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Tips for Planning an African Safari

SmarterTravel

An African safari is a true adventure—imagine thousands of zebras migrating across emerald grasslands, flocks of florescent flamingos creating a field of color across a shining lake, and lions feasting on a hard-earned kill.

With 54 different countries more than 11 million square miles between them, Africa is a very large and very diverse place. The types of safaris are endless. And while there’s no right way to go on safari (it all comes down to personal preferences), there is a lot to consider when it comes to picking out your perfect experience. Here’s how to make the right choice.

Many travelers trek to Africa in search of the “Big Five”: buffalo, lions, leopards, elephants, and rhinoceroses. The chance to get close to these animals in their natural habitats is a once-in-a-lifetime experience, but your trip to Africa is anything but a trip to the zoo. Safaris can be physically taxing and strenuous, and you may not see all the animals you expected. Since most safari destinations are in developing sub-Saharan nations, travelers must take certain safety and health precautions. If you’re planning a safari (or just dreaming about it), be as prepared as possible. Get some good guidebooks, talk to friends who’ve been to Africa and research, research, research. We’ve outlined some important African safari tips, from choosing a destination to getting vaccinated, to help you start planning a successful adventure.

Types of Safaris

For the most part, safaris are a costly kind of vacation. But as with any other type of travel, you can tailor your safari to suit your personal budget. The length of your safari will affect its cost—although you may want to cut your trip short to save cash, the longer you stay, the less you will probably pay on a per-night basis. If you’re looking for luxury digs (think private butler or plunge pool) on your safari (or even just hot water and a comfy bed), prepare to pay more. Budget-minded adventurers should seek self-drive or overland safaris (see below) as opposed to all-inclusive package tours—but be prepared to camp in tents or navigate a 4×4 through the African bush. If you’re traveling alone, you’ll probably have to pay a single supplement, as most package pricing is based on double occupancy.

Also don’t be afraid to extend your vacation in Africa to include an island vacation in Zanzibar, a chance to see the thundering Victoria Falls, or discover ancient history in Egypt—many tour operators will offer extension programs to their safari offerings.

Luxury Safaris

A luxury safari offered by a well-known tour operator typically costs thousands (sometimes tens of thousands) of dollars per person, per week, with all-inclusive prices covering tours, food, drinks, and excursions. Fully catered luxury packages offer travelers the comforts of home in the wilderness. Accommodations range from air-conditioned suites to stylish tents (you’ll feel almost like you’re camping—aside from the hot running water, rich linens, and first-rate service). Ultra-luxurious safari lodges can cost more than $1,000 a night.

Belmond Safaris offers luxury safaris packages in Botswana. Orient-Express offers three safari camps, each with its own distinct character: Khwai River Lodge, Eagle Island Camp, and Savute Elephant Camp.

Book a tour with Abercrombie and Kent if you’re looking for a wider range of destinations, including Kenya, Tanzania, Namibia, Zambia, South Africa, and more. This company has been operating upscale African safari tours since 1962.

African Travel, Inc. works in 17 destinations in Africa, the majority of which you can find the Big Five, as well as endangered species. For an affordable luxury safari trip, look towards Lion World Travel; at a $5,000 price point, you can enjoy luxurious lodges and incredible wildlife experiences.

Overland or Mobile Safaris

Overland (also known as mobile) safaris are generally the cheapest type of organized tour safari. An overland safari will involve campsite accommodations, and you will most likely travel in a group with other travelers. Overland safaris are usually participatory—you may be expected to pitch in with chores such as cooking meals or setting up camp.

Intrepid Travel sells a number of participatory camping safaris, including the Kenya Wildlife Safari with trips to tiny Tanzanian villages, the Masai Mara National Reserve, Lake Nakuru, and more. Tours range from seven to 27 days and can include game drives in Botswana, sliding down sand dunes in Namibia, a visit to the Khama Rhino Sanctuary, among other stops. G Adventures offers similar trips, including coasting along South Africa and trekking Mt. Kilimanjaro.

Acacia Africa is a reputable overland safari provider that offers a variety of affordable packages for different budgets and travel styles.

