5 Tips for Safari-Goers
Updated: Nov 15
Have you been day-dreaming about bumping around in a jeep, binoculars screwed to your eyes in search of Africa's wild animals? If you're thinking about taking the leap and booking your first safari holiday, then this is the article for you. After spending three months on the continent and visiting over ten different national parks in nine countries, I've learnt one or two things about going on safari. Read on to find out about my top tips for safari-goers.
1) Choose your destination wisely
The African continent is vast. As the second largest in the world, it spans many different types of climates. From Mediterranean at its tips, to tropical in the middle, and arid in some regions between; every single country across the continent has a unique topography and biosphere. And even within countries, the landscape can be quite different from one area to the other. As such, it is only natural that no two national parks are identical.
Lake Nakuru National Park in Kenya (left) vs Masai Mara National Park in Kenya (right)
Furthermore, considering the time of year in which to go on safari is equally important. The change of seasons throughout the year will dictate the type of experience you will have on the ground (e.g., rain, storms or drought). Wildlife is also very attuned to their environment, therefore, depending on the time of year, you may get different sightings (e.g., baby season or following the Great Migration).
Depending on the safari experience you have in mind, there are thus many considerations when it comes to choosing an adequate destination. An easy trick when looking at a map of Africa and wondering where to start, is to divide the main safari areas into two regions. Known as Eastern Africa (comprising Kenya, Uganda, Rwanda and Tanzania), and Southern Africa (comprising Zimbabwe, Botswana, Namibia and South Africa). Below is some information on the two regions:
Tropical climate, with grasslands and mountainous areas.
Green season: November to May
+ less crowds, calving season
- heavy rainfall, hot and humid
Dry season: June to October
+ cool temperatures, great viewing
- peak season, high prices, traffic jams
Subtropical climate with arid regions and low shrubs & thorn bushes.
Green season: November to April
+ less crowds, warmer weather
- wet conditions
Dry season: May to October
+ better visibility and easier sightings
- peak season, high prices
2) Animals and activities are park dependent
Now that you know a little more about the main two African safari regions, you need to ask yourself what you want to see and do whilst you're there. This is important because each park has a different offering. Whether your dream is to see the Big 5 (spoiler alert: you can't see them all in every park) or your focus is more on birdlife, or primates, you need to choose your destination accordingly.
Some of the top places to see the Big 5 include the Masai Mara National Park in Kenya, the Serengeti National Park in Tanzania and Kruger National Park in South Africa. For avid birders out there, consider visiting the Okavango Delta in Botswana, the Bangweulu Wetlands in Zambia or Lake Nakuru National Park in Kenya. Primates such as Gorillas and Chimpanzees can be seen in Uganda, Rwanda and the Congo, whilst baboons are usual suspects in most national parks we have visited in Africa (with a special mention for Mosi-oa-Tunya).
For those who are interested in seeing a specific species, I highly recommend the Serengeti National Park in Tanzania for lions and cheetahs, South Luangwa National Park in Zambia for the elusive leopard, Chobe National Park in Botswana for massive herds of elephants, the Masai Mara National Park in Kenya for giraffes and finally, Etosha National Park in Namibia for rhinos.
In addition, many national parks offer different types of activities which are worth contemplating. Whilst the traditional safari is done in a jeep or similar type of vehicle, there are also other ways to explore the parks and get up close to the local wildlife. For example, you can go on walking safaris, boat safaris or even safari on horseback.
Besides the classic safari experience, there are many other activities one can partake in whilst holidaying in a national park in Africa. Some examples include hot air ballooning, plane rides or village visits.
Boat safari in Uganda, Masai Village visit in Tanzania and helicopter ride in Zimbabwe
Alternatively, you can also add-on something different to your safari holiday. In fact, it's quite popular to tack on a relaxing beach stay in Zanzibar while in Tanzania or a visit to the thundering Victoria Falls while in Zambia or Zimbabwe. Some other awesome experiences to add to your safari could include hiking Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania, or going on a road-trip through Namibia. Why not make the most of your time on the ground and discover more of what the country has to offer?
3) Think about your budget
So, I hope you now have a better idea of what you want out of your safari holiday. Choosing where and when to go is half the work done! But before you go ahead and book your African adventure, you need to think about your budget. A sobering thought, but a crucial one as your budget will dictate the type of holiday you'll enjoy.
