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You'll be allowed one duffel-type bag, approximately 36 inches by 18 inches and a maximum of 26 kilos (57 pounds)—less on some airlines—so that it can be easily packed into the baggage pods of a small plane. One small camera and personal-effects bag can go on your lap. Keep all your documents and money in this personal bag.
You only need three changes of clothing for an entire trip; almost all safaris include laundry as part of the package. If you're self-driving you can carry more, but washing is easy and three changes of clothes should be ample if you use drip-dry fabrics that need no ironing. On mobile safaris you can wear tops and bottoms more than once. Either bring enough underwear to last a week between lodges or wash them in the bathroom sink. Unless there's continual rain (unlikely), clothes dry overnight in the hot, dry African air.
For game walks, pack sturdy but light walking shoes or boots—in most cases durable sneakers suffice for this option. For a walking-based safari, you need sturdy, lightweight boots. Buy them well in advance of your trip so you can break them in. If possible, isolate the clothes used on your walk from the remainder of the clean garments in your bag. Bring a couple of large white plastic garbage bags for dirty laundry.
Light, khaki, or neutral-color clothes are universally worn on safari and were first used in Africa as camouflage by the South African Boers and then by the British army that fought them during the South African War. Light colors also help to deflect the harsh sun and, unlike dark colors, are less likely to attract mosquitoes. Do not wear camouflage gear. Do wear layers of clothing that you can strip off as the sun gets hotter and put back on as the sun goes down.
Three cotton T-shirts
Two long-sleeve cotton shirts
Two pairs shorts or two skirts in summer
Two pairs long pants (three pairs in winter)
Optional: sweatshirt and pants, which can double as sleepwear
Optional: a smart/casual dinner outfit
Underwear and socks
Walking shoes or sneakers
Warm, thigh-length, padded jacket and sweater in winter
Lightweight jacket in summer
Windbreaker or rain poncho
Camera equipment, plenty of film, and extra batteries
Contact lenses, including extras
Sunscreen and lip balm with SPF 30 or higher, moisturizer, and hair conditioner
Basic first-aid kit (aspirin, bandages, antidiarrheal, antiseptic cream, indigestion remedy, etc.)
Tissues and/or premoistened wipes
Warm hat, scarf, and gloves in winter
Sun hat and sunglasses (Polaroid and UV-protected)
Documents and money (cash, traveler's checks, credit cards), etc.
A notebook and pens
Travel and field guides
A couple of large white plastic garbage bags
U.S. dollars in small denominations ($1, $5, $10) for tipping
Most hotels and game lodges provide soap, shampoo, and insect repellent, so you don't need to overpack these items. In the larger lodges in South Africa's national parks and private game reserves, stores and gift shops are fairly well stocked with clothing, film, and guidebooks; in self-drive and self-catering areas, shops also carry food and drink. The African sun is harsh, and if you're even remotely susceptible to burning, especially coming from a northern winter, don't skimp on sunscreens and moisturizers. Also bring conditioner for your hair, which can dry out and start breaking off.
Binoculars are essential and come in many types and sizes. You get what you pay for, so avoid buying a cheap pair—the optics will be poor, and the lenses usually don't stay aligned for long, especially if they get bumped, and they will on safari. Whatever strength you choose, pick the most lightweight pair; otherwise you'll be in for neck and shoulder strain. Take them with you on a night drive; you'll get great visuals of nocturnal animals and birds by the light of the tracker's spotlight. Many people find that when they start using binoculars and stop documenting each trip detail in photos, they have a much better safari experience.