Getting Around on an African Safari

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  • Introduction
  • Traveling by Land
  • Traveling by Air

Journeys are a huge part of the African experience, elevated from functionality to memorable parts of a vacation. They provide both macro glimpses of local life and broad impressions of natural scale. Through the window comes redolent scenes; villages of antiquated charm, a giraffe beside the main road, a cliff that drops onto endless miles of grassland. Beneath the wingtips lie endless rainbows of color, thick forests blending into oases and the rusty hypnotism of savannah. Africa is always an adventure, epitomizing the popular mantra that travel is as much about the journey as the destination.

Ecosystems collide in compact areas, a series of national parks gazetted nearby. In other parts of the continent, the safari destinations could be thousands of miles apart, separated by a wilderness that's fleetingly punctuated by villages. Journeys can be long, a whole day of travel between destinations. They can also just be dramatic hops, an hour of excitement and you've reached the next camp. Getting around is a big part of the itinerary, especially as most safari vacations will visit multiple national parks. The choice is by land or by air, the latter providing a visual treat as you're propelled between distant parks. An increase in scheduled flights means that many safari itineraries combine land and air travel.

The majority of safaris stick to land, often with the same safari vehicle used for game drives and travel between destinations. The immersion continues, a waterfall of local scenes flowing past the window. Roads are improving in Africa and exceed most expectations. However, distances are long, and many underestimate the size of Africa's countries.

Micro flights are the luxury means of getting around, providing dazzling panoramas above the landscape and quickly catapulting you between distant destinations. They're not only the quickest way of traveling to a safari destination, but they also offer immediate access to remote areas less touched by tourism. 

What Vehicle do you Travel in?

Most multi-day safaris use a single vehicle for the entire itinerary. When game viewing, the roof pops up to provide a better vista over the landscape. When traveling between destinations, the roof is down and the speed increases. These vehicles are comfortable and spacious, with a raised vantage point. Occasionally, in Southern Africa, transfers may be in an alternative vehicle. This tends to be when game viewing activities are provided directly by a park or reserve, rather than by a safari company. You're transferred from lodge to lodge where local staff operates the safari activities.


Distances and Duration of Land Transfers

Measuring the time required for any journey is difficult. 100 miles on the map could be like traveling 100 miles along a rural U.S. Highway. It could also be 100 miles of zigzagging potholed roads with regular interruptions for wandering livestock. 500 miles of desert can scream past in a day of tarmac. In another desert, that same distance might mean two days of traveling on trails swamped with dust. When creating land-based itineraries, it's good to be cautious. Squeezing a series of distant destinations into one week means a long time traveling and a little time on safari.

A popular trick of ancient cartographers creating world maps was to increase the size of European countries and reduce the size of their colonies, a deliberate error that belies the fact that Africa represents over 20% of the world's total land mass and is over triple the size of Europe. Certain national parks dwarf European countries or the U.S. States. Of the world's 50 largest countries by area, 24 are found in Africa. Most visitors underestimate the size of Africa, often leading to overly ambitious itineraries and long journeys beneath the sun. Many countries have traditional safari circuits that ably connect local dots, providing an in-depth journey into a region's varied habitats. These are far more manageable than attempting to combine destinations in opposite corners of a country by land. An increase in airline routes makes one-way journeys more common while it's also possible to mix driving with flying.


Journeys by Land in Africa

Images of African roads stick long in the memory: the orange muddy trail that winds through a Ugandan forest; dust-enshrouded rural routes watched by distant giraffe; a swerved journey past continual pot holes. There's iconicity to find amongst most panoramas, the continent's roads able to reflect preconceptions. At the same time, road quality is rapidly improving across Africa. Journeys by land aren't exclusively spent on potholed, muddy tracks. There's been significant investment in improving the land connections into and between national parks, particularly in East Africa. Major cities are linked by tarred roads, as a route between countries. South Africa continues to lead the continent, and even parts of its national parks are asphalt.

Untrammeled scenes roll past the window. Villages stand proudly on distant hills, then tumble down into small centers of chaotic charm. Tribes herd cattle along verdant slopes, chaperoning their goats away from the tarmac. Women strap babies to their back in vibrant sheets of cloth. Small children carry straw baskets on their head. It's not just local people that scroll past. Wildlife is often spotted along the road, especially on a Botswana safari or Kenya safari. There's always indelible natural panoramas, from gaping expanses of savannah and desert to the precipitous green slopes of flourishing montane forest.

Journeying by land continues the immersion, showcasing an alternative side to a country yet one that's equally authentic and memorable. It provides a glimpse at rural communities and landscapes, the waves of children accompanied by their welcoming smiles. More remote destinations usually mean increasingly rural scenes, as modernity has yet to reach the distant corners of most countries. Viewpoints and villages offer unique places to stop, and there's always a sense of adventure as Africa is unveiled in all its unadulterated glory. There's rarely a dull moment; the landscape is imbued with an ongoing evocation of the continent, every journey full of fascination and snapshots to take away.


Why Travel by Land

Primarily, traveling by land is most popular because it's the most affordable. It's also very flexible, connecting distinct areas of different national parks. The exact daily itinerary is discussed every evening with times generally dictated by you. By using the same vehicle for safari and transfers, you build a relationship with the driver and guide over many days. What starts as cautious interest becomes a friendship and a sharing of stories. In some parts of Africa, traveling by land is the only viable option. It's also quick and flexible when the itinerary's destinations are located close to each other.


