If you’re planning (or dreaming of) an African safari, there are a few things to know and a few things you can forget.
Here’s your guide to both.
PICKING A SAFARI COMPANY
I imagine much of Africa doesn’t require a guide, but a safari does. See, Africa’s national parks and private reserves are full of free-roaming wild animals; as much as that sounds like something you want to run towards with your arms open and a huge smile on your face, imagine that same face skinned like a grape.
I’m all for a challenge, but in this case, it’s best to let someone else squire you around. Thing is, almost without exception, safaris are expensive.
A budget to mid-range safari company can save you money on your lodgings and transfers, but national park entry fees for safari vehicles will still be high and it isn’t cheap to procure food, water and supplies in remote places.
Going the luxury route gains you access to well maintained, privately-held reserves with lodgings that are anywhere from unique to spectacular, but too much pampering might leave you feeling removed from local culture. You can keep costs to a dull roar by sharing a vehicle with other guests and not adding private or extra excursions.
Well-trained guides can be found in all categories. Since they’re the ones with whom you’ll spend most of your time, know that it’s they who can really make or break your trip.
No matter the level of luxury you want, you can save money by booking on the spot, in person. It’s a calculated risk to not book ahead, but upon your arrival in the airports of major cities like Nairobi, Arusha, Maun and Johannesburg, you could check out information on various safari companies and simply see who has vacancies. While booking ahead from overseas can give you peace of mind, it generally incurs large fees and gives you a third-party, removed point of reference as your contact.
Personally, I can offer my wholehearted, positive recommendation of the luxury safari company we booked, & Beyond; the guides, lodgings, food, service, people and wildlife experiences were all wonderful, wrapped up in a company that’s fiercely committed to Africa and the environment.
To narrow down the vast list of companies that will hopefully suit you both, try these resources:
WHEN TO GO
April through August are the least expensive months to visit East and Southern Africa, where you’ll find most of Africa’s safari opportunities.
April-May is the main rainy season in this part of the Earth, and if you don’t mind being wet during the day and cold at night, you’ll potentially save hundreds of dollars a day and find smaller crowds at popular parks. However, be advised that some parks in East Africa close during this period.
Late May to early June is generally a good across-the-board bet for shoulder season savings.
June through August, grasses are at their highest, making it potentially harder to spot game.
Late September to mid-November is the most popular and expensive time to go on safari, after months of grazing yield lower grasses and before the highest summer temperatures begin in the Southern Hemisphere.
Here’s the general schedule for the Great Wildebeest Migration:
April to June: migration begins heading from Tanzania’s southern Serengeti towards the Western Corridor
June to July: migration reaches its first major obstacle, Tanzania’s Grumeti River
July to September: wildebeest continue north and begin to arrive in Kenya’s Masai Mara
October: wildebeest linger, grazing, in the Masai Mara, crossing and re-crossing the Mara River
November to December: migration heads back to the southern Serengeti
June to August is the best time to see the most active, dramatic portion of the migration. Many safari camps in this area are mobile, and will pick up every few weeks and follow the migration on its path.
January to mid-March is the calving season in the eastern Serengeti, and provides a chance to see thousands of baby animals.
Long-distance flights to Africa from just about anywhere aren’t cheap.
If you have airline miles, now would be the time to cash them in. However, you won’t be rewarded for spontaneity.
With only four months of lead time, I was unable to use our Star Alliance miles to fly from Los Angeles to Johannesburg; all eligible seats within a one-week window of our desired schedule were already booked. I was advised by a US Airways rep and two travel agents to allow a lead time of at least 8 months when trying to use airline miles to fly to East and Southern Africa, and even longer during the late September to mid-November high season.
Premium seats on any airline proved to be laughably prohibitive (my favorite? approximately $12,000 for us both to fly business class on swanktacular Emirates), so my coach-comparison shopping started with SeatGuru. Turns out Virgin Atlantic‘s coach seats had the farthest pitch, the widest span and the best entertainment systems for our endless route; to boot, VA’s North American flights stop in London, allowing for a fun city break for those who can afford (in terms of budget and time) to take an extra few days.
Our biggest scheduling challenges involved our flights. It wasn’t easy for Adam to take off a whopping 16 days, but this included two days of overseas travel time on either side and one between two countries. Our overseas flights required approximately 22 hours of travel time apiece, and my decision to visit both Botswana and Tanzania on this trip (countries that aren’t especially near one another) required spending an 8-hour layover in Johannesburg followed by a redeye to Arusha.
Know that when transferring between major and medium-sized airports, there will often be only one flight a day.
In case your flight schedules/vacation time are especially tight, know that safari companies can arrange for an expediter to help you make your connections, but you may still have to hustle like you’ve never hustled before. You may also have to budget time and money for overnights in order to make early-morning flights.
For example, our arrival time at Johannesburg’s Tambo Airport was a very tight fit with the one daily connecting flight to Maun, Botswana. Even in the company of an expediter, who made sure we were fast-tracked through baggage and customs, we had to hoof it at breakneck speed through much of Tambo to catch the flight…and still, one of our bags (containing all of Adam’s clothes) didn’t make it until the next day.
Then at the end of our vacation, we left northwestern Tanzania via Nairobi, requiring us to leave our final camp by noon to catch the one daily connecting flight from Arusha. We then had to spend one quick night in downtown Nairobi, only to leave at 5am the next morning.
