An African safari is a bucket list item for many nature and animal lovers. Those who do get to go consistently say they've experienced the trip of a lifetime. Making a few major choices up front will help ensure the same is true for you. Choosing where to go, understanding what you should expect to see, knowing what to bring, and how to prepare for an African excursion: these are the keys. We'll outline each of those for you here.
The Big 5
Many have heard the expression "The Big 5" which refers to the 5 types of game animals hunters in the "old days" used to trawl for.
Nowadays, the shooting is done exclusively with cameras, as it is forbidden to bring firearms on almost all safaris, and, in most cases, the animals are protected by strong anti-poaching laws. However, photography is strongly encouraged, as is having up close encounters (without touching) the wildlife.
The Big 5 include the lion, elephant, leopard, buffalo, and rhinoceros. Many game reserves in Africa have all 5 and many, many more mammals, reptiles, and birds to see. When choosing a safari, you should make sure the animals you'd like to see are in fact likely to be there (spoiler alert: there are no tigers in Africa).
Most safaris last more than a day, ranging from 2-5 days on average. In order to ensure you get the most out of your experience, you should go for a multi-day tour. Although safari guides are experienced and often know where various species like to hang out, it is difficult to predict exactly where they will be at any given time, which makes the search all the more exciting.
Where to go
The choice of where to go involves 3 decisions: which country, which game reserve, and which resort or accommodation style? Let's break these down:
Many countries in Africa have wonderful wildlife reserves where safaris are offered. The best countries include: Tanzania, Botswana, Kenya, Zambia, South Africa, and Namibia. Of course, there are other countries too, but these are a good start and the highest-rated by visitors.
Choosing your country can and should be influenced by how you'll get there, vaccination requirements, and available infrastructure. South Africa is a very good choice due to major and notably modern international airports, lower vaccination requirements, and a relatively well-developed infrastructure (in the unlikely event you may need serious medical attention).
Choosing a game reserve will depend more on what you're looking for. If you're interested in a quick experience and would like to combine your trip with a visit to major attractions like Victoria Falls or the Cape Town wine region, there are game reserves in or near those destinations. Hwange National Park near Victoria Falls, and Inverdoorn Game Reserve near Cape Town are examples.
If you want the full immersive experience, nothing comes close to Kruger National Park. It is the largest and likely most complete in terms of wildlife. Because it is a National Park (actually spanning the borders of 3 countries), it has somewhat stricter rules regarding game drives. Tourist jeeps are required to stay on the roads for the safety of the animals and tourists. Some private game reserves such as Sabi Sand Game Reserve have more relaxed rules and allow game wardens to bring you closer to the animals. Sabi Sands is attached to the southern tip of Kruger Park and has an open border, so the animals in both areas are the same.
Accommodation ranges from "glamping" style tents (well-equipped tents with shared outdoor bathrooms) to more luxurious cottages that include air conditioning and ensuite bathrooms. Most safaris are sold as a package which includes: park entry, 2 or 3 daily guided game drives, and full meal service. It is not possible to wander around on your own and you must always be with a licensed and trained game warden. This is for your safety and protection of the wildlife.
Safaris can range from $700 to $1,200 per night (based on double occupancy) depending on the reserve, the resort and the accommodation level.
What to expect every day
If you book a multi-day safari, each day will be structured similarly.
Early wake up times allow for tourists to get hot coffee or tea (expect good quality) and a hot breakfast. Some days may only include a quick morning snack to take advantage of sunrise. If this is the case, a full breakfast is usually scheduled for when you return from your first game drive.
Most days will have a morning and an afternoon drive into the park. Some evening drives, depending on your location, may take advantage of sunset and certain animal behaviors. You will likely be sharing an open-air jeep with 4 to 10 other people. There will usually be a driver and a spotter at the front of the jeep. They are there to find animals and keep you safe. It's important to listen carefully to instructions and rules to help ensure the safety and enjoyment of the group. The spotter will usually carry a firearm for rare emergencies, but will almost never take it out.
You may be able to hike into certain areas of some parks, but it'll be nothing too strenuous, and it's always optional. Most people can enjoy a safari regardless of their mobility, but be sure to inform your tour provider in advance if you need special accommodation.
You can expect your days to be full of adventure, and your evenings full of celebration. Meeting new people and sharing stories (or photos) of the day is common. Drinks are readily available (only after the last game drive), but are usually above and beyond the cost of your package.
Since the only things you can take home from an African safari are memories, you are encouraged to bring a camera. If you're not a professional photographer, that's okay. Don't worry about bringing too much bulky equipment - leave that for the pros!
