Top 10 things to know when planning your first African safari

Before you go, get in the know.
Written by Matthew Sterne
03 February 2022

Is Africa calling you? Do you feel the pull of its plains and the lure of its wildlife? Do you long to experience what life is like on the world’s most exhilarating continent? Good, I completely understand. My advice: listen to those instincts, you won’t be disappointed.

There are some questions to consider right off the bat: are you looking for a romantic getaway? Perhaps a family-friendly holiday? Do you want a rugged adventure or are you strictly interested in getting pampered at a luxury lodge? Those are the kind of top-level questions you’ll need to start considering.

Africa can be expensive (worth every penny though), and requires a lot of careful planning. We know it can be difficult to know where to start, so we’ve put together the following list of quick and easy tips for first-timers.

 

1. Plan your trip in advance

Safari lodges are often very small – many of the top ones can accommodate a maximum of 12 guests. These popular ones sell out well in advance and you need to book at least six months prior to travelling if your dates aren’t flexible. For popular destinations, such as Botswana, Kenya and South Africa, you often need to book more than a year in advance. Proper planning will guarantee the best camps and trips for your safari.

A bush breakfast is one of Africa’s great pleasures – feel free to ask your lodge or travel planner what added extras you could expect. | Source: Melanie van Zyl

 

2.  Combine safari with another element

While the safari aspect of your trip will be sure to be a major highlight – you can get ‘safaried out’. As a general rule, three to seven days on safari is the perfect amount. Luckily, there’s much more on offer than just wildlife. There’s Cape Town, the Cape Winelands, Victoria Falls, Zanzibar, and other beach destinations. These areas are also significantly cheaper, meaning that you can extend your time on holiday at a lower cost.

 

3. You get what you pay for

There’s a saying they like to use in the safari business – if you pay peanuts, you get monkeys. Price differences across lodges and regions can vary greatly, but there are valid reasons for this. The main factors are the quality of game viewing, guiding and service. This can be difficult to discern when planning your first safari, which is why local and expert knowledge becomes so important to rely on.

Also read: 6 dreamy destinations to spend your African honeymoon

If you’re wanting private game drives in a safari vehicle, champagne breakfasts in the bush, decked-out safari tents, lantern-lit dinners and outdoor bathtubs overlooking a watering hole – well, these trips generally don’t come cheap. But a safari is a once-in-a-lifetime experience, and those special moments in the bush are the ones that will stay with you forever.

 

Decide on the wildlife you want to see before planning your trip. | Source: Will Burrard-Lucas

 

4. Don’t be put off by the shoulder season

A number of the regions have shoulder seasons, often occurring on either side of the most popular tourist season. People can be put off by the title. Yet those in the know often prefer travelling at this time – the parks are significantly quieter in terms of vehicles and the camps can be half the price. 

Africa’s seasons are essentially the opposite of the northern hemisphere’s, and in most African countries there are really only two distinct seasons: dry season (winter) and wet season (summer). In East Africa, the long rains tend to happen in April and May, while Southern Africa’s heavier rains fall between December and March. Many lodges and tour operators offer heavily discounted rates during their slower (usually rainy) months, so it’s worth looking into. Just keep in mind that not all parts of Africa experience the same high and low season so you’ll need to do a little digging once you narrow down your top destinations.

 

5. Guided vs.self-driving safaris

Another aspect to think about early on in the planning process is whether you want a guided safari experience (where you can just sit back and relax) or if you’d prefer to do it yourself and self-drive.

Eight times out of 10 I would suggest going the guided safari route for anyone heading to Africa for their first time. It’s just easier, safer, more informative and in many ways more enjoyable than having to navigate everything yourself. Typically, the nightly rates at most mid-range to luxury safari lodges include two guided game drives per day — one in the morning and another in the late afternoon. They’ll provide the safari vehicle, guide, tracker, beverages, and snacks. 

The two out of 10 times that I would suggest first-timers opt for self-driving safaris is if they’re on a tight budget or looking for a bit more adventure.

