The term African Safari conjures up a lot of images in people’s minds. Glowing red sunsets, wide open savannahs, giraffes sticking above the horizon, wildebeest stampeding, lions roaring and big buffet breakfasts on white table cloths. All of these are in fact pretty standard except for the white table cloths.
Of course you can have them but they are a remnant of times gone by and today an african safari holiday is not just for those who like the finer more luxurious things in life. African safaris have become very accessible to everybody. The zebras trotting across the open plains and the vultures circling overhead indicating a kill are open to everybody in todays modern world. Not everybody knows how to get the most out of a safari holiday though so let me offer you some of the important information.
Luxury Safari Holidays
Let’s start with the dream. A luxury all inclusive safari trip to Africa. Well it isn’t as far fetched as one might imagine. Of course you can pay $10,000 a head for a luxury safari but you don’t have to. You actually get a lot of value in Africa and the average safari price of about $2000 per person for a week gives you some pretty decent lodgings.
Botswana and Tanzania are the two main countries for luxury lodges. In Tanzania the infrastructure is very poor and so it is difficult to go on safari unless you are very well kitted out. This of course costs money so enter the specialist operators that maintain tented lodges in the parks during the dry (safari) season. Also flying is a necessity as distances are great between the wilderness areas and the main international airports. Botswana on the other hand has some of the best government and planning in Africa but with a tiny population doesn’t have the resources to build roads everywhere. Anyway they would ruin the wild safari experience. With the annual flooding of the Okavango lodges are often temporary as well.
With the inherent cost in flying and setting up of tented camps both Tanzania and Botswana generally cater to a richer clientele. This ends up being something of a virtuous circle as when people spend so much they expect more and so any wildlife viewing holiday to either of these countries can be a great experience regardless of the animals. Of course luxury safari lodges are more often than not situated in the best places for viewing Africa’s famous wildlife. Botswana may be the main destination for a luxury safari and Tanzania not far behind but that doesn’t mean a trip to Kenya, Zambia or South Africa will be austere. Likewise you can get good bargains and down to earth basic safaris in both countries as well.
Standard African Safari
For a normal safari holiday in Africa expect to pay about $1500 to $2500 per person for a week. Quite simply park fees in Africa for non-residents are very high. For example the fees for the Ngorongoro Crater are $250 a day per vehicle or to the Maasai Mara Reserve $80 per person. These add up.
However at these prices you generally get excellent service, a guide/spotter, a jeep driver, morning and evening game drives, transfers to the main city nearby and all food and lodging. Often a week long safari will include a couple of different national parks offering a few different habitats and scenery.
For example Kenya, the original home of the African safari has numerous smaller parks near the Maasai Mara Reserve that offer a different perspective and different animals. In contrast in Tanzania or South Africa the parks are much more spread out. Flying between parks will push the price up but give you more time for viewing animals. Remember the more time you are in the park, driving or sitting still the more chance you have to see the animals you want to see.
Lodges in this price range are generally still pretty luxurious and well situated. Guides are also of the highest standard knowledgeable about everything to do with the ecosystem and animals within it.
Not every safari has to be luxurious and cost a fortune. Budget safaris do exist but as I said earlier the cost of park fees do push up the price. In Kenya the home to mass market safari holidays you can get prices down to $100 per person per day. However given the park fees that really leaves very little for those that are looking after you.
One way budget safaris save money is staying outside of parks. Since driving is not allowed outside of daylight hours it means your first or last time in the park each day is spent driving to or from the park gate. Animals tend to congregate in the inner sections of national parks and reserves as there isn’t always a buffer zone protecting them when they are at the edges. Wildlife creates its own buffer zone by avoiding the outer parts. That isn’t to say you won’t see animals near the borders. In fact often you will see your first zebra or gazelles wandering around in unprotected lands. It is just that when you stay in a more expensive lodge within the park you will be able to see animals after sunset and some might even wander round your camp at night.
