Things to know before your first safari

Richard Mellor

From camping styles to group meals and game drives, these are the things to know before you book that first-ever safari trip

Expect camps, but not camping

While much safari accommodation labels itself as a ‘camp’, only stuff at the budget end involves the sorts of tents and campfires seen on scout camps.

Most ‘camps’ are actually permanent or semi-permanent blends of wood, thatch and stone, involving view-facing verandas, large bedrooms with canopied (to keep out mosquito) beds and en-suite bathrooms promising hot water.

 

Day structure

Typically, there are guided activities in the morning and afternoon, each lasting around four hours.

As game is most easily seen early in the mornings, you’ll begin early, meaning breakfast is served earlier still – usually 7am. You’ll generally return for lunch and a break from midday to 3pm, and finish for the day about 7pm.

 

Activities

Which activities you do is up to you, but needs deciding the day before. Game drives—for up to four guests, meaning you may well have to share—can be taken in both slots; otherwise, depending on the park’s rules or geography, there might be the option of a walking safari, a boat cruise, canoe trip or something else.

You are very welcome, of course, to do nothing at all.

 

Walking safaris

While walking safaris might sound dangerous, they aren’t at all. For one thing, an armed and vastly experienced ranger will accompany you and the guide; for another, animals tend to hear you coming and scarper long before you clock them.

Rather than animal sightings, then, walking safaris chiefly afford a chance to hear and smell the bush. Your guide will point out tracks and help you to identify animal sounds, predator spools, rare plants or impossibly clever insects. 

 

Safari board

Nearly always, the nightly rate at a safari lodge covers all meals and all drinks save for certain spirits—these can be clarified when you arrive—plus most activities.

Possible extra costs include park entry fees, a local tax (though this is rare) and transfers to/from the nearest airstrip or your previous camp.

 

Shared meals

Be aware that the norm at safari camps is for guests to eat together on a long table. While breakfasts might fall at different times depending on what activity each guest is about to begin, lunch and dinner tend to be at set times.

At most places, guides join you and this helps conversations to flow more easily. Some lodges allow you to request private meals. Otherwise, be prepared to get to know strangers, and to talk about animals and tips. It’s also common for everyone to share pre-dinner drinks around the campfire.

 

The food

The majority of camps are off-grid or rely on solar power, so kitchen facilities are limited. Despite this, chefs do a brilliant job. Expect gourmet food, and you’ll be disappointed; come for a hearty meal, and you’ll be wowed.

 

Packing tips

Bright clothes—especially whites—alarm animals, while dark clothes attract flies and retain heat. So light greens and beiges are best, ideally in light materials such as linen. Layers are good—days start freezing, get very warm, and finish cold.

A hat helps, especially on walking safaris, and binoculars bring animal sightings to life. Good bug repellent is vital. 

 

Price pressure

At £3-4,000 per person, safaris aren’t cheap. To make them slightly more affordable, you could stay in lodges outside the park boundaries and avoid any camps needing light-airplane transfers to reach.

Of the major safari countries with decent game, Zimbabwe, Malawi, Zambia and—while the rand continues to suffer—South Africa offer the most economical options.


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