Everything is expensive, and TripAdvisor is littered with fake reviews. In the absence of personal recommendations, so where do you start? How do you organise a safari?
When do you want to go?
Knowing when you will be travelling can help. Most countries have dry and wet seasons. The wet season can be warmer and cheaper, but can mean floods, land slides and road closures. For game viewing, dry season tends to be better for spotting animals as they are forced to congregate near water holes. In the wet season animals can be hard to spot at all.
Audley have a useful “When to Go” guide for most countries. You can also Google the average monthly rainfall for countries or specific cities near where you are thinking of visiting.
What do you want to see?
Have a think about what animals you want to see. Are you happy with just giraffes and zebras? Seeing big cats is important to most people but at some parks they’re a rare sighting.
If you want to see the Great Migration, bear in mind that it only occurs at specific times of the year. The GoAfrica site is useful if you want more details.
Knowing which country you want to visit and reading up on the parks you want to go to will also help. For example, if you want to see gorillas, consider the Volcano National Park in Rwanda; for leopards, have a look at South Luangwa National Park in Zambia, or for lions, the Maasai Mara in Kenya is always a good bet.
The Mara is also a great place to spot the big five game animals: elephant, buffalo, leopard, lion, and rhino. The Mara is much smaller than the Serengeti in Tanzania, with a greater concentration of animals. On the downside however, the Mara is generally busier and more expensive.
Bear in mind that many parks claim to have the Big Five, but you may only have a low chance of seeing some of the animals. The beautiful Ngorongoro Crater for example, does not have many rhinos, and they are sometimes rarely seen.
There are also less famous parks which are just as beautiful and tend to be quieter and cheaper to visit. Your safari operator should be able to suggest some for you.
Consider what other experiences you want to have too. Do you want to head for the Serengeti and take a hot air balloon ride over the plains, or climb Kilimanjaro, or relax on a beach in Mombasa?
What’s your budget?
Other than the Mara, permits and accommodation tend to be cheaper in Kenya than in Tanzania. Parks in Zambia and Zimbabwe may also be cheaper but harder to get to. Wherever you go, prices will change depending on where you stay and what you are doing. Gorillas tracking permits for example are very expensive, starting at around $500 each.
If you have the money I would be tempted to pay an agency like Kuoni or Trailfinders to sort everything out for you, (or even Audley or A&K if you have the budget). You should also be able to pay for any trip organised by these companies by credit card. It’s lot more expensive, but a lot less hassle.
For those with less money, have a look at companies highly rated in the “Attraction” section of various parks you are interested in on TripAdvisor and contact the companies for quotes.
In Kenya and Tanzania, there are regulatory bodies, KATO and TATO respectively, which accredit safari operators. It’s generally advisable to ensure that whoever you use is accredited. Companies I contacted who were not accredited where a lot cheaper and were happy to accept any itinerary I suggested even if my ideas were completely unrealistic. The accredited agencies tended to suggest alternatives and were more expensive.
What are safaris like?
When and for how long you will be on safari will usually depend on the conditions of the national park pass that you buy. A pass for the Ngorongoro Crater for example will be limited to six hours in the crater. Other parks are closed during most of the day meaning that you can only safari for a few hours around sunrise and before sunset. In some parks you might only visit in the morning or in the late afternoon, for others you might spend most of the day there.
To be honest, I thought that I would get bored sitting in a vehicle, driving around looking for animals, but I loved it! The scenery was sensational, and I never tired of watching the animals or looking out for new ones.
Safaris in Kenya are a bit more rough and ready than those in other countries we visited. The Mara was packed with mini vans and queues of vehicles queuing up for photos – it wasn’t the tranquil vast empty land I had imagined it would be like. At times it felt extremely touristy and undignified.
Drivers in the Mara race all over the park trying to spot animals, and talking to each other on the radio. It’s a bit of an adrenalin rush and increases your chances of seeing the animals. Elsewhere, things are less crazy and drivers tend to stay on the roads to avoid being fined.
