Types of Safaris
Do you picture yourself zipping from camp to camp in a tiny Cessna, getting a bird's-eye view of a water hole? Or inspecting an animal track up close while on a multiday walk through the bush? Since there are many kinds of safaris, you should think hard about what approach suits you best. There are high- and low-end versions of each option, and you can always mix and match options to create your ideal itinerary.
A Voyage of Discovery
As you embark on your safari, consider how lucky you are to be witnessing these rare species in their natural habitat. To this day, researchers in Africa continue to unearth new species. In the summer of 2007, for example, a group of scientists on a two-month expedition in the eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo discovered six new species (a bat, a rodent, two shrews, and two frogs) in a remote forest that had been off-limits to scientists for almost 50 years. At that rate—almost one new species each week—one can't help but wonder what else is out there or who will find it and when.
Luxury Lodge-Based Safaris
The majority of safari-goers base their trips at luxury lodges, which pack the double punch of outstanding game-viewing and stylish, atmospheric accommodations. A lodge may be made up of stone chalets, thatch-roof huts, rondavels, or large suitelike tents. Mosquito nets, leather furnishings, and mounted trophies add to the ambience. Dinners are served in an open-air boma (traditional thatch dining enclosure). All have hot-and-cold running water, flush toilets, toiletries, laundry service, electricity, and, in most cases, swimming pools. Some lodges also have air-conditioning, telephones, hair dryers, and minibars. The most lavish places also have private plunge pools.
Make no mistake—you pay for all this pampering. Expect to spend anywhere from US$400 to US$1,300 per person per night, depending on the season. All meals, beverages, house wines, game drives, and walks are included. A three-night stay is ideal, but two nights is usually sufficient to see the big game.
The time you spend at a private lodge is tightly structured. With some exceptions, the lodges offer almost identical programs of events. There are usually two three- to four-hour game drives a day, one in the early morning and another in the evening. You spend a lot of time sitting and eating, and in the afternoon you can nap and relax. You can always opt for an after-breakfast bush walk, and many lodges now have spas and gyms. If you're tired after your night drive, ask for something to be sent to your room, but don't miss the bush braai (barbecue) and at least one night in the boma.
On game drives at bigger camps, rangers stay in contact with one another via radio. If one finds a rhino, for example, he relays its location to the others so they can bring their guests to have a look. It's a double-edged sword. The more vehicles you have in the field, the more wildlife everyone is likely to see. But don't worry, most lodges are very well disciplined with their vehicles and there are rarely more than three or four at a sighting. As your vehicle arrives, one already there will drive away. In choosing a game lodge, remember to check how much land a lodge can traverse and how many vehicles it uses. Try to go on a bush walk with an armed ranger—an unforgettable experience, as the ranger can point out fascinating details along the way.
All lodges arrange transfers from nearby airports, train stations, or drop-off points, as the case may be. In more remote areas most have their own private airstrips carved out of the bush and fly guests in on chartered aircraft at extra cost. If you're driving yourself, the lodge will send you detailed instructions because many of the roads don't appear on maps and lack names.
You'll be awed by the brilliance of the night skies on safari, especially if you live in a city where lights obscure the stars. To add romance and interest to your stargazing, study up on the southern skies and bring a star guide. Also, most guides are knowledgeable about the stars, so ask questions.
The mode of transportation for fly-in safaris is as central to the experience as the accommodations. In places such as northern Botswana, where few roads are paved, or northern Namibia, where distances make road transfers impractical, small bush planes take you from lodge to lodge. These planes are usually six-seat Cessna 206 craft flown by bush pilots. The planes have no air-conditioning and in summer can be very hot indeed, especially in the afternoon. But most flights are short—approximately 30 minutes or so—so bite the bullet or you'll miss out on some of the really fabulous destinations.
Flying from destination to destination is a special experience. The planes stay at low altitudes, allowing you to spot game along the way: you might see elephant and buffalo herds lined up drinking along the edges of remote water holes or large numbers of zebras walking across the plains. Fly-in safaris also allow you to cover more territory than other types of safaris. In Botswana, for example, the trip between the diverse game destinations of the Moremi Wildlife Reserve in the Okavango Delta and northern Chobe National Park is 40 minutes by plane; it would take six hours by vehicle, if a road between these locations existed.
