1. You Can Do It!
I never thought I’d have the opportunity to go on a safari. In fact, I wasn’t even sure if I’d ever get the chance to go to Africa. It just seemed too far away, too expensive, too foreign, too far out of my comfort zone.
Then one day I had the thought “What are you scared of? This needs to happen!” (this is actually how most of my travels start). So, I cashed in all of my airline miles for a flight to Cape Town. Once I booked that flight and I knew that I was going to Africa, I also knew that I was going on a safari. This was my chance!
2. You Have a Lot of Options
My first happy discovery was that I had tons of options for safaris. Since I was flying into South Africa, I kept my choices limited to countries that were “in the vicinity” (South Africa, Zambia, Botswana, and Namibia) I’d save the Kenyan and Tanzanian safaris for a return visit someday.
I also decided that I wanted to do game drives in one of the amazing national parks in this region as opposed to a private game reserve. After doing some research, I had my choices narrowed down to Etosha National Park in Namibia and Kruger National Park in South Africa. In the end I went with Etosha, because a visit there could be combined with some other sights that I wanted to see in Namibia.
3. Safaris Can Be Affordable
I was very pleasantly surprised that I was able to find safari trips in my price range (from $0 to slightly above $0). I was actually shocked. I wrongly assumed that a safari would break my bank. It doesn’t have to. You’ll definitely want to do research on the outfit running the safari - check out their reviews, see what they’re doing to help the animal populations and local communities to thrive. Make sure the itineraries include the things you expect to see and that the accommodations are acceptable to you. The company I ended up booking with checked all of the boxes for me (and did I mention that it was affordable?)
Safaris run the gamut price wise - there are definitely high end, luxury affairs that cost thousands and thousands of dollars. You can also book with a tour company that handles everything including your flights, but those are expensive as well. I had faith that I could get myself to Namibia, so I booked with a company right in Windhoek and cut out the middleman. My safari was less than a hundred dollars a day and that included guides, transportation, entrance fees, all meals and lodging. I wouldn’t want anyone to miss out on a safari because they assume that it is prohibitively expensive.
4. The Accommodations are Fantastic
Unless you end up booking with some sort of shoddy company, my guess is that you’ll be really happy with the housing offered on a safari. These days safari lodging ranges from cool dome tents you set up yourself on campgrounds (Budget) to luxurious jungle lodges (Five star all the way). I didn’t encounter any lodging that didn't look anything but awesome. Africa has really figured out this part of the experience. The service tends to be all around great as well. On my trip we stayed inside Etosha and also just outside the park in permanent tented camps. I loved this option. Permanent tented camps have all of the basic necessities, but you also feel like you’re in Africa. Those tented camps are some of the favorite places that I’ve ever stayed. Do your research and you’ll be rewarded with accommodations that surpass your expectations.
I would also add that the food was terrific, oftentimes prepared by our guides. The camps usually featured common areas with places to purchase necessities, grab an adult beverage and get to know your fellow travelers. Don’t forget your swimsuit, because a lot of those campsites also had pools to take a dip in after a long, hot and dusty game drive.
5. You Might Not Get Good Pictures (and that's ok)
Let’s talk about safari pictures. I love taking pictures of my travels. I love capturing a visual souvenir that reminds me of something extraordinary that I got to experience. I was positive that I would come back from my safari with a million award worthy photos that would make my friends and followers delirious with envy…I didn’t.
If you are a photographer with expensive equipment and fancy lenses, this information may not apply to you. However, the normal person who snaps pictures with their iPhone or digital camera should listen up. You may not get a ton of great photos, and that’s ok.
First, I imagined that on safari the vehicles would pull right up alongside the animals. I thought that if the animals saw us sitting in the jeep, they would mosey on over to check us out. That did happen on occasion, but most of the time we were observing animals at a distance. I found out many times that my camera couldn’t capture what I was seeing, majestic lions were looking like little blobs on the landscape.
An awesome black rhino visiting a water hole turned into an incomprehensible blur.
Now, add in the fact that wild animals are in constant motion, move quickly, appear and disappear without warning and almost never do what you want them to...it makes getting good pictures a lot more of a challenge than I was expecting.
