As Widlifetravel.net puts it, “Africans do not run through the forest chanting and carrying spears, nor do they boil foreigners in large kettles”. Although the stereotypes are false organising a safari can be a terribly daunting and difficult task, probably as time consuming as those first decadent mobile safaris that Hollywood celebrities and royalty took.
Through the years I have been using several resources to plan my safaris. From the first trips back in 2006, when I had to walk into airline offices to buy paper tickets, to today’s mobile booking apps, the travel industry has evolved fast, but safaris are a type of travel that are still anchored in the travel agency model. As much as I favour the direct booking and independent travel planning, East and Southern Africa are areas where I usually arrange my trip before I travel.
Even if you do use a travel agency, you still need to know what you want, so here are a few safari planning resources to help you narrow down your safari preferences, destinations and also to simply prepare before the trip. Don’t forget to read more my safari “myth-busting”.
1. Plan your safari – Where to go/what to see
Africa Travel Resource
A long-standing resource I have used for over ten years, Africa Travel Resource is a great go-to for anything Africa travel related. Almost all lodges and accommodation options of all price ranges are listed by country and are honestly reviewed. ATR will tell you when a place is best visited and what makes it great, but also what the downsides are. It is perhaps the only online resource in Africa of this comprehensiveness, completeness and honesty.
After having used their website for research and planning for many years, I finally used their travel planning services on my Namibia trip and I will say that they were responsive, fast and got me into the lodge in Sossusvlei when nobody else could, even the company owning it.
Their safari planning team is experienced and can give you the inside scoop on places no other company can, because they have been in business for so long and they have visited every place they review. So, if they recommend you something based on what you tell them you want, you can be sure it is not a recommendation based on brochures. Case in point, I wanted to be able to see the sunrise over the Sossusvlei dunes and my specialist told me there is only one lodge inside the park that would allow that and helped me book that one. Even if you don’t use them to book your trip, their library of lodges across the continent is second to none.
2. Plan your safari – Logistics
Flight, hotels and vacation package bookings
As the continent doesn’t have the most developed travel industry, finding flights and other local resources usually requires the need of a local agent. But Travel Start may change that in the future. This is a great resource if you are trying to organise your travel in Africa independently or if you are traveling from or within South Africa.
Finding out what visa you need for a specific country can sometimes be very complex, especially if you are stopping in various countries and you hold a passport from a country where visas are a regular nightmare in the travel planning stages. I have used the visa checker on Emirates website for years. Powered by IATA, the tool let’s you check the visa requirements for all destinations in the world depending on your passport, transit country (if any) and where you live (if different from your passport). It is incredibly useful and always up to date.
3. Plan your safari – Finding out what to expect
CIA World Factbook
A wonderful free resource I used in my previous job as a consultant to get to know more about a country is the CIA World Factbook. It is precisely what the name suggests, a repository of country profiles for the whole world. Each country has a page with history, age and poverty distribution, as well as economic, social and political information and lots of handy rankings and information on security, political stability, transportation and communication. As the information is maintained by the CIA, it is always updated and complete and it is possibly the best resource to have a quick intro to a country you will be visiting.
A travel agent in Africa, Signature safaris’ country guides for Namibia, Botswana, Malawi, Tanzania, Mozambique, Seychelles, Zambia and Congo are great resources for getting specific travel-related info.
Photography and inspiration
If you want to learn a bit more about photography and get inspired about travel in general and about Namibia and Botswana, Trey’s blog Stuck in customs is a fantastic resource. It is one of those places where you could spend an entire day just looking at beautiful photos of our fantastic world.
A blog written by the various rangers and guides with guests across the continent, this is a great way to get to know more about life in Africa’s national parks and game reserves.
Learn about wildlife
Head out to the Africa Wildlife Foundation to learn about all the various animals that you will see on safari. You can learn about the endangered status of each animal and the work the AWF does. You can read more about the main threats to each species and where to find them. It is a great resource to learn a few more facts about the Big Five and all their friends.
4. Plan your safari – What to bring
You will want to bring a camera with various lenses, one of which should be a minimum x200 for the close up shots. A sand bag or monopod is useful to stabilise the larger lenses, and is something that is pretty useful when you are trying to take a shot of a moving animal while on a moving car. A GoPro can be useful if you want to shoot some of the driving, attaching it to the outside of the car. The iPhone with one of those small flexible tripods can create fuss-free time lapses of the sunsets and sunrises.
Other things that come in handy are an easy bag to protect the camera from the dust when not in use and a cleaning kit to be used in between game drives to clear the dust from the lenses.
Don’t forget to bring enough memory cards, trust me, you can’t even begin to imagine how many photos and videos you will take and how many quickly those shutter shots of that hunting lion can accumulate in a single drive. An extra battery for the camera may also come in handy.
If you want to learn more about what the cool wildlife photos are and get some ideas, Jonathan and Angela Scott are award winning Masai Mara photographers and Jonathan was also the presenter of the Big Cat diary BBC program. Conservationist Chris Packham also has a great portfolio, mostly devoted to Africa. Or simply check out the hashtags on Instagram for the country you are visiting for some additional inspiration.
What to pack
I put together a great guide on what to pack for a safari. Although you should always check with your travel agent before, this list if quite comprehensive. Beware, some countries, despite being in Africa, can reach really low temperatures and even the freezing point during the high season in the winter months, so don’t be fooled by the image of Africa as a warm destination. Also, my personal recommendation is to go easy on the trekking boots. For regular safaris, a simple pair of trainers will do, as most of the time you will be sitting in a car. There are several exceptions though but it pays to ask for a genuine recommendation as trekking shoes take up a lot of space and are not very comfortable to sit around in.