“How do we do a safari outing?” is the question I get asked all the time by friends and colleagues travelling to or moving to Africa. Having explored 15 African countries, tens of thousands of kilometers, and countless weekends and trips equips me to answer that question. I will look at 11 key elements towards a positive and safer experience. I apply the proactive approach used in my professional work in emergency management towards a safe and enjoyable experience. And we all welcome your safari experiences and tips in the comments section below!
What qualifies me to provide this advice?
My wife, children and I have had the good fortune of living in Eastern, Northern and now Southern Africa. Although Canadian, much of the last decade and a half has seen us live in Kenya, Morocco and for the last years here in South Africa.
We are fascinated by the people, cultures, wildlife, and amazing sceneries. Weekend or week-long safari outings are an incredible way of exploring the wilderness, animals and flora of Africa. We’ve planned and roadtripped through fifteen countries over the years. This has spanned from Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda, and all the countries through to South Africa, Botswana and Namibia. All our trips have been self-driven, often roughing it and camping but we’ve also treated ourselves to amazing lodges and exotic tented camps.
Can things go wrong when you undertake a safari? Absolutely. Do they have to go wrong? No. I feel you can greatly swing the odds in your favour. But you don’t swing the odds by just hoping and crossing your fingers. You have to be proactive and prepare properly and adopt good habits.
When you live in Africa, you become a travel coordinator and travel facilitator
We’ve organized and assisted so many successful safari trips for family members, friends, and colleagues and countless friends of friends. I’ve received countless emails from friends that start off with: “Hi Blair, my friend X is thinking of travelling and doing safaris in X country, how should she/he go about it, where should they go, how can they do it safely,…?” and “Hi Blair, we were thinking of travelling to X country with our kids and your family has travelled those countries with kids, what do you think about …?”
It is daunting when you first move here or when contemplating a trip to Eastern or Southern Africa, and we can have so many questions we’d like answered to undertake the journey with as much knowledge and information ahead of the safari experience. I’m here to help. I’m happy to share our experiences and recommendations after all these years and with a goal of you having a safer and fun experience.
You can help, too! Share your tips and experiences in the Comments section below!
What is a “safari”?
There is something amazing about the African continent. While each continent is unique in so many ways, Africa has a special mystique about it. One African word is found the world over.
The East African language of Swahili (known locally as Kiswahili) has many elements from Arabic. The Arabic word “safara” (to travel) exists in Swahili as the noun “safari”. Except safari has been adopted globally into most languages to represent the art of exploring the wilderness to view and photograph (or for some to hunt) amazing wildlife.
Why did I go to the effort of writing this and making a Better Preparedness episode?
Just as heading off into the remote Canadian wilderness can have its weather, wildlife, and terrain risks and pitfalls, successful safaris into the African landscapes are more likely with preparedness and being proactive. Much of that work occurs before you hit the road.
Rather than write a 200-page book, I’ve tried to sum up the successful safari outing into eleven key elements. Here goes:
1. Deciding on your safari location
You might already have a location in mind, great. Wait, read through this though as you there may be some food for thought if that planned location is the right one. The purpose of this article is a safari trip of about 2-7 days. I will be producing a series on undertaking big trips in Africa and that series will look into long distance trips.
Maybe you have a location planned or there is already a national park you’ve been craving to visit. If you are not that far in your planning, let’s take a moment and help find that location by thinking about the following questions:
- What’s the goal of your trip? Is the safari your only aim or is it part of a package of trip goals you have?
- What’s your budget? Things can add up quickly in Africa!
- How long do you have to dedicate to the safari?
- How and how long will it take you to get to that country? To that national park? If we take Nairobi or Johannesburg as a starting point, some parks are within a few hours drive while others may require 1-2 days of driving or an internal flight. Just factor those considerations into your decision.
Additionally, keep in mind how much distance you will then travel within that national park and ensure you have some balance so as not to be exhausted by constant road travel at the cost of seeing what you came for and having a bit of relaxation and down time.
- How will you get around? Will you drive your own vehicle? Will you self-drive by renting a vehicle? Will you pay to be transported to the national park and within it? Will it be a combination thereof?
