Everything you thought you knew about safari is wrong
Many misconceptions about safaris turn out to be just that. Here’s how to stop worrying...and (finally) book that great African adventure.
Maybe you considered it too expensive, too time-consuming, too difficult to plan...a once-in-a-lifetime trip that you kept putting off until, well, never. But the truth is that there’s never been a better or easier moment to take a safari. Here are six of the biggest myths about safaris, debunked.
MYTH #1: YOU NEED AT LEAST TWO WEEKS TO REALLY DO IT RIGHT.
FACT: NOT ONLY IS IT POSSIBLE TO DO IT IN A WEEK—IT MAY EVEN BE PREFERABLE (AND IT’S CERTAINLY LESS TIRING).
Most experts agree: Eight days is all you need for an African safari, which is good news for travelers who can’t swing two weeks or more out of the office. “If you’ve got a full workweek off, bookended by weekends, you can have a fantastic experience,” says Michael Lorentz of the safari travel company Passage to Africa. Here’s how to do it: Stick to one country. Don’t try to pack too much into a single trip (tempting as it may be). And make sure you choose activities you actually want to do—whether it’s game drives and fly camping, or exploring local villages and elephant orphanages—versus those you think you should. “The nuances of a weeklong safari are hugely complex—we spend hours as a team constructing itineraries, and the design of these trips is critical,” Lorentz says. The eight-day safari is also perfect for beginners, he adds, “because if you really fall in love with it, you can return and plan so much more. In Africa, you’ll never run out of things to look forward to.” And don’t forget that it’s easier to get to Africa than you think—especially if you’re flying from the East Coast: There are nonstop flights to Johannesburg from New York City and Atlanta, and connecting flights to Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda, Zambia, and Zimbabwe.
MYTH #2: SAFARIS ARE CRAZY EXPENSIVE.
FACT: CONSIDERING ALL THAT’S INCLUDED, THEY’RE ACTUALLY A GREAT VALUE.
No one will ever call them cheap, but remember that the price per person—about $600 a night on average—includes everything: meals, drinks (that usually means sundowners while watching a pride of lions), game drives, guided walks, and other activities, along with airport transfers and park entry fees. The only add-on is tipping, generally about $20 per person a day for a guide and $10 a day for a tracker. “Hidden charges rarely sneak up,” says Bas Hochstenbach, co-founder of Asilia Africa, which operates 16 camps and lodges in Kenya and Tanzania. And you can go anytime of year—just keep an eye on migration patterns before you book.
MYTH #3: IT’S JUST NOT SAFE RIGHT NOW.
FACT: TRUTH IS, GAME PRESERVES ARE SOME OF THE SAFEST PLACES ON EARTH.
The majority of travelers to Africa never set foot in the most dangerous corners of the continent. “I’ve been doing this for 30 years,” says Mark Nolting of the Africa Adventure Company. “I’m not aware of any camps or lodges being targeted by terrorists. It just hasn’t happened.”
Experts agree that the Kenyan coastline remains dangerous, but typical safari itineraries would never take travelers to those areas or to Garissa, where Shabaab gunmen killed 147 people in April. (The city is more than 200 miles from Nairobi, which is about the distance between New York City and Baltimore.)
The best way to protect yourself? Book through a specialist with on-the-ground personnel who can keep you updated on the changing security situation. “We had clients in Nairobi on the day the deadly attack on the Westgate mall began,” says Dan Saperstein of Hippo Creek Safaris. “They were of course saddened and horrified, but it didn’t have a direct impact on their trip.”
As for Ebola—the disease that many mistakenly perceive to be affecting the whole continent—safari-goers had little to worry about even at the height of the 2014 outbreak in West Africa: Monrovia, the capital of Liberia (once the epicenter of the Ebola outbreak), is 3,300 miles from Nairobi, the hub most international travelers inevitably pass through en route to East African safaris.
MYTH #4: SOUTH AFRICA IS FOR BEGINNERS.
FACT: WELL, THAT MAY BE TRUE. BUT THAT DOESN’T MEAN IT ISN’T ONE OF THE BEST ALL-AROUND SAFARI EXPERIENCES—PERIOD.