If you are going on a cheaper safari be aware of how many people are involved and how much of your cost is going to park fees. It doesn’t leave a lot left over for the work they do. Be liberal with your tips in these cases especially when so many people will go out of their way to give you a great experience. On a side note be liberal with your tips in all cases dealing with hospitality staff worldwide at any price level unless the price specifically includes them. It is amazing how relatively little they get paid for the hard work they do.
The one important thing to remember about a budget safari is that the animals don’t get paid. That means that you still have the same entitlement to see them as anybody paying more. However the more you pay the more chance or opportunity you will have as a slightly better guide makes a huge difference. Also the ability to spend more time closer to them by staying overnight in a park is well worth the extra in my mind. After all it isn’t everyday you get to travel to Africa on safari.
Self Drive 4×4 Safaris
Of course there is always the option of driving yourself on Safari. This will give you much more freedom to explore where you want to. If you are not coming from Southern Africa and don’t have your own vehicle never fear there are plenty of rental options in South Africa, Botswana and Namibia. In Eastern Africa however things are more difficult. You will need your own vehicle.
Rentals of a Toyota (pretty much everything is a Toyota in Africa) Hilux or Landcruiser will set you back about $250 a day depending on the specifications. Quite often they come with a roof-top tent to make camping much more comfortable and easy. Distances can be great on the main roads you which means fuel costs can be significant as well. However it is well worth the cost for the freedom your own vehicle provides.
Kruger NP in South Africa and Etosha in Namibia are among the best place for a diy 4×4 safari. However the one downside is that without an expert guide you might miss some animals along the way. Guides have a knack of seeing tell-tale signs that something is happening or that an exciting animal is in the area.
Best Time to Go
Generally the best time to visit Africa for animal viewing is the dry season as listed below. This is because in the heat the water sources are drying up and animals tend to congregate in smaller areas near fresh water. However a visit outside these times will always be rewarded with less tourists, more rain and though the viewing opportunities might be less you will probably see a lot more young animals. Also the wet season tends to bring more birds.
- Kenya – July to September
- Serengeti (south) – February to April – calving period
- Serengeti (north) – July/August
- Botswana (Okavango) – June to August
- Botswana (Moremi) – September/October
- South Africa (Kruger) – May to October
Kruger National Park in South Africa is one of the most visited parks in Africa. It is also part one of the largest protected areas in the world – The Great Limpopo Transfrontier Park which also has parts in Zimbabwe and Mozambique and is centred on the Limpopo river basin.
Six hours drive from Johannesburg makes it relatively easily accessible and unlike other national parks in Africa has surfaced roads. A four wheel drive isn’t necessary here but is recommended as the extra height gives you better viewing of wildlife. The lower height of a car on the other hand might give a better camera angle for photographs.
Also adding to its popularity is the fact that compared to elsewhere park fees are more reasonable. If you are staying long term an annual pass is available as well. Camping is allowed in the park at designated camps which means you can be up and about right after sunrise (or before sunset)when animals are at their most active.
Organised night drives are another possibility. They are run by the parks rangers from most camps.
For more information about Kruger see the South African National Parks website.
The Okavango is the largest inland delta in the world. It drains the wet Angola Highlands and the waters of the Okavango River slowly flow down to Botswana. During the dry season of June to August they flood into the plains creating a wonderously fecund habitat in what would otherwise be an arid area. The fabulously fertile Okavango Delta is home to one of Africa’s and the world’s most diverse ecosystem.
Once much larger the Okavango today doesn’t flood as far south as the Makgadikgadi Salt pans except in exceptional years when some run off fills rivers flowing in that direction. The Delta is very flat over all with barely a couple of metres difference in elevation across the floodplains. During the dry winter season the flooding can cover an area about three times as big as the permanent water area.
Because of the seasonal change the delta area is home to a lot of migrants as well as permanent residents. As the floods arrive elephants from the drier parts of Botswana and migratory birds return to take advantage. Human visitors do too and the ‘European summer’ is a busy time for the tourism industry in the area. Often though coming a bit later you can see more as similar to elsewhere when the water tends to dry up the animals gather round the scarcer less common waterholes.
