Google “Africa Safari” and one becomes completely overwhelmed by the hundreds of thousands of choices presented, page after page of safaris on offer by hundreds of tour operators. It is no easy task but with a little preparation, searching for the ideal Africa safari can be a success.
Here are several essential points to consider ensuring you choose the right Africa safari;
1. Where to Go
If it is animals you are after the obvious choices are Kenya, Tanzania, Zambia, Botswana, Namibia or South Africa. If it is Gorilla trekking and African wildlife choose Uganda, Rwanda and Kenya. If it is culture try Mali, Burkina Faso and Ghana; if you are really looking to get off the beaten track try Cameroon and Gabon in Central Africa.
East Africa: Uganda, Kenya and Tanzania offer a more “romantic” African safari; the roads, services and cultures are more authentic than the Southern African options.
The most famous parks of the Serengeti, Ngorogoro Crater, Masai Mara and Queen Elizabeth are in this part of Africa. The tropical African coastline of Kenya and the world famous Spice Island of Zanzibar. Anyone after animals, culture and a few days of relaxation on tropical beaches; East Africa is the obvious choice.
Southern Africa: Zambia, Botswana, Namibia and South Africa are far more western and comfortable than East African countries however they tend to lack the “real Africa” flair that we are accustomed.
The most famous parks in this area are Chobe, Etosha, South Luangwa, Okavango Delta and Kruger; the famous Namib desert and Fish River Canyon to the wine region of Stellenbosch. Southern Africa offers a very different experience to East Africa.
West Africa: Mali, Burkina Faso and Ghana if you are after culture and not bothered about wildlife. Mali is famous for Djenne, Timbuktu and Dogan Country; Burkina Faso is well known for its music scene and Ghana offers historical sites from the old slave trade years, tropical beaches and a few game parks with very few animals.
Central Africa: Cameroon and Gabon is for the real adventure traveller. A safari through these countries will take you into a different world of tropical beaches, pygmies, bush meat markets, surfing hippos and thousands of low land gorillas. This part is far less travelled by the average tourist and can be difficult to find an English speaking tour.
2. Level of Luxury
5 star luxury accommodation to camping are all on offer in East Africa, Southern Africa and West Africa. Central Africa expect a minimum of 3-5 star accommodation.
Upmarket accommodation options are endless however expect to pay hefty prices for 3-5 star accommodation. Facilities are excellent offering well stocked bar/restaurant, often swimming pools, hot showers, flushing toilets as well as the romantic African colonial style most tourist lodges and hotels have adopted.
Campsites have changed immensely over the years. Gone are the days when there was no grass to pitch tents, cold showers (if water at all) and warm drinks in the fridge. Most campsites in East and Southern Africa are very well serviced and equipped boasting hot showers, flushing toilets, extensive bars and restaurants and good clean room accommodation to upgrade if camping does not take your fancy every night. Of course there is always the chance the power may go off and hot water may not last but overall campsites offer excellent value for money and all the amenities the average traveller desires.
Transport through Africa varies from Fly-in safaris, 4×4 Land Cruiser/Mini Van to custom built Overland Safari Trucks.
The most expensive but possibly practical way for those with a large budget and not much time is to fly from destination to destination. Most parks and major tourist attractions have air strips to cater for the fly-in safari traveller. Don’t expect to camp on these safaris; companies offering fly-in also offer 5 star lodge accommodation. The downsides to fly-in safaris are that you miss out on the local sites, sounds, smells and culture of a country. Not really exposing to the real Africa. These tours offer full luxury.
Opting for 4×4 Land Cruiser or mini van is far cheaper than Fly-ins and offer anything from 5 star accommodation to camping safaris. Often group size is limited to 8-12 people per tour allowing for a small group feel without it being too overwhelming. These are popular safaris as they suit most budgets. These tours mostly stay in hotel/lodge accommodation with very little camping.
Overland custom built safari trucks are the cheapest option. Most tours offered in safari trucks are camping with the exception of a couple who offer hotel/lodge accommodation. Travelling in a large safari truck gives you the best viewpoint enhancing your Africa experience. The vehicles are totally self-sufficient complete with camping equipment and extensive kitchen. Travelling as a group, anything from 13-25 people offers communal style living and is particularly popular with single travellers or older couples wanting the extra safety and security. These safaris often blend animal viewing, community projects with adventure activities, appealing to, but not limited, the 20-40 year old traveller. These tours are becoming more and more popular with the over 50s looking for the more adventurous style of travel. There is nothing like cooking on open fire, shopping at local markets and socialising with locals.
4. Private or Group Safaris
A number of companies offer tailor-made private safaris. For a price you can have your own vehicle, own tailor-made itinerary developed to your exact requirements and personal driver/guide. The options are not limited to lodge or camping but to what you desire. These options are popular with couples, honeymoon couples and business people with limited time and restricted travel dates.