Self-Drive Safaris

Self-drive safaris and vehicle rental are becoming increasingly popular in Southern Africa. Visitors travel by land between destinations and then sometimes use the same vehicle to take game drives through a national park or reserve. It's generally preferable to enjoy game drives in more dedicated safari vehicles provided by a camp, park, or lodge. Four-wheel drive vehicles aren't always essential but always advised when you're traveling off the asphalt. Having to crawl along at 20mph can seem futile when a Landcruiser zooms past hitting 60. Roads become sludgy messes during the wet season and some national parks only allow access to four-wheel drive vehicles. While it costs more, the distances and road quality make four-wheel drive vehicle an essential upgrade.


Transfers for Tailored Multi-day Walking or Horse-riding Safaris

Tailored multi-day walking or horse riding safaris usually include land transfers, transporting you to the starting point and away from the finish. A support vehicle may also be used throughout to carry bags and provide supplies for a camp. Likewise, land transfers should be included for tailored safari activities like hot air balloon rides or boat cruises. These will all be in a mix of vehicles, but the remoteness of an African safari tour normally requires a large four-wheel drive vehicle. 

What is a Micro Flight

Traveling by air was the original mode of safari exploration. Early European conservationists would fly above wilderness areas, and estimate mammal numbers by sight. In the Serengeti, they were painted black and white to blend with the environment, while in Botswana, three seater planes touched down in remote areas yet to encounter white settlers. The thrill of this ancient adventure has been retained. Airstrips are cleared of mischievous wildlife, a herd of elephants or springbok briefly suspending take off. You fly low, picking out large mammals on the landscape or watching the migrations of herds. Colors change, sweeping expanses of distinct habitats easily spotted from the air. From the wide angle, you descend to macro detail, touching down on another delightfully secluded airstrip.

Traveling by micro flight is different from an aerial safari. The latter will take a route that maximizes the visual indulgence, swinging past natural landmarks and sweeping above a landscape's most vibrant sights. Micro flights remain a mode of transportation primarily, taking a direct route between two airstrips or camps. However, there are no dull fragments in a safari landscape and transferring by air is always an aesthetic delight. It provides an elegant concept of scale to compliment the on the ground exploration. Memories of intimate big cat encounters are transposed against the monumental scale of the wilderness, helping ignite the imagination to the true abundance of mammals. It's often surprising how much individual detail can be spotted from the air. Beneath the wing tips travel big herds, the viewpoint offers an understanding of their movements towards rivers or water holes. Even including just one aerial transfer offers this fabulous new vista of the safari landscape.

Almost all safari destinations have an airstrip, with some of the larger national parks having up to a dozen. These are situated close to exclusive camps, and there's rarely any long transfers to the airstrip. Landing in the national or private park means safari starts immediately, often with the wildlife that grazes near the airstrip. The major downside to the experience is cost. Chartered or scheduled micro flights are outside the budget of most going on an African safari.


What are the Planes Like?

Single or twin engine planes are used, seating anywhere between four and 20 passengers, and able to land on short remote runways. These planes have been a mainstay of the safari industry since its inception and are operated by a myriad of companies. Some offer scheduled services, running to a loose timetable and transporting passengers along standardized routes. The majority offer private charters, something that's booked either by a camp or a safari company. For example, a luxury tented camp in Moremi Game Reserve might charter daily flights between their property and a partner camp in Chobe National Park, or to Etosha National Park for a Namibia safari.

It can be tight and a little cramped onboard. It can also be spacious and thrilling if you're the lucky one seated beside the copilot. Scheduled services limit luggage to 15 kg for space reasons, although they're not strict if there are empty seats onboard. Operating planes in the wilderness requires flexibility. Planes take off early if possible, or they can be delayed for numerous reasons, including nearby wildlife. There won't be a last call ringing out for remaining passengers or a waiting room. It's an iconic escapade into the wild, one epitomized by the exhilaration of a small Cessna gently rolling down the runway to pick you up.


Why Travel by Micro Flight

Traveling by air is obviously faster than going by land between destinations, maximizing the time spent on safari and minimizing the hours on the road. This enables more ambitious itineraries that combine parks in distant corners of a country. For example, visitors going by road must realistically choose between Tanzania safaris in the northern or southern parks; the best of both can be combined with micro flights. Multi-country itineraries are also more feasible. Some safari itineraries exclusively use flights to connect destinations, with the game viewing activities provided by camps and lodges. Others use one or two flights to negate long journeys, in particular, the often long drive from a city airport to the first safari destination.

Micro flights not only offer a quicker journey between destinations, but they also enable direct access to more remote parts of a park. This can instantaneously take visitors away from the main park gate and the popularly used trails. Poor roads and long distances limit the tourist traffic to particular areas, ensuring an exclusivity for those arriving by plane. An itinerary connected solely by micro flights seeks out areas less untouched by tourism. And then there's the panoramas, the sublime vistas over Africa's wilderness. It's this that is most remembered, nothing but wild colors extending to a distant horizon.


Scheduled Plane Transfers

A growing network of airports and airlines is starting to connect different corners of Africa. South Africa now has two budget airlines, national carriers are increasing their domestic network, and the number of flights between East and Southern Africa is improving. Scheduled flights are now very much part of a safari itinerary, just like they are when traveling in Europe or Asia. Airfares in Africa have traditionally more expensive than the rest of the world, although that's changing with the increase in competition and a burgeoning local market.

The continent's major cities have always been connected; this surge of new airports is making more ambitious itineraries possible. For example, Victoria Falls is now just a two-hour flight from South Africa; it used to be a two-day drive. Zanzibar can be quickly accessed from East African cities, enabling the revered combination of safari and beach. One way land journeys and safaris are becoming more feasible, with scheduled flights providing a quick return to the major city. In short, scheduled flights are making the whole continent accessible and increasing the number of destinations that can be visited on a two-week vacation. 

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