The Beginner’s Guide To Planning Your First Safari

The Beginner’s Guide To Planning Your First Safari

With plenty of time to dedicate to dreaming, now is the ideal opportunity to get inspired and start planning an unforgettable African safari—the ultimate bucket list adventure. Here, African travel experts and safari insiders share their advice and top tips to make sure that your first safari is the trip of a lifetime. (Some quotes have been edited for length and clarity.)

First time on safari? Here’s everything you need to know to have an unforgettable first trip to … [+] Africa.
Geran de Klerk via Unsplash
Where Should I Go On Safari: How To Choose The Right Safari Destination
When planning a trip to Africa, the first question many people ask is: where should I go on safari? Africa is a massive continent with numerous safari experiences that vary greatly by country, region and season. Here’s how to find the right destination for you:
“There are 54 countries in Africa, 9 of which are renowned for world-class safaris: South Africa, Kenya, Tanzania, Namibia, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Zambia, Uganda and Rwanda. Do some armchair traveling of your own and chat to your travel planner about precisely what you’d like to see (and do) while on safari. Do you dream of setting foot on the infinite plains of the world-famous Serengeti or Masai Mara? Are you keen to climb the ancient sand dunes of the Namib Desert or would you prefer a land and (seasonal) water-based safari in Botswana’s Okavango Delta? Each country offers its own unique charms and wildlife encounters. Consider which landscapes are on your bucket list and decide exactly what animals are on your wildlife checklist.” -Claire Trickett, Editor, andBeyond
“For a first safari, choose a region that will offer a strong chance of seeing the Big Five (lion, leopard, rhinoceros, elephant and buffalo). South Africa’s Sabi Sands; Serengeti; or Masai Mara are probably your best bets.” -Tessa Robinson, Africa Travel Expert, Black Tomato
“For first-timers, South Africa is the perfect place to start. With more than 600 parks and reserves, it offers a patchwork of rolling green plains and remote desert sands dotted with diverse wildlife. While a safari is a truly memorable adventure, branching out and blending it with a stop off in buzzing Cape Town or an epicurean road trip around the winelands will add an extra dimension.” -Amanda Bailey, Africa Specialist, Carrier

“Africa is huge, with the USA, China and Europe easily fitting within its landmass. Even the wildlife areas are massive. To some degree asking which country for your first safari is approaching the question from the wrong direction. Better to ask: What time of year do I want to go on holiday? What animals do I want to see? What activities, including time on the beach, would I like? How much do I want to spend?” -Alice Gully, Co-Owner, Aardvark Safaris
“The good news is that there is always a great time to visit somewhere. It’s also worth noting that traveling outside of high season doesn’t make it a bad time to visit; often you can enjoy amazing sightings and stay in incredible places for a fraction of the price.” -Tessa Robinson, Africa Travel Expert, Black Tomato
“Get a map and start thinking through what is it you want to see and do. What have you seen on the Discovery Channel and dreamed of? Want to see the Great Wildebeest Migration? It actually happens in a small window of time (May and again in December) and in a small section of the Mara in Tanzania. Is tracking Rhinos your deal? Namibia offers some of the best Black Rhino tracking on the continent. Dreaming of those classic Safari Lodges? Botswana! The list goes on and on…You may think you are only going once, but trust me, you will start planning your return on day two of your safari.” -Dan Austin, Founder/CEO, Austin Adventures
“Don’t only research the more well-known countries for safari. There are some wonderfully safe and game-rich options that you might not have heard of because the tourism bodies in these countries have very little money to promote the country (such as Zambia).” -Mindy Roberts, CMO, Time + Tide
“As with any travel plans, you will want to consider the weather when deciding where and when to go on safari. Wildlife viewing has its own unique considerations, and the best time to view game is during the dry season. For sub-Saharan Africa, this is broadly from June to October. Of course, it is more enjoyable to sit in a game vehicle when it is not raining, but the main reason is when vegetation is sparse and water sources are more scarce, animals tend to congregate close to waterholes and are easier to spot without a thick cover of undergrowth.” -Samantha Gee, Africa Specialist, Red Savannah
“If you’re bringing younger children you might want to place more importance on choosing a malaria-free destination. For example, South Africa’s Waterberg region of the Limpopo province is malaria-free, meaning you can safely enjoy the many activities without having to worry about the prophylaxis side effects on younger safari-goers or relying on other forms of prevention.” -Tony Daly, Managing Director, Ranch Rider
“When planning a first-time safari people often want to hit the highlights, like the first trip to Europe, but there is something to be said for visiting the lesser-known parks and getting away from the trodden tourist circuit…I see travelers wanting to replicate something their neighbors or friends did when traveling to Africa but trust your trip designer to design the right safari for you, which might differ from that of folks back home. We sometimes get so caught up in ticking boxes that we miss the point.” -Christine Tucker, Africa Expert, Butterfield & Robinson
“Don’t feel the need to experience all of Africa the first time. Ideally, devote the experience to one country and immerse yourself in it.” -Alexander Mavros, Founder and Managing Director, Mavros Safaris

