East Africa is a beautiful region of the world that should be on every travelers bucket list. I had wanted to go to Africa for so long before I finally made it there for the first time back in November of 2018.
I’m the sort of person who enjoys a travel challenge. I love visiting places that feel different from back home. I’m originally from Austin, Texas but now based in Los Angeles. I think that’s why I love Asia and Africa so much. Each trip is an eye-opening experience that you cherish forever.
It’s safe to say that I’ve always had this burning desire to travel. As a kid, I was always begging my parents to go traveling. We had these family friends who went everywhere and seeing their photos definitely instilled in me this longing to explore. Eventually my parents gave in and we traveled.
A Spectacular 3 ½ Weeks in East Africa
Our trip started in Nairobi, Kenya and then the next thing we knew we were doing a fly-in-safari to the Maasai Mara National Reserve. We had a lovely day on the Naboisho Private Reserve and then a full day safari at Maasai Mara National Reserve.
I cherished the days we had on private land. Going off-road and driving up close to the wildlife was an amazing experience, especially for photography.
Next, we headed to Tanzania and did a 5 day safari through Lake Manyara, Ngorongoro Crater, Ndutu Lake and the Serengeti. My favourite places on this safari were Ngorongoro Crater for its stunning scenery and wildlife, and Ndutu Lake where we saw tree climbing lions and cheetahs hunting.
After the safari we decided it would be nice to spend a few days on the beach in Zanzibar. We stayed on Nungwi Beach at the north end of the island. It was so beautiful! It was definitely a nice way to break up all the sitting in a vehicle.
Uganda was next for one of the highlights of the trip: gorilla trekking. Our other adventures in Uganda included a safari to Queen Elizabeth National Park and trekking for chimpanzees in Kibale National Park. Unfortunately we didn’t see much wildlife at QEP but it was still amazing.
My Favourite Place in East Africa: Maasai Mara National Reserve
The place that captured my heart on this journey to East Africa was Maasai Mara. It felt like being in a dream sequence of a movie – the landscapes were that beautiful. And seeing animals everywhere on the savanna from the moment we landed on the airstrip was amazing.
Maasai Mara was the first place we visited on this trip to East Africa and I think we were just so happy to be back that it made for the best memories.
The Rich Mosaic of Cultures in East Africa
Tours such as these were a really nice way to get to know the people of the countries versus only coming and seeing the national parks. It was a wonderful experience to be greeted by fascinating tribes along the way.
When we were in Zambia (on my first trip to Africa) we did an amazing bike tour away from the commercial part of Livingstone. We actually biked through places where the locals lived. Our guide taught us about Zambian culture and what it was like to live there. We got to meet tons of local kids!
In Johannesburg, South Africa we did a private tour with a guide named Boysie. He was a man in his 50’s who had grown up in Soweto and lived through the era of Apartheid. We had some interesting conversations with him about life back then and comparing politics with today.
Top 10 Experiences in East Africa
East Africa is the Africa that you dream of as a child. A beautiful mix of landscapes, wildlife and people. There is something for everyone to enjoy. Below are my top 10 recommendations for first-time visitors.
1. Gorilla Trekking in Bwindi, Uganda
Gorilla trekking in Uganda was definitely the most memorable part of our East Africa trip. Seeing gorillas up close in their natural habitat was incredible. They are such beautiful creatures and are very human-like in the way they move and behave. It’s certainly a bucket list experience!
2. Game Drives in the Maasai Mara National Reserve
The best thing about game drives is that they take you close to some of Africa’s most incredible wildlife. And there is no better place in Africa to experience a game drive than at Maasai Mara in Kenya. Seeing animals go about their daily lives in their natural habitat is simply wonderful.
3. Game Drives in the Ngorongoro Crater
Like the game drives in Maasai Mara, the ones in Ngorongoro Crater are just as special. They take you close to wildlife including a large concentration of big cats such as Lions and Leopards. The drives take you through lush forests, down into the crater floor where wild serenity awaits.
