Having guided hundreds of safari seekers in the East African wilderness, I figured that it was worth compiling an African safari planning guide that hopefully provides some real answers to the questions that I am most frequently asked by people who are considering an African safari.
I’ve based this article on the most frequent questions about African safari that I have been asked over the years. After all what better a reference point could one have than the questions that have been asked by others who were planning an African Safari.
Being born on the foothills of snow capped Mount Kilimanjaro and being raised on the wildlife corridors of Amboseli National Park in Kenya, I would say my love for safari started at an early age. From the year 2004 I started becoming involved with African wildlife conservation projects and subsequently starting an African safari tour company in Kenya.
Since inception, my firm has been raising funds for wildlife conservation projects in Kenya, as I believe that wildlife conservation and tourism must work hand in hand. In real sense without one there can’t be the other.
But it is not my goal for this holiday planning guide to be a sales leaflet for my safaris in Africa, but rather to provide you with sufficient information to make a reasoned decision when choosing your African Safari.
What is an African Safari?
Sounds a simple question, but it’s a good one. Safari is the Swahili name for ‘journey’ and by following Wikipedia definition; an African safari is an overland journey, usually a trip by tourists to Africa.
The word safari is synonymous with adventure and the discovery of wildlife and habitats of Africa continent. When one thinks of a safari one thinks of Africa continent and its vast wildlife population.
Traditionally, an African Safari tended to be seen as an expensive holiday meant for the wealthy and with only one menu on its itinerary – big game hunting. Today safaris to Africa have evolved from the days when the name safari only meant hunting animals and majority of visitors to Africa take their shots with a camera and not with a hunting rifle.
African Safari evolution continues and we are now moving into an era where visitors quite justifiably, want more than just to be taken to game reserves and enjoying stylish bush camps.
Of-course those things are core elements of any safari itinerary but moreover modern tours in Africa also provide opportunities for safari seekers to ‘experience the real Africa’, to understand the real tourism conservation issues and in many cases get involved with conservation.
What Types of African Safari are there?
Safari to African wilderness can be undertaken in many ways – from the Do It Yourself self-drive right through to a private luxury flying safari.
When you are planning your safari to Africa, there are a number of factors to consider which we will cover later. However as far as the kind of safari goes, then your preference should be determined by the types of animals you want to see, the time of year you wish to travel, your preferred accommodation needs and of-course what you can afford to pay.
There are four basic types of African safari. I’ve given a short description of each safari type that you can find in Africa.
Self drive tour – This is not a guided safari but one where with a hired vehicle; you undertake your own safari to chosen destinations. This type of safari option is somehow economical, flexible and it is increasingly popular option for exploring Africa.
Many Game Reserves such as the Masai Mara in Kenya are open to the general public allowing you to drive the myriad of roads looking for animals. However it would be bad of me not to insert a word of caution. Unless you have experience in driving in Africa then please consider the safety aspects of driving in Africa and the likely hidden extra costs.
Guided safari tour – On a guided safari you will usually travel in a group often using 4×4 vehicles, minibus or overland trucks. The tour itineraries will be set on a day by day schedule which you will know in advance and includes accommodation, meals and activities. A professional tour guide will stay with you to coordinate and direct the tour.
This is the type of safari that I recommend to everyone considering an African safari. Of-course I would say that, after all I own and run a safari company. But that is not the main reason that I recommend a guided safari tour.
This form of safari provides the best African tour experience because they are often well researched, the guides are very well informed and it can make travel possible in some of the more remote parts of Africa.
Reserve / lodge safari – This type of an African safari is based on one particular reserve or lodge. In other word you won’t move from one national park to another during your safari. It is best suited to those who are considering honeymoon safari holiday.
Bush and beach safari - Normally a tour package with a number of days spent on a guided safari and ending with several days at a beach resort. However the distances between wildlife venues and the beach resorts can make this a more expensive holiday option than a stand-alone wildlife safari.
What’s the best way to see the animals while on safari?
Whether you’re staying at an exclusive luxury lodge or a rustic campsite, each day while on an African safari, you’ll make it out into the bush to catch a glimpse of the wildlife. There are several ways to venture out. Here are some of my examples:
- Walking safaris – A privately escorted foot safari is the best way to really experience the African wilderness at its best. This is an experience that will make you feel more alive.
