A safari vacation in Africa is probably the most organized vacation you’ll ever take. While it is possible to simply fly to a few places — Arusha, Tanzania, or Maun, Botswana — and rent a car to take off into the countryside, few people want to risk being alone on unmarked dirt roads patrolled by hyenas, cheetahs and lions.
No, you use professionals to help you choose an itinerary and arrange transportation. Your travel company will have a driver waiting for you, and from the time you land, you’re in the hands of people who will feed and shelter you and take you amazingly close to fearsome beasts. To get the food, shelter and safari experience you want, you need to research your trip.
Plan on at least two weeks. That should allow for at least three different camps in different areas, for three nights each. Generally, you get an early morning game drive and a late afternoon game drive each day, so two full days in each camp almost guarantees that you’ll see a lot. My wife, Jane, and I went on safaris in January and February in Tanzania, Botswana, Namibia and South Africa. It was the wet season in some places, but it wasn’t particularly rainy. Although the vegetation was lush, we saw elephants, hippos, giraffes and baboons beyond counting. In the drier Serengeti, Kalahari and Sabi Sands, we saw a lifetime’s worth of cheetahs, leopards and lions. We also got to see the Serengeti’s great migration of wildebeests and zebras.
A doctor friend who lived and worked in Malawi until recently says that the best thing you can have on a safari is a generous parent to pay for it. Daily costs per person range from $200 to well over $1,000, and typically include travel, including airplanes, between different camps. It would not include airfare from the United States. Tips are suggested and expected at each camp. A couple should figure on up to $50 per day total for guides, drivers and food service. Tips should be in the local currency and are given upon departure.
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The Travel Company
My wife and I used African Portfolio, a Connecticut-based company, when we spent six weeks in Africa in 2016. We started planning our trip with a different company, but it ignored our budget concerns and other requests by giving us an itinerary of super-deluxe camps. You also could simply deal directly with a company that operates multiple camps, such as Asilia Africa or Wilderness Safaris. Cultural and educational organizations offer safari packages. African Portfolio got us to the Asilia and Wilderness camps that really intrigued us, as well as to camps operated by other companies. Whoever helps plan your trip will take care of getting you from one remote camp to another, often in small airplanes.
The Big Five — lions, elephants, leopards, rhinos and Cape buffalo — were the most challenging game animals for hunters on foot in another era. They’re still worthy targets for your camera, but so are zebras, giraffes, exotic antelopes and almost countless kinds of birds. All of these are in Kenya, Tanzania and Botswana. Gorillas are in Rwanda and Uganda.
Lodges, from hostels to luxury hotels, are found near some game-rich areas like the Ngorongoro Crater in Tanzania and Kruger National Park and the Sabi Sands Game Reserve in South Africa. In the Kalahari Desert and the Serengeti you’ll find tented camps, which are clusters of individual cabinlike tents and one or two large tents for the dining room and staff operations. The individual tents usually have real beds and attached private bathrooms with heated showers and flush toilets. There are also mobile camps, which move to follow game, especially the migration in the Serengeti. All your meals will be at the camp. Most camps supply the usual toiletries as well as sunscreen and insect repellent.
Some safari agencies will hook you up with a guide who will go with you from camp to camp. We had the same guide for two camps and he relied on radio contact with other guides to find game. Elsewhere we had guides supplied by the camps. All knew their areas and the wildlife. With camp guides, you can pay extra to have your own vehicle, or you can share a vehicle with other guests. Do the latter. Your fellow riders are likely to enrich the experience with their knowledge and camaraderie. And listen when the guide in your open-air vehicle tells you not to stand or move. There’s nothing but air between you and that hyena.
You will need fast-drying nylon clothes. Your luggage may be limited to a small duffel bag. Camps generally provide laundry service, usually washed by hand and dried in the sun. Guests may be expected to wash their own underwear. You don’t need an all-beige wardrobe. Most of the animals can hardly distinguish colors, but you should avoid white because it attracts attention. Black and other dark colors attract tsetse flies. Popular safari areas can be chilly mornings and late afternoons and very hot at midday, so dress in layers (and wear a hat).
Steve Bailey is a former travel editor at The New York Times who now runs the travel blog, TouristFirst.blogspot.com.
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