If you get 10 people together and ask them what their ultimate travel adventure would be, it’s a good bet that at least one will say, “a safari in Africa.” Despite the steady expansion of adventure travel options, the African safari remains the gold standard. After all, it is the granddaddy of adventure travel.
But many of us never go beyond dreaming about an African safari. I have to plead guilty here. No stranger to travel, I somehow hit my midlife still wavering on whether or not I should take a safari. The main barrier had always been the expense. But I soon found out that, in this day and age, such travel is no longer only for the well-heeled. There are affordable safari experiences out there for the rest of us.
East Africa’s safari destinations are legendary: the Serengeti, the Ngorongoro Crater and the Masai Mara. The Serengeti ecosystem alone covers an area the size of New Jersey and Connecticut combined. And within the national park boundaries, just under 6,000 square miles, you could fit three Grand Canyons. We’re talking big. Really big. In fact the name, “Serengeti,” is taken from the Masai word siringet, which means, “place where the land runs on forever.”
Surveying this vastness from the open top of a safari vehicle is a humbling and exhilarating experience. Coming upon thousands of wildebeest, buffalo and zebra for the first time brings you back to your childhood sense of wonderment, when everything in the world seemed huge. With herds stretching out to the horizon and beyond, your sense of scale turns upside down.
Nothing, however, can compare to the thrill of encountering the king of the Serengeti, the African lion. Seeing lions in the wild, a mere 10 or 20 feet from your vehicle, is an experience no one forgets. When they roar, the sound rattles your bones, and causes a sudden rush of gratitude for the sturdy steel of your safari vehicle.
Being close to the world’s most powerful land predator in its native habitat is an incomparable thrill, but it’s the largest resident of the savannah that tops many safari goers’ list — the African elephant. There is something about these smart, charismatic creatures that runs straight to the human heart. A mature bull can stand taller than the pop-top of your safari vehicle and weigh up to 50,000 pounds. Watching a herd of 10 or more elephants pass close by is simply stunning.
The magic doesn’t end when night falls. On a recent safari, I stayed at the Endoro Lodge 7,000 feet up on the rim of Ngorongoro Crater. Masai herdsmen greeted our group and helped us to our rooms. As darkness descended, the wilderness came to life — hyenas yowled, owls shrieked and thousands of crickets chirped for their mates. It was the forgotten soundtrack of a wild world where humans were scarce. It seemed a shame to sleep.
While safari lodges are delightful, nothing compares to camping on the savannah, with billions of stars to tuck you in. When I say camping, it is important to note that I stayed in a tent outfitted with a real bed, a shower, a toilet and a sink, but these amenities didn’t lure me in for long. The Masai watchmen built a roaring campfire, where we sat listening to the yelping howl of the hyenas around camp. If there is a better experience to be had in this world, I have yet to find it.
And what about the cost? Well, you don’t need to take out a second mortgage to go on a safari. For the cost of a typical European vacation or Mediterranean cruise, you can have an eight-day safari in Kenya or Tanzania. Here are a few things to keep in mind.
When it comes to pricing safari packages, not all destinations are created equal. A variety of factors can affect price: logistics, remoteness, infrastructure and park fees. It’s why a safari in Botswana tends to cost more than a safari in Kenya or Tanzania.
For a first-time or once-in-a-lifetime safari, it’s hard to beat Kenya and Tanzania. Home to the infamous Ngorongoro Crater, Masai Mara tribe and the Serengeti, these countries feature spectacular wildlife viewing and scenery. Lodging, transport and guides are also well established, and the large number of safari operators allows for competitive pricing.
East Africa’s seasons come in two types: rainy and dry. The dry season typically runs from June through September, and it spurs some of the greatest wildlife migrations in the world. The savannahs turn brown, and hundreds of thousands of wildebeest, zebra and other mammals move north in search of water. This also happens to be high season for safaris — Europeans are on summer holiday, and Africa is a top destination for them.
To avoid the high season crush and see just as much wildlife, consider going during the “short rains” which last from January through March. At this time, you might experience brief downpours, but the savannahs turn green and the skies are dramatic. With more water available, the animals tend to move less, making them easier to spot. Best of all, the crowds thin out and safari prices come down.
When it comes to accommodations and food, some people see “budget” and think “deprivation.” The reality is, with limited development in the game parks, most tour operators book their clients at the same handful of beautifully designed lodges, no matter the package price. Meals are buffet style, the food is good and there’s plenty of it.
Here’s the bottom line: There is plenty of adventure to be had on an African safari. So dust off that dream and get ready for the experience of a lifetime.
Jim Holden, president of African Travel, on using a tour operator:
“The main reason for consulting a tour operator is to find out about all of the different choices. It’s possible to accommodate almost any safari-goer’s dream, from a balloon safari to the traditional mobile safari. If you don’t consult a knowledgeable outbound safari operator, you won’t know what you’ve missed. With so many options, choosing a safari is now more complicated than ever.”