An African wildlife safari is the ultimate bucket list trip. It is at once a wilderness adventure and a luxury retreat. If you have ever considered going on a photo safari in Africa, now is the time!
There are many luxury travel companies that offer packaged tours of Africa. This might be a great option for you if you’re traveling solo, or anxious about planning a trip to Africa. But in our experience, an African safari is unique – you do not need to be traveling with a guided group on safari. You can plan the perfect luxury wildlife safari around your interests and know that you will be guided once in camp.
We traveled independently to Africa in 2014 (and again in 2019). We’d thought to book a luxury small group tour but didn’t find the right itinerary for us. After years of dreaming of this adventure, we knew exactly where we wanted to go, what we wanted to do, and at what camps we wanted to stay. For our situation, a bespoke tour was best.
Regardless of whether you want to travel with a group or on your own, planning an African safari requires research and forethought. Luckily we have done some of this work for you.
Where to go on safari in Africa
Choosing the best place for an African wildlife safari will depend on what you’re interested in doing and seeing. While the big five animals – African elephant, lion, leopard, Cape buffalo, and rhino, are found in most areas, there are some species only found in certain parts of the continent. If you are intent on seeing meerkats, you will have to travel to Botswana. If gorilla trekking is on your list, plan your safari Rwanda or Uganda. But Africa is not just animals! There is a wealth of things to do and see besides game drives.
- Beach lovers won’t find more beautiful spots than the shores and islands on the Indian Ocean.
- Birders flock to the Okavango Delta where more than 600 species have been recorded.
- Surfers will relish the waves in Jeffrey’s Bay, South Africa.
- History Buffs have their pick of locales – Olduvai Gorge in Tanzania, Stone Town in Zanzibar, or Robben Island in South Africa.
- Wine (and food!) connoisseurs should savor a few days in Stellenbosch and Franschhoek in South Africa.
- Extreme Sports enthusiasts have their pick – cage dive with great white sharks in South Africa, sand board in Namibia, or head to Victoria Falls for zip lines, rafting adventures, or the opportunity to swim in Devil’s Pool.
- Photographers focus on the wildlife but should also check out the stunning landscapes in Namibia, or the views from Table Mountain in South Africa.
But, back to wildlife…
Kenya and Tanzania are traditionally the top safari destinations in Africa. The storied Serengeti National Park in Tanzania and the Masai Mara in Kenya have acres and acres of open space with all of the Big 5 in abundance. And the spectacle of the Great Migration, one of National Geographic’s top things to experience, occurs in these parks. You will not be disappointed with a safari in these popular parks!
Photo tip: In our experience the open landscape of the endless savannas in these parks makes wildlife photography more dramatic than in the denser ecosystems of Botswana and South Africa. Balance that with the scarcity of flowers and trees in the savanna…
On the far eastern section of the Serengeti conservation lies the Ngorongoro crater. This 12 mile caldera has an incredible variety of ecosystems, and is a top destination for safari-goers in Tanzania. The Ngorongoro park can get very crowded. We’d advise you to head into the park early and plan for a full day enjoying the caldera. We spent two nights in this area, but chose to spend our first afternoon dedicated to the Lake Manyara National Park. A top birding destination!
Because of the popularity of these parks, both are well served by airstrips and offer a wide variety of accommodations. Getting around will be easy.
Rwanda, Uganda, and other parks in East Africa
Also in East Africa are the countries of Rwanda and Uganda, famous for the endangered mountain gorillas. Primate lovers will definitely want to add a few days here.
Most first time visitors to East Africa will head to the Serengeti or the Maasai Mara, but there are many other options for safari in these countries. A quick look at a map will show you that in fact the Serengeti and the Mara are a contiguous wildlife ecosystem. You may prefer visiting a different ecosystem while in Africa. Begin your safari in the mountainous areas of Rwanda or Uganda, or choose one of the less crowded, parks in Kenya or Tanzania. Add a visit in Kilimanjaro National Park to combine safari drives and hiking opportunities, or the Tarangire National Park for some peaceful birdwatching.
Optional extensions for a safari in East Africa:
- Nairobi. If your flights arrive or depart from Nairobi, take a day or two in the city to explore this vibrant city. In addition to the historical sites in the city, it is in Nairobi where you’ll find attractions like the Bomas of Kenya, the Giraffe Center, the Sheldrick elephant orphanage, and many great restaurants.
- Zanzibar. Many visitors to Tanzania add a few days in Zanzibar, a paradise island just off the coast of Dar es Salaam. It’s an extraordinarily beautiful island with a dark history.
