Not sure where to go, what to bring, and what you'll see? Start here.
So you wanna go on safari? Like, hop in a canvas-topped Range Rover and rumble through the red dust of Africa with giraffes dancing in the distance? There’s nothing wrong with your Lion King dream, but you won't get the safari you were hoping for if you're unprepared. Consider the following before embarking on your first big-time adventure in the bush.
1. What does Safari mean?
Safari is the Swahili word for “trip”. It’s also a Victorian construct invented by some of the earliest colonial-era explorers, later mimicked by the gentlefolk of the British Empire—to “go on safari” is to make a short trip through the wilderness, identifying animals and stopping for tea or cocktails along the way. Centuries later, this quaint tradition lives on, so that when you “go on safari” today, you are participating in a period drama, complete with costumes and affectations.
2. Where do you want to go?
Well, where do you want to go? Africa is a big place—it’s the second-largest continent in the world with 54 countries and an amazing spectrum of biodiversity. Per tradition, the majority of safari tourism is located in former British colonies, meaning southern (South Africa, Namibia, Botswana, Zambia, Zimbabwe) and eastern Africa (Kenya, Tanzania). Each of these countries has something different to offer and each is diverse in its own right. For example, Botswana offers the marshy green delta of the Okavango (where you can canoe past reed frogs, hippos, and crocodiles) versus the sparse cracked earth of the Kalahari Desert, versus the red sands of Chobe National Park with its intense concentration of elephants. Some countries are cheaper than others, and depending on current events, some are safer than others. Do your homework on which country fits your budget and vision for a fulfilling safari experience.
3. What do you want to see?
Where you go largely determines what you see. Gorillas? Check out Rwanda or Uganda. The wildebeest migration? See northern Tanzania—eastern Tanzania for chimpanzees, southeast Tanzania for extra-large elephants. Leopards (South Africa’s Londolozi), lions (Ruaha National Park), bush babies and lemurs (Madagascar), and rhinos? Botswana. It might seem obvious, but I can’t tell you how many times I’m in a safari jeep and somebody demands to see X. Though most national parks and private game reserves do their best to show off the Big 5 (elephant, lion, leopard, buffalo, rhinoceros), these are not zoos—there is no guarantee. The real joy of safari is the surprise that comes from the unexpected sightings—like a 12-foot Black Mamba slithering in front of you.
4. How much do you want to spend?
I’ve been on some safaris that cost $40/day and others that cost $1,500/day, along with everything in between (or this trip for $81,550/person). Given the tradition of catering to British nobility, ridiculous luxury is often part of the package. Know that you don’t have to spend outrageous amounts to get up close and personal with wildlife. Staying in state-owned (public) campsites and cottages can be very affordable. It’s when you start adding in private bush planes, private butlers and personal plunge pools that prices skyrocket.
5. Where do you want to stay?
Do you want to camp in a tent or do you want to stay in a Hyatt with a memory foam mattress? Can you handle geckos and fist-size beetles in your room, or do you insist all wildlife stay outside? Can you deal with outdoor showers, or do you want a disinfected stone bathtub? Whatever level of comfort you choose, nothing beats a few nights far out in the bush. Hearing lions roar outside your tent is unbeatable, and staying in a mobile camp often places you as close as possible to the wildlife.
6. What will you wear?
Smaller bush planes to remote camps typically enforce a 20 kg (44 lb) weight limit per passenger. If you’re bringing serious camera gear, that doesn’t leave much room for your Laura Croft/Indiana Jones outfit. Leave the pith helmet and khaki runway wardrobe at home—you only need a few solid items for a week in the bush. I swear by ultra-light, SPF, insect-proof, easy-wash and dry-wicking synthetics (like ExOfficio) and one solid pair of walking boots.
7. What other gear do you need?
Bring binoculars and don’t bother with anything less than a 10 X 50 wide angle. Invest in a quality field guide for birds, as there are hundreds and hundreds of species versus a few dozen species of mammals. Study before you arrive—the better acquainted you are with the wildlife, the better the experience will be. Small LED headlamps are good for walking around camp (watch your step!) without upsetting most animals.
8. How will you pick your jeep mates?
Your fellow explorers can make or break your game drive. Serious birders do not mix well with folks ticking through their Big 5, and one extra-loud tourist (“OMG. LOOK. It’s a ZEBRA!”) can ruin it for the quieter animal-watchers in your ranks. Chat with other folks in the camp and find like-minded travelers to share your game drive. You won’t regret it.
9. Are there other rules?
There are no rules. Well, the only rule is to stay in your jeep at all times (seriously). Otherwise, don’t be afraid to break tradition and create the safari you want. Several days of savannah game-viewing can be quite exhausting. You will be tired, so plan some downtime beyond the safari camp. Consider including a few days at the beach (e.g. Zanzibar or Cape Town), touring wine country, or taking a river cruise. Don’t underestimate lesser-known destinations like Malawi (with its beautiful lake and tropical fish) or Mozambique (unique, colorful and anything-but British). Safari is in the eye of the beholder, and the adventure is yours to create.