to the continent. However, a perfect game drive is only as good as the park you drive through and the agency hosting you.
What is a Game Drive in Africa?
Most game drives are all about hours of watching and waiting. You may want to carry your cup of coffee or other time-passing drink while on the drive. Most of the animals that are seen in the open are warthogs, zebras, buffalo, elephants, ostriches, and giraffes.
The grazers will be there eating comfortably for hours, and it may be days before you see anything worth filming. So, as much as a game drive can be the experience of a lifetime, it is also a real test of your patience, not to mention the depth of your pockets.
Most agencies only advertise game drives without giving you details of what the experience actually feels like at the time of your trip. Most people on game drives don’t get to see all the Big Five as they hope when they book their trips.
This article delves into the details you should address with your agent to avoid flying to Africa to watch a bunch of zebras and wildebeest grazing peacefully with nothing to talk about when you go back home.
What You Need to Know About Game Drives in Africa
Africa is a vast continent, with game drives available in East, Central and Southern Africa. Game drives vary with the seasons because animals migrate and change their behavior depending on the availability of food and water.
The best animal reserves for game drives include South Africa’s Kruger, Botswana’s Okavango, Kenya’s Maasai Mara, and Zambia’s Luangwa. If you prefer monkeys and mountain gorillas, then Rwanda and Uganda are the places to go.
A single national reserve may be the size of a small country, so you need to look at the details about when your safari will happen and the lodges you will stay at. In addition, check the reviews for each before booking.
It is almost impossible to see everything you would love on a single-day Safari which is why you should book for different days and different hours of the day for your game drives or multiple whole-day game drives.
How Long Should a Game Drive in Africa Be?
We recommend a six-day trip to different parks, and even different countries, if possible because it allows you to combine more activities and experiences in one trip.
For a beginner, the best place to go for your drive is East or South Africa. These are the original homes of game drives with the best lodges, some nearly 100 years old.
In this article, we will focus on East Africa because that is where most of the magic happens all year round. Plus, we have first-hand experience of everything that happens on the drives at different times of the year.
Kenya and Tanzania are along the equator which means you can go for game drives at any time of the year. Kenya is the most easily accessible Safari destination in East Africa. There are direct flights to Nairobi and Mombasa by most major airlines from the US, Europe and the Middle East.
From Nairobi and Mombasa, you also find a host of local chartered flights to and from the game reserves, as well as to Tanzania.
Top Game Drive Destinations in Kenya
The Maasai Mara
The Mara is the pride of Kenya, having been named the best national park in Africa multiple times since 2018. It is over 1500 square kilometers, which is small compared to the Serengeti, its Tanzanian neighbor, which is over 14,000 square kilometers.
This means you are guaranteed to see lions and cheetahs in the Mara because there are so many of them over a small geographical area.
Rivalries here are fierce, and battles between predators are just as common as death runs between predator and prey. With millions of grazers and predators on this small ground, the game is a lot more concentrated in the park, which means game drives, even short ones, are always lively.
The park has more than 100 lodges and tented camping grounds where you will stay while enjoying your trip, so you need to check the reviews on each lodge your agency proposes.
When is the Best Time to Visit the Mara?
The best time to visit the Mara is August to November when the Wildebeest migration is happening. The costs tend to spike during this period but the experience can be heavenly.
During the other seasons, especially from January to March when there is no rain, you need to drive around more to locate the fun, but it is also interesting because you get to enjoy the plains better as the crowds are gone.
How to Reach the Maasai Mara
The Maasai Mara can be accessed through daily flights from Nairobi to the various airstrips located in the park. There are two flights daily, often just a Dash 7/8 or a Cessna picking or dropping tourists from different airstrips depending on the lodges they stay at.
Also, the Maasai tribe lives in the Maasai Mara. The Maasai have one of the richest cultures in Africa and still live as nomads. Some of the local dancers offer performances and also bring mobile gift shops to the campsites. It is a great source of entertainment near a fire and under the stars.