River Cruise Safaris

A river cruise might not be the first thing that comes to mind when you’re considering a safari, but spotting wildlife along the river banks is an amazing sight to see. The Chobe and Zambezi Rivers in Southern Africa are teeming with wildlife and are home to the largest elephant population on the continent. There are plenty of companies that sail on these rivers, but CroisiEurope’s African Dream boat and Amawaterway’s Zambezi Queen stand out as two of the most luxurious river cruise options in Southern Africa.

Self-Drive

Are you the adventurous sort? Pick a public game park, rent a car and tour the African bush on your own. Since self-drive safaris are only possible in public parks that usually have paved roads and signs, you need not worry about getting lost in the plains of Africa or becoming food for a hungry lion. For the cheapest possible safari, self-drive is your best bet. You can pay for a la carte for meals, tours, and accommodations, enabling you to opt for the most inexpensive lodging you can find or tour the bush on your own instead of hiring a guide.

One potential drawback of a self-drive safari is that without a knowledgeable local guide, you may miss some wildlife. To remedy this problem, read guidebooks on spotting wildlife in your destination, bring a field guide or stop and ask other travelers where they’ve seen the best game (this is easier to do in the popular public parks).

National Parks vs. Game Reserves

Whether you’re selecting a tour guide or planning the trip yourself, you’ll need to get more specific about the type of environment you want for your safari. You can’t just vaguely drive into the wild, so it’s important to know the difference between a national park and a private game reserve.

A national park is landmass protected by the government and can be quite large, like South Africa’s Kruger National Park (which is the size of Israel and has six different ecosystems). With a place like this, there’s no way you’ll be able to see it all on a short trip, so you’ll have to do your research to make sure you’ll be visiting the regions of the park that you want to see. The benefit of visiting a landmass of this size is the potential to see large herds of animals in their migration, like the Great Wildebeest Migration in Tanzania’s Serengeti National Park.

On a private game reserve, the fenced-in land is much smaller than the national parks (though it should still be large enough for the animals to happily roam) and the population is mostly controlled by the owners. For example, the Karongwe Reserve offers 21,000 acres of land. Your game drives are included in the price of your lodging, and because the reserve works as one operation, the safari guides communicate with one another about the animals’ whereabouts, ensuring that you’ll see as many animals as possible. Private reserves also do not operate under the same rules as national parks, which means an opportunity to safari in an uncovered vehicle and even stay out past sundown.

Where to Go

Each country in Africa is different. We acknowledge that it is impossible to capture the spirit and culture of an entire country in one paragraph, but below is a brief overview of some popular African safari destinations to get you started. The best and most popular areas in Africa for safaris are East and Southern Africa, which offer vast plains and roaming packs of extraordinary wildlife. We talked to specialists from Lion World Travel, African Travel, Inc., and smarTours for their recommendations and tips.

Kendra Guild, Director of Operations & Product at smarTours breaks down where to go based on what wildlife you want to see: For elephants, head to Chobe National Park in Botswana; for gorillas visit Volcanoes National Park in Rwanda; for lions go to Serengeti in Tanzania; for rhinos go to Hluhluwe-iMfolozi and Kruger National Park in South Africa; and for rare birds, Kruger National Park has the largest and most diverse collection of birds in South Africa.

East Africa

Kenya: Kenya’s most abundant wildlife can be found in the Masai Mara National Reserve (a part of the vast Greater Serengeti), where massive herds of animals make an annual migration across the plains. But beyond Masai Mara and the Serengeti lie plenty of other quality parks with abundances of wildlife, including the soda lakes of the Great Rift Valley and Lake Bogoria, where thousands of colorful flamingos reside. You can also find the “Samburu Special Six” in northern-central Kenya which are Grevy’s zebra, the Somali ostrich, reticulated giraffe, the long-necked gerenuk, Guenther’s dik-dik, and the beisa oryx. Though Kenya is one of the more popular safari destinations, be sure to check State Department advisories before planning a trip to Kenya or any other developing country.

