Few trips are as complex – and exciting – as an African safari, but with these steps you can be sure to have an unforgettable experience.
Gearing up for an African safari requires more planning than most trips. Strategies around everything from clothing and photography, to safety and basic comforts are key – not to mention savvy luggage-packing to suit small airplanes and bumpy jeeps.
For some, simple travel considerations can be doubly daunting when it’s a first-time visit to Africa. But with the right basic planning, a safari will not only feel comfortable, it can be the ultimate adventure. Check out these seven essentials for planning your dream safari in Africa.
1. Plan far in advance.
Since an African safari is likely a bucket-list sort of trip for many travelers, planning well in advance is essential. There are many great safari countries to visit, including South Africa, Botswana, Kenya, Namibia, Zimbabwe, Tanzania, and others. To determine which is right for you, consider things like: which airports and airlines you prefer; what vaccines and visas are necessary for that nation; what animals dwell there; what currency and languages are most common; and what types of accommodations are offered.
Once you narrow down the right destination, consider when to go. Prime animal viewing occurs during the dry winter months (usually June-August), when animals are forced to congregate around water sources. During the wet season, the bush is greener and wildlife is usually more dispersed around each reserve, but you'll likely find better rates and fewer tourists
Just be sure that no matter when you go, stay flexible. Being on “Africa time” means going with the flow, and enjoying an easy pace – just like the animals you came to visit.
2. Pack the right wardrobe.
Versatility and utility are the name of the clothing game. Above all, pack and wear layers, because you may be chilly for sunrise or sunset game drives, and baking in the midday sun. If your trip brings you to the city as well as to safari bush, you’ll want outfits that serve both scenes. (Fortunately, the safari look is always on trend in Africa.)
For the safari itself, wear earth-toned colors like tan or natural green to serve as camouflage when spotting wildlife and to keep cool when the African sun heats up. Most pros believe that white and brighter pastel colors are the worst for safari, so leave the hot pinks at home.
Cotton is comfortable, but you may find greater value in fabrics that are insect-resistant, offer SPF sun protection, and wick away moisture to feel cooler in the sun or warmer at night. Outdoorsy retailers like REI, Cabela’s, and LL Bean carry good safari-smart clothing lines.
3. Don't forget the essentials.
You'll want sunglasses, a full-brimmed hat with a chin strap, and boots or thick rubber-soled shoes that are comfortable enough for short or long hikes. Wise travelers also know the value of a good buff (a stretchy tube of thin fabric), which can be worn as a scarf, headband, or face cover on dusty roads.
Pay close attention to your travel toiletries. Many basic products may be hard to find in African stores, so pack favorite items that will cover your entire trip duration (including shampoo, lotion, soap, tampons, and toothpaste). And whatever you do, don’t skimp on sunscreen; but do try to use a fragrance-free one since mosquitoes are drawn to fresh scents.
Across Africa, you’ll likely rely on bottled water. But you can easily avoid single-use plastic bottles if you bring your own reusable bottle, and refill with store-bought (or hotel-refilled) jugs of spring or purified water. (FYI Klean Kanteen makes sturdy, insulated stainless-steel bottles with good handles.)
4. Remember safety basics.
When it comes to pre-trip vaccines, every country is different. So check with the US CDC’s travel site for which vaccines and medicines are recommended in your destinations, and consult your physician. (Note that where yellow-fever vaccines are required, you may need to pack your official “yellow card” vaccination record.) The US State Department also has an up-to-date international-travel site worth reading; plus it has a page dedicated to emergency preparedness while abroad.
Here are a few core safety tips: drink only bottled water, avoid eating raw foods without peels, mind your sun protection, use hand sanitizer, and apply insect repellent and/or take antimalarial medicine (where needed). Also, pack a basic first-aid kit with medicines to help with headaches, heartburn, diarrhea, sunburn, bug bites, sore throat, and dry eyes.
5. Bring the right gear and tech.
No matter where you go in Africa, never forget an electrical outlet adapter. A quick search on Amazon will turn up dozens of affordable choices, and it’s easy to score one that works in any country, with multiple USB plugs. While you’re at it, consider bringing a lightweight USB battery pack too, so you’ll always be able to recharge on the go. (Extra points if your USB battery doubles as a flashlight!)
Safari is undoubtedly a top photography adventure, so the right camera and lenses are clutch. Having a great zoom lens is vital for capturing long-distance wildlife photos, so invest in a point-and-shoot with a killer zoom; or if you’re using an SLR body, then buy, borrow, or rent a telephoto lens. When you see your close-ups of elephants, zebra, rhinos, lions, and other African wildlife, you’ll be glad you made the effort.
And while you’re thinking about cameras, consider bringing along a shower cap or plastic grocery bag, both of which make handy dust covers in an open-air jeep.
6. Enjoy all wildlife.
So you’ve heard about the “big five” – lion, leopard, rhinoceros, elephant, and Cape buffalo – allegedly the most difficult animals in Africa to hunt on foot. Today, most safari-goers are only hunting to shoot pictures, but the big five remain the hot subject matter.
In reality, an African game drive offers many more animals that will dazzle and delight you. So instead of obsessing with just five animals, be open to beholding the countless other magnificent creatures in their natural habitat: hippos, warthogs, giraffes, kudu, pythons, eagles, baboons, crocodiles, and so many more.
7. Explore both land and water.
On land, jeeps can access remote corners of game reserves, change course if animals are tracked elsewhere, and alter speeds for better photography. But then, so can boats (though they’re admittedly less agile). Even better, river cruises let guests unpack only once while touring several areas, and connect to land safaris in various areas – so visitors can check out waterways and parks too, the best of both worlds.
African river and lake cruising is growing more popular each year, especially with companies like CroisiEurope Cruises newly expanding their tours to Botswana, Namibia, and Zimbabwe. But if you prefer a land-only experience, be sure to research a few different game reserves and lodges to gauge which is right for you. For example, in South Africa, Jaci’s Lodges in the more compact Madikwe Game Reserve may suit you better than narrowing down the many tour operators inside sprawling Kruger National Park.