Many people say they want to go on an African safari. Some people talk about it their whole life, but what does it take to make it happen? I have been on four safaris spanning five different African countries, and although there is a lot more to see and I have only barely scratched the surface, I can give you a brief overview. I would like to add, though, that I am not a wealthy person. My partner and I worked hard and saved money for years prior to each safari, had to close some doors and make sacrifices, never lost sight of the goal, and made it happen. And you can too.
I’ll be talking more about Africa and safaris in posts to come, but today it’s just an overview of what a good safari is all about. First of all, there are many types of safaris, as you will see once you start googling and looking at ads for safari adventure travel companies. Some people go to observe and photograph wildlife, others go to shoot a trophy animal. There are people who go but don’t necessarily want to be too far out or in too many inconvenient or rustic venues, and others who only want to experience a safari on foot. It’s just a matter of personal preference.
There are safaris in many parts of Africa, and many parts of the whole world for that matter. I’ve been on safari in the Amazon, the Galapagos, and many other places in the world. A safari is merely a journey, an expedition. But the most popular place to go on a safari is East Africa. South Africa, Botswana, Zambia—these are also great places to go, but the quintessential African safari is in Tanzania or Kenya, the Serengeti. So that’s what I’ll talk about here. (I find hunting the animals abhorrent, so I will not even address that kind of safari.)
In some parts of East Africa it is a crime to shoot wildlife, punishable by death. That is why there are still many animals left in the Serengeti. Although there is indeed a devastating amount of poaching and illegal massacre of wildlife, there is a concerted effort even by the government to save the wildlife. It is an attractive and lucrative tourist activity, and they do take this seriously.
When you go on safari, every day and every night is about the wild animals. This is what I love. Your tour company reserves accommodations that are as close to the wildlife as possible. Your day is based on the weather, the migration, where the animals are, and the light. The time of year your trip takes place is usually based on the great wildebeest migration. The weather is a big factor because the water and food are what attract the herds. When you go to sleep at night you hear the animals, and the next morning talk about what you heard, try to identify who was outside your sleeping quarters. You forget about home, cell phones, work, and do nothing but think and talk about one crazy creature after another.
Often times people sign up a year or more in advance. In that year prior to departure they prepare: study the mammals and birds they hope to see, buy safari clothes and field guides, learn Swahili, invest in extensive camera and optical equipment for observing, practice using the new equipment months before departure, buy new hiking boots and break them in, eat less and get their body in shape, don’t engage in any dangerous or super physical activity prior to departure. For most people there are various inoculations and malaria medication to consider. It is an expensive investment and therefore a wise move to be as prepared as possible.
Because it is so far away from the United States, you usually go for no less than two weeks, and three or more are advisable. It takes 15-20 hours to get to the Serengeti depending on where you live in the States, and with layovers and transfers that usually equates to one to three full days of travel. So you don’t want to turn around the next week and do all that to get back home. If you are a working person, it is not so easy to get three weeks off of work; this is what I mean by sacrifices. You may have to risk getting passed over for a promotion one year.
If you choose a good company, here’s what they will do: they will take you out in the field for the maximum amount of daylight hours, provide you with a reliable vehicle that provides protection from the sun and ample viewing, have excellent drivers who know where the animals are and park the vehicle to maximize the best light for photographing, employ intelligent and friendly guides who can share their love of the wildlife with you, and supply you with food that is fortifying. Is it necessary to go with a group? The short answer is yes.
Shoot ahead to the day of your first game drive. You’re out in the field after breakfast and it is still dark out. You climb onto the cruiser with your daypack filled with sunscreen, snacks, water and equipment, find your seat. The vehicle bumps along on the grass or dirt roads, and you all start waking up, looking for wildlife. Every hour of the day you’re looking for wildlife. Good drivers have sharp eyes and see things far in the distance, and have communicated extensively with other drivers to know where the herds are. Your driver spots something in the dim light and off you go to get as close as possible without disturbing the animal. From the first time you see your first animal, you will be on your feet, hanging on with one hand, the wind blowing through your hair, an excited attempt to see every possible wild creature that is out there.
Here’s a possibility of what you might see. In the dark morning, nocturnal animals are heading back to their lairs after a night of hunting. Successful lions have full bellies and are lethargically laying beside a small lake, digesting, yawning, dreaming. The hyenas still have bloody snouts, the leopards are climbing into a tree for a nap, the cheetahs are returning to the kopje (a group of rocks) to tend to their pups, and the three foot tall vultures have found remnants of a dead zebra and are in a feeding frenzy. The light is just starting to liven up the landscape, baby fox are coming out of their dens and frolicking, raptors are still in their nests waiting for the thermals, giraffe are grazing on acacia thorn shrubs, the wide open sky that is devoid of wires, planes, and human structures is lit up in a pink glow, enfolding you in the magic that is the Serengeti. And that’s just the early morning.
Every time of the day is a different array of wildlife to observe. In some parks it is illegal to go out at night so you go out at dawn or dusk instead. The heat is a consideration, because the animals are affected by it. But every time of day is unique to some wonderful activities and most game drives cover a variety of hours of the day; some are all-day ventures, some are half day, some are just a few hours in pursuit of a specific species, and there’s usually some combination of all these.
The wildebeest migration is the major activity in a safari because it involves hundreds of thousands of wildebeest on the move. A wildebeest is a four-legged animal, not unlike a horse, and they cyclically move across the African grass savannahs, birthing the next generation, and following the abundance of food and water. Their cycle is predictable and their vulnerable young are prey to the other wildlife.
On the great savannah grasslands of the Serengeti all of life is before you in the most raw and untamed form. There is life and death, mating and birthing, terror and sweetness, beauty and cruelty, tiny and gargantuan creatures…and everything in between.
This photo was taken by my partner, it is closer to southern Africa, and the significance of this shot is that it is two countries. The zebra here are crossing the Chobe River going from the country of Botswana into Namibia. I like this photo because it is two African countries, and yet when you look at it all you really see is an open grassland with peacefully grazing zebras near the beautiful Chobe River.
I’ll have more photos and African stories to tell in upcoming posts. I’m steadily working away on the next novel, Sinister Safari. It’s fun because the reader goes on a game drive every day, and yet there is the underlying element of the murder mystery to be solved. While I work away on that, you can take an Australian safari by buying my e-book entitled Wicked Walkabout. It talks about the kangaroos, crocodiles, platypus and other wildlife from Down Under, and a captivating mystery is threaded into your Australian visit.
And after you’re done buying the e-book, you might also want to invest in a good World Atlas. It’s the best and most inexpensive way to start thinking about the places in the world you really want to see, and begin scheming about how you will make that dream a reality. Dreams don’t become reality, ya know, unless you make them happen. Go ahead, make it happen.