Life

Going on safari for the first time? Here's what you should know

Most “bush” planes in safari countries such as Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania, where Coastal Aviation operates, are small and have strict weight limits. Travelers are advised to pack as light as possible with soft-sided duffel bags rather than a hard-shell case. (Mary Ann Anderson/TNS)
Most “bush” planes in safari countries such as Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania, where Coastal Aviation operates, are small and have strict weight limits. Travelers are advised to pack as light as possible with soft-sided duffel bags rather than a hard-shell case. (Mary Ann Anderson/TNS)
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When I was a child growing up in a small, rural town in Georgia, I was an addict of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ “Tarzan of the Apes” series of books in that they opened the door to my love affair with Africa. Even as young as I was, my imagination often carried me away to Africa, to the jungles and creatures of Tarzan’s wild kingdom.

On the rare occasion that we would journey from my hometown to the Georgia coast for a day at the beach, I would sit in the sand and stare wistfully across the Atlantic. Africa lay on the other side of that great expanse of ocean, and my heart and soul longed to explore it.

Decades would pass before I first journeyed to the Dark Continent, which I would find inexplicably nicknamed since the African sun blazes incessantly. For that initial sojourn, I traveled to Kenya. Until then, I had rarely ventured outside of the United States, and then only to the Caribbean and Canada.

As a non-seasoned international traveler, I didn’t know what to expect on safari in Kenya. No one had forewarned me about the bazillion bugs I would have to sidestep, that dust is omnipresent, and the incredible heat of the day quickly dissipates as sundown brings bone-chilling cold.

And no one told me that time, normally measured in minutes and hours, does not exist in Africa. Almost the entire continent moves at its own pace, where punctuality is not a concern.

Most of all, no one told me that I would come to love Africa so much — its wildlife, its people, and its colors and aromas — that I long to return to it every single day of my life and dream of it almost as often. Ernest Hemingway wrote in “True at First Light,” a fictionalized account of his experiences in Africa, “I never knew of a morning in Africa when I woke that I was not happy.” This, I understand.

Since that first trip, I’ve traveled to Africa several times and have been on dozens and dozens of game drives in Zimbabwe, Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda and South Africa. So, then, I’ve learned a trick or two about going on safari, things that I wish someone had told me before I ever set foot in Nairobi on that first sojourn there so many years ago.

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Africa is not a country. I know that, and you know that, but some really think of it as one country. It is a continent with 54 vastly differing countries, and not all of it is jungles and savannas.

Take the time to immerse yourself in one country instead of trying to cram in two, three, or more countries into one trip simply to get a passport stamp. For culture and wildlife, for example, South Africa and Kenya may be the better choices, while Uganda and Rwanda and their golden opportunities for gorilla trekking may appeal to the more adventure-minded traveler. Just don’t try to do it all in one clip.

Even if you’re in Africa for a month, let one bag, a small collapsible duffel, do it all. You can always wash out clothes and wear them again. The first trip to Kenya, I took the biggest suitcase I had, only to learn the bush planes allow only 33 pounds of luggage. Bags are weighed, so don’t think you can get away with more than the allowance.

If you style your hair daily, you may want to get a simple wash-and-wear cut before you go. Most lodges, even the better ones, have limited electricity that can’t handle blow dryers and flat irons. Let hats, hairclips, headbands and ponytail holders be your friend.

The sun is brutal, and a good wide-brimmed hat and sunscreen are essential for protection. No one wears a pith helmet, and neither should you.

Game drives are nearly always dusty, so leave the good clothes, particularly the white ones, at home. No need to dress for dinner, even in high-end camps. Comfort is key, as you’ll be climbing in and out of safari vehicles many times over. Everything will get dirty and wrinkled but no one cares. It’s not a fashion show.

Mornings and early evenings are cool to downright cold for game drives. Take a light windproof jacket, maybe even fleece-lined. Because of high elevations, some parts of Africa are much colder than you realize.

