Serengeti National Park – The unbiased safari guide

Woman watches over the Serengeti plains, filled with wildlife

The Serengeti, a mythical name that symbolises the wonder of Africa. It seems fictitious, something invented by Disney, with millions of wildebeest and a hyena talking like Whoopi Goldberg.

Yet once inside Serengeti National Park the experience is real. Grass extends, forever and ever, ever and ever. Zebra marching on the grass, Thomson’s gazelle skipping on the grass, wildebeest hooves creating a drum-roll along the grass.

This is one of the ultimate safari destinations, an immersion in the eternal rhythm of life. And yes, there are lions perched on sun-scorched rocks surveying their kingdom, just like in The Lion King.

If you have experienced the Serengeti you will know how it feels to be among the world’s largest population of wild four-legged mammals. But not everybody sees the park’s best side.

This unbiased guide talks you through the Serengeti and how to maximise your time on safari. It discusses different safari options and what to expect on a visit.

The Serengeti Can Be a Disappointment

Watching animals in the Serengeti causes a traffic jam

Get it right and this is the world’s ultimate wildlife experience. Elephants march across the horizon, baboons chatter around the camp, leopards prowl through the high grass, and in a single vista you see tens of thousands of animals.

The Serengeti is where you watch big cats chase their prey and devour bloody carcasses. It’s where spotted hyena howls echo through the night and wildebeest kick up dust on their annual migration. It’s where you are incredibly close to some of the wildest animal scenes on the planet.

However, this is not the experience for everyone. For some it turns out to be an expensive disappoint. Why?

Serengeti National Park is half the size of Belgium and it is mostly featureless. It’s easy to get lost and drive around in circles. Herds are continually on the move and most of the park is only populated with life for a few weeks or months a year. Here the safari is about matching where to go with when to go.

An abundance of budget operators turn some sections of the park into a circus show, especially during July and August, with a dozen vehicles crowded around one precious sighting. This is incredibly off-putting and you need a strategy to avoid the crowds.

Finally, the Serengeti is an expensive destination. It’s difficult to get to, can only realistically be reached on a guided tour, and the park fees can seem extortionate. So travellers reduce their visit to just one day – you can’t experience a park of this size in 24 hours!

Frequently Asked Serengeti Questions

Entrance gate to the famous Serengeti National Park in Tanzania

Where is Serengeti National Park?

This vast ecosystem is located in northern Tanzania and is contiguous with Ngorongoro Conservation Area. The Serengeti ecosystem extends across the border into Kenya, where it becomes known as the Masai Mara.

What does Serengeti mean?

Endless plains of the Serengeti seen from a hill

This is a Masai word that translates as “endless plains”. Local Masai have been moved out of the park since it was designated a national park.

What is the best time of year to visit the Serengeti?

Every month of the year can be great. It all depends on where you visit in the Serengeti (see below).

How much does a Serengeti safari cost?

Incredible view from Kubu Kubu Camp

Anything from USD 150 – 1000+ per person per day dependent on the level of comfort and how you get around (see the options below).

What should I wear for a Serengeti safari?

Comfortable lightweight clothing is important and don’t wear blue or black as these colours attract tsetse flies. However, there is no need to dress like the safari cliché in a full khaki outfit.

Do not bring walking boots as these are heavy and cumbersome, and walking safaris are not possible in Serengeti National Park.

Regular visitors to the Serengeti always laugh at the standard safari suits worn by most visitors. Why bring walking boots when the furthest you are allowed to walk is ten metres from the vehicle to the tent?

Animals You See on a Serengeti Safari

Herd of wildebeest in the Serengeti

Picture the scene: you’re sat in a camping chair, looking across the Serengeti plains at sunset.

Across the grasslands comes a soft rumble, the drum-roll created by hooves on the move. Zebra are around the camp, grazing just metres from tents. Elephants have turned to silhouettes along the horizon. Through the night you hear lions roar.

The Serengeti is an animal kingdom. No people live here and it really feels as if you are a visitor in their world.

