Big in Africa: Tips for a truly kick-ass safari

This month, Big in Japan is on vacation in Africa, and will be bringing you travel news and happenings from around this often misunderstood continent.

There are few words in the English language more exotic and scintillating than safari, a Swahili derived word that literally means journey. For most travelers in Africa, going on safari is pretty much at the top of the to-do list, though it’s not too hard to see why. Coming face to face with charismatic critters straight out of National Geographic is a truly kick-ass experience.

Of course, no two safaris are created equal, especially since there are a few potential pit falls that need to be avoided. However, with a little advance planning and a good sense of what you want to get out of your safari, it’s pretty easy to ensure that you’ll have a memorable journey.

On that note, today’s posting is a quick and dirty guide for going on safari…

From posh tented camps and 4WD Land Rovers to bush camping and open topped jeeps, everyone’s idea of the perfect safari is drastically different. However, there are a few general guidelines worth taking into consideration before parting ways with your hard-earned cash.

Location, location, location. National parks in Africa are highly variable in terms of infrastructure, resident wildlife and terrain. With that said, you should plan ahead and choose a park that peaks your interest. For example, Masaai Mara and the Serengeti in East Africa are renowned for their annual wildebeest migrations, while Chobe National Park in Botswana is the most elephant rich corner of the continent. Weather and road conditions can also make the difference between a relaxing scenic drive and an impromptu wilderness adventure.

Hire a guide. A knowledgeable guide can make all the difference, especially if you have hopes of spotting some of Africa’s more elusive animals (such as leopards and cheetahs). Staff at reputable safari companies are extremely competent and highly trained, while fly-by-night operations cut every possible corner to keep prices low. Even if you’re a fiercely independent traveler, defer to expertise and hit the bush with a pro in tow.

Invest in good gear. A safari isn’t very much fun if you don’t see anything, which is why a good pair of binoculars can vastly improve your experience. While professional binoculars can set you back a few hundred dollars, you can get a good entry-level pair without breaking the bank. If you’re a shutterbug, don’t even think about touching down on the continent without a zoom lens – you’ll sorely regret it if you don’t bring one along.

Do your homework. You don’t have to be a wildlife biologist to appreciate a safari, though it certainly helps to know what you’re looking at. There are literally dozens of animal and birding field guides on the market, any of which will give you a quick crash course in the incredible diversity of African wildlife.

Less is better. While it’s tempting to spend every day in Africa on safari, be wary of animal burnout. After you’ve spotted your 100th zebra and 1000th gazelle, it’s all too easy to get jaded and start demanding more exotic sightings. So, try to break up you time in the national parks with outdoor activities and cultural experiences. And of course, remember that while watching lions take down a gnu is an awesome (and bloody!) spectacle, don’t lose sight of the beauty and wonder of the savanna itself…

Been on safari before? Chime in with road-test tips and your best animal stories!

** All images were shot by yours truly **