Book a safari in South Africa and rest assured that smug, been-there/done-that types will tell you “what a great place it is for a beginner’s safari,” perfect for the “Africa virgin.” The implication: too tame, too choreographed, too manicured—especially compared with, say, Zambia or Zimbabwe. But there’s a reason South Africa is the choice of so many first-timers and veterans. “The animal density is fantastic—with great lion, leopard, and cheetah numbers—so the game viewing is dependably excellent,” says Christopher Wilmot-Sitwell, co-owner and director of tailor-made luxury adventure specialists Cazenove & Loyd.
“The camps are stunning, and they have some of the best guides on the continent.” And what of the claim that safaris here are too predictable or too reliant on radio-tracking and vehicle pacing? “There is something quite ‘managed’ about most South African safaris,” acknowledges C&L founder Henrietta Loyd. But there are enormous advantages as well, she adds, “not least for our multi-generational clients, who appreciate how easy it is to safari in a non-malarial zone.”
On the other hand, that hyper-managed approach is unique to the larger national parks. For an altogether different—and arguably more genuine—experience, look to the private concessions maintained by top-notch lodges in the Madikwe Game Reserve and adjacent to Kruger National Park. “Molori, Londolozi, Singita—these lodges offer world-class luxury, and they operate in vast private areas, where they have wide traversing rights,” says Wilmot-Sitwell—meaning you, as a guest, can go far off-road and can venture out at night, the ideal time to spot leopards. It also means you can ride around all day and not see another Land Rover, not even once.
MYTH #5: SAFARIS ARE WAY TOO STRENUOUS.
FACT: IN FACT—AS SPECIAL PROJECTS EDITOR STEPHEN ORR DISCOVERED—THEY’RE MORE SEDENTARY THAN YOU EVER EXPECTED.
I still dream of the animals, sights, and sounds I experienced on my recent safari in South Africa. But as a first-timer, I also experienced one challenge that no one had told me about, and it wasn’t a charging elephant or a rampaging hippo: It was what I came to call The Tyranny of Mealtime. We simply ate too much. There was early breakfast before our first sunrise outing, then second breakfast (a term I thought belonged exclusively to Bilbo Baggins), then a long lunch, then a lavish afternoon tea, then an evening “surprise-and-delight” stop somewhere out in the bush that could be anything from G&Ts and grilled sausages around a fire pit to a full-on fondue setup, and finally a three-course dinner. This happened every day—for four days.
“It’s a popular misconception that you’re going to be running around like Indiana Jones on safari,” says Joss Kent, CEO of safari tour company andBeyond.“In fact, the typical day can be very sedentary.” He’s not kidding. Aside from the constant overeating, guests are required to remain in the immediate—often fenced—vicinity of the lodge, with no opportunity to take an unaccompanied hike or jog. Granted, this is for your own safety: Your recently fattened self, lumbering through the bush, would be too tempting a treat for a hungry lioness. That said, I asked some experts what I should do on my next safari so I wouldn’t feel like I needed to go on a juice fast when I got home.
MYTH #6: YOU CAN PLAN IT YOURSELF
FACT: DON’T EVEN TRY IT. PUTTING YOUR SAFARI IN THE HANDS OF A SPECIALIST IS THE ONLY WAY TO GO.
Most safari experts have been at it for decades. They know all the top guides and naturalists, and they have long-standing relationships with camp and lodge operators. They’ll tell you where you should stay to get the most bang for your buck, and they’ll keep an eye on booking trends that could yield huge savings—deals you never would have heard about otherwise, like unadvertised fourth-night-free specials or discounts on last-minute reservations. Most important, they’ll make sure you’re taking the safari you actually want to take. If you’re not comfortable with bucket showers or a lodge that cuts the electricity from 11 p.m. to 6 a.m., these specialists won’t send you to that kind of camp, even if the game viewing is first-rate. They’ll also have your back on the rare chance that something goes wrong. “Who are you going to call at 2 a.m.,” asks Linda Friedman of Safari Experts, “Expedia? Or me?”
Written by Paul Brady and Stephen Orr and Maria Shollenbarger and John Wogan / CNTraveler
Photography by Adrian Gaut