I was 11 when my parents took me on my first safari. We traveled from Australia to Zimbabwe for what was to be the most memorable and life-changing of family holidays. I fell in love with safari life. I fell in love with Africa. I still remember my first game drive, first elephant, first rhino, first giraffes and zebras. Returning to Australia, I wept inconsolably to my father, telling him how much I longed to be back in Africa. He made all the right fatherly “noises,” assuring me that one day I would return to Africa and go on safari again. Little did he know that 10 years later, I would indeed be back in Africa, and this time I would make it my home.
I have been on countless safaris. I have worked in safari lodges. I have traveled extensively through Southern, Central, and Eastern Africa. As a travel writer, I am probably on safari, somewhere in Africa, 10 times a year. I have never lost my love for the wide-open spaces, the bush, and all the wonderful creatures in it.
Your first safari can be a daunting experience, but with a little research and a bit of advice, it can be the most memorable journey you ever make.
Why Go On An African Safari
Safari life is vast horizons, open skies, immersing yourself in the wilderness, getting up close and personal with wildlife, meeting people of different cultures and ways of life, and contributing to the conservation of the very places and animals you’ve come to see.
You may have seen a lion or elephant in an enclosure at a zoo or in a wildlife documentary on the National Geographic channel, but there is a world of difference when you come upon a herd of elephants or a pride of lions in their natural habitat with no fences between you and no commercial breaks to interrupt the action.
A safari is a chance to experience African cultures. Whether through traditional foods that might appear on the menu or perhaps interacting with local tribespeople, safaris can leave you with a new perspective on life as you witness different ways of living.
Tourism is essential to conservation. It generates much-needed income to fund conservation efforts. Park fees contribute to conservation funding, local communities see the financial benefits of conservation, and the presence of tourists also serves as a deterrent to poachers.
Going on safari is a break from the hustle and bustle of daily life, it’s a change of scenery, an adventure, and maybe even a culture shock. As the sun rises over the Serengeti or sinks below the horizon in the Okavango, you will catch your breath and embrace the silence of these moments, knowing that they will remain in your memory long after you have returned home.
Where And When To Go
Africa is an enormous continent with a great many countries to visit, each with its own charms and attractions.
As a general rule, the continent is warm and sunny throughout the year. But different countries, and even regions within those countries, experience a variety of climates and weather conditions. When it comes to safaris, the best time to travel depends very much on the destination you’ve chosen. Generally, it’s best to go during the dry season, when water is scarce and animals tend to gather in the places where the water hasn’t dried up. Dirt roads are also easier to navigate during the dry season, and so you can expect to see a lot more animals during “the dry.” Note though, that since the dry season is considered peak season for safaris, it will likely come with a heftier price tag. If you’re expecting to observe wildlife migration, be sure to also take the time of the year into consideration. Here are five African safari destinations for first-timers to consider:
1. Kruger National Park, South Africa
For many travelers, South Africa means Kruger National Park, the oldest and most popular park in Africa. Kruger offers a high chance of spotting the “Big Five” animals (lion, leopard, elephant, rhino, and buffalo), but aside from these animals, 200 species of mammals, as well as more than 500 species of birds, can be found here. Kruger is the most popular park in South Africa, and many choose to combine a safari here with visiting Cape Town or driving along the Garden Route.
Kruger is a good choice for a family safari. It can be challenging to find safaris that offer enough activities for the kids whilst still being an easily accessible location, but Kruger fits the requirements perfectly. The area is almost entirely malaria-free, has excellent roads, and many lodges have a children’s play area, nanny service, and child-friendly activities. In addition, many lodges offer Junior Ranger programs where children learn to track animals.
The best time to go on a Kruger safari is June to September (dry season).
2. The Great Wildebeest Migration
If there’s only one safari you can plan during your lifetime, it should be a Great Migration safari, which can be enjoyed in Ndutu Plains in Serengeti National Park, Tanzania, or along the Mara River in Masai Mara National Park, Kenya. The Wildebeest Migration circles from Tanzania to Southern Kenya and back and is one of the world’s most magnificent natural events. During the course of the year, and covering 1,800 miles, herds of over a million wildebeest, as well as thousands of gazelle and zebra, cross crocodile-infested rivers to reach greener pastures. Prides of lions often follow the herds, as do cheetahs, wild dogs, and hyenas, all making attempts to take down vulnerable members of the herd. If you’re lucky, you might even see a wildebeest or zebra giving birth.