- Where and how will you stay? There are many options and they come at a price and have a degree of comfort. Depending on the location and surrounding region, you can stay at fancy lodges or hotels, tented camps (all provided), fancy or rustic cabins with self-catering, or camping within a facility or camping in the wild. We’ve done all those types and each has its pros and cons.
The more basic or wild your accommodation set–up, there better your planning and ideally the higher level of experience you should have.
If you are travelling solo, you can choose what suits you for that trip. If you are a couple, a family or part of a group, you’ll need to talk with the trip participants and find that consensus. I’ve had some amazing safari trips that have involved free camping in the wilderness and we’ve had lions walk by our tent in the night and one roared just meters from us lying there in our sleeping bags. Amazing for me but that’s not for everyone and I’m not sure my children at their current age would find that as exhilarating as I did.
2. Safari Vehicle Suitability
If you are living in the country and plan to do a lot of self-driving safari trips, you will want to select your vehicle purchase to suit your safari plans and terrains.
If you will be renting, then ensure you have the following in mind:
- As a general rule of thumb, the less suited to the terrain your vehicle is, the more risky and likely you will run into problems. Sure, you can take a chance by buying or renting a small sedan or hatchback and see how far into the bush it gets you and if you get back out safely, but why increase your risks?
- Think about the number of people and weight of all your gear, food and water. You may need one size sturdier to handle your anticipated total weight especially in rougher or more tricky road conditions.
- Tires, tires, tires!!! I can’t emphasize enough how important your tires are. If you are buying tires for your own vehicle, invest in the best tires you can afford and that suit your driving conditions! Your tires will help you get around and hopefully avoid many crisis scenarios so really put in some thought.
If you are renting a vehicle, ask the renting agency what tires are on the vehicle and what condition they are in. During a mega road adventure, I saw some incredibly competent safari rental vehicles equipped with tires well beyond their useful life. We also saw many people replacing flats tires.
Chose good tires, always recheck their inflation with a gauge, and replace before they become a hazard to your safety. Okay, I’m a passionate cyclist and so I always have a quality floor bike pump with a gauge on it, but that’s also what I recommend to most people. An alternative is a compact air compressor that will usually plug into your cigarette lighter. (Why do we still call that plug a cigarette lighter?) The key is that you have the means to check your air pressure, add air, and in an emergency when you have a slow leak, keep adding air to enable you carefully to reach a safer spot to change the tire-wheel or reach a repair garage.
- Vehicle clearance! Many of the hazards your vehicle will face are on the road in the form of thorns, branches, rocks, ruts, and so you. Ideally you want as much ground clearance as possible. If you have a rental vehicle, each driver should take a look underneath the vehicle and see what hangs low such as the transmission or suspension components. When you are driving, remember where those vulnerable parts are located so you can position the vehicle accordingly.
Remember that ruts and depressions in the road lower your vehicle and vulnerable components towards rocks and other hazards.
- Should you be okay with 2×4 (2-wheel drive) or do you need 4×4 (4-wheel drive) transmission? Think about the likelihood of rain, mud, sand, rocks, water crossings and any other hazards. A 2wd (or two-wheel drive) front or rear wheel drive vehicle may be fully capable of handling the terrain, weather and your total weight for your undertaking.
On the other hand, you may require a 4wd (4×4 or four-wheel drive) transmission and perhaps one step further such as having low ratio capability for high traction. When you are renting a SUV or a pick-up vehicle, ask the rental company if it’s a 2 or 4-wheel drive.
Here’s the thing, you may be fine for 100% or 98% of you trip with a very simple vehicle, tires and transmission. But in more remote and challenging environments, what about that 2% or that single 50m section of light mud that caused your 2wd vehicle to get stuck with absolutely no one around to help tow you out?
- What about add-ons such as a snorkel? This is a specialised type of equipment and beyond the needs of most safari goers. It’s another element that may only once be required in your vehicle lifetime or for certain remote and difficult regions but it might be a huge help. What’s a snorkel? A snorkel is an attachment to a vehicle that moves the air intake from about the mid or upper height of your engine to near the upper height of your windshield. It’s a plastic pipe that looks like a large swimming snorkel upside down.
