African Safaris

A guide for the uninitiated, from Angola to Zambia

By: David Swanson

Don’t count on a good night’s rest your first night on safari in Africa.

For mine, at Ongava Tented Camp in Namibia, the congenial manager told me not to head to my quarters after dinner without a member of the staff.

“We’ll walk you to your tent since there are lion about,” he deadpanned. My eyes must have widened, and he provided a little more detail. “The warning sign for lion is when the waterbuck or kudu start barking. Then you’ll want to be inside your tent.”

I didn’t have a clue as to what a barking kudu might sound like, but after blowing out my lantern his warnings haunted me. For hours I dissected hundreds of individual noises, one by one: the snap of twigs, a stutter of gravel and then a rustle in the vegetation. Perhaps hoofs stumbling on the rocks? Something munching on tufts of grass? Ah, good a hoofed vegetarian. No danger there. (But aren’t vegetarians food for carnivores?) Was that a bark or a howl?

Fortunately, at dawn the next morning, no felled carcass lay at my doorstep. I hadn’t even been on my first game drive and the mythology of Africa had already gotten the better of me.

Tourism to Africa is booming. With three decades of instability behind it, Uganda’s tourism numbers swelled from 193,000 (in 2000) to 512,000 (2004). Despite a travel warning from the U.S. State Department, in two years visitors to Kenya rocketed from 1.1 million (in 2003) to 1.5 million (2005). Americans traveling to South Africa have increased by 12 percent annually for the last four years.

But as my sleepless first night in Namibia proved, many of us have misconceptions about the safari experience. Over the course of four highly rewarding trips to eight countries I’ve listened to tour operators and safari camp managers as they outline the obstacles they face selling safaris to average Americans. Included here are some common assumptions they have heard from nervous prospective clients.

MYTH: Africa is a country rife with civil wars and poverty.
“People don’t know how to separate these countries, they see all Africa as one,” says Norman Pieters, chairman of Miami-based Karell’s African Dream, who has been selling safaris for 34 years.

Americans have long had difficulty recognizing the world’s second largest continent as being made up of 53 highly individual countries. Although quite a few of them have their problems, the issues of one country typically aren’t closely related to another’s. Zimbabwe and South Africa may share a border, but what’s happening in troubled Harare has little bearing on what’s going on in Cape Town, 1,400 miles away, just as what’s occurring in Michoacan, Mexico, has little relation to the tourist experience in Denver (also about 1,400 miles apart).

“When the news shows problems in Darfur, Sudan, some people drop their plans to visit South Africa,” says Kent Redding, president of Denver-based Africa Adventure Consultants. “South Africa is thousands of miles away and a world apart in terms of safety.”

But travel agents selling Africa have a responsibility to stay abreast of the destinations. Work with established operators who travel regularly to the countries they sell and watch for U.S. State Department Travel Warnings, currently in effect for Kenya for example, but not for neighboring Tanzania or Uganda.

“Parts of Africa are very safe, parts of it certainly are not,” explains Pieters. “Zimbabwe is the only part of southern Africa that isn’t. Even Angola is stable now and will open up for tourism in a few years.”

MYTH: I will have to sleep in a hut with no running water or toilet.
Africa possesses some of the world’s most luxurious accommodations. In South Africa and Kenya most lodges are brick and mortar with all the amenities of a National Park lodge in the U.S. In Uganda, several old government lodges have been privatized and recently upgraded. But even the tented accommodations are beautifully designed and feature all the basic creature comforts, including flush toilets and showers.

Located deep in Botswana’s Okavango Delta and accessed by air, the romantic tents at Mombo Camp are bigger than many hotel suites and have hardwood floors, king-size beds and indoor and outdoor showers, and there’s a chef who prepares cordon bleu meals and a plunge pool for afternoon dips. Operated by Wilderness Safaris, Mombo Camp’s nightly rack rates for 2007 are $1,330-$1,510 per person.

“You can sleep in a hut if you really want to,” says Redding. “But few people do.”

MYTH: The price of an African safari is beyond my budget.
Backpackers do Africa on the cheap, but the trip they experience is not suited for most American travelers. A big part of what one pays for is access: Per-person fees for national parks can add up, ranging from $10 for Namibia’s Etosha National Park to $500 for a one-day gorilla-tracking permit in Rwanda (starting June 2007). Mombo Camp charges the prices it does because the lodge has exclusive access to the Okavango’s finest game-viewing area.

But there are ways to keep costs down.