- Balloon Safaris – A hot air balloon is the perfect safari vehicle able to glide silently across the African plains without disturbing the animals below, and at the flick of a hot air burner the basket can be whisked from a high altitude viewpoint to skim low across the wildlife corridors.
- Mobile safaris – These tours usually make use of vehicles driven by experienced tour guides to roam over a wider area, and they’re the preferred style in many safari destinations. In many mobile safaris you can end up visiting more than three game reserves on a seven day package.
- Fly-in safaris – These trips use aircraft to cover an even larger area more quickly than the normal tour vehicles. It’s also a great way to witness the breathtaking vastness of Africa from the air. Many tour companies refer this tour as “African safari in style.”
- Canoe safaris — These trips involve paddling down canoes on rivers between camps and lodges, with stops along the way for walking ventures in the wild. This is safari is mostly found along river Zambezi.
What is the best safari destination in Africa?
There are many great locations throughout the continent that will allow you to achieve a successful African safari holiday. Each country in Africa offers its own set of exotic animals and natural wonders.
Here’s a basic coverage of what you might encounter on safaris in the African countries that are most popular for safari adventures:
Kenya (Maasai Mara National Reserve) – In the southwest of Kenya, the Masai Mara National Reserve is my preferred holiday destination for a safari. If you don’t find animals here, then you will never see them.
This park is a haven for all of the big five, and the good thing is that you may see all of them in a single morning. From the month of July through October you can witness the incredible Great wildebeest migration.
Game drives in Masai Mara are taken in closed vehicles or mini buses with opening roofs, as opposed to the open game drive Landover vehicles used in Southern Africa. In my experience this doesn’t diminish your game viewing experience since you are still likely to see some wonderful game species.
The Maasai community living around the game reserve also offers cultural village tours which will enhance your holiday experience in Africa.
Tanzania (Serengeti National Park) – This Park is the nation’s treasure and offers the absolute classic African safari setting. The savannah vegetation make the Serengeti fantastic for spotting lion kills because you can see the whole spectacle unfold clearly.
There is plenty of accommodation to choose from within the Serengeti National Park, from basic camping to exclusive luxury safaris lodges.
South Africa (Kruger National Park) – The Park is boosted by the country’s excellent infrastructure that provides ease of transportation. Most of the big five game in South Africa is concentrated in this well organized national park.
Kruger National Park has the highest variety of wildlife in South Africa which includes the elephants, hippos, crocodiles, cheetah and many more. The park is one of the best managed parks in Africa which means its ideal for a self-drive safari and family safaris.
When is the best time to go on an African Safari?
This is perhaps the most frequently asked question. My advice is to focus on the reason that you are going on an African safari to see wildlife. Therefore the best time for an African safari is when the animals are easy to locate and in dense numbers. In addition it will depend on the country you would like to visit and when you are able to travel.
In Africa, different seasons offer different wildlife viewing opportunities. Generally, the dry season is the best time to see animals – it’s easier to get around in Africa during the dry season, which in east and southern Africa runs from June through October.
During the dry season, animals tend to congregate around water holes and rivers, making it easy for you to spot and view wildlife. Plus, the vegetation is less dense, so you can get a better view of them.
One disadvantage to the dry season, however, is that it is part of year when lodges and camps are most crowded, and the safari packages are often the highest.
In reality, though, the ideal season to go on an African safari ultimately really depends on which Game Reserves you want to visit and what animals you hope to see. If you’re primarily interested in birding safaris, for example, the rainy season is the best time to visit many areas.
All said seasons differ in different parts of Africa so you can really plan a great safari for almost every month of the year, if you are flexible about the destination you want to go to.
Is it safe to go on an African safari?
The answer to this question is a resounding “Yes – if you know where to go!”
African safaris are one of the fastest growing segments of the travel market but because travelers are often unfamiliar with the geography of Africa, negative news reports from one country in Africa will often scare would be travelers away from perfectly safe safari destinations such as Botswana, Kenya, Namibia, Tanzania, Uganda and Zambia.
It must be understood that travel advisory concerns arising from a negative event in one African country do not apply to the whole of Africa – they are generally isolated to specific geographical pockets. As an example travel safety concerns relating to 1996 Los Angeles riots did not apply to a trip to Waikiki beach at the same time.
