We have decades of experience & answers
Fish Eagle Safaris' owner Bert Duplessis and his team at Fish Eagle Safaris Inc. have been helping people plan their African safari trips for just on 30 years, since 1990. Based on all those years of experience and having travelled to every known safari destination in Africa themselves – repeatedly - here are their suggestions for making your first - or next - trip as good as it can be.
Spend More Time In Fewer Areas
Making just one change to your African safari itinerary is almost guaranteed to improve it. Spend more days in fewer places. Trying to do too much and cover too much ground on a single Africa trip is a rookie mistake and one you don 't have to make. Rushing around from one area to the next is frustrating from a logistical perspective (packing, unpacking, living out of a suitcase), and it costs more on a 'per diem' basis due to additional flights, transfers, visas and other expenses. Many properties offer long-stay discounts where they will include one free night if you stay for four, or variations on that theme. Slow down to save money – and enjoy the ride.
Africa is at heart a slow continent, best suited for exploring at a leisurely pace, in keeping with the ambiance of the wilderness which is anything but frenetic. Things happen when they happen. The animals do not have set schedules and they move around in real time. Allow yourself plenty of time to find and see them. Soon enough, you will start understanding and even anticipating behavior and gain insight into how different species interact, both within their own group and towards others. Few things in the wilderness are as fascinating as watching animal interaction such as when one elephant herd encounters another one. It can be amiable - if they have familiar bonds - or tense, if they don't. If you're simply driving by and stopping momentarily for a photograph or two, already thinking about the next sighting, you may never gain insight into what amazing creatures elephants really are. With enough time on your hands, you can observe a herd approach a water hole, start to drink and then - almost visibly - begin to relax and enjoy each other's company. To fully appreciate scenes like these, and to sit and wait for them to unfold, you will need more than just two days in an area. Certainly you’d need more than is squeezed into a typical African safari package.
On one of my first trips to Southern Tanzania, I came across a small group of British travelers who were spending an entire week at the sublime Sand Rivers camp in the Selous. At first I thought they were crazy. What could you possibly do with so much time in one spot? Of course, I soon found out that they were experienced safari aficionados who had traveled all over Africa. They knew exactly what they were up to. They took a day trip up the Rufiji River to Stiegler's Gorge (still one of my all-time favorite African experiences), spent one night out on a fly-camping expedition, spent a half day fishing, and did not feel compelled to go out on every game drive. When the mood struck them, they’d rather take some time to enjoy the unique pleasure of simply watching the Rufiji River rushing by on its way to the Indian Ocean. With perhaps a cocktail or an icy cold Kilimanjaro lager in hand.
With several full days in any given area, many good things happen. For one thing, you develop a better understanding of the location of a property, where it is relative to other places, what it is close to and hopefully what makes it special. With enough time (or at least more than the usual 3 or even 2 nights), you can explore and try out most of the available activities, sometimes even more than once. Enjoy the meerkat interaction at Jack's Camp in the Kalahari? Well then do it again the next day. And the next - if you're still there. Perhaps more importantly still, you will connect with the local guides and camp staff and management, beyond the superficial pleasantries associated with a too-short stay. You'll get a glimpse into their lives beyond hosting people in camp; learn something about their children, spouse, friends or family. Find out what they are passionate about, their frustrations, and you're likely to get some invaluable advice about other safari destinations, or help with your photography skills, maybe even learn how to steer a mokoro.
It's All About The Guiding
Traveling on safari with an experienced, qualified guide can be a revelation. A good guide can be supremely knowledgeable about practically everything you see and experience - from butterflies to celestial objects. They can also be funny, helpful, entertaining, protective, and diplomatic. Often all of those. They will usually be keen to help you master a little bit of the local language - Swahili, Setswana, Afrikaans or French, all depending on where you find yourself. They will run interference for you when needed, help you out of a tight spot, lend you some local currency, and may even become a friend for life. They will show you what conservation is really all about and open your eyes to the complexities and challenges of their world.
To become a professional Zimbabwean guide can take from 5 to 7 years and it is an arduous undertaking filled with weeks & months of acquiring and honing skills as diverse as hospitality, mammal and bird identification, safety, firearms proficiency, animal tracking, botany, and much more. You can go out into the wilderness with a professional Zimbabwe guide with full confidence in their ability to keep you safe and to provide you with remarkable insight into what you see and experience, even what to anticipate. The same can be said about proficient guides in other parts of Africa - they are in a class of their own.
A driver who rushes around the Masai Mara, racing from one Big Five sighting to another, is not a guide. A driver who habitually drives right in front of lions or other big cats walking in a specific direction, forcing them to walk around his or her vehicle, is not a guide. A driver who takes unnecessary risks, who is unethical, who routinely positions his or her vehicle in the direct line of sight of other cars, is not a guide. A driver who takes shortcuts and trespasses on ecologically sensitive terrain, in the process leaving marks which may be visible for decades to come, is not a guide.
So, before you sign up for your next trip, make doubly sure that you will be guided by a proper, well-qualified and responsible guide. Not a driver.
Make Your Trip Your Own
Finding 'the best' African safari for you can be a daunting task, considering the multitude of areas, countries, and types of trips available. The solution? Consult an Africa destination specialist to make your trip your own. At about the same price as the many recycled cookie-cutter trips out there, you can have your own customized itinerary. Designed just for you. As unique as you are, reflecting your interests, your style and what you want to get out of the trip. Want to focus on big cats? Crazy about elephants, or giraffes, or keen on seeing the migration? Special interest in birds or photography? A good advisor can help you with any of these, and more. So don't settle for someone else's trip, or a paint-by-numbers itinerary which is as predictable as the commute to your office. Talk to an African safari expert and you're likely to be pleasantly surprised with their creativity and the way in which they can effectively incorporate your preferences and your interests in a sensible yet fun and exciting trip - at a price point of your choice.
Get Out Of The Vehicle - Sometimes
A photographic safari is closely associated with game drives. Twice daily, morning and afternoon. Animals become habituated to the presence of the vehicles - meaning they don't run away when they see one - so most people get their best views and their best photographs or videos, from a vehicle. All very well. It is comfortable, safe, and efficient. Done often enough, it can also become a bit predictable and maybe not quite as exciting as the first time. So what do you do? Get out of the vehicle, naturally. It doesn't mean going out on a taxing route march, not at all. There are many ways to experience the wilderness and the wildlife from beyond the confines of the trusty Landcruiser.
Do make sure that at least a few 'out-of-the-vehicle' options are available on your trip or better yet, that they are already included and specified in your itinerary. Look for activities such as walking, boating, canoe or mokoro excursions, opportunities to observe wildlife from a blind or hide, a forest canopy walk, white-water rafting, perhaps a sundowner cruise on the Zambezi or a helicopter flight over the Okavango Delta. Doing and experiencing things beyond just game drives keep things interesting, add perspective, give you something to do in-between scheduled activities, and the more active pursuits provide a form of exercise. Not many safari properties have gyms or terrain suitable for jogging or running, so any time spent on your own two feet, will help counteract the inevitable weight gain associated with all the food, snacks and beverages constantly on offer.
