We cover why it's worth getting there, where to stay, and how to make the most of your time, but if this is your first safari, there are a number of questions that will arise while trying to plan your itinerary that are not covered there. The following are frequently asked questions we've come across when helping people come to grips with what a safari in East Africa entails. If you have any more, please write to us, and we'll try to include these online or in the next edition.
What Will an East African Safari Cost?
Although we have supplied the rack rates to lodges and camps, actual prices are very different when you factor in transfers, park fees, and game drives, which is why you will inevitably have to deal with a tour operator/agent or a company that has camps or lodges throughout the area you want to visit in order to get a realistic price quote on the whole safari. It's best to choose a few operators and compare quotes: www.africatravelresource.com and www.expertafrica.com are two excellent online agents and a good place to start. To give you an idea, a private Land Rover safari staying in the midrange Serena chain costs around $600 per person, per night, with full board. Ultimately, you get what you pay for; if possible, aim for a more exclusive experience and -- if you're visiting the Serengeti -- book somewhere near the Migration. A fly-in safari to the Northern Circuit, staying at semi-permanent tented camps, costs from $700 to $1,500 per person, per night, all-inclusive, depending on the company, time of year, and number of people and nights. In the 1970s, Kenya became a focal point for a great deal of mass-market safari tourism, and we've tended to highlight the alternatives to large lodges and volume-driven experiences. Where larger lodges and camps can't be avoided, or represent really good value, we've included them, but have also pointed out the downside of staying in these types of places. Tanzania has a number of excellent safari operators, all based in Arusha. Kenya's best one-stop safari operator, based in the U.S., is Uncharted Outposts (www.unchartedoutposts.com), which works with local outfit Bush and Beyond (www.bush-and-beyond.com) to provide an airport-to-airport service where the lack of hassle, the personal attention to detail, and the quality of the entire experience (they use only small, intimate camps and lodges) will make up for the upmarket price tag.
Is It Possible to Cut Costs? -- There's no getting around it: An East African safari will take a relatively hefty chunk out of your budget. Just as daily park fees add significantly to your daily costs ($35-$100 per person per day in Tanzania; $20-$80 in Kenya), so do concession or operating rights within the park to your accommodations -- no bad thing if all profits raised are poured back into conservation. Aside from this, running a tourist operation miles from the nearest town is incredibly costly -- fresh supplies need to be trucked or flown in, often at great expense (on inquiry, one camp informed us that they were currently paying $4 per orange, which made us appreciate the freshly squeezed juice all the more). You can reduce costs by staying in large lodges, such as those run by Sopa (www.sopalodges.com), and joining group package tours, such as those offered by Simba Safaris (www.simbasafaris.com). Even if you settle for a large lodge to save money, we still strongly advise you, if possible, to budget for a private vehicle, as this will enhance your safari immeasurably. If necessary, put together your own group. Better still is to cut short the safari by a few days (but you will need to spend at least 3-4 nights in the bush to really experience it).
When Is the Best Time to Go?
April and May are the rainy months and best avoided; many camps choose to close over this period. The rest of the year is good, though where you choose to book is then of equal importance as when, particularly in the Serengeti, where much of game viewing is dependent on rainfall and attendant migration pattern.
Can I Hire a Car and Self Drive?
Not really. Aside from Nairobi National Park, which is as well signposted as you'd expect from a national park bordering a capital city, operators will insist on supplying a driver with your vehicle. This is because local drivers know the vehicles and terrain better, and roads are not only virtually impassable in certain areas, but rarely marked. The driver also doubles as a guide, pointing out wildlife, birds, or plants you may otherwise miss and giving you a bit of background on the species. This knowledge can be very rudimentary, however; if you want a really good guide (and if this is your first safari, you should definitely try to budget for this), you should choose a company that prides itself on the quality of its guiding and invests in specialized training (&Beyond, Singita, Nomad). As a result, these companies tend to insist on having guests use their guides and vehicles, and won't accommodate another company guide, making it difficult to include them in overland safaris that comprise a number of destinations. You know you are dealing with a company like this when they offer only "game package" and no "full board" options (refer to rates located below each review). Camps and lodges that offer full board options have separate accommodation and dining for guides and pilots (this is more often than not included in your price); alternatively, expect to pay around $150 per night full board. Guides may take meals with you at your table, but only at your request and at an additional cost.
What Does the "Game Package" Include?
All meals, drinks, laundry, transfers to and from the nearest airstrip, daytime game drives in 4X4 vehicles with trained driver/guide (bush walks and night game if available), and camping fees (if applicable). Cigars and private cellar items are available at supplementary costs, as are medical insurance, tips, and personal items. Game package rates exclude park fees, but tour agents/operators factor these in.