Vehicle owners will make the snorkel modification to their vehicle for two main reasons, firstly to reduce the risk of water being drawn into their engine during a water crossing. The air intake in some vehicles can be pretty low to the ground and having snorkel ensures you are drawing your air from much higher up. Oh, please don’t abuse having a snorkel by attempting unsafe water crossings!!! The second reason for a snorkel is to draw less dusty air and decrease the dust and grime that will clog your engine’s air filter and dirty your engine oil.
There are other add-ons and pieces of equipment that can come in handy such as a high-lift jack, traction boards, a shovel, a wood saw, … It really depends on your needs, location, and weather.
In the end, you will have the vehicle you will have and you need to take as good care of it as possible! Preventing vehicle crises is the most important thing you can do. That said, you then need to know how you will resolve crises that could still develop and be equipped with the necessary knowledge and tools.
3. Safari Navigation and Route Selection
Assuming you are self-driving, you want to plan out your trip and route to have a more enjoyable trip. Unless you are seeking a driving marathon, keep your route selection so as to be a manageable amount of driving and time in the
I always suggest having paper maps or map books even if you have a GPS with maps loaded in. It’s more route information and that map might also have additional information such as emergency phone numbers or tourism details. Most national parks should have a detailed map with the grades of road listed and maybe list particular hazards or seasonal hazards.
Have a quality compass (and a spare as back-up) to inform you which way is north, west, south or east when you trying to validate a direction of travel or an intersection or how to orient your map. Keep in mind that roads can wind a lot or turn back based on the landscape and having that compass or digital navigation can help you follow if you are still heading in the correct general direction.
When you are entering a national park or at your accommodations, always try to validate your route with someone knowledgeable. Perhaps a bridge or road listed on your map was washed out earlier this year? Perhaps you’d have a better wildlife experience by using this other road? It never hurts to validate your route!
4. What is the Ideal Weather and Climate for Your Safari?
What season will it be? In your planning, remember that the seasons are the opposite when you look at the northern versus southern hemisphere. Christmas time can be intensely hot in some parts of Africa where as July-August could be quite cold. Do your research as to the weather you will face in that country and that national park region for the period of the year and season.
Altitude plays a role and the temperature and climate will vary for the better or not depending on if you are at lower altitude or higher altitudes for that time of the year.
Rainfall (or even snowfall) can wreak havoc on the types of roads your will travel and that will influence the type of vehicle you rent or buy.
The vegetation will vary greatly. It can be thick, green and obscure the animals you want to see or it can be a beige, beige, beige landscape during the height of the dry season with no leaves on trees and bushes, and little water in the rivers and watering holes. Each can be fantastic in its own way, too.
The weather will greatly impact the road conditions and can cause road blocks and impassable hazards such as a dry stream bed becoming a raging torrent. A level-crossing stream or river bed can be dry and passable one hour and suddenly become a raging torrent shortly thereafter. Always keep this in mind if terms of your time and never put yourself at risk.
5. Distances, Durations and Timing
Please repeat after me, “Travel in Africa and safari travels take more time.” Keep your amount of travel within reason and allow for more time to reach your
Start your travel earlier in the day to give yourself more time to enjoy your journey, make stops at points of interest, and have more time to handle any crises that occur. You likely have more chance of finding a solution if you have many hours daylight than if you face your crisis at dusk or in darkness.
What ever estimated time a website, map book or mapping software like Google Maps gives for this or that route, allow for more time. Driving more quickly can also increase your risk of an accident or sliding off the road, or hitting a pedestrian, animal or a slow-moving transport truck.
6. Health, Illnesses and 1st Aid
You are likely the best line of defence in keeping healthy. You’ll want to take precautions when it comes to:
- Vaccinations: Contact a good travel health clinic to find out if your existing vaccinations are up to date and if there are additional vaccinations required for your planned trip or perhaps you should choose a different location if your original idea was in a higher danger zone for this or that illness. Consult your foreign ministry’s website for health advisories for the countries you will visit. Some countries or transit countries require you to bring your vaccination booklet to prove you have this or that vaccination such as against yellow fever.
- Preventative Medications such as Anti-Malarials: For some diseases such as malaria, you will take pills before, during and after your trip to reduce the likelihood and impact of certain diseases such as malaria, which is carried by mosquitos from other malaria infected people. Ask your travel clinic and doctor what medication you might need for your location and period of travel. If we take malaria as an example, it’s not everywhere across Africa.