Group safaris can be very rewarding. Itineraries are developed to include the key highlights of each region/area and are cheaper than private tailor-made safaris. The biggest concern with travelling in a group is whether all parties will get along, in most cases all are likeminded individuals who want to see and experience Africa. Where things do go wrong is when clients are sold a safari which does not meet their expectations.
5. Expectations and Level of Participation
It is important to book a safari which meets expectations. If you are after the full pampering luxury safari than book the pampering luxury safari. Do not expect a luxury safari but book a participatory camping safari. Although it may be cheaper you will not be happy with the product and hence will damper your African experience. The great thing about Africa is it suits all expectations and budgets. Know what you want and expect; then look for a Company who provides that level of safari and service. At the end of the day you get what you pay for.
Different safaris offer different levels of participation. The most expensive luxury safaris are hand-holding and pampering through to budget overland truck safari where it is expected that clients help out with the day to day running of the safari.
If you want to participate in the day to day running of the safari, help cook and shop for fresh food for the group then book an Overland Truck safari. Most companies offer the services of a cook so client participation is limited to helping prepare meals rather than take responsibility for the final product. These safaris work on a client rota system so it may be that over a 3 week period you have to assist only 3-5 times; enough time to learn about bartering for fresh fruit and vegetables in local markets and how to cook on open fire. With the aid of an experienced safari cook the meals are often better than what the average person eats at home!
There are a couple of Overland Truck Safari Operators where the shopping and cooking are entirely the groups’ responsibility. This can be a great way to fully capitalise on the Africa experience. Although rewarding, this can also be rather stressful particularly if you have never cooked for 20 people before let alone cook on open fire. Expect the meals to be a random mix from excellent to barely resembling edible.
How much you want to spend on your African safari will also dictate the type of safari you book. There are beliefs that as most African countries are developing, they are very cheap like Thailand. Think again, Africa is a lot more expensive than most realise. Ultimately the key places most safari operators visit does not differ between luxury fly-ins and overland truck safaris. Most operators offer itineraries which include the major parks and attractions; what differs is mode of transport, time spent in places and type of accommodation.
How much time you have also depends on the safari you will choose. However, the itinerary that includes the most may not be the best safari; consider and ask the operator/agent how much time is spent travelling versus time in places. Time and time again clients compare itineraries from one Company to another and choose the Company that include the most highlights only to realise on day 2 that in order to see all the highlights means breakfast at 5am every day and not arriving at the final destination until 8pm at night. Defeats the purpose of a holiday! Be realistic about what is achievable, the safari industry is very competitive hence operators cram as much into the itinerary as possible to make their product more attractive and saleable to potential clients.
Look at a map of the countries you want to travel, Africa is a huge continent. Assume the road conditions are not up to Western standards hence don’t expect to cover 500kms stopping at several tourist sites in one day.
8. All Inclusive Versus Pay-As-You-Go
Choosing an all-inclusive versus pay-as-you-go has many pros and cons. Benefits of the all-inclusive means you only have to take enough money to pay for your visas and personal spending. The disadvantage is you may be paying for activities you have no interest i.e. forest walk or canoeing down the Zambezi.
Pay-as-you-go offers flexibility in paying only for the activities you are interested in resulting in better value for money. The down side is deciding prior to embarking on your safari what activities you do and don’t want to partake. It is always best to overestimate what you may do while on safari ensuring you are not left short of money.
10. Brochure Versus Booking Over the Internet
Over the past 2-3 years there has been a trend away from brochures as more and more people are confident to book trips over the internet. Furthermore, as a society we are more conscious about wasting precious resources such as paper. Most websites have extensive information about safaris taking away the need for brochures. Further, responsible tour operators are leaning away from brochures as it is seen as contradictory to offer safaris that are focussed on saving the environment only to print thousands of brochures.
11. Ask the Right Questions
Before booking a safari firstly ask yourself (and be honest) about what type of safari you would love to do.
Where do I want to go?
What do I want to see and experience?
How much time do I have?
What do I expect?
Do I want Private or group safari?
How much do I want to spend?
Do I want all inclusive or pay-as-you-go?
What type of transport do I want?
Once you have asked and answered these questions you can begin the search for an appropriate operator which meets you expectations.
Once you have found several possible operators ask questions that relate to what you want from your safari. Hopefully this will identify the right operator for the Right Africa Safari.
Choosing a safari in Africa can be daunting however if you know what you want, not only will you focus on Operators offering these requirements, your Africa safari will truly be an unbelievable amazing life changing experience.
Deborah Thiele is Director of Africa Expedition Support, a safari Company based in East Africa. Deborah has worked in the travel industry for over 7 years in administrative, tour leading and crew training roles. She has travelled and worked in Africa, South America, the Middle East and the UK. As a Tour Leader she lead over 200 tours across 3 continents. Originally from Adelaide, Australia she now calls Africa home.