Are Mosquitoes a Real problem?
You won't be bothered much in the dry seasons (usually Jan-Feb and May-Sept) or at sufficiently high altitude unless you are near stagnant water, but malaria is a real risk. If you are entering a high-risk zone for the first time, a course of antimalarial pills is essential. What is prescribed will depend on your health profile, but Malarone (or Malanil, as it also known) is the most effective (98%) and has the fewest side effects. You take it only 1 day before entering a malarial area and continue the course for only 7 days after you leave the area. The downside? It's pretty expensive! Larium and its later version, Mefliam, are cheaper and are weekly doses, but these have strong potential side effects for certain people (including night sweats, bouts of depression, anxiety hallucinations, nausea exacerbated by alcohol, and sometimes intense headaches that will obviously spoil any holiday). They should be started 1 week prior to entering the area (2 weeks to give yourself time to switch), and you need to take them for 4 weeks after leaving the area. Doxycycline is the other choice; it's also a schedule 4 drug (a category of drugs with less potential for abuse), taken once daily, but we have heard that it is possible to find it without prescription in East Africa, should you forget your tabs at home (but we strongly advise you to get -- and pack -- your malaria prophylaxis in your home country). Doxycycline is an antibiotic (not great for the immune system) and needs to be taken for 4 weeks after leaving the area. Needless to say, none of these should be taken if you are pregnant. Chloroquine, a once commonly prescribed antimalaria drug, has been proven to be completely ineffective.
What About Other Insects?Some people will criticize a lodge or -- heavens above -- a tented camp because they encountered a few "bugs" in their room or tent. Really, you're in the middle of a massive wilderness area, and aside from mosquitoes, the resident insects mean you no harm (and count yourself lucky if you're sharing a room with a gecko or a lizard, as mosquitoes are a favored part of their diet). If you have a real bug phobia, we gently suggest that you reconsider your holiday destination. Most camps and lodges will spray your tent or room while you are at dinner, rendering the space bug-free for much of the night; there's usually some kind of bug spray in every room, and mosquito nets are so common that a lot of places admit that they're mainly for decorative effect. Tsetse flies can be a problem during game drives when windows are open or the vehicle's top is up. To deal with these, don't wear dark clothes and consider packing a fly swatter; the tsetse fly is a relatively slow mover and very satisfying to swat.
Am I Safe from Wild Animals While on Safari?
It is not in any operator, camp, or lodge's interest to lose a client, so they don't. Driver/guides will look out for you and inform you of the rules (such as not alighting from the vehicle in a national park for any reason). Upon arrival at your destination, you will -- once the sun has gone down -- be asked what time you want to dine, then told to wait in your room or tent until an askari (usually a brightly garbed Maasai carrying a spear or machete) knocks on your door or calls out to escort you to the dining room and then back again after dinner. (The exception to this is at the large hotel-like lodges, which is yet another reason to avoid these.) Some find it an exciting ritual, others rather tedious, but given that you are in an unfenced wilderness area where predators roam at will, it's best to follow the rules and move around only with an escort after dark. Tents (and many rooms) do not have telephones -- you will be given a whistle for emergencies or a two-way radio (obviously not to be used to place a drinks order).
Staying Safe -- The time to be especially vigilant and alert to the potential dangers in the wilds is while out on bush walks or hiking safaris. Whatever the case, you will always be with an experienced (hopefully, armed) ranger, guide, or Maasai tracker. It is absolutely in your best interest to follow his or her instructions very clearly and be on full alert at all times. This is not the place to let your guard down for even a moment. By way of example, seven people (including one tourist) were killed by elephant in the Masai Mara in Western Kenya in 2007, so never become too lax about anticipating any potential danger. Some of the most frightening stories (including a recent National Geographic article about a life-threatening attack on expert elephant man Ian Douglas-Hamilton) involve victims who have plenty of experience in the bush. Under no circumstances should you ever wander off alone -- even in broad daylight -- and when you are out walking, always inform your guide or ranger if you need to use the toilet or are going to stop for a moment to take a photograph. If a dangerous animal -- elephant, buffalo, rhino, hippo, or any predator -- should chance upon you (or you upon it), the chance of survival without the aid of your ranger or guide is close to zero. Most precautions in the bush are actually linked to common sense, but it's easy, when staying in sophisticated lodges and camps, to forget that you're in the middle of a different world -- one where the beasts still rule. Unless you've been given an absolute thumbs up, do not swim in dams, lakes, or rivers. Hippos may be grass eaters, but they're Africa's biggest killers (after mosquitoes) and are known to snap humans in half with their powerful jaws. In 2007, one of Kenya's top professional guides was taken by a crocodile when he stupidly decided to take a dip in a river. And just because you feel safe and cosseted in your safari vehicle, don't think the animals aren't sensitive enough to know if they're being teased, taunted, or cajoled. A Range Rover is no match for an angry elephant. Always treat any and all wildlife with respect, and encourage your driver to keep a safe, respectful distance when viewing and tracking animals.