Tanzania: Like Kenya, Tanzania houses part of the Serengeti National Park—the best park in which to see great herds of wildlife in Africa. Other noteworthy sites include Mount Kilimanjaro; marine parks off the coast; and the Ngorongoro Conservation Area, site of the Ngorongoro Crater and Oldupai Gorge (also known as the Cradle of Mankind). The Ngorongoro Crater is one of the largest volcanic craters on earth. Over 30,000 animals live in the crater; it has the densest lion population in the world.

Uganda: The most famous safari destinations in Uganda are the country’s many primate reserves. Bwindi Impenetrable Forest and Ngamba Island offer visitors the unforgettable opportunity to get a close look at gorillas, chimpanzees and other primates in their natural habitats. Travelers can also see crocodiles, hippos and exotic birds, and witness the thundering water of Murchison Falls at Murchison Falls National Park on the Nile River.

Rwanda: Most people safari in Rwanda for the country’s outstanding gorilla trekking as well as for the over 600 bird species. “There’s also the incredible comeback Rwanda has made after the genocide 25 years ago—that in itself, is reason to visit,” says Sherwin Banda, president of African Travel, Inc.

Southern Africa

Botswana: Probably the most expensive destination in Africa due to the government’s push for high-end tourism, Botswana has smaller crowds than most other safari destinations, and is a common locale for luxury packages. See wildlife in game reserves such as Chobe National Park, famous for an abundance of elephants, or Moremi Wildlife Reserve, which offers plenty of the famous “big five.” You can also visit the Okavango Delta in Botswana—look for crocodiles, buffalo, zebras, hippos and many other animals in the delta’s tangled waterways and islands.

Lucille Sive, president of Lion World Travel says her ultimate safari trip would be to Botswana, “it’s a bit rawer than South Africa or Kenya and Tanzania. Special experiences there include gliding along in a mokoro in the Okavango Delta, or hanging out with meerkats at Jack’s Camp, or staying at the ultra-luxurious Xigera Lodge. Probably the ultimate ‘second safari’ trip for anyone who has already been to Africa!”

Namibia: Namibia is under the radar for many safari travelers—expect less upscale game parks—and is dotted with incredible natural wonders from the Fish River Canyon to the Namib Desert. You’ll find more than 100 species of mammals in Etosha National Park, including endangered animals like the black rhinoceros, as well as the largest cheetah population on the continent. Desert elephants and zebra roam the arid landscapes of Skeleton Coast National Park in Nambia—the driest place in Africa.

South Africa: This is a particularly popular destination for safari travelers, so you can expect a well-organized and modern tourist infrastructure—as well as plenty of other travelers in the high season. Sive recommends South Africa as an ideal family destination since the game drives are shorter and there are malaria-free lodges and game parks. The best-known park is Kruger National Park, which is home to an impressive variety of African animals and is situated in the largest conservation area in the world. Go to a private game lodge if you want a less-traveled safari, but prepare to pay—these pricey digs can run well over $500 per night. Other parks outside of Kruger include Sabi Sands Game Reserve, Dinokeng Game Reserve and the Shamwari Private Game Reserve (located in the Eastern Cape).

When to Go

Africa is an immense continent with safari opportunities available across thousands of miles, so the best time to travel to Africa depends on your specific destination. Overall, it’s best (but most expensive) to travel in the dry season, which corresponds with the region’s winter. Since safari destinations are in the Southern Hemisphere, their seasons run opposite of North America. Winter is from June to September, and summer is from December to March. You’ll also want to consider the migration patterns of animals, such as the Great Migration through Tanzania and Kenya. Annual patterns of animal migration often vary, so it’s a good idea to research animal migration predictions for the season during which you plan to travel.

Some insider tips from Sive: “If you love baby animals and don’t mind hot weather—go to Cape Town, South Africa from December to February. But if you don’t mind the rain—go to Kruger National Park to experience its lush, wet season—balmy but perfect conditions for spotting migratory birds and newborn wildlife. Africa’s winter (June through August) brings just the opposite for both places.” And for those looking to go on a safari on a budget, Guild recommends traveling during the shoulder or low season, which for South Africa is in May and October. 