If you're keen, and physically capable, you can up the ante a bit with a two- or three-day walking safari in areas like Mashatu in Botswana or in the greater Kruger National Park. With the right guide and at the right time of the year, a foot safari opens a whole new world of experiences, and for many African travelers it ends up being the most memorable part of their stay. It's quiet - just like the wilderness - and suddenly you will be hearing and seeing things which are quite beyond the scope of a vehicle-based safari. Starting with animal and bird tracks which tell a story of their own and which a skilled guide can weave into a fascinating account. You must be on the ground to experience it close-up. Likewise, the experience of approaching a large breeding herd of buffalo on foot, or tip-toeing to the edge of a dry river-bed to quietly observe elephants digging for water, or rooting around for mineral deposits. The sounds, smells and textures of the bush are out there just waiting to be explored - out of the vehicle.
Be Wary Of Large Group Trips
For me personally, the African safari experience is a very private and personal one. You and the wilderness. Just you - seeing the flat, dispassionate glare in the big yellow eyes of a lion. Just you - watching the dust fly off the leathery hide of an elephant as it cools itself with its gigantic ears. Africa is not someone droning on about a painting, an architectural masterpiece or a moment in history. Yes, there is a place and time for a well-qualified guide to enhance the experience with some judiciously timed interpretative comments. Mostly though, Africa speaks to you directly and quietly. Upon hearing the alarm calls of baboons, the contact calls between wildebeest babies and their mothers, an African Fish Eagle calling, or that most iconic of night-time sounds, the hauntingly evocative braying of zebras. A private moment on your verandah in the fading light of the African day, experiencing a strong sense of deja vu, an inexplicable yet powerful feeling about being part of the environment. Much of what makes an African safari experience unique and memorable is antithetical to having a large group of people around.
Of course, you can experience this with a few family members or friends and in fact having safari companions around can enhance the experience. The anticipation of a morning game drive, the thrill of seeing something special, and the pleasure of going over it again that evening, sharing photos and video clips, having a drink and sharing a meal - all part of the fun of being on safari. Just not a big group.
While some group trips can go well, I would be extremely wary of being bundled into a vehicle with a bunch of strangers, hoping that everyone will still be on speaking terms by the end of Day 5. Unless it is a private group, with a strong and experienced leader, there's a lot of potential downside traveling with a big bunch of people. Logistical issues, the inertia associated with getting some individuals moving, chronic late-comers, and conflicting demands and expectations. So while group trips can be relatively cheap by African safari standards, as always you get what you pay for.
We've seen some sub-standard group itineraries from well-known, successful operators. Inexplicable, even baffling destination & property choices. Visiting areas at completely the wrong time of the year. Spending too much time traveling, or too much time in marginal areas. Some are almost laughably bad. Do your due diligence!
Take Yourself On Safari, Go On
An African safari - particularly a customized itinerary designed for a solo traveler - can be a great experience for a single traveler. You will find yourself in a beautiful setting, enjoying game drives and other activities with a few other people who share your interests and who will usually be quite keen to talk about their safari to date, or what lies ahead. Where have you been? Where are you going next? What have you seen? There's no better icebreaker than a common interest or passion, and the African wilderness is no exception.
We wouldn't advise singles to book on just any program, however. Make sure that your itinerary is designed around your preferences. If you're naturally gregarious or simply want to meet some new people, you will do well in properties where communal dining is the norm, as opposed to restaurant style with each party at its own table. A typical safari is filled with opportunities to meet and interact with other people such as sundowners, when everyone gets out of the vehicle for drinks and snacks at a nice spot somewhere, as the sun sets. Singles fit in everywhere: on walks, village visits, boating outings, canoeing, or simply waiting in a hide or blind for something interesting to show up. You're never on your own - unless of course you want to be.
Plus, it is safe with minimal time spent in cities or areas where a single person may attract unwanted attention. You will be in a private, protected environment most of the time and where necessary - such as on arrival at airports, we include personalized meet and assists.
Don't Leave The Kids At Home
Children love being on safari so by all means bring them along. The vast majority of safari camps do a fantastic job to make it a fun and involving experience for all ages. Children respond well to the genuine warmth of the local staff and guides in the camps. With almost everything the children see and experience being new or different and outside of their existing frame of reference, it is a wonderful experience for them on many levels. They have fun, they explore, and they learn. A lot.
The experience of traveling in Africa on safari is even more meaningful because of its interface with conservation of wildlife and habitat. Even the youngest ones realize that it is a special responsibility which we all share, to safeguard the environment so that future generations might enjoy the same privilege. There are several superb safari regions such as Madikwe, the Eastern Cape and the Waterberg region of South Africa which is malaria-free so that even the youngest ones can go along.
Be Sure To Get Good Advice From The Right Source
Is your neighbor who has been on one trip to Africa an expert on African travel? Of course not. And neither are most of the individuals who spout off on TripAdvisor about one or other issue, or who seem effusive in their praise for a particular property or experience. Often, online forums contain information and opinions which are biased or even totally untrue.
On the other hand, any one of the 30 members of the Safari Pros Association of North America - of which we are a founding member - can give you a balanced and even-handed appraisal of what to expect, where the real value lies, what to avoid, and what the best places are at certain times of the year. Several Safari Pros members have - like us - spent a lifetime crisscrossing African safari destinations and continually updating their knowledge and experience.
Think Conservation And Community
From its very inception, Fish Eagle Safaris Inc. has aligned itself with partners such as Wilderness Safaris, Origins Safaris, Nomad Tanzania and others who are 100% committed to sustainable travel practices. Their commitment to conservation is all-encompassing, all the way from decreasing their use of fossil fuels to improving the well-being of the local communities where they operate with funding, research projects, education and employment opportunities. Community involvement and support being vital to reduce poaching & illegal hunting, to preserve and rehabilitate wildlife habitat and to gain local governmental sanction.
In addition to supporting the conservation and community work being undertaken by our African partners - by booking our guests with them - we also consider the conservation practices of individual properties. We are more likely to include camps and lodges which reduce their carbon footprint by switching from fossil fuels to renewable sources of energy such as solar heating, use battery-operated game drive vehicles and boats, recycle waste, practice composting, reduce their water usage, grow their own vegetables and fruit, promote reforestation and habitat restoration and encourage their guests to be green.
As a member of Safari Pros of North America, we work only with partners who strive to conserve the beauty and well-being of the continent and understand the vital role tourism plays in conserving Africa’s wilderness and the livelihood of its people.
By planning your trip with us, you are also supporting numerous (and highly vetted) philanthropic organizations. Our members support (financial and in-kind) a wide range of conservation and community organizations. Your travel choice matters a great deal to Africa's people and wildlife.
Don't Worry About Dread Diseases And Disasters
The human brain is hard-wired to make us think that the unknown is more dangerous than the known, that danger and even death lurk on the path less traveled. Reality proves otherwise. A vanishingly small percentage of travelers to Africa will ever be kidnapped, die from hemorrhagic fever or be involved in a terrorist event or anything of that nature. The real threats to our well-being are much, much closer at home: accidents where we live and work, car crashes where we routinely drive, our unhealthy habits which lead to stroke and heart attacks.
Take flu for example. The US Center for Disease Control estimates that influenza has resulted in between 12,000 to 79,000 deaths annually in the USA since 2010. So which virus should we really be worried about? Influenza which is all around us and carried into our homes and workplaces by practically anybody and which is highly contagious? Or Ebola which is almost always localized, and which is practically impossible to get unless you have close, intimate bodily contact with someone in the end stage of the disease? The same case can be made relative to our concerns about the safety of flying, even though we routinely get behind the wheel of a car, putting ourselves in a much more dangerous environment, and think nothing of it.
