You first ever safari should bring you tears.
The experience of witnessing creatures and beasts, part mythical, part prehistoric and becoming fewer in number each decade, literally six feet in front of you with no cage, barrier or interlocutor is something which should stir, emote and bring joy to your soul. If tears aren’t your natural reaction, then you should at least have a big goofy smile on your face for days.
On our first trip to sub-Saharan Africa, we were fortunate enough to experience four safaris in three of the continent’s stellar national parks. Zambia’s South Luangwa and Tanzania’s Serengeti and Ngorongoro Crater allowed us to see the ‘big five’, as well as some of the ‘small’ and ‘ugly’ five, whilst being the sort of safari experience we had dreamed about since childhood. Dusty roads, big open spaces and places where it’s clear that you are the visitor to the animal’s natural domain, and not the other way round.
In short, the only way it really should be done.
Wherever you take your first safari in Africa, here are TEN essential things to know and to expect before you clamber into that beaten up old Land Rover jeep and set off in search of the esteemed cast of the Lion King.
Know the Best Time of Year to Go On a Safari
This 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 foot 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.
However, this doesn't mean that you shouldn't visit any other time of the years. In fact, visiting out of season has a number of advantages.
Large numbers of tourists around wildlife is often a bad idea, and on safari this is no exception. We heard horror stories of forty jeeps surrounding a pack of lions and their kill, all vying for the perfect photo during the Masai Mara's peak season and of paved roads in Kruger meaning that weekends are now not too dissimilar to a theme park. By visiting in low season, you'll avoid the worst of this, and many of your wildlife encounters may be experienced in isolation.
Secondly, a lack of tourists means more competition amongst tour companies - and cheaper prices for you!
You Really Don't Need to Look Like You're 'On Safari'
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 importantly, 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 your 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.
We have entire packing list post for African safaris in the works - so watch this space! In the meantime, find out the 14 Essentials To Pack for Africa.
Consider your camera safari equipment carefully
We consider ourselves to be relatively good photographers, and our camera equipment (although not top of the range) is still the most expensive thing either of us own. However, to be a good photographer on an African safari, well, that's a whole other ball game - and a very expensive one at that.
Whilst you can certainly capture some amazing shots if the wildlife comes relatively close to the truck, should those animals be more than 25m away, entry level zoom lenses just aren't going to cut it in terms of sharpness and quality. No, to take good safari photos, you need to go big. And by big, we're talking about lenses with a focal length of up to 600mm - and at least 200mm.
Should you not have the inclination, nor the budget to stretch beyond a simple point or shoot or camera phone, our recommendation would be to simply watch and enjoy as many moments as possible rather than trying to take dozens of shots of a blurry, in the distance lion.
Binoculars Are Not Essential
Use films and photoshoots as your 'how to safari' guide, and you'll inevitably find yourself questioning whether you need a pair of binoculars. We certainly did. However, one look at the price of a decent pair and we immediately knew we'd try and make do without. Plus, a couple of our friends told us that it wasn't that essential.
The reality? Whilst there were a few of moments where they would have been a nice addition - the rhino that completed our 'big five' really was terribly far away - on the whole, we didn't need them, certainly not whilst we had a decent zoom lens on our camera.
If you really are into wildlife and you only travel with a simple point and shoot camera binoculars may prove a useful investment (this budget pair by RSPB come very highly recommended, or, if you've got a little more to spend, consider these binoculars by Nikon which are some of the bet on the market), but most of you will be able to go without.
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 4.30 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).
General vs. Specialist Game Drives
Whilst toddling around the Serengeti in our jeep, we passed the occasional truck, its only passenger a man with a rather large camera. These sorts of truck, it transpires, are super specialist. Whilst most of us will be ferried around in a group of at least six, others are seeking a more personalised service to either to get that perfect shot or simply to track and observe one particular animal.
General tours are just that; general. The guide is trying to please everyone, to track down as many animals as possible to give everyone the best safari experience. In most cases, it just won't be possible to spend an age seeking out a single type of animal that you somehow have an obsession over. Also, it's important to have patience with other in your jeep - some may really love elephants, other mights be majorly into birds, or somebody might really be hoping to get the perfect photo of a giraffe; just try to make sure everyone get their time to enjoy an animal before the vehicle moves on to the next stop.
You May Need to be Patient... (but it's worth it in the end)
As much as a trip to the Serengeti 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. The jeeps only have access to a relatively small area of the park, and specific tracks that they must drive along - if no animal chooses to follow the same route, you can't go off in search of them.
On one particular game drive, a night safari in South Luangwa National 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.
Don't Be Afraid to Ask Questions
Your guide is there to do much more than simply ferry you around the national parks; they're a wealth of information.
Many have grown up in the region surrounded by these animals, and have honed their craft on specialist courses and intensive training - what they don't know about a bird, a buffalo or 'that brown thing over there' probably isn't worth knowing. We were seriously in awe at the knowledge of each our our safari guides, and it added a whole extra dimension to your experiences.Their spotting ability is also second-to-none!
So don't be afraid to ask questions and to ask them about their own experiences in the park (after all if you're wondering something, chances are others in your group are wanting to know too!). Your guide will also let you know when it's possible to sneak a toilet break and will arrange the snack & tea stop (if your safari has one).
Park Fees and Tips
Taking a safari will usually involve three fees; the cost of the actual safari, national park fees, and a tip for the guide. The cash you need to stump on the actual day will depend on how it was organised. For example, we were travelling through Africa on this G Adventures overland tour, and a number of our safaris were included in the tour cost - all we had to cover were the guides tips. However, we also opted for a couple of extra safaris where we had to cover all three.
If you're in the park, doing a morning AND a night game drive, remember that in many cases, the park entrance fee covers you for the entire day.
Moral of the story? Do your research beforehand and make sure you have enough hard cash on you; many of the safari parks will accept credit card (usually with a % fee on top) but it's always best to arrive with plenty of cash to cover all eventualities and tips.
Be Considerate of the Animals
There is nothing like witnessing a pack of lions hunt to realise quite how inadequate you, a little old human would be in a stand-off. It's for this reason that it's so important to respect that you are in their home. These animals, and their ancestors have been a part of this land for longer than we can imagine - they have significantly more right to be there than you.
And whilst the safari trucks are perfectly safe, your ongoing safety is dependent upon you not acting like a dick. Don't yell or try to cajoole an animal (no matter how tempting or how excited you get) and respect what your guide says. Especially when it comes to elephants. They may look or sweet, but if a male elephant gets angry and makes a run for you, you'll be very thankful for having a guide that one, noted it was about to happen, and two, got you out of there in time!
Stay in your vehicles. Don't encourage your driver to go off-road or get in an animal's personal space. If you feel that you or other vehicles are crowding around an animal, then raise your concerns. Never litter.
Along Dusty Roads is a member of the G Adventures group of Wanderers, however all opinions on the above tour are our own.
You can find more information about the 20-day small-group overland tour we took with G Adventures from Victoria Falls, including the full itinerary, here.
If you would like to find out more about G Adventures' travel style, approach to small group tours and various adventures available all over the world, then go ahead and visit their website.
We will be publishing more guides on our Africa tour in the coming weeks.