This article was written by Wendy Worrall Redal on behalf of Natural Habitat Adventures.
To watch a herd of impala springing over the savannah with a cheetah in hot pursuit, or a big bull elephant sloshing in a water hole, or a graceful giraffe browsing in the acacia trees, is to know some of the earth's most primal and beautiful wildlife encounters. Then, to share adventure stories around a campfire beneath a sky strewn with stars before you drift off to sleep in earshot of a lion's distant roar... Well, it's no wonder an African safari is the ultimate grail for many nature travelers.
Yet a safari can feel like an elusive dream if you're a budget traveler. Africa's premier safari camps and lodges are among the most exclusive accommodations in the world, frequently topping $1,000 per person per night. While such a figure includes gourmet meals, game drives and other activities, the fact is, a luxury safari is simply out of reach for the typical traveler. Once you factor in costly flights, it's not unheard of to spend as much on a safari for two as you would on a new car.
Does that mean you should give up your hopes of visiting Africa? Emphatically not. While even "budget" safaris often aren't cheap, there are ways to experience Africa's wonders that are within reach of the savvy traveler who's determined to get there. Take these four strategies into account as you search for a safari adventure to suit your budget:
In Africa, high and low seasons revolve around precipitation patterns. The dry season is the most popular time to visit, because animals often congregate around water sources and are easier to spot when vegetation is sparse. Yet the "green season" can offer real benefits, and not just prices that are often 25-30 percent lower. Though the weather is wetter, rains are often brief and sporadic, enough to keep the dust down and the grass green. Many animals birth their young at this time. And the clouds in the sky can make for some stunning sunsets, a bonus for photographers. In many locations, such as Kenya's Maasai Mara, wildlife viewing is superb year-round.
Low Season in East Africa
East Africa has two rainy seasons, from March/April through May/June, depending on your location, and again from October/November through December. Choosing travel dates on either end of these periods can bring good shoulder-season conditions with lower prices—early December is especially appealing, since crowds are few before the holiday season. January to March, between the rains, can be an ideal time to visit Kenya and Tanzania, when it's typically dry and less expensive. Though the annual wildebeest migration across the plains of the Serengeti and Maasai Mara between June and September is a thrill to behold, it also spikes prices. Unless your heart is set on it, you'll get more for your money and still see plenty of game if you travel at a different time. Or, consider a few days at a Serengeti migration camp where the herds are in February, followed by a camp in the northern Serengeti, away from the migration, for a full Tanzania safari experience that includes both the migratory herds and resident wildlife.
Low Season in Southern Africa
In South Africa, the best off-season deals are when it's cold and drizzly in Cape Town and along the coast during the southern winter (May to September), yet still dry and sunny in the north, where the main safari areas such as Kruger, Sabi Sand and Madikwe are located. This means you'll find "low season" pricing when weather and wildlife viewing are actually best! As for Namibia and expensive Botswana, consider the shoulder months of May and November. Keep in mind, too, that Botswana's prices are high because visitor numbers are kept deliberately low to reduce environmental impact: Botswana's desirable safari camps are few and small, and vast tracts of land are dedicated to wilderness that shelters huge numbers of wildlife. Though you'll pay more for a safari in Botswana, the experience may be worth more accordingly.
CHOOSE YOUR CAMPS WELL
Africa has thousands of safari camps and lodges, spanning the gamut from large, basic hostels to ultra-luxe bush camps with a personal butler for each opulently furnished tent. And the good news for cost-conscious travelers who want a quality experience on fixed finances is that there are a host of options in between. While 5-star camps may run a grand per night or more, there are plenty of others that offer very comfortable accommodations with personalized service, excellent meals and a full slate of safari activities for half that figure. It can be daunting, however, to know where to start looking. One option is a unique new online safari-planning tool called iSafari. It's a visually enticing, easy-to-use database that provides detailed information on nine African safari countries; parks, reserves and safari routes through those destinations; and a carefully vetted collection of several hundred high-quality camps, with reviews from actual travelers. (Think of the site as kind of a TripAdvisor for African safaris.) iSafari categorizes camps as Premier, Distinctive, and Traditional, terms that speak to style and level of luxury, but also, typically, to descending price. If you know you want to visit Botswana's Okavango Delta, for example, you can search for camps by region, then winnow them further by selecting a category tier. It's frequently the case that you may find a less-expensive camp that offers an equally rich wildlife experience, as on the Jao Concession, a private reserve in the delta known for its superb game viewing. While Jao Camp has a reputation for being one of Africa's most exclusive bush camps (and one of the priciest, starting at $1,242 per person), nearby Pelo Camp offers simple yet surprising comforts for one-third the price, including full beds with duvets and en suite bathrooms with flush toilets and running water.