There are numerous points to observe this mass wildebeest movement, but the most recommended spots are the Mara River on the plains of the Masai Mara National Park, and the Ndutu Plains of Tanzania’s Serengeti.
The precise timing is dependent upon rainfall patterns each year, meaning you can see different aspects at different times: the mass birthing of calves between January and March in the southern Serengeti and river crossings between July and August. The best time to go to Tanzania for a Wildebeest Migration safari in the Serengeti is July to October. For the Wildebeest Migration in the Masai Mara, you need to be there between June and November.
3. The Okavango Delta, Botswana
A World Heritage Site, the Okavango Delta is a vast and virtually untouched freshwater wetland in the heart of Botswana's arid Kalahari Desert. Home to huge numbers of plains game, plus unusual antelope like puku, sitatunga, and red lechwe, the Okavango is good for game viewing all year round.
The Okavango Delta is one of Botswana’s most popular wildlife destinations. A combination of permanent wetlands and abundant resident wildlife means the delta is a year-round safari destination. June to August is high water season, with more moderate temperatures, and is the best time for boating and canoe safaris.
Hot and dry, September and October are also good months to visit the Okavango, as thirsty animals concentrate in enormous numbers on its fringes, while the November to April summer rainy season turns the Okavango Delta into a sensational bird-watching destination.
4. Victoria Falls (On The Border Between Zambia And Zimbabwe)
Victoria Falls is one of the Seven Natural Wonders of the World. Whilst it is neither the highest nor the widest waterfall in the world, Victoria Falls is classified as the world’s largest sheet of falling water, based on its width of 5,604 feet and height of 354 feet. The spray from the falls can be clearly seen from almost 20 miles away, hence its local name, Mosi-oa-Tunya, "the smoke that thunders."
On the Zambian side, the Victoria Falls is located within the Mosi-oa-Tunya National Park, and on the Zimbabwean side, it’s in Victoria Falls National Park, which means to see the entire length of falls, you will need to enter via two gates, in two different countries.
Around two-thirds of the falls lie in Zimbabwe, so if you are short on time, this is the side to visit. But while Zimbabwe might have more viewpoints, Zambia has a wilder feel and gets you right up close to the rushing water. If the Zambezi is in full flood (February to July) prepare to get thoroughly soaked as the spray comes at you from all directions. Downstream of the falls, the river has carved a tortuous zigzag route through the basalt rock for miles, making a fantastic place for white water rafting. There is a platform on the side of the Victoria Falls Bridge, in the no man’s land between Zambia and Zimbabwe, which is a popular place for bungee jumping.
Whether you stay in Zambia or Zimbabwe, I’d recommend seeing both sides of the falls, which, thanks to the introduction of the KAZA UNIVISA, is easy. A single visa covers Zambia, Zimbabwe, and day trips to Chobe National Park in Botswana, costs $50 USD, and is available to about 40 nationalities including British, Americans, and Australians.
5. Gorilla Trekking, Rwanda
Rwanda is a country of outstanding natural beauty and is a great place to go on a gorilla trekking safari. Gorilla trekking in Rwanda is a year-round activity. But as you're hiking through the rainforests, the drier and cooler months of January and February and June to September are recommended.
There is a reason why it’s called gorilla trekking. There is no way to predict where the gorillas will be on any given day. You need to come prepared for anything, from a 15-minute walk in the jungle to six hours of tortuous trekking. Mountain gorillas are wild animals. They cover a wide territory, and the guides have to rely on their tracking skills and not GPS tags. Keep in mind that the trek is in a jungle, so being fairly fit is a good idea! But, it’s all worth it, as spotting a gorilla in the wild can be a life-changing experience.
Whilst gorilla trekking permits are more expensive than in neighboring Uganda, Rwanda is perfect for a short safari. Volcanoes National Park is only a two-hour drive from Kigali International Airport, and the trek is generally less physically demanding. July and August are right in the midst of Rwanda’s dry season (June to September) and very popular for gorilla trekking because of clear skies and sunny conditions. Keep in mind though that the gorilla’s rainforest habitat is very wet, and you can’t avoid rain completely.
The permits are currently a flat price, year-round, of $1,500 USD. So, when is the best time to go? Now, before it gets too expensive!
What To Expect
There are a few things first-time safari-goers should know before embarking on a big African adventure, no matter where they’re headed...
