1. Be prepared – Going on a safari is not your standard travel experience. First of all, it’s probably the result of a lot of planning and saving on your part and because of that you expect to get a lot out of the experience. Unfortunately when traveler expectations are high, their proclivity to buy things they don’t need also skyrockets. Sure, you’re going to Africa and yes you may need to bring some extra items just in case, but do not go overboard. Also, do not bring all of this gear with you while on a game drive. The jeeps aren’t made for comfort they’re made for getting around the nature reserve and there will usually also be a number of other travelers with you creating a somewhat cramped ride. There is not room for a lot of crap so just bring the essentials. It gets chilly in the mornings and evenings so bundle up; layers are best in case you need to add or remove. If you have multiple camera lenses it might be a good idea to either stick with one or use two cameras. Your opportunities to capture great wildlife photos may at times be fleeting and there is no time for constant lens changes. I used a zoom lens most of the time, even when closer in. I also had a smaller point and shoot camera to use in conjunction for when I was very close to wildlife. That way I wasn’t fumbling around trying to get the right lens in place and I never missed a shot. Well, almost never.
2. Not a theme park – Disney World is great and with the Animal Kingdom you can have a great wildlife experience without leaving Florida. But when you are on safari you are not in Florida and you are certainly not in a theme park. This is Africa, the real deal and the animals aren’t tame or socialized, they are wild and act just like wild animals. You need to realize these facts not only to enjoy a better travel experience but so you aren’t a jerk. When you are on a game drive your guide is your best friend. Be nice to him and always do what he says. After a couple of hours riding around in a Jeep you may feel like an expert bushman, but you are not. You are an inexperienced Westerner with no clue what the animals or terrain are really like. Also be respectful of the animals. Don’t encourage your guide to do things that aren’t ethical or which may place the animals in danger. I wrote about it before, but I was shocked when several safari boats surrounded two juvenile elephants in a river in Botswana. Most of the times the guides will ignore these requests, but other times they can also be persuaded by a fat tip. Do not be the jerk offering a tip just so you can get a slightly better photo.
3. May not see the Big Five – I know that this is a once-in-a-lifetime dream trip and that we all put a lot of pressure on ourselves to have a perfect experience, but it’s important to relax as well. I spoke to a number of professional guides in Botswana who all said the same thing. The worst thing about their jobs are tourists who expect to be able to see and do it all at one time. Namely, everyone wants to see the Big Five. This somewhat arbitrary list of animals includes: the lion, African elephant, Cape buffalo, leopard, and rhinoceros. The list is antiquated, no doubt about that. It came about at the turn of the 19th century as a way for big game hunters to prioritize their expeditions based on the animals that were most difficult to track on foot. Since we have replaced guns with cameras a lot has changed, but not this list and it is something that creates a maddening obsession amongst many travelers. The fact is that you are out amongst nature, not Disney World, and nature is unpredictable. The guides know a lot and through constant communication with colleagues can create a variety of amazing wildlife experiences for visitors, but they aren’t magicians. Ultimately they have no control over the wildlife so if you don’t get to see a lion or an leopard, don’t get angry, just accept it as part of the experience.
4. Not all safaris are made the same – As I learned there are a wide variety of safari types from which to choose. Over the course of just a few days I joined a tradition game drive as well as a more unconventional boat game drive. Granted, observing animals from a waterborne vessel certainly isn’t available everywhere, but it is an experience not to be missed. We stayed on a small luxury cruise ship permanently moored in the Chobe River in Namibia. From that vantage point I woke up every morning to the cranky sounds of hippos and the sight of elephants grazing on the marshland. For a closer look, the staff took us out on a runabout over to the Botswana side of the river where we were mere feet from giant elephants swimming, baboons playing and even a crocodile or two cautiously raising their heads out of the murky depths. Even if a water-based adventure isn’t available to you, game drives themselves differ just by the time of day. My favorite was a sunset game drive in which we not only saw a wide variety of animals, but we also saw some of the early night activities of many others.
5. It’s amazing – We spend months, probably years planning a safari trip to Africa all in the hopes that it will be fun and maybe even transformative. And you know what? It is. I’ve always been an animal lover and I was prepared for an amazing adventure, but what I experienced exceeded even those lofty expectations. There is simply nothing like sitting in a rugged jeep in the middle of Africa, a few feet from dozens of graceful giraffes searching for leaves, the sounds of other unknown animals in the distance. This cannot be replicated in any way; it is just something you have to experience for yourself. If you ever had any doubts, and I can’t imagine you have, an African safari should be at the very top of your travel bucket list and please make sure you do everything you can so that you too can have these wonderful moments of unadulterated travel joy.
Have you been on safari? What tips would you offer?