When visiting Africa you must safari. You would be hugely mistaken if you were to visit Africa in search of all it’s wonders, and not take the time to see the wildlife. All the majestic animals that we can only see in zoos or on TV are on display, in the wild, as they are meant to be. I can’t even begin to count the number of times I was left speechless by what was happening before my eyes on each of our 14 days of Safari.
One of the great things about safari is that you can do it in a number of countries, and in numerous different ways, each offering a unique experience. Safaribookings.com shows over 1,700 tour operators offering over 4,000 different tour options throughout Africa. Clearly there is a mountain of information to sift through, and a ton of elements to consider before booking a Safari. That’s why we’re here. We’ve done guided and self-drive, all-inclusive and self-catered, walking and boat Safaris, luxury lodges and tents. Our Big 5 Safari Guide will break this mountain of information down to just 5 easy steps so you can plan your Safari.
1) Know What Type of Of Safari You Want to Take
Choosing a safari is like ordering eggs…you can have them anyway you want. Obviously you want to see animals, but that’s not always up to you or your safari guide. The first thing you should do when planning a safari is think about what type of experience you want. Do you want a self-drive or guided experience? Are you wanting a large group or small intimate experience? Do you want to see certain animals? Are you interested in a private gated game reserve? Would you rather experience the wildlife from a car, plane or boat? Do you want to stay in 5 star lodges or sleep in a bush camp? There are a ton of options, so doing some research and putting some thought into what type of experience you’d like to have is the first important step to planning your safari.
2) Choose Your Region & Season
After you’ve thought about how you want to see the animals, choosing your region and season is key to what you will see. During wet seasons, your opportunity for sightings is often lower. Certain animals are more prevalent in some regions than others. For instance, if you want to see wildebeests, you should go to Masi Maara during the great migration. But if you want to see rhinos, the plains of the Serengeti aren’t the best choice. Choosing a region is key because it dictates which animals you’re likely to see, and the season greatly affects the animals’ behavior. Sightings are never guaranteed, but knowing what is possible in a particular region at a certain time of year will allow you to craft your ideal safari experience.
3) Pick Your Safari Company Wisely
As I previously mentioned, there are a lot of safari operators to choose from. So, where do you start? This is where steps 1 and 2 come in handy. You have to make key decisions about what is important to you, these decisions will throw out the companies that don’t fit your needs.
There is someone out there who’s willing to give you what you want, if you are willing to pay a fair price. There are companies who specialize in luxury safaris, and operators that specialize in budget safaris. You can go on a safari just to find birds if you want. The range is vast, so you have to decide what you want.
Questions to ask yourself:
1) Where do I want to go?
2) When do I want to go?
3) What animals do I want to see?
4) What quality of sleeping arrangements am I expecting?
5) How do I want to get around?
6) How much am I willing to spend?
7) Who do I want to share this experience with (private, small group, or large group)?
8) Does it matter to me if my money is going to a locally owned business or a foreign owned company?
Questions to ask the tour operator:
1) What qualifications/experience will your safari guide have? Guides have to pass certain tests in wildlife knowledge, driving, and survival skills, so be sure to get a safari guide who knows what he’s doing on all accounts.
2) What is included – meals, snacks, park entrance fees, lodging, number of game drives?
3) What is the vehicle like – what will the seating arrangements be, and how will you be able to view the animals (i.e. pop top or just windows)?
4) They’re professionals, so don’t forget to ask them for their tips to help give you the best experience.
When booking our first Safari…
We asked ourselves the questions above and decided what was important to us: 1) Tanzania 2) wildebeest migration 3) Serengeti & Ngorogoro Crater 4) lodges 5) driving 6) tight budget 7) private group 8) locally owned
After answering these questions we had our search narrowed down to just a few companies. We found one operator that was upfront, flexible, experienced, and willing to give us a private tour at the price of joining a group tour. Budget was a big concern for us. While our 6 day safari was a big ticket item, we felt the money was well spent, but only because we did our research ahead of time. By knowing exactly what we wanted, we were able to seek out an operator that was willing to customize our Safari to fit our needs.
4) Be Prepared for Your Safari
For us, taking pictures was a priority. We borrowed an extra camera body and bought a telephoto lens. Being prepared meant having everything ready. We started each morning with all our camera batteries charged, lenses cleaned, and sim cards empty ( media got backed up on a hard drive each night). Binoculars really enhanced our wildlife viewing experience too. Have the tools you want, and be sure they’re easily accessible so you can enjoy your Safari’s full potential.
