If like us an African Big Game Safari is on your bucket list then this four part Safari guide is for you. It covers the following points:
- When and where to visit – Part 1
- Public or private park and group or private safari – Part 2
- Self guided or private safari and what type of vehicle – Part 3
- Accommodation and extras – Part 4
So when Grete Howard, a friend through blogging and the most well travelled person I know, got in contact and asked if she could write a series of articles regarding planning an African Safari for our site, we jumped at the chance.
Grete has travelled extensively in Africa over the last 30 years, including a number of safaris taking in most of the well-known parks in East, South and West Africa.
She is passionate about photography and obsessive about travel, with Africa being her favourite continent and animals being her favourite subject.
As you will see throughout this series, Grete’s photographs are phenomenal and if you would like to check out more of them head over to her Flickr account.
When choosing your safari, you should spend some time thinking about the type of accommodation you want. The choices broadly fit in to these categories:
- Self-pitch tents in extremely basic public campgrounds. There will be a bucket-type shower, and an on site toilet, which could possible be squat-style.
- Self pitch tents in privately owned sites with facilities that could include proper showers (we have even stayed in one with a bath tub!), kitchen facilities, laundry, swimming pool, bar and restaurant. Some even have an on-site water hole where you can watch the animals come to drink.
- Mobile tented camps. These are larger tents, complete with beds, bucket shower and compost toilet, and usually follow the migration. Tents are pitched (before you get there) for 3-4 months in one place; and will have a restaurant and bar on site.
- Permanent tented camps. As the name suggests, they are tents that are erected in one place permanently. They can range from fairly basic (all have ‘proper’ beds, but some may only have long drop toilets away from the tent and bucket showers and the bed may be a simple metal frame), to the height of luxury (four poster beds, sitting areas, room service etc)
- Lodges. These too, come in a range of quality and price. Some are modern; others have a rustic local flair; some are positioned inside the parks, others within easy reach of the gate, but not within the parks themselves; you can get lodges that are large and rather impersonal, or small and intimate.
On most African safaris you can add extras to the package to make it more of a complete holiday. Below is a list of the more popular ones.
Visits to coffee or tea plantations
Shopping at markets
Hot air balloon rides
Time on the beach at the end of the safari
Other important points to consider when planning a safari:
~ Health. Most African countries have a malaria problem and other vaccinations may be required or recommended. Tse tse flies can be a real pest at certain times of year. You need to factor the cost of inoculations and/or malaria prophylaxis into your budget planning.
For UK residents, this NHS site is a great place to start.
~ Passport and visa. Make sure your passport is valid for at least six months after you return to your home country and that you have two blank pages opposite each other for each country you are going to visit. Visa regulations vary according to your nationality – and of course they are rarely free!
~ Tips are a way of life in this part of the world, and you should budget accordingly. A general guide is shown below, but can vary from country to country:
Driver Guide: $40 – $70 per vehicle per day
Rangers for walking tours: $20 per group
Village visit: $20 per group
Porters: $1 – $2 per bag
General lodge staff: $10 per room per night
~ Insurance: Always take out travel insurance and make sure that it covers the countries / activities that you are including in your itinerary, as well as repatriation.
Local operator v home country or international organisation
There are an almost infinite number of tour operators who offer safaris in Africa, so how do you know which to choose? Do you go for a company in your home country (UK in my case), one which operates all over the world, one which specialises in East Africa, or a local company in the country you country you intend to visit?
There are benefits of each of those of course.
By booking from your home country you have the protection of ABTA (or equivalent in your country), and booking a flight-inclusive safari means that if – for whatever reason – they need to cancel the trip, you flight is covered by the tour operator.
The downside is that you are in effect paying two lots of profits. A British company will almost certainly use a local agent; they will take an amount of profit, as will the British company.
Using a large multinational or national company usually means that they arrange trips to many parts of the world. If you were to contact someone in Hayes and Jarvis for instance (nothing against this company, just using them as an example), how likely is it that the person who replies has even been to the place you want to go, let alone have in-depth knowledge.
If you were to use a local African agent, you would nearly always have to arrange your own flights, and you should ensure that they are covered by the Travel Association in that country (ABTA equivalent) to ensure your money is safe.
The main benefit of using an African company is that they are specialists in that area, with comprehensive and detailed knowledge of the places you want to visit. Of course, by omitting one layer, you are only paying one lot of profits.
Having an agent who specialise in just one country can be good – they should know their product inside out – but could be limiting if you want to expand your visit over two or more countries.
On the other hand, if the company covers several African countries, means you can do a two-destination holiday; and if one country has a political problem, they can usually arrange for you to take your safari in a neighbouring country.
Summary – my personal choice
The number of different options that are available – and this is by no means a complete list – can be totally overwhelming, and send you right back to that “let’s just book a package holiday” feeling you may have had at the start of this article. I shall therefore share with you what I would personally choose and the reasons why. Having been lucky enough to take numerous safaris, staying in a number of different styles of accommodation, my choices would be:
Accommodation – tented camps
I think we have tried almost every stage of the scale, from self-erect camping in public campsites through to small luxury tented camps.
Much as you do get a real feeling of adventure and wilderness with ‘rough camping’, as I get older I feel the need for a degree more comfort. The floor is an awfully long way to down (and even further to get up from), and I prefer not to have to frantically shine a torch about in the search of wild animals on my way to the toilet in the middle of the night.
With tented camps – mobile or permanent – I still get that wilderness feeling (such as being woken up by the roar of a lion, or the sound of hyenas outside your tent), but with the comfort of your own proper bed and an en suite bathroom.
Lastly, but by no means least, I would choose a local operator, and in Tanzania my agent of choice would be Calabash Adventures as they fit all the criteria I have outlined below.
What to look out for when choosing a local agent:
1. Make sure it is a locally owned and run company. I’m a cheapskate. I would rather my hard earned cash goes to support a local family than line the pockets of a multi-national conglomeration.
2. I like to use a company that is owned and run by local people, not by foreign investors as many of the Tanzanian based companies are.
3. Make sure that the agent has many years experience in the safari business.
4. Do they carry things like camera beanbags, binoculars and bird/animal identification guides?
5. Make sure they don’t have a mileage limit – imagine the frustration if you were in the park and heard about an excellent sighting but were told that your driver had run out of miles.
6. Make sure they have a policy of personally visiting the accommodation used
7. Environmental concerns – does the company’s attitude towards eco-tourism match your own?
8. Do they have a charging station in the vehicle for camera / phone batteries?
9. What is their policy regarding mechanical breakdowns? Are their drivers mechanically trained? Do they have back-up vehicles? Do they offer a refund should you miss out on any days on safari?
There are a number of other reasons I would choose Calabash Adventures, such as the quality – and personality – of their drivers, the maintenance of their vehicles, their competitive pricing, and the fact that I have now had four lots of excellent personal experience of a safari arranged through their company. They can also arrange trips to other East African countries.
So, are you ready to embark on your first safari? I have two things to say to you:
- All photographs provided by Grete Howard