Summer Travel: How to plan an African safari

With the summer holiday season just around the corner, it’s never too early to start planning your escape from the office. Whether you’re interested in jetting off to a foreign locale, or exploring your own neighborhood during a ‘stay-cation,’ the summer holiday season is an opportunity to break from the norm and take advantage of the favorable weather.

Of course, we at Gadling are all about encouraging readers to push the travel envelope and seek out the unconventional. There is absolutely nothing wrong with kicking back in an all-inclusive resort for a week – and trust us, we’ve been known to do that from time to time! But the most rewarding travel experiences generally come from those that require a bit more forward planning.

On that note, this post is all about how to plan an African safari. Rather than celebrating exotic wildlife and pristine parks, we’re going to focus on the nitty-gritty details. From composing an itinerary and selecting an operator to setting a budget and knowing what to expect, we hope to educate and inform while being clear, concise and encouraging.So why safari? Why now?

Safari success is heavily dependent on rainfall – and by extension, availability of water. From March to May, the long rains descend on East and Southern Africa, flooding rivers, filling streams and topping-up reservoirs. Game animals are free to disperse themselves throughout the bush, which can make spotting them a difficult proposition.

But once the rains subside, East and Southern Africa begin to dry up. Rivers weaken and streams disappear, while remaining groundwater is confined to scattered watering holes. These lifelines support rich concentrations of life, including herds of herbivores, and the carnivorous cats that prey on them.

When it comes to choosing an itinerary, it’s vital that you keep this cycle of life in mind. This is especially true if you aspire to witness the planet’s greatest natural spectacle, namely the Great Wildebeest Migration between Kenya’s Masai Mara and Tanzania’s Serengeti. Exact dates vary, but you should aim to be on the ground sometime between June and August.

A similar event occurs around this time in Botswana’s Chobe National Park. Dwindling water resources force animals to concentrate around the banks of the Chobe River. This allows safari-goers to eschew the classic open-top Land Rover in favor of a pontoon boat. This facilitates up-close and personal viewing of thirsty game animals stopping for a drink, not to mention hippos, crocs and aquatic birds.

Now that we’ve answered the why, let’s move on to the where and who.

To be honest, if it’s your first time on an African safari, you really can’t choose a bad itinerary. The adrenaline rush of seeing Mother Nature in her full glory often supersedes the subtle differences between natural environs. More specifically, this is to say that debating whether or not Tanzania’s Ngorongoro crater is better/worse than South Africa’s Kruger National Park is really not necessary at this stage of the game.

Instead, try to focus on the length and pace of travel, the level of luxury on offer and overall value for your dollar. These three points are of course interrelated, but you don’t have to be a travel pro to parse them out. For instance, cheaper trips often try to squeeze in too many stops. In our experience, you’ll often have better luck spotting safari rarities if you spend three days in one park rather than three days in three parks.

The level of luxury point essentially boils down to whether you want to bush camp, bed down in a tourist lodge or go ‘glamming’ or glamorous camping. The cheapest option appeals primarily to shoestringing backpackers who have time to spare but little padding in their wallets. Tourist lodges are middle of the road options that offer somewhat cookie cutter rooms, buffet dinners, structured activities and fairly reasonable prices.

Glamming can be the subject of its own post. But if money is no object, you can shell out for boutique canvas tents equipped with hot water showers, air-conditioning, proper beds with fine linens and personalized 24/7 butler service. Banquet meals are served on bone china, and accompanied by polished silverware and crystal stemware. All of this takes places out in the open bush surrounded by the full complement of creatures.

In terms of value for your dollar, this is where you really need to go line-by-line and understand what you’re getting. For example, will you have a private guide, or will you be grouped with other people? Will you be flying between hotels on chartered bush planes, or will you need to travel overland? Are activities (game drives, bush walks, ballooning, etc.) included in the price, or will you be charged extra at the end?

There is a simple solution to all this confusion: call or e-mail as many different tour operators as you can. Once you’ve shopped around, compare prices, consider the pros and cons of each trip and ultimately choose whatever circuit suits you best. There really is no right or wrong way to go on safari, and we’ve personally enjoyed our budget-busting trips just as much as our bare-bones excursions.

Do you think this is the year that you finally get to Africa?

If the answer is yes, then now is the time to get the ball-rolling. Accommodations do fill up during the summer season, so the earlier you reserve, the better. The same goes for plane seats. And, if you haven’t already received the necessary vaccinations (Yellow Fever, Hepatitis, Typhoid, Tetanus, etc.), make an appointment with your doctor as soon as possible.

Any questions that we didn’t answer?? Please feel free to chime in and ask.

** All images are the blogger’s own work **