If you’re a bird-lover, it will be best to visit during wet-season (December to March), which is when birds make their nests and are more likely to be seen at home.

But if nothing could make you happier than seeing the adorable babies of the animals you’ve traveled so far to see, it’s best to time your trip accordingly. Most babies are born in November, so peak baby-watching season is December to February.

Also, ask about the “green season” for good value when you’re safari planning. This varies by each reason but “for East Africa, it’s the low season and a great time to avoid the crowds and the value of the dollar is higher so overall you can stay longer,” advises Banda. “Also, not all the animals are migratory so you will see wildlife and spend more time with your guide viewing animals. While there can be rain, it is scattered and that is why you work with a safari outfitter like us to tailor other experiences like high tea or spa treatments.” African Travel, Inc. even waives solo traveler supplements during the low season on certain trips, like this journey to Botswana and Zambia.

Visas and Vaccines

Of course, you’ll need a passport to travel to Africa. But for some other countries, like Kenya or Tanzania, you will need a visa too. Visit the State Department website for more information on visa requirements. Apply for a visa at least two months before your departure date.

Find a doctor who specializes in travel health care and tell him or her about your African travel plans, or visit a travel clinic. You’ll need to get certain immunizations before heading to Africa. Malaria is common there, but there is no vaccine for the disease. You can protect yourself from malaria by taking an anti-malaria treatment or avoiding mosquitoes; use a mosquito-repellent spray and mosquito nets. You will need a yellow fever vaccination for travel to East and Southern Africa. Other vaccinations you may need include hepatitis A, hepatitis B, and typhoid. Visit the Centers for Disease Control’s website for destination-specific health information. Keep in mind that many vaccinations take several weeks to provide full protection, so don’t put off your shots until the last minute.

Staying Safe on Safari

You may imagine that hungry crocodiles or packs of ravenous lions are the biggest dangers of a safari. The truth is that humans rarely get attacked by wild animals (just watch out for baboons if you have open food), but they routinely fall victim to safari scams, dehydration, illness, or crime while traveling to Africa.

Safari Scams

When selecting a package, beware of safari scams. Research your prospective safari package provider; ask them for references and if they belong to professional organizations such as the American Society of Travel Agents or the United States Tour Operator Association. Also, look for user reviews on sites like TripAdvisor (SmarterTravel’s parent company) before you book. And keep in mind that if something sounds too good to be true (like a $50-per-night safari in luxury bungalows), it’s likely a scam. Finally, always be aware of your package provider’s cancellation policy (or lack thereof).

Staying Healthy on Safari

Safaris can be physically strenuous and mentally taxing with early morning wake-ups to see active wildlife and unpredictable weather. Travelers to Africa are at risk for dehydration while on safari; your body may not be accustomed to the hot sun and dry air of the bush and you may not even realize that you’re becoming dehydrated. Drink lots of water, protect yourself from the sun, get the proper vaccines, and wear bug spray. For more on staying fit and healthy on your travels, read our guide to health care abroad.

Sive recommends a rain jacket, a safari hat with neck cover or flaps, and to wear neutral colors, like khaki, brown, or safari green, to blend in with your surroundings.

Politics and Crime

Political unrest is an unfortunate fact of life for many African nations. Crime and violence plague many cities, so be aware of your surroundings when staying in major cities on either end of your safari trip. When traveling to populated areas, familiarize yourself with local customs and take measures to keep your money and valuables safe. And always check State Department advisories before planning a trip to another country. Also, be sure to ask about the company’s emergency assistance program so you’re aware in case of any emergency situations and register with STEP.

Insurance

Since you will be in a remote location and will probably be spending a significant amount of money on a safari, travel insurance is a necessity on an African safari. (Many safari tour operators actually require customers to purchase travel insurance in order to reserve a package.) Be sure to look for emergency medical coverage and financial protection when booking your policy. For more information, read our guide to travel insurance.

What to Pack for a Safari

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Editor’s note: This story was originally published in 2017. It has been updated to reflect the most current information. Quotes have been edited for clarity. Jamie Ditaranto and Ashley Rossi also contributed to this story.

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