If an African safari is included in your Bucket List of 101 things to do before your die, then you will likely have a mental picture of how this experience will unfold. The reality is that there are many different safari experiences available to you and it will be well worth your time to become familiar with what’s possible — and only then decide what’s affordable Some years back, I compiled a list ten criteria (that magic number) that I would personally apply when evaluating my own safari activities. The ranking and scoring is entirely subjective, but I’ll throw them into the discussion, in case you too find them useful.
Safari — meaning and interpretation
Let’s first define what it is that we mean by “safari”. The Swahili word roughly translates to mean “long journey”, so it has its origins in East Africa to describe the long sojourns that hunters would take into the wilderness. In recent times, it’s a term more usually applied by the tourism industry not for hunting trips but for shorter trips to observe and photograph wildlife. Typically, some of the adventure of the old time safari is preserved. However, some safaris can be quite mundane, others memorable. Everyone is different, so mundane to one can be memorable to another. That’s why I emphasize that my ten criteria are entirely subjective.
Safari Planning Criteria — use them or lose them!
The relative importance of each is arbitrarily ranked below but is entirely dependent on individual interests and circumstances:
- Discomfort and fatigue: Will an appreciable portion of time on tour be spent driving from point A to point B across dusty, potholed roads cooped up in a hot vehicle? This may influence your decision if you’re travelling with small children or a frail person. Do you have a lot of photographic gear to haul around? This may eliminate any idea of a Walking Safari!
- Ambience: This particularly applies to the lodges and camps on tour. Do they have an authentic safari look and feel? Tented camps (luxury or rustic) provide a sense of being one with the wilderness. Every sound and movement in the African night is clearly heard. The solid walls of lodges will dampen the night sounds and may provide a greater sense of security. I hasten to add that tented camps have a great safety record and these are always my personal preference for an enhanced adrenaline experience (#5 below).
- Variation: A great safari tour includes a variety of activities and experiences, so that each day is different and exciting. My personal rule of thumb is not to spend more that two to three nights at any one camp or lodge. On a mobile safari, this is not going to be a factor to need to consider.
- Safaris at dawn and sunset: Wildlife is most active in the early morning and in the late afternoon. Some game parks and reserves close their gates overnight, so if you’re on a mobile safari, your driver-guide has to hightail out of the park at the very time that things get exciting around the waterholes! Private safari concessions and camps don’t impose this limitation.
- Adrenaline experiences: Some tours may limit you to viewing wildlife from the roadside, through the vehicle window or out the roof hatch. Others may have you sitting in an off-road open-sided safari vehicle, surrounded on all sides by a herd of elephants, communicating in deep rumbles, trunks tearing at bark and branches. Walking safaris too can provide close and personal experiences with wildlife. Your choice of experience will depend on your affinity for the occasional adrenaline rush!
- Local hosting and local expert knowledge: Private safari camps and lodges provide their own safari guides and trackers, with an intimate and expert knowledge of the wildlife and habitats within their local environment. They would have the advantage of knowing the location of a hyena den with new-born pups, or where lions were last seen feeding on a kill. Mobile safaris may not have this advantage. This could be particularly important to wildlife photographers.
- Off-road tracking: Many camps and lodges located within wildlife concessions and private game reserves will track wildlife off-road. This is an adventure in itself and provides more opportunity for close encounters with wildlife and great photo opportunities.
- Location: This is an important consideration when planning a safari. If your plan is to witness the annual Great Migration of wildebeest and zebra, then location is key (and dependent upon time of year). If your preference is to see vast herds of plains game, the open savannas of the Serengeti or Masai Mara would prescribe the safari options available to you.
- Safari season: Some safari regions provide poor Big Five wildlife sightings during the rainy season and a memorable experience during the drier season. It makes a lot of sense to familiarize yourself with this aspect for the region of your choice and plan your safari well ahead. Safari season can be fully booked a year or more ahead.
- Health, Safety and Reliability: This one needs little explanation. Check safety records and look for complaints online. If you’re travelling with small children, safety considerations should include the risk of contracting malaria, specifically in malarial regions during the wet season.