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Planning Your First African Safari Vacation [2020]

 “I never knew of a morning in Africa when I woke up that I was not happy.”

Ernest Hemingway

What are the variables that go into planning an amazing safari vacation, and how to choose from all the possible safari options?

Time and Budget

Your Budget for an African safari vacation is driven by 2 main variables: the type of lodging and the duration of your vacation. At the low end, you can rent a campsite for about $20 per night. At the luxury end, a lodge on a private game reserve can cost over $1,500 per person per night.

The cost is higher obviously because usually luxury lodges are all inclusive: dining and drinks, game drives, fly-in transfers, spa, bathrobes, A/C, plunge pool, etc. But after you travel all the way to Africa for a safari, here are some other cost factors worth considering (resist the urge to characterize this list as snobbery – it’s intention is helping you get the most out of your safari):

  1. luxury lodges hire better guides (and spotters);
  2. jeeps are less crowded, with max 4 or 6 passengers, vs 8+ (we’ve seen a bus with 12+);
  3. the luxury lodge is often located on a private reserve, and therefore:
    • less jeep traffic around animal sightings;
    • jeeps can go off-road to track wildlife (*very good);
    • walking safaris & night drives (*very good);
    • statistically better wildlife density (World Bank Report, 2019).

Private Game Reserves (and conservancies)

Private game reseves and conservancies are different than state-owned National Parks. A private game reserve is a land parcel that is privately owned, but which may adjoin or be within a national park. Only guests at the lodge are permitted on game drives, so they’re less crowded than public parks. Below, a typical crowded sighting in a public game park (this one was in Chobe).

In Kenya there are 160 conservancies under the umbrella of Kenya Wildlife Conservancies Association (KWCA), which represents about 10% of the country’s territory. A recent report shows that Kenya’s conservancies have higher wildlife density rather than in parks (World Bank, 2019). For example, Olare Orok Conservancy which borders the Maasai Mara reserve is the conservancy with the highest density of wildlife, and lion populations in the Maasai Mara conservancies are among the highest in all of Africa.

Private game reserves have less restrictions than the national parks regarding off-road driving, therefore sightings are much better because your guide can actually track the animals, and view them up close.

Private game reserves also offer night drives. On one of our night game drives, we witnessed leopards mating (every 15 minutes) for an hour. On another night drive in Zambia, we saw 5 badgers rescue a porcupine from a leopard, something even our guide had never seen.

Private Concessions refer to land leased by private entities from the government. The lessee operates a private lodge or safari camp, and usually benefits from the same advantages as private game reserves. Depending on the country, sometimes private concessions (or conservancies) are operated by the local community alone or in partnership with a safari outfitter. Regardless, these leased lands are usually within the park (or adjoining it), and similar to private game reserves, these safari experiences typically are a more expensive option.

For the reasons above, private game reserves are a more expensive option than a public park and a much better safari experience overall. Highly recommended.

Budget and mid-level safaris can be enjoyable if expectations are low enough. Depending on the season, a basic campsite like Satara Rest Camp (Kruger) will cost about $20 per night. Or a bush cottage in Kruger will cost between US $100 and $250 per night (South African Rand: 1,500~3,500). This does not include the $25 per day per person park fee. https://www.sanparks.org/parks/kruger/

TIP: While a self-guided camping trip in Africa may be interesting, it is not the same as a full-on safari experience.


How Much Time?

Your time spent on a safari vacation will be one of your most memorable and exciting experiences. As mentioned, a big part of a safari is about where you stay. We’ve taken safari vacations twice in Africa: once combining Kenya and Tanzania, and more recently to the south (Botswana, Zimbabwe, Zambia, and S.A.). Each location was unique, but some lodges we’d definitely not repeat, due to negative aspects of the lodge itself or its location. Considering the cost and time of travelling to Africa (from the West), avoid the penny-wise and pound-foolish approach.

TIP: Plan about 2-3 days per property (park/lodge/campsite), and at least 4 different parks or lodges. Therefore your safari vacation will be at least 15 days, inclusive. With proper selection, each one will offer an amazing experience. Plan on spending between (USD) $500 to $1,500 per person per day, not including airfare. Mix upscale properties and more rustic ones.


TIP: Use game drives to and from the airstrip. Luckily for us, the flat tire (above) occurred on the way from the airstrip to the lodge, so we didn’t have to worry about missing a flight.


Types of Safari Activities

We suggest you combine a few of the following types of safari activities when planning your vacation, the widest possible experience:

A fly-in safari is where you fly from one park or property to the next, and the lodge provides everything for you, including meals and guided game drives. Depending the on the size of airfield, proximity of airport to property and your budget, you fly in a small 4 seater or a chartered private jet, and anything in between. Note that many airstrips in game parks are just dirt tracks. Upon landing, your camp representative meets you at the airstrip in a jeep and takes you to your camp, typically enjoying a game drive en-route. 

