Africa is a dynamic place: sometimes even violent but always rapidly changing. The end of my two months there gives me fresh perspectives on how best to travel to this amazing continent.
Although I spend about 4-5 months annually in sub-Saharan Africa, the single two-month stretch at the beginning of the year gives me the most holistic perspective.
Basic recommendations I’ve had for years are unchanged:
For the first-timer principally interested in game viewing, East Africa is where to go, hands down. But once you visit the spectacle of East Africa, don’t miss southern Africa! It’s radically different but just as awesome.
For the first-timer whose interests are much broader than just game viewing, southern Africa is the place to begin.
The decline in lion populations is significant and noticeable on a safari to either area. Only a few years ago a ten-day safari to East Africa saw well over 100 lion; a similar trip to southern Africa usually found about twenty. Today, it’s half that in both places.
But the rest of the animals, with some interesting exceptions like topi, are on the increase. And this includes elephant which if all you do is read conservation organization flyers you’d think otherwise. In fact I believe the “elephant problem” is quite simply that there are too many of them.
The great migration in East Africa just gets better and better. In fact it’s improving so much and so quickly I’m getting worried. I wonder if we’re reaching some carrying threshold where the numbers might suddenly tank.
Global warming has significantly effected safari travel. As elsewhere in the world, seasons are now exaggerated: The wet seasons are wetter with much flooding. The dry seasons are drier with devastating droughts. The hot and cold seasons are much hotter and much colder.
To me this means the end of the first wet season (which is also usually one of the hot seasons) is the best time to go, because the exaggerations are minimized. For East Africa this means March and April. For southern Africa this means February and March.
But take this recommendation cautiously: Global warming is happening so fast that I can see this changing even year to year. And the fact remains that an outstanding safari can be done at any time of the year if properly designed.
Prices in southern Africa are increasing. Prices in East Africa are moderating. The demand in southern Africa is on the increase, but tourism in East Africa is decreasing.
I think this has to do with the fact that southern Africa is more stable. For a trip of a similar caliber and level of accommodations, a southern African trip is now about a quarter more expensive than an East African one.
With regards to specific countries, not much as changed except for Kenya. I’ll be returning to Nairobi in about a month to confirm what I have to predict, now.
I believe Kenya is ready, again, to safeguard tourists. It’s been four years since EWT actively promoted Kenya or since I’ve taken by own guided trips, there.
But there has been very significant positive change from a tourist point of view there recently. You may think this crazy if all you do is read the headlines: small grenade and other bombing attacks are actually on a slight increase in and around Nairobi.
But those attacks are directed exclusively at the Somali community, and the attacks of the last five years on tourists were different and have subsided.
Since the Westgate Mall attack last September and the Nairobi airport fire the month before I haven’t been able to find a single, however slight or botched attempt, directed at tourists in Kenya. And it’s not completely certain that tourists figured very much in the calculus of either of those attacks.
The fact there haven’t been any tourist kidnapings or violent robberies or lodge or camp attacks is a significant change from just a few years ago.
Those attacks were by common criminals given free reign when police and other local security personnel were pulled from many tourists areas to aid in the Somali war effort. And in the case of the specific tourist kidnapings around Lamu, those were by Somali terrorists when the October, 2011, war began.
That war is over. (Though the occupation by Kenyan troops continues, which is why the attacks are directed against Somali Kenyans who live mostly in and around Nairobi and on the coast.)
Police and regional security personnel have returned home. Normal policing has started, again, and improved. In fact I worry that the new security procedures put in place by the current government are too draconian. Be that as it may, it means tourists will be safer.
I now see Kenya very much as I saw Britain during the IRA wars. I remember, for example, visiting my daughter in the mid 1990s when she was studying at Oxford.
My subway went dark and out for three hours after the IRA bombed London’s Piccadilly Line. Nobody was hurt as the object of the IRA in those days wasn’t to kill civilians but to make a point.
Today in Kenya the object of the terrorists is to hurt Kenyan civilians of Somali descent. But the exclusion of harming outsiders seems similar to the situation in London 20 years ago.
I will be the first to reverse course if things turn south in Kenya. But there are so many unique attractions in Kenya that when tourist security arrives at the level I believe it has, today, it would be terrible to miss them.
As Kenya improves I grow increasingly vigilant of Tanzania.
Tanzania is wrestling with a new and very contentious constitution, the same issue which spiraled Kenya into unrest in 2007. The most recent attack specifically against tourists was in Zanzibar, so I’m recommending against travel there.
Right now Tanzania excluding Zanzibar remains one of the most secure places for an African holiday. But I’m watching it carefully as the future does not seem as bright as Kenya’s.
Uganda is out. The country now prosecuting its first gay trial is increasingly overseen by a madman. Not yet as bad as Amin, I can see Museveni becoming as bad in just a few years.
Rwanda is an authoritarian state, horrible for its citizens and absolutely as safe for tourists as China today or Russia during the Cold War. And I’m watching The Congo carefully. Things are getting better, there.
Virtually all of southern Africa except Zimbabwe is as secure for the tourist as a visit to most South American countries. Even the security situation for visitors in Madagascar is improving.
As I said, Africa is a dynamic and sometimes violent place. It’s always been so, and it will remain so for some time. Travel to Africa has never been, and isn’t today, a Caribbean cruise.
But I think it’s slowly getting safer. And it remains more exciting than ever. Read my many previous blogs about my just ended safaris and I hope you’ll understand why I think so!
The wild is not just unpredictable, it’s always spiritually rejuvenating. That doesn’t normally characterize a Caribbean cruise!
Interesting piece Jim. But two points with which I take great exception:
1. Zimbabwe is perfectly secure and a wonderful place for safari, even with an authoritarian dictator running (and ruining) this wonderful country. Friendly people, fabulous wildlife, great safari accommodations. Of special note: Ruckomechi, The Hide, Little Makololo 2. THE “Elephant Problem” is poaching. In some areas there are of course too many elephants but I think your comment does a great disservice to all the good folk who are trying to protect and save this most magnificent creature. If people think there are “too many” as you maintain, they will become increasingly disposable and people will not be concerned with their gruesome murders.
How about a hotel review, specifically of Nairobi and Kenya game reserves.
Love your stuff Jim….to Nancy. I just returned from Hwange and was terribly disappointed. Prices were outrageous, weather cold and rainy and sometimes drove for 5 hours with no game. I understand weather and game are not dependable but prices and a bit of misleading advertising. Also, Vic Falls, 10 years ago was a sleepy jumping off town now it rivals any US tourist town . Jammed with people and unfortunately, the vendors are so agressive that the local police escort tourists to and from the open vendors market behind the post office! I was at Camp Hwange and now I know better to go to a different place. It was my first time in Zim and a last minute booking on our way home from South Africa after 2 months. I should know better to check things out a little better. Plus I don’t like supporting that government.
Fascinating observations by one of the best tour operators/guides/experts on Africa. We have been on two outstanding safaris with him.
I’m disappointed, by your blog, looks like you’re paid, to post this. Your lacks of facts, is symbolic. Uganda is homely.
Thanks for sharing.
I am interested in the area and when it will be safe to return.
Thanks for the update. This is most helpful for understanding the conditions in Africa.