With that said, both scenarios really depend on the safari destination. South Africa and Namibia are fantastic for anyone on a budget and keen to road trip. Road conditions are good, parks are well-developed and managed, and renting a vehicle is easy and affordable (mainly because you don’t really have to rent a 4×4 vehicle — which can be pricey — to get around). But places like Zimbabwe, Zambia, Botswana, Tanzania or Kenya — where wildlife parks are a bit more off-the-beaten-track and even experienced 4×4-drivers get stranded regularly — then I would probably only suggest self-driving for very experienced adventurers.

 

Choose your own adventure. Would you like to go on a river cruise or take a walk on the wild side? | Source: Safarico

 

6. Decide where you want to go based on what you want to see

OK, let’s get down to the core of it – why do you want to come to Africa and what do you want to see? Perhaps you’re less concerned with what you’ll do in your downtime and more interested in what kind of African wildlife you’ll see on safari? If that is the case, then wildlife should be the driving factor for picking your safari destination.

This might be helpful? Our guide to the 15 types of African safaris

There are 54 countries in Africa, nine of which are renowned for world-class safaris: South Africa, Kenya, Tanzania, Namibia, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Zambia, Uganda and Rwanda. While most of Africa’s popular safari destinations boast the Big Five, each has its own unique offerings in terms of native wildlife species. If cheetahs are your thing then start by looking into safari options in Kenya or Namibia. If you love elephants, Botswana is where it’s at. If you want to see gorillas, check out safari options in Uganda or Rwanda.

South Africa draws a large number of first-time safari-goers because it has good tourism infrastructure and is home to the Big Five, plus several game reserves are in malaria-free areas and it’s relatively stable, politically speaking. Other popular spots like Kenya and Tanzania, feel wilder, often have denser sightings, and are the place to witness the Great Migration.

 

7. Talk to a specialist

Here’s the thing – travelling between places in Africa can be so complicated, the lodge offerings so different, the regions so varied, that you need to rely on expert local advice. If you’re planning on visiting more than one lodge or destination, it’s practically mandatory to use a knowledgeable, specialised travel tour operator who will listen to your needs and put together the ideal safari itinerary for you. 

Pop us a message now to take your first steps towards Africa.

We always suggest booking with someone who is from Africa. When someone is selling their home, it’s very different from selling just any destination and this will have a tremendous impact on your trip experience. They’ll be able to create a truly tailor-made trip just for you.

 

You can plan as much as you like but you never know what kind of traffic curveballs nature might throw at you. | Source: Swain Destinations

 

8. Pack Sensibly

Check the weather before departing, most African safari destinations are hot so packing light clothing is recommended. However, game drives begin just as it is starting to get light, so driving around in an open-sided vehicle can get distinctly chilly – layers are recommended so you can adjust easily. You will also require a pair of good quality walking shoes, sunscreen, a hat, sunglasses, insect repellant and other essentials.

No matter the type of safari, you should pack a lot of neutral colours that blend into the surroundings. Headed to the desert? Stock up on tan, beige, and brown duds. Headed into the jungle? Greens, browns, and blacks are best. Animals tend to view the safari vehicle as one single being, so don’t single yourself out by wearing bright pops of colour. 

 

9. Be responsible, ethical and sustainable

It’s been encouraging of late to see more and more travellers become aware of the impact of their travel decisions. Ask yourself a few questions: does the country or company support sustainable initiatives? What do they do to help protect the local wildlife? Is there political conflict? Does it offer the chance to pet, hold or take pictures with wild animals? As always, where you spend your money speaks volumes. Take a minute to learn who and what your money will be benefiting (or harming).

Check this out: Africa’s Top 9 Conservation-led Safaris

 

Gorilla Trek Uganda
There are so many beautiful wildlife encounters to be enjoyed in Africa. The hard part? Deciding which one to do first. | Source: Melanie van Zyl

 

10. Don’t wait

Don’t wait until the kids are older: go now and foster a sense of adventure, adversity and acceptance at a young age. When planning for a family trip, slow it down with longer stays, look for places with small pools, and private concessions where there are fewer rules than national parks. Allow kids to skip early morning game drives and spend time with the gracious and engaging camp staff who will undoubtedly get them in the kitchen or looking at the small things. Bottom line: take your kids to Africa; take them on safari, and take them back again and again as each time they will gain more appreciation and understanding of our natural world.

 

If you’d like to start planning your dream trip to Africa, contact us now and we’ll help make that dream a reality. 

Book your next trip with us

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