A safari doesn’t have to be very long to be life-changing.
Will Shirley via Unsplash
How Long Should My First Safari Be:
“It’s important to know how long you actually want to be on safari. There are a number of factors to consider, but, of course, the longer on safari the bigger the budget required. Some people are unsure about safaris so would like an introduction as part of a longer trip. South Africa, for example, can work perfectly for this, as there are so many experiences available and areas within the country, so you could just do three-night safari as a taster…If wildlife is your passion, for a first timer, I would say a week on safari is sufficient. Focus on the 2 or 3 main areas within the country that are renowned for abundant game viewing, so you can maximize your time. This could be combined with a beach stay or cultural/city experience, if you want to stay for longer. Kenya works really well for a safari and beach holiday, whilst somewhere like Botswana links really well with Victoria Falls. If this is a lifelong bucket list dream and will most probably be the only time you get to do this then by all means consider longer, but I’d still say make 10-12 nights the maximum.” -Jon Ruben, Owner, Signature Safaris
“The pace of safari can be exhausting for North American travelers. Allow yourself some time on the front end to recoup from the long trip over to Africa and build in a couple of nights to get caught up on rest, so that you go into your safari trip well-rested and ready to experience it all. I see so many people looking worn out by day four of their safari because they didn’t allow themselves time upon arrival to have a layover day to rest up, rehydrate and fully be present for their trip.” -Christine Tucker, Africa Expert, Butterfield & Robinson
“The experience varies greatly from lodge to lodge, so I would recommend staying in at least two safari lodges for three nights each. It’s important not to rush a safari holiday either as the lodges—if you pick the right one—are beautiful and you’ll need some downtime after those long game drives.” -Tessa Robinson, Africa Travel Expert, Black Tomato

Four Seasons Safari Lodge Serengeti is under the constant protection of local Maasai tribespeople.
Nick Garbutt, Four Seasons Hotels and Resorts
Who Should I Book With: How To Choose The Right Africa Tour Operators For Your First Safari
If you’re wondering whether or not to book a safari via a professional travel designer the answer is yes. Especially if you’re planning on visiting more than one lodge or destination, it’s practically mandatory to use a knowledgeable, Africa-specialized travel tour operator who will listen to your needs and put together the ideal safari itinerary for you. Here’s how to choose:
“First and foremost, book with someone who is from Africa. When someone is selling their home, it’s very different from selling just any destination and this will have a tremendous impact on your trip experience. -Deborah Calmeyer, CEO and Founder, Roar Africa
“If you receive the same itinerary from several operators (highly likely), you know you’re doing more of a package and nothing special. Try and ensure your operator creates a truly tailor-made package just for you.” -Rose Hipwood, Founder, The Luxury Safari Company 
“Choose a company that doesn’t just say it contributes to conservation and local communities—but has published responsible tourism policies and reports on their work. If they aren’t serious about this, don’t book.” -Justin Francis, Founder and CEO, Responsible Travel

