Lions, oh my!
October 18, 2013 6:45 AM   Subscribe

My SO and his mother want to go on safari in Africa next year, there are lots of tours. Not sure where to start. Help?

They don't have a specific area in mind. Budget is around $5,000 per person, and we are located in Ontario, Canada (near Toronto). Time of year doesn't matter. They are looking for a complete package type tour, some walking is good but not tons as my SO's mother is in her 70's, though spry.

So my question is, have you been on a similar trip? How did you book it and where did you find it? Is this the type of trip that is best booked through an agent? Did you enjoy it?

Extra credit questions, how was the preparation for the trip? What do you wish you had brought that you didn't? How might you do it differently?

Any other travelling-to-Africa anecdotes/tips are also appreciated. Thank you!
posted by heavenstobetsy to Travel & Transportation (11 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
 
The first thing to do is decide where you want to go. I'd recommend that you choose between two countries - Tanzania or South Africa. I think that the wildlife is best in Tanzania, which has several major parks relatively close together, including the Serengeti. But if you're looking for a more refined experience - if nice hotels and good food are important - you're more likely to find it in South Africa. Prices might be higher in South Africa, though.

Generally there's not a lot of walking on safari, because you're driving in the wild and surrounded by (one hopes) wild animals. There may be particular spots in parks where you can disembark and look at particular animals, like hippos, but when you're out looking for big you don't want to be wandering around too much.

Safaris involve a lot of sitting in a bumpy truck - you want to be sure that your SO's mother is up for it. You should consider, if budget permits, renting a private vehicle (with a guide, of course) so that you can determine your schedule, rather than having it dictated by the guide.

Regarding time of year, you want to book for the time when the animals are best, and that will depend on where you go and what you want to see.

Happy to share my experiences and recommendations further by MeMail.
posted by Dasein at 7:07 AM on October 18, 2013


I've been to Kenya and Tanzania and went on Safaris in both countries. I saw a lot more animals in Kenya than in Tanzania. True, Tanzania has the Serengeti, but it continues into Kenya where they call it the Masai Mara. When I was there, the Ngorongoro crater was supposed to be full of animals, but compared to the Masai Mara there were barely any.

All this might have changed in the last 15 years since I went, and it might depend on the time of year that you go, since animals migrate, and there's a difference between the rainy season and the dry season.

You might want to consider other countries besides Tanzania and South Africa, for example Kenya or Namibia. If you would like to see certain species, find out where they are most common. To see gorillas, you wold have to go to Uganda, for example.
posted by amf at 7:20 AM on October 18, 2013


I had a great tour operator -- Patricia at Wildlight Safaris (patricia@wildlightsafaris.com). I was initially against using a tour operator, but she was amazing, kept us well under budget and everything was taken care of (flights, food, transport, etc.). I really, really recommend using her or someone like her to help because it is so overwhelming (and I live in Africa!). You can just tell her general specifics (I want to see animals or I want to do something besides just sit in a game vehicle) and she'll help you navigate.
posted by mrfuga0 at 7:22 AM on October 18, 2013


Not to threadsit but, if they mostly want to see a bunch of animals, where would be best? And what time of year? Did you carry US currency or the currency of whatever country you visited? What kind of clothing did you bring?
posted by heavenstobetsy at 7:42 AM on October 18, 2013


amf: I do believe the wildlife situation in the Serengeti has changed in the last 15-20 years. A field biologist/tour guide friend of the family (who we met almost 40 years ago when we lived in the Serengeti) told me a few months ago, when I mentioned we only saw three elephants in the Ngorongoro Crater during a 1991 visit, that the elephant population was at a historic low at that point and has rebounded since. Given that the tourism industry has boomed since then, I think the Serengeti National Park has been specifically managing the wildlife to attract tourists in the recent couple of decades.

heavenstobetsy: the classic Bunch of Wild Animals in East Africa is the wildebeest migration, and that tends to hit during the rainy season between November and March. You'll get all the animals that prey on wildebeest as well, because of that. January/February was the best IIRC, although tour prices will jump correspondingly.