For the first full day of my safari I let my inability to take good photos bother me. I was visibly frustrated. My guide gave me some excellent advice, he said “put down your camera and experience it.” I know that “experience your safari” should go without saying, but with all of the pressure to document the experience and share cool images on social media it’s way too easy to forget. Something about the way he said it took the strange weight off of my shoulders and I actually began immediately to enjoy the safari in a much deeper way. Even if you do have amazing camera equipment and telephoto lenses remember to put them down and just watch and be. The images I can still bring up in my memory are far more vivid and valuable to me than any of the photos I took on that safari. I’m so grateful that I didn’t experience this once in a lifetime event through a tiny screen. I now try to remember this advice anytime I travel (take the picture, put the phone away). You’ll thank me for it later.
All that being said, there are times when the animals will be very close to you, so by all means, snap away!
6. The Animals Get Up Early, And So Will You
Even if you’ve only ever seen exotic animals in the zoo, you’ve probably heard the phrase “animals are most active early in the morning or late at night”. The animals on safari are no different. To see a lot of these amazing creatures in action, you will be getting up early. Early as in before sunrise, most likely you’ll do game drives before you even get your breakfast. I recommend that you just give in and go with it. The grogginess will even add to the surreal feeling you get as dawn breaks over the African plains.
This is not the kind of vacation where you’ll be doing a lot of sleeping in. I question how anyone could even want to possibly miss a moment of seeing these wonders. (Although I remember hearing grumbles and some people opting out) Get up! You can always sleep when you get home later!
I know it’s 4:30 AM and I look tired and grumpy, but I promise I was excited on the inside.
7. You Need to Bring This Stuff, You Don't Need to Buy That Stuff
There are things you should invest in before heading off on your first safari. I was really glad that I brought binoculars. As I mentioned, you’ll be viewing some animals from a distance and you’ll want to get a better look at them. I would also suggest having portable charging devices and maybe some kind of a back-up camera in case anything happens to yours.
Sunscreen, sunglasses, hat - the African sun is no joke. Make sure you have some cash on you for tips and small purchases. I was glad I brought a flashlight for walking around camp after dark. Swimsuit (see above). Make physical printouts of any travel documents, itinerary, IDs and insurance info and bring those along also. I don’t always buy travel insurance, but I did for my trip to Africa. Luckily I didn’t need it, but it was nice to know I was covered.
What you don’t need to buy is a lot of “safari wear”. I saw people in very expensive looking outfits, really dressing for the part. I get it, it’s fun to dress up. However, you don’t need to.
On many modern safaris you’ll spend most of your time in an enclosed or open sided vehicle. You’re not Teddy Roosevelt setting off on a big game hunt in the late nineteenth century, so simple comfortable clothing is best. You might want to wear more muted colors, but unless you’re out on a walking safari I don’t even think that really matters.
Instead of overdoing it when you’re packing your own personal stuff, maybe save a little room in your suitcase to bring along some items to donate (school supplies, clothing, toiletries, souvenirs from your hometown). Some people in my group left behind things that they had bought specifically for use on this trip in hopes that it could help out to someone in need. It’ll lighten your load to do this and probably make you feel good too.
8. The "Big Five" is Not the 'End All Be All'
Everyone goes on safari to see “The Big Five” - lions, rhinos, elephants, buffalo and leopards. The “Big Five” originally referred to the five most difficult African animals to bag on a hunt. Now it has morphed into a safari bucket list. There is a good chance that you will see most if not all of these animals on your safari. The guides understand that spotting them is important to travelers and they will do their best to find them. It is a thrill to come across a pride of lions or to see a lone rhino walking in the distance. That being said, do not equate your enjoyment of the safari with the spotting of these specific animals. As I discussed above, wildlife behavior can be unpredictable. If you go on safari you will see animals, many spectacular creatures not in the “Big Five”. You will be moved and awed. Your breath will be taken away. Stay in the moment and don’t let an arbitrary list control your experience. Don’t let the fact that you didn’t spot a leopard dampen it. It’ll be amazing even if you don’t check every box.
I’m sure there will be other things that will surprise and delight you when you’re planning your African safari. I never thought I’d do something like that, and now I’m positive I’ll be going back again someday. A surprising number of things went wrong on my safari, but I still think of it as a perfect experience. Going on safari should be right near the top of your bucket list. When you go, I hope you treasure it as much as I did.