But when in the African bush every safari has an element of danger and you will be getting relatively close to wild animals. Here you’ll be relying on your guides’ ability and experience. Guides understand animal behavior and know when it is a good time to say view wildlife from an open vehicle and when it is time to move away.
It is your tour guides’ job to locate wildlife in a considerate manner that keeps visitors and animals safe. Most safari operators and guides at the various lodges and national parks will stress basic precautions you need to take while game viewing. Stick to your guides’ advice and all should be well.
Do I need insurance to travel to Africa?
The answer is yes you will need travel insurance that covers you for medical expenses, repatriation and even lost luggage. I believe that comes as no surprise to anyone. A wildlife safari to Africa will normally fall under general travel insurance, but it’s worth checking with your insurance company.
What about contracting diseases during my safari?
The most serious disease a traveler should be aware during an African safari is malaria. The risk for this tropical disease varies widely by region and season – during the wet seasons the risk is much higher than during the dry season.
Regardless of the time of year you intend to travel to Africa anti malaria drugs should be taken. Secondly, by wearing long sleeve shirts, long pants, socks and insect repellent at dawn and dusk the risk of being bitten is greatly reduced.
During your safari you’ll often see even the toughest guides dressed in khaki shorts; quickly spraying their legs and arms before an evening game drive, especially during the rainy seasons.
Most lodges and camps in African wilderness provide mosquito nets around your bed for use at night. As well as looking romantic, they help you relax and enjoy a restful sleep without need to worry about Mosquitoes.
What is the cost of an African safari?
To be honest it’s difficult to set a rule-of-thumb for what you should spend on your African safari since there so many different options. I always recommend to do some research on what you would like to see in Africa and then balance against your holiday budget.
Factors such as your fitness level, age and comfort expectations will always determine the amount of money you are going to spend for your African holiday.
When it comes to African safari prices, there are price ranges to suit almost every travel budget. At the high end of the market, a tourist who wants luxury can book accommodations at an exclusive lodge for $1,500 a night. At the other end, tourists can get by spending about that much for an entire seven day budget safari, as long as they’re comfortable pitching a tent with the group out in the wild.
There are ways that you can make your tour cheaper without cheapening your safari. Travel to Africa in the off-season. Books have been written that the dry season is the best time to go on safari. But if you go on a small safari trip to private game reserves in Africa with a great guide then you will have an incredible safari in any ‘off –season’, and that is when you can find some low-cost safaris.
How important is the guide on a safari?
Your guide is undoubtedly the most important person, other than yourself, on any safari. Always when on a safari go with a guide and always listen to your guide. Guides will often be in radio contact with each other, so if one spots a spectacular lion kill they can let your party know so you get to see it too.
A guide is also useful in identifying different animal species. Even if you carry a detailed wildlife guide book, it can be difficult to tell the difference between a female sable and an impala when they are running.
Listening to your guide may sound like a no-brainer, but being a guide myself I know what I am talking about. I have experienced when I drive near to an animal and say “stay seated please,” and then the guests spots the animal and leap to their feet with their cameras, scaring it away.
A guide can make your African Safari a very successful one. If you are good to your guide, your guide will be good to you and will take you to the best wildlife spots and don’t take them or their advice for granted.
Most of the time guide knows the park, the animals in it, and their locations. If you want to see lions, for example, your guide will know a couple of places they’ve been spotted recently. With a guide your chances of encountering animals are greatly increased.
What happens on an African Safari?
Other than traveling to and from Africa, your safari in Africa will basically encompass visiting national parks, visiting local communities and staying on bush lodges. You will probably visit several different game parks during your safari to vary your wildlife, cultural and lodge experiences.
Normally game drives are conducted each morning and evening and traverse the game reserve where you are staying. This is often the best time to see wildlife and can be, if you are travelling at a hot time of year, deliciously cool.
During the heat of the day there is usually time to relax and enjoy the serenity of your surroundings before the evening game drive.
Your type of safari in Africa will decide how the safari unfolds but it is important to remember you are there for a vacation, so try and balance wildlife activities with time for some relaxation.
What is the accommodation like?
Accommodation will vary greatly, from basic rustic tents for the more adventurous safari seekers to the huge decadent lodges for those who want to really indulge themselves. It is very easy to check out the facilities of an accommodation at any particular African destination, via their websites.
