The Definitive Guide to Planning an African Safari

planning african safariIf you’re planning an African Safari for your next vacation, you’ve probably relized there’s a ton of important decisions to make.

And before investing thousands of dollars in the holiday of a lifetime, you’ll want to be sure that the trip you’ve put together is the right one.

That’s why I’ve gathered the best safari advice from experts all around the globe and compiled it into a comprehensive guide to planning an African safari.

These tips will make sure your vacation unfolds without a hitch. From types of safaris to top locations, safety, visa info, scams, and more, we’ve got you covered.

Types of Safaris to consider

Today’s safari aficionado encounters many of the same things that explorers have throughout history. Experiences such as seeing massive flocks of flamingos colorizing the landscape around a shimmering lake, lions feasting on what proved to be a challenging kill, or thousands of zebras galloping across verdant grasslands are just as common today as they were in decades gone by. Many of these individuals thrive on seeking out what are called “the big 5”, namely the buffalo, elephants, leopards, lions, and rhinos that are indigenous to different areas.

For the purposes of simplification, I have broken down the most common choices for African safaris as follows:

Bush-camping safaris – many have said that this is the most affordable way of seeing the continent of Africa. Bush-camping safaris should not be confused with the old school mentality of sleeping inside a battered canvas tent. They are very different today and are considered the ideal way to maximize the time you spend in the wild outdoors.

Luxury or upscale safaris – as the name implies, this is not a safari for the adventurer who must travel on the cheap. This is oftentimes referred to as “glamping” or glamour camping wherein you are furnished with many of the amenities you are used to at home. Luxury safaris provide plush accommodations and amenities that are tailored to the most discerning tastes. Many luxury safaris provide champagne breakfasts, evening game drives, or a scented, steaming bath.

safari truckMobile or overland safaris – these are typically the most affordable of all the safaris mentioned here and lodging will most likely be of the campsite or tent-camping variety.

Furthermore, mobile or overland safaris are participatory in nature. This means that you will be expected to perform certain tasks such as preparing meals and setting up your campsite. In most cases, this safari venue is ideal for the budget-conscious, solo traveler. However, the fact that you will never be alone is the primary benefit of this type of safari.

Private guided safaris – there is a range of choices when it comes to selecting a private guided safari (individual, group, honeymoon, luxury, etc.). You can choose a guided safari featuring a fixed itinerary or you can sit down with your guide service and customize one that is tailored to your specific wants and needs.

River safaris – little can compare with an African river safari, especially during the dry season. Many river cruises provide the adventurer with an up close and personal view of the native wildlife that is indigenous to the region you are traveling through. Plus, there is a range of on-board lodging that will accommodate anyone from the budget traveler up to and including those who prefer the more luxurious amenities.

Self-drive safaris – if you’re the adventurous sort but you want to keep it as economical as you can, the self-drive safari is the way to go. You have the option of establishing how much you want to spend for your accommodations as well as numerous choices of self-conducted tours. Plus, you can dine a la carte and go venturing out into the bush without having to hire the services of a tour guide to take you.

Although some safaris come with a rather exorbitant price tag attached to them, many can be tailored to accommodate your personal budget and needs. Naturally the amenities provided, the duration of the safari, and the type of accommodations selected will impact the cost. So if you’re looking for the type of amenities or luxuries that you are used to at home, be prepared to pay a higher cost. On the other hand, if you’re a budget traveler, then stay away from the “all-inclusive” tours and go for an overland or self-drive safari.

Where to Go

Determining where you want to go on safari will usually be based on what you are looking to experience. What you want to remember is that one African country can be very different from the next. Since it’s unlikely that I could capture the culture and spirit of a particular country in a single paragraph, I have broken down 10 popular safari destination choices over three regions of the African continent:

Central Africa:

  • rwanda safariRwanda – oftentimes referred to as the Great Lakes Region of central Africa, Rwanda is divided geographically by savannas in the eastern half and mountains in the western half. If your desire is to see gorillas in the wild, then a Rwandan safari is just the ticket.

    Although these creatures can be seen throughout the year, the best months to visit are December through February and June through September.

  • Zambia – located in Africa’s southern central region is the Republic of Zambia. As with Rwanda, this country is located below the equator so the seasons are opposite what they are in the northern hemisphere.

    The winter months of June through August are a great time to visit Zambia because the weather is dry and not overly hot. However, this is the best time to go on a game-viewing safari as well.

Eastern Africa:

  • kenya safariKenya – the east African country of Kenya encompasses a coastline along the Indian Ocean, the Great Rift Valley, lakelands, mountains highlands, and savannahs. It is also abundant with wildlife such as elephants, lions, and rhinos.

    The best safari weather occurs during the months of January through March while the high season occurs from June to September. However, it is seen as a year-round destination due to its temperate weather.