Animals are not everywhere. But where there are animals there are usually tens or hundreds of thousands.

Over 1.5 million wildebeest live here and these form the bulk of the great wildebeest migration, an ongoing spectacle that can be witnessed every month of the year. Read the when and where of the great wildebeest migration here.

Some 200,000 zebra join them on the journey. Close to half a million Thomson’s gazelle thrive on these plains as well.

Herd of Thomson's gazelle on the Serengeti plains

These three ungulates provide food for an astonishing abundance of predators. It’s believed that there are more big cats here than anywhere else in Africa. It allows lions and leopards to have relatively small territories. Open plains are ideal for cheetahs to use their speed and hunt gazelle.

Serval, black-backed jackal, and African wildcat are smaller but equally populous. Spotted hyena follow the migration and you can see dozens of them on every single game drive.

Then there are other giants. Hippos fill the waterholes. Elephants maraud between woodlands on the park’s outskirts. Giraffe are so easy to find on open plains. Buffalo march in large herds.

The list keeps going. Hartebeest, impala, Grant’s gazelle, eland, topi, baboon, vervet monkey, and many others.

The Serengeti Safari Experience

Leopard on dusty road in the Serengeti

The safari here is a little different to other destinations, especially if you are accustomed to South Africa and twice daily game drives in a private concession.

Experiences in Serengeti National Park are all about movement and responding to what is happening right now.

Full-day game drives

This is a huge park and it takes a good two days to cross it. Short game drives may be useful in a small reserve but in the Serengeti you need to drive and drive.

The most common daily itinerary is to take a packed lunch and spend the entire day on a game drive.

Starting at dawn is essential as this is the best time to spot predatory scenes. Even if you don’t see a kill there’s a good chance to witness lions eating their meal or to see a carcass high in a tree.

Spotted hyena running away from clan member, with a topi head in its mouth

Note that dust swirls behind the safari vehicle as you cross the plains. It’s hot and there is very little shade. Plus you can’t use air conditioning as the roof must be open to provide a safari view.

Long drives are essential because you must first locate the animals. While the Serengeti appears flat and featureless there are countless ridges to cross. Guides at larger companies use radios to inform each other of GPS locations, making the process of finding animals much quicker.

Once with the animals you will want to stay. When there are hundreds of thousands of wild mammals in a single scene there is almost too much to admire. So you want to stay out with the herds.

It doesn’t make sense to backtrack to the camp for lunch, as it just adds to the driving time. Furthermore, many safaris use a different camp each night, so a full-day game drive is part of the journey between different park locations.

No walks or off-roading

Walking safaris are not permitted in Serengeti National Park. They are possible in Grumeti Game Reserve,which is located to the west of the national park.

Vehicles are not permitted to drive off the trails. There is a name and shame board highlighting offenders at the park’s visitor centre. Those caught going off trail are banned from entering the park and lose their livelihood for a few months.

The only divergence from this is from January to March in the southeastern Serengeti. This is wildebeest calving season and vehicles are allowed off road – because it’s a seasonal destination the grassland has nine months to recover.

Note that it is technically possible to take your own vehicle into Serengeti National Park. However, the park fees involved mean that this is more expensive than going with a tour company.

Easy game viewing

Herd of elephants on the Serengeti plains, at sunset

Once you have located the herds the game viewing is incredibly easy. Look out from a vehicle and there could be over 100,000 animals in a single vista.

Open plains provide excellent visibility, in comparison to woodland, where often you can’t see the leopard for the trees. 🙂

The tried and trusted method for encountering big cats is to look to the horizon and drive towards a location where more than one safari vehicle has stopped. Unfortunately, this can result in some very crowded experiences in July and August.

These months are worst because budget tour companies stick to south and central Serengeti, where there are fewest animals (in July and August you really need to be in the north).

Lions are easily encountered as they bask on the open plains or around kopjes, large boulders that intersperse the plains and were inspiration for The Lion King. Hyena are continually on the move. Leopards and cheetahs are a little harder to find, but the Serengeti is still one of the best places in Africa for encounters.