If $400 per night still sounds exorbitant, don't despair. There are ways to find a quality safari for less. The fewer creature comforts you require, the lower the price will drop. One option is mobile camping. While you can find luxury mobile camping options on par with high-end permanent camps (think king-size beds with high thread-count linens, en suite toilets, and dinners served on china and crystal), simpler set-ups provide equally good chances to see wildlife, if you choose your operator carefully.
Fully Serviced Camping Safaris
Budget-oriented mobile safaris can be either fully serviced or participatory. If you'd prefer to have someone else set up your tent and cook for you, check out a company like Wilderness Dawning. Based in Botswana and South Africa, they offer scheduled and custom safaris in some of southern Africa's best wildlife regions. A 10-day "Highlights of Botswana" safari starts at just $2,580, moving to $3,280 in high season. The package includes remote campsites in Moremi Game Reserve and Chobe National Park (as opposed to larger group campgrounds with shower blocks), plus a visit to Victoria Falls just over the border in Zambia. Group size runs 12-14 guests.
While simple, camp facilities are far from primitive: Guests enjoy walk-in dome tents, raised cots, individual canvas wash basins, a shared toilet tent enclosing a flush toilet to sit down upon, hot-water bucket showers, and a dining tent where hearty meals prepared over the campfire are served by the camp staff.
Of crucial importance to a successful safari, the guides employed by Wilderness Dawning are highly trained, typically hailing from the region in which the safari is conducted. As such, they know the area and its wildlife intimately and are able to track and find animals that less-qualified guides often miss. As long as you're going all the way to Africa, It's well worth coming up with the money to ensure an excellent guide, even If you have to cut corners elsewhere, such as shortening your trip by a day or two.
Participatory Camping Safaris
If you don't mind pitching in with setting up camp, preparing meals and maybe even making a market run, a participatory camping safari is an even more economical option. Often referred to as "overlanding," this style of safari travel is frequently conducted in a large, open-sided truck, sometimes switching to mini-buses or 4x4s in the game parks. Participatory safaris are typically led by two guides: a driver and a cook, who may or may not be certified guides in the regions you're traveling to.
Truck-based camping safaris usually take about 20 participants. The greater the number of guests, the lower the price tends to be, though keep in mind that your experience with wildlife will be less intimate, too. These safaris also tend to travel exclusively in heavily visited national parks and reserves, where it's not uncommon to see 10 or 15 vehicles surrounding a single lion.
If cost is your paramount concern and you don't mind such tradeoffs, you can often score a trip like this for a remarkably low price, such as G Adventures' Kenya & Tanzania Overland, as low as $1,719 for eight nights of camping, three meals a day, and park entrance fees into the Masai Mara, Lake Nakuru, Serengeti, and Ngorongoro Crater. That figure is for a specially earmarked departure, however; list price is $2,149. However, note that in circumstances such as this, you may be able to find deep discounts if you can travel somewhat spontaneously. Some operators will slash prices a couple of months before a departure if they need to fill space.
While the average traveler to Africa is probably not going to want to tackle an independent safari, it's certainly possible to do, especially in South Africa and Namibia which are well organized for such activity—indeed, many South Africans head off to Kruger National Park as readily as Americans flock to Yellowstone. A self-drive safari has the added benefit of setting your own pace and pursuing your individual interests, though it may be wise to hire a guide to join you at some point, since you're far more likely to spot wildlife and learn more than simply going it alone. If your budget precludes that, be sure you've got a guidebook and field guide specific to your destination.
Once you've chosen a public game reserve or two, rent a car and explore the African bush on your own. It's perhaps the most economical mode of all, if you opt to hire camping gear and make your own meals, though it's also possible to stay in budget lodges and dine a la carte (Google "cheap hotels in Kruger National Park," and you'll find oodles—though be prepared to share them with lots of other safari-goers—not exactly a wilderness experience). And lest you fear that driving will take you off-track into the remote veldt where you're likely to get stuck or become food for a lion, fear not—most public parks have paved roads and signs, and as long as you stay in your vehicle, you'll be fine.
If you like the adventure quotient of a self-directed safari but find the prospect daunting, consider making arrangements through a company like Namibia-based Self Drive Safaris, which takes care of all the arranging and follows you with a support vehicle. You drive at your own pace, stop at will, do your own camp set-up and cooking, yet you needn't worry about breakdowns or getting lost. Of course, the price for such services is significantly higher than doing it on your own, though much less than a high-end hosted safari.
No matter which affordable approach you choose, the time you'll invest in researching options can pay off with real safari savings and a travel adventure that's tough to trump. Start exploring atisafari.com.