Sabi Sabi Selati Camp in South Africa
Sabi Sabi Private Game Reserve
Where Should I Stay On Safari: How to Choose The Right Safari Lodge
There are thousands of safari lodges and camps to choose from, while your tour operator will offer suggestions, it’s important to also do your own research and understand the difference between lodges and what they offer in terms of location. Here’s what to look for before making your choice:
“Know the size of the property you will be staying in. Whether it is 3,000 acres or 30,000 acres makes all the difference to your experience while out game viewing. To ensure you have a premier safari experience, find out what level of qualifications your guides will have.” -Deborah Calmeyer, CEO and Founder, Roar Africa
“Some of the camps and lodges you come across in your early research may have very good PR machines behind them; don’t overlook some of the smaller, lesser-known camps, which are often the jewels in the crown and offer the most magical African experience.” -Rose Hipwood, Founder, The Luxury Safari Company
“It’s worth considering what type of safari is most suitable for you, whilst many safaris are in 4x4s, there are also some fantastic walking, horseback and biking safaris available for a more active experience.” -Kgomotso Ramothea, Acting Hub Head of South African Tourism UK, South African Tourism
“Travelers should consider the exclusiveness and remoteness of an area. How many other lodges are located nearby? How many other game vehicles are driving their guests around? At a private game reserve (as opposed to a public reserve or national park), the sightings tend to be more intimate; you won’t end up in a scrum with dozens of other cars trying to spot a lone animal and you will get to spend real quality time observing the animal…Also, if you want to experience more than just your usual safari, chose a lodge near a river or a dam. This will allow you to get closer to hippos and crocodiles, instead of just seeing through binoculars. It also allows you to view the land animals from a different perspective.” -Sean Jones, Ranger, Shambala Private Game Reserve
“An important factor you may want to consider is how the local people and area might benefit from your stay. Conservation and the way it is managed is a complex subject and we favor working with lodges who genuinely involve local communities and work with them towards long-term conservation goals, while also protecting the interests of indigenous landowners.” -Samantha Gee, Africa Specialist, Red Savannah
“Safaris can be pricey, so make sure you ask the questions to see where your money is going: Are you staying in a locally owned place? Are they employing local guides and staff? Are they supporting conservation?” -Nadja du Toit, Director of Africa Operations, G Adventures
“To make sure a safari is both fun and educational for kids, find a lodge with a kids program. For example, we offer a Mini Maasai Adventure program, where Maasai Warriors at the Kids’ Club guide children in activities from Tinga Tinga paintings to shield-making and sound safaris.” -Justin Stevens, General Manager, Four Seasons Safari Lodge Serengeti

