What To Know Before You Go On An African Safari
Preparing for a African safari is both extremely exciting and also pretty straightforward. Once you’ve got your yellow fever jab (which not only protects you from the virus, but allows you to return to Australia), it’s just a matter of filling your bags. Sunscreen, strong insect repellent, your toughest shoes, plus your camera, and you’re set. Right?
There are other things to prepare that you simply can’t just throw in a bag. I was naive going in to my own first safari experience, but after learning a lot on my own safari tour, the rather delightfully-named Connoisseur Signature Safari Special, I’m here to pass on to others the handy tips I learned during my time at Masai Mara National Reserve and Samburu National Reserve with Bench Africa.
Be prepared to get involved in your safari
Being on an African safari is not a passive event, which is what makes it so much fun. Our guides in the Masai Mara and Samburu safaris were walking Wikipedia pages, full of knowledge about the animals, ecosystems, history and culture of the respective national reserves, so be sure to ask as many questions as you can.
It won’t take long before you start to notice things for yourself – patches of tall grass that have been flattened are a surefire sign that lions were recently around. Fresh animal dung can be a powerful tracking tool. And the sounds, oh, the sounds! Within two days, you’ll feel like Jane Goodall.
Pack plenty of small change for tips
Hospitality workers, such as drivers, waiters and hosts, are extremely hardworking. Despite the fact that they work in the middle of an enormous savannah working on fly-in, fly-out rosters that can last weeks at a time, they’re some of the friendliest people I’ve met.
Some tours organise payment for things like transport, accommodation and meals, but it’s still worth tipping those who make your stay comfortable and memorable. Some of my best memories are simply sharing a joke with some the waitstaff, and the camp managers who were always happy to answer questions. Both Kenyan and US currency can be used.
When a staff member says something, listen
Recall how I wrote earlier that I’m a touch on the naive-side? This includes when I was lounging on a hammock at the Elephant Bedroom Camp in Samburu, next to the river. Three staff members came rushing over to me. One of their friendly visiting elephants was coming through and I needed to get out of the way – now.
My first thought was: “Cool, I’ll get to see an elephant so close!”
But they were thinking: “That’s not a great idea.”
I did eventually hop up and get out of the way, but I was clearly slower in reacting than I should have. True, the elephants are very friendly and don’t deliberately hurt anyone, but it’s still not a great idea to be in their direct paths, in case their gait becomes a little wide. They are wild animals after all. Staff have your safety as their primary concern, so listen to their instructions.
Learn a few words of Swahili
Most people in Kenya speak English as well as their native language, Swahili, which is also spoken throughout eastern and south-eastern African countries. It’s easy to learn a couple of words or simple phases. If you do, you’ll find it’s a really lovely way to connect with locals and show your respect. Na wakati kubwa! (Have a great time!)
Ladies, pack a sports bra
Even though you’ll spend much of an African safari inside a 4WD, it’s not comparable to a drive to the local shops. Being national parks, the roads are more like well-worn dirt paths. Plus you could be driving through rivers and cruising up rocky surfaces. This is all part of the fun, but it’s super bumpy. The lesson here is that if you need to wear a sports bra at the gym, then you need one on safari.
Everyone should also be prepared to be jolted around a bit in the 4WD – you don’t want to lose track of your camera, phone, sunglasses or other possessions.
Just go with it
Even though my own versions of safaris were pretty luxe – my ‘tent’ at Mara Ngenche Safari Camp in Masai Mara National Park had a huge bed, clawfoot bath and candles lit by staff each night – safari is about getting out into nature. Be prepared to be out in the sun a lot, be a little tired after long, thrilling days, and be open to trying new things and getting a little dusty.
Try traditional Kenyan food which, as a vegetarian, I really like for having so many vegetable dishes, including pilau (spiced rice) and fragrant vegetarian curries. Ugali, a cornmeal porridge that can be torn off in pieces, may not have been my highlight, but I’m still glad that I tried it. When you’re in Kenya, just go with it.
If you’re keen for more about going on an African safari, see what it’s really like.