You also get the chance to try some aspects of the Maasai culture, including food, dress and their high-jump dances. The Mara borders the Serengeti, but there are no direct drives or flights across the border, so the bureaucracy kills the fun if you wanted to extend your trip to Tanzania.
Amboseli National Park
While it is not the largest, Amboseli has more than 1500 elephants over its 400 square kilometer expanse making it the one place in Africa where you are sure to see elephant herds. Amboseli is also located at the foothills of Mt. Kilimanjaro which is actually across the border between Tanzania and Kenya.
You get a perfect view of the snowy Kilimanjaro peaks from Amboseli and you can also climb a few feet up the mountain on the Kenyan side of the border.
Lodges in the Amboseli are the best as they are frequently visited by animals plus you get to watch the snow-covered Kilimanjaro peaks against the sun’s rays in the morning and at night.
Amboseli is accessible through scheduled flights from Nairobi’s Wilson airport and you can also charter a flight from the coastal city of Mombasa. However, you must book in advance because there aren’t many people flying and thus the flights don’t happen on a daily basis. You can also drive three to four hours to Amboseli from Nairobi through Loitoktok town.
The roads are paved and way more comfortable than a drive to the Maasai Mara. The drive is also scenic, so you can start enjoying the abundance of life in the savanna. Sights can include the occasional acacia tree in vast grasslands, as well as zebra, warthogs and giraffes on the road before you reach the park.
A game drive through the Amboseli will be just three to four hours long, but it will be fruitful. It is also easier to target your drive because the rangers know the type of animals present on different sides of the park almost every time because the park is small.
Amboseli is also home to some of the best lodges in the country with many offering the option to sleep under the stars and be able to watch animals walking past your camp early in the morning.
There are lots of giraffes, zebra, buffalo and cheetahs. The lodges also host Maasai cultural dances as well as other entertainment options similar to those in the Maasai Mara.
Tsavo East/Tsavo West National Park
At 13,000 square kilometers and home to over 12,000 red dust elephants, Tsavo is one of the largest national parks in Africa. Its size also means it cannot be covered in a single day which is why you need to book a stay inside one of the many lodges in the park.
It is the host of the largest diversity of mammals and birds in the country as well as all the Big Five spread across different territories inside the park. There is also the Tsavo West National Park on the other side of the park which is less dense in terms of game because it is drier, but it also offers a scenic game drive destination that could be just as fruitful.
Tsavo is home to 10 percent of the world’s large tuskers, and they have a wide area to roam, making it the best place to witness them in their natural habitat.
The park also contains more than 700 lions roaming in Africa’s largest lion pride. Predator wars between lions, cheetahs and hyenas are frequent here because the game is scarce and territories are fiercely protected.
How to Reach Tsavo National Park
The park is easily accessed through the many airstrips that receive daily flights from Nairobi and Mombasa. The Voi gate to the park is just 96 km from Mombasa so you could just opt to drive. You can also access the park by driving 233 km from Nairobi to the Mtito Andei gate.
Tsavo is the perfect place to enjoy the real solitude of a Game Drive since its vastness allows you to choose your perfect spot away from the crowds. You can choose a self-driving tour with a guide and locate the one spot that best suits your intentions for the trip.
There are also multiple animal rescue and release centers in the park where you can go to learn about the animals in the park and the best regions for spotting animal activity. Kenya’s route A109 passes through the park, which makes it possible to enjoy your view while just driving through.
Other Game Drive Destinations in Kenya
There are nearly 60 national parks and reserves in Kenya with most of them accepting tourists. However, most of them have caged animals while others just don’t have the diversity to warrant a whole day’s worth of driving.
The Nairobi National Park right in the capital of Kenya is a great place to go if you have two or three hours to spare and watch Africa’s Big Five while on the move.
The Ol Pojeta Conservancy, which is nearly as large as Amboseli National Park, also offers you the chance to view both caged and free-ranging animals. Plus, there is an opportunity to picnic and dine in the wild.
