How to Plan an Unforgettable African Safari
The African wilderness is unlike anything you’ve ever experienced - rugged and wild to its core, with landscape familiar only from the likes of ‘Planet Earth’. However, the feeling when you see your first wild animal, your first big cat, up close and in all its glory, well, it grounds you with a feeling that’s far from familiar. It’s part fear and part fascination, part dream and part reality. There were times I caught myself out on a drive, photographing the wildlife and my inner monologue told me to stop taking in the scene through a lens and to simply enjoy the majestically rare display that played out a mere arms length away.
Planning a safari can be overwhelming at times, as Africa offers so many wonderful and varied options for all tastes and budgets. We had an idea of what we wanted for our African holiday and teamed up with the experts at Next Adventure Inc. to plan a holiday like no other. They were absolutely brilliant to work with and prepared several versions of itineraries for us to peruse based on our requirements and preferences.
On our first visit to Africa, we spent 10 days exploring Johannesburg & Cape Town in South Africa, Victoria Falls in Zimbabwe and the Zambezi River in Zambia. When time came for safari, we were fortunate enough to experience twelve safaris in two of South Africa’s stellar private reserves near the Kruger National Park. The Timbavati and Sabi Sands private game reserves allowed us to see the ‘big five’ (lions, leopards, elephants, buffalos and rhinos), as well as an incredible array of other animals, while providing the most stunning and memorable safari experience we had dreamed of since childhood.
Wherever you take your first safari in Africa, here are eight essential things to know and to expect before you climb aboard an open top Land Rover jeep and set off in search of the experience of your life
1. Know the best time of year to go on safari based on your chosen destination
Africa is a massive continent, spanning both the northern and southern hemispheres, so you’ll want to check the weather based on the time of year you’re planning to travel. When you choose to travel really depends on what you want to see. Traditionally, the peak of the dry season is considered the very best time to take a safari (although naturally, when exactly this falls varies from country to country). The simple reason? Visibility. In most parks, the number of animals doesn't change dramatically throughout the year. What does change however is how easy it is to see them.
When the ground has been given a good soaking, things grow. Grass shoots up a few feet into the sky and bushes become thick with foliage. Great for the plants, not so great to see the animals who, when not hunting, tend to hide amongst the greenery. Additionally, when the rain has not fallen for a few months, watering holes tend to dry up, leaving only a handful of places for animals to drink. Not so great for the animals, but great for wildlife spotters and guides who know just where to go to spot predators and prey side-by-side.
We went on safari in mid-July in South Africa, and I have to say, it was perfect - it was technically winter, which also meant dry season, so visibility of animals was near perfection. The weather at this time of year is also ideal for safari, with mild temperatures consisting of cool mornings and warm days, all you need is a light jacket to be comfortable on your game drive. Cool and dry also means no mosquitos or airbound pests at all, in fact, we brought loads of insect repellant, but never had to use it.
2. Decide the type of game drive you want to experience
Depending on the country and park you visit, you will have the options of self-drive safari or a guided safari. We didn’t visit Kruger Park proper and enjoyed the much quieter and private game reserves surrounding the park. Since we stayed on privately owned reserve, we only experienced a guided game drive and I honestly can’t imagine safari any other way. Each jeep had a guide that drove the jeep and a tracker whose sole purpose was to track and spot animals from a set perched outside the front of the jeep. There’s highlights for both types of safari, so I have made a quick list here:
Guided Safari Highlights
Accessibility to Animals: You’re in a massive, open top, 4x4 jeep that goes off road in search of wildlife through the bush, with two experts, therefore you’re more likely to get up close to some amazing sights. Safari guides throughout the reserve are also in constant communication with each other, sharing their safari finds with other guides - this means you’re more likely to see some of the more elusive game from unimaginable distances. There were plenty of times we were certain we were in an episode of an Attenborough production. Safari jeeps tend to seat 7, with all seats at a relative height, so it’s easier to get a great angle for snaps of the animals.
Knowledge and Expertise: Every guide we encountered was extremely impressive and had a great deal of knowledge about every animal we managed to spot. They’re full of animal insights and you’ll quickly start to feel like an expert yourself. Guides are also highly trained at locating animals, so they’re likely to see an animal you may not, or at least spot it long before you do.
Picnics in the African Bush: Depending on your game drive operator, which for us was provided with our lodging company, you’ll likely take a break three quarters of the way into your three hour game drive. We were spoiled on each and every morning and afternoon drive with an array of local food and drink to offer each time we stopped for a break. Enjoying a drink on the peaceful African savannah as the sunsets, or as you peer over to a watering hole filled with hippos and crocodiles is certainly an unforgettable memory to create while on safari.