What Happens If I Have Special Dietary Requirements?
This is not a problem as long as you let your camps or lodges know well in advance -- bear in mind that everything has to be trucked or flown in, and stock has to be micromanaged to avoid waste, so it's hard to deal with last-minute requests (though it is incredible what the top-end camps are capable of). As a general rule, make sure your operator takes note of your food requirements (and -- in the case of the high-end lodges -- your drinks preferences, too) at the time of booking.
Should I Bring My Hair Dryer? Adaptor Plugs?
Although many lodges don't have a hair dryer in the room, they will have one or two at reception. This is hardly convenient or practical, so if you're dependent on one, bring it. That said, if you want to visit semi-permanent tented camps, leave it in the suitcase, or check first that you are not overloading the system, as they use a lot of power. The power systems that operate at many camps and lodges (notably the eco-friendly ones) will malfunction if you plug in your hairdryer, and there are even a handful of high-end facilities that don't supply power to the tents out of principle. Some camps offer 24-hour solar power, but many are still powered with a generator that is switched off at night. Flashlights and candles are supplied in this case. Every camp or lodge has adaptor plugs, but to save the hassle of going to reception (and, on occasion, being forced to hand over a deposit), bring your own. If having access to power is likely to be a deal breaker when choosing where to stay, be sure to investigate this issue thoroughly.
Will I Have Internet & Cellphone Reception?
For better or worse, cellphone reception is remarkably good throughout Tanzania's Northern Circuit. With a few exceptions in specific lodges and camps, reception is also very good in much of Kenya's safari territory -- although it must be said that the private conservancies in places such as Laikipia and the Masai Mara are far better covered than the national parks; in some of the large parks, such as Tsavo, it's possible to drop out of contact with the outside world completely for a few days (which is not necessarily a bad thing). Internet is available at the big lodges; count on around $10 for 30 minutes. In Kenya, many of the smaller camps and lodges have Wi-Fi (or some access to an Internet facility) -- of course, limited electricity may make it difficult to power up your laptop, and there's every chance that the server won't be working (as we experienced all over Kenya in late 2008).
Can I Use My Credit Card While on Safari?
Ideally, no. Many places don't take cards; others convert all the charges to U.S. dollars at a very unfavorable exchange rate. Try to prepay for as much as possible and carry cash (U.S. dollars) on you for tipping and small purchases. Traveler's checks are useful for big purchases, but there is often a surcharge for using them, just as there is for using a credit card. If you are not American, change your currency into dollars before arriving in Tanzania or Kenya, and try to grab a handful of the local currency for smaller payments at the airport (using an ATM) when you arrive. A growing trend in Kenya is to quote prices (and accept payment) in euros or British pounds in addition to U.S. dollars; Kenyan shillings (Ksh) are also widely quoted.
Throughout this guide, our accommodation reviews carry credit card information; we've listed those cards that can be accepted for payment on-site. For the most part, when it comes to booking a safari, you'll have paid for your accommodations and safari package well in advance (operators won't secure your reservation until payment is received). Most places will have a minimum amount for credit card payments, but unless we've listed them as a "no credit cards" operation, you should be able to pay for extras (drinks, additional specialist activities, balloon rides) using a card.
How Important Is the Lodging on Safari?
With no nightlife, restaurants, or shopping experiences, and usually no TV, where you stay is very important. If you can afford it, select a private lodge or camp that takes no more than 18 guests -- this means you are given very personal service and the peace to absorb your surroundings. Privacy is paramount -- units should be set far apart, particularly in tented camps where canvas does nothing to insulate sound. If you don't mind living out of a suitcase, moving from camp to camp is the ideal way to see different environments as well as plentiful game.
Should I Opt for a Tented Camp or Lodge Experience? -- There are many who say you haven't been on safari until you've heard the roar of a lion through canvas. We strongly recommend that you stay in at least one tented camp, and regular safari-goers will not set foot in a lodge or any concrete structure in the wilds. If you're edgy about sleeping in a tent, be assured, this is camping, but not as you know it. There are also an increasing number of small lodges that, in their design, eschew traditional distinctions between different kinds of building material. So a cottage may have part-stone, part-canvas walls -- or, in some sections, no walls at all. And it's long been typical of high-end safari tents to come with attached stone-walled bathrooms.
