Everything you need to know before booking your first African safari

For many, a safari represents the optimal escape and lifelong travel dream. If you’re going to invest in turning this dream into reality, there are some things worth considering. Plus, we recommend five incredible wildlife itineraries for 2023.

Lodges such as Elewana Loisaba Tented Camp provide immersive safari experiences that don't skimp on luxurious amenities.

Photograph by Elewana Loisaba Tented Camp
By Emma Gregg
Published 27 Nov 2022, 15:00 GMT

From the first waft of dewy morning air to the gentle owl hoots that drift into camp after dark, there’s a satisfying natural rhythm to a day on safari in Africa. Even if you’re not normally an early riser, you’ll quickly fall into the routine of pre-dawn starts, lazy lunchtimes, active afternoons and mellow evenings, making the most of the best hours both for wildlife-watching and for chilling out. Deep at night, if you’re lucky, you may hear the distant whoop of a hyena, the rasping call of a leopard or the bassy roar of a lion.

But more often than not, you’ll sleep soundly, drunk on fresh air. Soon after you wake, you’ll head out into the wild, eager to discover what the day will deliver. Perhaps you’ll find yourself inching up on some rhinos, watching boisterous elephants bathe in a waterhole or spotting the youngest, cutest members of a mighty big cat dynasty.

If this sounds like the kind of escape you’ve been craving, but you’re puzzling over possible itineraries, what’s the best way to choose?

Green means go

While every luxury safari offers unforgettable wildlife encounters, there are plenty of options to consider. High-end African trips and settings vary hugely in their atmosphere and style.

Some itineraries, for example, are much greener than others. If you’re passionate about nature, you’ll want to make ethical choices, mindful of climate change and biodiversity, perhaps by minimising your time in the air. While every long-haul trip has a high carbon footprint, you can limit your safari’s impact by choosing a destination near an international airport and sharing a vehicle rather than continuing by taking domestic flights.

With superb wildlife-watching opportunities within driving distance, Nairobi makes an excellent starting point for a low-airmiles luxury safari. “You could head for the stunning mountains and waterfalls of the Aberdare range, where lions hunt giant forest hogs”, says Kenya specialist Richard Trillo of Expert Africa. “The tree-dotted plains of the Maasai Mara, which host East Africa’s annual Great Migration, are also within reach,” Richard adds.

There are other ways to dial down the net impact of your trip without compromising on quality, however. While carbon offset schemes can help compensate for your emissions, for a more targeted approach, you could book your trip through a specialist safari operator that has established working partnerships with African conservation charities. 

“We’re proud to support South Africa’s all-female Black Mamba Anti-Poaching Unit, and Greenpop, a non-profit Sub-Saharan forest restoration and urban greening organisation,” says Marcelo Novais of luxury operator Ker and Downey Africa. 

“We give all our clients the opportunity to donate to these worthy causes, since leaving a positive legacy is one of our core values,” he adds. Other deserving organisations include African Parks, the African Wildlife Foundation, Tusk and the World Land Trust. 

Another effective way of maximising the benefits of your trip is to choose lodges that go the extra mile in their vicinity, doing more for environmental protection, community partnerships and rural development than  merely covering park fees and basic wages. In Tanzania, the Elewana Arusha Coffee Lodge invites guests to visit the craft project they support, Shanga, where locals with disabilities upcycle glass, textiles and fishing wire into cute elephant cushions, jewellery and clothing.

When it comes to shortlisting properties, membership of Ecotourism Kenya, Responsible Tourism Tanzania, Fair Trade Tourism and the Global Sustainable Tourism Council are generally useful indicators.

Settling in

Once you’ve arrived in the bush, what will your surroundings feel like? Anyone who’s cautious about camping in the wilderness will be relieved to discover that most top-end operators put their guests at ease by focusing on creature comforts: cool drinks, gourmet dining, indulgently appointed private bathrooms and sumptuous beds, for example. As a rule, their staff — from the head guide to the housekeepers — are superb at their jobs. 

That said, there are significant differences between, on the one hand, intimate, minimalist camps with just a handful of canvas tents and, at the other extreme, sizeable lodges featuring swimming pools, gyms and perhaps even a spa, photography hide, editing suite, research centre, library and observatory. It’s a matter of weighing up how close to nature you’d like to feel — hearing all those thrilling sounds in the night, for example — against the range of facilities and creature comforts you’d like to enjoy.

When deciding, honest opinions from people who know the properties well can be invaluable. “Our safari specialists always have detailed conversations with our clients to understand their preferences and offer advice”, says Liberty Gilmour of Audley Travel. “Conventional aircon, for example, is rarely essential: Zambia in May and high-altitude destinations such as Ngorongoro can be quite cool, particularly at night. If it’s hot, natural ventilation may be sufficient, but many camps also have solar-powered cooling systems.”

Whether opulent, nostalgic or quirky, surroundings that suit your aesthetic aspirations can elevate your experience. The family heirlooms that decorate Camp Jabulani in South Africa’s Kapama Reserve, for example, create a uniquely cosy atmosphere, while Xigera Safari Lodge in Botswana’s Okavango Delta is so proud of its collection of original pieces by contemporary African artists and artisans that staff offer art and design tours of the premises. To strike a contemporary note, Loisaba Lodo Springs in Kenya’s Loisaba Conservancy has rooms dotted with hand-stitched West African textiles and elegant upcycled Edwardian furniture.

Mara Expedition Camp in Kenya’s Maasai Mara is a perfect base for exploring the local wildlife.