  • Seychelles – this Indian Ocean archipelago lies 932 miles (1,500 km) off the east African mainland and is comprised of 115 islands. As the islands lie just south of the Equator, the weather is typically beach-perfect and warm throughout the year. With its population of just over 90,000 residents, the Seychelles are Africa’s smallest state.

    December through April is typically the hottest months while January and February are the wettest. From a safari standpoint, the Seychelles differ from the other destinations listed here in that honeymoon adventures into the wild are very popular.

  • tanzania safariTanzania – sharing its northern border with Kenya and recognized for its vast wilderness is the east African country of Tanzania. It is the home of Mt. Kilimanjaro, Africa’s highest mountain and the national park of the same name. You can experience the safari Mecca of Serengeti National Park and witness buffalo, elephants, leopards, lions, and rhinos in their natural glory.

    The best time to see the Tanzanian wildlife is during the months of June through October (the dry season) with June and July being the optimum time to witness the wildebeest migration.

  • Uganda – because it lies within the basin of the mighty Nile River, Uganda has an equatorial climate. The country features 10 national parks and 60 protected areas. Lake Victoria, which is shared with Kenya and Tanzania, occupies most of the southern portion of the country.

    The dry seasons of December through February and June through August are the best times to go on game-viewing safaris and witness primate walks.

Southern Africa:

  • Botswana – May through September is the dry, winter season and the best time to plan a safari in Botswana. This may be Africa’s priciest destination due to the government’s penchant for high-end tourism. However, the country is characterized by smaller safari crowds than other African destinations.

    Although luxury safaris abound, Botswana has its fair share of national parks such as Chobe, Moremi, and the Okavango Delta to explore. Abundant numbers of buffalo, crocodiles, hippos, zebras, and a number of other animals can be seen in the tangled islands and waterways of the delta.

  • namibia safariNamibia – bordering Botswana to the west, the country of Namibia has remained under the radar as far as safaris go. You won’t see the upscale game parks that you do in the other countries mentioned here. However, the landscape is dotted with a number of natural wonders including Etosha National Park, Fish River Canyon, the Namib Desert, and Skeleton Coast National Park with its arid landscape (oftentimes referred to as the driest place on Earth).

    The months of June through October are typically the driest and the best times for viewing the wildlife, especially in Etosha National Park.

  • South Africa – considered by many to be the most popular safari destination on the entire continent, the nation of South Africa is well-known for its modern, well-organized tourism infrastructure. Kruger National Park is the best known of Africa’s protected areas and is recognized as having a most impressive array of animals. Additionally, the park is located within the boundaries of the world’s largest conservation area.

    May through September are the best months to visit South Africa and its national parks. As this is the dry season, wildlife will be seen in abundant numbers near rivers and watering holes.

  • Zimbabwe – this landlocked southern African country is known for its diverse wildlife and dramatic landscape, much of which can be seen within its many parks, reserves, and safari destinations. You can see Victoria Falls plunge over 350 feet (108 meters) into the Batoka Gorge of the Zambezi River or try bungee jumping and whitewater rafting if you’re the more adventurous type.

    You can visit Zimbabwe just about any month of the year and just like South Africa, the best time for viewing game as they congregate near rivers and watering holes is the dry season of May through September/October.

With nearly 11.7 million square miles of land area, Africa is the world’s 2nd largest continent. Only Asia is larger and the many safari opportunities that exist span thousands of miles. In reality, the best time to visit these African destinations is going to be a matter of personal preference. Overall, your best bet will be to go on safari during the dry season. But keep in mind this is also when it will cost more as it is the peak tourism season.

Vaccinations needed when traveling to Africa

In order to ensure that your safari is a memorable experience filled with a lifetime of positive memories, advanced planning is a must. This includes careful consideration of physical health precautions. I recommend that you consult with a physician that specializes in travel medicine when planning your African safari. Additionally, the CDC (Centers for Disease Control) provides information regarding essential and routine vaccinations for Africa as well as all destinations. Keep in mind that there is an elevated risk of contracting a disease the longer you stay in a particular country:

Essential vaccinations – there are 4 vaccinations that the CDC recommends when traveling to any country in Africa. These include Hepatitis A, Hepatitis B, typhoid, and yellow fever and you must have all of these before leaving the US. Every country in Africa poses a high risk of Hepatitis A while the highest risk for Hepatitis B is in the sub-Saharan region.

Routine vaccinations – before you travel to Africa, you need to make sure that your routine vaccinations are all current and up to date. This includes the following:

  • chickenpox
  • DPT (diphtheria, pertussis and tetanus).
  • influenza
  • measles
  • MMR (measles, mumps and rubella)
  • polio

While these diseases are typically not a concern in Europe, the UK, and the US, there is a higher prevalence and risk of them on the African continent. So be sure that you are current on these before you depart.

