Silently perched in a rugged open-air safari vehicle, as a herd of elephants casually trudge across a sandy road just a few steps ahead of you. Surrounded by the African bushveld humming with insects, the cracking branches from the trees as the elephants carve their path and the occasional grunt of an animal far out in the distance. There is nothing quite like the sights, sounds and experience of going on your first safari.
As a locally grown South African I grew up on sunshine and safari getaways – the ultimate bucket list item for most! Over the years, having gone on more game drives than I can count on my fingers and toes I have seen a lot of wildlife, and a fair share questionable tourist behaviour. It is now time to share some tips, “must dos” and “don’t you dare do’s” when embarking on your very first African safari. This will ensure you take away a truly memorable African adventure.
1.It’s the real deal
Seriously, African game reserves are not zoos, nor are they theme parks with domesticated animals. Do NOT get out your vehicle. Keep a safe distance when you spot an animal and do not block its path. Keep quiet and don’t make any sudden movements when you are near an animal. Just as if you were on a roller coaster, keep all limbs, selfie sticks, your head and tongue inside the vehicle at all times, this includes not sticking your head out of a sunroof to get a better vantage point.
2. So many Parks so little time
Kruger National Park is not your only option. There are national parks and numerous private game reserves to choose from. And then most of the parks also have various accommodation options from premium lodges to camp sites, all offering their own unique safari experience. The southern African focused accommodation booking website Accommodirect.com is a useful place to start to help you narrow down your options.
Malaria is not nearly the massive epidemic the news makes it out to be in Southern Africa. There are actually numerous parks that are malaria-free areas (which is a good option when travelling with small children).
4. Best time to go
May to October will provide the best game spotting opportunities as wildlife tends to keep close to the water sources during these dryer months and the landscape is less dense. But the early morning game drives are very cold and lazy days outside on the lodge’s patio isn’t always an option. Whilst during December to February, the heart of summer, the scenery is lush and spectacular, but it does make for spotting game more challenging. The days are almost unbearably hot but then they can easily be idled away at a pool.
5. So many Safaris so little time
Not only are there numerous parks to select from but also various safari options. You can forge your own path and embark on a self-drive around a park or book a game drive with a ranger at sunrise, sunset, even late into the night and then at select lodges you can also go on water safaris. On average a game drive lasts three hours and often includes a mid drive stop for refreshments, leg stretch and a lavatree break. There really is more than one way to safari.
6. Self-drive vs Game drive
Armed with a map and your own vehicle many reserves permit self-drives, allowing you to take to the open sand road and explore at your own pace, venturing further and lingering longer.
Whilst booking a game drive with a ranger often costs a pretty penny it’s truly worth it in my opinion. It removes all the driving pressures and the rangers know what they are looking for (and exactly where animals were last spotted). There is also the added advantage of the safari vehicles having a much higher vantage point, affording you the opportunity to look down into the long overgrown grass versus through it when you are in a normal vehicle.
7. Rise and Shine
Morning game drives start before sunrise. Animals are usually more active during sunrise and sunset as they lay low during the blazing hot midday sun, so if you want to see the good stuff, get yourself out of bed.
8. Patience is a virtue
There will be long periods spent just driving, hoping to spot something… anything or waiting for a flickering tail in a tree to manifest into a leopard. In my view, this is a critical part of the experience though. It builds that anticipation for that moment when you finally spot that elusive rhino in the bushes.
9. There are no guarantees
Spotting any of the Big 5 (lion, rhino, elephant, leopard, buffalo) is rare (depending on the park that you go to), expecting to see them all on your first safari is unrealistic. Sightings are highly unpredictable and I am not saying you won’t luck out and see everything. But you should emotionally prepare yourself that you may not tick all the “must sees” off the list.
10. Lay it on thick
Sunscreen by day and mosquito repellent by night. Although malaria is a low risk in most areas mosquitos are an ever present annoyance. Ensure you coat yourself in repellent at night and on early evening game drives.
Sunscreen is a must, all year round! Lay it on pre-game drive and pack a hat.
11. Please do not feed the wildlife
You probably think this is an obvious one. You are not likely to throw a T-bone steak out the window to attract a pride of lions. But it’s the smaller (cuter) and often more mischieve variety that will creep into your heart and tempt you to throw a fruit basket or a bread crumbs their way. I’m talking about the monkeys, the ferrets, the birds and the mongooses. If you are attempting to camp, be wary of leaving food out as it will be stolen by the above-mentioned miscreants.
12. What to Pack for your first safari
It’s not all about the khaki and camo honestly, anything goes. But comfort is king and should be your main priority when packing! Select clothes that you can be easily layered. A word of advice, don’t pack white as you are going to encounter a lot of dust and it will be crisp for all of five minutes.
Ensure you pack: cool breathable fabrics, clothes you can easily layer, a hat, swimsuit, water bottle, sunglasses, sunscreen, casual pair of flip flops and a pair of walking shoes (they don’t need to be hiking boots). You will need these to ensure your toes don’t freeze on early game drives and if you get the opportunity to get out the vehicle and walk to a hideout or watering hole you will want to have a decent pair of closed toe shoes on.
13. Essential camera gear
You don’t need to invest in the Hubble telescope but a zoom is essential. A multi-purpose lens with decent zoom is even better as wildlife encounters can be fleeting and there is no time to change lens.
Ensure to put the camera away at times too. Take time to soak up your very first safari and the wildlife with your own eyes. Not only through the viewfinder of your camera.
14. Good quality R&R
Between early morning and the evening game drives, there will be a good chunk of time to catch up on some quality R&R. Nothing beats sitting sipping on a cocktail and staring out at the peaceful vastness of the African landscape. Wifi is often erratic so pack a good book or two and soak in the sounds and sunsets of Africa.