You may be wondering how Nairobi made it to this exclusive list of elite national parks in East Africa. Proximity! Simple as that.
Dubbed the ‘wildlife capital of the world’, Nairobi NP is literally a stone-throw from the Nairobi central business district. The Park is so close to the city that you will be on a game drive within 20 minutes of your arrival at Kenya’s Jomo Kenyatta International Airport. Maasai giraffes, lions, cheetahs, oribis, elands, kirk’s dik-dik, and many other animals roam freely in the seemingly endless savannah.
Despite being located right on the edge of Nairobi city, the Park boasts about 80 rhinos and a thriving population of lions that is almost too large for a park of its size.
A fascinating blend of the rustic wildlife and the urban skyscrapers as a backdrop makes Nairobi a wildlife fairytale.
For the mere fact that Nairobi NP quietly hides in the shadows of a bustling city, we can conclusively say that there is no other park like it.
Best Time to Visit: June-September
What to see: Nairobi Mosque, Galleria Mall, Ivory Burning Site Museum, rhinos, lions, hippos, cheetahs etc.
Murchison Falls (Uganda)
The 1951 film ‘The African Queen’ starring American classic film icon Humphrey Bogart (won his only Oscar for his role in this movie) and Katharine Hepburn was filmed in Murchison Falls National Park. You want to see or make history; this park is as historic as they come. Notable visitors to Murchison include Winston Churchill, Theodore Roosevelt, Ernest Hemingway, Prince William, Kanye West, Kim Kardashian etc.
Located in the Northern Hemisphere of Uganda, Murchison is astonishingly beautiful with palm-tree dotted grassy plains, home of 76 mammal species and 476 bird species. It’s Uganda’s biggest game reserve.
The Park is bisected by the Victoria Nile, which plunges 45m over the remnant rift valley wall, creating the dramatic Murchison Falls, the centerpiece of the park and the final event in an 80km stretch of rapids. This is the hardest waterfall anywhere in the world.
The mighty cascade drains the last of the river’s energy, transforming it into a broad, placid stream that flows quietly across the rift valley floor into Lake Albert. This stretch of river provides one of Uganda’s most remarkable wildlife spectacles. Regular visitors to the riverbanks include elephants, giraffes, and buffaloes; while hippos, Nile crocodiles, and aquatic birds are permanent residents.
Just nearby is your chance to see man’s closest cousins; the chimpanzees in Budongo Forest.
Budongo is home to over 600 chimps, of which over 50 are habituated for tourism.
Best time to visit: May to September
What to see: waterfalls, lions, elephants, leopards, giraffes, crocodile, hippos, antelopes, king fisher etc.
Tarangire National Park (Tanzania)
This semi-arid park is thickly vegetated with acacia shrubs, mixed woodland, huge baobab trees, and a big seasonal swamp network.
During the dry season thousands of animals concentrate in Tarangire from the surrounding wet-season dispersal and calving areas.
While here, you will have a game drive, mostly focusing on spots where you stand better chances of encountering lions, elephants, leopards, cheetahs, leopards, wildebeest, buffalos, antelopes, etc.
Best time to visit: July to October
What to see: elephant, lion, leopard, cheetah, eland, impala, gazelle, hartebeest, buffalo, wildebeest, and giraffe.
Amboseli National Park (Kenya)
Amboseli National Park in southern Kenya is famous for its large elephant herds and views of the immense Mount Kilimanjaro seen across the border in Tanzania. Observation Hill offers panoramas of the peak and the park’s plains and swamps. Varied wildlife includes giraffes, zebras, cheetahs, and hundreds of bird species.
Best time to visit: July to September
What to see: Kilimanjaro, cheetah, zebra, giraffe, birds etc.
Formed millions of years ago, the Ngorongoro Crater closed off its borders to man with the help of walls that rose to heights of 400 to 600 meters. As a result, nature was allowed to run free here and create some of the most exotic species of plants and animals that the world has ever seen.
For most nature lovers, the star of Ngorongoro is its crater. It is the largest intact volcanic caldera on planet earth, covering 260km sq. Its view is picture-perfect as you drive into the park through its tightly forested crater walls. It feels like entering a lost world. Its floor is a flat carpet of lush grasses and pools of fresh mineral-rich water that sustains thousands of animals inclusive of the Big 5: rhinos, lions, leopards, buffaloes, and elephants. Its calving ground is crowded with wildebeest.
Best time to visit: June to September
What to see: Black rhino, wildebeest, zebra, gazelle, elephant, topi, buffalo, cheetah, lion, spotted hyena, leopard, golden jackal, bat-eared fox.