Some of the lodges on safari are beautiful. If you are staying somewhere nice, work in time for you to relax at the lodges – they are expensive so get your money’s worth. The sun generally sets around 6pm so you might need an extra day to do this. Take the time if you can.
Four wheel drive or mini van – which vehicle is best for safari?
In Tanzania, Zambia and Zimbabwe, four wheel drive jeep or land cruisers are the norm. In Kenya, you can usually choose between a mini bus with a roof that can be raised or a land cruiser/jeep. Mini buses are cheaper than land cruisers and are supposed to be less comfortable.
We travelled in a mini bus in Kenya and land cruisers or jeeps elsewhere. Personally, I didn’t find the mini bus any less comfortable. The roads were as bumpy in both vehicles. There was an additional cushion provided by the tour operator in Tanzania, which helped a bit but there is nothing stopping you bringing your own cushion in a mini bus.
Being short I found it harder to take photos from the top of the land cruiser than the mini bus. The back seats are raised in the back of the land cruiser so you can’t see out of the front window when driving without crouching down which was annoying.
We also travelled in jeeps with completely open sides and no roof. These are great for taking photos but offer no protection from the sun, so be careful – we saw lots of red faces!
We drove around some parks in large overland trucks which were okay but could not go down some of the smaller roads. I wouldn’t recommend them if you have alternatives.
What to expect when you’re on safari?
Some parks have a greater concentration of animals but they tend to have a lot more tourists too. If you want to be on your own with the animals, then avoid the Masai Mara which at peak seasons tend to be crowded with more mini-buses than animals. On the upside, it is a fantastic place to go and see the Big Five if you have a limited amount of time, (we saw them all in an afternoon).
Parks in countries other than Kenya tend to be more regimented and less touristy, with drivers sticking to the roads, most of the time at least. On the downside, this can mean that you spend a lot of time driving around without seeing any animals, but it is better for the environment.
How do you pay for a safari?
Most of the operators I contacted wanted to be paid by bank transfer. The only ones I found that would take payment by credit card were the uber expensive operators who specialised in luxury tours. We were looking for something cheaper and were quite stressed by the prospect of transferring so much money into someone’s bank account without credit card protection.
I made myself comfortable by finding operators with positive and genuine looking reviews on TripAdvisor.
Our Kenyan operator, East Africa Adventure Tours was happy to receive half of the money up front and half in cash on arrival. Our Tanzanian operator, Roy Safaris, wanted the whole amount paid in advance. Both turned out to be professionally run organisations and we had great experiences with them both. In some ways it was easier to pay the whole amount up front, as we didn’t have to worry about carrying that many US dollars around Africa.
We used MoneyCorps to transfer the money as they had good exchange rates and charged no fees. As most of the countries we were transferring money to were “high risk” in terms of money laundering registers, we needed to provide MoneyCorps with invoices from the operators which wasn’t an issue and in hindsight was something we should have asked for up front in any event!
What to wear on safari?
We agonised about what to wear and read about all the appropriate colours. Ultimately however, unless you are in an open sided jeep, or doing a walking safari, you don’t need to worry too much as you will be inside the vehicle most of the time.
Most animals are so used to the vehicles that what you wear will rarely influence whether or not an animal will come near your vehicle or not.
If you are on a walking safari or in an open jeep in the dry season, beige colonial style clothes are good. If you are walking in the wet season or in a forest trekking chimps or gorillas, dark green clothing is best.
A wide brimmed hat is useful for taking photos without having to wear sun glasses.
Do you have to worry about Tetse Flies?
I was concerned about Tetse flies which can give a painful bite and are supposed to be attracted to “dark or contrasting colours” which I didn’t find helpful. Our guide didn’t think that what we wore made a difference and told us to look out for a fly getting trapped in the vehicle.
Black and bright light blue/turquoise flags were put up around the park to try and attract and kill the Tetse flies however, so I would avoid wearing those colours if possible.