Heading off on your dream African safari? A safari is at the top of many people’s travel bucket lists, and for some, it’s taken a lifetime of saving to actualize the dream. A safari is unlike any other holiday, and being prepared will make all the difference. Here are nine common safari mistakes and what to do about them.
1. Lack Of Research And Preparation
Not all national parks, game reserves, and safari lodges are created equal. If checking off the “Big Five” is your priority, then you’ll be looking for a different destination than someone keen on birds. Do your homework first about things like the quality of game viewing, the qualifications of the guiding team, and the standard of accommodation. Compare itineraries from different operators and choose the one that suits you.
As a general rule, you get what you pay for — from the number of other guests in the game drive vehicle to the quality of the whole experience. You also want to be able to sleep well, eat well, and enjoy a nice hot shower, so don’t cut back on costs or you’ll make yourself miserable.
2. Not Packing Smartly
Of all the mistakes people make when going on safari, packing is the most common one. Judging by the size and number of some of the bags I’ve seen, you’d be forgiven for thinking the owner was moving to Africa for life! So, don’t pack more, rather pack smart!
Avoid bright colors like red and pink, khaki-colored clothing, or neutral tones of dark green, brown, and beige work best. White stands out more than any other color in the bush so it isn’t suitable for safari activities, and remember blue and black are also best avoided in areas where tzetze (biting) flies are common, as they are attracted to those colors.
Don’t forget good walking shoes, a sun hat, sunscreen, sunglasses, your camera, and, of course, a good pair of binoculars. Make sure you pack for the season — it’s the southern hemisphere, and the middle months of the year are winter, so it can be cold in the early morning and at night. Layers are key. Also, remember that most safaris take place in remote areas where there are no shops. Remember to stock up on any items, especially medications, you may need.
3. Expecting To See Animals At Every Turn
Contrary to popular belief, animals are not everywhere. Keep in mind this is the animal’s home turf and not a zoo — you’ll probably only see them about a third of the time. That being said, don’t let that deter you, because the other two-thirds of the time will be filled with beautiful landscapes and opportunities to learn more about wildlife from your guide.
4. Missing Out On Activities
Most of your game drives will take place in the (very) early morning and late afternoons, to catch the animals when they are at their most active. If you want to make the most of your game viewing, you need to participate — that usually means waking up at, or even before, sunrise. If you don’t make the effort to get up and join in scheduled activities, you’ll miss out. You’ll get time to take a siesta after lunch, during the heat of the day, to make up for your early start.
5. Not Listening To Your Guide
One of the most important rules on safari is to listen to your guide. They are professionals who not only work with many tourists, but also understand animal behavior. Their expertise and knowledge make a critical difference to both your safari experience and your safety. Safari guides have extensive training, and their job is to keep clients safe and give them an amazing experience. All the clients need to do is sit back, relax, and follow the directions of their guides. Also, listen to your guide when observing the animals. Otherwise, you may miss out on interesting information and facts!
6. Ignoring Game Drive Etiquette
This is an important one. It just takes one “fool” in a game drive vehicle to spoil the experience for everyone else, and there are certain do’s and don’ts that you should adhere to.
Don’t Wear Perfume And Don’t Smoke
Strong and unusual smells can make animals nervous, reducing your chances of spotting them. As for smoking, it also likely won’t be appreciated by your guide, tracker, or the rest of the passengers in the vehicle (remember also that cigarette butts are a fire hazard). Electronic cigarettes should also not be used.
Don’t Feed The Animals
Make sure you’ve had enough to eat before going out on a drive because eating in the car is a big no-no. On most safaris, you’ll stop for a drink and snacks, but those places are chosen beforehand so that neither you nor the animals are at risk. The idea is to avoid having animals associate visitors and vehicles with food — while a lion won’t jump into a vehicle for a candy bar, a baboon or a monkey just might! Again, to stop them from associating you and the car with an easy meal, don’t feed the animals!
