Africa offers a variety of cultures, landscapes and experiences. It's also home to some of the world's most stunning wildlife, making it a go-to destination for safaris. For most travelers, going on an African safari is a once-in-a-lifetime bucket-list vacation. It's expensive, far and requires a lot of careful planning. After all, no one wants to travel halfway around the world to feel like the experience didn't live up to their expectations. We know it can be overwhelming to organize an African safari, so we've put together the following list of quick and easy tips for first-timers.
1. BE RESPONSIBLE, ETHICAL AND SUSTAINABLE
Game Drive at andBeyond Nxabega Okavango Tented Camp, Botswana
Of all the decisions you'll make regarding your first African safari, this will be one of the most important. You'll want to do your research on everything, including which country and company you choose. Ask yourself a few questions: Does the country or company support sustainable initiatives? What do they do to help protect the local wildlife? Is there political conflict? Does it offer the chance to pet, hold or take pictures with wild animals? The latter is a huge red flag, and all companies that offer this opportunity should be put firmly in the "no" pile. Does the game reserve also participate in open hunting or culling practices? Do they employ locals? As always, where you spend your money speaks volumes, and for many destinations, wildlife safaris are a big part of their income. Take a minute to learn who and what your money will be benefiting (or harming).
2. DECIDE WHERE TO GO BASED ON WHAT YOU WANT TO SEE
As the second-largest continent on the planet, Africa has a lot of ground to cover. Its 54 countries and several islands sport a variety of ecosystems, all with their own unique set of plants, wildlife, pros and cons. South Africa draws a large number of first-time safari-goers because it has good tourism infrastructure and is home to the Big Five, plus several game reserves are in malaria-free areas and it's relatively stable, politically speaking. English is also one of the 11 official languages here, and it's widely spoken throughout the country. Other popular spots include Kenya and Tanzania, which feel more wild, often have denser sightings, and are the place to witness the Great Migration. Meanwhile, the small island nation of Madagascar is a favorite for folks primarily looking for lemurs. Figure out which type of wildlife you're after, then research where you'll have the best chance of spotting them.
3. RESEARCH EACH COUNTRY YOU ARE CONSIDERING
Keep in mind that deciding where to go on safari goes beyond just figuring out what type of wildlife you want to see. You also need to consider the country's safety, infrastructure, language, and politics. The U.S. Department of State is a great resource for travel warnings and advisories, though it should not be used as the be-all and end-all in your research. Check the local news, read recent posts on travel forums, and talk to friends or family members who have traveled to the destination. For example, Zimbabwe was a top safari destination until the 1980s, when political strife resulted in a years-long massacre from 1983 to 1987. However, the destination has seen an uptick in popularity over the last few years, due to the lush landscape, good wildlife sightings, and safer surroundings.
4. LOOK FOR A SAFARI WITH FLEXIBLE GAME DRIVE TIMES
Chances are, your lodge or safari package comes with a set number and length of game drives per day. Before booking, ask the company how the game drives are scheduled. Do they have a set time or are they flexible about when you can go out? This may be easier said than done, but it can make or break your sightings on some days. Most lodges schedule set times for game drives - in the early morning and late afternoon when the animals are most active. However, if we've learned anything from going on safari, it's that nature isn't always as predictable as we would like it to be. Being able to switch up the times of your game drives can be the difference between seeing something spectacular and seeing nothing at all.