My first dream holiday was in the late 1990’s, when my then boyfriend Antoine and I traveled to South Africa for a little Cape Town action and our first safari. It was a spectacular, otherworldly experience that even now, separated by time and different lives, Antoine and I still bond over.
I knew I would return, I just wasn’t sure when. As it turns out, it was more than a decade later—the responsibilities of a horse and a burgeoning career put the brakes on my aspirations. But finally in 2010, I went on a Tanzania safari. For eight days, my private guide Chili and I drove through Tarangire, Lake Manyara, Ngorongoro, and the Serengeti. To say I was smitten is an understatement, and I couldn’t wait to go back.
In late 2012, being one of the millions who suffered from the long-tail effects of the economic crisis, I was laid off. My first thought (seriously, I kid you not) was Africa. By February 2013, I was on a plane to Botswana. And on and on. Since then I’ve been to Kenya several times, South Africa again and Namibia too. See a pattern.
Whether Africa will seep into your heart and mind as it has mine, who knows. What I can tell you, everyone I’ve known who’s gone has loved it. A safari will change you. The downside: It’s addictive. And from what I can tell, even cold turkey isn’t a cure.
Is a safari for you?
I find being on safari is a magical blend of blissful serenity and unbridled excitement. It’s the answer when I need a little soul renewal. The serenity comes from an almost mythical beauty coupled with a total lack of responsibility. On safari, everything is arranged for you: You’ll enjoy game drives (usually three to four hours) in the morning, and afternoon. In between, you can read, nap, or chat with fellow guests. Although camps may offer other activities such as mokoro rides (a small, dug-out boat that sits low in the water), excursions to visit local tribes, or helicopter tours, game viewing tends to be the focus. (However, if your preference is cultural excursions, it’s not a problem. Just make sure to let your camp or travel specialist know ahead of time.)
For me, it’s the six to eight hours per day in the bush is where the magic happens. It’s the most thrilling scavenger hunt you’ll ever undertake. Around every bush could be a pride of hungry lions. Flying overhead, an eagle. Or a large herd of elephants could come crashing through the trees around you, trumpeting and rumbling in panic, set off by the smell of wild dogs. (This actually happened to me by the way, and it was absolutely thrilling.)
I don’t have the words to describe the feeling you get when you see these extraordinary creatures in the wild. I’ve never been disappointed. Something interesting or unexpected happens every day.
How wildlife viewing works
When you arrive in camp, you’re assigned a guide. Depending on the number in your group, you may share that guide and a jeep with other guests. (If you want a private jeep that’s possible for an additional fee.) It’s a wonderful way to meet interesting people from all over the world. I still talk to many of the travelers I’ve met on safaris.
On your game drive, you’ll find that most animals are uninterested by your presence. It’s believed that animals view people in a jeep as part of a single benign being of which they’ve become acclimated. That said, if you separate yourself from the jeep by getting out (please don’t do this) or standing up suddenly, you may be perceived as a threat and invite unwanted attention. Your guide will assess the animal’s behavior. If it shows signs of stress, he’ll keep your viewing short or just move on. I’ve never felt unsafe.
On a walking safari—and not all camps offer this opportunity, so check first—you’ll observe animals at a greater distance. You’ll walk in a single file line behind your guide who will make sure you are safe distance but still get an exciting view of the animals.
Unfenced vs. fenced camps
If you stay at an unfenced camp, animals will roam through at their leisure. In Botswana, a giant bull elephant strolled 100 feet from my tent. In South Africa, a lion sat on the cement foundation my tent sat on while we were in it. (One of my favorite memories). In Tanzania, hippos walked through our camp to graze.
Is it dangerous you ask? Not if you stay alert and obey the rules. Safety is a camp’s highest priority. In general, camps set up very clear “human areas”: your tent, the walkways that lead from your tent to the rest of the camp, and group meeting areas. Most animals will run away if they hear you coming, and during the day you can see what’s up ahead.
After sunset, a staff member will always escort you to and from your tent. Once in your tent, you are perfectly safe. If this setup makes you uncomfortable though, there are fenced camps that keep the wildlife at bay.
Multiple camps are the ticket
On safari, the perfect travel strategy is to stay at multiple camps during your trip. You’ll benefit from new locations and different species or concentrations of wildlife. I find that three nights in each camp is my magic number. I have time to unpack, develop a rapport with staff and guests, and explore a new setting before moving on.
If you like to travel solo, a safari is an ideal vacation. You can enjoy quality time on your own while easily meeting new people along the way. The safari vibe tends is community driven, and I found that it fosters camaraderie.
Things to consider
- A camp’s operation is different depending on whether it is on private or government-owned property. Private camps, among other things, are able to offer nighttime game drives to view nocturnal species or go “off road,” meaning that if you see an animal 300 feet to the left of the road, you can drive closer to view it. Camps on government property have restrictions, but they are spectacular nonetheless.
- Some camps don’t have Wi-Fi or offer the use of a computer, so if you can’t stand being off the grid you’ll want to double-check ahead of time.
- If you love to pack half your closet when you travel, a safari will not be your cup of tea. Transport is often by small plane and your luggage must follow suit. In Botswana, for example, bags are limited to 24 inches long, and wheels are prohibited. There are often strict weight limits as well. Prior to your trip, you’ll receive clear guidelines. Don’t fret; camps usually offer free same-day laundry service, making it easier to pack light.
How to book your trip
To plan your perfect trip, I recommend two strategies: Booking directly through a safari company that owns its own camps or consult with a travel specialist. African safaris are one of the few trips that benefit from the knowledge of someone in-the-know. Each camp has its own personality and attributes, and there are transport nuances that require prior experience to be successful the first time around.
Organizations I love with their own camps who can help you directly include: AndBeyond, Great Plains Conservation and Sanctuary Retreats. They’ll brief you on the best camps to visit based on your desired country, activities, timing, and budget.
Specialists I know and have worked with are:
Dan or Nina Saperstein at Hippo Creek Safaris based in New Jersey.
Cathy Holler at African Dreams a division of Tully Luxury Travel based in Toronto.
Linda Friedman at Custom Safaris based in Washington D.C.
If you want to concentrate on wildlife photography, I recommend Wild Eye a photographic safaris company based in South Africa.