Other vaccinations – your health care provider may recommend other vaccinations depending on where you are going and what you are planning to do while on safari. If you’re going to be in close proximity to wild animals, spend most of your time in rural areas, or stay in Africa for an extended length of time, a pre-exposure rabies vaccine may be recommended. Additionally, you should consider getting a meningitis vaccine if you’re planning on exploring the “meningitis belt” (runs east to west just north of the Equator) during epidemics and during the months of December through June (the “dry” season).

According to the CDC, you should schedule your vaccinations 4 to 6 weeks prior to departing while consulting with your physician or a travel medicine specialist. Furthermore, some vaccinations do not provide immunity immediately while others are best administered as a series of injections. The bottom line is that a vaccination that is not given within the time frame above but is administered just prior to leaving home is still better than none at all.

Additional Health Tips

With the threat of serious disease and nasty infections being all around you, be prepared for the possibility of something going wrong. It may never happen. But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t take steps to protect your health and well-being. While you are on safari:

  • keep your exposed skin covered with insect repellent day and night
  • only wear white, loose-fitting clothing
  • sleep under mosquito nets for added protection

Visa Requirements

Obviously, a passport is going to be required if you are traveling to Africa. You can apply for your passport at a Passport Acceptance Facility. However, there are a number of countries in Africa that also require a visa. Of the 10 countries listed above under “Where to Go”, there may be visa requirements that you must adhere to such as those in Kenya and Tanzania. The US Department of State website has all of the necessary information on visas. You should apply for your visa 8 weeks prior to departing for Africa.

Playing it Safe

safari safetyWhen you mention African Safari to the average individual who has never experienced this type of adventure, they usually conjure up thoughts of becoming a meal for a hungry crocodile or getting mauled by a pack of starving lions. In reality, wild animals rarely attack humans.

In most cases, there is a greater chance that you will be the victim of a criminal act, dehydration, illness, or a safari scam rather than falling prey to an animal. The following are some additional personal safety precautions to be aware of.

The most commonly asked question about safaris is usually “is it safe?” Overall, they are exceptionally safe, provided you follow a few simple rules and use common sense. In doing so, you should be able to enjoy your safari and even relax throughout your adventure.

Although the animals have grown used to the presence of humans and their vehicles, your guide will still have a loaded firearm on-board.

If you are on a self-drive safari, NEVER put yourself in danger by leaving your vehicle. Granted, spotting big game can easily be the thrill of a lifetime. Just don’t be foolish about it.

No matter where in central, eastern, or southern Africa that your safari takes you, you should always follow these 4 simple rules to ensure your safety:

  • Rule #1: Whether you are in an SUV, truck, or van, STAY IN IT! These regions are not a gigantic petting zoo. Africa’s wild animals may consider you as lunch, and wily predators may not make themselves visible until it’s too late.  In many cases, when you or someone else gets out of their vehicle, there is a good chance of things ending badly.
  • Rule #2: Be as quiet as possible. You wouldn’t want to miss the photographic opportunity of a lifetime would you? Then don’t scare the animals off by talking loudly.
  • Rule #3: If you are hiking or walking during your safari, be constantly aware of your surroundings and never turn your back on an animal when you see them. Lions go after whatever runs away from them so don’t be the prey and run away.
  • Rule #4: Pay attention to your safari guide at all times. For instance, if they tell you to back up or move away, then DO IT.

These rules are not that difficult to follow. Just be aware that they may change somewhat from one safari destination to the next. After all, the goal is to come home in the same condition as when you left. Oh, and keep your eye out for monkeys that typically frequent Africa’s many tourist gathering spots because they know that humans oftentimes have food.

A Brief Word about Travel Insurance

Purchasing travel insurance is essential whenever you are traveling internationally. This is especially true when going on safari in Africa. There is plenty of information online where African safari travel insurance coverage is concerned. Some safari tour operators will even require that you have it before purchasing one of their tour packages. Remember, it’s better to have travel insurance and not need it rather than needing it when you don’t have it.

Avoiding Safari Scams

Every African country has had its fair share of con artists, fraudulent activities, and safari scams. For instance, people will pose as law enforcement officials and either falsely accuse you of a crime or arrest you on a trumped up charge. They are looking for a bribe in most cases. Some people will pose as orphans, refugees, or students and try to con you out of your money with a sob story. Don’t fall for this.

Online safari scams are fairly common so be sure that you research any safari package deal thoroughly. Don’t be afraid to ask for their credentials or to see their membership certificate from any professional organization they belong to such as the ASTA (American Society of Travel Agents) or the USTOA (United States Tour Operators Association). You should also read online safari travel reviews at websites such as Fodor’s, Lonely Planet, or Trip Advisor. The key is to remember the old adage “if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.”