You also need to keep wardrobe in mind. You’ll be in the vehicle all day. Dress comfortably, and as nerdy as this sounds, khaki is recommended. Wearing khaki helps keep the pesky biting Tsetse flies away (not rainbow colored tie-dyed leggings like what Kari wore -oops!). Tsetse flies can be extremely annoying and the bites aren’t pleasant. Check with your tour operator to see if they’ll be a problem on your safari.
Some items you should consider having with you are: camera (with spare batteries and SD cards), lens cleaning supplies, binoculars, sunglasses, hat, sunscreen, proper attire, bandana, jacket, snacks, water, tissue, headache medicine, lip balm, wet wipes, journal/pen. There’s not a lot of shops once you’re out in the African wilderness, so be sure you bring these items along.
5) Ask Your Safari Guide, Like, A Million Questions
Not all guides are created equal. A great safari experience is 85% luck and 15% great guide. You can’t control luck, but you can make the most of your guide. Create a great relationship from the start, and ask them questions right off the bat. You’re paying good money and you may never safari again, so don’t be shy.
Our first safari guide, George, who took us from Arusha, Tanzania through the Serengeti, was simply amazing. He was a walking encyclopedia. His passion for the wildlife and nature made us more excited. The more we talked, the more he was able to tailor our days specifically to our liking. George made a lot of sightings happen by knowing the area, the time of year and by watching the behavior of different animals to seek out the more elusive animals. He took our experience to a higher level. We did self-drive Safaris in South Africa and Namibia, but only because we learned so much from George.
In our experience, if you’re hiring a safari guide privately or through a smaller company, they should be an expert and well worth the cost. If you’re just staying at a lodge or camp and doing game drives a few times a day or going with a large company on a group tour, you’re more likely to have a less experienced guide. They will point out some things, but they won’t be able to answer a lot of in depth questions or cater the game drive to your likes.
It’s good to keep in mind that there’s only so much of the safari experience that you can control. Much of it is in nature’s hands, but being on top of the things that you can control will improve your experience.
Before you head out into the bush, check these QuickLists that have you thinking like a safari pro.
5 Quick Tips for safari:
1) Manage your expectations. Safaris are very much about luck. Going in with reasonable expectations will keep you from being let down. If you don’t see a lion chase down a baby giraffe, don’t be disappointed. After 14 days on safari we didn’t see a single kill, but we have a friend who went on a 2 day safari and saw a leopard dragging a kill up into a tree.
Check out more of Jaymee Sire’s videos
2) Unless you’re super into poop and bugs, walking Safari’s aren’t as cool as they sound. While it’s fun to walk around in the bush, you can’t really get close to animals. Being in a vehicle actually allows you to get closer.
3) Only do self-drive safaris if you’ve already done at least one guided safari. The knowledge you gain by having a safari guide is so beneficial. Not just in terms of the nature, but also safari etiquette.
4) Go with a small company. A more intimate experience with a great guide is they way I prefer to do safari.
5) Safari in a few different regions. Seeing the diversity of Africa really added to our time there. Going on Safari from the Serengeti and the Ngorogoro Crater, to the Okavango Delta and the Kalahari desert, we got to appreciate the unique differences in landscape and wildlife.
5 Quick Terms for Safari:
1) Game Drive: When you’re in a vehicle looking for animals (aka game).
2) “The Big Five”: a term that was coined by big game hunters that categorizes the animals that were the hardest and most dangerous to hunt – Lion, Elephant, Leopard, Cape Buffalo and Rhinoceros (Black or white). Seeing “The Big Five” is like earning your Safari badge.
3) “The Small Five”: A cute term describing small animals named after “The Big Five” – Lion Ant, Elephant Shrew, Leopard Tortoise, Buffalo Weaver, and Rhinoceros Beetle. Ask your safari guide to point them out for a fun challenge on your Safari.
4) The Bush: Not a small tree, but the wilderness. Aussies & Africans already know and use this term.
5) Game Reserve: Privately owned, and usually stocked with animals, enclosed by a fence. Some reserves keep animals for wildlife viewing, while others cater to controlled and legal hunting.