A Guide to Preparing for an African Safari

Africa is home to more than 800 species of animals, some of which -- like the African elephant -- you won't find naturally anywhere else in the world. Watch as the hosts of Coolest Stuff on the Planet tour Africa in these videos.
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Your guide wakes you at the crack of dawn, and you and your groggy traveling companions leave your tents to pile into the back of a Range Rover bound for the bush. Off in the distance you see a herd of African elephants on the low grass near a watering hole and the whole car goes quiet as you try to get closer and snap some photos without disturbing these magnificent creatures.

That's the magic of the safari. Africa is home to more than 800 species of animals, some of which -- like the African elephant -- you won't find naturally anywhere else in the world [source: Morgan-Shott]. Nature or hunting enthusiasts often go on safari hoping to sight the Big Five: elephant, rhinoceros, cape buffalo, lion, and leopard, but that list only scratches the surface of what you'll see [source: East African Wildlife Safaris]. Zebras, wildebeests, warthogs, hyenas, giraffes and antelopes abound, depending on what part of Africa you choose.

When you're planning a safari, step one is sorting out what wildlife and landscapes you'd most like to see. The two most popular regions for safari are East Africa, especially Kenya and Tanzania, and Southern Africa, which includes South Africa, Zimbabwe, and Botswana [source: Morgan-Shott]. Egypt's Western Desert in North Africa is also becoming a more popular safari destination [source: Frommer's].

One of the big draws to East Africa is the game migration between the Maasai Mara in Kenya and the Serengeti in Tanzania. If you're looking to spot herds of zebras or wildebeests, East Africa is your best bet. East Africa also offers the chance to climb Mount Kilimanjaro (the highest mountain in Africa) and classic scenes of open savannas. When you safari in East Africa, you're likely to be staying in tourist lodges and traveling on daily excursions to check out wildlife in a minivan with a pop up roof [source: Eyes on Africa].

The wildlife in Southern Africa is similar to East Africa, but if it's elephant-spotting that you're after, Southern Africa is the better choice: It's home to more than 80 percent of Africa's elephant population [source: Eyes on Africa]. The topography here is very different, too. Known for its desert areas and its coastlines, it's also home to Victoria Falls. Southern Africa is a bit less touristy, and you're likely to be camping in luxury tents and checking out the terrain and the wildlife in a Land Rover [source: Eyes on Africa].

African Safari Guide: Passport and Visa

For U.S. travelers heading to Africa, you need a passport that's valid for six months after your flight back to the States, though some tour companies recommend having your passport valid for nine months after, just to be safe [source: Eyes on Africa]. Most countries also want you to have two blank pages for their departure and entry stamps, so make sure your passport has two pages for each country you'll be leaving and entering.

Heading to Botswana, Malawi, Mauritius, Namibia, Rwanda, Seychelles, or South Africa? You don't need a travel visa to enter these countries if you're a U.S. citizen – just a passport will do the trick. For countries that do require a travel visa, some allow you to purchase one when you arrive and others want you to have it in advance. Kenya, Mozambique, Tanzania, Uganda, Zambia and Zimbabwe let you buy when you get there, and you should bring U.S. dollars in cash to pay for it. If you're headed to Egypt or Madagascar, make sure you get that visa sorted out before your trip [source: African Portfolio]!

Passport and visa requirements vary by country and can change without notice, so when you're planning your trip make sure you check with your travel agent or the embassy of the country you're planning to visit. Most countries have a Web site advising visitors of the visa and passport requirements – and they vary depending on your nationality. If you're a U.S. citizen, you can also use the U.S. Department of State's Web site which lists visa requirements for various countries. Some countries also require visitors to pay a departure tax.

