Sandy plains stretch from horizon to horizon as roaming herds of animals graze in the distance; perhaps elephants in their massive glory, or zebras, a striped spectacle on the otherwise muted earthy colours of the lands. Look up at the leafy trees overhead; multi-coloured birds flaunt their plumage. Crane your head beyond; a lone predator conceals itself amidst the swaying grass, stalking its prey lithely. The majesty of the wild strikes you all at once with its incomparable brand of beauty.
It is in that moment that most fall in love with safaris, with wandering along in the wilderness as your senses heighten and thrum in anticipation of the next sighting and with the sense of exhilaration and gratification that comes when you lay eyes on a rarely spotted animal.
Before you live the experience, however, lies a whole host of decisions you have to tackle – which African country best suits your needs? When should you travel? How safe will you be? Quotient seeks out experts and industry insiders to address your varied concerns in this ultimate guide to African safaris.
Where to go for your first safari in Africa
To the uninitiated, the variety of safaris available can frankly be rather mind-boggling. According to Mr Adam Chapman, Sales Manager of andBEYOND, South Africa remains the most popular place for first-time safari-goers. The destination is perfect for families, seniors and even honeymooners for its diversity.
Travellers have an abundance of choice when it comes to selecting safari lodges due to the number of vendors available. The stiff competition present in turn also means that the operators constantly upgrade themselves.
Game drives in the private reserves of Kruger National Park are highly recommended as the renowned area is one of the continent’s most game-rich lands, which makes it ideal for animal-spotting. Families concerned about malaria can opt to instead travel to places such as Madikwe or the Eastern Cape private safari reserves, which boast a variety of lodges in non-malaria areas. These two locales, in particular, are also known for offering unique programmes tailored to children.
Another favourite for first-time safaris is Kenya, a mainstay in multiple wildlife documentaries throughout the years. The country is also home to arguably the most famous safari area in the world – Masai Mara.
According to Mr Izak de Villiers, Sales Director of MORE, the seasonal wildebeest migration is a great spectacle and we agree that it’s well-worth catching the sight at least once in your lifetime. With its wide open savannahs and seemingly endless skies, Kenya is especially known amongst the older crowd as the place to travel to for a quintessential safari experience. Unfortunately, rampant tourism has created a rather touristy and commercialised experience and the recent political turmoil in the area makes it a little risky to travel to.
Mr Hilton Walker, Sales and Marketing Director from Great Plains Conservation thinks favourably of safaris in Botswana and Zimbabwe. Along with Kenya, “all three destinations cater perfectly for first-time visitors, families, older clients and those looking for authentic and genuine safaris”, according to him.
Different destination, different safari flavour
Botswana specifically is amazing for its complete lack of fences, adds Villiers, which means that the game can truly roam freely throughout the country. The destination is ideal for those seeking habitat diversity with its land and water safaris, and the feeling of basking in unspoilt nature.
Remarkably, the Okavango Delta, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is also hailed as the finest in the world for game viewing. Unfortunately, night safaris are highly restricted in Botswana even for private concessions and lodges so if that’s what you’re looking forward to, consider combining your visit to Botswana with a stop by another country.
Zimbabwe also boasts several iconic reserves, including the Hwange and Mana Pools. Villiers points out that herds of elephants often pass through the campsite at Mana Pools, making it the perfect place to come close to the enormous creatures. Self-drives can also be conducted relatively easily in Zimbabwe, giving you the freedom to roam wherever you want and have incredible camping trips.
Due to a poor economic and political climate, however, luxury operators in Zimbabwe are not as commonly found, though the hotels in close proximity to the stunning Victoria Falls are usually still of good quality.
Or, if you remain torn between several choices, why not consider a multi-country safari? Its appeal lies in giving you the ability to pick and choose from different destinations, which gives you access to a wider variety of wildlife and dynamic environments. But do remember to take logistics and the cost of connecting flights into consideration; depending on where you’d like to go, two or three flights including a possible overnight route may be necessary for you to get from one place to another.
The best time to go on a safari is…
First things first: there isn’t really a ‘best time’ to go on a safari per se. While a peak season does exist, which is typically from July to September, Great Plains’ Walker quips that “animals don’t follow a routine”, which means your chances of spotting certain animals really just boils down to plain luck. Of course, it will be prudent to take note of migration periods if there are specific animals you’re keen on seeing.
There are, however, also certain destinations with resident predators who don’t migrate, which mean that your chances of spotting the animals remain more or less consistent year-round.
Weather considerations do play a part in determining your comfort and levels of visibility. The Eastern Cape of South Africa can drop to low temperatures around -15 degrees during July and August, while Kenya is prone to pouring rains between March and May. So if you’re planning to schedule other outdoor activities between your game drives, it might be a good idea to avoid travelling during these periods at these countries, recommends Chapman.