Hopping from place to place by plane is so easy and fast that many travelers make the mistake of cramming their itineraries with too many lodges. Plan your trip this way and you'll spend more time at airstrips, in planes, and shuttling to and from the airfields than tracking animals or enjoying the bush. You will glimpse animals as you travel back and forth—sometimes you'll even see them on the airstrips—but you won't have time to stop and really take in the sights. If possible, spend at least two nights at any one lodge; three nights is even better.
The best way to set up a fly-in safari is to book an all-inclusive package that includes airfare. (It's impractical to try to do it yourself.) A tour operator makes all the arrangements, and many offer standard trips that visit several of its lodges. For example, in Botswana, Orient-Express Safaris has a package that includes three camps in three very different locations.
The key to fly-in safaris is to pack light. In southern Africa the maximum weight allowed for luggage is 26 kilos (even less with some airlines). Your bag should be a soft-sided duffel or something similar, so the pilot can easily fit it into the small cargo area. At most private lodges, laundry is included.
If your bag is over the weight limit, or if you weigh more than 220 pounds, you will be required to purchase an additional plane seat (usually about US$100).
Many lodges offer walks as an optional way to view game. On a walking safari, however, you spend most, if not all, of your time in the bush on foot, accompanied by an armed guide. Because you're trekking through big-game country, there's an element of danger. But it's the proximity to wilderness that makes this type of trip so enchanting—and exciting. Of course, you can't stop every step of the way or you'd never get very far, but you will stop frequently to be shown something—from a native flower to spoor to animals—or to discuss some aspect of animal behavior or of tracking.
Walking treks take place on what are known as wilderness trails, which are natural tracks made by animals and are traversed only on foot, never by vehicle, to maintain their pristine condition. These trails usually lead into remote areas that you would never see on a typical safari. In most cases porters or donkeys carry the supplies and bags. Accommodation is usually in remote camps or occasionally in tents.
If you consider a walking safari, you must factor in your physical condition. You should be in good health and be able to walk between 4 and 10 mi a day, depending on the scope of the trip. Some trips don't allow hikers under age 12 or over age 60. Also, you shouldn't scare easily. No guide has time for people who freeze up at the sight of a beetle, spider, or something more menacing up close; guides need to keep their attention on the wilds around them and on the group as a whole. The guides are armed, and they take great caution to keep you away from trouble. Your best insurance against getting in harm's way is always to listen to your guide and follow instructions.
Mobile and Overland Safaris
Most mobile-safari operations are expertly run but are aimed at budget-conscious travelers. They are mostly self-sufficient camping affairs with overnights at either public or private campgrounds, depending on the safari's itinerary and price. Sometimes you stay at basic lodges along the way. Travel is often by something that looks like a 4x4 bus.
For young people, or the young at heart, mobile safaris are a great way to see the land from ground level. You taste the dust, smell the bacon cooking, stop where and when you want (within reason), and get to see some of the best places in the region. Trips usually run 14 to 21 days, although you can find shorter ones that cover fewer destinations. Prices start at US$750 and climb to US$2,500 for all-inclusive trips. Not sure whether all-inclusive is right for you? Consider combining a mobile safari with a lodge-based one, which gives you the best of both worlds. A minimum of 10 nights is recommended for such an itinerary.
A self-drive safari, where you drive yourself in your own rental vehicle, is a great option for budget travelers and for those who feel comfortable seeing the bush without a ranger at hand to search out game or explain what you're seeing. Popular and easy-to-navigate options for this kind of trip are Kruger National Park, Hluhluwe-Imfolozi Game Reserve, and Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park. These parks have accessible, well-marked roads and a wide range of accommodations that include family-size chalets, small huts, tents, and camping sites. You may buy your own groceries and cook for yourself at all of these areas; all national parks have restaurants and stores on-site.
If possible, rent a van or a 4x4, since the higher off the ground you are the better your chances of spotting game (although a two-wheel-drive car is fine), and you can stop and start at your leisure; remember that you have to stick to marked roads. In addition to patience, you'll need drinks, snacks, and a ready camera. Keep your eyes and ears open and you may come across game at any time, in any place.
Purchase a good park map that shows roads, water holes, different ecozones, and the types of animals you can expect to find in each. It's no good driving around open grassland searching for black rhinos when the lumbering browsers are miles away in a woodland region. You can buy these maps when you enter a park or at rest-camp shops, and it would be foolish to pass them up.
When planning your day's game drive, plot your route around as many water holes and rivers as possible. Except during the height of the summer rains, most game must come to permanent water sources to drink. In winter, when the land is at its most parched, a tour of water holes is bound to reap great rewards. Even better, take a picnic lunch along and park at the same watering hole for an hour or two, especially in winter, when the car interior doesn't become too hot. Not only will you see plenty of animals, but you'll find yourself slipping into the drama of the bush. Has that kudu seen the huge crocodile? What's making the impala nervous? What's that sitting on my car?
