It’s said that a safari is a once-in-a-lifetime experience, but beware. I went on my first in 1988, and I was hooked. Since then, I’ve been on more than 60 safaris in 13 countries and spent hundreds of days in the bush — and each time I’ve been as excited as a kid on his first trip.
Until you’ve tried it, it’s hard to comprehend the visceral thrill. It’s not just the adrenaline. Humanity was born in Africa and the smells and the sounds of the bush resonate deep in your DNA. The first time you get close enough to a rhino to see its eyelashes, or try to outstare a lion, you’ll get it.
But safaris are also damnably pricy and horribly easy to get wrong. There are hopeless guides, snooty camps and mass-market tours that come a poor second to watching the Discovery channel. The dream is out there, but to live it you need to get your safari right. Here’s how:
Where should I go?
The best safaris take place in eastern and southern Africa. The key destinations in the former are Kenya and Tanzania, where the Greater Serengeti ecosystem is home to huge populations of predators and prey. You can bank on seeing elephants, crocodiles, lions, cheetahs, giraffes, hyenas, hippos,buffaloes and a supporting cast of antelopes. Leopards and rhinos are harder to find. There’s also the opportunity to combine the bush with a beach break on the Kenyan coast.
Below the equator, South Africa is the top choice. The weak rand means more bang for your buck. There’s a vast selection of private game reserves and national parks, and self-drive safaris are safe and easy.
Across the Limpopo, Zimbabwe offers terrific national parks (Mana Pools is my favourite), with the added attraction of the Victoria Falls; Botswana combines the magnificent Okavango Delta and the Kalahari; Zambia offers the world’s best walking safaris; and Namibia is an enigma: the relative scarcity of wildlife is balanced by awesome landscapes, good infrastructure and low prices.
But they can wait. For your first safari, in terms of value for money and quality of experience, you can’t beat Kenya and the magical Maasai Mara.
Masai guides are known for their extraordinary eyesight (Sue Flood/Getty)When should I go?
It’s said that game-spotting is easier in the dry season, and that’s largely true. The scant vegetation makes it harder for animals to hide, and water is scarce, forcing wildlife to congregate around easily observed water sources. But don’t write off the wet: it’s the time when the plains’ game gives birth and lower temperatures keep animals active throughout the day. It’s also cheaper.
Kenya’s dry seasons are from January to March and July to October — the latter is also the priciest time to visit, due to the popularity of the thrilling wildebeest migration. Tanzania is dry in January and February and from June to October.
In southern African countries, the dry season is generally from May to September.
Where do I stay?
Nowhere does romance quite like Africa, where even the most basic setups turn a bend in the river or a clearing in the woods into a magical, lamp-lit location. Most camps are all-inclusive and options range from simple tented affairs to stone villas with private pools and fine dining.
Tusker time: walking safaris immerse you in the bush (Tom Brakefield/Getty)You need no more than three or four nights at any camp, and package prices depend on how much luxury you prefer — the tricky logistics mean that creature comforts don’t come cheap in the bush. Kenya’s Kicheche Mara Camp (kicheche.com), for example, with bucket showers and three-course dinners, costs from £350 a night, while Chief’s Camp (sanctuaryretreats.com), in Botswana, with its thatched suites, spa and fine wines, costs up to £1,600 a night. In Zambia and Zimbabwe, prices range from £240 to £600 a night, while a night on a guest farm in Namibia can cost as little as £50. South Africa, however, offers the widest range of pricing options: if you self-drive and stay in self-catering rest camps in the Kruger National Park, you can pay as little as £15 for a night in a safari tent, while a few miles west at the five-star Singita Lebombo, the same wildlife is on offer at £800a night.
What questions should i ask when booking?
Guides are key: good ones will turn your safari into an Out of Africa experience, bad ones will simply make you wish you were out of Africa. Specialist tour operators, such as Aardvark Safaris, Expert Africa and Safari Consultants — or bigger operators with good specialist departments, such as Scott Dunn or Abercrombie & Kent — will know the guides by name, their special interests (eg birding or botany) and their qualifications (accept nothing less than a silver-badge guide in Kenya). If the tour operator doesn’t know, call another company.
Ask how many people the camp accommodates: the larger ones, with more than 12 rooms, can be impersonal safari factories specialising in wheel-’em-in, wheel-’em-out tourism.
Next, ask about the vehicles used for game-spotting. How many seats? Are they open-sided (essential for photography)? What is the guest-to-guide ratio (more than six guests in a vehicle is not good)? Can you pay extra for exclusive use of a vehicle and guide?
Finally, discuss the daily itinerary. Is it fixed, or can it be tailored according to your interests?
Male lions rarely hunt, leaving the hard work to the females (Jonathan & Angela Scott)What happens? At the best camps, you’ll be woken an hour before dawn for a cup of tea before driving into the bush. Wrap up warm (mornings in Africa are chilly), remember to use the loo before setting off and make sure you’ve got your hat, sunblock, camera and binoculars.
Murder happens by night in the bush, and as the sun rises you’ll be looking for lions and hyenas, plus a supporting cast of jackals and vultures, crowding around a fresh corpse. Your first sight of a kill can be quite shocking: yesterday’s cocky zebra stallion transformed into today’s pungent pile of flyblown flesh and bone.
