How to Plan an African Safari
By Berne Broudy
The continent of Africa is home to some of the last large game on the planet. Species like elephants, lions, and tigers, animals most of us have seen in captivity, roam free in national parks and conservation areas.
Many travelers visiting Africa take a safari to see these great mammals in their natural habitat.
With the increased popularity of safaris amongst visitors to Africa, “going on safari” is no longer limited to camping in a canvas tent and riding through the African veldt by Jeep.
With many safari options to choose from, an increasing number of travelers are planning their own safaris.
Though researching and planning your own safari can take more time than booking with a domestic tour group, there are advantages for many travelers that outweigh the inconvenience. The biggest is the price.
Booking with an in-country safari provider will generally be a fraction of the cost of an all-inclusive safari from home.
You may also be able to arrange for a private guide if you go direct.
The other advantage is flexibility. If you plan to combine your safari with other activities in Africa, and you don’t have a set itinerary, you may opt to wait to plan your safari until you arrive.
And with the Internet, it’s easy to find local safari providers. But you’ll need to ask yourself a number of questions before you head out in your khakis and safari hat.
Where do I want to go?
First and foremost, choose a country that is relatively stable and safe for travelers. Second, consider that country’s position on land conservation. You may want to go on safari somewhere your tourist dollars will contribute to the continued conservation of the natural habitat.
A preserve, park, or conservation area may be defined differently from country to country. Ask questions. There are two principal ecosystems for safari: the savanna and the jungle. Depending on time and budget, you may need to make a choice between the two.
Decide if remote and undeveloped or easily accessible is more important to you. In some countries, the safari location may be far from the nearest city, and that might determine your plans. Some countries also specialize in certain types of safaris. For example, you can’t see the Wildebeest Migration in Liberia, but you can in Tanzania.
What do I want to see?
It used to be that going on safari necessarily meant seeking out a large game like rhinoceros, elephant, giraffe, and lions. Big game safaris are still the most popular, but if you have a special interest, there may be a safari to accommodate you.
There are safaris that focus specifically on birds, for example. If you want to see a particular animal, perhaps the fanged, hooked, primitive chevrotain, you might choose a safari in Liberia, where the chevrotain still roams free inside Sapo Park.
.If culture is important to you, make sure to choose a safari in a park where indigenous residents have been allowed to remain or even run the park. In some parks, permanent and nomadic settlements are prohibited.
How long do I want to be on safari?
Safaris run from a half-day, or one game drive, to weeks at a time spent on the steppe or in the jungle. Depending on where you choose to go on safari, you may be fairly restricted to your campsite when you’re not animal watching.
Be realistic about how long you want to be out in the bush, and what else you want to see on your trip to Africa.
What is my budget?
Some all-inclusive safaris can run over the US $500/day for luxury tent sites, lodges, game drives, fees, and catered meals. A Do It Yourself budget can be as low as US$50, if you camp in your own tent, pay your own park fees, and take a day drive with a local guide. Your budget will also determine how long you stay out in the bush and where.
What do I want to do?
Many safaris take visitors out into the wilds in a jeep, a speedy mode of transportation, which lets safari-goers cover a lot of ground and observe wildlife from a safe distance with some protection. If driving is not your preferred mode of transportation, however, you can seek out one of the many alternatives.
There are balloon safaris, canoe safaris, and walking safaris, to name a few.
You might also be interested in a photographic safari, or a cultural one, that gives you time to visit with locals.
Who will be my guide?
Ask the operator you are considering how many people will be on the tour, the guide to guest ratio, and if there will be a guide and a driver, a driver/guide or just a driver. Most safari-goers appreciate the trained eye of an experienced guide who can spend time educating his guests about the area and helping them see things they might otherwise miss. Local guides are always preferable, if possible.
Is the tour guide/operator respectful of the natural environment?
There are tour operators who are very focused on maintaining the health and natural balance of the environment, and who take steps to support these ends through their tours. Look for operators that run tours with a limited number of guests, where the focus is on observing the environment in its natural state.
You may want to steer clear of operators that “guarantee” kills. In order to meet their promise, they may provoke animals into performing a Wild Kingdom-like demonstration of ripping their prey to pieces. You might also be wary of operators that offer night viewing, which is stressful to the animals.
What do I need to be comfortable?
As on any tour, it is important to accurately assess what you need in terms of accommodations, food, etc. Safari accommodations range from posh lodges to permanent tented sites with dugout latrines, to pitch your own pup tent set-ups.
Be realistic about what will make your trip enjoyable. If the thought of several days without a flush toilet is horrifying, there is no shame in opting for the lodge. Also, consider your health.
If you can’t take too long out in the African sun or away from basic comforts, choose a safari that offers more luxurious accommodations.
How do I find a local safari guide?
Most tourism boards for African nations have listings and recommendations of local safari guides.
As always, ask for references, safety records, guide certifications, and other documents. Check prices and what is and isn’t included.
Pay with a credit card, if possible, get a receipt, and, if the service is good, a tip is appreciated.