Knowledge is Power
Arm yourself with specialized books on mammals and birds rather than a more general one that tries to cover too much. Airports, lodges, and camp shops stock a good range, but try to bring one with you and do a bit of boning up in advance. Any bird guide by Ken Newman (Struik Publishers) and the Sasol Guide to Birds are recommended.
Wildlife Watching Do's and Don'ts
Wildlife Safety and Respect
Observe animals silently. Talking loudly can frighten animals away and disturb their natural activities. Likewise, never attempt to attract an animal's attention. Don't imitate animal sounds, clap your hands, pound the vehicle, or throw objects.
Never feed wild creatures. This is especially important to remember near lodges and in campgrounds where animals—especially baboons and monkeys—may have become accustomed to humans. In some places they sneak into huts, tents, and even occupied vehicles to snatch food. If you see primates around, keep all food out of sight, and keep your windows closed. (If a baboon gets into your vehicle, he will trash the interior as he searches for food and will use it as a toilet.)
Never try to pose with an animal. This is probably the biggest cause of death and injury on safaris, when visitors don't listen to or believe the warnings from their rangers or posted notices in the public parks. Regardless of how cute or harmless they look, these animals are not tame. An herbivore impala, giraffe, or ostrich can kill you just as easily as a lion, elephant, or buffalo can.
Show respect for your driver and guide's judgment. They have more knowledge and experience than you. If they say no, there's a good reason.
Doing a self-drive? Always stay in the vehicle and drive slowly and carefully, keeping ample distance between you and the wildlife.
On walking safaris. Stay downwind from the animals, keep noise to a bare minimum, and walk at an even stride. Don't make quick or excited movements. Obey your guide.
Never litter. Aside from the obvious disrespect for the environment, tossed items can choke or poison animals.
No smoking. The dry African bush ignites easily.
Dress in neutral-tone clothes. If everyone is wearing earth tones, the animal sees one large vegetation-colored mass.
No body fragrances. This is for the benefit of both the animals and your fellow travelers.
Never sleep out in the open. If you're sleeping in a tent, make sure it's fully zipped or snapped shut; if it's a small tent, place something between you and the side of the wall to prevent an opportunistic bite from the outside. Generally if you're in your tent and not exposed, you should be quite safe from animals. Malaria is a much more potent danger, so keep your tent zipped up tight at night to keep out mosquitoes. (Note: If you are menstruating, be sure to dispose of tampons and pads somewhere other than in or near your tent.)
Never walk alone. Nearly all camps and lodges insist that an armed ranger accompany you both during the day and at night, and rightly so.
Best Viewing Times
The best time to find game is in the early morning and early evening, when the animals are most active, although old Africa hands will tell you that you can come across good game at any time of day. Stick to the philosophy "you never know what's around the next corner," and keep your eyes and ears wide open all the time. If your rest camp offers guided night drives on open vehicles with spotlights—go for it. You'll rarely be disappointed, seeing not only big game but also a lot of fascinating little critters that surface only at night. Book your night drive in advance or as soon as you get to camp.
Approach animals cautiously and quietly and "feel" their response. As soon as an effect is noted slow down or stop, depending on the circumstances. Human presence among wild animals never goes unnoticed. Not all game guides and rangers are sensitive to this, their focus being on giving you the best sighting. But if you feel uncomfortable, say so.
Making a List, Checking It Twice
Many national parks have reception areas with charts that show the most recent sightings of wildlife in the area. To be sure you see everything you want, get yourself a spotting chart, or just chat with the other drivers, rangers, and tourists, who can tell you what they've seen and where.
Keep in Mind
Nature is neither kind nor sentimental. Don't interfere with the natural processes. Animals are going about the business of survival in a harsh environment, and you can unwittingly make this business more difficult. Don't get too close to the animals and don't try to help them. If you're intrusive, you could drive animals away from feeding and, even worse, from drinking at water holes, which may be their only opportunity to drink that day.
Immersion in safari lands is a privilege. In order to preserve this privilege for later generations, it's important that you view wildlife with minimal disturbance and avoid upsetting the delicate balance of nature at all costs. You're the visitor, so act as you would in someone else's home: respect their space. Caution is your most trusted safety measure. Keep your distance, keep quiet, and keep your hands to yourself.
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