Africa is a massive continent with astonishing diversity when it comes to climate, culture, flora and fauna. But if the classic safari experience is what you’re after, East Africa is where to focus. At Nat Hab, we love to take curious travelers to Uganda, Rwanda, Tanzania and Kenya for iconic safaris. Below are just a few of the unforgettable adventures that await you on the oldest inhabited continent on Earth.
1. Go gorilla trekking in Bwindi Impenetrable National Park
Bwindi Impenetrable National Park in Uganda is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and one of the planet’s best places to see mountain gorillas. These gorillas live in forests at elevations of 8,000 to 13,000 feet and have extraordinarily thick fur that helps them survive in below-freezing temps at high altitudes. Bwindi has nearly half the Earth’s mountain gorillas—about 460.
On our Great Uganda Gorilla Safari, Ultimate Gorilla Safari and Ultimate East Africa Safari, we spend two full days tracking gorillas in Bwindi Impenetrable National Park (and have even sometimes seen them right on the grounds of our lodge!). Our local guides help us understand their behavior, and we have a local tracker clued into their previous movements, giving us the best chance of finding them on the mountain. Even if we know where they are, getting to them can be as easy as a 15-minute walk, or we may have to spend the day trekking the verdant rain forest on foot.
Looking into the eyes of a wild mountain gorilla has been described over and over by Nat Hab travelers as “the most profound nature encounter travelers have ever experienced.”
2. Meet endangered rhinos and zebras at Ol Pejeta Conservancy
Against the backdrop of the stunning and often snow-capped Mount Kenya sits the renowned Ol Pejeta Conservancy on the Laikipia Plateau. What used to be a working cattle ranch in the 1940s colonial days in Kenya has now become the largest black rhino sanctuary in East Africa and home to the world’s last two remaining northern white rhinos —which, of course, we visit in person on our Ultimate East Africa Safari and Pride of East Africa: Kenya & Tanzania adventures.
In 2014, the 90,000-acre Ol Pejeta achieved IUCN Green List status, one of only two African conservancies to be awarded such recognition. The conservancy also has endangered Grevy’s zebra and some of Kenya’s highest predator densities. Nat Hab’s Private Mobile Camp has permission to operate inside the conservancy and makes for a comfortable, classic safari-era base for spotting the Big Five and much more.
3. See Africa’s densest concentration of wildlife in the Ngorongoro Crater
The Ngorongoro Crater in northern Tanzania was once upon a time a gigantic volcano. Some experts say that if it hadn’t erupted, it may have been taller than Kilimanjaro, the highest peak in Africa. It’s the largest intact caldera in the world, with a 2,000-foot-deep crater as its focal point.
Nearly three million years old, this Eden shelters one of the most incredible wildlife havens on Earth. Around 25,000 animals live here, and on our Tanzania’s Great Migration & Ngorongoro Crater, Pride of East Africa: Kenya & Tanzania and Ultimate East Africa Safari, we keep an eye out for elephant, buffalo, giraffe, zebra, wildebeest, eland, gazelle and more, as well as hungry predators that are always close by, like lion, leopard, cheetah and hyena. It’s never a guaranteed experience, but sometimes we’ve been lucky enough to see one of the few endangered black rhinos that hang out in the crater. Birdlife is awe-inspiring here, with massive flocks of pink flamingos coloring the soda lakes.
4. Take a night drive in search of nocturnal wildlife
Because we explore private conservancies in addition to national parks and reserves, we have the flexibility and freedom to do certain activities not always allowed elsewhere. One example: night drives. During the day, we feel like the observers, but there’s something special knowing that at night, the nocturnal animals have the upper hand at spotting us. Only getting to see animals during the day means that you may miss many animals that only come out at night, like the bush baby, porcupine, many species of owl and nightjar. We may even see a spotted hyena or leopard slinking through the night.
Adding to the ambience are the unique sounds we hear: the chirping of crickets, a lion’s roar in the distance, the footsteps of wandering warthogs, and possibly even trees crashing from a worked-up elephant—all happening under one of the clearest skies imaginable, filled with twinkling stars.
5. Check some birds off your life list
East Africa has more to offer than searching for the Big Five. Its national parks and reserves also provide habitat for around 2,500 different species of birds. Ostriches, the largest living birds on Earth, are found on the grasslands and savanna of the Serengeti and Maasai Mara in nomadic groups of between 5 and 50 birds. They are extremely fast on land and can reach speeds of up to 40 miles an hour!
Also easy to spot is the African crowned crane, the national bird of Uganda. They have a stunning crown of stiff golden feathers and a bright red throat pouch that makes them easily identifiable. They are most commonly spotted in dry savanna, marshes and grassy flatlands near rivers and lakes. If you’re lucky, you may be able to observe their elaborate mating dance, which includes lots of jumping, bowing and spreading their wings to their full six-foot span.
Flamingos can usually be seen in flocks of hundreds (if not thousands) at Lake Natron in Tanzania, as well as at Kenya’s Lake Nakuru, Lake Bogoria and Lake Elmenteita. Also keep an eye out for Kori bustards, one of the largest flying birds in Africa, often spotted in Ngorongoro Crater and Serengeti National Park. Look for them following herds of zebras through open savannahs in search of prey that has been disturbed by hooves.
A crowd-pleaser is always the rainbow-colored lilac-breasted roller, the national bird of Kenya. They put on dramatic shows of aerial acrobatics (hence the name “roller”) and are best spotted in open woodland or bushy savannah, where they hang out in couples on tree branches to hunt for insects and beetles.
6. Witness the wildebeest and zebra migration
There are two best times of year to witness the Great Migration in Tanzania, and we guide trips for both!
From December through March, when there are short rains, some 2 million wildebeest trek from Kenya’s Maasai Mara to the southern Serengeti in search of freshly growing grass. They migrate with hundreds of thousands of zebras, and gazelle and other antelope accompany the huge herds as well. We do our best to plan these trips when zebras and wildebeest are giving birth (lots of opportunities to see babies!), and the herds may be mostly stationary. On that note, predators do actively seek out the most vulnerable members of the herds, and it’s not uncommon to see a lion snag a sick wildebeest or a cheetah attacking a newborn that was separated from its mother.
From July through October, we head to the northern Serengeti—our deluxe tented outpost is strategically placed within one of the main movement corridors for the wildebeest, zebra and gazelle that make this annual 1800-mile migration back south.
You can also witness this wow-worthy natural phenomenon on our Great Kenya Migration Safari!
7. Search for Africa’s Big Five on game drives and bush walks
All this talk of the “Big Five,” but what exactly is that? It’s a term used by photographers and wildlife enthusiasts for some of the most iconic animals to see on safari: the Cape buffalo, leopard, lion, elephant and rhinoceros. Sometimes you might hear of a “Big Seven” that includes cheetah and African wild dogs, or a “Little Five” of the buffalo weaver, leopard tortoise, ant lion, elephant shrew and rhinoceros beetle.
Seeing the Big Five is like the fauna version of the Seven Summits—our highly-trained guides do their very best on our East Africa safaris to send you home with at least the Big Five checked off your bucket list.
8. Listen for a lion’s roar from your bed in a bush camp
Our safaris are the furthest thing away from a traditional hotel experience. We love to recreate the vintage atmosphere of days past with luxurious heavy canvas hunting camps like what Roosevelt and Hemingway used to stay in. Imagine, after enjoying a candlelight dinner on white linen, you cozy into bed, only to hear a lion’s roar in the distance. This is guaranteed to give the best kind of excited chills imaginable. It’s an experience that is impossible to forget!
Featured Photo by © Marybeth Coghill