The reality of an African safari trip is that you will almost always be in areas with very few other people and a low density of vehicular traffic. Which immediately puts you into a safer situation than just about anywhere in a developed country. For those few days during which you will be in a city environment such as in Nairobi, Cape Town or Johannesburg, you will be in a highly controlled situation with a knowledgeable local person driving you around and avoiding any potential trouble spots.
The Last Word
Recently, when writing to us about how much she enjoyed her first trip to Africa, a client of ours added this: "On our last flight (from Vic Falls to Jo'burg), I was seated next to a woman who had been on a trip that she found endlessly disappointing." Don't end up being that person. Look at our suggestions, give us a call or send us an e-mail.
For 25 years we've discouraged prospective travelers to Africa from trying to combine East and Southern Africa because of logistical issues; but no longer. With the introduction of daily direct, non-stop flights from Nairobi to Victoria Falls, we now offer an ‘Iconic Africa’ safari which combines up to four of Africa's top-flight safari destinations in a cost-effective and time-efficient package.
- Revel in the superb game-viewing of Kenya's Masai Mara
- Observe and experience the many attractions of Victoria Falls (Zambia and Zimbabwe sides)
- Venture out among Hwange's 30,000+ elephants and lots of other big game. Try a foot safari with the best guides in Africa.
- Experience the thrill of a boat safari - close up views of elephants, hippo & crocodiles - at Chobe in N. Botswana.
- Fly between camps on all but one sector.
- Daily departures throughout the year.
For sheer numbers of game especially in areas such as the Serengeti (Tanzania) and Maasai Mara (Kenya) it is hard to beat East Africa. The difference (compared with most parts of Southern Africa) is that the habitat is generally more open, so the wildlife is easier to see.
I have re-visited many parts of Kenya (Amboseli, Chyulu Mountains, Samburu, Lewa, Laikipia, Masai Mara, Meru, Mathews Range and the coast) several times recently and in my opinion Kenya is still the Rolls Royce of safari destinations. As we all know, Kenya has some problems yet at its core it is still a warm and friendly and amazingly beautiful country which offers visitors an astonishing array of attractions and places to visit.
Nowhere else in the world will you see as much wildlife and so many different species, in just a week or so. Nowhere else will you be exposed to such cultural diversity in a setting where 'culture' is interwoven with the safari experience: you don't have to take a side-trip to meet with the Maasai or the Samburu. They are where the wildlife is and continue to co-exist harmoniously.
A big plus for Kenya is the presence of several private conservancies where vehicle numbers are controlled, avoiding the seasonal congestion associated with the Masai Mara National Park. On a recent visit we spent a considerable amount of time in the Naibosho, Olare Motorogi and Mara North conservancies and we were mightily impressed with the game-viewing and the relative absence of other vehicles, compared with the Mara itself. There are similar conservancies elsewhere in Kenya such as Lewa/Borana Wildlife Conservancy and Namunyak Conservancy. The same benefits to visitors are evident in those areas.
Western Tanzania including Katavi and Mahale Mountains
Over the space of a couple of weeks in Tanzania recently, we experienced some superb game-viewing in far northern Tanzania (on the Mara River) as well as in the remote and atmospheric Katavi national park. Buffalo, lions, hundreds of hippo, plenty of general game and few other people. Ideally combined with the really magical Greystoke Camp on Lake Tanganyika where the main objective is to find and observe a large group of well habituated chimpanzees. The lake itself is worth the trip and the chimps are a huge bonus.
Tanzania and Ngorongoro Crater
On an earlier educational trip in Tanzania, the highlights were undoubtedly the Serengeti, where we ran smack into the annual wildebeest migration in early April (it was amazing), and Ngorongoro Crater, which exceeded my expectations.
Lately, the Crater has been very busy, and in fact some East African travel experts think that it is over-promised and over-sold. That is true to a degree but of course there is a reason why the place is so popular: it is special.
While the central Serengeti is nowadays quite busy year-round, there are still properties which offer a first-class safari experience, away from the congested Seronera area. On a recent visit one of our team spent a couple of days at Namiri Plains camp which is to the west of Seronera. He found both the camp itself and the game-viewing experience (plenty of cheetahs!) to be first-class.
The Southern Serengeti is an excellent choice for the December through April time-frame when the wildebeest herds congregate there for the calving season. It is possible to do off-road driving in some of the areas outside the park boundaries which is great for observing cheetah which are seen here on a near daily basis.
Tanzania is a good choice for people who want to combine wildlife and culture, and we can also offer excellent programs for families with young children, such as by incorporating ‘exclusive use’ properties.
Southern Tanzania (Ruaha and Selous)
If you’ve already visited Kenya and Tanzania's Northern Circuit including the Serengeti and Ngorongoro Crater then Southern Tanzania might be a great option for you. If you appreciate Africa's truly wild and unspoiled places and everything they offer, Ruaha National Park and the Selous Game Reserve are definitely worth serious consideration. By all means stay for a few days in each area. Certainly no less than three nights, four would be even better. This place is made for slow travel. And Zanzibar is just a short hop from Dar-es-Salaam.
Private Kenya Safaris
Our clients who have recently traveled to Kenya have all been extremely pleased with the quality of the game-viewing there, and the cultural experience is without rival. Our best advice is to go with a private vehicle and driver. We now offer a privately guided Gameventures safari which we believe is the ideal safari for the first time visitor to East Africa, and perfect for serious photographers due to the ample weight allowance. Over the course of 12 nights in Kenya you will see approximately 35 big mammal species, 350 bird species, 3 distinct tribal groups, and much more. Want to spend a bit more time in Kenya? Add 2 nights at Amboseli – in my opinion one of the two or three best places for elephant anywhere in Africa. We can also offer a shorter 7-night version of this privately guided trip.
Comparable group trips are invariably run on a very tight schedule and many of them spend way too much time in transit, with a minimum of time allocated for actual game-viewing. Some of the packaged itineraries you may see, have lots of big names such as Mt. Kenya Safari Lodge, Treetops etc. but preciously little time is spent actually looking at wildlife, which is after all the purpose of a safari.
Why a privately guided trip?
All of the Kenya camps - and for that matter the ones elsewhere in Africa - generally do a great job in managing game drives and other activities (with as many as 6 people on a car most of the time). They try to put people together who have similar expectations, experience and preferences, so that keen birders don't end up with visitors interested in seeing 'big cats only', for example.
It doesn't always work out perfectly and even under the best of circumstances, being thrown together with total strangers in a vehicle for 3-plus hours can be challenging.
The perfect solution to that is to have your own private vehicle and guide on safari. In Kenya we consider that to be ‘doing it right’. It makes a decisive difference in the overall level of enjoyment and of what you get out of the trip. Not only because it gives you more freedom to explore at your own pace, but because of the strong rapport you build with your guide.
One of the Origins guides we employ for our guests quite frequently (they have several in this category) is Edwin Selempo. In addition to being hugely knowledgeable about animals, birds, plants, ecology and everything associated with it, Edwin is also erudite, with a dry sense of humor. Spend a few days with him and you’ll have a wonderful time, see all the animals and birds you’ve ever dreamed of plus you will get the story behind the story on matters like corruption, poaching, conservation, the increasing Chinese presence in Africa, and so on.
From a photography point of view this (Gameventures) itinerary is a great trip because of the diversity of habitats, scenery and wildlife - and the fact that you can take up to 100 lbs in luggage; so no need to leave any big lenses at home!