Don’t Call The Animals
This might sound pretty obvious, but you’d be surprised how for many people, logic goes out the window when seeing an exotic animal for the first time or when trying to get a good photo. Observe wildlife quietly because calling them or trying to get their attention will only be a disturbance, and they’ll most likely move off somewhere else. In the same vein, never scream, don’t stand up, and don’t make fast movements. Safaris can sometimes get intense, but no matter how bad a situation gets, always keep your cool. If an agitated animal charges the vehicle, trust your guide to keep you safe, that’s what they’re trained for.
Don’t Touch The Animals
No matter how close the animals may be, never stretch your hand and touch them. Recently there was outrage in Serengeti National Park, Tanzania, when a tourist opened the door and leaned out to touch a young lion, endangering himself, and his fellow passengers and almost costing the guide his job.
Don’t Leave The Vehicle
Leading on from the point above, no matter what happens, never leave the car without your guide telling you to do so, even if you think that there is no risk. There may be animals around the vehicle that you haven’t noticed.
7. Fussing With Your Camera
One of the biggest mistakes on safari is staying behind the camera. While it’s thrilling to snap photos of incredible wildlife, it’s equally important to experience the trip in real-time. Sometimes it’s better to watch and experience the moment rather than constantly aiming to capture that “ultimate” safari shot. Don’t see your trip only through the camera’s viewfinder or your phone’s screen. Look up and enjoy!
On the topic of cameras, let me stress that there is no flash photography. Safaris are about observing animals in their natural environment, and that needs to be done quietly, without attracting their attention or startling them. Many of the animals you will encounter, especially the herbivores, have eyes that are sensitive to bright lights, and a sudden flash may temporarily blind them, making them easy prey.
Remember that as exciting as the idea of being a wildlife photographer is, a safari probably isn’t the best place to try out brand-new equipment. So, make sure you’re familiar and comfortable with your device before the trip. Bring extra film or memory cards along for your camera, and find out what facilities are available in camp — you may not be able to charge up batteries.
It’s not always necessary to have the latest and greatest camera for your safari. Christian Sperka, resident wildlife photographer and specialist photography guide at Thanda Safari in South Africa said, “I often hear it said, that when going on safari, one must have a decent camera with a reasonable long telephoto lens… while it is an advantage to have (and use) such a camera, nowadays most people have very good smartphones, and prefer to travel light.” I take a lot of images and video clips with my smartphone.
Christian teaches wildlife photography and says smartphones on safari are good for taking wide-angle pictures, excellent for macro-shots, and great for difficult light conditions like sunsets, sunrises, and interesting cloud formations. He adds that if you are worried about getting good close-ups, then clip-on telephoto lenses are available at very little cost. His other tip for close-ups is to use binoculars — by making sure there’s a small distance between the camera lens and the binocular’s eyepiece and then focusing first on the subject with the binoculars, before using your smartphone’s camera.
Thanda Safari offers guests a complimentary 90-minute photography lesson with Christian where you can learn more about the art of catching that perfect wildlife moment. During your lesson, you’ll learn how to set up your digital camera or smartphone and the basic rules of wildlife photography before heading out on a 3-hour evening game drive, in a private safari vehicle, to put it all into practice.
8. Expecting The Comforts Of Home
Safari lodges and camps can be luxurious and stunning in terms of design and quality, but it’s important to remember that you’re likely in a remote area without the best infrastructure. Be open to the unique charms of the lodge, but remember you may need to wait for solar power to heat the water for your shower, and you may need to leave some of your normal “essentials” like a blow dryer, at home. This is because lodges are often run entirely on solar power. Bear in mind that Wi-Fi connectivity can often be patchy, limited, or even nonexistent — so use this as an opportunity to disconnect.
9. Choosing An Unrealistic Itinerary
I know you want to explore as many destinations as possible, but would you rather spend your precious time on the road traveling from one park to another, or using that time to watch wildlife? Trying to fit in too much is a common mistake. Avoid trying to see it all in a week because you’ll exhaust yourself and end up feeling rushed rather than relaxed. You can’t see all of Africa, or even all of one country, in one visit. Speak to an expert, like The Classic Safari Company, to get the best advice on what works and what doesn’t.
Pro Tip: Most of all, remember safari njema, which in Swahili means “Have a good journey!”