In general, the experts recommend that travellers should stay at least three nights in one reserve in order to truly get the full safari experience. For those who prefer a more relaxed holiday, a longer trip of at least seven nights or more in countries such as Botswana or Kenya where you move between lodges and visit different areas are suggested. It is when you embrace a slower pace of life and immerse yourself in the safaris that you truly have the opportunity for a fantastic safari, says Walker.
Rise and shine: Your daily safari routine
Wake up before sunrise for a quick bite and a comforting cup of cuppa before your first game drive begins. As you trundle out to the plains, watch the bush come to life around you as the fauna begin to stir. After approximately three hours of stalking the rolling lands when the sun hangs higher in the air and the wildlife retreats back to the shade, you’ll return to your lodge to indulge in some relaxation.
Luxuriate in your comfortably furnished room – which can belong to some of the most luxurious hotels in the world – take a dip in the pool, soothe your tired muscles with a pampering spa or massage or learn a culinary secret from a Relais & Chateaux chef on an interactive cooking workshop. Alternatively, if you’d rather get out and about, go canoeing, fishing, horse riding or even soar in a helicopter over the scenic landscape.
In the early afternoon, you’ll hop back on a game drive for around three to four hours, during which you can stop midway to enjoy a drink amidst bountiful nature and watch the blazing sun disappear over the horizon. Adjourn for dinner, some refreshing tipples and much-needed rest or if you’d rather be enthralled by local tales, sit around the cosy campfire with your experienced guides and be hypnotised by their personal stories of Africa.
If you’d rather stay on a game drive all day, alternative arrangements can be made for you. Night drives also require prior planning due to restrictions on safari timings in several of the African countries so be sure to give the camp you’re headed to a heads-up before your holiday if you’re interested in going on one. For the adventurers, embrace the road less travelled by embracing a hot air balloon or walking safari. Whether it’s from up above or on foot, the experience is vastly different.
What about the Big Five?
When it comes to safaris, you’re probably no stranger to the ubiquitous term, the “Big Five”. Comprising of the elephant, buffalo, leopard, lion and rhino, these animals are so named for being the most elusive animals and many tour operators and safari travellers still desire to tick sightings of these creatures off their bucket list on game drives.
In truth, none of your guides will be able to guarantee sightings of these animals but Chapman says you should nonetheless put your faith in them. After all, they did grow up in the bush and are familiar with the behaviour of the local wildlife. The best you can do if you’re truly keen on chasing down certain species is to travel to the specific regions where the animals are known to reside in larger numbers and to reserve a private game drive vehicle, which allows you to further personalise your route.
Regardless, it may well be time to move away from the “Big Five”, a terminology that ultimately has an ominous background stemming from the days of widespread hunting. On the choice to discard this particular terminology, Walker puts it best: “it would be sad to only focus on five species of wildlife when Africa has such a wide variety.”
Keep me safe and sound
We completely understand; getting close to massive animals and predators born and bred in the wild can be intimidating. After all, most of us have probably never come close to these creatures in such close proximity without any barriers standing between us.
In all honesty, the animals are probably as afraid of you as you are of them. In fact, they are adverse to the smell of safari vehicles and the noise so unless they feel threatened by you for some reason, they are unlikely to even approach. Chapman agrees that safaris are “100% safe” and along with Walker, assures you that you will not be in danger at any point in time – even on a walking safari – as long as you stick close to your guides. It would also help if you remain alert and attentive to your surroundings so as to mitigate the occurrence of any unpleasant situations.
Get the best photos on your safari
What’s a holiday without a couple of picture-perfect shots to keep as memories and even more so when you’re exposed to majestic animals preening in their natural environment? Needless to say, being comfortable with your photography equipment before you embark on your safari will be a big help in getting that money shot.
If you’re more of a beginner, however, don’t hesitate to approach the lodge staff or guides on hand during your trip as they may be able to help you with your camera.
Of course, since animals are living beings, it can be incredibly hard to capture them in action. Great Plains Conservation’s National Geographic Explorers in Residence, Dereck and Beverly Joubert suggest using a fast shutter speed of over 1/125 to freeze motion, while a slow shutter speed of less than 1/30 will allow you to capture the creature as it blurs into action. And take note to leave enough space in the frame so that you don’t cut off any of the animals’ limbs – unless of course it’s deliberate.
For the true photography fanatics, don’t miss out on the incredible photography tours and workshops available on-site. andBeyond offers a Pangolin tour in Botswana, for example, where travellers get to utilise professional photography equipment aboard a boat to snap pictures of their incredible surroundings. The Great Plains Conservation also offers a series of photography workshops where travellers can hop onto a vehicle mounted with camera supports and bean bags so you can go snap-happy in comfort.
One last thing
A safari is a great adventure but if you go into it with fixed expectations, you might not be able to embrace the full experience. Unplanned situations can happen due to the unpredictability of the animals, which roam about on their own will and don’t stick to any particular routine. So we say just be laid back and go with the flow; you’ll never be disappointed with what you see if you keep an open mind.