There's some driving involved from Meru to Samburu and from there to Laikipia but nothing too strenuous and you'd cross over some interesting terrain with great views. In my opinion a bit of driving - particularly in Africa where the roads are very quiet - adds to the experience rather than detracting from it.
About the Gameventures safari itself:
There is simply nowhere better for a first safari than Kenya. Why? Diversity of habitats, abundance of animals and wide open plains making game-viewing relatively easy and rewarding. Plus good tourism infrastructure, super-friendly people and a wide range of accommodations. Add to that one of the best private guides (silver or Gold KPSGA rating) in your own exclusive 4-wheel drive vehicle and you have the perfect safari combination.
- High quality camps in East Africa's top parks & reserves.
- Daily departures throughout the year.
- Private guide, private 4x4 vehicle throughout.
- Fly all sectors that are greater than a 4 hour drive.
- Luggage allowance of 46kg (100 lbs) per passenger.
The Masai Mara when the migration is not there
The wildebeest migration (depending upon local rainfall patterns) usually arrives in the Maasai Mara (from the Serengeti) sometime in July every year. However, the Mara is anything but 'empty' outside of the "migration season". All the animals that can be seen during the migration, can be seen all year round. And they can be seen in big numbers. The big prides of lions do not migrate with the wildebeests, only the bachelors without a home range do. Most leopards and cheetahs are territorial too and do not migrate either. Many animals are actually moving out of the Mara during the migration, because the big herds of wildebeests compete with them for food. According to an article by Stelfox (Herbivores in Kenya, Journal of Wildlife Management), this is how the wildebeest migration effects other species:
July (during migration)
June (before the migration)
As can be seen, for almost all species the numbers are actually higher in June (or for that matter any other month before July). Only wildebeests and zebras migrate in really big numbers.
So even if you travel to Kenya outside of the 'migration' time (July through October) you will still see a lot of wildlife.
Too many mini-buses chasing predator sightings is not a very common occurrence in east Africa, although it can happen in some parts of the Maasai Mara, the central Serengeti and in Ngorongoro Crater, especially in the high season. However, it can largely be avoided by selecting a good operator and staying away from the crowds, in smaller camps. The Serengeti, for example, is so vast that crowding is hardly a problem, even in high season.
There is no doubt that areas such as Kenya's Masai Mara National Reserve and Tanzania's Serengeti Plains and Ngorongoro Crater offer a spectacular wildlife-viewing experience, especially if a visit can be timed to witness the annual wildebeest migration. Ngorongoro Crater harbors a wonderful concentration of wildlife species, including rhino and various predators. The Serengeti is unrivaled for sheer number of migratory animals and big game. With over 35 species of large game and 350 species of birds, the Serengeti is a must for any Tanzanian safari. Here you'll find antelope of all varieties, huge herds of gazelle, zebra and wildebeest; plentiful lions, as well as cheetah and other predators.
Compared with the great southern African game parks, the Mara has a greater abundance of animals, including large predators, and the wide open plains make game-viewing very rewarding. If you visit during the August wildebeest migration, you can see as many as 150,000 animals in one area. The Mara is good at any time of the year, however - there is always something to see.
* Walking safaris with experienced guides (less commonly undertaken in east Africa).
* Night drives with spotlights, a wonderful way to see nocturnal animals such as leopard, genet, civet and African wild cat. This is also not a common practice in east Africa.
* Game drives by boat and mokoro (dug-out 'canoe') afford a different avenue to see some of the rarer animals and big game drinking or crossing rivers.
* In general, the overall quality of the guides in southern Africa is higher due to better training standards.
* Easy to include Cape Town at the start or end of a trip, or extend to Victoria Falls.
If you are intent on combining culture and wildlife, East Africa has no equal. Nowhere else can you see Maasai herdsmen with their cattle side by side with wild animals such as buffalo. In Tanzania’s northern circuit, for example, there are many opportunities to visit Maasai homesteads or cultural bomas, experience market days in the towns and villages, and to generally experience how wildlife and people co-exist. Another reason to specifically visit East Africa is to view the annual wildebeest migration. This spectacle of seeing hundreds of thousands of animals congregated in one area has no equal in southern Africa, except for the zebra migration in the Kalahari and the wildebeest migration in Liuwa National Park in Zambia.
You could go on safari to any of these countries and see enough game to last you a life-time. The trick is in selecting the right venues, time & operator.
Botswana is the place to go for excellent game-viewing and remarkably diverse scenery, especially if you really want to ‘get away from it all’; many of the lodges there are on private concessions where there are few other visitors.
Conventional wisdom has it that the best time to visit Botswana is in the dry season (June through October) and while that generally holds true, there is much to be said for the “Low Demand Season” between December and March, and for the shoulder season from April to May & June. From April through May, the annual flood moves into Botswana's Okavango Delta. It is an amazing sight to see the ribbons of water from the air, and to observe the changes on the ground, where a particular spot may be dry one day, only to be covered by a thin sheet of water the next.
The Okavango Delta rates very high in my personal "Travel Hall of Fame". It is not inexpensive when done the right way, which, in my opinion, is to fly in and stay at two or three first-class lodges. Three days at a ‘mixed-activity’ camp (offering both game drives and mokoro outings) and three more at a good game-viewing camp, as well as a visit to the Chobe-Linyanti area should suffice, depending on the time of the year.
The Moremi Wildlife Reserve is one of the top eco-destinations in the world. What makes it so spectacular is that it features a wide array of big game species including lions, leopards, hyenas, giraffes, elephants and buffalo, as well as a dramatic array of bird-life. The reserve encompasses the ecologically unique Okavango Delta, so visitors can go on a game drive in the morning, then, in the afternoon, glide along narrow, papyrus-lined streams to watch water-adapted wildlife and a profusion of colorful birds.
Ideally one could combine Victoria Falls, Chobe-Linyanti Game Reserve and the Okavango Delta/Moremi.
Recap on a few of our Botswana favorites:
I've got Jao on my 'Groundhog Day' list, meaning I'd be happy to wake up there every morning for the rest of my life. The place is just about perfect: Gorgeous rooms, wonderful setting in one of the prettiest spots in the entire Okavango Delta. Nothing else like it. Having recently been re-built from the ground up, the camp is now in a class of its own.
Vumbura Plains rooms are appealing with its open plan design; amazing views from the bedroom and lounge over the surrounding Okavango Delta plains. And a functional, enjoyable plunge pool. What impressed me on a recent visit was the game-viewing: huge elephant herds, plenty of buffalo and the only camp which delivered on my request to see Sable antelope. Little Vumbura which is as romantic a spot as ever; the rooms were updated and improved recently, making them bigger and with more space in the bedroom section of the tent.
Pelo - which was new to me - is a gem of a small classic camp built on an island in the Jao Concession, not too far from Kwetsani. Water activities only, no vehicles. Ideal as a 2-night introduction to the Okavango Delta with boating & mokoro outings; walking in the dry season. Nearby Tubu and Little Tubu are two of the best mixed activity camps in the Okavango Delta, in my opinion.