African Safari Guide: Health Vaccinations and Medications

Your chances of contracting rabies from a wild animal are miniscule so you can probably forgo the rabies shot (this lion resides in splendor at the Masaai Mara Reserve in Kenya).
Your chances of contracting rabies from a wild animal are miniscule so you can probably forgo the rabies shot (this lion resides in splendor at the Masaai Mara Reserve in Kenya).
Anup Shah/Photodisc/Thinkstock

Once you've booked your safari and know where you'll be going, it's time to make an appointment with your doctor to make sure you have all of the proper vaccinations. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) recommends seeing your doctor for immunizations four to six weeks before your travel date [source: CDC]. Your doctor will make sure your regular vaccines, like tetanus and Hepatitis A and B, are up to date and make recommendations on other vaccines you may need for your trip, so bring your itinerary along to your appointment.

The yellow fever vaccine is the only vaccination that's required for travel – and only to certain destinations in Africa. It's a good idea to bring proof of vaccinations with you on your trip, since some countries require yellow fever vaccination for entry if you're coming from a country with a high incidence of the virus even if you originally came from the U.S. [source: African Portfolio]. If your safari is in East Africa, the CDC recommends getting vaccinated against typhoid as well.

If you're traveling to a country with a high risk for malaria infection, your doctor may recommend you take anti-malaria medication in advance [source: CDC]. Of course, even if you do this you should still take precautions to avoid being bitten by mosquitoes while on safari – like using insect repellant and mosquito nets when sleeping and covering your arms and legs.

Another consideration is the rabies vaccination. Even though a safari by definition involves spending a lot of time in contact with wildlife, your chance of being bitten by a wild animal is very low. You're more likely to be bitten by a stray dog in a city. The rabies shots are painful and expensive but on the other hand, rabies itself can be fatal if left untreated. So this vaccination is a judgment call.

The recommendations for travelers change all the time depending on what diseases are currently spreading, so talk to your doctor. The CDC keeps an up-to-date list by country of which vaccines and medications they recommend for travel.

African Safari Guide: Checklist

Here are some things to pack for your safari:

  • Camera – Choose a good camera and practice shooting with it before you go. Don't forget to take plenty of extra memory cards and batteries. You don't want to run out of space early in your trip – and batteries can be expensive abroad.
  • Paperwork – Your passport, visa, tickets and immunization records need to be accessible but safe. Don't pack these in your checked luggage, and make sure you always know where they are.
  • Sunscreen and bug repellant – Since Africa is close to the equator, the sun's rays are strong, and a bad burn can ruin your trip. Choose sunscreen with a high SPF (15 or higher). Even if bugs don't bite you normally, take insect repellant to keep mosquitoes at bay to prevent malaria.
  • Lip balm and eye drops -- The sun and wind will play havoc with your lips and eyes.
  • Clothing – Depending on the time of year, temperatures can vary. Pack comfortable clothing that you can layer when it's chilly and peel off during the hottest part of the day. Stick with neutral colors, since bright colors and white can scare off animals [source: Morgan-Shott]. Women should wear comfortable pants or long skirts and T-shirts, not tank tops, if they'll be traveling to Muslim countries.
  • Hat and Sunglasses – That strong sun I talked about before? It's serious business. Cover up!
  • AC/DC Converter – If you're bringing electronics, you may need a converter to charge them. Check if you need an adaptor for your plugs as well.
  • Comfortable Shoes – Sneakers might be OK but hiking boots might be better depending on where you'll be walking.
  • Rain Gear – Traveling during the rainy season? Pack a slicker and make sure that your hiking boots are waterproof.
  • Guide Book and Phrase Book – Extra knowledge is a good thing.
  • Medical Supplies – It might feel like overkill, but take malaria tablets, iodine tablets (to purify drinking water), anti-diarrheal medication, motion sickness medication, and rehydration salts [source: Fama]. If you do get sick, you'll be glad you did!

African Safari Guide: Insurance and Safety Precautions

While many parts of Africa are much safer than you might expect, you do need to take some precautions when you're planning your safari. Tour companies often recommend trip insurance. When you're traveling within the U.S., trip insurance might seem like overkill, but if you're paying thousands of dollars to fly overseas, it's worth the extra cash for peace of mind. Airlines and major credit cards often offer trip insurance, and some tour companies include travel insurance in the price [source: African Portfolio]. If you're planning to use your credit card for trip insurance, call them before you book to find out what they cover.