Lion spotting on a safari game drive at andBeyond Sandibe Okavango Safari Lodge in Botswana
Stevie Mann; andBeyond
What Do I Need To Know About The Wildlife: Game Drive Rules, Etiquette and Advice
On safari, most wildlife viewings happen on twice-daily game drives in 4×4 vehicles with trained guides and trackers, though if you’re lucky, you’ll also spot game at your lodge—especially if it’s fence free, as many are. Game drives happen once in the morning and then again in the evenings, when the animals are most likely to be active and visible. Here’s what you need to know about viewing the Big Five and beyond:
“Don’t under estimate the benefit of having your own private vehicle. This allows for so much more flexibility and means you can tailor your safari and focus on the species of wildlife you love the most. If budgets are a little tight, [it’s better to] spend on the private vehicle and guide and stay somewhere a little more rustic.” -Rose Hipwood, Founder of The Luxury Safari Company
“Most private game reserve safaris are in open safari vehicles, allowing for vehicles to traverse off-road and navigate the bush terrain, which allows for close encounters with high-profile sightings. It also does not restrict the view of any guests regardless of where they are sitting on the vehicle. You will find covered vehicles mostly in the national parks, which are not private, as these vehicles stick to the structured road system and by law need to remain covered.” -Jacques Smit, Marketing Director, Sabi Sabi Private Game Reserve
“Ensure the guiding experience is top notch. You will spend approximately eight hours a day on a vehicle with your guide, so you will want to ensure that he or she is knowledgeable, engaging, charismatic and, above all, sensitive to the wildlife and dedicated to the safety of his or her guests at all times. Also, you’ll definitely want to research what kind of safari vehicles your lodge/operator uses. For example, our fleet of safari vehicles in Botswana has recently been upgraded and redesigned to offer the ultimate in comfort and convenience with camera bean bags on clamps for the photographers and charging points for your camera batteries and cell phones, etc.” -Claire Trickett, Editor, andBeyond
“Never ask your driver to get closer to wildlife than they feel is right or the guidelines state.” -Justin Francis, Founder and CEO, Responsible Travel
“It’s your holiday. If you have a yen to see an aardvark or sit watching a family of bat-eared foxes at their burrow, let your driver-guide know.” -Richard Trillo, East Africa Manager, Expert Africa
“When you are with our guides, be sure to ask as many questions as you can…Our people are so proud to have you in their homes as many of them grew up close by and whatever they don’t know about the natural world here probably isn’t worth knowing!” -Joshua Tough, Marketing Executive, Desert & Delta Safaris
“Be captivated by the elephants, rhinos and prides of lion but also be thrilled by the smallest dik-dik, mob of mongoose or wide-eyed bush baby.” -Maggi Smit, Managing Director, Windows on the Wild
“Not every drive will be action packed. Enjoy the quiet moments in between.” -Alexander Mavros, Founder and Managing Director, Mavros Safaris
“Consider trying a walking safaris: Walking safaris provide a wonderful opportunity to see and experience Africa at close range. They usually take place in the early morning when the sun is low and the air is fresh. I find it gives you a much more intimate appreciation of the Africa bush than you can ever get from a vehicle-based game-drive. The wildlife seen is typically on a smaller scale. Don’t expect the Big Five, but then that is the very attraction of it. Africa is both major and minor, massive and modest, large and small. It’s the variety that’ll surprise you.” -Vivian McCarthy, Director and Safari Specialist, Acacia Africa

Lilac-breasted roller at Lewa Wildlife Conservancy, Isiolo, Kenya.
David Clode via unsplash
What Camera Equipment Should I Bring On Safari: Photography Tips And Tricks
“Do a quick course on how best to use your camera before you travel to make sure you get that special picture of your first game sighting or that magical African sunset. It might be as simple as spending some time playing with settings and taking photos around the house. You do not want to get to your first amazing sighting and be unable to capture the moment!” -Sean Jones, Ranger, Shambala Private Game Reserve
“Lugging around camera equipment can be avoided, as many lodges offer top quality cameras to rent. (And the guides are great at teaching you how to capture that perfect shot.)” -Tessa Robinson, Africa Travel Expert, Black Tomato
“If your Safari lodge hires out photographic equipment, check ahead and book. Pack only your camera body with the standard lens and hire the zooms. Drones are banned in most reserves so leave them at home.” -Michelle Snaddon, Safari Concierge, Perfect Hideaways
“You’ll be surprised by how up close and personal you get with the wildlife, and often your long camera lens will be a nuisance. That’s when a mobile phone is most useful, but it’s often bumpy. There are some really cool compact gimbals and stabilizers that are awesome when you’re on a bumpy 4×4 vehicle.” -James Wilson, Marketing Director, Desert & Delta Safaris 
“Don’t forget extra memory cards.” -Jacques Smit, Marketing Director, Sabi Sabi Private Game Reserve
“Take a portable battery pack for your smartphone—you’ll use it to take more photos and videos than you expect.” -Richard Trillo, East Africa Manager, Expert Africa
“The best time to take photos is in the early morning and late afternoon; this is when the natural light is best. Luckily, this is also the time of day when most game drives take place.” -Armand Steyn, General Manager, Morukuru Family Madikwe
“Refrain from using flash photography for close-up photographs of the animals. You don’t want to disturb or startle our wild friends.” -Grace Wright, Marketing Manager, Turquoise Holidays
“Allow yourself to disconnect and be in the moment. The pressure to click, post and share can detract from the experience.” -Alexander Mavros, Founder and Managing Director, Mavros Safaris