The Argument for Tented Camps -- If the idea of sleeping in a tent leaves you cold (or even claustrophobic), you haven't been on an exclusive safari to East Africa. Journalist Henry Morton Stanley (sent by the New York Herald to find Dr. David Livingstone, which he did at Lake Tanganyika in 1871) thought nothing of going on safari with 200 porters to ensure he enjoyed all the comforts he was accustomed to. Today's safaris tend to have fewer staff, but the comforts are still great.
The classic East African safari tent is a great deal more spacious than the kind of tent you'll come across at your average campsite -- big enough to comfortably stand up in, with adequate space to move around your king-size bed; some are even furnished with comfortable chairs and a writing desk. There's almost always a separate dressing area behind the bedroom, which, in turn, leads through to the bathroom -- the walk-in shower privately cordoned off and often open to the stars, the wash basin (often two) dropped in a marble or timber vanity, and a separate toilet.
Plumbing varies from camp to camp, but permanent camps always have flushing toilets. Mobile camps vary between flushing (usually chemical) and a short-drop, but are always comfortably outfitted. Bucket showers are provided as and when you wish; staff discreetly hook up a plastic "geyser" -- 20 to 40 liters (5-10 gallons) of hot water heated in a bucket over a fire. Imbued with the subtle smell of wood smoke, the traditional safari shower is one of our favorite experiences. Plumbed showers in the bush are somehow less successful, perhaps because you expect more: Water pressure is usually not high, and it can often take up to 10 minutes for water to heat properly (sometimes not at all). Basins are always provided, with jugs of cold and hot water in mobile camps; taps are plumbed in permanent camps.
Electricity is best when it's 100% solar generated; many camps, however, still rely on oil-fueled generators, which are buried and located far away. Although there is no noise pollution, the generator still has to be switched off, usually between 11pm and 6am.
Furnishings are always practical and often luxurious, with the best tents romantically lit with solar-powered lamps that wouldn't look out of place in a five-star hotel. Most tents have shaded verandas, furnished with comfortable chairs or daybeds from which to enjoy the view. What they often don't have is adequate hanging space, and not all tents have luggage racks.
Aside from this minor irritation, the East African tent is -- within reason -- a wonderfully luxurious experience, and while not to everyone's taste (the designer John Galliano famously erupted from his tent in Amboseli, shouting "Who invented this, this 'thing' called canvas?!"), the thrill of having nothing but canvas between you and the wilderness is unbeatable. If you're lucky enough to have the wildebeest move past, you will be serenaded by a symphony of snorts and calls, one of the most harmonious and beautiful "languages" in nature; if you're near a koppie, rock hyraxes will use your canvas roof as a slide, a baboon may opt to take a rest on your veranda, or you may be woken by the "scrunch, scrunch" of tearing grass and exit to startle a grazing zebra. And when the night is rent by the roar of a lion, you will curl as close to your partner as you did on your wedding night, no matter that the lion is probably miles away, or that no one has ever been attacked in a zipped tent. It's simply the best of Africa -- wild and untamed -- experienced under 400-thread-count linen.
What About Tipping?
Bring plenty of low-denomination dollars for tipping at each camp or lodge; the best camps have a communal box so that tips are shared equitably between front- and back-of-house (or tent) staff. Specialized services such as a private butler or your driver/guide are usually tipped at $10 a day per person. You may, of course, tip more, or not at all, depending on service rendered.
What Should I Wear?
Loose cotton clothing tends to be the most comfortable and protects your limbs from mosquitoes. If you intend to walk, you'll need long pants to protect you from prickly vegetation and ticks, as well as comfortable hiking boots, but given that walking in the national parks is usually not allowed, keep your feet cool and pack sandals for the game drives. A warm sweater and pants are essential if you're going to visit the escarpment areas (such as Ngorongoro), and you'll need cold-resistant clothing for places such Mount Kenya and something to keep you dry should the heavens decide to open during the rainy season (and they will).
What Else Should I Pack?
Pack light, particularly if you are taking a charter plane, which currently allows only one soft-sided bag per person weighing a maximum 15kg (33 pounds) -- they're not as strict as in, say, Botswana and often don't even bother weighing the bags, but if they do you may be forced to leave something you value behind. Bear in mind that game packages include free laundry, so packing light shouldn't be a problem. A fitted broad-brimmed hat, swimwear, good sunglasses, and sunscreen are essential. Though some lodges supply insect repellent, pack your own, as well as every other malaria precaution. If you take any special medication or prescription drugs, bring them along with you, as you're unlikely to find exact matches, even in the city pharmacies. Dust can affect the durability of contact lenses, so bring a pair of glasses as a backup, as well as sufficient cleaning solution for your lenses. And, of course, don't forget binoculars and a camera (and, if you're not using digital, plenty of film.) A fly swatter, kept in your vehicle, is useful for dealing with the tsetse flies.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.