A focus on dramatic battles

In Serengeti National Park you don’t tick off animals but search for nature’s most evocative scenes.

A leopard disappearing into the grass to stalk a gazelle. Lions tossing away zebra bones as they devour a carcass. Wildebeest rutting, showing off their strength and suitability as a mate. Spotted hyena finding a zebra that’s stuck in the mud and eating it within an hour.

Look back on any Serengeti safari and the highlight is not the animals you have seen but the animal behaviour. And for almost every visitor, these highlights are dominated by intense battles between predators and prey.

Camping on the plains

Safari camp in the Serengeti, with storm moving in

There are only a couple of lodges in Serengeti National Park and these are not recommended. Such a vast animal-dominated landscape can lose its charm when there are 100 other visitors at the lodge.

Mostly the grasslands are dotted with small and intimate camps. Forget swimming pools and luxurious extras. These are simple, comfortable and relatively good value.

Expect a comfortable bed, a private bathroom with hot water available at pre-arranged times, plus a dining area with a view.

Some camps move with the migration and set up in different parts of the park at different times of year. The most exclusive are private mobile camps that pack up every few days as they follow the herds.

The cheapest place to stay is one of Serengeti National Park’s public campsites. These are used by all the budget tour operators. Facilities are very basic and some only have a long-drop toilet and nothing else. Still, they can be comfortable and you do get the incredible feeling of camping in the Serengeti!

Visitors to these camps need to be self-sufficient, including their tents and sleeping bags. This is usually arranged by the tour company.

Serengeti Safari Tour Options

Safari vehicle creates a cloud of dust in Tanzania

These options are presented in price order, from the cheapest to most expensive. Budget tours are easily arranged once in Tanzania. Expensive tours need more early planning.

1. Group northern circuit tour with a budget Tanzanian operator

There are over 100 tour operators in Arusha and Moshi. They run small-group tours on Tanzania’s northern circuit, combining the Serengeti with Ngorongoro, and one or both of Lake Manyara and Tarangire.

You pay for a seat on a tour. Most vehicles only takes seven passengers so this is the tour maximum, although it can be a little cramped.

You will stay at public campsites. Usually there is one driver who is also the guide.

Expect to pay upwards of USD 150 per person per day. This price is heavily dictated by who you book with. Sometimes one tout on the street is selling your business to a Tanzanian safari operator who then passes you on to another operator. Each layer adds commission and unnecessary expense.

Note that most budget operators only spend 24 hours in the Serengeti as this is the cheapest thing to do. It’s highly recommended to find an outfit doing 48 hours instead.

Don’t book with touts on the street. It’s better to Google Tanzanian safari outfits and visit their office in person.

It’s easier to negotiate hard if you are flexible with dates and route. With so many operators it’s easy to walk away and try somewhere else. Give the name of your hotel to the safari company and they will come see you later in the day, usually with a better price.

2. Private Serengeti and Northern Circuit overland tours

Zebra crossing the road in front of tourists

Private safaris are more expensive for one to three people but the price per person is similar once you get four in a vehicle. They are naturally a good choice for families.

With private safaris you can choose whether to stay at public campsites (cheaper) or fixed camps (more comfortable). You can decide the route and may want to spend three days in the Serengeti.

Having a driver and a guide costs more and is definitely worth the expense.

With four people staying in budget camps (not public campsites) expect to pay USD 300 per person per day upwards. Again, the best prices are achieved by booking direct through Tanzanian operators.

To have an amazing Serengeti safari experience you do not need to go beyond this price point. You just need some advice and recommendations on good local operators.

3. Serengeti overland tours (booked internationally)

These tours are the same as private Serengeti tours booked in Tanzania. They are private and can be tailored to your comfort levels and preferences.

However, booking with an international agent usually adds 50% onto the price. These agents then use local Tanzanian operators to deliver the safari.

For some this is acceptable. Book with a trusted international agent and you can have confidence in the quality of the local safari outfit. It also reduces the stress of finding a tour when you only have a short time in the Serengeti.

