11 Tips to Enjoy Your Future African Safari
Heather Markel, Writer, Speaker, Photographer, Traveler, Business Strategist
What you need to know before you go
One of my absolute favorite memories from my first trip to Africa was the three-week safari I did. My safari was not what I expected, I’d say it was even better! However, there were some unexpected challenges as well. So, here are some tips to help you love your next African safari.
A giraffe right outside our window on a road in Namibia.
Copyright, 2020. Heather Markel.
What to Expect On An African Safari
1. It’s Not Just For Honeymooners
I spent so much of my life thinking a safari was something I had to save for my honeymoon. My first marriage didn’t work out, and I haven’t yet found my next husband so I decided to make the experience my own. I learned that, these days, most people who safari are other solo travelers, or couples and families, but not so many honeymooners! And, a safari isn’t a “once in a lifetime” experience, either, because there are so many different countries to safari in, and so many different animals to be seen in each national park that you could spend a lifetime on safaris and they’d never be the same twice.
2. It’s More Than Just Seeing “The Big 5”
I thought a safari referred to the small trucks that take you out to nature reserves to see lions and leopards, etc. In fact, a safari refers to the entire experience of seeing Africa – it’s the truck, the driving, the sites you will see, the activities you’ll do, and includes game drives, which is where you get to see the animals! A safari lets you see the amazing roads and landscapes of many countries as you drive from one destination to the next.
One of the children of the Himba tribe. Copyright 2020, Heather Markel.
3. Expect Long Drives, Early Starts, and to Gain Weight
Africa is a huge continent. Safaris are designed to show you as much as can be seen in as little time as possible. There’s so much to see and do that you’ll be up early. Expect a lot of 6am starts, so you can get to the next location before dark. That means you’ll be on the road a lot – up to 9 hours in a day. Since you’ll be in the safari truck so much your guides will encourage you to buy snacks and water. With all that sitting and snacking your clothes will be tighter at the end of the trip. When you do get out to see a location, it’s amazing, but it’s not enough exercise to keep up with all those snacks. After three weeks of so much sitting, my body was in dire need of exercise!
Roads are mostly unpaved, and the truck is high off the ground. This means lots of bumps. The further back in the bus you sit, the more bumpy the ride. One thing I loved is that we were told to rotate seats every day. That meant we all had some bumpy days, and others at the front of the bus where we were much more comfortable.
While it’s important to stay hydrated, the safari trucks don’t have toilets aboard. Rest stops happen every few hours. If you need one before the next planned stop, you’ll be using the “bush toilet” – peeing in nature. I learned not to overdo the hydration.
View from inside the safari truck. Copyright 2020, Heather Markel.
4. It’s Expensive, Especially if You’re a Solo Traveler
I found that safari prices started out sounding pretty affordable. Then they hit me with the activity package; the safari price includes the driving, some meals, and the camping or lodges. Outside of these necessities there are activities you’ll do, like visiting a Rooibos farm, riding a canoe in the Okavango Delta, game drives at Etosha and Chobe parks and more. All of these are part of an activity package, and the cost is separated from the food and lodging.
If you’re a solo traveler, you’ll pay unbelievably high single supplements – up to one third of the safari cost. If you can, ask your travel agent whether you can get the list of lodges they’re booking and make your own reservations. If not, then keep in mind that if you use the same safari company more than once, you’re entitled to a discount. Also, if you meet another solo traveler in your group and want to share a room, you should be able to have your travel agent adjust your rooms and get a discount.
5. Food Allergies and Sensitivities Are Taken Seriously
You’ll complete a form before your safari. Make sure to list all your food allergies or needs, like vegan, vegetarian, etc. All the food is cooked on the truck by your staff and I found they did a fabulous job of keeping food separate for those of us that needed it and erred on the side of over-cautious. Not one person got sick during the three weeks I traveled with them.
6. Heed The Sun
African sunshine is really hot and bright. Make sure you have a really good, wide-brimmed hat, and sunblock. Note that during game drives, your hat will blow around, so investing in one with a cord that goes around your neck is a great idea.
On safari in Botswana where the hot sun can be a major issue.
7. WiFi Is An Infrequent Luxury
If you think you’re taking a working vacation, think again. This is Africa, not America. You might find WiFi at some of your lodges, but even then it may only work at the reception area, especially if you’re camping. And, if more than two of you use that WiFi at the same time, it’s even worse than dial-up. Cell reception, even with a local SIM card, works well in cities, and not so well anyplace else. It’s best to presume you won’t be able to check emails and social media regularly and plan to actually be present to your safari experience.
8. Pack Light and Use Duffel Bags Instead of Wheeled Ones
‘The safari trucks have cubby holes in the back for your luggage. They’re a specific size. Structured bags with wheels bigger than carry-on size won’t fit, and there’s no other place for them. You’ll be warned that if you bring a bag that doesn’t fit, it’ll be left behind. It’s better to use soft duffel bags instead, which can be smushed into the allotted space. Another thing to consider is that you’ll only stay in a place one night, most of the time. Each night, you have to take any luggage you need off the truck and over to your room, which can be a bit of a walk. Then you have to bring it back to the truck in the morning. If you have a lock, you can lock your cubby hole at night, and use a smaller bag filled with necessities instead. I found this saved me a lot of annoying luggage hikes.
Male kudu at Chobe National Park. Copyright 2020, Heather Markel.
9. Expect to Spend a Lot on Tips
Set aside a budget for tipping. Every excursion / activity you do will have a different tour guide, and each one of them will expect a tip. Your safari guides will remind you every day that a tip is appreciated. Even though it’s not mandatory, you’ll feel like it is. Also, expect to give each of your safari staff members a tip. Roughly $3, per person, per day is what was recommended. That can add up on a longer safari.
10. Try to Get Along
Hopefully you have a great group of people that all gets along, for the entire time. My safari was three weeks long. One week in, we added more people, and two weeks in, some of them went home. Days are long, bodies get cramped, and your group is likely to have people of different ages and from different countries. So, it’s very likely that there will be personality conflicts on longer safaris. I found it best to spend the most time and effort with people that I got along great with, and as little time around those I didn’t. Figuring out your own way to have a peaceful experience is essential.
Posing for a group photo.
11. Forgive Yourself For Taking It For Granted
One thing I found absolutely crazy and unbelievable was getting bored with animals. The first time we saw an Oryx, wow, it blew my mind! They are so beautiful. The truck stopped, we took photos, we gazed in awe! Pretty soon, though, we’d pass by plains of land filled with them and say, “Oh, it’s just another Oryx.” Unbelievably, the same thing happened with giraffes and elephants. I mean, how is it possible that we could take seeing a wild elephant or giraffe by the side of our truck for granted?!! Personally, I never got tired of seeing them getting shade or eating leaves by the side of the roads, especially as we drove through Botswana. However, I never got tired of seeing them right at the side of the road in places like Botswana. It’s strange to me that we can spend so much time dreaming about an animal safari, and then find that it’s not worth pulling over to photograph them after the 5th or 6th one.
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