Embarking on your first safari adventure? Michael Trajan breaks down the process into a simple 1-2-3. For first-timers, initiating the planning of a safari may seem daunting due to the plethora of choices available. Wondering where to commence your inaugural safari booking? The prime destinations in terms of infrastructure, park variety, lodge range, and habitats for the big five are South Africa, Kenya, Tanzania, Namibia, Botswana, Zimbabwe, and Zambia. Instead of delving straight into operator inquiries or going down a Google rabbit hole, it’s beneficial to begin by outlining the fundamentals through vision-boarding.
Are you aiming for a classic East African safari with the ‘big five’ (referring to lion, leopard, rhinoceros, elephant, and buffalo)? Or is your preference for something wilder and more elusive? Define what you seek from the trip and how you want to experience it. Draft a detailed wish list. Are top-notch guides and knowledge enrichment essential, or is the focus on luxurious lodges and a gentle landing, along with wildlife encounters? Will the safari include a Robinson Crusoe-style beach experience or a gourmet road trip? Perhaps the dream is to explore the various habitats of a single country, setting up camp in each region. Do you long for the intense drama of the great migration through the Serengeti and Mara ecosystems in July and August, or does the dream involve a distant helicopter ride to a pop-up tent with a private guide? Is the wilderness you crave the harsh expanses of the Kalahari, or does the ideal landscape feature a watery delta, deep jungle, dense bush, or grassy savannah?
How to Secure Your First Safari Adventure
Now, consult a specialist operator. The Africa safari experts excel in aligning travelers’ vague desires with concrete plans, whether on the open grassy plains and acacia woodlands of the Masai Mara, amidst the high drama of Tanzania’s Serengeti National Park, or in Namibia’s Sossusvlei—the oldest desert on the planet—or in other off-the-radar locations.
In the realm of safaris, the expertise, knowledge, and know-how of specialists shine. They possess intricate details about animal migrations in different countries, seasonal insights that can transform the essence of a journey, and the ability to guide guests towards more remote, adventurous, or exclusive experiences.
Prominent travel planners in this field include Journeys by Design, Aardvark Safaris, Africa Travel Centre, Green Safaris, and Yellow Zebra Safaris. Expert Africa and The Explorations Company are also notable. They offer expert advice on lesser-known areas or parks to avoid crowds and may suggest game-rich countries that are less obvious, such as Zambia and Malawi, or even Congo, Gabon, Angola, or Chad.
Sustainability and Conservation
Fortunately, the safari industry is populated with predominantly excellent, responsible operators and impressive lodge owners committed to sustainable travel, cultural integrity, and extending their conservation footprint to combat poaching and the impacts of climate change. Operators such as Expert Africa, Aardvark Safaris, The Explorations Company, and Journeys By Design are noteworthy. Most major lodge players have extensive conservation foundations and philanthropic wings. To assess the ethics of lodges and operators, request published reports on their work and sustainability policies to gauge meaningful engagement in local culture, livelihood, and community.
Safari options typically include built lodges (authentic structures of stone, timber, or concrete), tented camps under canvas, mobile tented camps, or even pop-up tents on walking safaris led by private guides and trackers. In the past decade, some glamorous camps have introduced exclusive-use villas serviced by private chefs, dedicated guides, and vehicles. These are often favored by multi-generational groups, privacy-seeking families, and celebrities avoiding paparazzi.
A Day on Safari: What to Expect
During a regular safari, days in the bush adhere to a predictable schedule. Anticipate an early wake-up call at dawn, accompanied by caffeine, before venturing into the bush with a guide in an open-air game vehicle (likely wrapped in a warm blanket with a hot water bottle for warmth). In the early morning, the air is cool, and big cats are returning from a busy night on the prowl.
Breakfast or lunch is served in the bush or back at camp after the morning game drive. Afternoons are reserved for rest, massages, reading, walking safari excursions, community visits, or other cultural immersions before heading out again in the late afternoon. Hot-air ballooning occurs at dawn or dusk and may replace the evening game drive.