For those who are nervous about flying, know that most safaris will require charter flights on 8- to 30-passenger planes. Driving is rarely your best option, if it’s an option at all. In most private reserves in East and Southern Africa, only authorized personnel can drive between camps. Major roads happily skirt protected areas (I’m talking to you, presently proposed and surely devastating Serengeti Highway), but this can make driving between parks and countries a long, arduous undertaking.
In Africa, charter flights can save entire days of travel time.
Our one surprise was visa fees. Foolishly, I hadn’t taken the time to specifically check our paperwork from the safari company, which stated that it was our responsibility to research visa fees for each country we’d enter. Having never done this before for any country we’ve visited, I hadn’t even thought of it. Fortunately, we traveled with a fair bit of cash in case of emergencies, because in Tanzania in particular, the cost for each American traveler to enter the country is $165 US, in cash.
This handy website allows travelers from the US, Canada and the UK you to check visa fees in countries all over the Earth. It also allows you to purchase your visa(s) ahead of time using credit card, PayPal and more.
For a trip to Africa, every reputable safari company will tell you that it’s necessary to have your vaccinations in order. To see what you’ll need, check the CDC page(s) for the country/countries you’re planning to visit.
I’m not sure if it’s cheaper to go to your regular doctor for your shots, but I do know that for us, it was a fortune to go to a dedicated traveler’s immunization center. For a combined $900, we were given vaccinations for Hepatitis A, yellow fever, polio, typhoid and more, as well as a folder with print-outs on outbreak/health warnings for the countries we’d be visiting and yellow certificates of vaccination that we were told we’d need to present upon entrance to each country.
However, the only place we were actually ever asked for our immunization cards was Tanzania, and at that, only upon initial entrance to the country. We even stopped taking our malaria pills after a few days; once there, we learned that the most heavily-touristed areas of Botswana and Tanzania are just not a big problem. If we had been going way off the beaten path or staying in a town with water sanitation issues, we would have kept taking them. Instead, all we really had to show for our vaccination/medical expense was a strange mix of peace of mind and mild disgruntlement.
To get great shots of wildlife and the unusual landscapes you’ll encounter on safari, it’s ideal to bring a zoom lens with an optical zoom of 200mm telephoto or more, and wide-angle capability of 18-24mm.
If you’d rather just bring a digital pocket camera, choose one with a 12-20x digital zoom.
For night safaris, you might want to bring a small tripod that can be clipped onto the window of your safari vehicle. The magnetic version of the Gorilla Pod would be an excellent choice.
If you’re bringing a large lens, camera base or even multiple lenses, know that weight is going to be your biggest challenge.
While actually out on safari, you’ll be in a vehicle for hours at a time and can rest your equipment on a seat; however, between camps and cities, you’ll need to be able to schlep your equipment through airports and on and off small planes. You’ll also want to be able to lift and position your camera/lens combo at a moment’s notice, when animals suddenly pop into view.
In other words…don’t do as Adam and I did. The circa-1995 Canon behemoth we brought along was a loan from Adam’s business partner, and though it did allow us to take some astonishing photos, it was a beast to switch out and handle, every time.
WHAT TO PACK
The key to safari packing is: keep it simple and light. Most safari companies will ask that you keep your luggage weight to an average of 33 lbs. per person; you’re only allowed one small, soft bag and one carry-on each when you fly charter flights.
When preparing to shop for clothes and gear, we consulted this Complete Safari Packing List; it was helpful, but the suggested gear was a bit of overkill for a luxury safari. Unless you’re planning to follow in the footsteps of Speke and Livingstone, know that there will generally be laundry services available and you’ll need a lot less of everything than you think.
Don’t bring anything red (or particularly bright) to wear out on safari. The whole point of a safari is to stay as invisible as possible and let wild animals think that your safari vehicle is just another wild animal. Stick to earth tones and avoid attracting unwanted attention.
Do make sure to wear/bring one comfortable, smart outfit for international plane travel and city-based layovers.
What we each brought for our 2-week October safari:
Fleece zip-up hoodie
Fleece-lined, waterproof jackets for seasonally cold mornings and evenings and possible rain
One long-sleeved safari shirt
One short-sleeved safari shirt
Two pairs of casual shorts
One pair of dressier shorts
One pair of (super-sexy) zip-off, convertible pants/shorts
One pair of jeans
Comfortable hiking shoes, not boots
Lighter sneakers, for wearing in safari vehicles and on charter flights
Four pairs of socks, apiece
Four pairs of underwear, apiece
A bathing suit
Two outfits’ worth of sleepwear
Adam also brought:
One dress shirt
A dress belt
A baseball cap
An additional pair of jeans
I also brought:
A wide cotton scarf
One sleeveless wrap dress*
A dressy cotton tank
One short-sleeved dress blouse
A knee-length cotton skirt*
Leather flats with a rubber sole
A packable linen, 50 SPF-treated sun hat
*I could have easily dispensed with these items.
We packed all our stuff in:
A large camping backpack
Three small (but sturdy) nylon carry-on bags
A camera backpack
A small daypack
We didn’t get the balance quite right (the heavy camera backpack didn’t help) and were charged luggage fees on Virgin Atlantic when leaving L.A. and again upon our departure from Nairobi.
Next time, as Bullwinkle might say, for sure.
Off to (a Birthday Safari in) Africa
Africa: Turns Out, It’s Really There
South Africa: From Plains to Mountains
Southern Africa: A “Spafari” Adventure – Part 1
Southern Africa: A “Spafari” Adventure – Part 2