Africa’s most iconic safari destination? It’s a tough call, but the Serengeti and Kruger National Parks can both stake a strong claim to the title. Here, Philip Briggs pits the two safari heavyweights against each other.
The Serengeti, dominating the wild northwest of Tanzania, lies at the core of a vast migratory ecosystem that incorporates the adjacent Ngorongoro Conservation Area and cross-border Masai Mara Reserve to cover an area comparable to Belgium or Switzerland. South Africa’s similarly extensive Kruger, home to more mammal species than any other African reserve, is the cornerstone of a Transfrontier Park that extends into Mozambique and Zimbabwe, and shares unfenced boundaries with legendary private reserves such as Sabi Sands and MalaMala.
That the Kruger and Serengeti both warrant iconic status is not in question. I’ve personally spent a total of perhaps three months in each over the years, and I doubt that the day will come when I tire of either. But if I had to recommend one above the other to somebody planning an African safari, which would it be?
That depends on who’s doing the asking. During a recent three-week trip to Kruger, which followed a few months after a similarly lengthy Serengeti safari, I was struck at just how very different these two national parks are, not only in terms of their inherent ecological character, but also in how they operate from a tourism perspective.
In the following pages I have broken down their differences into eight categories, each of which reflects a likely priority of someone planning a safari. Under each of these headings I have then outlined the respective strengths of each destination.
Variety of wildlife
Either park should deliver when it comes to baboon, spotted hyena, jackal, giraffe, zebra, wildebeest, hippopotamus, crocodile and many other safari staples. Cheetah are exceptionally common in the southern Serengeti, and reasonably so in central Kruger. As for large antelope diversity, Kruger is good for greater kudu, sable, nyala and bushbuck, but Serengeti is better for eland, the world’s largest antelope. Kruger supports one of the few remaining viable populations of the endangered African wild dog, while Serengeti is the one place in Africa where the handsome serval is a regular. Smaller nocturnal predators are always hit-and-miss, but the organised night drives offered at Kruger give it the nod.
Score: Kruger 5, Serengeti 4
Big Five encounters
Both rank among Africa’s finest parks when it comes to that all-important rite of passage for first-timers on safari: ticking off the Big Five. Either way, buffalo, elephant and lion are all but guaranteed over a few days’ stay, though Serengeti is tops when it comes to lions, thanks to the more open terrain, while Kruger supports the denser elephant population. As for black rhino, Kruger is the world’s most important stronghold for this endangered grazer, but it is also likely to be seen in the Ngorongoro Crater, en route to Serengeti. The Seronera River (Serengeti) and Sabi River (Kruger) are as good spots as almost anywhere in Africa to seek the elusive leopard. For near-certain sightings, there is no better option than one of the private reserves adjacent to Kruger.
Score: Kruger 4, Serengeti 5
Profusion of wildlife
Serengeti is renowned for its sheer volume of wildlife by comparison to…well, pretty much any other African reserve you care to mention. The annual migration of some two million wildebeest and zebra through the Serengeti-Mara ecosystem is a peerless spectacle, though it requires good timing and a bit of luck to be in the right place at the right time. Even if you don’t get lucky, there’s always plenty of wildlife action on the Serengeti plains, whereas the dense acacia scrub of Kruger means you might often drive 30 minutes without seeing anything much larger than a guinea fowl.
Score: Kruger 3, Serengeti 5
With more than 500 species recorded apiece, Serengeti and Kruger are both stellar birding destinations. In the southern summer, Kruger can be positively dazzling, with colourful kingfishers, rollers and bee-eaters perched on every other shrub, water-associated birds huddled along the dams and rivers, and plentiful raptors sorting overhead. By comparison, the open terrain of the southern Serengeti doesn’t quite match up in terms of avian variety, but the more remote north and west are excellent.
Score: Kruger 5, Serengeti 5
Kruger comes up trumps here. Independent travellers don’t need a 4WD to get around (any saloon car will do) and entrance gates and camps are stocked with all the maps and interpretive literature required to guide oneself around the clearly signposted road system. What’s more, it’s a doddle to book accommodation and camping through their user-friendly website, and rest camps are served by well-stocked grocery shops and affordable restaurants. By contrast, a self-drive Serengeti safari needs to be approached in the spirit of an expedition – a 4WD is essential, campers must be self-sufficient for food, and there is little in the way of decent interpretive material or signposts to get you around.
Score: Kruger 5, Serengeti 1
The drive from Arusha to Serengeti, which offers views over the Ngorongoro Crater floor from its forested rim, is truly spectacular, and the park itself – grassy plains studded with rugged granite kopjes – is imbued with a thrilling sense of space. You can’t really say the same for the tangled scrub that characterises much of the Kruger, especially during the park’s yellowing and hazy winter incarnation (which is when game viewing is best). Still, the Lebombo Mountains provide a memorable backdrop to eastern Kruger, and Olifants Rest Camp offers a gobsmacking viewpoint over the eponymous river.
Score: Kruger 3, Serengeti 5
Both parks are regularly accused of being more commercialised and trammelled than certain more remote safari destinations. This is a fair criticism (such is the price of popularity), but only to a point. The Serengeti can seem busier than it really is, largely because most tourist traffic is clustered within a 10km radius of Seronera, and it doesn’t help that the larger lodges tend to be monolithic in style and to operate in a way that excludes the surrounding bush after nightfall. Uneven tourist distribution is also a feature of the Kruger, with the section south of the Sabi River (the closest part of the park to Johannesburg) being the most visited. And, it must be said that the Kruger’s tarred trunk roads also routinely offend the purists. But it is possible to escape the crowds in both parks. In the Serengeti it generally means paying top dollar to stay in exclusive bush camps, which are set in more remote areas, whereas in the Kruger it can be achieved by sticking to dirt back roads and allocating a few days to the rest camps north of the Olifants River.
Score: Kruger 3, Serengeti 4
East Africa’s highlights tend to be less budget-friendly than their South African counterparts, and the Serengeti and Kruger are no exception. To some extent, this is associated with the independent travel factors discussed above. But daily park entrance fees also kick in: US$50 per person for the Serengeti, as compared to around US$20 for Kruger (furthermore, a Wild Card allowing a year’s access to all South African national parks costs international visitors a bargain US$150). Likewise, rest camp accommodation in Kruger starts at around US$50 for a double hut, whereas lodges in the Serengeti are almost all over the US$300 bracket. Budget-conscious travellers, or those who simply prefer to travel independently than with a guide, could probably spend two great weeks exploring the Kruger at their own relaxed pace for the same cost as a rushed three-night Serengeti safari.
Score: Kruger 5, Serengeti 1
For the few of you who might rank each of the eight categories with equal weight, you could still be in a quandary, seeing that Kruger is ahead on total score by 33-30, but behind the Serengeti when it comes to category wins. For you and any others, it may simply come down to when you are travelling. If outside factors dictate when you’ll be on safari, then be aware that Kruger comes into its own towards the end of the dry season (July to early October) when vegetation is low and wildlife is concentrated at watering points, while Serengeti is at its best over December to May, when the wildebeest are concentrated in the south.
If, however, you were to brush aside all logistical and cost considerations and just stick with the ‘wow’ factor, then Serengeti would be my personal choice – I feel it offers better overall game viewing, and feels wilder and more exciting.
(First published in Travel Africa edition 54, Spring 2011)