A drive-in (or overland) safari is similar to a fly-in except you drive from one property to the next instead of flying. If two properties are geographically drive-able, the ideal is to game drive from one property to the next. Once at the new property, you enjoy guided game drives as if you’d flown in. Whether it makes more sense to fly or drive will depend on many factors – including timing and road conditions. For instance, in the south of Tanzania, there are mostly fly-in safaris because distances are great. However, in north Tanzania, because the parks are closer, it is easier to do drive-in safaris, although virtually every lodge can handle fly-in safaris there.

Guided mobile safaris are offered by a number of mobile operators in Africa, who operate scheduled trips across the continent. Each night your group of jeeps stay in a mobile tented camp. A small crew in their own jeep travel ahead of you each day, and erect the tents and prepare meals before you arrive. The freedom of a private overland safari allows guests to control the rhythm and flow of the safari, from day to day and sighting to sighting.

Self-drive safaris are the cheapest alternatives to any of the above types of safaris. Some national parks are popular when the network of roads are marked and well-maintained. Based on chatting with travelers we met, Namibia lends itself to great self-drive safaris because the landscape is worthwhile seeing at a slower pace.

The advantage of self-drive is cost and freedom: the price of your rental car is offset by the savings you get from not hiring a local guide. And because there is no guide you can drive when you want.

The disadvantages of self-drive include lack of guide, who will know the terrain and can spot animals that you will miss, and the hassle of breakdowns. The rented vehicle in the photo below had to wait until a park ranger came along with a real 4×4, to tow their inadequate Nissan NP300 out of the loose sand. Both of the campers’ travelling companions’ vehicles tried and failed to tow him out, and the sand was not that deep.

Non-jeep game viewing: With both self-drive or fly-in, in addition to guided game drives by jeep, there exist other modes of viewing game. Try to stay at lodges that offer at least one of the following game viewing alternatives:

On foot: a walking safari offers unique opportunities to see and experience sights, sounds and smells that you totally miss while in the jeep. It’s also an opportunity to decompress your spine from the jeep bouncing over dirt trails twice a day. Some camps, like those in Kruger who still have a guide and a spotter, will option a partial walk in the bush, which opens up the possibilities of terrain to traverse. During the walk, the guide explains trail markings, paw prints, scat droppings, insects and plants. And sometimes things get exciting when you come across animals nearby who aren’t expecting your presence. We highly recommend you do at least one bush walk.

On the water, by canoe, motorized skiff, or houseboat, offers you a good vantage point for spotting wildlife, and enjoy a cool breeze instead of dust associated with a jeep drive. You’ll see animals’ faces when they drink at the water’s edge instead of their backsides. Viewing shore birds, hippos, crocodiles and swimming elephants from a small watercraft is more exciting than from a jeep.

On horseback, elephant back or camel game viewing offers a holistic immersion of smells and sights and wind in your face. We’ve done off-trail treks on horseback elsewhere (not Africa) and can attest that it’s an amazing guided wilderness experience. And we’ve had many opportunities in Nepal and India to mount elephants for Bengal tiger tracking, but declined for ethical reasons, and have declined them in Africa as well.

Airborne, in a helicopter, small plane or hot air balloon, or any other method of flight, is a must if you are anywhere near the herds during the great migration. Only from above can the expanse of wildlife, horizon to horizon, take your breath away. There will be many airborne opportunities in Africa, but experiencing the herds from above during the great migration is epic.

Rare white lion cub, Ngala, Timbavati

Which African Countries to Visit

Botswana is well known and expensive. It offers some unique areas, like the Okovango Delta and Chobe, but most fellow travelers we spoke with agreed that the Botswana ‘brand’ doesn’t warrant the price premium. That’s not to say we’re disappointed we went to Botswana, and we would visit other areas of the Delta again and especially the Kalahari desert and its zebra migration, but on a value-for-money basis for safaris, Botswana is lower on the list. Click here to read about our experience in Botswana.

Kenya is a topographically stunning country, and one of our favorite safari destinations. The two most famous reserves are the Maasai Mara National Reserve, home of the great migration and Amboseli National Reserve. Highly recommend.

Tanzania’s most prominent safari destinations are the Serengeti National Park and the Ngorongoro Crater. Safaris are usually planned by selecting from 3 routes (or circuits). The northern circuit involves flying to Kilimanjaro or Arusha National Airport and visiting the Serengeti National Park, Ngorongoro Crater and Arusha National Park. The southern circuit flies into Dar es Salaam and then to Mikumi National Park, and either Selous Game Reserve or Ruaha National Park. The western circuit includes the Mahale Mountains National Park for chimpanzees and the Katavi National Park for the wildebeest.

