For many people, an African safari is the trip of a lifetime -- in part because of the steep price tag. While a luxury lodge or a tented camp can cost upwards of $3,000 per person, per night, there are budget-friendly options out there, and they don’t require that you rough it.
What does a budget safari look like?
The safaris most of us are familiar with -- the ones pictured in glossy brochures -- are situated on private reserves. Instead, plan your safari in a national park, like Etosha in Namibia or Kruger in South Africa, which are open to the public for a small fee (less than $25 a day for foreigners) and have plenty of inexpensive lodges and camps in and around the area.
Inside the park, Pretoriuskup and Satara Rest Camp grant you the same proximity and access to wildlife as the luxury lodges, for a fraction of the cost. These are run by South African National Parks, and the accommodations can range from traditional camping sites and permanent safari tents, to huts, bungalows, and cottages (from as low as $20 per night). Don’t expect any frills here -- no hairdryers, meals are not included, and on the really low end, you may share a bathroom or kitchen with multiple guests -- but this route offers, what many people find to be, a more adventurous, DIY experience. This can be really rewarding for the person who is more concerned with what they’re seeing, rather than where they’re staying.
Also, there are typically accommodations a few miles outside of the park gates. These properties tend to have more comforts than the aforementioned stays, but you have to drive into the park each day. Hazyview, for instance, is a small town fifteen minutes outside of Kruger with boutique properties like Perry’s Bridge Hollow, where you can get a large, air-conditioned room with WiFi and cable from $175 per night for a single room to $350 for a family suite (not including meals).
Lastly, there are a number of volunteer programs, like the Big Five Nature Project, with which you can spend two weeks in the bush for less than $1,760, including food and accommodation. In addition to the cost savings, you get to be involved with the daily running of a bush camp and to see the Big Five; the experience comes with a more holistic view of the place you’re visiting. Of course, as the name implies, you have to earn your keep.
While it is not advisable or feasible for all destinations, national parks are well-suited for renting and driving your own safari vehicle thanks to networks of well-maintained roads. In this scenario, you don’t have to pay a for a daily guide -- usually the largest expense. Driving yourself also means you have the freedom to stay in one place, or stay out, for as long as you want: If you want to follow a pack of wild dogs for half the day, you can; whereas on a guided drive, you’ll be limited to two- to three-hour drives and you’re subject to the whims and schedules of those in your shared vehicle.
If you do opt to drive yourself, note that it can be difficult for the untrained eye to spot a leopard amid its surroundings. When you have to keep your eyes on the road, it’s harder to take in the scenery, which can make it difficult to spot animals. Also, because public parks do not have restrictions on the number of vehicles permitted (the way they do in a private reserve), it is possible to be one of a dozen cars huddled around an elephant. If you find yourself in this situation, don’t be afraid to head down a less-busy road. You’ll likely stumble upon something else of interest -- these parks are quite large and have plenty of wildlife.
That said, a self-drive is better suited to those who have been on a safari before. Inexperienced safari-goers will rely heavily on luck to see animals (fortunately, parks like Etosha and Kruger are densely packed with wildlife). We recommend doing extensive research beforehand and packing a good guide book.
If you have a limited amount of time, it might be better to spring for a guide. A full day can cost from $100 to $110 per person in a shared vehicle, but -- particularly in a pinch -- you’ll have a greater chance of seeing more animals because guides can access areas that are closed to everyone else, they know where to find certain animals, and are able to recognize and follow tracks and detect sounds. Plus, a well-trained guide will be able to give you background information about the wildlife, geology, history, and local culture, as well as keep you safe.
So what are you actually paying for when you book a high-end safari?
There are two main differences when you go the luxury route.
First, you’ll be staying on a private reserve or a private concession within a national park -- both of which place restrictions on the number of people and cars allowed. That means you can actually pull up alongside a pack of lions homing in on a kill and not have to compete for a view.
In addition to encountering fewer vehicles on your drive, you’ll likely share a 4x4 with four to six people, as opposed to eleven or more in a similar car or SUV. It’s not a guarantee, of course, but higher-end lodges tend to avoid packing vehicles. Reserving a private vehicle might make sense for a larger group or a family (which can cost an additional $1,000 or more) to avoid being on someone else’s schedule or agenda (e.g. if you want to keep watching the lions, and they want to move on).
Second, when you book a luxury safari, you can generally expect to have a more comfortable experience. Rooms come with private plunge pools, patios, clawfoot tubs, and high-end spa products. And though $3,000 per day is a lot, rates include all game drives, meals, high tea, drinks, and other activities.
A guide and a spotter (the person who notifies the driver of tracks or sightings) escort you on every outing. Because high-end camps ensure their guides are well-trained and well-paid, they will enhance your learning experience by explaining what you’re seeing. At the end of your evening drive, your guide will usually set up sundowner cocktails and snacks in the bush under the stars.
Lastly, location matters. Some of the coolest safari destinations -- the most secluded and unique landscapes -- are further off the grid. Those harder-to-reach destinations cost much more to get to, due to limited accessibility (e.g. having to rely on private puddle jumper planes to get there).
Overall, it is entirely possible to have an epic safari on both the low and high end. If you don’t mind foregoing certain frills and sticking to a larger, easier-to-reach national park, then the low end offers a unique opportunity for adventure that certain seasoned travelers prefer. But there is something to be said for the ease of booking a luxury lodge and not having to plan once you get there. Perhaps it’s a choice of whether you want this to be the trip of a lifetime that you can take more than once.