Other parks worth visiting are the Samburu National Park, Lake Nakuru National Park where you get to see vast flamingo colonies as well as the Big Five, Mount Kenya National Park where you get to see elephants as well as the snow-covered peaks of Mount Kenya, and finally, the Meru National Park which is greener and quieter and suitable for intimate getaways.
Top Game Drive Destinations in Tanzania
The Serengeti National Park
The Serengeti is the pride of Tanzania, spread over 14,000 square kilometers and home to some of the largest lion prides on the continent. The park is divided into different regions with the Seronera Valley region being the most densely populated by predators.
You have to drive for quite a while to locate animals in the Serengeti because of its vastness. However, with the right guide, it won’t take long before you find the animals.
The Serengeti allows you to track the great migration from as early as May when the baby boom happens. This is when the predators congregate around the herds to make easy pickings of zebra, wildebeest, and antelope babies.
The Serengeti is where the first stage of the Great Migration also happens when the herds cross the Grumeti River in Central Serengeti as they head North towards the mighty Mara River.
Just like in the Mara, the Serengeti has hundreds of lodges situated at strategic viewing points where you can see the herds. Some may be viewed right below your tree house at any time of the year.
The Serengeti’s vastness also gives predators better hideout spots, which is why it is the best place to watch elusive cats including leopards.
A trip through the Serengeti is not complete unless you tour the neighboring Ngorongoro Crater, which is an attraction on its own with huge herds of grazers across the grasslands.
The Ngorongoro is the conservation area that adjoins the Serengeti and actually has more buffalo, rhinos and elephants than the Serengeti. In reality, the wildebeest migration also starts in Ngorongoro, heading north towards Kenya.
The Serengeti had more than five airstrips accessed by chattered planes from Arusha, Dar es Salaam and even Kenya at all times of the year. You can also drive to the Serengeti from Arusha.
There is no direct route from the Serengeti to the Mara due to diplomatic barriers between Kenya and Tanzania, so you cannot follow the herds across the river.
Tarangire National Park/Lake Manyara National Park
4,000 elephants in a 2600 square kilometer space are the reason why Tarangire is one of the best places in Africa to watch animal herds. It is still part of Tanzania’s Northern Safari Circuit destinations meaning you can access it the same way you do the Serengeti. The park is just shrubs and marshy swamps so you can see the herds moving from far off.
Because of the long grass and swampy conditions that come during the rainy seasons between March and May, it is best to plan a trip for June through January. This will give you the best views and comfortable drives.
Tarangire’s high concentration of the Big Five allows you to watch predator vs prey battles frequently especially on morning and afternoon drives when the animals brush shoulders.
Tarangire elephants come in larger herds than what you see anywhere else because the families live together for decades and develop long lineages. Next to Tarangire is the Lake Manyara National Park which is also part of the Northern Strip.
Lake Manyara has more lions and leopards than Tarangire. Manyara is famous for its tree-climbing lions, but don’t worry, they keep their distance from Safari convoys.
Nyere National Park/Ruaha National Park
The Nyere National Park is the largest park in Africa and part of Tanzania’s Southern Conservation Circuit. The Ruaha National Park is Nyere’s southern neighbor, with over 12,000 elephants passing through each year. These two are the best places to enjoy the getaway with the solitude that comes with game drives in such vast parks.
The best thing about the Nyere and Ruaha national parks is the beautiful river lodges that give you a 360-degree view of the park while also placing you at strategic watering points where you are sure to see animals.
Getting to these two parks is harder than their Northern counterparts since the road network between Dar Es Salaam and the south is not the best. You may have to do a 7-hour drive on unpaved roads to reach Nyere unless you use the Iringa town route which is still tiresome.
The easiest way to get to Nyere and Ruaha is by air. There are daily flights from Arusha, Dar, and even Zanzibar to the airstrips in the parks. You can also request a chattered flight if you don’t have the time to wait for the scheduled flights.