Consult your doctor, travel clinic, travel resources, experienced travellers about other medications to have with you for other illnesses such stomach or digestive issues. You might be able to resolve any minor health issues with medication or pharmacy supplies from home.
- First aid kit and First Aid Training: For many minor medical crises, you may able to resolve the situation yourself with a well equipped first aid kit and the proper first aid training from a basic or advanced course. You can refer to the Better Preparedness article 10 Easy Steps to Building your Ideal First Aid Kits towards building a solid first aid kit and I have listed some good starting kits on BetterPreparedness.com that you can then tailor to your needs and group size. Also consider that you may be the one requiring first aid assistance, so ask if the other trip members have first aid training.
7. Supplies and Availability
The supplies you need to bring from home and source locally will depend on factors such as your needs, specialised dietary needs, the remoteness of the location, the level of self-sufficiency for your trip, and the duration. You will likely need to buy more supplies in a town or city the more you have to provide for yourself.
Stock-up outside the Park
Some national parks in certain countries can have a store within the park but the range and types of products may be very limited and cost a lot more. I would advise assessing your needs, making a list, and buying the supplies in a nearby town or city. Even if you are staying at a lodge with all meals provided, you may still want to purchase snacks and supplies.
Water, water, water
Bring sufficient water for your needs, group size, and the climate of your trip. When we faced +45C in the Namib Desert in Namibia, our family of four sure went through a lot of drinking water. Always have ample amounts of drinking water in case you were stuck out in the bush or there were water supply issues where you are staying. We have many re-useable jugs for transporting water from home and if need be, we buy more or ideally refill our jugs if there is an opportunity to do so.
Charging and Recharging your Devices in Africa
Power, we all crave power, kinda. Our lives are full of phones, electronic gadgets, and cameras, and it’s important to consider how you will keep them charged and recharged after a day or more of use. My moto is to have spare batteries and recharge whenever possible!
First things first, remember that all of Africa uses 220Volt (220V) power (North America uses 110V) so ensure whatever you will plug into an electrical outlet can operate on 220V. Check the super fine print on the plug or back of your device or charger to see if it hopefully says something encompassing like AC100-240V, meaning any voltage between 100V and 240V. More and more of the devices we purchase work with 110V-220V but the big exception I find is for those devices like camera battery chargers purchased in North America which tend to be 110V. Check all your chargers and devices to ensure they work with 220V.
A voltage converter from 220V to 110V is a heavy, bulky and annoying device, and so hopefully there is no need for you to lug one of those around with you. You’d be better off buying a new charger that can handle 110V-220V rather than bringing a voltage converter.
Secondly, the type of electrical plug varies from one country to the next in Africa so check ahead of time. You may find some plug adapters locally, but it’s hit or miss, and I’d suggest buying a few ahead of time along with a spare or two in case you loose some during your trip. Here are some examples:
In South Africa, the standard plug is a Type M huge three-rounded prong plug but you may get lucky and find outlets for the two-smaller-rounded-prong Type C European plug.
Kenya uses the rectangular three-pronged Type G plug.
North America uses the two-pronged Type A plug or the or three-pronged (like a Type A but with grounded) Type B plug
All this to say about power plugs, just make sure you are equipped with enough of the correct plug adapters for the plug type you have and for the wall plug destination where you will travel.
Since we’ve been living in various parts of Africa, I’ve purchased a few power bars so I can recharge multiple chargers/devices at once. Just be mindful that some North American power bars are only rated for 110V so look on the back to see if that’s the case. Furthermore, the 220V-capable power bar I bring with me on my safari travels has a surge protector in case of power fluctuations.
While on safari, your trip set-up may have ample electricity availability with numerous plugs, or perhaps there is only one power outlet in your room, or perhaps your tented camp or remote campsite has none. Plan ahead. I like to have a couple of higher capacity battery packs such as my favourite iMuto Portable Charger 30000mAh with Display along with some multi-port USB multiplugs. Remember all the types of USB cables for your device needs and enough of them.
8. Children and Safaris
My children are experienced road travellers and travel very well but even the best travellers have their limits so plan you trip accordingly and think of your trip from their perspective. Get them involved in the day-trip planning, animal researching, animal spotting and navigation.
