African Safari: A first-timer’s guide

A special guide report for Australian tourists by Louise Southerden

Not so long ago, going on safari meant riding around in a jeep and staying at tented camps each night. You can still do that, the jeeps having evolved into purpose-built safari vehicles, but there are now more ways to safari than ever before.

There are luxury safari lodges, family lodges, walking safaris with armed rangers. You can drive your own safari vehicle in places such as Kruger National Park in South Africa, drift over Kenya’s Masai Mara in a hot-air balloon, see wildlife from horseback or a dugout canoe in Botswana. Safari camps accessible only by light aircraft even offer a bonus Out of Africa wildlife-viewing experience.
A typical day is bookended by “game drives” at dawn and dusk, when the animals tend to be most active, with plenty of time in between for meals, a bit of R ’n’ R and other activities back at camp or the lodge. How long you go for will depend on your budget, but aim for at least four or five days to give yourself time to adjust to the early starts and minimise “wildlife fatigue”.
The main gateway for Australian travellers is Johannesburg, South Africa; Qantas flies there direct from Sydney and Perth, with a flight time of 11-14 hours. Nairobi in Kenya is another gateway city, but involves a longer flight via Johannesburg or a non-African hub such as Bangkok, Dubai or Abu Dhabi.

Hot air balloons over the Masai Mara, Kenya.

The “big seven” safari destinations in Africa are South Africa (for Kruger National Park and Sabi Sand Game Reserve), Tanzania (for Serengeti National Park and Ngorogoro Crater), Kenya (the Masai Mara), Botswana (the Okavango Delta) and Zambia, Zimbabwe and Namibia.
Australian travellers don’t need tourist visas to visit South Africa, Botswana or Namibia; Kenya, Tanzania, Zambia and Zimbabwe issue tourist visas on arrival. Make sure you have at
least two blank pages in your passport; you can be refused entry if there’s not enough space for an arrival stamp.
June to October is regarded as “safari season” in southern and East Africa. This is because there’s less rainfall than at other times of the year so the wildlife is concentrated around the remaining waterholes. There’s also less vegetation, so they’re easier to see. This is also roughly when the Great Migration happens: more than a million wildebeest and 200,000 zebras and other grazers, with an entourage of lions and other predators, march en masse between the two largest wildlife reserves in Africa, from Tanzania’s Serengeti Plains to the Masai Mara in Kenya and back again. (The exact timing depends on the onset of monsoonal rains each year.)

Marataba Safari Lodge tented suite. Picture: Marataba Safari Lodge

None of the most popular safari destinations – South Africa, Kenya, Tanzania and Botswana – has travel advisories against them, but check for updates before you travel. Health-wise, ebola is a non-issue: the World Health Organisation declared the 2014-15 outbreak officially over early last year and it was on the opposite side of this vast continent anyway. Even if you travel regularly to developing countries and keep up to date with vaccines such as tetanus,
it’s wise to see your GP or a travel specialist such as the Travel Doctor ( at least six weeks before your trip to discuss possible health issues in the areas you’ll be visiting.
Some lodges don’t allow children under six on game drives, others have a “no children under 12” policy. But there are plenty of family-friendly safari operators, many lodges have swimming pools and babysitting services, and going on safari as a family is one of the most rewarding experiences for children and their parents, an educational adventure that can instil in travellers of all ages a deeper respect for the natural world and our place in it.

Zebras on the border of Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania.

There’s a reason it’s called “wildlife”. The animals you’ll see on safari, even in reserves and national parks, are wild and many of them are dangerous predators. That said, safari operators take every precaution to keep you safe by giving you a few rules for game drives (such as: don’t stand up in the vehicle) and providing guards who patrol camps and lodges and can even escort you back to your room after dark in case of an unexpected close encounter with a leopard or baboon. Self-drive safaris occasionally make the news, but are safe if you obey a few simple but essential guidelines such as: keep the windows up and the doors locked, never leave your vehicle and don’t harass the animals.

This depends where you go, but probably more kinds than you can imagine. It’s not just about the Big Five though in some places you can be lucky and see all five in a single day. There’ll be animals and birds you’ve never heard of, and you’ll probably be close enough to not even need a zoom lens.
You don’t have to buy a fancy new digital SLR camera (and bear in mind that the best wildlife photographs and documentaries you’ve seen were probably shot by professionals who spent weeks or months on location). A compact camera that can zoom and perhaps shoot HD video will do the job. Taking a good pair of binoculars can also be a good idea. In terms of what to wear, think khaki, beige and any other colour that will help you blend in to the African savanna (or at least your safari vehicle). And be prepared for big temperature ranges by packing long pants, long-sleeved shirts and wide-brimmed hats for warm, sunny African days and warm clothes for chilly nights and early morning and evening game drives.

The Masai Mara is the go-to destination for lions.

The so-called Big Five were once the most difficult and dangerous animals to hunt. Today the title just gives five African animals a little extra cache. Here are some of the best places to see them.
Kenya’s Masai Mara has more than 3500 lions, including some made famous by the BBC’s Big Cat Diary series.
Sabi Sand Game Reserve, next to Kruger National Park in South Africa, has more African leopards than anywhere on the planet.
Chobe National Park in Botswana has big numbers of elephants (up to 70,000) and some of Africa’s biggest elephants.
Etosha National Park in Namibia and the Ol Pejeta Conservancy in Kenya are good places to see Africa’s three rhino species.

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