Packing for your first safari? Stick with neutrals.
Little Chem Chem
What Should I Wear On Safari: A Packing And Luggage Guide
‘What should I wear on safari?’ is probably the second most common questions (after ‘where should I go on safari?’). Here’s everything you need to know about what to pack and what to leave behind:
“Think earthy colors—gray, shades of green or khaki. No brights, spots or stripes. You won’t regret it—there’s nothing worse than arriving at a lodge and looking like you didn’t get the memo, but more importantly, you’ll be safer with predators around. Packing ahead of time gives you time to shop for that fold-up hat that won’t fly off your head (be warned: safari hats are deeply unsexy; you’ll need to search for the perfect washable, crushable hat); a UV-resistant shirt (try and find a long-sleeved, shapely one with air vents); and a pair of light, closed shoes that do double duty (day and night; snake and mosquito proof), plus flip flops and sandals. Leave your precious jewelry at home. Find a lightweight duffel bag with pockets inside [duffels or soft-sided bags are best, as some small safari aircrafts don’t allow for hard-framed suitcases]. Aim for three or four outfits. Lay it all out on your bed two weeks before, pack, and then remove at least 25-percent. I promise you won’t use everything.” -Michelle Snaddon, Safari Concierge, Perfect Hideaways
“Avoid black and white, and camouflage is a definite no-go [it’s prohibited for civilians to wear in some African countries].” -Grace Wright, Marketing Manager, Turquoise Holidays
“The dream of looking like Meryl Streep in Out of Africa has come to an abrupt stop: You’ve just noticed that many fly-in safaris come with the requirement to compress your entire wardrobe into a tiny bag weighing no more than 33 pounds!…But you’ll be surprised how little you need to take since you can generally get laundry done every day, and it’s often back with you by the evening, ironed and tidily folded. Many camps decline to wash ladies underwear for cultural reasons, but there’s no need to worry since you will find soap powder provided beside the basin in most camps.” -Alice Gully, Co-Owner, Aardvark Safaris
“Though luggage restrictions are usually quite strictly enforced, if you’re on a longer trip and have additional luggage you can sometimes leave this at the terminal free of charge until you return. Check with your airline before departing.” -Wilson Odhiambo, General Manager, Mahali Mzuri
“First timers to Africa often imagine that it will be hot all the time but the dry season—when game viewing is at its best—tends also to be cooler, so layers are the key to comfort on safari. Game drives begin just as it is starting to get light, so driving around in an open-sided vehicle can get distinctly chilly. However, as the sun rises, you’ll find yourself warming up, even in winter, and will want to remove fleeces and scarves in favor of t-shirts and sun hats. Always pack sunglasses, a hat and sun cream, and remember that you’ll get hot and dusty, so there’s no need to look your best. Avoid jeans as they are usually too hot and avoid dark blue since this color attracts tsetse flies.” -Samantha Gee, Africa Specialist, Red Savannah
“Ensure you’re comfortable as you will be spending a lot of time in a vehicle traveling around.” -Phil Ellis, Product Manager, Africa, Titan Travel
“The African sun is strong when you’re so close to the equator, so you’re going to need a hat. Baseball caps will do, but a broad-brimmed version, such as the unisex elegant fedora is better. It will save you from a painful burnt neck on game drives.” -Alice Gully, Co-Owner, Aardvark Safaris
“Bring scarfs to dress up and rework outfits. They also help with dust if you’re traveling in the dry season.” -Christine Tucker, Africa Expert, Butterfield & Robinson
And Don’t Forget To Bring…
“Nothing beats a great pair of binoculars. Go with a pair that offers at least 8×30 magnification—that way you’ll be able to comfortably view game from afar and the images will appear crisp and vivid.” -Lucille Sive, President, Lion World Travel
“Pack hemorrhoid cream—yup, you heard me right. This will be your best friend if you get an occasional tsetse fly bite. The anesthetic qualities will reduce any itch or soreness they give you.” -Mindy Roberts, CMO, Time + Tide

