To go on an African safari is to feel the hairs on the back of your neck rise with the bellowing roar of a hungry lioness. It’s losing all sense of time when watching elephants bathe in a waterhole in the early morning. It’s marveling at leopards resting in tree branches, rhinos cropping grasses quietly beside their calves, and even mountain gorillas slicing through bamboo stems without a care in the world.
Encountering often highly-endangered species on an African safari is an experience like no other on Earth. As life-affirming and visceral as they are awe-inspiring, African safaris are vital for supporting the long-term survival of Africa’s most iconic species. They’re also hugely important in aiding the human communities which live alongside them, by providing much needed employment opportunities.
However, planning an African safari is no easy task, especially when trying to do so from several thousand miles away. Whether you’re in search of the Big Five (lion, leopard, elephant, rhino, and buffalo) or seeking an intimate meeting with the world’s last mountain gorillas, these are the mistakes you’ll want to avoid when planning an African safari.
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1. Trying to See Too Much
You’re probably a long way from home, and have splashed out on some expensive flights to get there. So there’s a real temptation to squeeze in as much as possible when heading out onto an African safari.
As mistakes go, this is one of the worst. Plan an itinerary with a series of one-night stays, and you’ll find you’re doing nothing more than traveling from place to place. You certainly won’t get a real sense for where you are, and will undoubtedly just feel rushed and stressed out as a result – the complete opposite of why you were going on an African safari to start with.
It’s much better to limit your time on the African plains to a select few destinations, national parks, or reserves. We’d recommend staying a minimum of two or three nights in major destinations to avoid the tiredness which comes with continual travel. It’s worth remembering that South Africa’s Kruger National Park alone is the same size as the US state of Massachusetts. And Kruger isn’t even the largest protected area in Africa. That honor goes to Tanzania’s Nyerere National Park (formerly Selous Game Reserve).
First time safari goers would also do well to remember that most game drives and other activities (ranger-led walks, hot air balloon rides and the like) take place in the early morning immediately after dawn or in the late afternoon towards sunset. These are the two periods of the day when animals are at the most active, since it’s cooler. Spend just one night in a location before rushing elsewhere, and you could well miss one or both of these prime safari windows.
2. Assuming You’ll See Everything on One Game Drive
Another reason for staying for more than a single night in any given safari destination is the fact that the movements of their animal inhabitants cannot be predicted. In other words, no one will know exactly where that rhino, giraffe, or hippo will be from one hour to the next. And with national parks often spanning tens of thousands of square miles, looking for a specific animal species can be like looking for a needle in a haystack.
After all, although the animals which inhabit Africa’s safari destinations are used to vehicles traversing their domains, they remain entirely wild animals. Going on an African safari is very different to visiting a zoo or a theme park.
It’s extremely rare to experience a game drive (usually lasting 2-3 hours) without encountering any of Africa’s top species up close. But it’s equally true to say it’s very unusual to tick off the Big Five with just one game drive.
You should plan to undertake at least one dawn and one sunset safari in any given destination, since different animals are most active at different times of day. For instance, you’re most likely to witness a leopard hunting in the afternoon, while the aftermath of a nocturnal lion hunt is most likely first thing in the morning.
During the middle part of the day, safari goers can entertain themselves with a range of relaxing activities. Many lodges will have a lounge area or external terrace for reading and wildlife watching. Those at the higher end may also have swimming pools and even spa treatments available.
3. Assuming all Africa’s National Parks are the Same
Television nature documentaries can make it seem like all African safari destinations are the same, with expansive grassland savannas dotted with flat-topped acacia trees stretching beyond the horizon.
Although these vistas do exist, notably in Kenya’s Maasai Mara National Reserve and Tanzania’s Serengeti National Park, those planning an African safari should be aware national parks are diverse in both their landscapes and the wildlife which inhabits them.
The best example of this are the Big Five species, which now only live in a sadly small number of safari destinations including the Maasai Mara, Kruger National Park, Botswana’s Moremi Game Reserve, and Zimbabwe’s Mana Pools National Park. In the latter you can even undertake walking safaris without a guide or ranger.
Likewise, those planning to combine an African safari with trekking to see mountain gorillas are limited in the destinations they can see these gentle giants. Mountain gorillas can only be found in Uganda, Rwanda, and the Democratic Republic of Congo.
It’s also worth considering planning your safari within privately-run conservancies or reserves. Conservancies tend to be directly linked with government-sanctioned protected areas, such as the Maasai Mara and Kruger.
