The sun has gone down and we are standing, drinks in hand, on a friend’s verandah in Zambia’s South Luangwa National Park. As we turn to go inside, a small group of impala antelopes suddenly runs past. Hot on their heels are three African wild dogs. We can hear noises in the bushes but can see nothing. Wondering what is going on, we stand and listen as the wild dogs close in for the kill, and we hear the impala’s final breaths. Fortunately for us, another guest at that evening’s sundowners is a private safari guide, so we get the opportunity to explore the night’s incident a lot closer. Grabbing some flashlights and following James’ safety instructions, we set off on foot to take a closer look.
Single file, with James in the lead, we approach the “kill zone.” A low growl in the bushes alerts James to the presence of a leopard and he carefully steers us around it. Getting closer, he spots two hyenas, opportunistic scavengers, angling for a bite. Finally, we get close enough to see the glint of the wild dog’s eyes reflecting in the flashlight’s glare, and we hear the crunch of bones as they devour their kill. We decide we’ve seen enough and head back to the verandah and safety. It’s not every day you have an encounter like that, and if we’d been alone, without the skills and knowledge that James has acquired over the years, there is no way we could have approached such dangerous animals so closely.
But going on safari with a private guide is not just about getting you up close to wildlife; a private safari guide’s role is so much more than that.
What is a Private Safari?
So, what actually is a private safari? It sounds expensive! But does it have to break the bank? Some private safaris are indeed incredibly expensive, but with the right planning, a private safari could cost less and give you more. Private safaris mean different things to different people, often depending on the size of a person’s bank account. Some might choose to fly to Africa in their private jet and stay at ultra-expensive lodges or hotels. But it doesn’t have to be this way. A privately guided safari can help you make the most of your safari time, and ensure that you experience the safari that dreams are made of.
Generally speaking, there are two main types of safaris: tailored (private) and scheduled. Both offer a holiday with various inclusions (meals, accommodation, activities, transfers, etc.) and offer varied “comfort” levels and “extras.” The biggest difference between tailored and scheduled is how much freedom you will have to choose what happens when you are actually on safari, and the other people with whom you’ll share your experience. This is where choosing a private safari comes into its own.
2. Family and Friends
A private safari can be the ideal choice for families or groups of friends traveling together. With your own guide, who has planned your itinerary specifically with your group in mind, you can be sure that things will go the way you want them to. There will be no worrying about fitting in with other guests for mealtimes or activities; this is especially true if your group is a multi-generational one, and you want to take children or grandchildren into consideration.
At the other end of the spectrum, older travelers or safari-goers with mobility challenges can also benefit from having a tailor-made trip with a private guide on hand to smooth the way. I recently met a guide escorting a group of American travelers through South Africa, Botswana, and Zambia. Most of the group were in their late 60s and early 70s, and one traveler was wheelchair-bound. Their guide ensured that the less sprightly of the guests had bedrooms closer to the main section of the lodge. One guest had recently had a knee replacement and he was delighted not to have to shuffle to the ends of the earth just to get to bed! When other guests went out on a rhino walk, special permission was obtained for the paraplegic guest to be carefully driven close enough to the rhino, ensuring he missed none of the action his more able-bodied traveling companions experienced.
3. Personal Interests
Whilst sharing your safari experience with a few other guests is normal and often great fun, when you choose a private guided safari you get the advantages of focusing on your own special interests (like birding or photography). A private safari affords you the opportunity to hunt for that elusive animal without worrying about schedules and timetables, and the flexibility to linger over attractions that interest you most.
A passionate and professional private guide will share their years of experience and knowledge. They will draw on their practical knowledge of local flora, fauna, and animal behavior to shape your game viewing activities around your specific interests. A private guide will ensure you are in the right place at the right time to capture that once-in-a-lifetime image, and can really add an extra dimension to your safari.
I met a German traveler in Zimbabwe’s Mana Pools National Park who was obsessed with African wild dogs. He had come on safari alone, determined to spend two weeks photographing these amazing animals. African Bush Camps, who he was staying with, had allocated him a personal guide and vehicle, ensuring he could spend hours each day capturing incredible images.
I asked James Duncan-Anderson, a private guide who owns and operates Wild N’ Beyond Safaris in Zambia, how he would best describe a private safari, and this is what he had to say:
“A private guided safari allows both seasoned safari lovers and safari ‘newbies’ to go at their own pace and experience their own journey. A private safari is a fantastic way to enjoy what you really want from your safari without having to worry about mixing experiences or not being with like-minded people.
For me, tailor-making a trip to fit the needs of a guest, means building a relationship with both the environment and your guest. It is a richly rewarding experience. Being a private guide allows me to set up trips that include some of the best locations, to fit with exactly what my guest is looking for. It also allows me to be right there holding their hand throughout the trip making sure it is always running smoothly and in the direction that they want it to go.”
An Outing With A Private Guide
Let’s end with a morning out with James and his guests in Zambia’s Kafue National Park:
It’s a cool winter’s morning and the gentle call of “good morning” comes from outside the luxury tent. The sun isn’t up, the air is crisp, and a pale dawn light seeps into the room. After a light breakfast by the campfire, it’s time to set off on the day’s adventure. The plan is a walking safari, hoping to find elephants whilst out on foot. The beauty of finding elephants when out walking is the opportunity to quietly sit and observe these magnificent creatures, free from the confines of a vehicle, but in a safe manner, where neither party is disturbed.
The sun has been up for an hour, but there’s still a chill in the air and moisture on the ground, perfect conditions for early morning tracking. There are dark marks on the grass, where elephants have passed earlier. James knows how to read the signs. Excitement builds as a fresh elephant trail is found. The prints and gait suggest a large bull elephant. An armed scout is in the lead and gently pushes forward.
James looks back at his guests, preparing them for an encounter with the world’s largest land mammal. He whispers to them to keep close, not talk, and, for now, to take no photos.
A gentle breeze blows towards the group, and the morning sun is on their backs: perfect conditions for an elephant encounter on foot. James points forward, through the grass and fallen trees. The group hears a swishing sound as the elephant beats clumps of grass against his underside, shaking dirt from the roots, before lifting it to his mouth. The group is less than 50 meters away from the elephant and he has no idea they are there. They sit for a while in the shade of a tall ebony tree, gazing at the elephant in awe. The scars on his ears and a broken tusk tell of a hard and long life. Moments like this are to be cherished, but it’s important not to outstay your welcome. The group retreats, leaving the elephant in peace, knowing they will have an amazing tale to tell.
At some camps, lodges, and parks, it is possible to hire specialist “private guides” to take you on specific activities or even to host you throughout your entire safari. Another alternative is to hire a professional guide to host you throughout your entire time on safari. Whilst it may not suit everyone, going on safari with a private guide can ensure your trip is truly memorable.