A flight over the delta is spectacular for its views of nature, the rivers and the swamps. The animals are more difficult to see from the air but massive seeing herds moving in sync from above is possible and awe-inspiring. You don’t necessarily need a scenic flight. Al ot of lodges are fly-in only and so you see the view arriving and departing in what are generally small (up to 16 seat) planes.
You can see most animals in the Okavango Delta. Elephants, zebra, lions are all common but the one large mammal you don’t often see elsewhere is a lechwe. This antelope, endemic to Southern Africa and with subspecies in Zambia, is more comfortable and at home than most others and so is happy with the flooding as it provides more aquatic plants to eat and protection from the lions who find it difficult to hunt in the water.
Do I need to write about the Maasai Mara and the Serengeti? If you know what a safari is you probably know of the savannahs of East Africa. After all this was where the Lion King, Born Free and Madagascar 2 were all set. Taken as a whole the plains of the Rift Valley constitute the world’s richest and most fertile zone for the production of mammals. The volcanic soil is extremely productive and the phosphorous rich grasses are perfect for starting new generations of grazing animals.
The area is spread over two countries which are easily combined on a safari vacation. Tanzania in the South is a little less developed than Kenya in general but the tourism industry is their biggest earner of foreign money and facilities are extensive. Arusha just to the west of the Serengeti Plains bills itself as the Safari Capital of the World. It certainly is a great place to start your search for a trip if you haven’t booked before arriving in Africa. The Maasai Mara Game Reserve is on the Kenyan side of the border and alone with the Serengeti National Park make up one large protected area.
The whole system is of course home to the Great Migration the annual trek of over a million wildebeest (and nearly a million more other grazing animals; zebra, gazelles and eland) in search of greener grass. The migration is continuous but we can say it starts with the birthing of the new generation in the Southern Serengeti or Ngorongoro Highlands (near the crater) in January and February March. However as the grass starts to dry out after the short rains the grazing herds move slowly northwards spreading out a bit in the process. For a while the great herds are well spread out over the whole Serengeti before the arrive in the North. From April to June rain reinvigorates the grasses in the Northern Serengeti and the Maasai Mara and around July the herds arrive. It is around this time and through to September/October that you can see them massing on the banks of the Grumetti and Mara Rivers waiting to cross. In the wildebeests life the grass really is greener on the other side.
The Maasai Mara in Kenya is easily accessible from Nairobi as can other parts of the Rift Valley including Lake Nakuru National Park. On the Tanzanian side of the border the Serengeti is much much bigger and the North is relatively quiet being less accessible. The Southern part of the national park and the Ngorongoro Crater area are close to Arusha as are the other national parks of Tarangire and Lake Manyana which also offer fantastic wildlife viewing opportunities.
There are many other regions that are great for a safari in Africa. Of course the Maasai Mara and Serengeti get all the plaudits because of the great migration, the Okavango is just unique and Kruger is busy because of the large South African middle class. However other smaller regions with less visitors allow for a more intimate encounter with Africa’s wildlife.
Though most famous for its gorilla trekking in Bwindi Uganda has much more to offer. With heavier rainfall than farther east in Kenya the fantastic jungles also offer chimpanzee tracking. Jungles are a hard place to see animals but in Uganda there is infrastructure in place in Kibale and Murchisson Falls National Parks to allow you to get up close with habituated primate groups. There is plenty open savannah as well but with a population density twice that of Kenya or three times that of Tanzania there is a lot of pressure on the land. Nevertheless there are a number of protected wilderness areas worth visiting. Queen Elizabeth National Park in the South West is home to the famous tree climbing lions and Murchisson Falls National Park in the north straddles the Nile. It is a great park for a river safari and sightings of hippos are pretty much guaranteed.
While mostly desert Namibia is still home to a lot of wildlife. With only 2 million people in an area bigger than Texas there is a lot of space for wildlife. A lot of the county is dry and arid and getting around involves long distances but it is one of the best places for a self-drive camping safari. Etosha NP in the North is the chef d’oeuvre of Namibia’s Nature. The salt pans are home to a surprising number of animals. However they are very spread out. The best way to see them is to stay in one of the camps near the waterholes. Some are even floodlit at night. In the dry season when there is minimal water animals tend to gather at these watering spots. The Caprivi strip between Namibia and Botswana is much better watered and borders the Okavango area. This is another great spot for animals in Namibia.