4. Luxury fly-in Serengeti tours

Small tourist plane leaves the Serengeti airstrip

Visitors on high-end tours typically fly directly into the Serengeti National Park using light aircraft. Then they stay at one of the park’s top camps. These camps have their own vehicles and guides to conduct game drives.

This option costs upwards of USD 1000 per person per day. However, it provides the highest quality and maximises the time available. So it’s the safari of choice for wealthy visitors who only have a few days to go on safari.

Making the Most of a Serengeti Safari

Hippo grazing on the Serengeti plains, with hot air balloons in the background

1. Plan a route based on the time of year

Every month in the Serengeti is incredible. A good Serengeti safari revolves around matching the month with the location.

Read this guide on the great wildebeest migration. It will show you where the animals are at different times of the year, along with the best region to choose for each month.

Almost every Serengeti overland safari must first travel through Ngorongoro Conservation Area. That means you must pay Ngorongoro conservation fees. Therefore it makes sense to stop and do a safari in Ngorongoro Crater.

Adding Tarangire and Lake Manyara is personal choice. These are cheaper destinations so the price per day will increase if you skip them. Plus, a little introduction goes a long way. Get your bearings and tune your senses in these parks, then explore the greatest safari destination of them all.

2. Spend at least 48 hours

Sleeping male lion with dead wildebeest

Park fees are paid per 24 hours so it makes sense to maximise these hours.

24 hours is never recommended. The only time this is even slightly okay is during January to March, when the wildebeest are in southeastern Serengeti and you don’t need to first cross the park.

Although each day is expensive, visiting the Serengeti is one of the world’s greatest travel highlights. One day simply isn’t enough to see the best of it.

48 hours is better and allows for a good appreciation of scale. With this much time you can reach just about anywhere in Serengeti National Park and see the large herds.

72 or 96 hours is ideal. This allows you to stay in different camps and follow animal patterns, as well as ensuring you get the complete wildebeest herd experience.

To save valuable safari time consider leaving the park from the west, rather than backtracking to Arusha. Doing this means less driving and more time on safari. And it’s a wonderful experience to cross the Serengeti and exit from the opposite side.

You can then continue by road to Mwanza, from where there are budget airline flights back to Kilimanjaro International near Moshi and Arusha.

3. Be prepared to be in bed by 8pm each evening

For the best animal encounters you need to be driving from dawn until dusk. That means very early starts and early to bed.

Africa Freak contributors have often been shocked to find people preferring a morning lie in over a game drive – in the Serengeti of all places!

Guides are usually very flexible and will adjust timings to your energy levels, even on budget overland tours.

So start early, stop for coffee when the mid-morning heat arrives, have a snooze somewhere during the journey, and get your energy back for the active hours just before sunset.

4. Put the camera down

A pair of bat-eared foxes in the Serengeti

We all want good photos but taking them does interrupt the safari experience.

For example, the guide spots a leopard and immediately everyone reaches for their camera, desperate for a good shot. But the leopard is 50 metres away and hiding in the grass – it’s not going to look good on an iPhone, regardless of the filter.

With a Serengeti safari you will encounter many thousands of animals. You will get incredible photos. So first enjoy the encounters and appreciate wildlife behaviour. Then reach for your camera and get the photos.

5. Serengeti travel advice

Independent travellers can visit Arusha and Moshi where they can plan and book a safari with Tanzanian safari operators.

The more experience you have with Africa the easier it will be to get a good deal.

For first-time visitors to Africa we have a partnership with a trusted safari advisor, who can connect you with Tanzanian partners and operators. You can do this by clicking here.

Africa Freak contributors have been on hundreds of safaris and understand the benefits of having a great local guide. We also know that a little knowledge can save visitors money, especially at a destination like Serengeti National Park.

Happy Safari

Cheetah scanning the horizon from a termite mound

Don’t feel stressed by planning. You are going to love it and it can live up to all the hype if you follow our simple tips. 😉

Safari njema! 

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