How to plan an African Safari

For many, Africa’s main draw is its wildlife, notably in
eastern and southern countries: It is estimated that more
than 800 different species of mammals roam the continent. An
easy way to watch wildlife is to book a private or group
safari, known as an overland journey. Since safaris are
often once-in-a-lifetime adventures, it’s crucial to get it
right the first time. Here’s how:

Choosing the Right Safari

Determine what you want out of the experience. The great
wildlife migration of East Africa? The gorillas in Central
Africa? Elephants or leopards? Animal watching via
horseback, elephant trek, walking tour, or mountain trek?
Flying between destinations, or driving? Staying at an
enclosed campsite or an unfenced one? The lap of bush luxury
or a minimalist bush camp?

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Researching Your Options

Get recommendations: “Talk to veteran safari goers,” says
Jennifer Lawson, who produced a TV series on Africa for
National Geographic. If operators are uncomfortable
providing contacts for past clients, ask them to pass along
your own contact information and request a reference call.
If they refuse, move on.

Consult a book: Steve Krenzen, founder of the Association of
Professional Safari Guides, recommends the African Safari
Journal by Mark Nolting. Another expert recommendation:

Lonely Planet’s
“Africa” series, which offers 34
Africa-related guides, including Watching Wildlife in East
Africa and Trekking in East Africa.

Go online: The Web has thousands of pages devoted to Africa
travel.

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Deciding How Long to Stay

I usually recommend taking a safari that lasts at least ten
days so you can experience more than one park. But don’t try
to do more than two countries during a two-week trip,
otherwise you’ll spend too much time at airports and be
forced to stay overnight in big cities. Flight schedules
between countries are usually only once a day, if that, and
frequently don’t connect conveniently.Shorter safaris are
rewarding if well arranged. You can visit the Kruger
National Park in three days, for instance, because it’s a
relatively small park. If exploring a bigger region, such as
the Okavango Delta, you could easily spend eight to ten days
and never be bored.

Evaluating an Operator

Here’s what to ask a potential tour company. If you hang up
the phone unsatisfied, look elsewhere.

Do staff members regularly travel to
Africa, especially to parts where their tours are conducted?
It’s a surprising—even frightening—fact that many of the
agents advising clients on visiting Africa have never been
there.

Does the company use a variety of
accommodations (camps, lodges, or hotels), or must they use
ones they have contracts with? Many travellers to the
African bush spend serious cash—safaris can cost $15,000 or
more, though prices vary from operator to operator. So pick
a flexible company that can grant your wishes.

Are they open to making customized
safaris based on your travel needs? Since a safari to
Africa is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for most, be sure
to get exactly what you want. There are hundreds of
itineraries out there, but if they don’t meet your criteria,
then design your own.

Do they accept credit cards? Some
companies don’t. A policy of non-acceptance of credit cards
should raise a big red flag.

How long has the company been in
business? An indication of a solid track record is a
company that’s been around for at least 5 years.

Is your operator willing to take you to
villages that surround the park preserves? Villages
can provide a memorable taste of African culture. Around
some game parks (parks created in wildlife eco-systems to
earn revenue from tourists), “tourist villages” are set up
to imitate village life for tourists. A better bet: the real
villages located farther away from the park, where you can
interact with locals living their lives—not staging a
performance.

Does the operator use your dollars to
benefit the local economy and protect the local environment?
Conservation efforts in Africa are slowly improving,
especially when local people receive the benefits of nature
tourism. You can help by choosing safari operators that hire
and train local people, support local operations such as
schools and conservation programs, give you the chance to
buy local crafts and other products, and take care not to
harm the environment.

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Traveling with a Group

Some people book safaris with a private operator and some opt
for a group experience. Keep groups small. The people in the
first vehicle see game, while those in the vehicle behind
eat dust. Go with no more than six or eight people. Booking
privately does not necessarily mean greater cost. A private
group of four or more can often travel with us for the same
price as a group of 16 or 20.

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Deciding How Far in Advance to Plan

If all you want is a standard group lodge safari to Botswana
or South Africa, then planning three months in advance will
suffice. If, on the other hand, you want top safari camps,
notable lodges, or renowned guides, book six months or more
in advance. Many top specialists have most of their time
already booked up 6 months or more in advance. For extra
security when booking in advance, purchase trip cancellation
insurance. (Check out

Travel Insured
.)

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