Bordering Botswana on the North is the very forward looking Zambia. It might be a newcomer to the safari game but it is not lagging far behind its neighbours. Zambia has a number of different habitats including grassland, flooded grassland and several types of woodland. This rich biome is home to many animals creating a rich and diverse ecosystem. South Luangwa National Park is renowned for its walking safaris. The Luangwa River is part of the Zambezi River system and is rich in wildlife. The wet season makes for difficult travel but fantastic birding. In the dry season walking is easier and you are likely to see plenty of hippo, crocodiles and elephants.
The Big Five Safari
Everybody wants to go see the big five. These used to be the proof of a hunters skill back when rifles were single shot weapons. They were considered the most difficult to hunt. Today of course which high powered scopes and high velocity bullets they are no more difficult to kill than a rabbit. Except maybe the rhino. Due to years of overhunting certain rhino species are extinct in some places and hard to find in others.
Still though the five have somewhat of a cachet in the safari world and photographers are always keen to get a shot of them all.
The big five and the best places to see them are:
- Lion – Ngorongoro Crater in Tanzania as you are most likely to see a hunt here
- Leopard – Kruger NP in South Africa
- Rhinoceros – Lake Nakuru NP in Kenya
- Buffalo – very common, seen in Maasai Mara, Kruger, Okavango.
- Elephant – Chobe NP in Botswana has about half of the surrounding region’s 100,00 elephants
For a modern safari-goer armed with a 300 mm lens a decent photo of any of these should be possible. The two exceptions are the Rhino as I said above and the leopard. The leopard is a very elusive cat and is not so easily seen. However there are some spots where they are seen more often than others such as in Kruger NP. See this article on leopards in the Kruger for more information
You will see many more animals than just the big five on safari in Africa. The lions and the leopards need food and to provide food for predators nature normally provides prey animals at a ratio of 1000 to 1. There are many many more species out there that are neither prey nor predator as well. Rhinos, hippos and Elephants are among this group.
Antelope roam the plains of Africa. You will see many gazelles, springbok, zebra, cape buffalo and wildebeest all over East and Southern Africa. One of the most impressive times to see the wildebeest is of course during the Great Migration through the Maasai Mara and Serengeti system. This occurs year round contrary to popular belief but there are certain periods such as Sept/Oct when they come together a bit more. The sight of tens of thousands of wildebeest and zebra massing on one side of the River Mara before they cross is one of natures great events.
There are other predators too. The cheetah, the world’s fastest mammal, is seen quite often. Hyenas are found all over, both spotted and striped and then there are jackals and the severely endangered african wild dog as well. Of course lying out of site in ambush in the rivers is the Nile crocodile which can grow up to six metres in length.
Travel in Africa
If you love wildlife there is no reason not to spend every second vacation in East of Southern Africa. However often you visit the area you will always find that there is an amazing diversity of life especially compared to over crowded and over hunted Europe, Asia or most of North America (where most of my readers come from). Insects, birds, reptiles and mammals are visible everywhere.
However a safari is simply unlike any other form of travel even if the word literally means just that in Swahili. In Africa you are going to places where there are nearly no people and even less facilities. To do so you need to travel differently. Even if you are happy backpacking and self-catering in Europe you won’t be doing the same in Africa. You need to be completely self-sufficient. Either in terms of having an expedition vehicle of your own or having everything provided for you. Either way it is not like travelling elsewhere.
Africa will no matter what you do get under your skin. The red dust that is everywhere will do so and so will the people, the animals and the sunsets. There is something about Africa that some people call a spiritual return to our beginnings, that others call just a return to nature but whatever it is it will leave an indelible imprint in your memory.
An African safari is a trip you will never forget – a memory of a lifetime.
The following are guides which I believe will help you get the most out of a safari.