Seeing a giraffe snacking on a sky-high treetop, a family of lion cubs cavorting around a log, a line of elephants making their solemn way across a river—nothing quite matches watching the great animals of Africa in the wild. And what a backdrop—landscapes that range from expansive plains to deep forests, from the mighty Zambezi River to the red desert sands of Namibia. A safari is an exciting trip at any age—ideal for families, couples or individual travelers. But how do you begin planning such a trip?
WHAT’S YOUR DREAM SAFARI?
Start by asking yourself the following questions…
What animals do you want to see? The wildlife you hope to spot while in Africa can determine which country or countries you visit and what time of year you go. For example, if you want to see the high-profile animals (the new name for what hunters refer to as the Big 5—lion, leopard, elephant, buffalo, rhinoceros), your best bet is to go to Botswana, Zimbabwe, Kenya, Tanzania or certain reserves in South Africa. If your lifelong dream has been to track gorillas (or your kids have been wanting to see chimps ever since Disney’s Chimpanzee came out), choose Rwanda or Uganda. If you’re looking for big cats, travel to the Masai Mara in Kenya during the great wildebeest migration—for predators, it’s the equivalent of a hot new restaurant opening.
Almost everywhere in Africa, you will want to have binoculars handy for focusing in on birds, but if you are looking for the pink flamingos you’ve seen on TV, they’re in Kenya.
How active do you want to be? Traditional safaris include at least two game drives a day, one as early as 5:00 am…the other in the late afternoon. This can mean lots of bumping along in 4-by-4s—not exactly getting lots of exercise. If you want to be more active, consider a safari that includes animal tracking on foot. There are certain parks and reserves within each country—and certain camps within those areas—that are better for walking than others. Most of them can be found in Zimbabwe, Zambia and select parts of South Africa, Botswana and Tanzania.
How much time do you have? It’s a long trip to Africa. Example: A direct flight from New York City to Johannesburg is about 16 hours. To reach Nairobi, you may need to take a connecting flight, usually through London. Either way, you will have to allow for a few travel days on either end of the itinerary. Plan on spending at least 10 days from start to finish, or even better, two weeks.
What’s your budget? The cost of a safari can vary dramatically depending on how long the trip is, how you travel between camps (flying safaris are quite common in some areas—you take Cessnas between camps) and the level of lodging you are seeking. Accommodations range from simple canvas tents to off-the-charts luxurious thatched tents with private soaking pools, expansive decks and open-air sleeping lofts. In general, prices range from $5,000 to $17,000 per person (including international airfare).
Safaris pair up nicely with other experiences in Africa, and since you’re traveling the distance, it makes sense to add on. Here are some to consider…
See one of the Seven Natural Wonders of the World. Victoria Falls, in both Zambia and Zimbabwe, is the largest waterfall on the planet (based on width and height). You can take a river cruise on the Zambezi in its mist…bungee jump into the gorge…soar above it in a microlight sightseeing flight…or simply don the provided raincoats and wander the sometimes very wet trails beside it.
Visit the Batwa Pygmies in Uganda. In the Bwindi Impenetrable Forest, you can visit the last remaining community of Batwa Pygmies, an ancient tribe that has lived side by side with one-half of the world’s population of mountain gorillas for generations.
Tour the winelands of South Africa. The rugged hills and valley scenery are compelling on their own, but add tastings at the wine estates and restaurants throughout the winelands outside Cape Town, and it’s all-out dreamy.
Visit the Cape of Good Hope. It’s not just a point on the map, but a dramatic meeting of cliffs and sea. An easy drive south of South Africa’s Cape Town, it can include whale watching (between mid-July and December, southern right whales can be seen just offshore, where they mate and calve) and an up-close view of the small colony of African penguins that have made their home on the rocky coast and beach at Simon’s Town.
Hit the beaches. The Kenyan coast has white-sand beaches…Tanzania is home to the Spice Islands (Pemba and Zanzibar), which are excellent for snorkeling and diving…in South Africa, there’s surfing at Long Beach…and there’s Mozambique—with more than 1,500 miles of Indian Ocean coastline.
Climb Mount Kilimanjaro. It’s the ultimate adventure, but guess what? It doesn’t require technical skill. Anyone who is reasonably active and in good health can climb Africa’s highest mountain, which stands on its own in Tanzania (and is the highest freestanding mountain in the world).
PUTTING IT TOGETHER
Some of the big established travel companies have been arranging safaris for years. Examples: Abercrombie & Kent (888-611-4711, www.AbercrombieKent.com) and Micato (800-642-2861, www.Micato.com). But increasingly, there also are smaller companies that specialize in customizing safaris. Examples: Intrepid Expeditions (800-893-1157, http://IntrepidExpeditions.com) and Expert Africa (800-242-2434, www.ExpertAfrica.com).
Here is a sampling of what’s been available. Prices are for land only—air can be arranged through the safari companies.
A “Tanzania Wildlife Discovery” takes you to the Ngorongoro Crater, to a Masai village and for a hot-air balloon ride over the plains of the Serengeti, 10 days. From $5,880 per person. Abercrombie & Kent.
A 12-day “Best of South Africa” trip includes Cape Town, Johannesburg and Sabi Sands Reserve. From $6,275 per person. Intrepid Expeditions.