The first step in planning an African safari is to decide which part of the continent is most appealing.
There are organized safaris in eight African countries and three distinct regions, and each offers a different experience. Some safaris concentrate on a single country while others combine two, three or more countries into a single trip. Here's a look at the three regions, and the countries that are in them.
East Africa (Tanzania, Kenya, Uganda and Rwanda) has the largest concentrations of animals, world-famous Serengeti National Park and Kilimanjaro, Africa's tallest mountain. In Tanzania's Olduvai Gorge, Drs. Louis and Mary Leakey discovered 2-million-year-old bones and tools from what some believe were the earliest humans. My family's first safari was in Tanzania, during the Great Migration, and I doubt any experience will ever surpass it.
The world's entire population of mountain gorillas (about 700) live in a mountainous region split by Uganda, Rwanda and Congo. Earlier this year, we were able to observe these magnificent animals up close in the Rwandan side of the Virunga Conservation Area.
Southern Africa (Botswana, Namibia and Zambia) offers game viewing on foot and in boats (in addition to open-air vehicles), unique species of birds and amazing Victoria Falls. My family and I visited Zambia and Botswana on safari a few summers ago, and we were thrilled with the game viewing from dugout canoes in the Okavango Delta and from the backs of lumbering elephants along the Zambezi River.
South Africa (the country) is unique in that safaris are frequently combined with a cosmopolitan segment to form a very diverse vacation. Game reserves feature the continent's most deluxe safari lodges, and it's easy to add time in the beautiful city of Cape Town and/or the scenic Garden Route stretch of the southern coast. Click here for a complete list of possibilities.
Once you've chosen your destination, it's time to consider safari operators, which can be roughly classified as budget, first class or deluxe -- in ascending order of cost and quality. Factors in classifying a safari include quality and location of accommodations, quality and number of included activities, size of group and the level of personalized service.
Budget safaris offer price-conscious travelers a way to explore the African continent without breaking the bank. Budget safaris may feature pitch-your-own-tent camping and other modest accommodations, may entail travel with larger groups, and are offered by G Adventures and Intrepid Travel.
First Class safaris stay at more comfortable, full-service hotels and lodges and have more inclusions than budget trips. They are operated by Gate 1 and General Tours.
Deluxe safaris are even more upscale and inclusive, and groups are smaller. You'll stay in the finest accommodations and enjoy gourmet dining and personal attention throughout. Deluxe safaris are offered by Abercrombie & Kent, Adventures by Disney, African Travel (the company I chose for my Southern Africa trip), Collette, Tauck (the company I chose for my Tanzania trip) and SITA (the company I chose for my Uganda and Rwanda trip).
Once you've decided on your destination and safari operator, you must determine what documentation is required for each of the countries you'll be visiting. Passports valid for at least six months beyond the end of your trip are required for all safari destinations. Namibia and South Africa require that travelers have at least two blank, unstamped pages in their passports. Visas are required for U.S. citizens for travel to Kenya, Namibia, Tanzania, Uganda and Zambia.
Next, it's essential to visit a doctor that specializes in travel medicine or the travel medicine department of a local hospital to learn about health issues in your destination. Certain immunizations are required, and others are highly recommended. It's best to make this visit well in advance of your trip, as some health threats require a series of inoculations over time, all prior to travel.
Now it's time to shop for safari essentials. Some items to consider are the right camera and lens for wildlife photography, binoculars and clothing suitable for safaris. Blue and black clothing attracts insects; earth colors of tan, green and brown are preferable. Clothing coated with Permethrin will discourage most flying and crawling insects, including malaria
-carrying mosquitoes. Outdoors outfitters such as REI usually carry shirts and pants that are pre-treated; some are sold under the Buzz-Off brand. You can also find Permethrin at these types of stores to coat the rest of the clothes you plan to take.
For our gorilla trek in the mountains of Rwanda, we tested our hiking boots to make sure we could wear them blister-free for long hours. We also treated the boots with extra water repellent. A small daypack is good for carrying camera equipment and water.
Finally, many African safaris involve one or more flights on small prop planes with strict luggage weight restrictions. I've been known to pack for a big trip in 15 minutes, but the fear of having to leave some of my freshly poisoned safari clothes beside a dirt runway somewhere caused me to do the unthinkable before my first safari -- "practice" packing. Something to consider as you make your final preparations for what is sure to be an unforgettable adventure.
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