Anyone who has ever visited New York will recall the very first time that they walked through downtown Manhattan, taking in all the sights and sounds. It felt like walking through a movie set, didn’t it? Not only that but it simultaneously felt very familiar because of all the movies and tv shows in which it has acted as backdrop yet also was very different but it was difficult to put your finger on what that difference was? That’s how I felt when I visited Kenya recently to undertake my 3rd safari in just over six years. I’ve seen all the David Attenborough wildlife programmes (and more besides) and so therefore had a sense of what to expect and yet the reality tuned out to be subtly different in some respects and I’m still trying to figure out what?
My previous two safaris had been in South Africa — the first in a private game reserve which itself was located within the Kruger national park. The second one had also been in a private game reserve but was located right on the border with Botswana. Both safaris were quite similar experiences to each other in the sense that they were conducted in bush country where one would go out twice each day at both dawn and dusk as that is when the animals tend to be at their most active. What I wasn’t expecting on that first occasion was that although temperatures could easily top 30-35C during the day, they also plummeted to a couple of degrees below zero during the night with the result that the dawn safaris had me and my bush companions looking like an annual convention of Michelin Men lookalikes — such were the layers of clothes in evidence. As an avid photography fan, it doesn’t get much better than going out on safari in the hope and expectation that you’ll — pardon the pun — capture that ‘killer shot’.
Over the years, people who had been on safari in both countries had assured me that Kenya delivered a much more ‘authentic’ experience so it was inevitable that I would have to make the trip myself in order to make up my own mind. Having spent four days travelling around the famous Masai Mara region in southern Kenya a few weeks ago (it shares a border with Tanzania) I have come to a somewhat different conclusion. They are both equally good but for slightly different reasons. I specifically chose to visit Kenya in July so that my time there would coincide with the annual mass migration of animals through the Masai and over the famous Mara river (it of the wildebeest and crocodile spectacle so beloved by wildlife documentary makers!) in search of food and water. Whereas a lot of South African safaris tends to be experienced up close because of the topography of dense bush, Kenya, and the Masai Mara in particular is all about wide open spaces and at this time of the year especially — wildlife that is measured not in ones and two or even scores but in their thousands! Imagine the limitless prairies of the American mid-west and you get the idea. Indeed, such were the prodigious numbers of wildebeest present (they look big on screen but in reality are about the size of a donkey) that I could easily imagine what those vast herds of buffalo must have look like just 150 years ago in the Wild West before the greed of the white man brought almost to extinction.
Whereas Kenya wins out over South Africa in terms of the scale and beauty of its landscape and setting, South Africa gains the upper hand when it comes to the quality of the tourist side of the product (i.e. accommodation, food, infrastructure etc). It is also, like for like, probably better value for money. I can’t say that one is better than the other as such evaluations are ultimately subjective but what I would say is that you’re probably better off cutting your teeth on your first safari but starting out with the South African version.