Is an African Wildlife Safari Right for You?

Passing another vehicle on the way to our sundowner spot - Duba Explorers Camp Okavango Delta, Botswana
Passing another vehicle on the way to our sundowner spot

Updated May 2020

Traveling is not prudent right now, but dreaming about future adventures is definitely worth your time.

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.

My first was in South Africa, but over the years I’ve safaried in Namibia, and Tanzania, with multiple stays in Botswana and Kenya. If I’m lucky, I’ll have many more adventures in the bush.

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.

A female Lion lying down and almost completely camouflaged by grass in South Africa. Taken during an AFrican Wildife Safari
female Lion lying down and almost completely camouflaged by grass South Africa

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.

Portrait of a Samburu woman from Northern Kenya
A Samburu woman from northern Kenya

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.



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.

A lone acacia tree in the middle of the Masai Mara with dark clouds overhead. Photo taken while on safari
Masai Mara, Kenya

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.

Lions walking toward a jeep with tourists , who are on an African safari, taking photos in Botswana
Okavango Delta, Botswana

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.

Two Impalas standing in the high grass in Botswana
Okavango Delta, Botswana

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.

A lion at night feasting on a dead buffalo.
Madikwe, South Africa

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.

Himba baby crawling on the sand near his hut in Namibia.

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.

Two large bull elephants playing with each other in the rain.
Young bulls play in Madikwe, South Africa

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.


Specialists I know and have worked with are

Dan or Nina Saperstein at Hippo Creek Safaris based in New Jersey.

Gavin Crawford at African Dreams a division of Tully Luxury Travel based in Toronto.

Linda Friedman at Custom Safaris based in Washington D.C.


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.

Crowned Crane photo taken on a Kenya safari
Crowned Crane, Kenya

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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46 thoughts on “Is an African Wildlife Safari Right for You?

  1. Barbara Strickland says:

    What a wonderful experience it would be. My youngest and her husband did a six week tour of Africa and I was amazed at what they saw and did. It is lovely to think about travels, to think ahead and with positive vibes. We need to put more of this out there in the universe.

  2. Maureen Reilly says:

    This post is extremely informative and accurate – I wish I’d found it before our first safari trip a couple of years ago. Your comment about it being “the most thrilling scavenger hunt you’ll ever undertake” is the perfect description. We lost all sense of time while out on game drives – you might search for hours and it feels like minutes. When you suddenly come upon a sleeping lion or a pack of painted wolves, you can stop for hours and feel like you haven’t taken a breath the whole time. It feeds the soul in a way nothing else does; for us anyway.

    A couple of additional recommendations from my limited experience – booking far in advance, up to a year even, is strongly recommended to get exactly what you want. Popular camps book up very early. Also, try not to come with a checklist of animals you want to see – with limited time, you could be missing amazing sightings while your guide drives around looking for the specific animal you’ve asked to find. Our best sightings were almost always happy accidents – like turning a corner (sounds weird but it really happened like that) and finding a pack of painted wolves, with 14 pups! finishing up breakfast. Also, having breakfast ‘on the road’ so to speak, allows you to start your drive early enough to see the busy morning animal ‘activities’. Later in the mornings, the predators have usually fed and are sleeping it off so harder to find. Lastly, I know that multiple camps and 2-3 nights in each is popular but be aware of the time you’ll spend in transit – it can be quite long because you leave camp in a truck that takes you to an air strip where you board a small plane which may make multiple stops before you arrive at your destination. And it may take multiple transport modes, with multiple interim waits, particularly if crossing borders, as we did. Something to be aware of when booking to be sure you’re getting the most amount of time possible actually on safari.

    Thanks for your posts, Susan. You’re an incredible writer as well as photographer. Can’t wait for the next one!

  3. Charisma says:

    Hi there! I’m just starting to do research for our honeymoon and this is exactly what we’re looking for! Thanks for this!

    We’re hoping to see the great migration and are planning to travel to the Serengeti. Our trip will be in early to mid July. Any recommendations for where we should go? We’re deciding between Kenya and Tanzania. I’ve read somewhere else that we would have better luck with Kenya but I’d like to hear your thoughts! Also, any specific recommendations for companies we should look into?

    • Susan Portnoy says:

      Hi Charisma – I’m so glad you found the article helpful.