Take a good camera with the best long-range lens available, even if you must borrow or rent one. Don’t rely on your phone’s camera. While the game trackers often can get unnervingly close to wildlife, sometimes great shots are flat-out impossible without long-range lenses. You’ll be glad you invested in good equipment, but practice taking photos before you ever cross the Atlantic. Don’t miss a shot because you’re still trying to figure out how to work the camera.

You will not see the Big Five of Cape buffalo, rhino, elephant, lion and leopard every day. These are not safari parks. Despite several game drives on my first trip to Kenya, the leopard was the most elusive. It wasn’t until my second trip to Africa, to South Africa, that I saw one, and even then, it was well hidden from everyone’s sight except the game tracker’s ridiculously sharp eyes. And every single game drive is completely different from another, so you never know what will come crashing through the bush.

The stronger animals — the lions, hyenas, leopards and cheetahs — feast upon weaker game including gazelles, warthogs and zebra. Kills happen, and likely you will see one. It’s just the circle of life, and game trackers will not “save” an animal. Just look away.

If possible, take at least one safari by hot air balloon. Seeing giraffe or zebra scurrying across the savanna hundreds of feet below and kicking up dust is a thrill that you cannot even begin to imagine.

Days start early, before sunrise. Go on every single game drive that you can, or chance missing something magical and wonderful that you may never get a chance to see again. You can sleep when you get home.

Animals aren’t frightened by safari vehicles. On a game drive in Kenya’s Maasai Mara, our group came upon a pride of 16 lions. When the driver stopped, all 16 walked around us so close I could reach out a hand and touch each one. Not that I did, because I value my hand. Sometimes on safari, you forget to breathe because of the sheer thrill of the moment. That was one of those times.

Check the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website for information about country-specific immunizations, including yellow fever. If you can’t provide proof of immunizations in some countries, you may be denied entry. And anti-malarials are recommended in some regions. I personally know several people who didn’t take anti-malarials because of the side effects of crazy, vivid dreams and sleeplessness, only to end up with malaria. People die from it every single day. Don’t be one of them.

Check with a country’s embassy beforehand to determine if you need a visa. If you do, try to obtain it beforehand, or you may face absurdly long, cash-only queues in steamy airports.

Travel insurance is an excellent idea. No matter how good your medical insurance is at home, it probably does not cover sickness and accidents outside of the United States.

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Insects are a fact of life, no matter how luxurious the hotel or safari camp. Mosquito nets help keep out creepy crawlers, but bugs will be bugs and you will come face to face with a few of them on safari. Most camps provide bug spray in the accommodations

Pack a small flashlight. Power outages happen frequently, and electricity is often turned off purposefully at night. In a pinch, phone flashlights are OK, but a flashlight is better.

Most countries in Africa run 220 to 240 voltage so converters or adapters are necessary.

Take medication or a first-aid kit tailored to your specific needs, including those for anti-diarrheals, antibiotics and anti-motion sickness. And take enough prescription medications for at least three or four days after your trip ends. Flights get delayed. Airplanes break down. Storms interrupt airport operations. Don’t take chances on not having enough life-saving prescription medication with you.

While you may love your travel agent, consider booking with a safari-only tour operator. Many U.S.-based operators are either from Africa, have lived in Africa or have traveled extensively throughout the continent. They sell what they know.

Most Africans are soft-spoken and respectful of others and expect the same of you. Leave your loud, complaining voice at home.

There are no wild bears in Africa. A woman on one of my game drives in South Africa did not know this, bless her heart. Her first question to the game tracker was asking him when we would see bears. Don’t be That Woman.

Some animals are more frightening than lions and hyenas. Baboons and monkeys will sometimes try to mind your business instead of theirs. Don’t be aggressive with them or they will be aggressive with you, and you do not want that under any circumstances.

Roads and even highways are often unpaved and rutted and can get bumpy. Plus, flat tires happen often in the blistering heat. These things are to be expected.

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Just because a lodge has internet capabilities doesn’t mean it will always work. That said, tell your loved ones at home that you’ll be in touch when you’re in touch and not to worry. Besides, you’ll be having the time of your life and won’t even care about back home.

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We value your trust and work hard to provide fair, accurate coverage. If you have found an error or omission in our reporting, tell us here.

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