Top 10 Things You Need to Know Before Going for a Game Drive in Kenya or Tanzania
1. Choosing the Right Destination
Your destination will determine the kinds of animals you see and how often they move around during your game drive. While large parks offer the opportunity to enjoy long drives and scenic views with more adventure, your drive may also end up being fruitless because there is too much ground to cover. That is why many people prefer parks where the game is concentrated, such as the Mara, Serengeti, Amboseli and Tarangire.
All of these national parks now have official websites managed by the governments and filled with the details about when to visit, the charges, and the lodges open on site before you choose the park for your game drive, you should look at these details yourself and not rely on the scanty details given by the agents. You get to prepare yourself better when you know what to expect and that makes a game drive a lot better.
You should also choose the most visited parks listed above because they also get to have the best lodges. While trips are more expensive during the peak travel period between June and October, the most visited parks tend to adjust to the forces of supply and demand.
You end up paying more competitively because the agencies spend less on each trip when moving more guests than they would when dealing with only a few guests to a hard-to-reach destination.
2. The Season of Your Trip
In East Africa, you can go on game drives at any time of year in all of the national parks, but the experience is not the same all year. During the rainy season, the grass becomes very long and most of the grazers spread out over vast spaces.
That makes sighting and photographing difficult. The roads through the parks are not paved either, and the last thing you want is to be stuck with a 4×4 in a swamp in the middle of nowhere.
In most places, the rainy season begins in late February and lasts until May. You need to check with the park website to see the current state of the tracks.
The dry season brings the heavenly days of the game drive. The grazers eat their way through the tall grasses, and as they dry up, the animals congregate on the remaining green patches often close to natural springs, lakes and watering holes.
The predators also come out of their vast hideouts to find prey in the herds. The rangers and the guides will direct you on where to drive for most of the fun during the dry season because game is more predictable, unlike in the rainy season.
Logistics is the greatest challenge when going for a game drive because the best animal viewing spots are in the remotest parts of the jungles and getting there is no easy feat. The largest of the parks such as the Nyere, Tsavo and Serengeti are the hardest ones to navigate unless you have a chattered flight which is a lot more expensive.
When booking your trip to East Africa, the first stop will either be the Jomo Kenyatta International Airport in Nairobi or the Julius Nyerere International Airport in Dar es Salaam. It is always cheaper to fly through Nairobi because it has more direct international flights from Europe, the US, and Dubai/Doha.
You can also connect with another 1-hour long flight to Northern Tanzania from the JKIA to land at the Kilimanjaro International Airport which assures you easy access to the top game drive destinations of the Serengeti, Kilimanjaro, and Tarangire national parks.
From Nairobi, you can book connecting flights to your tour destination right there in the JKIA or go to the neighboring Wilson Airport where most local flights to tourist destinations fly out.
Wilson Airport has scheduled flights to Tsavo, Maasai Mara, Amboseli and Samburu national parks. In Dar es Salaam, you can also book connecting flights to either the Northern or the Southern tourist circuits.
The best way to coordinate your travel, especially when visiting the largest parks such as the Tsavo and the Nyere, is to book with a local travel agency.
They will handle the connecting flights and drives for you so that you don’t have to deal with the hurdles of moving between airports and the all the paperwork. Booking with the right agency may actually reduce your total costs significantly as everything is covered in a single package.
Plan on visiting parks that are close to the main cities such as the Maasai Mara, Nairobi National Park, Arusha National Park, The Serengeti and the Ngorongoro. It will be cheaper to rent a car and drive yourself to the park.
Then you just pay the entrance fee, get a guide for a game drive in the park’s safari vehicles which are well suited for the terrain. That way, you reduce your costs significantly.
4. Choosing the Best Lodge
Every national park has hotels and lodgings. The Mara, Serengeti, Tsavo, Nyere, Ruaha and other large parks have hundreds of them located at different spots in the camp.
Top five-star hotels in Kenya and Tanzania have partnered with governments and built some of their best lodges inside and around national parks. You can review each camp and lodge because they are private entities and the best of them will have websites and online reviews that can help you make your decision.
Parks also have budget camps and lodges which are a lot more affordable than five-star hotel lodges. Budget camps may offer a better experience than brick-and-mortar lodges.
