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Don’t count on a good night’s rest your first night on safari in
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
“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
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
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
MYTH: Africa is a country rife with civil wars
“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
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
“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
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,
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
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
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
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
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
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
“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
“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
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
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