Chitabe has turned into another Mombo in terms of game-viewing. Amazing. Before leaving we had to chase giraffe, zebra, impala and warthog off the airstrip, so that our imminently arriving plane could land safely. And all through this there was a pack of twenty Painted Dogs sleeping in a shady spot not 10 meters off the runway. Bonus sighting for the incoming visitors
A three-night stay at Abu Camp was a delight. The camp no longer does elephant-back riding but that does not mean that the Abu elephants don't play a central role in the activities there. They do. There are plenty of opportunities to interact with them including a walking with the elephants and ‘mokoro with the elephants’ activity. I happened to be the only guest on a 'mokoro with the elephants' outing one morning and it was arguably the single best thing I experienced in 6 weeks in Southern Africa. You're in a mokoro gliding through a shallow channel with a massive elephant walking right next to you and just meters ahead two young elephants are gamboling in the water. Spectacular.
A few months ago I had an opportunity to inspect Mombo which, together with Little Mombo, was rebuilt in exactly the same spot as the old one. This was a good decision as it is one of the most productive spots of any, in northern Botswana. The rooms are now even better than before with more interior space. Otherwise no change: same boardwalk, same great views, same fantastic game-viewing. In fact as we landed with the helicopters, there was a stunning black-maned lion in sight. So Mombo!
Nambia should be added to any Africa travel list. The magnificent dunes at Sossusvlei, the stunning geology of the Skeleton Coast, driving across the Namib Desert, the vast expanse of the salt pan in Etosha, the fort at Namutoni and many other places are delightful and easy to get to. Namibia is one of my personal favorites because it has the unique combination of excellent game-viewing in Etosha and the true desert experience of the Namib.
Namibia has vast areas of true wilderness and it also offers some of the best opportunities in Africa for cultural experiences such as meeting the Himba people, one of the continent's least disturbed and most traditional tribes. Swakopmund - which is a little bit like a slice of Germany in the desert - is a delightful holiday destination with many activities. Wilderness Safaris’ Hoanib Skeleton Coast Camp opened to great acclaim a couple of years ago; few camps have more to offer in the way of diversity and fascinating experiences. Surprisingly good game-viewing!
At almost twice the size of Germany, Namibia is huge so it is imperative not to try to do too much in just a few days. With limited time at one’s disposal, it is advisable to incorporate some flying in order to cover more terrain. A good choice is a Namibia highligts safari, including the massive dunes at Sossusvlei, the fascinating Damaraland area and Etosha, for example. Wilderness Safaris’ various camps in Namibia, including Doro Nawas, Desert Rhino Camp (rhino tracking & lots of other wildlife) and Serra Cafema (a desert oasis on the Cunene River) offer yet more interesting facets of this truly unique country. Several new properties in the Natural Selection and Ultimate Namibia stables have added many new and exciting accommodation and experiential options.
Wilderness Safaris’ Explorations safaris in Namibia highlight several exciting facets of this country. Please call or write for itineraries & further details of the 13-night Desert Dune safari and the 10-day Diverse Namibia safari. Likewise for Ultimate Namibia’s scheduled privately guided trips. They are excellent.
The ‘Diverse Namibia’ trip is a great introduction to Namibia, as it traverses the central and northern-western areas, where the unique hyper-arid Namib desert is encountered at its best. This trip will get you close to nature in the broader sense: nature and wildlife and particularly the desert & dune experience. Of course it also includes Etosha for game-viewing (notably rhino, gemsbok, kudu, springbok) and Damaraland to look for the desert-adapted elephants as well as to marvel at the stark landscapes.
South Africa delivers good value for money as an African safari destination due to the relative weakness of the South African currency. South Africa is also the best place for rhino - both black and white. At the rate these animals are disappearing elsewhere on the continent, my advice would be to go and see them first!
There are few cities in the world that rival Cape Town for scenic beauty and other than from June through August (when the weather can be dreary & cold) it is almost always worthwhile spending a few days here first, before venturing north on safari. Culture, scenery, Kirstenbosch, Table Mountain cable car trip, the winelands, museums, shark diving, Nelson Mandela’s legacy in the area, whale-watching – the list of things to do and see in Cape Town is long.
The best game-viewing area in South Africa is the north-east, with the heart of it being Kruger National Park – one of the great wildlife sanctuaries in the world. Particularly from about April through November, there are few places better than practically any of the private game reserves adjacent to Kruger Park in the Sabi Sand and Timbavati Reserves. The properties offer superior game-viewing, comfortable to deluxe accommodations and great all-round hospitality - and most importantly, first-class guiding in open 4-wheel drive vehicles. We particularly like MalaMala Game Reserve where the ‘Big Five’ mammals are seen practically every single day of the year. MalaMala can also be combined with Mashatu (in south-eastern Botswana) in a package deal which delivers probably the best game-viewing available anywhere in Southern Africa over the course of a little more than a week.
Going on safari at the public rest camps inside Kruger Park is interesting and can be very enjoyable, but it is a hit and miss affair with no off-road driving available and with (often) big numbers of vehicles around high profile mammal sightings. The quality of the experience (accommodation and driving) has been on the decline over the last few years.
The Garden Route is a good idea if you have several days; traveling from Cape Town via Hermanus (marine experience, fynbos, African penguins, whale-watching) or via Swellendam to the heart of the Garden Route which is Knysna. Don’t forget to visit the spectacular Tsitsikamma area.
Another good side-trip from Cape Town is to go up the West Coast to the Cedarberg, and stay at Bushmanskloof Lodge which has a stunning location and interesting mix of activities. The San (Bushman) rock art walks there are superb, and the game drives can be quite rewarding. Terrific accommodation too. Closer to Cape Town there are fabulous places like Bartholomeus Klip (near Paarl) which has superb accommodation and cuisine in a working farm setting, with game drives on their heritage site. Cape Agulhas and De Hoop National Park are also interesting places to visit, with the emphasis on unique Cape flora and fauna.
One of the best lodges in South Africa is to be found in the Southern Cape: Grootbos. It is superb in every way, from location to range of activities and general hospitality. We recently re-visited Grootbos for the third time and the property has gone from strength to strength. Right now I believe it is unrivalled in terms of cuisine – the meals which we enjoyed there last May were spectacular. For a family vacation consider one of Grootbos villas – out of this world.
For a trip of about 10 days or so total it would be a great idea to combine Grootbos with a couple of nights in the Cape winelands (La Cles des Montagne, the Leeu Collection properties, La Residence and Mont Rochelle are all superb) with a few days on safari in the Eastern Cape. On a recent visit to the area I was pleasantly surprised by the quality of the game-viewing at Kwandwe in the Eastern Cape; we saw ‘everything’ and with the mostly open habitat game-viewing is relatively easy. This property was previously in the AndBeyond portfolio and is still being run at that level. Shamwari is also an excellent choice for the Eastern Cape. The area is malaria-free which is an important consideration for families with children and for expecting mothers.
Zambia is generally quite a bit wilder than other southern African destinations: the Luangwa Valley has terrific game-viewing, and not too many other travelers (except perhaps around Mfuwe). Zambia offers many options for walking safaris, as well. River Club and Toka Leya (tented) are both charming lodges on the Zambezi River, upstream from Victoria Falls, offering some of the finest accommodation and most diverse activities in all of Africa. Thorntree Lodge has probably the finest accommodation in the area, right now.
On a wide-ranging inspection trip to Zambia we inspected camps in the three main wildlife regions (Kafue, South Luangwa and Lower Zambezi) and really fell in love with the country. The camps are all quite small, very relaxed and they offer the kind of safari experience which we first experienced in Botswana in the early 90’s.
