Just mention the word "safari" and you'll hear people swoon. The chance to glide across the African savannah at sunrise, at one with nature and the world's most majestic animals, is a travel dream come true. And I can attest to the fact that it's indeed just as good as you can imagine.
Having spent a week on a rustic camping safari in Botswana, as well as participating in game drives in Zambia, my love of lions and elephants has never been stronger! And, thankfully, my packing list of long, loose clothing, ample baby wipes, sunscreen, and bug spray served me very well.
However, there were several items I desperately wished I had tossed in my pack, along with several items I brought along at the last minute, scarcely imagining how useful they would be. Here are 5 indispensable, unexpected items that deserve a spot on every safari packing list.
1. An old-fashioned handkerchief
Many safari preparation lists suggest that you bring a gel-filled neck coolers. You've probably seen them before -- they're long, thin fabric strips that are filled with a special kind of gel beads. You simply soak it in water and the gel beads absorb the cool moisture, sending a pleasant blast of chilly air around your neck. There's just one problem with these neck coolers. (Okay, there are actually several!) They're great in theory but they're really a one trick pony. They can indeed cool your neck but that's it. You can't use them for anything else.
Meanwhile, the humble handkerchief does a superb job of cooling your body. Just roll it up, soak it in water, give it a squeeze, and drape it around your neck just like the specialty cooler. But its usefulness doesn't end there. You can use it as a brow mop when you're sweaty or a facecloth when you're camping rough. In a pinch, it's a head cover, a headband, or a ponytail holder, and it can easily be tied around your backpack strap to make your gear more distinctive. Handkerchiefs also do a great job of protecting your face from dust, of cleaning your sunglasses, and even can be tied around your arm or leg to reinforce a bandage if you get scrapped.
After some 40 degree nights in Chobe National Park, my personal favourite use of a handkerchief is to soak it in water, wring it out, and place it on your stomach to cool your entire body when you're trying to sleep. Game changer!
2. A small container of eye drops
Thank goodness for kind travel companions, for this was one lesson I learned the hard way! After three days of game drives in Chobe National Park, my eyes were BURNING. The combination of the bright sun by day and serious squinting during the evening game drives was enough to aggravate me. Add in the endless fine dust kicked up by the safari Land Rover and my eyes were constantly stinging.
Thankfully, a member of my tour had a nifty box of individual-use eye drops which saved me from misery. Her generosity couldn't have come at a better time, for the next day we headed across a series of salt pans in a windstorm. Talk about a sight for sore eyes! I'll never travel without eye drops again.
3. Your favourite instant drink
Are you a fan of basic instant coffee and plain black tea? Good news -- you're going to love your safari tea breaks! But if you prefer a higher quality coffee, a sweet herbal tea, or perhaps some creamy hot chocolate on a damp morning, take note. With the exception of luxury lodges, many safari companies only provide cheap, bitter, instant coffee and tea bags as refreshment on the mid-morning break.
It's not the worst set up in the world and there's usually plenty of sugar, real milk, and some kind of cookie on the side. But the poor quality coffee can get very old, very fast when you're on a multi-day trip and struggling with the effects of the 5:00 a.m. wake up calls. At least it did for me! I would have done anything for some lemon zinger or peppermint tea bags, and I cherished the two packages of instant pumpkin spice latte mix I had stashed in my bag. Alas, they were used up all too fast. Meanwhile, my husband swears that his sanity was saved by a handful of instant coffee samples from an upscale coffee chain. I've vowed to never travel again without some of my favourite pick-me-ups again as they were so welcome on safari. I only wish I had packed more!
4. A small headlamp
You might feel downright silly packing a headlamp, and even more so wearing one. But when it comes time to walk from your chalet to the safari lodge at night -- and hippos are about -- you'll be thrilled to have a little light to illuminate your path! A headlamp will also come in handy on early morning game drives when you're trying to make your way to the meeting point, and they're a lifesaver for rustic camping safaris when you have to make your way to a bush toilet in the middle of the night. (You definitely don't want to be using your smartphone as a light then! I know I was terrified I would drop all my valuables.)
Any travel or outdoors store will sell a variety of headlamps. Many are very expensive and cater to serious hikers and mountaineers. For the safari-bound casual traveler, the least expensive model which you find comfortable will do a fine job. Mine cost less than $10 and has had my back through countless power outages around the world. I was thrilled to have it by my side in Botswana and Zambia.
5. A lightweight, water-resistant jacket
A safari vest may have fantastic nostalgic appeal, but for the vast majority of travellers, it's an outdated piece of travel gear. Do you really need half a dozen pockets? Do you truly think you'll be making field notes, looking through your binoculars, and applying sunscreen at the same time? A far more practical and versatile piece of gear is a lightweight, water-resistant jacket.
Mine is little more than a nylon shell, packing up into an incredibly small bag only to be spring forward at a moment's notice when the sky is overcast or there's a chill in the air during an evening game drive. Compared to the classic safari vest, it's smaller, lighter, more versatile, and pulls its weight during the rain. The snug hood traps the heat from my head when the temperature drops and it's roomy enough to layer a couple of extra shirts underneath it. I was always thrilled to have it with me and never regretted leaving the safari vest behind -- and you won't either!
We hope these tips help you plan a magical and memorable safari. Give the giraffes our regards!