TIP: The Masai Mara and Serengeti share a huge unfenced savannah habitat where animals can move freely. Either of these parks should be considered, for any safari plans. Click here to read about our visit to Kenya and Tanzania.

South Africa’s Kruger National Park, and specifically the private game reserves and concessions, offer excellent safari viewing. No fences divide these private reserves from Kruger, so wildlife moves freely between the national park and the reserves. An exception is Phinda private game reserve which is fenced. Sabi Sands is the most famous private game reserve, and the lesser known Timbavati private reserve each have many lodges to choose from. We stayed at both, and you can read about our experience tips here.

Zambia’s great Zambezi River, the spectacular Busanga Plains and the diverse game in South Luangwa make Zambia one of Africa’s best safari destinations. Busanga Plains is situated in the north of Kafue National Park and the safari experience there is excellent — besides the variety of species, the openness of the plains provide interrupted scenic views comparable to the Serengeti in Tanzania.

Zimbabwe was Africa’s richest country 20 years ago, but recent negative fundamentals in its economy left it without any domestic currency and banned foreign currencies when we were there, Sept 2019. We were able to pay with credit cards, and hopefully they have stabilized a new currency since then.

Zimbabwe is landlocked, with the Zambezi river flowing along its northwestern border with Zambia. Hwange National Park, made up of savanna grasslands and woodlands, is situated on the western border with Botswana, is its largest wildlife sanctuary, where one of Africa’s largest elephant populations roams. We stayed at Somalisa Camp in Hwange. We also went to Mana Pools National Park, and stayed at Kanga Camp, which is about 60 minutes drive over rough road to Mana Pools proper and the Zambezi river.


Safari Safety Issues

IN THE BUSH: Whether you are in a jeep, a canoe or walking, you should rely on your experienced rifle-toting guide, who, because of their training, will see and hear animals before you do.

Deaths due to wild animals are uncommon, however animals are unpredictable and tourists are killed, usually by leaving the jeep or inadequate fencing, as evidenced in the excerpted table of historical statistics below.

It is disconcerting to be sitting in an open jeep or a canoe, with dangerous animals nearby, but they apparently do not see vehicles or craft as prey. However, if someone stands up, steps out of the jeep, or even leans out of the jeep at the wrong moment, they can be attacked.

On a recent trip on the Zambezi River (Zambia side), there was a pod of hippos smiling at our canoe. Suddenly one hippo began to approach, snapping his jaws at the water (a sign of aggression). We were vulnerable because the hippo was close and we couldn’t out-paddle it, and certainly couldn’t outrun it even if we could reach shore before him. A good-old-fashioned primal thrill.

Our guide was calm and quietly turned the canoe broadside, to display our size and “strength”. We slowly backed away, giving the hippo his space, and the hippo too retreated. When safely back on land, our guide reminded us that hippos do kill humans every year in Africa.

TIP:  Tsetse flies (like deer flies) are attracted to blue and black clothing (in that order), and are most active between 9:00 am and 1:00 pm.  Recommended clothing and footwear is to wear khaki and olive colors or earth tones, as they blend into the environment. White and red clothing makes you very conspicuous to the wildlife, especially on a walking safari.

TIP: Mosquitoes kill more humans than wild animals. Malaria risk is lower in Botswana and S.A., but moderate to high in certain parts of Kenya, Tanzania, Zimbabwe, and Zambia. Click here for CDC Malaria and Yellow Fever Site.


Safari Etiquette

Recommended clothing for safaris involves earth tones, olive and khaki, especially on a bush walk, so bold bright colors and patters are avoided. Unless you opt for a pricey ‘private’ game drive, safari etiquette mostly amounts to common sense and courtesy for your jeep mates:

  • The row of seats behind the driver are less bumpy and have better access to the guide for questions, so generally everyone takes turn sitting there from one game drive to another;
  • Don’t talk incessantly. A chatty jeep mate is annoying;
  • Be at the jeep or boat on time, so other guests aren’t waiting on you;
  • Don’t ask the guide stop for every single impala or bird (you’ll see millions of both);
  • Do tip the guides and the driver.


MONDISTI BOTTOM LINE

  • A good tour operator is essential;
  • The best lodges hire the best guides;
  • If you only want a cheap safari with limited scope of an African experience, go to Kruger;
  • To see the big five in the shortest amount of time, go to (Sabi Sand) or a zoo;
  • Top 2 picks for first safari: the Serengeti during migration, and Sabi Sand;
  • Bottom picks: Botswana, then Zimbabwe;
  • The remote bush camp is an experience worth trying at least once;

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F. J. St-Pierre

Frank is a founding Mondisto, whose favourite travel book is still The Innocents Abroad, Mark Twain's first book, who also penned the following observation:
Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things can not be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one's lifetime...

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