Some children are more prone to car sickness, so you may have to reduce your speed or reduce your outing durations.
Kids love to document the animals they’ll see and show their classmates, so a camera for each of your children will keep them more engaged and they get to take photos, just like mom or dad!
There are great resources for children of different levels so bring some books along. I’m a fan of books such as Wildlife of Southern Africa, Wildlife of East Africa, Field Guide to the Tracks and Signs, and also younger children books such as Let’s Explore… Safari and The Cat in the Hat’s Safari.
There are generally more animals and animal movements early in the morning or later in the afternoon, and so you may find yourself back at your accommodations through the middle of the day. This can be a good opportunity for your child to get some exercise, swim if there is a pool, and simply have a break from driving around trying to spot all of Africa’s wildlife.
9. Repair Gear and Emergency Kit
This section could get quite lengthy, so I will try to keep it to three general headings. The idea is to think about what could go wrong and how to resolve it. When a screw came very loose in my brother’s glasses while we climbed Mount Kilimanjaro, my mini screw driver helped resolve what could have become a big issue had he also lost the screw and not had the use of his glasses. Many emergency items can be compact, it’s just a matter of having thought about bringing it with you. You won’t find too many hardware stores in the middle of Botswana’s massive Okavango Delta or in Tanzania’s Serengeti.
1. Vehicle Emergency Repair
Assuming you (hopefully) already have a vehicle emergency kit back home, bring most of that along with you for your rental vehicle. It really frustrates me that most rental vehicles are not equipped beyond the most basic tools for replacing a tire. Bring your jumper cables along. That tow strap, too! Just those two items could help resolve a dead battery or being a little stuck.
2. Personal emergency kit and 1st Aid Kit
I highly recommend you bring a 1st Aid Kit suited to your group size and any special needs in the group. You can use the following Better Preparedness article toward that purpose:
3. Miscellaneous emergency repair
Ideally, you have an emergency kit in your country of residence. If not, why not put one together to help you resolve many foreseeable scenarios. The sky is the limit but simple elements such as duct tape, zip ties, small tubes of crazy glue, and other common household repair items can come in handy.
10. Animal Safety
Many of the animals found in Africa’s wilderness can be dangerous and most often it is related to road safety and collisions with those animals. Fatigue during a long day of driving or rushing to get to a park gate before it closes can lead to increased risk of collisions as animals of all shapes and sizes can suddenly cross a road and be in our path.
When viewing the animals during a game drive, keep a distance between you and the animals, keep out of their path of travel, and remember that some animals such as elephants can charge or fake-charge a car when it feels threatened and that usually happens when a vehicle is too close.
Never exit your vehicle while in a park with large animals and especially carnivores. If you had to replace a punctured tire, if it’s a slow leak, try to move the vehicle (if you can do so safely and without damage to the vehicle) to a spot with a clear view of any potential animals. Have the occupants, who not assisting the repair, be on the lookout in all directions for signs of dangerous animals.
You can have your windows open while the vehicle is moving but it’s a good idea to close them when stopped and especially when there are animals around. Keep your arms inside the car windows when stopped and taking any photos.
Exercise caution wherever there are monkeys and baboons, especially in places such a picnic location, park gate, and rest park. Keep your windows closed and doors looked whenever you stop or leave the vehicle. Monkeys know humans have food with them and can be very cocky in squeezing through a small window opening or even opening car doors. Once inside a vehicle, monkeys and baboons can cause a lot of damage to the vehicle interior and in trying to access or find food. Trust me, I’ve seen it happen so many times and we’ve had our share of problems.
11. Equipment and Dust
Remember that electronics and equipment do not react well to dust, and you will encounter a lot of dust over the course of a safari trip. Protect your cameras, mobile phones, binoculars, and other gear. Keep your gear in their cases or if you are frequently using the equipment, cover the gear with a spare t-shirt when not using the gear.
Safari trips are an amazing way to connect to the nature we only see in wildlife and nature documentaries. It can be the trip of a lifetime and extremely rewarding but there are risks to these types of trips. Be proactive and always exercise caution. Identify your risks and take the precautions and preparations necessary. And have fun.
Share your top tips in the Comments section below.