Best Place to Safari in Africa
Kruger National Park, South Africa vs. Kenya
So, we're not going to lie. We had unbelievable experiences in both of our safari locations. Each time we went out, we got to see things that we hadn't yet seen before. That's the great thing about animals-- they are so unpredictable. You can read more about our adventures in Kruger and in Kenya on our blog pages, but we realize that not everyone can spend months traveling to experience Africa how we have. With that in mind, we wanted to put together a comparison list for you about the strengths and challenges in each of these two destinations to help you figure out which one is the right one for you. But here's the thing..... no matter which location you choose, you're going to see amazing things. And this is just a comparison of the two places we went with similar wildlife viewing (we're not comparing our trek to see the gorillas in Uganda); there are other well developed locations to do wildlife viewing (Botswana and Tanzania are the other big ones that come to mind).
With that out of the way, lets talk safaris!
Length of Time Needed to Get the Full Safari Experience
One of the advantages of Kruger National Park is that it has a wide diversity of landscapes in a large (but in comparison to the entirety of Kenya, quite small) geographic area. We did 4 days/3 nights in Kruger and had a chance to experience three very different areas of the park where different wildlife tend to congregate (river, savannah, and forest) by staying at 3 different camps. Maasai Mara in Kenya, where we spent our first few days there, is mostly grassland savannah. This kind of habitat is great for big cat viewing, but rhino sightings are rare here, for example. There river in Maasai Mara is quite a distance in as well, so we had to make a special trip deep into the park to see the hippos there.
In our 6 days in Kenya, we visited 3 different parks: Maasai Mara, Lake Nakuru, and Amboseli. Across those 3 parks, we saw more diversity in ecology (but not really in animals, other than birds) than we did in Kruger, but we needed 6 days to do it (and probably could have used an extra day in Maasai Mara to make it 7). In transit between those locations, we wasted a day each time that we could have been sightseeing. It was at least a 6 hour drive between parks each time we had to change.
If time is of the essence and you can only spend 4-5 days on safari: Kruger
If you've got a week or more: Kenya
Accessibility of Wildlife
Before we can talk about accessibility of wildlife, we need to first talk about accessibility of the parks themselves and the infrastructure within the parks. Kruger is by far more accessible. You can fly there directly from Johannesburg or it's a drive on all paved roads of about 5 hours. As we mentioned above, we traveled at least 6 hours (and on one occasion 8) to get between our locations in Kenya, and many of the roads were dirt roads in poor condition. Even within the parks, Kruger has many paved roads, and those that are dirt are in better condition overall. South Africa overall is much more developed than Kenya, so that's something to consider if it's important to you.
In Kenya, there is no lodging inside the parks, so everyone has to stay near the gates of the park. The parks are only open from sunrise to sundown, so that is the time you have to view wildlife. In Kruger, if you're staying at the lodges inside the park, you can go out on park organized drives (you must book ahead) in the early morning and late evening after the sun goes down or before it comes up. Animals (especially cats but also hippos) are active most at these hours (outside of the heat of the afternoon when they lounge), so that can be a fruitful time to go out spotting.
If you definitely want to see rhinos, then consider going to Kenya and include Lake Nakuru park. They're easily accessible in Lake Nakuru. Twenty years ago, rhino sightings were very common in Kruger, but poaching has reduced the population there significantly (this is also a problem in Maasai Mara in Kenya). Now, typically, rhino sightings will only likely occur in the southern portion of Kruger between Crocodile Bridge and Lower Sabie Rest Camp. In Maasai Mara, there are only between 30-50 rhinos in the whole park (and they migrate across to Tanzania as well).
For getting up close and personal with wildlife, you can't beat Kenya's Maasai Mara. While the roads are less developed (many are just tire rut trails) they crisscross the park with great frequency. This means that you're likely to be able to get close to any wildlife you spot. Technically guides are not supposed to leave the marked roads/trails, but we saw guides going all over to help their passengers see the wildlife (although they do risk fines for doing so). In Lake Nakuru and Amboseli in Kenya, the rangers are much more present, so we only saw vehicles sticking to marked roads (and there were fewer of them in those parks). When on drives in Kruger, you will have to stay on marked paved or dirt roads. If you're on a park organized drive, they do have additional trails that are open only to park vehicles, but they will not leave marked roads to get a close up view of wildlife like what happened in Maasai Mara. However, there are a few private game reserves that abut Kruger National Park (and animals travel freely between the park and private reserves). The private reserves (Sabie Sands is one of the more popular ones) don't have restrictions on how they travel across their lands, so they can get you as close as is prudent. Kruger, though, offers walking safaris, where you travel with two armed guides walking through the bush for about 2.5 hours. This experience isn't offered at any of the parks in Kenya.
If tourist infrastructure and comfort while on drives is important to you (that makes it especially family friendly): Kruger
If getting close to wildlife is important to you: Kenya's Maasai Mara (or do a private reserve near Kruger)
If you really want to do a waking safari: Kruger
If seeing rhinos is important to you: Kenya's Lake Nakuru
If you like birdwatching: Kenya's Amboseli
Our two experiences turned out to be about the same all-in cost per day (although our accommodations and food were better in Kruger than they were in Kenya). There were many more things that we paid for a la carte for Kruger than we did with Kenya (you can read about our experience in Kruger here and in Kenya here). We had a more budget experience in Kenya for that price (especially in the food and lodging) and a more tourist class experience in Kruger. With that said, there are lots of different accommodation levels for a Kenyan safari and a Kruger safari.
If you're looking for a more bespoke experience, certainly the private game reserves in Kruger offer that at about a cost of 50% to 200% more per day above what we spent staying at the Kruger rest camps.
In the end, though, the animals are always unpredictable, and your lodging choice has no impact on what you'll see once you get in the 4x4. We were able to spend about $250 per day for the two of us together for both our Kenya and Kruger experiences.
You can find all kinds of accommodation from budget to luxury in either Kenya or Kruger.
To Sum It All Up
No matter where you choose to go on safari, you will have an amazing experience. After having done our two experiences, if we had to express a preference, ours would be for our experience in Kenya. The things that tipped the scales for us in that direction was the diversity of the 3 parks we were able to visit across our 6 days. You may read this and think that Kruger makes more sense for you. And maybe you're lucky enough that, like us, you can do more than one (or even more than we did) when you travel to Africa!
Once you've booked, if you're interested in some of the travel accessories that made our safari easy and enjoyable, check them out here.