By late afternoon, predators are awakening from their afternoon nap, ready for action. A sundowner is typically enjoyed at a scenic spot before game vehicles return just before dark, allowing time for pre-dinner drinks and dinner. If the safari takes place in a private reserve where nocturnal game drives are permitted (prohibited in national parks), a late-afternoon drive may transition into a nighttime one, in search of more elusive nocturnal creatures like leopards. Dinners can be private or communal, sometimes featuring gatherings or celebrations in a boma enclosure. Fireside chats or stargazing may also be part of the experience. Additionally, some safaris offer the option of bush or tree house sleep-outs or star beds for galaxy-gazing. While the days and nights follow a structure, each drive, day, moment, and season is distinct, contributing to the beauty of the safari.
Can I take my children on safari?
Bringing children on safari imbues in them a sense of grand adventure and an understanding of the natural world and the importance of protecting it. There are generally no hard and fast rules, but most lodges welcome children from about the age of six, though families may be expected to have a private vehicle. To simplify travelling with younger children, it may be easier to pick a malaria-free destination (to avoid having to medicate them), from Madikwe Reserve in South Africa to Etosha National Park in Namibia (but check the NHS’s Fit For Travel web pages to check the malaria maps of each country). Ideally, choose a lodge with a kids’ programme. Most of the major lodge players take children into account…
A tipping point
As a rough guide, up to 10-15 per cent of the total cost of the safari should be budgeted for tips. The guide is generally tipped US$15-20 per person per day, which can also be handed directly to the guide at the end of the trip. Although voluntary, it’s routine to tip and lodge staff, from cooks to cleaners. This can be added to the bill at the end; lodges then distribute it to all staff members. Pre-check if the bill excludes alcohol, or includes tips, to avoid surprises or confusion
Insights into Safari Guides
Being a top-notch safari guide requires a lifelong commitment to honing skills. These guides bring the experience alive with their comprehensive knowledge and understanding of the ecosystem, wildlife, and landscapes. Leading lodges and ground handlers operate ranger schools and training programs across the continent, hosting visiting experts and conservationists to enhance the magic further.
Now is the moment to crack out that single-lens-reflex camera gathering dust in the wardrobe, and perhaps a 300mm lens, beanbag or monopod (easier to fiddle with in a game vehicle). Consider the season of the country as this will affect photography prospects. Zambia in the rain, for example, is green, lush, and beautiful, but the nellies like to hide in the undergrowth. In October, everything is the colour of mud and sludge, but the wildlife viewing is premium. Just pointing and shooting with an iPhone will produce incredible images and reels.
Other Practical Tips
When choosing a safari lodge, consider its remoteness and proximity to other lodges. Private reserves on the park’s edge tend to offer a more intimate experience, allowing off-road exploration during the day (and night) rather than adhering to a predetermined track.
Having a private vehicle is ideal, and for some, it holds more significance than the lodge itself, as it grants the freedom to prioritize wildlife sightings.
Carefully consider transportation from point A to B. A seemingly romantic road transfer may turn out to be a nine-hour spine-shuddering journey.
Check the baggage allowance and select a suitcase accordingly. When flying in a small plane like a Cessna, luggage may need to be rationalized, possibly limited to 12-15kgs.
Safaris, except for biking, riding, or walking safaris, are not focused on exercise; there’s a considerable amount of sitting around. Those who become restless without cardio options should choose a lodge with a small gym or yoga offerings. Running into the bush independently is not permitted, and guests are escorted.
Immunisations and medicines
Some African destinations require yellow fever, typhoid or hepatitis A and B jabs. Malaria is a risk in some countries, but as this is a shifting scenario, it’s best to check the NHS’s Fit For Travel web pages for the malaria maps of each country. A one-size-fits-all approach to a country is rarely needed. Refer to our safari packing list to find out more about what to pack and for tips from safari old hands
For the latest and most accurate visa information for your trip to Africa, please visit the overseas travel advice pages provided by your country.