Booking Safaris on the Spot

A monthlong African safari for $1,800--or less--including air can be yours if you're willing to gamble

By Jason Cochran, Saturday, Feb 28, 2004, 12:00 AM

If you've always dreamed of going on safari, you can see Africa's wildlife at pussycat prices--as little as $1,800 for an entire month of adventure--and that's including airfare from America, meals, ground transportation, lodging, guided tours over a large area, and several days of game drives.

Instead of poaching a vacation from a middleman, who will invariably fatten the price (it's common to pay $3,500 for a weeklong safari including airfare), head straight to tourist-friendly South Africa--where the currency exchange is strongly in your favor--and book a trip there.

Africa's land-based safari trips depart from several places, particularly the (somewhat iffy) cities of Nairobi and Johannesburg. But for most rookies, breathtaking Cape Town, South Africa, is probably the easiest and safest place to arrive in Africa. Not only is its seaside vibe as familiar as that of Miami or San Diego, but it's also an incredibly cheap place to spend a few days getting organized. Round-trip airfare from New York City or Atlanta (usually on South African Airways) will be your biggest expense: around $1,000 from a discounter such as Spector Travel (800/879-2374, spectortravel.com) or 2Afrika (877/200-5610, 2afrika.com). (Editor's note: Recently both Iberia and Air France have been slashing $400 to $500 off that rate; we suggest you shop around before booking).

Book it on the spot!

Once you get to the Cape, simply walk up bistro-lined Long Street in downtown Cape Town, where an assortment of travel agents book cut-rate African extravaganzas. In recent years, the South African rand has plunged in value-about nine to the dollar in early 2003, down from four to the dollar in 1996-making for sensational buys. Add that value to deep, last-minute discounts and you've got the makings for a trip of a lifetime, budget-style.

You'll be shopping for a last-minute "overland" trip. An overlander is a glorified expedition led by at least two well-trained guides who drive heavy-duty trucks designed for some of Africa's toughest terrain. They're fitted with comfortable seats, giant zip-down game-viewing windows, a mini-kitchen, and entire stables of engine horsepower. At night, you park beneath the Southern Cross and roll out a tent. A few companies augment tent lodging with some simple accommodation, but all attract travelers from youth to middle age who don't mind getting a little grubby on the road to adventure.

Before North and Central Africa destabilized, Africa's grandest excursion was the "Cape to Cairo" odyssey. But today's most popular (and most prudent) adventure highway runs from Cape Town to the majestic Victoria Falls in Zambia.

About eight companies, most too small to market through American travel agents, depart from Cape Town on three-week overland trips, including all meals and encompassing a "What's What" of southern Africa. Most combine South Africa (florid Namaqualand, Orange River rafting); Namibia (sunup on the red dunes of Sossusvlei, game drives at Etosha National Park); Botswana (dugout canoeing on the Okavango Delta); and culminate in Zambia (in the thundering mists of the legendary Victoria Falls, the world's largest curtain of falling water).

At the Victoria Falls finish line, you can fly home or grab another three-week overlander to Nairobi. For a small fee (about $50), most companies will run you all the way back to Cape Town. The full circuit loops 3,700 miles through some of Africa's wildest terrain.

Safari, so good

That huge, four-country itinerary--not affordable, practical, or safe if tried independently--will cost you just $350 to $600 for three-daily-meals-inclusive weeks. To get that price, head to Cape Town and pay a discounted rate for a space that would otherwise go empty.

With so much competition for these trips, there are almost always unsold seats, sometimes hours before departure time. That's especially true from September to November, when temperatures are still tolerable and animals easily spotted. During those months, it's unusual to have to wait more than four days for a trip, and that time can be spent exploring exquisite Cape Town itself.

I recently strolled up Long Street when availability included trips (ranging 19 to 21 days) on Umkulu Adventure Tours for $339, Nomad for $347, African Routes for $418, Worldwide for $509, and Which Way for $612. The routes were comparable; the only extra expenses (included in some of the higher-priced tours) were optional activities such as white-water rafting or scenic flights--usually $10 to $50 each. Other trips, such as six-week odysseys all the way to Nairobi (about $1,000 including food) or ending in Namibia ($175 for seven days or $200 for ten days), were available in shorter supply. Prices fluctuate according to demand, but they're often this low.

Compare those figures to what you'd usually pay for the same tour from home. If you buy in U.S. dollars through their Web sites, African Routes (africanroutes.co.za) peaks at $1195, as opposed to Long Street's $418, and Nomad (nomadtours.co.za) is $975, as opposed to $350. Which Way is marked from $612 to about $975 from African Safari Consultants of California (866/733-4263; classicsafaris.com). Worldwide's "Southern Sun" ($572 on Long Street) is hiked to $840 if you buy it from its British agent (worldwideadventure.net). Dragoman (011-44/1728-861-133, dragoman.com) sells its "Great Southern Safari" Cape-to-Vic Falls trip for $1003. And Drifters (011-27/11-888-1160, drifters.com) sells one for $2170. Its camps are nicer but hardly worth another thousand dollars. And you'd still have to pay for airfare.

After gathering opinions from some just-returned travelers, I paid a paltry $350 for 21 days with Nomad, a homegrown company that (unlike the British operators) keeps profits in South Africa, where they can do some good. I spied on bathing elephants, sledded down sand dunes, narrowly avoided an angry hippo in Botswana--for less than $17 a day, food included! Even adding airfare from America, costs were only about $58 per day for three-and-a-half weeks of African exploits. A month in the African bush for $1,500! Follow my advice and it can be done.

Long Street, in central Cape Town, has its own Web site (longstreet.co.za) and hosts several of the city's more hurly-burly hostels. Of its travel shops selling last-minute spots on overland trips, One World Travellers Space (309 Long St., 011-27/21-424-0777) has proved to be especially reliable. Other good sources include Adventure Village (229 Long St., 011-27/21-424-1580, adventure-village.co.za) and Detour Travel Shop (234 Long St., 011-27/21-424-1155, detourafrica.co.za). Most local hostels also sell the trips.