The South Luangwa National Park and the Lower Zambezi National Park are both renowned for their game-viewing. We experienced some of our best ever safari experiences there in bush camps such as Chindeni (the bush camps are ideal for small parties especially if they are keen on doing some walking), Nsefu (terrific game-viewing) and especially Kaingo, where the owner are particularly attuned to the needs of photographers (amateur & professional). We really felt that they put us into the best position for some awesome photographs and their blinds (hides) are the best we have seen anywhere in Africa.
Wilderness Safaris also operate a couple of camps in Zambia’s Kafue National Park – much higher lying and well-watered region. The northern sector of Kafue is remote, wild and diverse with vast tracts of pristine ‘pure wilderness’. Mammals in the area are very diverse and aside from the high profile species, such as Lion, Leopard, Elephant, Buffalo and Cheetah, commonly seen in countries like Botswana and Zimbabwe, a number of other species, not readily encountered further south are often seen. Chief among these are Puku, Defassa Waterbuck and Lichtenstein’s Hartebeest with rarer species such as Oribi and Roan regularly encountered.
Kafue also delivers when it comes to the high profile species with good Lion and fantastic Cheetah sightings. Leopard are seen quite regularly too while Wild Dogs are occasionally seen. Elephant and Buffalo sightings are excellent, and there are abundant Hippo and good numbers of plains game such as Zebra and Wildebeest.
Zimbabwe: The safari camps in Zimbabwe are being filled by savvy Africa travelers who know where to find the finest wildlife encounters, at attractive prices. Safari prices in Zimbabwe are reasonable and the quality is exceptional, as the staff in the camps go out of their way to ensure that each and every visitor has a great stay.
Game-viewing in Hwange - and other Zimbabwe parks - is generally excellent in late winter to early spring (July through October), and you should see between 25 and 35 different species of mammals, not counting bats & small rodents. You simply can't beat Hwange for elephant, at the right time of the year. Zimbabwe has many small safari camps which offer a high quality, personalized service. One of the things which puts it into a class of its own is walking safaris. The full pro Zimbabwe guides are simply the best of any for foot safaris: their qualification to do this takes 5 to 7 years to acquire and sets the gold standard for all guiding in Africa.
Of course Zimbabwe also has Victoria Falls which offers the spectacle of the famous falls and lots of adventure activities such as white-water rafting, canoeing, bungee jumping, zip-lining & flights by helicopter and micro-light aircraft. Be sure to do the Bushtracks jetboat sundowner cruise: it gets closer to the Falls (about 800 meters) than any other boat which is not dangerous – but it is advantageous because there are no other boats around. And the self-guided tour of the Falls is always worthwhile. Stroll across to the Lookout Café after your Falls walk, for a cup of coffee or something and some jaw-dropping views of the Batoka Gorge.
One of our best recent Zimbabwe trips was a combination of Mana Pools (Ruckomechi) with Lake Kariba and Little Makalolo Camp in Hwange. Best elephant viewing ever – plus good lions, buffalo all over the place, eland, sable and roan and giraffe. Friendly, small camps with high degree of personalized service. I can’t recommend this combination highly enough. I was simply blown away by the excellent elephant sightings at Matusadona National Park where we stayed at Changa Camp. It is the perfect addition at Lake Kariba to complement a Hwange and Mana Pools trip.
Some excellent Zimbabwe properties which we visited over the last few months include the following:
Victoria Falls: Vic Falls Hotel (our #1 choice in the area); Batonka Lodge (well run, affordable) and Gorges/Little Gorges downstream on the Batoka Gorge. The newly refashioned Stanley & Livingstone Hotel is a jewel and well worth including for a couple of nights. A long-time favorite is Ilala Lodge – still an excellent choice & perfect location.
Zambezi River upstream from Vic Falls: Zambezi Sands, Victoria Falls River Lodge & Islands Suites (best views of any!) and Old Drift Lodge. All good choices if you want to be away from the noise & hustle & bustle of Vic Falls town.
Southern Hwange: Somalisa, The Hide, Linkwasha, Little Makalolo, Davison’s, Bomani, Camelthorn and Jozibanini. All good choices year-round; consistently good for elephants & various big cats, lots of plains game.
Northern Hwange: Camp Hwange, Nehimba. Good choices for the dry season.
As a ‘stand alone’ activity before or after a safari, a Rwanda gorilla trek at Volcanoes National Park is an easier option than Bwindi (Uganda), simply because Volcanoes National Park is easier to get to from Kigali, than is Bwindi from Entebbe.
However, the Rwanda authorities increased the cost of a gorilla permit at Volcanoes NP to $1,500 some time ago. If visitors include at least one other Rwanda destination on the itinerary, the price drops by about 30%. So it may be worthwhile to include at least one other Rwanda destination such as Akagera National Park or Nyungwe Forest, to qualify for the discount. The fee for a gorilla permit is $700 in Uganda; with seasonal discounts in April, May & November when it is lower.
For a safari to include a gorilla trek I would recommend one of the following:
From and back to Entebbe and including game-viewing in Queen Elizabeth National Park and chimp trekking in Kibale Forest.
Main advantage: availability of scheduled small-group departures, best value for money; lower-priced gorilla permits. Not many other people around, lots of privacy.
Disadvantage: Road network not very good, fairly long drives on most itineraries. Flights are now available from Entebbe to the Bwindi area making this less of an issue.
Kenya and Rwanda
A safari to include Samburu or Lewa Wildlife Conservancy (superb endemics including Reticulated Giraffe and Grevy's Zebra) plus a few days in the Masai Mara in Kenya (the best game-viewing of any in East Africa) and then a scheduled flight to Kigali, Rwanda for a gorilla trek.
Main advantage: best game-viewing of the three options, good road and air network. Gorilla trekking in Rwanda (Volcanoes National Park) usually somewhat less strenuous than in Uganda (Bwindi Impenetrable Forest) due to less steep slopes.
Disadvantage: Gorilla permits more are expensive in Rwanda than in Uganda.
Daily departures for Kenya safaris and many customized options.
Republic of Congo
A 7-night/8-day trip from Brazzaville, Republic of Congo.
Main advantage: One of the few places in Africa where Western lowland gorillas can be observed safely. Stunning setting. Very few other people around, only 3 camps in area.
Disadvantage: Somewhat difficult to get to (best is via Paris on Air France-KLM-Delta; also reachable from Nairobi and Johannesburg), relatively expensive.
The animals you are likely to see during a week's stay in Botswana, for instance, will include elephant, giraffe, lion, zebra, buffalo, black-backed jackal, hyena, warthog, hippopotamus, wildebeest, impala, puku, tsessebe, kudu, reedbuck, waterbuck, lechwe, steenbok, duiker, baboon, vervet monkey, tree squirrel, mongoose and crocodile. Animals that you may see with a bit of luck and some night or water drives include leopard, cheetah, sable antelope, sitatunga, bush baby, African wild cat, bat-eared fox, side-striped jackal, wild dog, honey badger, genet, aardwolf, and more. A lot depends on which ecological areas are visited and on luck, but all these animals inhabit the regions we visit.
In a week in Northern Tanzania your list should be very similar, but with subtle differences: elephant, giraffe, lion, wildebeest, zebra, buffalo, black-backed & golden jackal, hyena, warthog, hippopotamus, impala, eland, topi, Thomson’s Gazelle, Grant’s Gazelle, Kirk’s Dikdik, waterbuck, steenbok, duiker, baboon, vervet monkey, Sykes monkey, mongoose and crocodile. Animals that you may see with a bit of luck include leopard, cheetah, lesser kudu, gerenuk, black rhino, wild dog, klipspringer, honey badger, bat-eared fox, and more.