Akagera is the first-class airline cabin of the continent’s Big 5 safari scene. Located in Eastern Rwanda, Akagera is a 25,00km2 savannah that is dominated by acacia trees, swampy lakes and open grassland. The Park is named after a major river tributary that feeds its lake system, the biggest of which is Lake Ihema. It is one of Africa’s most remarkable wild places, and a bucket list destination for any dedicated boat ride enthusiast.
You can’t go wrong with Akagera if you wish to encounter a balanced mix of both big and small mammals, the most commonly seen being African elephants (both savannah & forest species), cape buffalos, Masai giraffes, zebras, lions, black rhinos, leopards, hyenas and a variety of antelopes.
The exciting bonus is the world’s largest antelope, the Cape eland.
Thanks to its landscape of astonishing contrasts, Akagera is also home to nearly 500 bird species.
Best time to visit: All year
What to see: Lions, rhinos, hyenas, buffalos, birds etc.
Bwindi is everything about Mountain Gorillas. A vast 321km2 primate kingdom of over 450 mountain gorillas, of which 18 families are habituated for you to visit without worrying about them fighting you off.
It is like living in a real-life King Kong movie – minus the chaos. No safari experience inspires human imagination like standing shoulder to shoulder with these giant apes. Bwindi has the largest number of mountain gorillas in the world and the cheapest ticket to track them too. Expect no crowds of tourists here though because only eight people are allowed to track each of the 18 habituated gorilla families in a day.
Besides the primates, Bwindi is also a hot birdwatching spot.
Best time to visit: All year
What to see: Gorillas, chimpanzees, monkeys, birds, etc.
Queen Elizabeth (Uganda)
Uganda’s most-visited national park is also one of East Africa’s most-visited and loved.
The Park is home to 618 bird species which is the 6th highest diversity in the whole world and the highest in Africa, making it the perfect birder’s paradise. Queen Elizabeth is also the home of the famous tree-climbing lions.
Covering 1978km², the park’s diverse ecosystems, which include sprawling savanna, shady, humid forests, sparkling lakes, and fertile wetlands, make it the ideal habitat for classic big game, ten primate species including chimpanzees and another 94 mammal species.
Best time to visit: All year
What to see: Lions, Elephants, Crocodiles, hippos, chimpanzees, birds, etc.
Maasai Mara (Kenya)
Maasai Mara is the chosen set for most African wildlife films. This famed reserve is situated in the southwest of Kenya and is separated from the Serengeti by the mighty Mara River. Home to an incredible concentration of game year-round, this reserve also plays host to the millions of wildebeest, zebra, and other antelope that comprise the Great Migration in late summer and early fall. Situated along the Great Rift Valley, the Maasai Mara is a land of breathtaking views, endless plains, and abundant wildlife.
These include lions, elephants, leopards, lions, rhinos, cheetahs, Masai giraffes, side-striped jackals, serval cats, elands, hyenas, bat-eared foxes, baboons, black-backed jackals, warthogs, topi, impalas, Thompson’s gazelles, waterbucks, zebras, oribi and reedbucks. Over 400 species have been recorded in Maasai Mara since it was gazetted in 1961.
Best time to visit: June to October
What to see: Leopards, Wildebeest, Crocodiles, Lions, Zebras, Cheetahs, Hyenas, Antelopes, etc.
It is not by mistake that Serengeti is one of the three most visited National Parks in Africa, attracting over 330,000 visitors from different corners of the world each year. The Park is big in size, and it is big on big game too. It is home to 1,500,000+ wildebeest, over 200, zebras, more than 300,000 Thomson’s gazelles, lions, buffalos, elephants, giraffes, elands, impala, grant’s gazelle, topi, golden and black backed jackal, and kongoni among others.
Named after a native Maasai word that translates as “endless plains” in English, Serengeti is an enormous swathe of iconic African wilderness. Topping the list of adventures, you can’t miss here is the spectacular wildebeest migration which presents a perfect opportunity to watch over a million herds of wildebeest trooping through the open savannahs, with occasional acacia trees and Maasai giraffes dotting the hazy horizon behind them.
Thanks to this abundance of prey, the park’s 3,000 lions never go hungry, and neither do they permanently migrate away. As such, you don’t need to be extra lucky to encounter more than 100 lions, sometimes in prides of up to 15. You just need to be in the right place at the right time of the day.
If you particularly want to see register leopard sightings, a visit to the rugged granite kopjes that characterize the Seronera region of the park won’t disappoint you. Here, you also stand chances of watching cheetahs and their cute cubs as they devour fresh gazelle kills without a single other vehicle in sight.
Beyond the great migration, there is so much else from hot air balloon safaris, nature walks, night game drives and photographic tours. Whatever the season, get to Serengeti any way you can.
Best time to visit: June to October
What to see: Wildebeest, lions, leopards, crocodiles, zebras, antelopes etc.