Updated May 2020
Who doesn’t want to go on a trip of a lifetime? The question is, what does that mean to you?
If you’re looking for a spectacular, otherworldly nature and wildlife experience, then an African safari may a perfect fit.
But whether Africa will seep into your heart and mind as it did mine, you’ll have to find out. What I can tell you is, everyone I’ve known who’s gone on a safari has loved it. The downside: It’s addictive. And from what I can tell, cold turkey isn’t a cure.
What is a Wildlife Safari?
According to the dictionary, a safari is an “expedition to observe or hunt animals in their natural habitat, especially in East Africa.”
I find it to be a magical blend of blissful serenity and unbridled excitement. It’s what I do when I need a little soul renewal and a good dose of awe.
On safari, everything is arranged for you, and many camps are all-inclusive except for things like tips, souvenirs (if there’s a gift shop), and perhaps premium alcohol depending on the places you choose to stay.
Game drives are the primary activity (usually three to four hours each) in the early morning and late afternoon when wildlife is most active.
In between, during the heat of the day, you are free to read, nap, or chat with fellow guests.
Many camps offer other activities such as mokoro rides (a small, dug-out boat that sits low in the water), walking safaris, or helicopter tours. Nature and game viewing is still the focus, only the transportation changes.
Depending on the camp, you may also have the option to visit a local village or school. I highly recommend it.
Some camps offer crafty activities like jewelry making or for kids, there’s usually a variety of nature-related amusements to keep them busy.
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Visiting Multiple Properties on Safari is the Norm
A safari as a whole is a combination of one to three-night stays (with the most common being two) at multiple properties. That way you’re able to enjoy different environments and see different animals. Since many places are located in remote locales, it’s likely you’ll take a small plane to get to each one. Personally, I think three days is the minimum. You’re not constantly packing and unpacking, you develop a rapport with staff and other guests, and get to explore a new setting before moving on.
How Long is an African Safari?
Safaris can be of any length but anything under four to five days, in my opinion, is not worth it unless it’s tacked on to some other adventure. Ideally, 7-10 days is the minimum for a well-rounded experience.
How Wildlife Viewing Works
For me, 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.
When you arrive you’re assigned a guide. Usually, that guide is the person who picks you up at the airstrip.
Depending on the number in your group, you may share that guide and a jeep with other guests. 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.
If you want a private jeep that’s possible for an additional fee and typically must be arranged in advance.
During your game drive, you’ll find most animals ignore you. They go on with their lives as if putting on a play and you’re the audience.
Over the years, the animals have acclimated to the jeeps and the people in them. That said, if you separate yourself from the jeep by getting out (please don’t do this) or startle them by standing up quickly or yelling, you may be perceived as a threat and invite unwanted attention.
Guides are well trained and understand animal behavior. If something shows signs of stress, (for example a mother with a new baby or an elephant in musth) the guide will keep your viewing short or move on. Your safety is their first priority.
At some point, your guide will find a safe, picturesque spot to get out, stretch your legs and have a light bite to eat. In the mornings, it’s usually things like muffins, hard-boiled eggs, granola, and, of course, plenty of coffee. In the evening, you’ll sip your favorite cocktail (referred to as a sundowner) and munch on some hors d’oeuvres while you watch the sunset.
On a walking safari—and not all camps offer this opportunity, so check first—you’ll observe animals at a greater distance. Never as close as in a Land Rover. Guests walk in single file behind the guide who will carry a gun and make sure you are safe distance but still get an exciting view of the wildlife. More time is taken to discuss the flora. For example, you may learn the medicinal properties of various species used by the local tribes.
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, there are fenced camps that keep wildlife at bay.
A Safari is a Great Option for Solo Travel
A safari is a great choice for solo travelers who want independence but not isolation, and a memorable trip without having to do all the heavy lifting. The safari vibe tends to be community-driven, and I found it fosters camaraderie.
A Safari is Great for Families
Twenty years ago, you didn’t see many children on safari, but over the years, more and more lodges and camps have added family accommodations as well as programming for children. Some places, however, don’t allow children under 12. You’d be amazed how many family reunions and multi-generational anniversaries are made that extra special on safari.
A Few Things To Consider
Do You Want to Be Able to Go Off-Road or at Night?
A camp’s operation is different depending on whether it is on private or government-owned property. Private camps have flexibility, and 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 you can leave the road and drive closer. Camps on government property have restrictions, but they are spectacular nonetheless.
If You Require WiFi Check First
Some camps are too remote to support Wi-Fi, so if you can’t stand being off the grid you’ll want to double-check that your lodge, camp, or hotel has it.
There are Luggage Restrictions
If you love to pack half your closet when you travel, a safari will not be your cup of tea. Once in-country, domestic transport is usually by small plane, and luggage has to 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. My personal favorite is the latter.
African safaris are one of the few trips that truly benefit from the knowledge and expertise of someone in-the-know.
Every camp has its own personality, look, and amenities that depending on what you’re looking for, are details that can make or break your holiday. Not everything translates on a website, trust me. It’s not like booking a room at a Four Seasons. There are so many variables and seasonal nuances that working with someone who knows the intricacies will ensure a trip of a lifetime.
Safari Companies with Their Own Camps
If you choose to work with a company with its own properties you’re limited to their camps while a travel designer can mix and match according to what is best for you. It’s not a bad thing, just something to keep in mind.
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. You may hear about Wilderness Safaris which is a great company, but they require guests to book through agents.
What does an African Safari Cost?
In short: African safaris are not cheap, but they deliver in spades and vary from country to country. East Africa and Botswana tend to be more expensive (say $7500 minimum per person) in comparison to South Africa and Zambia let’s say ($5,000 per person).
A travel expert can help you navigate those difference and they’ll have discount intel before they go live online.
FYI – Some companies lump mandatory park fees into their estimate while others do not. Since they can run pretty high, be sure to ask if the total fee per person includes the necessary fees and taxes.
Tipping Your Guides and the Staff
tipping is not mandatory but customary. For guides you want to budget anywhere from $15 – $25 per person per day depending on the accommodations, and your level of appreciation of your guide’s hard work.
Set aside $10 per person per day that will be put into a collective pot for all the other staff. There’s usually a locked box available to deposit these tips.
Note: If the guide is not the driver, or the guide uses a spotter, it is assumed you will tip them as well. Budget $5-$10 per person per day.
Here Are Ways to Make Your Trip More Affordable
Go on the offseason, which may vary depending on the country. According to Safari Expert Cathy Holler, “Book off-season dates but pick the dates closest to the transition between green and mid or mid and peak seasons. Better likelihood of having better weather and game experiences, but a lower price and fewer visitors.”
Don’t combine camps in different countries which adds to the expense of more international flights.
Stay at one to two camps longer 3-4 nights as opposed to including four camps, let’s say, to your intermarry.
Ask if there are any specials available. Sometimes a third day is added for every two, or there’s a discount on a domestic flight. Stuff like that.
Book at least a year in advance to have the most flexibility. If you try to book within a year, there is a good chance places will be fully booked.
What to Wear On Safari
If you’re wondering what to wear, check out my free Safari Packing List: Everything You Need to Know for a Great Trip
If You’re Interested in Wildlife Photography
For some helpful tips, my Indispensable Safari Photography Tips. It will tell you everything you need to know.
This 10 of the Best African Photo Safari Tours in the World is a great resource for travelers interested in a photography-centric vacation.
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