Experts share practical tips for preparing for a successful safari
I wrote this piece for U.S. News & World Report but I thought some of you might find it interesting here as well…
You’ve been dreaming about going on safari in Kenya ever since the credits rolled in “Out of Africa,” and now you’re ready to embark on the trip of your dreams. To make sure you get the most out of the country’s spectacular wildlife and jaw-dropping landscapes, here is the information you’ll need, so that the only surprises you’ll encounter are ones that you’ll love.
An Average Day on Safari
While every accommodation is unique, most camps follow a similar schedule. Led by a wildlife guide, you’ll go on at least two game drives per day with other guests for three to four hours per ride. Along the way, you’ll stop at picturesque locations to stretch your legs, grab a snack and revel in incredible scenery. In the middle of the day, when predators and other species are hiding in the shade, you’ll be in camp relaxing. Expect to take your meals at camp, though dining in the wild is also common. At night, you’ll cozy up to a warm fire and mingle with the other guests to share your day’s adventures before letting the sounds of the bush serenade you to sleep.
Activities and Extra Costs
Game drives are the crux of most safaris, but there are plenty of other activities for you to enjoy, from guided walks and visits to tribal villages to hot air balloon rides over the Masai Mara or camel safaris in the Northern Frontier. Some activities are included in your daily rate, but “it’s always a good idea to know ahead of time what’s included in your stay, as many options may come with an additional price tag,” says Linda Friedman, CEO of Custom Safaris. Also, keep in mind that you may be charged for park entry fees, laundry, premium liquors and other amenities.
“Kenya is known not only for its massive concentrations of game but also for its vast open plains. You can spot and track wildlife from a fair distance and there is almost always something to see and some sort of interaction between species,” says Andrew Beck, a professional wildlife photographer and a co-founder of Wild Eye, a photographic safari company. There are also certain areas that contain larger concentrations of specific species. If you love elephants, consider Amboseli where herds can reach 100 members or more. And from August to October, the Masai Mara plays host to millions of wildebeest during the Migration, while species like the Grevy Zebra, Somali Ostrich, reticulated giraffe and the gerenuk can only be found in the north.
Guides know all about animal behavior and the area in which your camp is located, as well as the location of recent sightings, dens and kills. Still, they can’t make animals appear on cue, so stay open to what the day brings. In the bush, the world can change on a dime; with a little patience, you’ll have the time of your life.
Taking your child on safari can be one of the best ways to instill a lifelong love of wildlife and respect for the environment, and in the last few years, more companies are enticing families with larger tents or villas and special programs designed with families in mind. As Friedman points out, it’s important to ask up front if children are allowed or if there is a minimum age requirement. If your child is very young, you may be required to reserve a private vehicle.
A DSLR camera and longer lenses are best for wildlife photography, but if that’s not your objective, Beck suggests getting a point-and-shoot with the maximum optical zoom. “Don’t even bother looking at the digital zoom feature as this is essentially a crop of the image,” he says. It’s also a smart idea to bring plenty of memory cards. There is nothing worse than having to delete images from your camera on the fly to make room for your next shot.
When it comes to the bush, safety at any lodging is top priority. Upon arrival, you’ll be given all the dos and don’ts and it’s important to follow directions. While safaris are safe, Friedman cautions, “These are wild animals, not kittens.”
Preparing for Your Safari
You’ll need a passport that is valid for at least six months prior to your arrival. Your passport must contain a minimum of two blank pages for stamps. You’ll also need a $50 visa. You can apply for a visa online at Evisa.go.ke or you can wait until you arrive at the airport in Kenya.
According to the Centers for Disease Control, there are no mandatory vaccinations for travel to Kenya though you may be required to get a yellow fever shot if your travels take you through endemic zones prior to your arrival. The agency also advocates being up to date on immunizations for Hepatitis A and B, typhoid, yellow fever, rabies and meningitis. Additionally, you may want to consider pills for malaria. Make sure to speak to your physician about your travel plans to determine what you need.
Pack enough light casual attire for a long weekend and take advantage of the same-day laundry service (weather permitting) that the majority of camps provide. It’s chilly in the morning and evening, but hot in the afternoon, so dress in layers. A good sunscreen is also a must-have, in addition to a wide brim hat and a good pair of polarized sunglasses. And flip-flops are fine for the jeep, but also pack a pair of comfortable sneakers.
Small commuter planes are the main mode of transport into the bush and all the domestic carriers are sticklers about baggage restrictions. Bags must be soft, no longer than 26 inches and wheel-free, and the total luggage weight per person cannot exceed 15 kilograms (33 pounds), including your carry-on. If you go over the limit, your best-case scenario would be paying a fee, but in a worst-case scenario, you may have to buy a separate ticket for your baggage or wait until there is a plane with space available.
Kenya shillings is the local currency. You can pick up shillings at the airport upon arrival, but U.S. dollars are also widely accepted. Keep in mind, accommodations will accept major credit cards such as Visa or MasterCard (American Express is not as widely accepted) for amenities or gift shop purchases, but you should bring cash for gratuity as well as extras, such as cultural visits to local villages or souvenirs like handmade jewelry or other trinkets from local artisans.
Tips are not mandatory, but they are customary. Your guide should be at the top of your list, and according to Friedman, you should plan to pay $15-25 per person per day. If you have a large family, less per person is acceptable. If you want to distribute gratuity to all staff members, most camps have a staff box where guests can leave a gratuity of $5-10 per person per day. When in doubt, ask a manager for advice, Friedman says.