Choosing a safari is something most of us are only ever likely to do once in a lifetime, if that. A few tips.
Lion kill. All photos LT.
The lion kill
We’re eating our dinner when a Masai security guard enters the tented dining room. Four lions, he says, just killed a wildebeest in the camp. Our guide Abu leaps to his feet. Do we want to see the kill? Minutes later, we drive slowly about 200 metres through the darkness to where two lionesses have their heads inside the carcass of a wildebeest while two others keep guard. We watch, fascinated, as the apex predators consume their kill. It is a highlight of our trip.
On safari a lot of wildlife is close-up
Choosing a safari – the basics
Many people are thrilled by the thought of going to see big game in Africa. But choosing a safari can feel daunting. Which country should you visit? Who will drive or show you round? Which companies offer the best package?
Lunch on the road
The good news is that choosing a safari doesn’t have to be difficult. All you need to do is pick your country; decide your budget; choose a safari tour operator; and buy your tickets to Africa.
Choosing a safari: picking your country
The problem with picking a country for your safari is FOMO – fear of missing out. Don’t worry. Many African countries offer great safaris – this summary by Lonely Planet is good. I’ve visited game parks, or been on safari, in Tanzania, Botswana, Kenya, Namibia, South Africa and Eswatini (at the time, Swaziland). They were all awesome in their different ways. Don’t worry that you will pick the “wrong” country. Take a look at what’s on offer from different tour operators, and at what price. Check flight times and costs. Then choose your safari.
The Ngorongoro Crater in Tanzania is beautiful
My own view? The safari I went on in Tanzania in January 2024, which prompted this post, was perfect: landscape, animals, birds, wonderful camps. But Etosha, in the north of Namibia, was breathtaking when I visited in 1994. So was the Okavango Delta in Botswana, which I traversed in a mokoro (dug-out canoe) back in 1983. When I stayed as a child at the Mlilwane Game Reserve in Eswatini in the ’60s, we gazed in awe at giraffe and rhino and enjoyed the tame warthog (“Lady Jane”) in the grounds of the rest camp. Which country you visit depends on your taste and your budget.
A mokoro through the Okavango, 1983
How much does a safari cost?
When you’re choosing a safari, it’s worth shopping around. We found enormous differences in price. What’s the difference?
Most vehicles on safaris are identical
First off, price doesn’t affect the animals you see, or the transport. Nearly every safari vehicle in Tanzania, for example, is a converted Toyota 4×4 with a pop-up roof (v useful). We saw a few Land Rovers and some short-range viewing vehicles for people flying in without their own transport. But none of the vehicles was conspicuously better than the others.
Finding animals depends on luck; and your guide. But the 4x4s have short-wave radios, and the drivers tell each other if they’ve found something exciting. Even the most superb guide relies on others to help. We were delighted on arrival to find we had the same vehicle as everyone else – just for us.
Kenzan tented camp at Ndutu – with Maribou stork
What really affects the price is your accommodation. Here, the sky is the limit. You can stay in anything from a tent to a luxurious 5* hotel. We stayed three nights in modest lodges – all clean, comfortable and with spectacular views, pools and dawn chorus – and three in beautiful tented camps within the Serengeti and the Ngorongoro Conservation Area. A more luxurious place may have better food, a spa, massages and so on. But it won’t necessarily give you a better safari.
View from our tent in the morning. Spot the giraffes
One cost factor is where your safari company is based. We used Long Way Expeditions, a Tanzania-based company. Our experienced guide (and co-owner of Long Way) Abu seemed to have great connections to the places we stayed; to be respected by other guides and drivers; and to know an immense amount about the wildlife we saw. Result: we got a brilliant safari.
Equipment and health
Guides on choosing a safari are full of advice on what clothes to wear; what equipment you need, health concerns and so on. Some of this is important, eg taking anti-malarial tablets if you’re in an area with malaria; or not wearing open-toed sandals if you’re going on game walks. In Tanzania, camouflage-style clothing is banned. I like long-sleeves shirts and trousers to keep the bugs at bay so far as possible, and was grateful of a jacket for cool game drives. But unless your wardrobe consists entirely of camouflage gear and flip-flops, you don’t need to rush out and buy a safari wardrobe, unless you really want to. So take a look at clothing guides like this, but don’t over-think it.
Stranded vehicles on the main Serengeti access road
Being on the road for many hours a day, travelling between or within game reserves, can be arduous. Some of the roads are rough – scandalously so in the Serengeti, where flooded, rutted, pot-holed or plain impassable roads left numerous vehicles stuck in the mud or broken down. But it’s worth it.
What animals might you see?
You never quite know for sure. Which season you go in may make a difference. On our January safari to the southern Serengeti we saw the “Great Migration” of wildebeest and zebra. That in turn attracted lots of predators. You may see the “Big 5” (lion, leopard, buffalo, rhino, elephant) or you may not. The key point when choosing a safari, or once you go on it, is to manage your expectations and to enjoy whatever you see. Tiny animals such as mongoose, or brilliantly-coloured birds, may be just as fascinating as a snoozing lion or a distant rhino.
Mongooses are fun to watch
You may also find being in a different culture fascinating. In Tanzania we saw a good deal of the Masai people, who live around game reserves and conservation areas. They often act as security for tourists. For example, at most of our camps a Masai would accompany us from the dining area to our tent or hut. This seemed a bit unnecessary until we saw the lion kill.
Masai killing time by a baobab tree at a game lodge
We immensely enjoyed the company of Abu, who accompanied us for the whole seven days of our safari. In Tanzania, many guides also sit with you at dinner and for breakfast, giving you plenty of time to talk about the country. We found this one of the richest elements of the trip.
Choosing a safari: summary
Don’t be daunted if you’re choosing a safari. It’s different from most holidays. But the key thing is to decide where you’re going, and then get a range of bids from safari companies. We were steered and well supported by UK-based Responsible Travel. They suggested tour operators operating in Tanzania and were able to respond to a range of questions. We went with Long Way Expeditions, as mentioned, and found them splendid. We saw more game than we dreamed of – including that lion kill.
What to do next
Feel free to browse other travel writing on this blog (links in bold italics are to other posts on this site). And if you need some fun reading material for your holidays, do download or order some of my books. Happy travels.
P.S. I took all these pictures with my Panasonic DMC TZ70, or my iPhone 13. I’ve reduced definition so the post doesn’t take too long to load.