Whether you prefer a posh suite, complete with claw bath and his and hers sinks or a more modest canvas tent is entirely your decision. A fantastic African safari experience awaits you wherever you choose to lay your head.
What do I take on An African Safari?
An African safari is an expensive holiday, so it pays to seek the expertise of an experienced professional – and there is no charge for their time and advice.
Definitely if you plan your safari early enough then you’ll ensure that you won’t have any unpleasant surprises on your safari holiday in Africa.
You probably already know that you’ll need a valid passport and visa, travel insurance, prophylactic shots before you leave your country. But here are some other things you’ll need for almost any kind of holiday:
Camera equipment – Ideally, take both a digital SLR with interchangeable lenses to capture images of wildlife and the surrounding, and a cheap point-and-shoot camera that you can pull from your pocket to capture the human side of the trip.
Adapters for charging electronic devices — Electrical service in Africa is at a higher voltage rate than in the United States, so you’ll need the right adapter plug to charge your devices. You can buy a kit with the types needed for various African countries.
Skin protection — Mosquito repellant jelly, a hat with a brim, sunglasses and sun block are essential if you’re going to spend long hours in the merciless African sunshine.
What about tips for travelling on safari with kids?
Family safaris in Africa are one of the fastest growing trends in world travels. Parents love spending quality time with their kids in an exotic environment which provides a holiday of a lifetime that is educational and unforgettable. Here are tips to help make it easier for you and your kids to enjoy the trip.
- Make sure each child has their own pair of binoculars – each child needs to be able to look at what they want, when they want, through their own binoculars
- Make sure they each have a camera – they will help to record some wonderful memories for the children.
- They need to take drawing pad and pencils – brilliant for recording what you have seen on safari.
What should I wear on safari?
There is a certain dress code associated with the word safari, which includes clothing in neutral colors, belted bush jackets and bush hats. If you don’t own any clothing in neutral colors, it is not really necessary to buy it just for the safari, unless you are intending to do a more adventurous trip like gorilla tracking safari in Rwanda where the ranger will expect you to dress appropriately i.e. no bright colors.
Khaki is a good neutral color, which helps one to blend into the bush, but to be honest any neutral color, has the same effect. A hat is very important to prevent sunburn.
If you are staying at one of the smarter safari lodges, many fellow guests will have the classic safari gear (in khaki or green) and you may want to blend in with your fellow guests and not just the bush. This is a matter of personal preference.
What are the Safety Tips while on a safari?
Spotting big game in Africa is one of the great travel adventures you’ll ever experience and once you spot your first lion or elephant, your life will change.
No matter where you go in Africa, there are safety rules designed to keep you and the animals alive. Be aware, most game rangers will watch you get eaten before they kill one of their beloved animals. So follow the rules.
You will normally be given a safety brief before you start any safari, but here are a few safety tips that might be useful:
- Always stay in the vehicle – Africa is not a zoo and its animals will make a meal out of you. There have been too many terrible cases of people getting out to try and grab the perfect photo. As you may have guessed it always ends badly.
- Never turn your back on wild animals – this is more for the brave souls who undertake a walking safari. The only thing that turns and runs in Africa is prey, so lions will chase you.
- Always listen to your guide – not every adventure can be safe for you. If your guide advises you to back away, then kindly do so.
- Keep your voices down – wildlife scare easily and you wouldn’t want to miss a pride of lion because of your noise.
How can I support wildlife conservation in Africa?
By simply coming to Africa on safari you are contributing towards conservation as you are bringing in much needed resources. The funds that you bring help in conserving and preserving the wilderness areas to maintain the tourism industry.
So wherever you choose to visit in Africa and whoever you choose to travel with, a very big thank you. In addition if you would like to maximize that contribution then choose an African safari tour operator that supports one or more conservation projects. There are plenty that do and in that way more of your money will be channeled into conservation.
You can even select a tour operator that supports a conservation project or species that is close to your heart. In that way you win twice over. If you feel that you would like to be involved with a particular cause or conservation project then there are many ways that you can do that.
I always encourage our guests to help conservation projects in Africa by raising awareness and spreading the word about them when they get back home.
I hope the information provided will be helpful in planning your next safari to Africa, but if there are any further questions you have or advice that I can offer, then please feel free to fire away.
For those who have already been to Africa please share your experiences.