For a truly exceptional and authentic African safari experience, it doesn’t get any better than these three destinations: Kruger National Park, Serengeti National Park and Masai Mara National Reserve.
Whether you’re returning travellers who have been on safari many times, wide-eyed honeymooners or a family introducing your kids to the bush, you can’t go wrong with any of the reserves, each of which offers a range of safari activities and accommodation styles.
But if you have to choose only one, which would it be?
In our 30 years of visiting the very best African safari destinations, we’ve been lucky enough to experience all three. This guide explains the differences between these popular reserves so you can choose the option that is best suited to your travel dreams.
The Kruger Park can be found in the northeast of South Africa. With a land span of 19 485 square km (7 523 square miles), it’s one of the largest national parks in the world.
The landscape consists of open woodland and dense acacia scrub. Overall the vegetation is thicker here than in East Africa.
How to get there: fly from Johannesburg to Kruger Mpumalanga International Airport (KMI) in Nelspruit. From there, you can take a charter flight or a road transfer to your chosen safari lodge.
The Serengeti National Park is located in Northern Tanzania. The park covers 14 763 square km (5 700 square miles) and shares a border with the Maasai Mara National Reserve and the Ngorongoro Conservation Area.
Serengeti means the ‘land that goes on forever’ and in keeping with its namesake, it is largely made up of wide open savannah dotted with dense woods and scrubby hills.
How to get there: fly into Kilimanjaro International Airport and spend a night in Arusha, the vibrant town that is the gateway to the Northern Safari Circuit of Tanzania.
The Masai Mara National Reserve is in Southwestern Kenya, close to the Tanzanian border and flush alongside the Serengeti. At 1 510 square km (580 square miles), it is the smallest of the Big 3 by a substantial amount.
The landscape here is the stuff that African safari movies are made of; expansive, undulating plains with lone acacia trees and purple hills looming in the distance. This is the place for the most instagrammable sunsets in Africa.
2. Best time to visit
The best time for an African safari is during the dry season when there is better visibility due to shorter grasses and the animals gathering around the last remaining water holes.
Kruger’s dry season is from May to October. It’s a pleasant time to visit as there are few mosquitoes, very little rain and a temperate and welcoming climate. The downside is that the park gets very busy over this time, given that peak safari season coincides with winter school holidays.
Choosing a private game reserve in the Greater Kruger Park will give you a more relaxed and intimate experience. The visitor numbers are limited and many reserves permit unique activities like walking safaris and night game drives. You can find out more in our guide on what to expect from a private safari.
For a less crowded safari, you can visit during the rainy summer season from November to April. Brief afternoon thunderstorms turn the Kruger into a verdant jungle that is sublime for photography. This is known as the Green Season and there are many hidden treasures to be discovered if you choose to visit at this time of year. Our Green Season safari guide will tell you everything you need to know.
Both the Serengeti and Masai Mara are superb all-year-round safari destinations. They share the same two rainy seasons: the “short” rains in November & December and the “long” rains over April & May. Both reserves have an enormous variety of animals and a temperate climate. As the rains come and people thin out, the animals stay put, giving you a private viewing second to none if you choose to safari during the off-season.
Many believe that the ultimate African safari experience is witnessing the Great Migration of wildebeest and plains game that journey through both reserves. In August, the animals start their journey from the Serengeti into the Mara. This is the best time to witness the dramatic river crossings where crocodiles try to snap up the wildebeest as they fly across the waters in astounding numbers. They’ll stay in the Mara from October to November when, at the start of the short rains, they begin their journey back to the Serengeti.
3. Safari Activities
All 3 reserves offer the standard African safari activities of morning and afternoon guided game drives in specially outfitted vehicles. Your knowledgeable guide will track herds around the parks and explain what you see.
There are other activities on offer, but not all are freely available in all the parks. The general rule of thumb is that private reserves will have more offerings than public-access parks. Night drives and bush walks aren’t allowed in national parks, but they are in the private reserves & concessions within or around the national parks.
In addition, the Masai Mara and Serengeti offer local cultural tours while Kruger does not.
The final consideration and arguably the most important one is the cost. While the cost varies greatly spending on whether you stay in a national park or a private concession, and whether you choose comfort or great luxury, we have provided some rough guidelines to give you an idea.
Kruger has the widest range of price points given the many options available in the extensive reserve. For close-up encounters with the Big 5 in the private reserves alongside the national park, you can expect to pay in the region of $1100 pppn for 5-star luxury in low season and up to $1850 pppn in high season.
5 star lodges in the private conservancies in the Serengeti have a similar cost, ranging from $1250 in low season to $1900 in high season. The Mara comes in slightly cheaper for the same accommodation style, starting at $1000 in low season and going up to $1600 over peak times.