      I agree that you are most likely to have success with the migration in Kenya in July. In regard to companies to suggest, are you looking for a recommendation for a travel specialist (which is what I would recommend first) or specific owner/operators in Kenya. I can suggest both but want to make sure I understand what you want. It might be easier for us to speak over email. Perhaps you could answer me through my blog’s Contact page and we can go from there? 🙂

  4. SommerKunst says:

    I am planning on a trip to Tanzania. My first time in Africa. What I wonder about is what kind of photo equipment I should bring. I want to take great pictures but then I might have to carry a huge bag around for 4 weeks… But you write that packing lightly is essential for safaris. Plus, I will probably be travelling some of the time completely self-organinized and independent. So how does that look when I as a tourist walk around with an oversized camera bag all the time? Do you have any suggestions? I was wondering whether a small but good camera might me an alternative, but I have no knowledge on that so far. Maybe I can use camera stills as photos later?

    • Lorenda Beumont says:

      Some camps (high end) have camera equipment that guest can use. In South Africa, Botswana and Kenya there are, and I’m sure in Tanzania too. Perhaps the &Beyond camps. In Bots and Kenya the Great Plains camps (Zarafa in Bots is fabulous). In SA, Londolozi ( and probably a few others).

      If you want to stay in remote camps where you will be flying to in small plane and are a very keen photographer, look for camps that allow guests to hire (not sure if there would be additional cost) camera equipment. The luggage restrictions on small planes are tight.

      However, of course you may take your own equipment. You carry-on bag must be soft (no HARD suitcases or frames allowed). The planes are SMALL!!

      Enjoy your safari – it will change you, and prepare yourself for the Africa addiction. There is no cure for the Africa bug’s bite.

    • Susan Portnoy says:

      Thank you very much for checking out my blog post. And I truly appreciate that you feel positive enough towards my site that you would want to nominate me.

  5. Shibani says:

    Honestly Safari was something not much on my immediate list, yet I feel after reading your post that I should increase its priority! I like to travel solo, and it’s a great relief to know that its’ completely safe that way too. I guess need to plan for it soon, wonderful tips 🙂

    • Susan Portnoy says:

      It will truly blow your mind, and as a solo traveler, I can tell you it’s a fabulous adventure for someone alone. Best of both worlds. Independence as well as interesting people to meet. Very safe.

  6. Michelle says:

    Thank you for such a beautiful post. Your photos are amazing and make me want to book a safari immediately! I had no idea there were fenced and unfenced camps, I definitely would want to stay in an unfenced camp! 🙂

    • Susan Portnoy says:

      Thank you so much, Kate. Safari is a true gift to oneself. There’s nothing like it and it will stay with you forever.

      • K.M. Sutton says:

        Thank you for sharing your experience and these gorgeous pictures especially for those of us who have yet to be on one! Ahhh I can not wait to go on one! Thanks for the advice! <3 🙂

  7. tecnicotaGustavo Salazar Longas says:

    Colombia es un país maravilloso, tiene muchos potenciales turísticos, se definen muchas etapas productivas para que la gente salga adelante, se desarrolle sin muchas complicaciones. Yo no estaría dispuesto a exterminar la flora y la fauna que conforman la biodiversidad

  8. Angelyn says:

    Susan, I loved this post! And I so agree with you….Africa is addictive and I do not believe there is a cure for it! Well, maybe going regularly helps! Cheers!

    • Susan Portnoy says:

      These shots are from various trips but if you haven’t considered an African Safari before, I HIGHLY recommend it. 🙂

  9. Whitney says:

    Hello Susan,

    You and I corresponded via your blog last year about my family going on safari, and I now have a rough estimate of when and where we would like to go. We’re thinking of Tanzania for 10 days or so, during June, July, or August to experience the Great Migration. There are four of us traveling, two being 13-14 years old. I like the idea of a more private safari as opposed to a large group. Do you have other recommendations aside from Hippo Creek? I see they haven’t been active in their blog as of late. Your blog continues to be such a delight and I’m fascinated as to how you even make dung beetles intriguing!

    Sincerely,
    Whitney

    • Whitney says:

      Thank you for your speedy reply and recommendations. I will check out those companies, but am wondering if you’re familiar with Africa Dream Safaris?…I’ve been looking into them as well. Have a fantastic and safe journey back to Kenya!…can’t wait to see your new posts!

      • Susan Portnoy says:

        No problem Whitney.. I’m not familiar with Africa Dream Safaris but there are many great outfitters I don’t know about. Let me know what you end up doing and thanks for the good luck!

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