There are many ways to safari, and I believe that an amazing experience can be had on any budget. Whether you're a happy camper or prefer curated luxury, or if you're in between (yes, there are places that cater in the mid-range!), options abound.
I can speak highly of overlanding, which is a land-based adventure usually involving camping. The standards for camp grounds are often quite good, with most places offering clean washrooms and looked after sites. I did notice a difference between camp grounds in Eastern and Southern Africa, with Southern Africa definitely offering a more reliable and comfortable experience.
Of course, you don't need to overland to camp. You could also choose to stay in a camp site within a national park on your own, or even bounce around a couple of camp sites. A night in a camp site usually will set you back about $200AUD/night, depending on the camp, its location and the season.
In the mid-range, you can consider glamping, another tented option which gives you the upgrade of sleeping in a proper bed and usually having your own bathroom. Otherwise, there are many three and four star hotel options around national parks. It's important to note that some (but not all) of these properties are outside of the parks in order to keep their fees low. These options are usually advertised around $300-$600AUD/night, again depending on the camp/room, its inclusions, location and the season. A good example of the type of accomodation you can find for this price range is the Serena hotel chain.
Finally, the luxury safari option needs no introduction. These are the exceptional properties which feature on travel magazines and Instagram highlight reels. Picture a sustainably-made lodge in a prime area of the national park, with curated tribal decor and all the bells and whistles. An all-inclusive experience (meals, game drives etc.), will set you back upwards of $600AUD/night, with some properties charging thousands of dollars. Some incredible camps I'd love to stay at for example are: Cottar's 1920's camp or the Sabi Sands Collection.
The accomodation is only one of the choices you'll have to make. Your budget needs to consider what's not included, such as meals, activities (game drives, guided walk, cultural visit), transportation costs (game drive pricing can depend on the amount of people in the jeep) and tipping, which is customary. I've found that game drive prices can range between $60AUD/person to over $200AUD/person depending on the national park you are in, the season in which you are visiting, and the time of day you want to safari.
4) Prepare your safari pack in advance
As there are already so many recommendations about what to pack for a safari out there I'll keep it simple. A good safari outfit should be in neutral, earthy tones (beige, khaki, brown, green), and it should be breathable. I shopped for most of my outfits at Kathmandu, but I would recommend any other reputable outdoor brand such as Patagonia or Prana.
Layering is a golden rule for any safari-goer. Safaris tend to happen around dawn or dusk hours, which are times associated with high temperature changes. Wearing a few layers will avoid you feeling hot an hour within your morning safari, or freezing a couple of hours into your afternoon game drive. Similarly, consider the time of year you are travelling; Africa does get cold! It's no exaggeration when I say that you may need to pack a beanie, gloves and a warm jacket.
A pair of good walking shoes is also essential if you plan on walking around. I also suggest packing a pair of casual shoes to wear around camp or your hotel such as Birkenstocks.
Aside from your clothing, a good camera with a telephoto lens is a must. I can honestly tell you that many fellow travellers on our trip regretted going on safari with only their smartphone. Even though the quality of the smartphone photos is undeniably getting better, they just cannot rival with a proper camera, especially when photographing wild moving subjects such as lions or elephants. We personally use a Sony alpha 6300, and our telephoto lens is 70-350mm.
A good pair of binoculars is also a good investment. Again, many people missed out on some sightings because the subjects were too far and they simply couldn't see the animals. I think it's a real shame when you've gone all this way to be on safari only to miss some awesome animal sightings.
On a more practical note, I would also recommend bringing a sturdy water bottle, some snacks and a wildlife guide book. We downloaded one on our iPad which was helpful, specifically to help us distinguish different species of antelopes and birds.
5) Don't forget to sit back and observe with your own eyes!
It’s really easy to get carried away on safari. There is so much to see and so little time to do so! Honestly, a 3-hour game drive may sound like a long time, but in reality, it’s more like a race against the clock…With so much ground to cover and so many animals to observe, time really does fly by. In no time, I promise you'll be back at camp, reminiscing about the sightings of the day!
For all the photography enthusiasts like me, taking photos of the various animals you encounter is an incredible experience. Capturing the animals on every angle, and with every tiny movement they make is essentially what most safari-goers will do. However, I do think that putting the phone or camera aside is underrated.
Yes, take lots of photos and videos for you'll definitely want to look back on them later. But also remember to take a breath and observe the incredible beauty that surrounds you with your own eyes.