When you're traveling, keep your valuables out of sight. Don't flash cash or wear showy jewelry. One of the easiest ways to stay safe is to dress neutrally and just try to blend in. Keep your purse or bags close, and stash important travel documents in a money belt rather than in your bag or your pocket.

Protecting your valuables is important, but your personal safety is much more valuable than your wallet. Don't walk anywhere alone at night, and listen to your guide when you're on safari. You hired him for a reason, and he knows what is and isn't safe. When you see a herd of rhinos or a lion it might be tempting to pressure your guide to get just a little bit closer, but that great photo isn't worth your safety [source: Morgan-Shott].

Most parks and wildlife refuges are closed after dark for your and the animals' safety. Don't wander out on your own at night. If you need to get up to use the restroom, bring a flashlight and check the room for critters. Keep your door or tent flap closed. You don't want a snake surprising you while you're indisposed!

One last safety tip: After a hot day on safari it might be tempting to wade or swim in a nearby body of water. Don't do it! Stagnant water can be home to bilharzia, a parasitic snail. What's especially tricky about bilharzia is that symptoms might not show up for weeks or months after exposure. Symptoms include fever, cough, diarrhea, headache, and a painful rash [source: National Health Service]. Stick to the hotel pool for your swims instead.

African Safari Guide: Adjusting to Your New Environment

Olifants camp in Kruger Park, South Africa
Olifants camp in Kruger Park, South Africa
iStockphoto/Thinkstock

Accommodations on safari can vary from a luxurious resort hotel to a primitive campsite or even a luxurious campsite, depending on the type of tour you signed up for, so make sure you're clear before you leave home about what sort of situation to expect when you get there. That way, you not only can pack appropriately but mentally prepare. Safari is about adventure, so expect surprises along the way!

In general, be prepared for limited to no access to electricity or telephone, (unless you're staying at a resort or lodge) though your guide should have a radio to communicate in case of emergency [source: Eye on Africa]. We're very used to being plugged in, so it may take a couple of days to adjust to life without ready access to your computer and smart phone.

When you're on safari you'll most likely go on two game drives each day: one at dawn and one in the late afternoon that lasts until dusk. Different animals are active in the early morning and in the evening. Your excursions will probably include rides out in the van or Land Cruiser, but there might also be a good bit of walking to spot more skittish animals, like birds.

Meals follow the game drive pattern. You'll eat a light breakfast before the sunrise game drive and return around 10 or 11 for a large brunch. There'll be tea and a light snack in the afternoon and after the evening drive at sunset, you'll have a full dinner. During the hottest part of the day, the animals are inactive and generally resting – you might want to do the same!

Keep in mind, a safari is not a zoo. You may not see all the animals that are in the area. That's part of the excitement – watching your guide check out the animal tracks to see which animal passed through recently and then heading off in that direction. Some sharp-eyed tourists might even spot an animal before the guide does.

If you combine your safari with some time in the city, be prepared for all that your African country may have to offer. Some cities might be far more modern than you expect and not that different from a European city (for example Cape Town in South Africa). Others might be very crowded, with rutted roads and buildings in need of repair. Keep your mind open to see beyond the surface – it helps to do some reading and checking of Web sites from the country you plan to visit so you'll know what to expect.

African Safari Guide: African Customs

Customs in Africa naturally vary by region and by country, so we'll just cover some basics.

If you're not sure what to do, go for modesty and over-politeness. In some areas of Africa, it's customary to keep your legs and shoulders covered, even if it's hot outside. You should ask permission before you take someone's photograph [source: African Wildlife Foundation]. Public displays of affection are also a no-no, which might be hard to remember if your safari is a honeymoon trip [source: Baobab]!

East Africa has a large Muslim population, which has its own set of customs and traditions. In case your guide is Muslim, you might want to brush up on Muslim culture, so you won't accidentally offend him. 30-Days Prayer Network has a great list of Muslim customs to help you navigate interactions with any traditional Muslims you meet on safari.

Tipping is part of the culture in most African countries, especially when service staff is involved. This extends to the guides and drivers of your safari, as well as any camp staff. Your tour operator can provide guidelines on how much to tip.

