Safari – the very word conjures up visions of adventure, copious wildlife, drama and romance, thanks to movies, magazines, social media and endless photos on the internet. But what is it really like to go on a safari? The reality is that you can find safaris that will take you all over the world – both polar regions, Africa, Asia, Australia and South America, but not really in the United States. I suspect it is because we don’t have the species diversity you would see in other parts of the world, nor do we have large tracts of land that are untouched by humans. So, when I decided that the time had come to fulfill my lifelong dream of going on an African safari, I really didn’t know what to expect, or how to even start planning for one.
Several years ago, my brother told me about Wild Earth’s Safari Live broadcasts on YouTube. They would broadcast live sunrise and sunset safaris every day, several hours a day. At the time, I was working so I never got into them the way he did. But he always told me that if I ever wanted to go on a safari, I should contact one of the guides in particular because she was quirky and funny and our personalities were well suited to each other! After following her on Instagram for a while, I worked up the nerve to contact Tayla McCurdy in May 2021 to ask whether she was still doing safaris.
She was so approachable and friendly, and I am happy to report that I recently returned from a two-week safari with Tayla serving as my private guide. The experience absolutely exceeded my expectations! She and I worked together to plan the perfect itinerary for me and my daughters, based on our personalities, tolerance for adventure and what we wanted to accomplish. In spite of our planning and with the invaluable help of the staff at Wandering Thru, we also successfully navigated several last minute COVID-related changes to ensure the trip of a lifetime happened with minimal stress and worry.
That being said, there were many things I learned about African Safaris that I thought could be helpful for anyone contemplating such an adventure.
- Set objectives for your trip: It helps if you know what you want to accomplish on your safari. Africa is such a large continent, and there are so many options for safari sites, I was overwhelmed and had no idea where to go. I knew I wanted to take high quality photos, do some birding, see a lot more than the Big Five, and learn about research and conservation efforts. Having some idea of what I wanted to get out of our trip really helped set the itinerary.
- Use someone local to help you plan. There is no substitute for working with people who have first-hand knowledge of the options available for safari locations, lodging, regional transportation, and other logistics. When we had to make last minute changes, it was vital that we had someone who not only knew the area, but was well networked, to make the changes efficiently. If it wasn’t for Wandering Thru and their exceptional customer service, we would have had a much different outcome to our trip!
- Have a budget in your mind for what you are willing and able to spend on the safari and communicate that to your planner.
- Be aware of additional costs not covered under the safari costs, and include them in your budget. What isn’t included?
- International flight costs (I booked my own)
- Regional flights within Africa if you are heading to multiple locations (I had Wandering Thru book them to insure we would be travelling with Tayla)
- Travel insurance (work with a travel agent who knows what you will need)
- Tips for multiple entities at each location as well as your private guide (these are more substantive than you might assume!)
- Travel medicine clinic appointments, necessary shots and medications (relevant to US travelers where such costs are not covered under traditional health insurance benefits)
- Anything you might want to buy in advance of the trip such as camera equipment, binoculars, clothing, etc.
- Keep some local currency on hand for incidentals and unexpected purchases where you can’t use a credit card.
- Pack LIGHT! Think through what outfits you will be packing and cut it in half. Charter flights have weight limitations for baggage, and depending on where you are staying, laundry services are usually included. Take advantage of them! The only caution I would offer on the laundry services is to bring clothes that do not need to be washed in cold water or air-dried, as those options may not be available. (I had some clothes shrink….or maybe it was me who grew? See next item.)
- Pace yourself throughout the day for eating and drinking: Ask for half portions during main meals. You will be well-fed on safaris, and it is hard to say no to beautifully-prepared snacks and foods when you know someone put some effort into preparing it just for you!
- Do some research ahead of time: I like to have my bearings when I travel, so I looked at maps to learn the relative locations of African countries I was visiting, and where the camps were located. I also purchased the Kingdon Pocket Guide to African Mammals and looked at range maps to see what type of wildlife I could expect to see at the different places. Download the Merlin Bird ID app, a free app from Cornell University, a premiere facility for ornithology. Because there are so many birds in Africa compared to the US, even an advanced birder could stand to brush up on the names of some of the species so you can jot them down when they are spotted!
- Speaking of jotting things down, I am a huge proponent of keeping travel journals in order to capture the smallest of details. While I fell behind with daily journaling, I kept a second notepad in my camera bag and jotted down everything sighted, and other details of each day so that I can reconstruct some of the most special moments we enjoyed! Practice writing on a bumpy car ride before you go, though, or you won’t be able to read a thing when you get back! LOL!
- Photography: Some people like to be in the moment during the safari, others (like me) feel a desperate need to capture every moment in photographs to cement the memory. The reality is that you should find your balance and do both while on safari. Some sightings are fleeting, other sightings can last several minutes or longer, depending on your preferences. Photos can’t capture the smells, sounds or tastes of a safari, so take time to enjoy those special times as well.
- You will get tired. Our safari was all about spending as much time in the bush as possible. It often meant the days were long, and sleep was lacking. It was an exhausting trip, but the rewards for us were immeasurable. Sure, you can opt to skip a drive to lay by the pool, but we never missed a drive and were richly rewarded by the variety of animals and birds that we saw. Build in an extra day between places to recharge!!
- Go with the right attitude: Nature is unpredictable. Animals and birds do not make command performances, nor are they always where you expect them to be. Sometimes, all you can do is make an attempt to see them, and if you aren’t successful, you shouldn’t stress about it. Relax, enjoy the scenery as you bumble around, appreciate anything you may see, but don’t stress or get mad at staff if you don’t see everything. It’s not their fault! As with wildlife photography, success often depends on luck and timing, and if you have to be flexible, just go with the flow!
Our trip encompassed stays at MalaMala Camp in the Sabi Sand region, Tswalu in the Kalahari, and Nyamatusi Camp in Mana Pools National Park in Zimbabwe. Details about each location will be shared in separate blogs!