I can recommend the tour guides David Bygott and Jeannette Hanby who run tours with National Geographic because I know them--field biologists and old Africa hands (David is the person I mentioned above). I have not been on the tour itself, so I cannot say anything about it.
posted by telophase at 7:55 AM on October 18, 2013


It really really depends on what you want to see. The world's largest elephant herds are in Botswana, in Chobe. But there aren't a lot of big cats. In Namibia, you see almost everything during dry season, except leopards and cheetahs. In South Africa, especially in Kruger, you can technically see all the animals, but Kruger is the size of England and you can only stay on the (well-traveled) paths, so there's not as much chance to see all the animals. The wildebeest migration (as noted above) will give you access to millions of wildebeest, but other non-wildebeest-eating animals stay out of the way. Dry seasons and rainy seasons/summer and winter will vary depending on where you go.

Currency? It depends on how you do things. If you pay up front, then you might carry some US and get some local currency in a bank or an ATM when you get there to tip drivers, etc. If you go to Botswana, you can use South African Rand, US dollars or Botswanan Pule. If you go to Zimbabwe, you will use US dollars and Rand. If you go to Namibia, you will need SA Rand or Namibian Rand.

Clothing will also vary greatly by where you choose to go. Long pants and long sleeves are a good idea. You are sitting a lot, so something comfortable. Bring some shorts and a swimsuit if you stay somewhere hot and with a recreational area (a lodge vs a tent). I've seen women in Kruger wearing miniskirts, high heels and Mickey Mouse t-shirts. I've seen women get on boats in Botswana wearing sequined tank tops and suede pants.

Honestly, the questions about clothing, money, what to bring, etc. are pretty much moot until you can arrow down the type of adventure you want (camping, lodges, self-catering chalets, self-drive, etc.) and where and when. It's best to focus on that first. A good travel agent (again, I HIGHLY recommend using one) will help you with all of these kinds of questions. If you are worried about the cost of the agent, please bear in mind that if you are paying $5000USD per person for a trip, then having $500USD or less of that going to a qualifies person who will take care of all your details is a huge bargain.
posted by mrfuga0 at 8:07 AM on October 18, 2013 [1 favorite]


When I went on an organised safari in South Africa (Kruger National Park) I went with Rhino Walking Safaris. The three day trip I did had you sleeping one night in the luxury lodge, one night in their luxury tented camp and one night in what they call a sleepout - a basic tent, set on large platform 10 or so feet up. The three days split into 3 x half day walks tracking rhinos (we were unlucky, and saw none) and 3 x trips in a small group, sometimes just the two of us, in a jeep. On the jeep trips we were incredibly lucky and saw leopards and a lion kill happen right in front of us. Literally, right in front of the jeep. Close enough to see it happen, smell it and feel it. A very visceral experience. We also saw elephants, giraffes, hyenas, a rare type of antelope, other antelope, blue bottomed monkeys - the usual safari stuff. We were helped when in the jeep by the fact that different guides talked to one another on the radio, so we knew the leopard was in the area, we radioed in the lion pride to another vehicle.

The walks were not particularly taxing, but depending on how spry your mother is she might find it too much. They were about three hours of gentle ambling each time. However, despite not actually seeing any rhinos I loved them because you got properly down at ground level and felt like more than just a tourist gawping at stuff from a vehicle. For safety there were armed guides at the front and back of the group whose protocol was to fire a warning shot in the event of a threat and take aim in the very unlikely event any animal still wasn't scared by a shot over its head. I imagine they could tailor it so that you could walk and your mother could do more wildlife spotting by jeep.

We booked directly and went in March. I'm glad I had good walking shoes. I'm glad we had binoculars, and one set per person would have been even better. We brought a long lens with us. If I were made of money I would have brought a better lens with more stabilization. We didn't need any special clothing or special equipment. There wasn't wifi in their accommodation so anything that depended on that would have been superfluous and, frankly, who wants to use multimedia when you can stare out onto the plain?

Three days felt like the short side of enough. I could have done with 5 days. More than that would have been very immersive and if you've got time and budget to spend consider the Mozambican coast (stunning) and/or a trip to the winelands and Cape Town and/or doing the Garden Route.

In South Africa you can pay for everything with Rand - you don't need dollars. in March it's still warm but you do need some lighter warm clothing for the evenings - and the weather is starting to cool down as you come out of high season.

I can't compare it to the Mara or the Okavango because I've never done those. The Kruger and the Mara are both highly visited tourist spots so unless you go really bespoke or a private game reserve you never quite get the feeling it's just you and the bush. This didn't bother me, but for $5k per head is a decent sum - a five day tour with Rhino Walking Safaris is US$1,700.