Night Drives: You can’t experience a night drive once you’re on a self-guided game drive, it’s not allowed and not particularly safe. Each day we started our afternoon safaris around 3pm which meant the last 30-45 of the drive was in the dark. Overall, night drives were relatively uneventful, however one night we did see a leopard enjoying its kill up a tree which made it all worth it.
Self-Drive Safari Highlights
Flexibility: You can decide where you want to go and how you’re going to get there, as well as spend as much time as you’d like in any particular spot. You will also be all on your own, instead of sharing a jeep and vying for photos with four other people.
Cost: Needless to say self-drive safaris are much less expensive than a private game drive. Usually the most economical option is to book a luxury lodge on a private reserve with an “all-in” offering (food, drinks and game drives included) instead of booking lodging and a private tour separately.
Aircon and heating: This may seem like a non-issue, but depending on the time of year you go, you just might want some aircon as the African sun beats down on your open-top jeep at high noon. Early morning is the best time to see animals, and 6am game drives were cold enough before the sun rose on the savannah - although we were each well provisioned with a hot water bottle and plenty of blankets.
No age restrictions for children: Most guided drives have an age restriction anywhere from 6-12 years old. Clearly this is for safety since children will most likely be in the close proximity of deadly predators. In your own car you can take children of any age and stop along the way as you wish. Just be sure to keep the windows up and the noise to a minimum if you do manage to get close to the wildlife.
3. Choose the type of lodging you prefer:
Game drives will consume around 6-8 hours of your day when you’re on safari, with the remaining hours to be spent at your game lodge. The type of accommodation you choose will very much shape your overall safari experience. We stayed at two lodges - one had a Jurassic Park type electrical fence around the property, where the other had no fence at all. While the fence does help you feel safe from any wildlife, especially at night, I feel like it also hindered the inconceivable and whole experience of staying at a safari lodge. The second property we stayed, Lion Sands River Lodge, had no fencing around the lodge at all. Every morning and every night we had to be escorted to our room where we regularly ran into elephants, buffalo, antelope and hyena, it was a fascinating and exhilarating experience that I highly recommend.
4. You May Need a Bit of Patience on Your Game Drives.
As much as a trip to the African savannah may feel like The Lion King come to life, during a visit here it very quickly becomes apparent that animals do their own damn thing.
On one particular game drive, an afternoon safari on the Timbavati Private Reserve, we spent several hours watching the dusk turn into night with only a single elephant sighting. For two hours our spotter swung his torch back and forth between the long grass searching for eyes that were not there, until quite out of the blue, we found the most prized of night time spottings - a leopard. Twenty minutes later, it was a lioness. And those few hours of waiting, well, they were totally worth it.
Every single safari is going to be different because, well, all the animals are wild and relatively unpredictable. This is part of the charm and allure of safaris, but it does also inevitably mean that you may go for large swathes of time without seeing anything of note, or that the people you meet back at camp may have seen something incredible that you didn't. Don't be disappointed or disheartened - every safari is special in its own way, and you will be guaranteed to have an interesting experience on yours as well.
5. Be Prepared to Wake Up Early
As a general rule, animals are active in the morning and the evening; the midday sun is simply too hot for them to do very much else other than lay in the shade. This is why you'll quickly discover that most safari days are broken into two - an early morning game drive setting off just before the sun has come up, and another beginning around 3:00 p.m.
Travel in Africa and early mornings are going to become just another part of your day, so embrace them and remember to bring the suncream and plenty water for when it heats up later in the morning.
6. Pack Wise & Pack Accordingly
On our flight from Johannesburg to Victoria Falls, our plane was awash with varying shades of khaki and greens, safari hats sat atop many heads and, most noticeable, it was all new. There is this idea amongst many travellers that in order to enjoy certain activities, you need an outfit - and they're usually not cheap.
The good news for those on a bit of a budget or worried about luggage space is that in order to get the best out of your safari, a good pair of eyes, patience and a tolerance for bumpy roads is so much more important than the clothes you wear. This is something we did a lot of research into before we left so, if you're in that position now, trust us when we say you really don't have to rush out and buy a safari-style outfit before you leave!
By all means ensure that you have something cool to cover up with (any long-sleeved shirt will do), a pair of light-weight comfy trousers or shorts and a hat to protect against the sun, but they don't need to all come from specialist shops and are the sort of multi-functional items you should be bringing with you anyway. It is advised that you wear neutral or dark colors on game drives so not to stand out too much from the animals’ natural surroundings.