4. Nami Nami Tour in Nairobi, Kenya
The Nami Nami Tour is ranked as one of the best tours in Nairobi and it’s easy to see why. Go on a three-hour walking tour around downtown with former street kids and learn their stories of how they survived on the streets of Nairobi. It sure was an eye-opening and unique experience.
5. Lion’s Head Hike in Cape Town
Lion’s Head is one of the most iconic spots in the beautiful Cape Town. Standing at 669 meters, the formidable mountain offers panoramic views of the city, Table Bay and the Atlantic Ocean below. This is a must-do hike for all hiking enthusiasts and wannabe Instagrammers!
6. Kruger National Park in South Africa
Kruger National Park is the ultimate destination to discover Africa’s Big Five: Elephant, Lion, Rhino, Leopard and Buffalo. The safaris in Kruger are some of the best in Africa as you roam through a 19,485-sq-km park with views of the Lebombo Mountains in the east and forests in the north.
7. Victoria Falls on the Zambezi River
The Victoria Falls – which span the width of the Zambezi River – are one of the highlights of Africa. This legendary waterfall cascades over the edge of a volcanic rock down 354 feet and generates mist that can be seen for miles. For this reason it’s known as “the smoke that thunders”.
8. Devils Pool Tour in Livingstone
The Devils Pool Tour is an awesome experience only available from the Zambian side of Victoria Falls. It’s adjacent to the famous Livingstone Island situated on the edge of the Victoria Falls and guests get the opportunity to swim close to the edge for that famous photo.
9. Community Walk in Bwindi Impenetrable National Park
The Community Walk in Bwindi Impenetrable National Park is a great opportunity to learn about the people who live and work in the community. I had a great experience visiting a school, a women’s organization, a local hospital, and even learned how banana beer is brewed. It was loads of fun!
10. Chobe River Safari through Africa
The Cuando River flows through Angola, Namibia and Botswana. To the east, the river is called the Chobe River before it flows into the Zambezi River. A safari on this river is a lovely way to experience relaxation, great views and get close to elephants from your boat.
The Diverse Food Scene in East Africa
We ate really well throughout Africa. Cape Town has tons of amazing restaurants and I was pleasantly surprised by the meals we had in Nairobi too. I’m a vegetarian but I loved this restaurant called Talisman. I even enjoyed the meat-eaters haven, Carnivore, which had great veggie options.
Uganda proved to be an amazing place for vegetarians and vegans. The cuisine there was heavy on veggies and it was super healthy. I enjoyed the Matoke (mashed plantains) and Binyebwa. In Zanzibar, we tried some delicious vegetarian curry and samosas. Chapati was also a highlight!
Best Accommodation Options in East Africa
I stayed in some amazing hotels and safari lodges on both of my trips to Africa. Umkumbe Safari Lodge in Sabi Sands, South Africa was an incredible stay and made for an amazing first safari. Basecamp Eagle View in the Naboisho Mara Reserve in Kenya was just beautiful.
For Zanzibar, Hotel Z is perfection. It’s located right on the beach and the vibe is just lovely. Ndutu Luxury Lodge in the southern Serengeti plains was a great place to stay. We stayed at the Serena chain throughout Tanzania and it’s very comfortable and nice (albeit a bit touristy).
What you Need to Know Before you Go
South Africa/Victoria Falls is a fantastic first time safari destination and there is so much to do beyond just safari. If you are tight on budget, this is an excellent option because you can do a few days of safari and then find other activities to do in surrounding cities.
Although if game viewing is your singular focus, East Africa takes the cake for sure. But make sure you spend some time on privately owned land (vs only going to national reserves) to make sure you can off-road a bit and get up close to the wildlife.
A lot of the times when you work with tour agencies they send you to the national reserves so you may have to ask for privately owned land.
Be prepared for things to run slower (or go wrong) and just go with the flow. Some days you see tons of animals and other days you don’t. It’s not a zoo and that’s part of the beauty. I hope this article has inspired you to visit one of the most beautiful continents in the world: Africa.
There’s simply no other place quite like it.