By Summer Wilms — Check out Summer’s Favorite African Safari Destinations Guide!
I once heard a story of a young British man who disembarked his plane in the modern and metropolitan city of Nairobi wearing a pith helmet, bug net, and head-to-toe khakis. He assumed that the whole of Africa was just like you see it on the Discovery Channel or in the movies, with nothing but swathes of animal-covered savannah.
Africa does have some of the most exciting and wild spaces on the planet, but wilderness accounts for just about a quarter of Africa’s total area and less than that is protected or accessible. Just to put that in perspective, while only five percent of it is designated protected area, 27 percent of the USA falls into that wilderness category.
The word safari means “journey” in Swahili. Like any successful journey, it takes knowledge and planning.
First of all, you have to know where you’re going. Southern and East African countries have unparalleled national parks but if you’re headed to Cape Town for a visit, prepare to have to travel 763 kilometers (475 miles) to get to the nearest “Big Five” park. Allow yourself at least two days for a safari if one is on your Africa to-do list, as well as time for travel.
When you go could have a huge impact on what you see. The difference of a couple of months can change a park dramatically. Mammal viewing, especially, is typically better during the dry months when the grasses are dead and visibility is better.
In Namibia’s Etosha National Park, the dearth of water in the dry season sends droves of creatures from all links of the food chain flocking to the pipe-fed waterholes, conveniently equipped with viewing areas for Homo sapiens in Land Cruisers. Kruger in South Africa can yield some excellent sightings, but if you go November through March when the bush is densest, you’ll have a difficult time spotting them.
The great wildebeest migration through the Serengeti and Masaai Mara is one of the natural wonders of the world but you’ll miss it completely if you’re in the wrong park at the wrong time. For the Mara, the best time to go is August through September. The rest of the year the herds are in the Serengeti, but that’s a big park and you’ll have to make sure you’ll be traveling to the right region of it. It’s the same with that classic scene of crocodiles sitting in wait for the unfortunate zebra and wildebeest that have to cross the Mara River. This might be the classic safari image you see on TV, but in reality, it happens maybe 15 days a year. Only those on the ground monitoring the herds will be able to guess when those days are.
Are you dying to see a rhinoceros in the wild? You probably won’t find one in East Africa’s more famous parks. In Kenya’s lesser-known Lake Nakuru Park, however, you’re almost guaranteed to see both black and white rhino. If you see wild dogs in Kenya’s Tsavo East National Park, try swinging through Vegas on your way home. Because it requires just that much luck. If your African experience just won’t be complete without seeing them, try Moremi National Park in Botswana’s Okavango Delta, where you’ll have a much higher chance.
There are many different safari operators out there. So what’s the difference? Why does one charge thousands of dollars more than another? Accommodation plays a big role in this. You may be sleeping in a luxurious lodge with your own butler or you might have to pitch your own tent. Guides also factor. The more experienced and knowledgeable ones get snatched up by the high-end companies. This is not to say that a budget guide won’t be good, just that the effort he puts in to finding you exactly what you want to see is potentially less.
You’ll pay more if you want a private vehicle and guide. This allows you a certain level of control over what you look for and how long you look at it. On a vehicle with other people, you may not get to spend 20 fascinating minutes watching a honey badger because the rest of your fellow safari-goers are eager to find a lion. Or vice-versa.
Of course, wildlife is wild life and its unpredictability is precisely the reason we love it. Planning gives you an edge and can help you avoid common mistakes, but whether you see a cheetah take down a gazelle or if a leopard reveals itself to you is entirely up to them.