As the day warms up, elephants, giraffes and antelopes will emerge. Cheetahs will appear. Hippos, which spend their nights ashore, will be back in their pools and huge crocodiles will be sunbathing on river banks.
By 9am, you’ll be stripped to shorts and T-shirt, and by 10.30 you’ll be heading back to camp to do as the wildlife does and hide from the hottest hours of the day. Brunch is followed by four hours within which you should recharge both your batteries and your camera’s. Tea is served at 3pm, after which you’ll set off on the afternoon game drive.
By six, your guide will be driving you to his secret spot for sundowners: cocktails, snacks and stupendous views of the day’s end. For many, this moment is the highlight of a safari.
But the thrills continue after dark. Night game drives, using a red-filtered spotlight, will reveal rarely seen species, including aardvarks and the amazingly stroppy honey badger, which is so ferocious that even lions leave it be.
If it’s offered, don’t miss a walking safari: the most thrilling way to experience the bush. Walking gives you time to focus on the small things you don’t see from a vehicle — termite colonies, dung beetles, weaver nests — and while it isn’t entirely without risk, if you do what the armed escorts tell you, you’ll live to embellish the tale.
You may also be offered a romantic hot-air balloon safari. Don’t do it. It’s cheesy, it scares the animals and the champagne is rarely properly chilled.
Back at camp, evenings begin with tall stories around the fire, followed by a boozy communal safari dinner. Just remember that tomorrow starts at 4.30 am.
Keep those cameras handy (Getty)What kit do I need?
Pack light. Free laundries mean you need take just a change of clothes — plus a warm jacket — and while neutral colours are best, there’s no need to look like an extra from Born Free. It’s fun to dress up a little in the wild, so take something casually elegant for the evenings.
Decent binoculars are absolutely essential. Get the Vortex Diamondback 10x42s (£175;thesafaristore.co.uk).
Photographers need a beanbag to keep that lens steady, which needs to be at least a 100-400mm zoom (Canon) or an 80-400mm (Nikon) — get them from Lensesforhire (01628 639941, lensesforhire.co.uk).
What about malaria?
Africa’s only malaria-free safari destinations are in South Africa’s Eastern Cape and North West province, so if you’re pregnant or travelling with kids, your best bet is the Madikwe Private Game Reserve (madikwegamereserve.co.za). Everywhere else, you should take malaria prophylaxis — check fitfortravel.nhs.uk for specific guidance.
What will it cost me?
Your cheapest option is a self-drive safari in South Africa. A self-catering week in the Kruger National Park, staying in government-run rest camps and joining public game drives could cost less than £1,200pp all-in: fly to Johannesburg with British Airways or South African Airways, hire a car with Avis, and take your pick of the camps with SANParks (www.sanparks.org). The accommodation is basic, and can get crowded, but the government’s commitment to making safaris available to all means the game drives and guiding are cheap and of a high quality.
Next up is the group trip: Exodus (exodus.co.uk) has an eight-day Classic Kenya Safari from £1,999pp, including flights. It’s pretty good value, but staying at larger camps and using bigger vehicles does mean you compromise on that special Africa experience.
To get that, it’s better to save up and buy a tailor-made trip from an expert, who can pick out exactly the right portfolio of camps based on your budget and aspirations. The cost of the resulting trip can range from £2,500pp for an eight-day, bush-and-beach trip in Kenya, right up to £10,000pp and beyond for a fortnight in Botswana.
My ideal first-time trip will set you back just over £3,000pp — see the details below.
The ultimate beginner’s trip
Quality is more important than duration on safari — and for “quality”, don’t read “luxury” — so keep your first trip short, simple and intense.
Three nights at Kicheche Mara Camp (kicheche.com), in Kenya, will pack in enough experiences to feel like a week. The camp — a favourite with big-name wildlife photographers — comprises eight traditional safari tents in the Mara North Conservancy, community-owned land leased by a safari collective to create a private game reserve on the borders of the Masai Mara. The huge numbers of grazing animals provide good living for the resident predators, including the Gold Leaf lion pride (two males, nine females and 10 cubs at the last count), cheetahs on the plains and leopards in the acacia woodlands. Kicheche’s silver-badge guides will show you them all.
What impresses most about this camp is its flexibility. If you wish to stay out all day, bush picnics will be arranged. If you want to spend the day watching a cheetah, rather than charging around ticking off other species, you can do so, and when you finally get back to camp, the Tusker beer will be cold.
You’ll need a holiday after this, so spend the next four nights at Kinondo Kwetu, a luxury beach lodge less than two hours’ drive south of Mombasa. With Swahili beds, traditional art and vintage books, the hotel is a paean to Africa; the beach is great for sailing, kayaking and diving; and poolside with a drink is the perfect place to get smug over your photos and relive the moment you tried to outstare a lion.
Operators offering the above or similar safaris include Safari Consultants (01787 888590, safari-consultants. com), from £3,150pp; Aardvark Safaris (01980 849160,aardvarksafaris.co.uk); Expert Africa (020 8232 9777, expertafrica.com); and Steppes (01285 601776, steppestravel.co.uk)