Prepare for take off on your first safari
Maxime Gauthier via Unsplash
What Do I Need To Know About Traveling To Africa: Visa, Vaccinations, Insurance, Etc.
“Most countries require visas (a stamp in your passport to show you have been pre-cleared to enter the country). In practice and when available, it’s usually easiest to get these on arrival. Every country is different, but if you are advised to get a visa in advance from an online portal, be sure to use the country’s official website, and not a commercial site charging extra while offering no benefit to you.” -Richard Trillo, East Africa Manager, Expert Africa
“It’s important to know about medical insurance ahead of planning your first safari trip. For example, AMREF, the flying doctors organization based in Nairobi, provides air evacuation services across East Africa, as well as air ambulance transfers between medical facilities. Their planes—some fitted with operating theaters and resuscitation rooms—can take you back to Nairobi and to its modern, efficient private hospitals in less than one hour. All you need to do is to subscribe to their insurance; it costs very little and whilst it’s highly unlikely you’ll need to use it, it gives you total peace of mind.” -Wilson Odhiambo, General Manager, Mahali Mzuri
“Take anti-malaria tablets—and other travel vaccinations—when advised. Check if you need a yellow fever vaccination and if so, you may need to present the certificate when arriving (this applies to some countries and some border and air crossings).” -Richard Trillo, East Africa Manager, Expert Africa

Shadreck Nkhoma (a.k.a. Uncle Shaddy) from Time + Tide. “This is a people business first and … [+] foremost, not a lodge business…You’ll remember how your guides and the camp team made you feel.” -Mindy Roberts, CMO, Time + Tide
Ginkgo Agency, Gary Van Wyk
And Finally, Don’t Forget…
“Going on safari is as much about the people as it is the wilderness. Remember it is you the traveler that provides us our jobs. Make the most of your time by getting to know the local staff and local people and their culture. Don’t feel shy, our staff really enjoy it when guests take an interest.” -James Wilson, Marketing Director, Desert & Delta Safaris
“Make sure you know a bit of the local lingo. A few of my favorite phrases in Tswana, the Bantu language spoken in many parts of South Africa, Botswana, Namibia, Zimbabwe, are: ‘dumela’ (hello); ‘lekae’ (how are you); and ‘kaleboga’ (thank you).” -Grace Wright, Marketing Manager, Turquoise Holidays
“Keep a diary, so that you remember all of the wonderful things you have seen and experienced, as you will never remember them all.” -Maggi Smit, Managing Director, Windows on the Wild
“Don’t wait until the kids are older: Go now and foster a sense of adventure, adversity and acceptance at a young age. When planning for a family trip, slow it down with longer stays, look for places with small pools, and private concessions where there are fewer rules than national parks. Allow kids to skip early morning game drives and spend time with the gracious and engaging camp staff who will undoubtedly get them in the kitchen or looking at the small things. Bottom line: take your kids to Africa; take them on safari, and take them back again and again as each time they will gain more appreciation and understanding of our natural (and unnatural) world.”  -Christine Tucker, Africa Expert, Butterfield & Robinson
“Ask if there are any community conservation projects that you might visit, and what support they might need.” -Justin Francis, Founder and CEO, Responsible Travel
“If you can, always carry small notes. If you can get local currency then great, but USD is king in Africa. There will always be opportunity to tip staff and guides for service, and it’s really important to tip good service and good guiding as well as you can afford to.” -Peter Fisher, Chief Operating Officer, True Luxury Travel
“Buy a stargazing app for your phone. You will never see stars like it and most apps work without internet. Sky Guide is an excellent one.” -James Wilson, Marketing Director, Desert & Delta Safaris
“A big mistake first-time safari-goers make is trying to pack too much in. Leave time for Mother Nature to do her thing.” -Marc Christensen, Founder & Operations Manager, Brilliant Ethiopia and Brilliant Uganda

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