Private reserves (not to be confused with national reserves) are often fenced enterprises located off major highways for easy access. The benefits of going on safari in either of these spots is the low numbers of other safari goers. There’s also the fact game vehicles are usually permitted to go off-road, unlike in national parks. This can mean getting much closer to animals than is otherwise possible.
4. Being Too Tight on Budget
On the face of it, African safaris can appear pricy. But when you calculate everything which is put into a well-planned itinerary, from luxurious lodgings to first-rate transportation, and expert guides, and they actually start to look like a bargain.
Even so, it can be tempting to hold back on spending on an African safari. After all, why pay more if you can get a similar looking itinerary organized for less money?
The fact is, in Africa you get what you pay for. This statement is true as much for the vehicles you’ll travel in, and game drives you’ll undertake, as for the lodges you’ll be staying in. No one wants to be traveling in a vehicle with mechanical problems, or one with limited window access.
Cheaper tours will often have more people in a single safari vehicle, so that while the best will limit numbers to between two and eight, you might face a three-hour game drive with 15 other people. Spend slightly more for a small group safari, and you’ll find more freedom and flexibility in the itinerary, more space in safari vehicles, and have more time per person with your driver-guide.
Pay a little more still, and your experience will be all the better. This is especially true in private conservancies, since they do not have the limited dawn to dusk hours of national parks, and will limit the number of vehicles too. For instance, in some conservancies surrounding Kruger National Park, there can be as few as one safari vehicle in a thousand miles, giving a much more intimate and special experience. Custom safari itineraries can be created to perfectly match what you’re looking for, but are likely to have higher prices again.
5. Leaving Booking to the Last Minute
An African safari is not a vacation you should wait and book at the last minute. There are last minute deals to be had. But for the most part, that particular African safari will still be available for a reason – no one wants to travel to the given destination at that time of year.
The most popular times of year to plan an African safari are the Christmas and New Year periods, alongside the summer months. Safaris are popular as a Christmas escape from the cold back home, while July and August are also busy because schools across the world are closed for the long summer holidays.
On top of this, December/January and May to September coincide with the dry seasons in much of Africa. Traveling during the dry season is optimal for most (except perhaps bird lovers) because animals are drawn to the handful of water sources which remain, and reduced vegetation makes them easier to photograph.
A further reason to book your African safari as far in advance as possible is when you’re planning to encounter a specific event or animal species. Anyone seeking to join a mountain gorilla trek requires a permit. These are capped to just a couple of dozen per day. Permits can therefore get bought up months in advance for the busiest trekking periods.
Elsewhere on the continent, the spectacle of the Great Wildebeest Migration – one of the largest movements of herbivores on the planet – takes place year-round. But certain events during the migration are more captivating and popular than others. To witness the calving, which sees the arrival of around 6,000 newborns each day, you’ll want to head to the Serengeti in February or March. However, to see the dramatic crossings these animals have to make of the Mara River, you’ll want to head to the region in July. Needless to say, camps in the area during July are in extremely high demand. Bookings made a year in advance are not unheard of.
6. Planning your African Safari Yourself
It’s probably true to say that the majority of travelers who plan their own African safaris wish they hadn’t. A safari is one of the most complex vacations which can be arranged. This is because there are so many elements which have to come together perfectly to prevent delays or other issues from arising.
Not only are there lodges to book, but also transportation from airport to national park, game drives with expert rangers, and potentially permits, internal flights, hot air balloon rides, and boat trips too. It’s much easier, and safer, to leave planning an African safari to the experts. They’ve got both the knowledge and the connections they need to ensure your itinerary goes off without a hitch.
And because of the special rates they are able to obtain, using an agent or tour operator often ends up the same price or even cheaper than the hassle that is planning an African safari yourself. Using an expert won’t stop you doing exactly what you want in Africa either.
There’s a great range of safaris on offer, from self-drives through Namibia to traditional safaris in the national parks of east Africa. Most will be small group options, which is the tour type we’ve already recommended for travelers. However, these tours can often be customized too, with upgrades in transportation and accommodation, or add-ons such as time on the beaches of the Indian Ocean in Kenya.
Don’t Make These Mistakes Planning Your African Safari
Making any one of these common mistakes when planning an African safari could spoil your once in a lifetime vacation utterly. But avoid them, by using a travel expert such as SA Vacations to plan your African safari for you, and you’re sure to fall for the allure of Africa’s wild spaces.
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Ian Packham is an award-winning freelance travel writer, adventurer, and after-dinner speaker with bylines in a range of magazines and newspapers. Based in the UK, his explorations by public transportation have seen him travel everywhere from Norway and Gabon to Bangladesh and Lesotho.