A safari does not have to break the bank. There is a common misconception that safaris are reserved for high-flyers or honeymooners. With careful research, you can find safari experiences that aren’t prohibitively expensive. As most lodges or camps will include your accommodation, meals, drinks, and guided experiences, a safari can actually be a good value.
2. Early Rising
The early bird catches the worm, so expect to get out of bed bright and early for optimal game viewing. Animals are most active at first light and again around dusk, meaning you can expect some very early starts to your game drives. Even if you're not a morning person, force yourself to be one for those early morning drives. You will usually be given tea or coffee and a few biscuits to start your day and will have breakfast when you return to camp after your drive.
Sundowners is a word you will happily become acquainted with on safari. These are the drinks you will enjoy during the golden hour as the sun sinks over the horizon, usually in a suitably picturesque and photogenic location.
4. Between Activities
On safari, there is always downtime. Between your morning and afternoon game drives you will have plenty of time to soak up your surroundings, relax, nap, or read. Dinners will often be served by the campfire -- a three-course meal under the stars followed by sitting around the fire swapping safari stories.
5. Manage Your Expectations
You're not guaranteed to see anything. There are no guarantees when it comes to safaris. We are talking about wild animals in huge national parks, most of the time without any fences or barriers to hamper their movements. While most animals do have a general territory that they stick to, it doesn't necessarily mean that you'll see them in it.
How To Prepare
Check far ahead of time to see if you need a visa. In some countries, you can get a visa on arrival, but others require you to have one ahead of time. Check the list of visa requirements of the country you are visiting on a reputable site. To ensure that you have ample time, it is advisable to apply at least 60 days prior to your travel date.
2. Vaccinations And Medicines
Make sure you have your shots and medications in order. You will usually need a few vaccinations as well as antimalarials and obviously any prescriptions. Vaccinations you will require usually include yellow fever, hepatitis A and B, and typhoid. Some vaccinations take several weeks to take full effect, so get your shots done way in advance. For more information on vaccines that are destination-specific, consult the Centers for Disease Control’s destination list. Speak to your GP or a travel medicine clinic three months in advance.
3. Travel Insurance
Get travel insurance! Buying full coverage, including trip cancelation insurance, is recommended. Comprehensive travel insurance is important for an African safari. Your adventures are likely to take you off the beaten track and away from easily accessible medical care. Should something happen, it is important to have a travel insurance plan that covers healthcare, lost or stolen luggage, and canceled or delayed flights. Whichever option you go for, make sure it covers all activities you plan on taking part in while you are in Africa.
3. What To Pack
Wondering what to wear? There are a few things to consider when dressing for the African bush. Morning game drives can be chilly, no matter the time of year, so pack some warm layers that you can peel off as the day starts to warm up. Avoid brightly colored clothing; stick to beige, green, and brown to blend in better to your surroundings. Sun protection is a must, so pack a good hat and sunglasses. Long pants and boots are essential if you are planning any trekking or walking. It’s also often a good idea to pack a swimsuit for by the pool in the heat of the day. Pack a sturdy pair of binoculars, they will make a huge difference to your trip. Last but not least, pack plenty of insect repellent and spray yourself liberally with it, especially at dusk.
4. Cameras And Photography
Be sure to bring a camera with extra memory cards, extra batteries, and/or a power pack to make sure you’ll be able to capture all the action.
A word of advice though, leave the dedicated wildlife photography and filming to NatGeo. Put the camera down occasionally and really absorb your experience. It will make the photos you do take that much more memorable.
More Pro Tips Before You Go
- When out on a game drive, keep your voice down. Don’t be the person hollering across the vehicle when everyone else is trying to keep quiet and avoid scaring off the animals.
- Go out on a night drive if you can, but don’t expect to get good pictures (unless you bring professional equipment). Night drives are the time to put the camera away and just watch.
- Bring a headlamp! You will use it every time you need to walk outside after dark, and maybe even for reading in bed.
By going on a safari, you will embark on the adventure of a lifetime, exploring faraway places surrounded by unique landscapes and spectacular wildlife. There are plenty of great reasons to go on a safari. Whether you want to see the Great Migration, get up close and personal with wildlife, take your family on a once-in-a-lifetime adventure, or just relax in nature, a safari in Africa will never disappoint.
Want more safari inspiration? Consider 9 Reasons To Experience A Safari On The Luxurious Zambezi Queen and the many ways in which this writer’s Tanzania bucket-list trip was worth the wait.