If you think you need a zoom or telephoto lens to capture a great picture of a big lion, you'd be mistaken! You will likely be 15-50 feet from most of the animals, so a moderate amount of zoom is all you need. Most of the photos will be daytime shots, so there's no need for a flash (it's also forbidden). Tripods are also not likely needed unless you're taking photos from the resort lodge, as there is not really a good place to use one from the jeep.
Leaving the jeep (even to get a good photo) is never allowed. The best advice is to have a camera that you have used before so that you are familiar with the important features. Smartphone cameras from the last year or two have excellent cameras for daytime photography, so it may be possible to "get away" with that and still impress your friends with high quality photos.
When sitting in the jeep, you'll have to be courteous to others so that everyone has an opportunity to point and shoot. Most of the time, everyone has the chance to take a great picture. But bee careful with selfie sticks: they may not be allowed on the game drive, as objects protruding from the jeep can appear to taunt the wildlife. And you don't want to taunt the wildlife, do you?
What to bring
You are definitely going to want clothing you can layer, rain gear, sun protection, a hat, and several pairs of closed-toe shoes. Wearing light earth-toned colors is preferred, as it attracts less attention from the animals.
Bring any toiletries and homey comforts you can't do without because you won't find a Walmart or a Western drug store on your safari. Pack your medications in your carry-on along with a change of clothes. Your camera - along with extra batteries and a charger as well as a universal power plug adapter to charge your gadgets - is a must. Even within Africa, electrical outlets in different countries are not standardized.
In addition to your required bug spray, don't forget a high SPF for your face and arms. It's possible most of the year to wear shorts on daytime drives, but long pants are recommended if you'll be bush walking. Night drives tend to get chilly very quickly, so bring along a sweater or a light jacket.
Please check your government's website for visa requirements. Many countries have a visa waiver program, but not all, and this changes from time to time. You will need to carry with you (preferably at all times) your passport (valid for at least 6 months past your last day of travel) and your yellow inoculation card.
Health and safety
Depending on which country you visit and at which time of year, you will definitely have to take precautions for your health and safety. At least 6 months before your trip, you should check your government travel website to find out which vaccines you'll need. Your doctor can also find this information if you tell them specifically which countries you'll be in and for how long. Possible vaccines you may need include: Yellow Fever, Typhoid, Cholera, Hepatitis A & B, Rabies, MMR, and prophylaxis for Malaria. You will need to bring a "yellow inoculation card" on your travels to prove to local authorities that you are not a risk to carry disease into or out of African countries.
Every traveler is responsible for bringing any medications they may need for the trip. It's important to bring an extra supply in case you're delayed for some reason. Access to medical facilities in Africa is different than in North America or Europe.
Mosquito repellent is seasonally required, but if you're going in spring, summer or fall (remember the seasons in the southern hemisphere are opposite from the north!) you should definitely have strong mosquito repellent rated for high risk areas. Most accommodations will provide mosquito netting over beds as an added precaution.
All of the food and drink provided on the resort is geared to foreign tourists, and is safe to consume. But any time you're off the resort, or in bathrooms, consider the water unsafe to drink.
Check your health insurance to make sure it includes travel coverage, or purchase separate travel health insurance. Many safari packages will require proof of this.
Choosing a time of year to go on safari is important. The best months for wildlife viewing are April to September. The weather is better at the beginning and end of this period in terms of temperatures and the chance of rain. Choosing the latter half of that time will ensure shorter grass on the savanna (it will have all been eaten) and easier access to more animals. If you're lucky enough to be around for the "Great Migration" towards the end of that time, you'll enjoy watching millions of animals moving to where water and food are available. November is a quieter time to go, but pleasant weather and fewer crowds are a benefit.
When booking your travel to Africa, there are plenty of good airline choices. Airports such as Johannesburg, Cape Town, or Nairobi are desirable for their regularly scheduled and western style flights. From one of those airports, you can expect a shorter internal flight, or a bus transfer. Have your safari tour book these transfers for you, or be fully aware of the details if you do it yourself. Renting a car and traveling on your own is discouraged, as there is little or no highway infrastructure to most game reserves. You should expect a several hour, intermittently bumpy ride. Note that smaller internal flights may have more strict luggage restrictions than international flights.
While in Africa, consider taking advantage of one of the other wonderful attractions for a few days before your safari. This will allow you to adjust to the time change (and season change) and reduce the risks caused by flight delays.
You will likely pay for your safari using a major credit card. Bringing cash is advised only for emergencies (don't bring more than a couple hundred dollars), but do change some money to the local currency prior to your trip for tipping. Although this is not required or expected, it is certainly appreciated. A guideline for your driver and guide would be $10 a day (local currency equivalent), a few dollars per day for your accommodation staff and restaurant staff. Most resorts will have a communal tip jar to be shared among the staff.