Also, a quick shout out for Zambia - not as well known but highly regarded. My brother's mate Rod Tether is a nice guy, hugely knowledgeable and one of the best in the business and has been guiding for 20 years (link to email) and definitely worth contacting.
posted by MuffinMan at 8:11 AM on October 18, 2013


My family went to Africa back in 2001, and we went on two safaris. One was in a large, enclosed game park that also served as an animal rehabilitation facility, and the other was an outfit that operated within a very large open park. The experiences, as you could expect, were quite different.

We saw a lot more animals in the enclosed park, but not all were in truly natural settings. In the open park, there was more driving around and hoping to find signs of something to track. In both cases, we were in jeeps, which kept us safe but allowed us to get pretty close to a number of animals, though we did get out at times and walk a short distance to see something that was further in the bush.

I'll dig through my records and talk to my parents about how they planned it. The one thing I recall now is that the enclosed game park had just opened, so we got a great discount to stay at a pretty posh place. The second location was a lot more rough in terms of facilities, but I would totally go there again.

If you have time, visit a few different countries. We went to Zimbabwe and South Africa, which were drastically different. Zimbabwe was still relatively stable in terms of finances, but there was a black market for currency exchanges, so our guide offered to exchange money for us, because he said he could get a better rate than at the banks, where the exchange could change significantly from day to day. One little boy offered to trade my sister a carved wooden animal for her sandals. By comparison, South Africa was much more stable and orderly, though there were areas of striking poverty. We were lucky because a friend of my parents lives in South Africa, so he was our guide there, and was candid about how life was there. We went to Table Mountain and saw African penguins, amongst other sights in the southern part of South Africa.
posted by filthy light thief at 8:33 AM on October 18, 2013


My dad & stepmom just returned from a trip to Kenya. They were there for about 3 weeks and saw the "Big 5" and lots of other animals. Other than coming down with nasty colds after they got back, they had a wonderful time. I'll ask him for more details & meMail you.
posted by mogget at 9:18 AM on October 18, 2013


I think that the wildlife is best in Tanzania

I disagree with this, having done safari in Kenya, and Namibia, and on the Kenya trip I was with someone who had recently come from Kruger in South Africa and had an incredible time, there. There are lots of places for great safari in Africa, including but not limited to: Kenya, Tanzania, Namibia, South Africa, Botswana, and Zambia.

I recommend an agent, in or out of country for Kenya based on my experience, and South Africa from what I've been told. We had an agent in Namibia and it was good, too, though self-driving is actually surprisingly doable there.

We were in Maasai Mara in high season - there were many, many wildebeest, however there were nearly as many tourists. It was kinda depressing because there was frigging rubbish everywhere under any tree on the plains, and when there's 40 or more vans around one poor harried cheetah, it's not exactly great. The conservancies outside the park were much better for us - and we saw everything in Mara Naboisho (a conservancy) that we saw in the park, with a much more pristine environment, responsible management of the area, and limited numbers.

Etosha in Namibia has a lot of animals, and there are many private lodges near or around the park with even more.

Namibia was also good because you need fewer shots to go there, and though malaria is recommended, we were there in August and I saw literally not a single mozzie (it's freezing!). Additionally, you can go to the desert in Namibia which I thougt was incredible, and it's relatively safe.

There were definitely more animals in and around Maasai Mara and other parks in Kenya, but I didn't feel there was a shortage or anything in Namibia.

I loved safari, profoundly. Especially in Namibia. I grew up in the country but am now firmly metropolitan-based. The wide open, deserted spaces of Namibia, and the amount of time I spent in the natural environment really reconnected me to the land in a really special way that I had missed a lot, and reminded me how important that is for me - it's as close to spiritual as I get, I suppose. . I think of it often. The Kenya experience was a lot more polished (and crowded), but still good.

Make an effort to find an operator with appropriate environmental - and where relevant - cultural and community credentials. Exploitation is rife in many parts of Africa and you don't want to be adding to it.
posted by smoke at 2:57 PM on October 18, 2013


My family and I went on a 14 day trip to Tanzania that included several days in the Serengeti with Oversea Adventure Travel and it was amazing. It looks like they've changed it since then, but here is the general trip. I can't recommend them highly enough. We saw so many animals in their natural environment, they keep the groups small, the accommodations are wonderful (even when you're in a tent), and their target audience is the 55+ crowd, so it would be very appropriate for your SO's mother.
posted by oryelle at 6:10 PM on October 19, 2013


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