The birding is wonderful in southern Africa with about 600 species being present. Southern Africa offers some of the most diverse habitat - especially in northern Botswana and Zimbabwe - while Namibia has a wealth of endemic bird species. The area is covered by a selection of excellent field guides (detailed information provided upon booking). Wilderness Safaris is renowned for emphasizing more than just the 'big mammals' on safari, and their guides are all familiar with the birds of their particular areas, while some are bird experts in their own right.
The bird-watching in East Africa is every bit as good; on a recent trip we saw just on 300 species over less than 10 days of hard driving between camps. Kenya and Tanzania are two of the top bird-watching destinations in Africa, and so is Uganda. The best months for birding are from about November through March, when many intra-African and European migrants are present, and when many birds are in breeding plumage. Our Kenya-based partner Origins Safaris emply several of Kenya’s top birders, as private guides. They are who you need to be guiding your own private safari.
It depends on one’s itinerary. For example if you are going to spend a few days in Hwange (Zimbabwe) and then going on to Botswana, it makes good sense to include a couple of days in Victoria Falls. For sheer spectacle, nothing can touch the Falls at peak flood in April or May/June. Nice weather at that time of the year, too. The white-water rafting experience in the Zambezi down from Victoria Falls is awesome especially when conditions are ideal (September/October). Not for the faint at heart! If you are pressed for time, then it is ok to leave Vic Falls off – it is rarely the #1 highlight of anybody’s trip. Great to see – best from the Zimbabwe side – and we just love spending some time at the grand Victoria Falls Hotel.
Game-viewing can get repetitive if you stay in the same habitat too long, which translates into seeing pretty much the same vegetation, animals, birds, etc. The key is habitat diversity: look for an itinerary which has a mix of three or four major habitat types such as wetlands, highveld savannah (open grassland dotted with trees), acacia or thornveld savannah (aka bushveld) and riverine bush. Getting out of the vehicle for foot safaris, canoeing, boating, observing animals from a blind/hide and maybe even from horse-back or a mountain bike, are all good options to introduce some added diversity.
By all means select a trip or customized itinerary which will look at all aspects of the natural history of an area, not just game. Try not to get too caught up 'Big Cat' fever, i.e. sightings of lions, leopards and cheetahs, to the exclusion of almost everything else. There's much more to be discovered about the African wilderness, particularly its incredible birdlife, smaller mammals, reptiles & amphibians, even insects and butterflies. Not to mention the trees and other plants... If you are receptive to learning about all aspects of the natural history, your trip will be much more meaningful and enjoyable. Don’t set yourself up for disappointment by focusing on just one or two of the big cats: especially leopard and cheetah. They are not always seen.
It all depends. For a first visit to Africa - unless you're young, adventurous & traveling as a backpacker - my advice would be to go on a customized trip or a small group safari. You really have three main options (and may opt to combine two or more of these):
a) Fully independent fly-in safari
For the independently-minded, savvy traveler, this is the way to go. You decide - in consultation with your African destination specialist - how long you want to stay in particular areas & lodges and choose the activities you like, whether it's game-viewing, walking, water activities, culture & history, bird-watching, etc. A single guide does not usually accompany you all the way, as you go on game-drives and other activities (such as mokoro rides or foot safaris) with knowledgeable local guides, attached to the camp. The fly-in safaris are quite sociable too: even though you are not part of a group as such, you meet up with interesting people at the various lodges, where meals are often taken together and there is ample opportunity for socializing. For those reasons these trips are suitable for single/solo travelers as well.
This is the best choice for someone who does not mind paying a bit more for quality accommodations (all with en-suite facilities) throughout. It has been my experience that game-viewing (especially for big game and cats) is best on a fly-in safari, or at least it is more consistent. The guides at the camps pretty much know where game is concentrated at any particular time, and the various vehicles out on game drives are in radio contact, so everyone is alerted to sightings of special interest.
These trips can also be done with your own private guide and private vehicle throughout and that is the preferred mode of travel in East Africa.
b) Join a small-group safari (scheduled departure).
These safaris, which range from luxury fly-in trips to more basic, 'Adventurer' safaris, are for people who enjoy the camaraderie of traveling with a few other like-minded people and who appreciate the many advantages of having a professional guide on hand at all times. Sharing the experience often makes it much more rewarding & having a guide to identify birds, trees & mammals can make all the difference. The cross-country safaris are also ideal for single travelers of either sex. Overland guided safaris can be tailor-made for private family groups or friends who'd like to travel together. The ideal group size is from six to eight.
If you will enjoy the group experience, if you do not mind an occasional long drive to get from one area to the next, and are looking for a broadly educational trip (not just big game!), you will enjoy the overland safaris. Standards of accommodation varies: even on some of the more expensive trips there is some mobile tented camping involved. However, you get close to nature, you are usually the only people in the camp, and you have a guide who can answer just about any question you may have.
c) Self-drive safari
The more cost-conscious traveler may consider a self-drive safari in South Africa, or Namibia. These two countries (and especially South Africa) have an excellent road & air network, which makes it easy to get around quickly and relatively safely, without having to resort to 4-wheel drive vehicles. Just plan your trip carefully & book well in advance, especially for the July & December holidays. Please note: South Africa – and also Namibia – have poor road safety records and road deaths there are amongst the highest (per vehicle-miles traveled) of any country in the world. Keep in mind that you are most likely to be injured in a road accident, than through any other activity, in Africa or practically anywhere else. We do not recommend extended driving around the major cities in South Africa, or long-distance travel cross-country. Night-driving should be avoided.
Why would anybody pay $1,000+ per person per day for a safari? There are the obvious reasons such as staying in an elegant, romantic 'out of Africa' style tent, enjoying all the comforts of a hotel, including excellent food and personalized service.
In my opinion the two most important factors, however, are privacy and the quality of the guiding.
The most expensive lodges are almost always located in private concession areas where access is limited to the guests staying at the lodge(s) on the property. Ask anybody who has spent some time on a fly-in safari in Northern Botswana, and they will invariably mention seeing few other vehicles. The privacy and exclusivity of these camps create a wilderness experience that cannot be compared with a stay at a public reserve. I've had some wonderful (inexpensive) experiences in places like Etosha, Kalahari Gemsbok Park, and Kruger Park - which I have visited dozens of times - yet I have also had visits there marred by foolish behavior on the part of other visitors, such as illegal off-road driving, hooliganism and overcrowding, with sometimes dozens of cars converging on a 'kill' scene. Every visit is different and you can have the most sublime wildlife experience in a public reserve (I sure have), but by spending the dollars to stay in a private concession, you do not run the risk of having your vacation spoiled by some idiot throwing a beer bottle at sleeping lions. Most people do not return to Africa year after year, so for them it is a wise investment to spend a bit more in order to enjoy the proverbial trip of a life-time.
At private game lodges such as MalaMala in South Africa, Mashatu in the Tuli Block of Botswana, and many of the camps elsewhere in Southern Africa, the quality of the guiding is superb. A game drive with a really good guide is a veritable education. He or she does not only find the animals and birds and other wildlife, but interprets their behavior, explains their interaction with each other, and even predicts what will happen next. Being with a real ‘pro’ guide is like being 'in' one of those National Geographic film. This also applies to Zimbabwe which has on the whole probably the best guiding of any African country.