“There’s a place in the market for people who normally take Caribbean cruises,” says Pieters. “The more flying around you do makes it expensive. So the place to go on a budget is South Africa; you fly straight in and stay within the country.”

Karell offers four nights in Cape Town, two in Johannesburg and two in Kruger National Park with game drives, starting at $2,651, including air.

Another possibility is a self-drive tour. In South Africa clients can rent a car and drive to Kruger (six hours from Johannesburg), where there are both top-drawer luxury lodges on private reserves (rates include guided game drives), as well as plentiful rest camps with stand-alone cottages (game drives done in the rental vehicle).

Allen Erenbaum, a Los Angeles-based attorney, and his wife resisted a package trip and instead constructed an independent tour through southern Africa.

“It did take a little more work but I don’t think it’s unlike travel in Europe, because the infrastructure is there,” explains Erenbaum.

They rented a vehicle in Johannesburg and headed to Namibia, staying at Etosha’s Okaukuejo rest camp. Here, “luxury” bungalows cost $125 a night, meals are served in a moderately priced restaurant and a waterhole is illuminated for night viewing of elephant, rhino and giraffe.

“There were guides available and a ranger station just like in a U.S. National Park where you could get maps, find out where the best waterholes and animal-viewing spots were,” Erenbaum says.

The Cardboard Box Travel Shop and Go2Africa are among the outfits that construct self-drive or package tours including everything from car rental to charter flights. Clients should be advised that the services of a naturalist guide, to track elusive animals, are an invaluable component of the higher-end safari lodges.

Fully supported group camping trips are an option. While these aren’t suited for everyone, they make pricey Botswana accessible to moderate budgets. Wilderness Safaris handles nine-day trips through Botswana for $3,048; its competitor Conservation Corporation Africa does a 10-day trip priced $2,900-$3,440.

MYTH: Africa is all about animal sightseeing.
Whether whitewater rafting on Uganda’s Nile or exploring historic vineyards in South Africa, the diversity of experiences ranges far beyond game drives. There are superb beaches and fine diving and snorkeling along the coasts of Kenya, Tanzania and on the islands of Mauritius and the Seychelles. Luxury train trips like the Rovos Rail offer another way to explore the countryside. Butterfield and Robinson offers a nine-night cycling trip through South Africa, priced at $8,595.

“The biggest thing people who haven’t been to Africa say is, ‘I’m just going for the animals,’” says Redding. “Then they come back and say ‘I loved the animals, but I enjoyed the cultural things as much or more.’”

Africa Adventure Consultants handles walking safaris including a three-night trek in Kenya with Maasai warriors and staying in an authentic Maasai Village.

Nicky Fitzgerald, marketing director for Conservation Corporation Africa recommends South Africa for travelers seeking something beyond the safari experience.

“It has so much to offer, from an amazing climate with sunshine almost year-round to breathtaking scenery, coastal villages and cosmopolitan cities such as Cape Town.”

“Swaziland has wonderful crafts and a unique culture,” says Francis Mfune, acting executive director of Regional Tourism Organization of Southern Africa. “Malawi has a great lake, ideal for fishermen, and Mozambique has deep-sea fishing. Tanzania offers the experience of climbing 19,340-foot Mt. Kilimanjaro the tallest mountain in Africa.”

MYTH: The problems in Zimbabwe make Victoria Falls off-limits.
During the last few years under President Robert Mugabe, Zimbabwe has emerged as one of Africa’s most unsettled nations. But the Victoria Falls area is a relative oasis of calm compared to the rest of the country.

The mile-wide spill is shared by two countries and the problems in Zimbabwe have spurred considerable development on the Zambia side, in Livingstone, where the 173-room five-star Royal Livingstone resort (and others) basks in the mist upstream from the falls.

“The only downside is that most people believe that the view of the falls from the Zimbabwe side is better,” says Redding. “We continue to send people on daytrips across the bridge to Victoria Falls Town [in Zimbabwe], and we’ve had no problems.”

MYTH: I’m going to contract AIDS or fall ill with a tropical disease.
Although several African countries have unusually high incidence rates of AIDS, the way to prevent it is to follow the same precautions one should at home: avoid unprotected sexual contact.

Africa hosts an array of tropical diseases and a travel health specialist should be consulted at least a month prior to travel. The disease to be most concerned with is malaria. Although it is potentially fatal, the threat of contracting it is largely eliminated by using prophylactics such as Lariam or Malarone. Mosquito repellants containing DEET, sleeping under a mosquito net and wearing long pants and long-sleeved shirts provide additional protection. Travelers can also limit their travel to areas where malaria is not present, including most of South Africa.

