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What to Expect on an African Safari: a first timer’s experience

An African safari is a #1 bucket list adventure, with images of Meryl Streep in Out of Africa coming to mind. But what is an African safari really like? We’ve been on two safaris and count them as our favorite trips. And though, by its nature, every safari will be unique, we hope by sharing our photos and excerpts from our journal you will get a sense of the wonder of Africa, and understand what to expect on your safari in Southern Africa. Enjoy our photos and stories and, if you can, book your trip of a lifetime!

This was the first entry in my journal for our safari in Southern Africa. With many choices and a wide range in prices, it is important you choose a reliable safari company to help you plan your trip. There are many excellent small group tours to choose from, ranging from budget tours to the ultimate luxury safari. We didn’t want to be constrained to a group’s schedule so opted to plan our own trip. Therefore, we contacted a well-reviewed travel agency, Rhino Africa, to plan a three week itinerary in Zambia, Botswana, and South Africa. Whether you decide to join a group or travel solo, take your time – this is the trip of a lifetime!

If you’re ready to book your trip of a lifetime, read: 10 Steps to the Perfect Luxury Safari

First Safari Camp in Zambia

Sanctuary Sussi and Chuma, a luxury camp on the Zambezi river

Our journey began with a grueling full day of travel – Boston to Atlanta and then a 16 hour flight to Johannesburg. But despite the travel time, the excitement of the upcoming adventure made the travel hours pass remarkably quickly. We overnighted in Johannesburg and caught an early morning flight to Livingstone, Zambia.

The staff at Sussi and Chuma greeted us like old friends and showed to the furthest bungalow from the lodge…where we met our neighbor -a warthog! I couldn’t get over the fact that it was real and not Disney!!! Hakuna matata!

Once settled in our camp, our guide Bizwell took us out onto the Zambezi river for a sundowner ride. With a boat to ourselves, he took us through rapids and along riverbanks where we found animals, birds and crocodiles. As the sun set, we tucked into a protected cove for wine and dried fruit.

Enjoying Victoria Falls in Two Countries

Next morning Bizwell led us on a walk on the Zambian side of Victoria Falls. We found a quiet spot for our boxed lunch, before walking the historic Victoria Falls bridge which connects Zimbabwe to Zambia. Mid bridge we had the option to bungee jump. We passed on this, but enjoyed watching other brave (and younger) people leap from the bridge.

The border crossing was an eye-opening experience! Trucks carrying copper were lined up for about a mile waiting for customs. Baboons made themselves comfortable on the top of the trucks. People pedaled bikes loaded four foot high with produce or wood that they traded on the opposite side.

Bizwell helped us through immigration before turning us over to Douglas, a seasoned guide from Wilderness Camps. He took us through the area of the park that lies in Zimbabwe, a great addition to our day as the water flow on this side is twice what we’d seen in Zambia.

High Tea at the luxurious Victoria Falls Hotel

I love High Tea and have the immense good fortune to be married to a man who indulges me. And where better to have High Tea than the Victoria Falls hotel? We left the park and made the huge transition to the Colonial Era to the Victoria Falls Hotel. The grounds were immaculate, rich green with hedges of fragrant flowers. A pianist played as we had tea, finger sandwiches and dainty desserts. Wow! And us in our dusty safari wear.

Walking Safari to the White Rhino

We’d been told that only two nights were needed for a stay in Victoria Falls, but decided to decided to stay a third night. On our last day Bizwell took us on an afternoon game drive through the National Park. He had arranged a secret visit to a group of white rhinos guarded by heavily armed rangers. We walked single file through the savanna to within 20 feet of the peaceful animals. As we stood quietly watching them, one of the mother rhinos nudged her sleeping baby, prompting him to get up. Perhaps she wanted us to admire him and perhaps then acknowledge that without intervention and conservation, this magnificent species will likely be extinct in our lifetime. A very solemn experience.

We returned to camp and headed to lunch only to find the tables unset. Bizwell told us he had something to show us and took us to the boats. We headed to an island where a guide took the lines and shouted “welcome to Fantasy Island!” Our wonderful Sanctuary staff has prepared a gourmet picnic on the island – such a great surprise!

We said our goodbyes to all the staff at Sussi & Chuma. We were amazed by the attention to individual detail we’d received at this camp. Each staff member knew our names, our drink preferences and wasn’t shy about correcting our attempts at the native language.  I teared up as I said goodbye to them.

Off to Botswana in a four-seater plane where I, the fifth passenger, had to sit in the luggage area…

A luxury safari camp in the Okavango Delta, Botswana

Arrived at Sanctuary Baines camp in the most magical style – we were taken by boat through the channels of the Okavango Delta, startling many gorgeous birds as we passed. As we approached the camp we heard music – the camp chorus!! What a great welcome.

After a sumptuous tea we took our first game drive. The “drive” itself was interesting as the ‘road’ was often covered with four feet of water. Fortunately, the safari vehicles are built especially for this challenging terrain. The Okavango Delta, a UNESCO site, was spectacularly beautiful and wild.

On our drive back, the radio came to life telling us a bull elephant had broken into the camp. He’d taken down the walkways, a few trees and all the electricity. It was dark when we got back, but the guides held flashlights so we could climb a ladder to the remaining walkway and walk to our room, now lit by kerosene lanterns. But that didn’t stop the staff from calling us for dinner. Did I mention that the bull was still in the camp?? We gathered flashlights and walked as quietly as we could past the enormous animal. What a welcome in Botswana!

Next mornings’ game drive was outstanding! We were watching a family of baboons when right in front of us stepped a leopard. We caught just a glimpse of the cat as she slipped back into the tall grass. But to our delight, she came back out to investigate us.

