Paradoxically, a holiday can be a stressful experience. If you’re planning a getaway a little outside of your comfort zone, and you’ve once had the kind of experience that leaves you desperate to get back to work for some rest, a little planning and forethought can make the trip much more enjoyable.
It’s no fun frantically running around with a camera trying to get the most you can out of every 24 hours. This is your moment, so book for long enough that you don’t need to rush. I would say that a week is the minimum, while a month (if you can afford it) will turn out to be rewarding. Above all, don’t lose sleep. You’ll want to already be up at sunrise, so eat dinner early.
Safari camps can be extremely luxurious, so don’t forget the hours you won’t be spending on a boat, jeep, bicycle or hot air balloon. Seriously consider booking during the off season, which is not only cheaper but allows for a more personalized experience.
Things to Buy
At a minimum, you need a good camera, with extra batteries, special lenses and whatever accessories seem useful. Once you get into the bush, the selection available for sale is likely to be poor, so get it before you set off. It’s not really for your own sake, it is to share a little of the experience with those back home. Bear in mind that electricity in Africa is pretty generally 220V / 50Hz, so make sure your devices are compatible.
Remember that you are going on a holiday, not for an audition. Pack comfortable clothes, get some sturdy boots (break them in beforehand), and don’t forget a hat. That said, have a smart outfit or two for dinner. Make a list, starting with quinine, insect repellent, sunblock, Immodium, etc.
Do Your Research
Some preparation on the internet will make your holiday much more rewarding. For instance, have you considered that foliage will be much lusher in the rainy season, while spotting animals is easier when it’s dry? When are young animals born? Especially for birdwatchers, knowing when migrations occur is essential. The more you know about the riches of the ecosystem you’re visiting, the better your experience will be. Talking to a knowledgeable local can be invaluable, so pick up the phone.
Additionally, get travel insurance and any vaccinations you’ll need. Confirm that your passport isn’t about to expire. Figure out some local customs – people are generally tolerant of dumb foreigners, but it’s always better to make the effort.
This may not be advice everyone will want to take. I’m so often disappointed in Americans on holiday: they never looked up the local word for “thank you,” they want to see only the things that they saw online, and they eat at McDonalds. Travel is about experience; and you are visiting a strange culture that may be much older than yours. Try the local cuisine, whether dried mopani worms or roast crocodile. Don’t neglect activities outside of the safari, Soweto and Cape Town are both fun places to visit.
Unless no budget applies, experienced travellers should avoid package tours (but look out for some incredible deals that turn up sometimes). A four-star hotel might allow you to book online and charge $100/night; a backpacker’s hostel might allow you to book online and charge $10 or less. In this way, you can stretch your budget from a relentless week to a relaxed month, or more. Although there are some safety risks, one way to go is to advertise on Craisgslist or equivalent for a local resident (with a car) to be your guide. In one go, you’ve gained a chauffeur, translator, restaurant critic, and whatever else you require. The pay for this kind of job can be quite low, as long as you reimburse him or her for any mileage driven, and make sure they receive the same accommodation and meals as you do.
A good safari is an experience that will stay with you – and even more so, with your children – for the rest of your life. A crappy safari will make you wish that you’d gone to the zoo instead. Some things will be outside your control, but a little research and planning can make all the difference.