If there's a safari on your travel bucket list and you're ready to check it off, this is where to start. Here are some things to think about as you're booking your once-in-a-lifetime South Africa getaway.
Safari lodges are similar to hotels in that they can offer a wide range of amenities at a wide range of prices. In the case of a hotel, you'd pay more for better service, scenery, and added perks. Safaris are more complex.
With safaris, spending more might get you more comfortable digs and better food. And at the very low end, you may have to go without certain comforts, like hot water. But the quality of your lodging, or lack thereof, isn't a great predictor of the quality of interactions you’ll have with wildlife -- and isn't that what you really came to see?
When choosing a place to stay, remember that some resorts are simply better positioned for seeing animals than others. For instance, if your lodge looks out over a watering hole -- or, even better, has one on site -- you’re likely to see families of elephants and rhinos wandering into your backyard for a drink, especially during dry season. In our experience, sightings like those are among the most memorable.
Also, never skip a game drive. There are no guarantees out in the bush and things change by the minute, but rangers and spotters do use radios to track animals. You never know when you’ll stumble upon a pack of wild dogs or follow a pride of lions closing in on a kill.
As an increasing number of foreigners snap up the limited tourism jobs available to local villagers, several lodges have implemented programs to invest in their communities. For example, through its competitive program Nkombe Camp, Sabi Sabi Private Reserve at Kruger National Park selects a number of locals and trains them in tour and lodge management. Many graduate as game rangers, and go on to work at Sabi Sabi’s four lodges.
From a traveler's perspective, having a guide who grew up locally is a plus. Our local guide on a recent safari, for example, knew how to interact with the animals and interpret their behavior -- a skill acquired over decades of exposure to the animals in their environment.
As more and more safari camps open in South Africa, sustainable practices are becoming increasingly important. EcoTraining, which operates in South Africa, Botswana, and Zimbabwe, trains staff on how ecosystems work and thrive. These partnerships also combat poaching, which has been a major threat to South Africa’s white rhino and wild dog populations.
South Africa's winter, from May to September, is generally considered to be the most desirable time to go on safari. This is also South Africa’s dry season, when grass and vegetation are more sparse, so you’re more likely to see animals traveling in packs -- say, a herd of up to 1,000 buffalo moving through the reserve seeking food or congregating around a watering hole. Plus, the night skies are better for constellation-viewing in winter.
But don’t discount the summer wet season. After the first rains fall and low season kicks in -- usually around October -- you’ll find less-crowded parks and lower rates on accommodation. Migratory birds return in early summer, and late summer -- April specifically -- is birthing season, so you might spot a family of antelope with a newborn hopping through the brush. Also, the land is a lot more lush due to the rainfall, which makes for more scenic drives.
No matter when you travel, expect radical weather changes over the course of the a day. Dress for game drives in layers -- you’ll want to adjust from cool mornings to midday heat -- and always bring rain gear. Getting caught in a downpour on a game drive is like jumping in a swimming pool with your clothes on. We suggest packing a waterproof bag (or two, even) for your camera -- especially if you’ll be in an open-top vehicle.
For many people, a safari is a once-in-a-lifetime trip. You will encounter lions, elephants, giraffes, and more in a way you may never have an opportunity to again. Because animal interactions are so unpredictable, you’ll want to be able to capture the moment quickly and as accurately as possible. It pays to come prepared with a more advanced camera -- the bigger the lens, the better. Not ready to splurge on a pro-level camera or lens? Consider renting. Sites like BorrowLenses.com allow you to borrow ultra-sophisticated zoom lenses for as little as $15 a day. Trust us, you’ll be glad you did.
Travel insurance is one of those things you always hear about, but rarely actually purchase. While a good travel credit card can sometimes back you up, consider this: You’ve likely invested thousands of dollars and many hours of research and planning for this trip. While travel to South Africa and safaris are generally safe, there are always a lot of variables associated with travel. With some policies as little as $34 for the duration of your trip -- like one by Berkshire Hathaway Travel Protection that covers flight delays, missed connections, and lost luggage -- it's a fraction of the cost of your vacation and can save you a lot in the event of an emergency.