This is due to the fact that the camps may be temporary and set up in accordance with the movement of the game during the season. There is accommodation for different budgets and your travel agency, or you can check the websites for the different packages available for the different classes of accommodation.
The park website will tell you where the herds are headed in different seasons. For example, in the Serengeti, the closer you are to the Mara River in the peak season, the more likely you are to see game right outside your hotel room or camp. Spending the night under the stars is the dream vacation for most guests and it is quite affordable if you book at an established campsite or lodge.
Lodges closest to rivers, watering holes, and animal trails are the best to stay at. When booking your stay, you should ask your agent or the hotel for details on how far the lodge/hotel is from the watering holes and the trails. Lodges in national parks are well secured and they have armed rangers guarding them, so you don’t have to worry about elephant herds trampling your tent while you sleep.
5. Full Board vs Bed and Breakfast
Accommodation offered inside the national park will be a lot more expensive than booking a regular hotel in the city. If your game drive destination is within an hour or two of a major city or town, you may be better off booking your accommodation there if you are on a tight budget.
As for on-site lodges, you should only book accommodation in the park if your game drive will keep you in the park until late or if you plan on multiple days of game drives. Otherwise, it will be unnecessarily expensive.
The best parks are far from civilization though, which is why booking a hotel or budget camp in the park is usually the best thing to do. The options you get are full board meaning three meals per day, half board which includes two meals (breakfast and dinner), and bed and breakfast.
If the full board includes drinks and laundry, then you have a great package. Otherwise, it is smart to just book bed and breakfast giving the flexibility to eat when and where you want.
Most game drives end by 6 pm unless you are doing a night game drive. The best game drives happen in the morning before it gets too hot and then you can come back for another one in the late afternoon after the heat of the midday sun subsides.
While on a safari, you will have most of your meals on the move. This means the only meal you will take at the hotel is probably breakfast and dinner which is why half board is the most popular option.
6. Why Private Exclusive Game Drives are the Best
After the accommodation, the second most important thing on a game drive is the package you have for the vehicle when driving. While driving in a group gives you more eyes to spot different activities on every side of a trail, a crowd in the van makes spotting and photographing a little hard.
Most tour vans are designed to accommodate six to eight passengers, but the pop-up roof can only take two people at a time.
That means, driving on a safari with a full van will be too much of a crowd, and driving alone can be monotonous as well. You need to have four to six people on the drive, whom you understand well and who will help you with locating, spotting, and photographing game.
On your trip, you may have a ranger and guide with you or just one guide in the van depending on your requests at the park when you enter.
A private exclusive game drive means that you have full control over who comes in the vehicle with you so you get to go with family and friends. It also means you get to choose where you go and how long you stay out there.
You can save money by having a single, private, exclusive drive that gives you the best experience of the destination over multiple, short, shared drives that may not offer much.
7. What Animals Will You See on a Game Drive?
It is difficult to predict the animals you will see on a game drive which is why it is so amazing. The rangers may know where the animals are, but they can never predict what animals you will encounter on the tracks.
The one thing you will never miss is the grazers, especially buffalo, zebra, giraffe, wildebeest and antelopes. Ostrich and warthogs are also easy to spot in the dry season.
The big cats, which give the most thrill on game drives, are elusive. They only come out when they are on the hunt or moving in prides for different purposes. Cats tend to hunt in the morning and the evening when the heat is not at its peak.
Therefore, that is the best time to go for your game drive. Most predators do most of their hunting at night, and that is difficult to film so you have to be patient if one day-time drive doesn’t give you much.
When visiting during the great migration or targeting to photograph animals at the watering holes you are bound to see more activity. This is because crocodiles, lions and cheetahs are always on the hunt for thirsty grazers.
Leopards are the most elusive cats, most frequently viewed in the rocky and tree-covered patches of the park. In most parks, you may drive for a whole week without sighting a leopard. There are huge prides of lions and cheetah in the grasslands though, so you are sure to meet them at one point but not necessarily while they are actively hunting.
