Knowing that plans on paper don’t always coincide with the reality of traveling—especially on safaris—we were better prepared than many to roll with the unexpected wrinkles on a recent trip with a pair of teenagers. But we thought that it might be helpful to other potential safari planners if we put together a list of suggestions that contribute to a great safari.
Step One: Pick the right place.
Choosing the right destination at the right time of year is essential. There is no definitive answer, but here is a list of variables to consider:
- The diversity and number of animals or birds
- The weather conditions – will it be rainy or dusty, hot or cold?
- The type of accommodations available
- The driving distances or flight connections among the destinations you select.
Identify your priorities and then choose the destination(s) that best meet your needs.
Step Two: Pre-planning is a must.
Have a discussion with everyone in your party, so you understand and know about any concerns. Plan for the long international flights; no matter how you slice it, it is a long haul to Africa. Luggage has restrictions as to size, type, and weight. Flights within Africa only allow a total of 33 pounds, including your primary soft-sided bag and anything else that you carry on. All travelers, including children, should have their own small day pack with whatever they need—camera, binoculars, sunglasses, snacks, tissues, hand sanitizer, rain gear, and distractions for the down times. Some advance knowledge about the wildlife and its social patterns can be very helpful to pique interest.
Step Three: Save a few surprises.
When you plan your itinerary keep a few details to yourself and do not share them with your companions, particularly children. The element of surprise makes the trip more exciting. For our teenagers, we had two surprises: a visit to a local school—a far cry from the private education they had been receiving and a place where they could interact with kids their own age. To break the ice, we had brought a deflated soccer ball and a pump that the boys presented to the school as a gift. Our second surprise was a hot air balloon ride.
Now that the planning is done, what do you do on the actual safari to make it great? Here are a few suggestions:
Step Four: Choose a guide wisely.
The guide makes or breaks your safari experience. If you have trouble understanding your guide or are just not a good match, do not hesitate to request a change. This isn’t always possible, but be sure to make the effort. Also, change guides each time you visit a new area, unless you personally know the guide and have specifically chosen him. Guides add their own perspective to what you are seeing and have their own unique way of presenting this information. Ask a lot of questions. If you connect early on and they feel your interest, they will put a lot more effort into sharing extra insights and stories that will greatly enrich your experience.
Step Five: Be patient.
A safari is an overall experience; get the whole story rather than just gathering check marks for the animals, birds, or whatever you spot. Take a few minutes to watch how the animals interact rather than just driving past.
Step Six: Find your comfort.
Figure out what will make you comfortable in your accommodations (remembering that it is not home) and if needed, see if adjustments can be made. Something as simple as a mirror and an adapter plug so you can charge your hairdryer can make safari life much easier.
Step Seven: Have realistic expectations.
If your mantra is “food is fuel,” you won’t be disappointed. Do not expect gourmet food or anything close to it. On the other hand, chefs go out of their way to accommodate dietary restrictions related to allergies or medical conditions. Our twins needed gluten free diets and we were thrilled with the attention and care they received. It helped that we had brought written guidelines that we could share with the chef at each camp.
Step Eight: Be prepared if you're traveling with children.
Traveling with children can be challenging. There is down time while you are driving and much of what you see is repetitious. Have your younger safari members bring things to entertain themselves and engage your guides in conversation about their families and what it was like to grow up in the bush.
Step Nine: Talk about fears in advance.
We did not anticipate the level of concern the boys were feeling about the trip, but they began to ease when we talked about them openly. Discuss in advance the differences your young travelers are likely to see in terms of the travel infrastructure (roads, cars, and planes) as well as living conditions, clothing, and physical appearances.
Step Ten: Put together a small digital or old-fashioned photo album.
Tell travelers before the trip even begins that they will be submitting their top five photographs with humorous captions. Some good-natured competition with a purpose adds to the fun, and will create a lasting souvenir for everyone.
Our African safari was a definite success and something we know the boys will remember for the rest of their lives. An African safari is a true life adventure, not exclusively because of the wildlife and magnificent background of African scenery. It was also a chance for everyone to gain an appreciation for people from backgrounds totally different than our own as well as increase our family bonds. In the end we all returned with a sense of growth, enrichment, and joy. What could be better?
Joan Minsky and Linda Rawlings have owned Travel Advocate Inc., in Denver, CO, for 28 years, during which they traveled to more than 160 countries on all seven continents.