Explained: The A – Z of going on an African safari

From aardvark to mozzies to Zululand, we have you covered.
Written by Matthew Sterne
02 March 2022

Going on a safari for the first time can be overwhelming — there’s particular clothing, special greetings and one-of-a-kind traditions that you just don’t get anywhere else. For example, what are sundowners? That’s not even to mention the unusual array of animals crisscrossing the savannas. Sure, you’ve heard of elephants, lions and rhinos, but what about civets, servals and gerenuks? Our little alphabetical guide to the African safari will help you understand what to expect.

A is for Angola

Angola was once famed for its giant elephants (a 12-ton male was spotted here in 1974), but poaching during the country’s 27-year-long civil war took a big toll on both human and animal population. Angola has been at peace for two decades and their wildlife reserves are on the road to recovery. In fact, it played host to the largest animal transplant in history, called Operation Noah’s Ark. We reckon it’s an underrated destination for those seeking a truly off-the-beaten-track experience.

B is for binoculars

Give yourself a fighting chance. You’ll need a decent pair of binoculars to spot some of the wild game from afar on safari. Sure, you won’t need them when that giraffe lumbers right past you but for leopards in a far-flung tree (you can’t always offroad right up to animals) or tiny exotic birds that flutter around acacia trees, they’ll come in very handy. A light, compact 8×42 pair of binoculars should be perfect.

C is for Congo

Carpeted by huge swaths of rainforest hiding a big portion of the world’s gorillas, masses of forest elephants, and hooting, swinging troops of chimpanzees,  dramatic rivers, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and the largest country in Sub-Saharan Africa might just be the ultimate African adventure. Yes, there’s a tricky past, but this immense nation has the potential to evolve into one of the finest ecotourism destinations in Africa, with Virunga (Africa’s oldest national park) and home to an exceptional array of treasures.

Also read: Is Kahuzi-Biéga National Park Congo’s best-kept secret?

 

D is for Dung beetle

In Africa, south of the Sahara, there are more than 2000 species of dung beetles in the family Scarabaeidae. Source |  Matthew Sterne

Dung beetles are found worldwide, on every continent except Antarctica, yet they’re most closely associated with Africa. These little beetles are some of the most fascinating insects out in the bush. There are thousands of different subspecies, the ancient Egyptian scarabs are actually images of dung beetles and it was recently discovered they can navigate using the Milky Way.

E is for Elephant

From the big tuskers of Tsavo to the forest elephants of Knysna, elephants are synonymous with safari and, should you visit one of the major national parks, you’ll stand a very good chance of spotting them.

F is for Fascinating

One of the best aspects of a safari is learning how the entire ecosystem interacts. From the termites to the tortoises, the natural world forms one dynamic organism. They all play a role and feed off of each other, figuratively and literally. Take it from us: you’ll often sit back and say quietly to yourself, “Fascinating. Just fascinating.”

G is for Gorillas

Gorilla Bwindi
Gorilla trekking permits in Uganda are only a portion of the price compared to those in Rwanda | Source: Melanie van Zyl

In 1981, 250 mountain gorillas roamed the world. That number has soared to 1060, making gorilla trekking one of Africa’s greatest conservation success stories. Intrepid adventurers can visit them in places like Volcanoes National Park in Rwanda and Bwindi Impenetrable Forest in Uganda.

In Photos: venture through Uganda’s riveting Bwindi Impenetrable Forest

 

H is for Hat

The African sun – pretty when it dips behind the horizon, mighty powerful when it’s at its zenith. A good wide-brimmed hat is one of the most important things on the packing list. It needs to be wide enough to keep the sun off your nose and the back of your neck, especially if you intend to go on a walking safari. While they might not look particularly fashionable, there’s a reason that so many people wear identical-looking safari hats. But don’t worry too much if you can’t find one at home. Almost all African airports and on-site lodge stores sell typical wide-brimmed safari hats, so you can pick one up when you arrive.

I is for Impossible Five

You’ve probably heard of the Big Five: the lion, rhino, elephant, leopard and buffalo. But what about the Impossible Five? They’re South Africa’s most elusive mammals and present a whole way to organise your next safari. Why not set out to find the Cape mountain leopard, aardvark, pangolin, riverine rabbit and naturally occurring white lion.

Inspired? Plan your trip to a secret South Africa with all the inside advice. 

J is for Jambo

Which is “Hello” in Swahili said typically in a sing-song swing – or that’s how it sounds to me. Africa has over 1000 languages and 3000 tribes, so it’s not always easy to communicate in a local dialect. However, Swahili is widely spoken in East Africa if that’s your chosen safari destination (don’t try saying Jambo in South Africa though).

Swahili developed historically by the borrowing of words from foreign languages due to colonial presence on the continent, resulting in a mishmash medley of phrases that everyone could communicate in. There is a particular presence of administrative terms from Arabic, but also phrases from Portuguese, Hindi and German. Why not learn a few simple words to prepare for your next trip?

 

K is for Kilimanjaro

Often surrounded by clouds, lucky hikers will get a rare glimpse of Kili’s upper peaks on their final day of hiking. Source | Matthew Sterne

An icon of Africa, this old volcano towers some 5,895 metres above the plains of Northern Tanzania. Mounting to the snow-dappled summit is one of the continent’s great travel challenges and experiences. But it’s not easy. Climbing to the peak takes at least five days, although some recommended routes take six or seven days – the longer treks give you more time to acclimatise to the altitude. There’s now six different routes to the top but 90% of climbers take either the Marangu (Coca-Cola) or Machame (whisky).