Mara Expedition Camp in Kenya’s Maasai Mara is a perfect base for exploring the local wildlife.

Photograph by Andrew Howard

Peaceful days

Almost every safari programme revolves around guided excursions called game drives, a name dating back to the days of Big Five hunting trips, but the style of the vehicles you ride in isn’t discussed as much as perhaps it should be. While some outfits settle for basic open-sided 4x4s, others invest in supremely comfortable, easy-access vehicles with charging points, dustproof storage space and a fridge. If you’re a keen photographer, top quality private vehicles are a must. Electric safari vehicles offer a particularly smooth ride; while still rare, they’re the future, and are starting to catch on.

Ila Safari Lodge in Zambia’s Kafue National Park offers the rare luxury of total peace and quiet. Founder Vincent Kouwenhoven, who has pioneered electric transport at Ila and its sister lodges in Zambia and Malawi, explains: “Our love for Africa led us to develop technologies that enable guests to experience the bush in near-silent, pollution-free vehicles, charged by our own solar panels. It’s an ecologically conscious way to watch wildlife and very calming, too. Instead of the engine, you hear birdsong.”

Some safaris also promise near-solitude in a vast natural landscape — an intoxicating feeling. One way to dodge the crowds is to travel during low season, the dates of which vary from location to location; alternatively, you could choose private reserves where the only vehicles you’ll see will be those of your fellow guests. As well as providing daytime activities, guides may offer night drives, using spotlights to search for nocturnal activity, such as birds roosting or lions stalking their prey.

For the ultimate in exclusivity, it’s possible to book an entire camp or lodge, with the staff handcrafting everything to your precise specifications, from wake-up times to the cocktails and canapes. According to Ash Jarvis of Best of South Africa Travel, exclusive-use properties work particularly well for mixed-generation families: “With their private game drives, multiple living areas, private pool and the undivided attention of the whole staff, including the chefs (fussy eaters welcome), they eliminate stress and ensure that nobody has to compromise. That’s what good family holidays are all about.”

The ultimate adventure

If serenity is your scene, you may be dreaming of floating over herds of zebras and wildebeest in a hot-air balloon, or wandering across the savannah on a bushwalk or cycle ride. The most interesting safaris offer a mixed programme of imaginative guided activities such as these, enlivening the days with little surprises: picnics in beauty spots, perhaps, or lantern-lit barbecues. 

The possibilities depend, to a large extent, on your choice of location. In Kenya’s northern conservancies, for example, you could explore the semi-desert by camel, while in Rwanda or Uganda, the activity you probably won’t want to miss is venturing into the depths of the rainforest on foot for a precious one-hour audience with mountain gorillas.

On a gorilla trek, you’ll be guided by rangers at the top of their game — a hallmark of an excellent safari. A knowledgeable, communicative guide can transform any trip, keeping you safe, entertained and intrigued.

“The inside track is what you really want, whether that’s in guiding, photography or conservation”, says Will Bolsover of Natural World Safaris. “In-depth knowledge leads you beneath the surface, for true insights into how conservation works, how wildlife benefits and how you can contribute.”

Since quality time with experts is one of the ultimate luxuries you can enjoy on safari, some top-end safaris, particularly in Kenya and South Africa, include a philanthropic element, whereby in exchange for a substantial donation to a conservation fund, you gain access to specialists in the field, perhaps even helping collar predators or collecting DNA samples from juvenile rhinos. Conservation safari companies such as Great Plains and AWF Safaris can assist with this. There’s no better way to start unlocking the mysteries of the African wilderness.

A lioness is observed by a group on a game drive at Morukuru Family Madikwe, South ...

A lioness is observed by a group on a game drive at Morukuru Family Madikwe, South Africa.

Photograph by Ash Jarvis

Five luxury safari trips in Africa to try in 2023 and beyond

1. Low-carbon luxury in Kenya

After a night at Nairobi’s fabled Giraffe Manor, travel overland to Solio Lodge in the Central Highlands to explore Kenya’s oldest rhino conservation sanctuary, then continue to Sala’s Camp, in one of the least-visited corners of the Maasai Mara. Eight days from £8,400 with Expert Africa. expertafrica.com

2. Take to the skies in Tanzania

Flip from park to park in style on a SkySafari, travelling by private plane and touching down at luxurious Elewana Collection properties. This classic circuit takes in Arusha, Tarangire, Ngorongoro and the Serengeti, for blockbuster wildlife-watching. Ten days from £8,300 with Sky Safari. skysafari.com

3. Family adventures in South Africa

South Africa has a host of prospects to suit muti-generational families. Delightful safari properties such as Morukuru River House team well with Cape Town, the Cape Winelands and the Garden Route. Fourteen days from £4,500 with Best of South Africa Travel. bestofsouthafricatravel.com

4. Clock the Big Five in the safari heartlands

To experience some of southern Africa’s most exclusive wilderness retreats, string together Bushmans Kloof in South Africa’s Cederberg region, Sossusvlei Desert Lodge in Namibia, DumaTau in Linyanti and Xigera in the Okavango Delta. Twelve days from £24,797 with Beyond Green. staybeyondgreen.com

5. Meet mountain gorillas in Rwanda

Nothing can prepare you for the surge of emotions you’ll feel when, after an exhilarating trek, you first encounter a family of gorillas in the rainforest. Combine your hike with game drives in Rwanda’s Big Five national park, Akagera. Eight days from £7,493 with Jacada Travel. jacadatravel.com

Published in the 2022 edition of National Geographic Traveller (UK) The Luxury Collection

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