Unless you’re booking safaris for your clients on a regular basis or have been to the Serengeti, it’s hard to know some of the nuances that make a big difference in your clients’ experience. After spending four days in the Serengeti (Central and Northern) on safari with Hills of Africa, we picked up a few tips that can help travel advisors with their Serengeti safari planning.
1. A good guide trumps everything.
When it comes down to it, clients go on safari to see the wildlife. While a nice lodge with modern amenities is great, if your client leaves without having seen a lot of animals, they’re going to feel let down. A great guide is the difference maker.
The best guides are excellent wildlife spotters, are educated on everything your clients will see, and are social and interactive. To ensure your clients will have a good guide here are a few things to know.
First, you need to understand there are two types of guides. Camp guides and private tour guides.
The first are employees of the lodge or tented camp at which your clients are staying. They drive open-side jeeps and your clients may go on drives with different guides throughout their stay. Camp guides that have been with the camp for at least a couple of years should know the area of the Serengeti in which their camp is located like the back of their hand, including some of the more off-the-beaten spots that others don’t go to.
For instance, though we had a private guide, he had previously worked in the Central Serengeti as a camp guide. He knew that the Eastern Serengeti, which costs $10 extra per person to visit, is the best place for big cat spotting, and he knew which part of that area specific cats like to hang out in. We saw six cheetahs that day (not to mention seven servals, the hard-to-spot African wildcat, and multiple lions) and were one of perhaps six jeeps the entire time, a rarity on safari!
Private tour guides, like the one we had, are those employed by a safari company or agency and remain with your clients throughout their safari regardless of how many lodges and camps they stay at. In many cases, the best tour guides began their careers as camp guides, sometimes in multiple national parks, and then moved on to private touring.
As you research which safari companies you want to work with or which lodges and camps you want to send clients to, ask questions about their guides. And, if you know a company has a particular guide with great reviews from past clients, see if you can reserve him ahead of time.
Do they provide in-house training? Only a handful of companies (all high-end), including Asilia Camps & Lodges, &Beyond, and Nomad Tanzania provide in-house training.
What type of training or schooling have their guides had? All guides have to be licensed, which means they should all have been through at least one guide training program. But there are continuing education workshops as well.
Have their guides won any awards? Not a make-or-break question as most guides won’t have won any awards, but it’s worth asking. Our guide at Hills of Africa was the fourth-place finalist in the annual Tanzania Best Guide competition in 2020. With the competition being an annual thing, there are other finalists out there.
What is their guides’ average years on the job? Ideally, you want guides that have been around for eight or more years. But, generally speaking, not more than 25 as being able to spot wildlife is highly dependent on a guides’ eyesight.
As an example, our guide spotted a Black Rhino from a lookout point on the rim of the Ngorongoro Crater. The rhino was more than 2,000 feet away on the crater floor, and he did it without binoculars! And on our one day in the Eastern Serengeti, he spotted seven serval cats – a record even for him.
If you’re arranging a private tour for your clients, make sure the guide selected has several years on the job. Not only are they better at spotting wildlife and having the answers to your clients’ questions, they know the roads better, including how to race over them when a crossing is happening several miles away.
Are their guides permanent or hired based not on demand?
Camps and tour operators that hire as demand increases are less like to have the best guides available. The best guides are always on staff and many on-demand hires are fresh out of training with little to no experience actually guiding.
2. Distance to river is key.
If you’re sending clients to the Serengeti during the Great Migration, a river crossing is an essential piece of the experience. And that means getting to the river early and staying late. The closer your client’s lodge or tented camp is to the river, the easier this is. Of course, the closer to the river, the more expensive the lodge or camp will be
During our stay in the Northern Serengeti, our camp was located about an hour away. We never got to the river before 9 a.m. and, in fact, missed a morning crossing because of it.
Keep in mind, the closer to the river a lodge or tented campsite is, the earlier it books up… in addition to costing more. We booked our safari about a year out. We don’t know what other options were available to us, but we do know that the sister camp, a permanent camp versus our “mobile” camp, which was a bit closer to the river, had booked up some three to four years earlier.
3. Permanent vs. mobile camps?
Speaking of permanent camps versus mobile camps. A mobile camp moves to follow the migration throughout the year. Meaning, when the wildebeest are in the north, the camp is in the north. When they're in the south, it's in the south. Few migration camps move around within a region. As a result, there is no distinct advantage to being in a mobile camp versus a permanent camp during any particular season.
Keep in mind different parts of the Serengeti will have higher concentrations of mobile camps at different times of the year. In July to October, when the wildebeest are crossing the Mara River, there are lots of mobile camps in the Northern Serengeti. Later, between November and early January, the Southern Serengeti will have the bulk of the mobile camps, as that’s calving season.
4. Large groups aren't always equitable.
Large group safaris are one of the most affordable ways to send clients on a Serengeti safari. However, with large groups, the chances of wildlife sightings can be diminished. For one, the group needs to stay together, limiting any one guide from venturing off the beaten path – which is often how some of the most special sightings take place.
Second, in a caravan of three to five jeeps, only one jeep may catch a sighting. For instance, if the guide in one jeep spots a lion walking in the distance by the time word is conveyed to the other jeeps, the lion may be out of sight. Even if a lion is sunning on the rocks, the jeeps must jockey for position (along with any other jeeps already on site), making it harder for everyone to get a clear view.
This is not to say that large groups can't have an amazing experience. Not all clients feel the need for long days in a jeep exploring the deep Serengeti. For these clients, a group safari might be exactly the ticket. They’re also good for more gregarious clients for whom making new friends is as important to their vacation enjoyment as the sightseeing.