The best game drive is achieved when you get to see action between the most elusive cats and the grazers. Ostriches and cheetahs are also spectacular guests as they may approach your vehicle if they are not too preoccupied with their daily activities.
You should never get out of the vehicle without security and always avoid physically interacting with any animals.
8. Choosing Your Perfect Game Drive
There are four main game drives in parks all over Africa. The most sought-after drives are the early morning drives that end before noon. The biggest attraction is the predators, especially lion prides. They stake out the grazers on their tracks ready to capture them as they get out to graze or get a drink.
The actual captures may happen out of sight or in a cloud of dust so you may not be able to see everything, but you will have the whole story of the hunt. In most cases, you will find the predators finishing off the night’s catch or just enjoying the morning sun.
You can choose to be out in the wild all day, meaning the entire eight hours of daylight in what is called full-day game drives. You have to carry your packed lunch and snacks when going for the whole day and also ensure your electronics are properly charged.
Full-day game drives are the best for peak movement seasons such as the Great Wildebeest Migration because the action there continues all day and it may be at different sides of the river which requires you to change destinations abruptly.
The third type of game drives is the afternoon to early evening game drive which continue until 6 pm. The evening game drives have the best ambiance as you enjoy watching the herds munch on their last bites of the day as the sun sets and the chill comes in.
As the temperatures fall, the predators also come out to hunt while nocturnal animals also come out of hiding. While you can see cheetah, hyenas, and lions in the morning, the evening game drives is the time when you find them at the peak of their action.
The night game drives are for the true fans of the tracks and it requires an experienced guide. It’s also necessary to have the proper lighting on the vehicle and special cameras with the ability to take perfect images in the dark. You can see hyenas, lions and cheetahs racing after grazers in the dark. In most cases, you will find them on the hunt or while they are eating their prey.
The animals you are sure to see at night are wild dogs, porcupines, hyenas and other nocturnal animals that are not very elusive. The big cats often keep their distance from humans and the most experienced guides will help you set up camp at the right spot and wait for them to come to you.
9. The Vehicle You Take on the Drive
In the African game parks, there are no paved roads. Only vehicles that are equipped for off-roading will get you to the deepest part of the savanna where the fun is.
The vehicle may be provided by your tour agent, or you can rent a vehicle with a driver and a guide at the park. Modified 4×4 SUVs, especially Land Cruisers and occasionally, range rovers are the best vehicles for game drives.
You can choose the size of the vehicle depending on the number of people you are taking on the drive. If you are booking through an agent, your agent will tell you the type of vehicle available. Some parks have modified minibusses that have 4×4 capability and are able to carry more passengers.
10. The Guides
The law requires tour guides to be registered before they can be allowed to lead you on game drives. The majority of people who had a bad experience on their game drive did so because they hired an unprofessional or inexperienced guide.
In Kenya, your guide should be certified by the Tourism Regulation Authority. The Ministry of Natural Resources and Tourism does the same in Tanzania. You need to check and ensure that your guide is actually qualified and authorized.
Your guide should most importantly be able to speak your language and be experienced with the park they are proposing to you. Getting a qualified guide is the only way to ensure that you will spend your day out there with a professional. Some scammers will play you and try to score more money out of you while on the drive or after the drive.
You should get to know your guide before you even reach the park and interview them by asking them all the hard questions about the park and the game activity at the destination.
If you are choosing a guide at the park, it is best to agree on the price and the period of the drive before you take off to avoid any misunderstanding. Some may try to extort money off you if you didn’t book your trip as part of an agency package. Always remember to tip a good guide if you can because their job is not an easy one.
When booking through an agent, your package should cover the tour guide as well as the park entrance fees. If you are going in alone, you can get a guide assigned to you by the park, who could also be the driver of your tour van. You can also hire the services of armed rangers but that is rarely necessary unless you are going for a night game drive.
Author Bio: Billy Oduory is a freelance writer based in Nairobi. He has traveled widely in East and Central Africa organizing and managing game drives.