MYTH: Safaris aren’t suited for families.
Although safaris have traditionally been oriented to adults, tour operators and lodges are tapping into the family market by lowering age requirements and adding a learning component geared to children. Countries particularly suited for families include Kenya, Tanzania and South Africa, but the policies vary from one operator to the next. Minimum ages ranging from 5 to 12 are established as much for the child’s safety as for the game-viewing experience of fellow guests.

“Parents must consider that if a vehicle comes upon wildlife and a small child screams, scaring the animals, the consequences may not be desirable,” says Mfune.

But it’s a market Africa Adventure Consultants and others are pursuing.

“It’s one of the largest growing segments of our company,” says Redding. “You can’t believe how many kids get turned on by being able to shoot a Maasai spear, or learning how to milk a cow, or dressing up in a traditional African outfit.”

Governors’ Camps in Kenya caters to families with hot-air balloon safaris and visits to a local Maasai village. Although some lodges charge an additional fee for a private vehicle for families, Governors’ Camps provides them with their own vehicle for game drives so they can follow their preferred timetables, without added cost.

Robin Pope Safaris, in Zambia’s South Luangwa National Park, designs programs for children age seven and up. On guided nature walks, they are taught how to identify animal paw prints and droppings and they learn to use spotlights at night to track game. And on a visit to a village school they meet Zambian children and more.

Up and Coming: The Next Members of the ‘Big Five’

When Zimbabwe slipped into political and economic turmoil, Africa lost a premier safari itinerary. Today, four countries South Africa, Botswana, Kenya, Tanzania lead the list of safari destinations for Americans. But at least three countries are aiming for a spot on that list.

Well-known to European travelers, Namibia sprinted into America’s spotlight earlier this year when Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie headed to the country. But although you will see stars the awesome night skies are resplendent with them Namibia is not for the starry-eyed. Most of the country is wild and arid, not unlike the American Southwest.

Game viewing is excellent at the Etosha Pan, a 6,500-square-mile dry lake that is big enough to be seen from space. Other areas to explore include Damaraland, a barely inhabited region where rainfall is rare and desert elephants have adapted to the harsh conditions. At Sossusvlei, 1,000-foot-high red sand dunes are the location for memorable balloon rides and awesome sunsets. And spectacular Fish River Canyon is said to be close in size to the Grand Canyon.

A top destination in the 1950s and ’60s, Uganda became identified with the tragic reign of Idi Amin in the ’70s. A recent cease-fire with LRA rebels appears to be taking hold, and Uganda’s moment for tourism may have arrived.

Described as “the pearl of Africa” by Winston Churchill, Uganda is still a developing country. But the scenery is unparalleled from the thunder of Murchison Falls, where the mighty Nile is forced through a channel just 20 feet wide to the misty Rwenzori Mountains, the continent’s tallest mountain range.

While the animal concentration is not as dense as in Kenya and Tanzania, Uganda’s checklist is as long as any other African country’s, topped by the mountain gorilla. Of 650 known mountain gorillas, half live in Uganda (the others in Rwanda and Congo). Uganda is also the top spot for chimpanzees, and the bird list for Queen Elizabeth National Park runs more than 550 species.

The country that has directly benefited from the instability in Zimbabwe is neighboring Zambia, partly because the two countries share a top attraction: Victoria Falls. Zambia is vast about the size of Texas and for many it recalls the “authentic” Africa. Of the 19 National Parks, most of which have been upgraded by the government since 2000, Kafue and South Luanga are among the most profuse concentrations of game in Africa.

And there’s no shortage of accommodations of all levels on the Zambia side of Victoria Falls, while whitewater rafting on the Zambezi is widely considered one of the most exciting rivers in the world.

Sell More Safaris

Be familiar with a wide range of activities and price levels. There are so many ways to experience Africa. Your client is looking for guidance.

Know the security situation. Agents must stay current on the latest hot spots.

Target families and boomers. Families are the fastest-growing market. Many boomers dream of visiting Africa before they get “too old.”

Confront the myths. When it comes to Africa, nearly everyone has preconceived notions. Be prepared to counter your clients’ reservations.

Become a specialist. A good first step is to contact the African Tourist Association (ATA) at

Africa Adventure Consultants

Butterfield and Robinson

Cardboard Box Travel Shop

Conservation Corporation Africa


Governor’s Camps, Kenya

Karell’s African Dream

Regional Tourism Organization of Southern Africa

Robin Pope Safaris

Wilderness Safaris