It's best not give money to local children who beg for it. Instead, give to a community project like a health center.

As far as etiquette on safari goes, the general rules are a lot like the ones for visiting national parks here in the U.S. If you follow Leave No Trace guidelines, you should be in good shape. On a hunting safari, there are a few extra things to keep in mind.

If you do kill an animal while you're out there, try not to measure it until it's dead. This is considered an act of respect for the animal. Approach a "dead" animal from the rear just in case it's not really dead. If it springs back to life, it will generally run in the direction it is facing. Be safe with your firearms and have some shooting skill prior to this trip [source: Shakari Connection]. Most importantly, your professional hunter – who will accompany you on safari and lead stalks – deserves common courtesy, and you shouldn't treat him like a servant [source: Boddington]. Always follow his advice.

In general, if you're not sure what to do go for being polite, kind, and soft-spoken.

African Safari Guide: Airlines and Weight Restrictions

Some major airlines -- like Delta or Lufthansa -- will fly into one or more major cities in the country where you're headed, but once you're in Africa, you may need to take a local airline to reach your final destination. If you're having trouble finding an airline that will fly you into your destination in Africa, you might check out South African Airways.

When you're packing for safari, you need to take your luggage weight into account. Because many safaris require you to not only fly on major airlines but also on smaller carriers, there may be different weight requirements. You'll want to check with the tour company you're using and with all of the airlines you're flying and pack for the lightest requirement. For example, Eyes on Africa restricts your luggage weight – including cameras and your carry-on bag – to between 26.4 pounds (12 kilograms) and 44 pounds (20 kilograms) depending on where in Africa you'll be traveling with them.

Also you may not be able to bring wheeled luggage. Some smaller aircraft require that everything must be packed in soft duffel bags.

African Safari Guide: Weather and Climate

One advantage of rainy season safaris is getting a chance to take shots of cute baby animals like this elephant.
One advantage of rainy season safaris is getting a chance to take shots of cute baby animals like this elephant.
Jupiterimages/Photos.com/Thinkstock

The cost and time commitment make an African safari a once in a lifetime trip for most people, so you want to choose the best time to travel. Folks normally talk about Africa as having two "seasons" – wet and dry – though Africa does experience somewhat chilly winters as well. East Africa experiences its main rainy season from April to June, while in Southern Africa it runs from November to March [source: Eyes on Africa].

The high season is the dry season because it's more pleasant to travel without the rain, and with the absence of grassland and bush, you have a better chance at spotting the animals.

However, traveling to Africa during rainy season can have its perks. Some folks actually prefer to safari in Southern Africa during the rainy season because that's when many of the animals are having their cute babies; that combined with the greener landscapes make for extra-beautiful photos. You can also save quite a bit of cash on your safari in the rainy season.

In East Africa, safaris are not usually offered during the rainy season as the roads are often closed due to poor conditions. Of course, this will depend on the tour company you use so check with them for more details.

East and Southern Africa are both south of the equator, which means the seasons are reversed from the U.S. June through August is winter – and despite Africa's reputation for being hot and dry, winter temperatures can dip down below freezing at night though they will heat up in the day [source: Eyes on Africa]. December through March is summer season.

Nevertheless, time you decide to go, you can be assured that a safari to Africa is an experience you'll forget.

Author's Note

I'll be honest here: I am pretty much the opposite of a hunter. You could probably classify me more as one of those hippie vegan types. I'm not apologizing here, just explaining my point of reference when I was researching this article. So many things about a safari are incredibly intriguing to me! Who wouldn't want to see a herd of zebras bounding across a plain or experience the vistas in the Serengeti, right?

The one aspect of going on safari that didn't sit so well with me was reading about those safaris that emphasized on hunting. Still, since most of the tours are only about the amazing wildlife and gorgeous views, I'm definitely adding a safari to my bucket list. The option that appealed to me the most might be The Big Five Marathon. I love running, and I can't even imagine how it would feel to do 26.2 miles through the savannah!

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