Leopards are not accustomed to humans and vehicles in the delta. Thus our guide hushed us and told us to remain very still. The leopard was quite obviously not pleased with us. She walked right next to our (windowless) truck, staring at me with hostility as I froze less than 4 feet away.

The Living with Elephants Foundation

Sanctuary Baines offer a unique opportunity to interact with elephants. Within this area is situated the Living With Elephants foundation run by Doug and Sandi Groves. Doug and Sandi rescued three orphaned elephants (orphaned as a result of an official culling operation) and share their knowledge and experience with a handful of visitors daily.

We were introduced to the elephants, Jabu, Thembi and Morula, and taught about their personal histories, elephant anatomy, and the current threats to the species. The enormous animals stood patiently as we touched them and posed for pictures.

We broke for a lovely picnic lunch with the elephants eating right along side us. When it was time to say goodbye so Morula, the most affectionate elephant, gave each of us a scratchy and gooey kiss.

This evening, the last in Botswana, was magical. Before dinner we found bubble baths on our lantern lit deck. We enjoyed these for a bit, washing off the elephant slobber, before heading to the boma for a barbecue, featuring crocodile, kudu, and impala. We sang, danced and stayed late at the table listening to the guides’ tales of growing up in the bush. Wonderful!

Elephant in the Camp

Our last morning in Botswana we’d arranged a wake up coffee at 8 am. Dave and I started packing when, for some reason, I looked out our bathroom window. All I could see below the window was a gray mass. An elephant within 3 feet of our room.The elephant grazed by our room, pulling down trees as he leisurely moved around the building. We were trapped. We could see the staff watching from the elevated walkway and taking pictures of the elephant. Our poor waitress stood with our coffee tray, similarly trapped. Finally an armed guard rescued us, and the bull elephant, oblivious to the excitement, made his way to the river.

The ultimate luxury camp: Londolozi, a private game reserve adjacent to Kruger National Park in South Africa

Londolozi -how do I even begin to explain it? This was my first choice for camps and it did not disappoint. There are five camps making up the Londolozi property with approximately 262 staff and a maximum of 62 guests. Our accommodation was 5 star, with a large private deck, plunge pool, wi-fi, an air conditioned room and a big bathroom. Not exactly roughing it in the bush.

But more important than the room, the staff at Londolozi was excellent. Our guide Simon and tracker Foster were superb. On our first drive we found a family of wild dogs and sat for a while enjoying them. This is a rare sight anywhere and we felt lucky to see the pack interacting and acting just like our dogs at home.

Back at camp, we freshened up and headed to dinner in the boma – a fenced in area lit by lanterns and luminaries. Incredibly beautiful. The chef stopped by our table to introduce himself and describe our dinner options. What an evening!

Londolozi has an active staff village and Simon encouraged us to take a tour. The people of the area, the Shangaan, are an offshoot of the Zulu tribe. A member of the tribe accompanied us through the village, sharing their history and traditions. We visited the community preschool where the children sang to us and demonstrated their English skills by listing the months of the year. Very LOUDLY.

On the evening game drive, we were in search on lions. We crashed through thick brush when we saw fresh track and stopped suddenly when we realized that three lionesses were snoozing DIRECTLY next to us. In fact, as our vehicle was stopped on a slope, one of the lionesses was directly UNDER me.  Fortunately she was uninterested in us, just gave me a side eye and went back to sleep.

Simon, our ranger, was invariably cheerful and positive. He described every sighting as “really special” or “amazing, eh?” What a pleasure to have such an enthusiastic guide.

When Simon asked how we’d all enjoyed our stay at Londolozi, Dave mentioned that I was still 10 birds short of my goal for 100 birds. It was really a joke, but next morning as we climbed into the vehicle, Simon said, “10 today, eh?” And he worked the whole morning to get those final birds.

Check out a few of our favorite birds.

What to expect on an African safari

Our experience was beyond incredible. We stayed in extraordinary game reserves, with luxury accommodations. But even if you choose a less expensive trip, you will follow much the same schedule. Up before dawn, early morning game drive, and back for breakfast and the day off. Nap a bit if you’d like! Then off for the afternoon game drive. There are long days, but being in nature will keep you refreshed. Read about a typical day on safari.

[A day on safari in East Africa might follow a different pattern, especially if you are going to see the Great Migration. Read about what to expect on an African safari in East Africa ]

A safari is expensive. Is an African safari worth the expense?

We were fortunate to be able to plan the trip of our dreams. Rhino Africa allowed us to enjoy a luxury African safari without the up-charge most of the travel companies carry. We stayed in 5 star lodges, enjoyed door to door service,  and had extraordinary guides.

Was it expensive? Yes, but again, not as expensive as some of the luxury safari tour groups charged for similar but shorter trips.

Could we have done it for less money? Absolutely! Rhino Africa assured us they could put together a safari for a far lower budget. Or we could have toured on our own – camping or staying in less expensive lodges. We chose to splurge on this trip because it was the trip of my dreams, and we were not comfortable trying to navigate new countries without knowing the languages or how to deal with the wildlife.

Was it worth it? Is there a word beyond ‘absolutely’? This was an extraordinary adventure for both me – the wildlife lover, and for Dave – the hesitant safari-goer. To be able to see four countries in Africa, to be able to watch magnificent creatures living a natural wild life, to be able to chat one-on-one with the local people, and to be able to enjoy wilderness was a gift and has changed our lives.

We hope you enjoyed these excerpts from our African safari blog. You might be interested in these related posts:

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