Also read: The 6 best peaks to summit in Africa

 

L is for Lake Malawi

The Lake of Stars, as one David Livingstone called it, is a shimmering mass of clear water, depths swarming with colourful cichlid fish. Whether for diving, snorkelling, kayaking or chilling out on beaches and desert islands, a visit to the lake is a must.

M is for Malaria

Curiously, the little mosquito is responsible for the protection of many of Africa’s wild safari destinations. When the colonial invaders arrived they were fearful of areas where malaria was rife, so they didn’t ravage places like the Serengeti, turning it into farmland. Mosquito nets, insect repellants and medication can all protect visitors to these areas today. Speak to your doctor for the best approach for you.

N is for Nairobi

East Africa’s most cosmopolitan city, Nairobi is Kenya’s beating heart, an exciting, frenetic concrete jungle that counterpoints the untrammelled natural beauty to be found elsewhere in the country. If you’re interested in learning about Kenya’s culture and history, the city is home to a number of great stops including the extensive National Museum, and it’s also a great jumping-off point for diving into the country’s varied culinary traditions.

 

O is for Ornithology

There are 10 types of bee-eaters in Africa. All of them beautiful! Source | Charl Senekal

Sure, the first few days of a safari will most likely gravitate around the big mammals. But the longer you spend in the African bush, the more you’ll come to appreciate the birds. They range from the exotically colourful to the boisterous and noisy, or the cute and curious to those with bizarre mating displays. Eagles soar overhead, vultures rest on high branches, while tiny tropical birds flutter above the savannah. Some national parks have over 500 different species. From bee eaters to fish eagles and blue cranes, the birds of Africa are truly magnificent and an appreciation of them will improve your safari experience considerably.

P is for Patience

The thing with wild animals is that they’re… wild. They move according to their own whims and instincts so knowing where they’ll be isn’t guaranteed. That’s a good thing to keep in mind going into a safari holiday. But they are there and you will see them. It just takes a little patience. Ask a wildlife photographer. They spend days, weeks, months waiting in the same spot for those famous images from the wildlife documentaries.

Q is for Queen of the Zambezi

This floating hotel offers luxury accommodation in the form of 14 tasteful and luxurious suites – 10 standard suites and four spacious master suites, all with outer decks so you can soak up the Chobe River breeze and appreciate uninterrupted views of the unique African landscape beyond.

R is for Rwanda

Known as Le Pays des Mille Collines (Land of a Thousand Hills) thanks to the endless mountains in this scenically stunning little country, Rwanda is a fascinating little country in the very middle of Africa. And Kigali, the capital, is one of the loveliest cities in Africa.

 

S is for Sundowners

Beautiful sunset over Lamu as a dhow heads for a sundowner. Source | Brian Siambi

If they came up with a list of the world’s 100 best places to have a sundowner, 80 would be in Africa. From the plains of the Serengeti to the waters of the Zambezi, the colours, the stillness and the expanse are impossible to beat. And it’s those quiet yet spectacular moments that often stay with you long after you return home.

T is for Tea time

When on a safari, you take on the rhythms of the bush. Like lions, you’re either on the move or you’re eating. Many lodges offer, before the evening game drive, a small afternoon tea of snacks and drinks. Be like the lions, don’t hold back.

U is for Um, where are the tigers?

The big cats you’ll stand a chance of seeing are lions, leopards and cheetahs. Tigers can be seen in India, one continent away. And the small cats? Well, there are plenty to potentially see such as servals, African wildcats and caracals.

 

V is for Volcanoes

A hike to the world’s biggest lava lake is not for the faint-hearted. Source | Flickr

Kilimanjaro was once a volcano, while the Ngorongoro Crater is the world’s biggest caldera (a former volcano) and Rwanda’s gorillas live in Volcanoes National Park. To get a look at one of the world’s most active volcanoes, head to Mount Nyiragongo in the DRC.

Also read: Hike up (then sleep beside) the world’s largest lava lake

 

W is for Walking Safaris

Being out of the comfort of a game viewing vehicle and in the open with wild animals heightens your senses. The snap of a twig could be a Cape buffalo hiding in the bushes or a lion slowly stalking or a simple little francolin, just as flustered as you! It all feels surreal and pulls you into your surroundings. It grants you the closest connection to nature and is one of the best safari activities in Africa.

Also read: An expert lists 6 of South Africa’s best, most wonderfully wild, walking safaris

X is for Xtreme adventures

Swim with whale sharks, canoe down the croc-infested Zambezi River, cruise past elephants on the Chobe River, tiptoe past sleeping lions on a walking safari or swim with great white sharks. Africa’s got it all.

The 17 best wildlife-focused experiences in Africa

Y is for Yep, there’s another one

Impalas. Often called the fast food of the African veld. In many reserves, you’ll see them all over the show and by the last day, you’ll barely bat an eyelid at them.

Z is for Zzzzz

When the thrill of the game drive has slowly evaporated away and the nighttime fire is down to its last embers, you slip into bed. Suddenly a noise. A soft rustling sound. Something is next to the tent. Elephants trumpet in the distance, a hyena howls in the valley, a twig breaks next to your head. Don’t pack the sleeping tablets. Don’t bring earplugs. Falling asleep on a safari is one of life’s most enchanting experiences. Then there are the stars…

Book your next trip with us

South Africa Namibia Morocco Kenya Ethiopia Madagascar Rwanda Mozambique

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