Who to trust with designing, planning and executing your African safari trip is a weighty decision. We'd suggest that you start with a member of the Safari Professionals of the Americas, all proven African destination specialists. They've got the experience, the expertise and the overall perspective of the safari landscape, to help you make the best choice. They know where the value is, what to avoid, and will safeguard you from making an expensive mistake.
Almost as important as the trip you decide on, is knowing who will be in charge of your day to day arrangements in Africa, and if they have the resources to step in and fix a problem, should something untoward happen. Proper back-up, solid emergency procedures and reliable communications are vital in Africa where you may be many hours away from medical care, sometimes for days on end.
Working with a well-established and legitimate North America-based safari company has many pluses, not the least of which is that you can get them on the 'phone when it suits you. Dealing with a known local entity is important also for security and reassurance related to liability, insurance and problem-solving.
It is always a good idea to talk to someone on the 'phone, and not just rely on e-mail, convenient as it may be. A phone call to a safari company you're considering for your business, can be quite revealing. For one thing you will get a good measure of their knowledge and experience. If they're prompt to return your calls, take the time to listen to you, are considerate of your budget and particular preferences you may have, and follow up in a timely manner, you can reasonably assume that they will continue to perform well during the entire process.
We have been an agent for Wilderness Safaris (head office in Johannesburg where they operate a full-service travel agency, with affiliates in Namibia, Botswana and Zimbabwe/Zambia) since 1990 and recommend them highly. We also have good working relationships with Desert & Delta Safaris, Kwando Safaris, Sanctuary, Great Plains, AndBeyond, and African Bushcamps, as well as Imvelo Safaris in Zimbabwe, all of whom operate properties which we are familiar with and use with confidence. We also book camps operated by Ker Downey Botswana and Capture Africa in Botswana. In Tanzania, we work with Nomad Tanzania, and our long-time Kenya associates are Origins Safaris, based in Nairobi. In East Africa we book camps operated by Elewana, Lemala, Asilia, AndBeyond, Great Plains and several others.
On an African safari, the quality of the guide is a make-or-break factor, so don't compromise on this: a good guide will make a safari interesting - even excellent - no matter the weather or how much game you see. The guiding at all camps which we use on a regular basis are at a high level, for example at the Wilderness Safaris and other properties in Botswana, Namibia and Zimbabwe, as well as at properties like Tswalu, MalaMala, Kirkmans, Mashatu and many others. Nomad Tanzania and Origins Safaris (Kenya) employ equally top-notch guides, which I know from first-hand experience.
Safari flights in Africa are probably as safe as similar light aircraft operations anywhere in the world: much safer than ground transportation but not as safe as commercial jet aircraft. The aircraft are well-maintained and - just like in the USA - completely overhauled after a pre-determined number of hours. You'll find that the so-called "bush pilots" are, like the vast majority of their colleagues all over the world, very concerned about safety, that they follow correct procedures and that they will not operate an unserviceable aircraft, or overload it (so watch that luggage limit!) After all, their lives are at stake, too.
Urban crime is a problem in South Africa, but the country's major cities such as Johannesburg, Cape Town and Durban are no more dangerous to travelers than other large African cities such as Nairobi, Kenya or Harare, Zimbabwe. As long as you take good precautions, and always travel with a local guide or driver, you should be fine. Outside of the cities, traveling is more relaxed. Botswana, Zambia and Namibia are politically stable and peaceful, and traveling in those countries is not as stressful as visiting South Africa. Zimbabwe has just about fully emerged from a period of political unrest, but tourist areas such as Victoria Falls, Hwange, Mana Pools and Kariba have never been affected. Personal safety is dealt with in detail in our pre-trip information material.
It is important to maintain perspective. Random terrorist attacks can and do occur everywhere, including the big cities of Europe. Random mass shootings occur alarmingly often in the USA. So, any destination with few people around, is safer by comparison. While Kenya has had its share of terrorist incidents, and South Africa has a high crime rate, the risk of something happening to a person on safari is incredibly low.
Obviously, there is a certain degree of danger when you are in the bush with wild animals. However, you will always be accompanied by an experienced guide. Accidents are very rare and the camps have excellent safety records. Provided you use common sense you should be perfectly safe.
The most important thing is to make sure that all the essential things associated with the trip are included in the quoted price: ground transportation, accommodation, meals, excursions, guide/driver service and transfers. Some operators tend to confuse the issue with a very low up-front quote for a bare-bones trip which is not what you want and not what you end up paying for, once all the ‘extras’ are added in. Price is what you pay, value is what you get.
It depends. Generally speaking, game-viewing peaks from July through September, but it is good year-round. October through February can get very hot in northern Botswana and Zimbabwe, especially in the Zambezi Valley. For bird-watching, the summer months are better, i.e. October through February/March. Victoria Falls is at its best in April/May & June, while Cape Town's nicest weather is February, March & April and then again Sept/Oct. Namibia and other arid areas (such as the Kalahari) are at their best in March, April & May, just after the 'rainy' season (what there is of it). Low or shoulder season safari prices are available from November through May. The lowest prices (in Botswana & Zimbabwe) are for the 'Low Demand Season' from December through March.
Zambia is best visited from June through October, as the national parks are prone to heavy rainfall and impassable roads in the ‘high summer’ season from December through March/April. Some of the camps with access to all-weather roads do remain open however, and there are some very popular trips which operate in the area at that time. Fantastic birding, best chance of any time of the year for wild dogs, and lots of young animals to be seen.
In East Africa, it rarely gets unbearably hot, although some people prefer to avoid the ‘long rains’ which fall in April & May. The dry season from July to September is considered the optimum time for the western & northern Serengeti & Kenya’s Maasai Mara, while December, January and February are arguably the best three months for the southern short-grass plains of the Serengeti. The months of March through May and June as well as November are low & shoulder season in East Africa, and offer good value for money.
Steve Turner of Origins Safaris says it best regarding East Africa: “We think too many people are too pre-occupied by "migration" - at this time of year it's cold, grey, winter, dry, uninteresting and crowded. But yes, the wildebeest do run across rivers. Prospective visitors are also unnecessarily afraid of rain in May, when in fact rain is the lifeblood of Africa - this is when it's warm, tropical, everything is breeding, few other tourists, so a lovely "private, exclusive experience". Yes in May the roads can be muddy and the grass long, but such are the adventures of safari. In our opinion the best time in East Africa in general is October to March”.
Try to try to avoid too ‘busy’ an itinerary. We always urge prospective visitors to spend more time in fewer locations. Slowing down a safari has many benefits, not the least of which is that it reduces the 'per diem' cost due to relatively fewer charter and other flights. Spending several days in any one area enables you to enjoy all the activities in the area, to re-visit favorite spots, and to take the time to look for specific animals and to enjoy their behavior and interaction, as opposed to just finding them. The animals move around in real time, and it never hurts to have an extra day here or there. You will also become better acquainted with your guides and camp managers, and give them a chance to exhibit their particular strengths, for your benefit. Spending less time traveling between locations is the real luxury and will allow you an opportunity to connect with an area and discover the true meaning of ‘safari’ – Swahili for “journey”.
Look for quality and value for money. Don't end up spending $2,000.00 or more on airfares only to be disappointed by a poorly run, inferior safari.
Above all, take the best pair of binoculars you can afford, and have fun!
Fish Eagle Safaris Tours can all be customized to your ideal itinerary. We offer extra days, more activities, and upgraded amenities suited to your tastes. Below are a few additional options and reach out to firstname.lastname@example.org for more travel ideas.