What to Expect on an African Safari: Part I

March 9th, 2018

Going on safari is a majestic experience. If it is not at the top of your bucket list, it should be.

An African safari vacation is unlike any other trip you will ever take. The phrase safari initially derived from the Swahili word meaning “journey” or “travel” historically associated with a game hunt until the popularity of safari excursions caught the attention of mainstream travelers. Today, the term encompasses an eclectic group of countries and experiences focused on immersing you in an unfettered interaction with nature’s majesty. No matter the destination, no two safari outings are the same, let alone safari vacations.

The palm trees and white sands of a relaxing beach getaway provide a predictable escape, but the wonders of an African safari emphasize the thrills of unpredictability through your interactions with the untamed environment. Expert guides provide a personal touch to every excursion by narrating your surroundings. The sounds of giraffes grazing on the acacia trees overtake the loud noises of rush hour traffic left behind at home. Instead of hordes of tourists rushing to see a dozen highlights in a single day, a safari offers old-world charm and luxurious ease, as you search for spotted hyenas, circling vultures, or baby hippos.

Safaris can take several forms including hot air balloon rides with breathtaking views of the golden savanna.

The simple ambiance of safari does not connote a less comfortable experience. It instead highlights a tradition of ecologically friendly concepts fundamental to communities across the African continent. Solar panels provide hot water and power to camps and lodges situated hundreds of miles from the nearest road or village. Materials are taken from the local environment and blended into the landscape. The rooms feature hand-carved wooden beds or thatched bomas, traditional enclosures, reflecting superb quality and enchanting iridescent colors.

A safari can come in a range of flexible activities, with some offering more structure than others. A hot air balloons ride over the scenic landscape, or a river cruise, each offers distinctive perspectives of the African wilderness. A nighttime game drive will introduce you to the nocturnal wonders of the animal kingdom with many animals active in the cool temperatures between dusk and dawn. On the other hand, walking safaris urge you closer to the wildlife by finding the smaller, often-overlooked animals, including a view of the insects unnoticed on a drive such as the Little Five. This term refers to the less-noticed but pertinent wildlife consisting of:

  • Antlion
  • Elephant shrew
  • Leopard tortoise
  • Buffalo weaver
  • Rhino beetle

Depending on the parks you visit during your time in Africa, you can expect to see the famous Big Five, a term referring to what hunters once considered the most dangerous animals in Sub-Saharan Africa. The Big Five includes:

  • Lion
  • Elephant
  • Leopard
  • Cape buffalo
  • Rhinoceros

Overland vehicles provide the greatest flexibility for tracking the unpredictable wildlife, such as a lioness that suddenly appears within view.

The classic overland safari has the most flexibility by changing to accommodate the mood of the guests and those of the animals. The flexibility of a game drive works with the unpredictability of nature, where guides can shift the itinerary on a whim if a leopard is spotted in a tree, a rhino grazes on the golden grass nearby, or a pride of lions laze beneath a tree overlooking a waterhole near camp.

Each activity provides a new and exciting perspective of the terrain and the wildlife. Some animals are more curious than others, so exhibit caution at all times. Some parks, like Maasai Mara National Reserve in Kenya, are famous for cheetahs leaping onto the top of safari vehicles for a better perspective of the plain. Baboons are also notorious for entering safari vehicles and stealing food from empty seats during rest stops.

The general mood of a safari is one of tranquility and thrills. The landscape and life in different safari destinations across Africa have a rhythm connected to the dry and wet seasons, in addition to a pattern aligned with the day’s weather. Most safaris begin in the fresh air of first light before the famous heat of the Sub-Saharan sun beats down across the landscape. The Southern Hemisphere’s summer takes place late November to early March with both hot and wet conditions due to summer showers.

The dry season consists of the Southern Hemisphere winter months, which take place between mid-May to mid-September where conditions are hot and dry. While the late mornings and early afternoons are warm enough to wear a light t-shirt and shorts, the weather in the early morning and late evenings drops precipitously, requiring layers to keep warm. Throughout the year, mornings and late afternoons account for active wildlife. When the temperature decreases, it is more likely to have an intimate view of a foraging warthog or yipping pack of wild dogs.

Accommodations are boutique and luxurious on safari. Lodges are commonly situated near water for fantastic views of wildlife. Lion Sands Narina Lodge in Kruger National Park is pictured above.

Most morning drives end before the intensity of the midday sun returns when guided safaris give way to relaxing afternoons at your accommodation. Safari excursions are designed for exploring the wildlife across the endless scenery, but the journey continues in the tranquility of your camp when nature reveals itself to you. Private verandas, communal campfires, an elevated swimming pool, or a boma meal under the glittering African sky often become remarkable vistas to view elephants stomping through the trees and crocodiles wading in the waters of the river winding below the grounds. A large selection of accommodations in the different national parks and reserves are situated overlooking water for views of the various processions of wildlife arriving to drink each day.

Lodges and permanent tented camps typically provide breakfast, lunch, and dinner with dishes ranging from Western to traditional regional African cuisine. Lunch takes place at designated picnic areas to prevent animals from snatching your food. Mischievous birds and sassy monkeys may attempt to sneak a treat when you are not looking, so always exercise caution when handling food in the wilderness. The remote location of accommodations causes cellphone coverage to drop, but many camps and lodges do provide WiFi.

Sundowner is a tradition where all gather to enjoy a drink and watch the gorgeous sunset on the plains.

Sundowners have become a ritual for Africa safari-goers. The tradition consists of enjoying a beverage, often with alcohol for those of age and juice or soda for kids, while the sunset layers the horizon. The brilliant reds, pinks, and oranges paint the sky acting as a backdrop to bathing elephants, parading hartebeests, or zebras quietly snuggling. Plan on staying many days in two or more destinations to discover the fascinating diversity of the different ecosystems across a variety of countries, and how the environment supports the essential variety of wildlife. To view the dramatic, exciting experiences of Safari, check out Zicasso’s African safari itineraries here.