Safaris have become hugely popular, but planning one can leave you wallowing in logistics like a proverbial hippo. Will you opt for the big skies and big game of the Serengeti, take a walk on the wild side in Zambia’s Luangwa Valley, paddle a canoe along the Zambezi or drive yourself to Etosha or Kruger? Are you looking for ‘safari chic’ at an upmarket lodge, or is roughing it with a tent more your kind of thing?
There are the seasons to consider, what gear to take, the costs, modes of transport, independent trip versus package or tailor-made... Still keen I hope? After all, compared to a century ago, planning a safari is a breeze. In 1892, Lord Randolph Churchill advanced into the bush with 30 staff and seven wagons laden with 20 tons of supplies, including two-dozen rifles, a piano and a generous quantity of eau-de-cologne. Small wonder that he never made his mark as a great hunter.
Thankfully, safaris are now more subtle affairs with the emphasis on blending with nature, rather than blasting it with a 10-bore Holland & Holland. Armed with just your senses and a pair of binoculars, you'll return home intoxicated with vivid sights, sounds and smells. You'll have heard the bewitching 'whoop' of a hyena, studied the graffiti of tracks around a waterhole, and felt the electric anticipation of a big cat sighting. The names of hundreds of birds will be fresh in your mind, while the pepper-sweet tang of the bush will linger in your nose for days.
But having said all that, let's not forget the dust, the pre-dawn wake-up calls and those buttock numbing, three-hour game drives when all you see is the retreating posterior of a lone warthog, its perky tail held aloft like a defiant flag of victory. Safaris are not for everyone, but then again, those who have 'gone bush' in Africa invariably come back for more.
Aren’t safaris really expensive?
Am I going to wake up every morning to find an aardvark in the shower and one of those big hairy spiders in the toilet?
I never get any decent photos on safari. Why?
Someone suggested a safari for our honeymoon, but those early mornings are a complete turn-off
Read the latest posts on African Safaris
HOW TO BE A RESPONSIBLE WILDLIFE TRAVELLER
When it comes to wildlife holidays, responsible tourism is not just an option – it should be considered an intrinsic part of the whole process. When planning your African safari, read these 10 steps to minimise your impact on the environment, reduce your carbon emissions and support wildlife conservation and the livelihoods of local communities.
African Safaris: Field Notes
Tracks & Scats
Studying animal tracks is a valuable skill on safari, especially if you come across fresh prints like this jackal pug mark. Animal droppings can also tell you what animals are about – and reveal what they’re eating. This leopard scat, picked up in South Luangwa, Zambia, contains undigested hooves of a puku fawn.
WHAT'S A DAY ON SAFARI LIKE?
A typical day on safari usually starts with an early wake-up call. You’ll need to be up and about when it’s cool and the wildlife is most active. Game drives generally last around three to four hours. There will be lots of bumping around on rutted tracks and perhaps some frustrating periods when you see very little. But this will be far outweighed by the excitement of your first encounter or the tidbits of bushlore that you glean from a good guide. You may well stake out favoured wildlife haunts, like waterholes or fruiting trees, or, if regulations allow, take a short walk in the company of an armed scout. Back at your lodge or camp, a large breakfast or brunch will be waiting. Then you have a few hours to lie low during the hottest part of the day when much of the wildlife has also retreated to the shade. By late afternoon it’s time for another game drive. At dusk, you might stop for a sundowner, before continuing your safari on into the night when a new cast of nocturnal creatures emerges. Dinner may well be served around an open fire – perfect for stargazing.
GUIDING STAR: SHABANI OMARY
Favourite animal: Lion
Favourite place: Ndutu Plains of the southern Serengeti in February and March when the wildebeest are giving birth.
What does it take to become a guide? Four months at &Beyond’s training school at Klein’s Camp, spending most of the time out in the bush.
Serengeti NP, Tanzania &Beyond
WHERE'S THE BEST PLACE TO SEE BIG CATS?
To boost your chances of a wild cat encounter, set off early in the morning or late in the afternoon when these predators are more likely to be active. With the exception of cheetahs, most are nocturnal hunters, spending the middle part of the day resting. Their superb camouflage can render them almost invisible, so look for other tell-tale clues, such as fresh tracks or alarm signals from nearby wildlife. Lions are relatively conspicuous and it's unusual not to see at least one pride during a week's safari. Good spots include the Masai Mara and Serengeti. Although widespread, leopards are nocturnal and elusive, so night drives offer the best chances of seeing them. Try South Luangwa and Lower Zambezi National Parks in Zambia and the game reserves in northern Botswana and South Africa. Cheetah prefer wide-open wilderness areas like Tanzania's Serengeti and Ruaha, the Busanga Plains of Zambia's Kafue National Park and the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park in South Africa and Botswana. For guaranteed sightings, visit Okonjima in Namibia, home of the AfriCat Foundation.