Many of the packaged group tours focus on Southern Africa. The option of adding days in cosmopolitan Cape Town and a visit to Victoria Falls, make this a well-balanced itinerary. Breaking up a wildlife adventure with days in a city with first-class hotels and restaurants can be a relief from roughing it. Even taking one afternoon off to enjoy tea at the historic Victoria Falls Hotel will feel luxurious.
Note: in our experience, there are more options and better prices for international air transportation coming through Johannesburg, South Africa than in other cities in sub-Sahara Africa. This might factor into your decision as well.
Kruger is the best known game park in South Africa and one of the largest parks in all of Africa. All of the big 5 animals are present in the park. The park can be crowded and off road driving restricted, but there are many private game reserves bordering Kruger that will give you an outstanding luxury safari experience. Some of the top lodges in Africa are in the Sabi Sands area. But don’t overlook the smaller nature preserves within driving distance of Cape Town.
In Botswana, the signature land features are the Kalahari Desert and the Okavango Delta. Game reserves are abundant, with some of the best taking advantage of these destinations. The Moremi game reserve and Chobe National park are both in the delta and are famous for the large herds of elephants that live in this area.
The Makgadikgadi Pans in the Kalahari are well known for the meerkat populations that charm visitors and TV audiences worldwide! Jacks Camp in Botswana offers a meerkat experience you won’t find anywhere else.
Zambia is fast becoming one of the most popular safari destinations. You can stay at camps in Livingstone, visiting Victoria Falls one day, and a wildlife reserve the next. Or head to South Luangwa National Park where the Big 5 can all be found. If you stay at Mfuwe Lodge between October and December, you might be lucky enough to have the elephants as neighbors. Elephants walk right through the lodge each year when the wild mango trees are in bloom. (And this is where we’ll go if we are ever lucky enough to travel to Africa again!)
Every guide we met in Africa chose Namibia as their favorite destination, in part for the wildlife, but primarily for the landscapes. The Sossusvlei sand dunes, the skeleton coast, and the ghost town of Kolmanskop, all offer stunning opportunities for photographers.
Round out your photo trip with stops at Etosha National park, one of the largest conservation areas in all of Africa. All of the Big 5 animals can be found in this park, as well as over 400 bird species.
When to go on safari in Africa
The best time to go on an African wildlife safari is dependent on where in Africa you plan to visit. The weather in South Africa is a world away from the weather in Uganda, 3,400 miles north. Research your chosen destination for accurate climate info.
Most people travel on safari in the dry season. The arid landscape makes it easier to see wildlife and the animals congregate near the waterholes. For most of Sub-Sahara Africa that would be June to October.
But December to March, the ‘green’ rainy season, is a beautiful time to visit Africa. The birdlife is extraordinary, scenery lush, AND prices are lower. Temperatures may be high however, so consider your tolerance.
The Great Migration, in particular the crossing of the Mara river, occurs sometime between August and September. Though a treat to see this incredible event, you will not be alone!
Determine the budget for your trip
How much does an African wildlife safari cost? That depends. A self-drive safari can be quite reasonable whereas a luxury safari will be in the USD 5-digit range. And that’s before adding in international airfare.
Booking a group tour simplifies the budget work. But remember to check the fine print. Some prices include international airfare (i.e., Odysseys Unlimited and Overseas Adventure Travel), and some don’t even include airfare between camps.
If you book through a safari company, you will be given several quotes based on the length of the trip, accommodations, and transportation between camps. Stick with the budget you can afford. Expenses will add up quickly.
Choose the right African safari travel company
Getting a reliable travel company is critical when you’re investing this much time and money into a vacation. Read online reviews before selecting a tour group or a travel agent. Trip Advisor is a great source of reviews, but you may find equally good ones by simply googling the tour.
Things to look for when selecting a tour group :
- number of guests – safari vehicles generally have three rows of seats behind the driver. Make sure your group size allows everyone access to a window seat
- activity level – not so important on safari, but note whether any strenuous activities are included on your tour, and if leisure time is scheduled in. Choose what fits your travel style.
- attractions visited – most group tours will take in the top attractions. Some also stop at shopping areas or include cultural activities. Look for the itinerary that suits you.
If using a safari travel agent to book your desired itinerary, read, and reread, reviews. I wrote of how we chose Rhino Africa for our trips here: Rhino Africa: our choice for the right safari company
Vaccinations and medication prep for an African wildlife safari
Consult your physician or travel medicine clinic to learn what you will need for your trip. You doctor can write you a prescription for you usual medications and for a general antibiotic, just in case.
In general you will need to be up to date on the traditional vaccinations ( measles, mumps, rubella, polio, tetanus, diphtheria, whooping cough), and will likely need a few more shots depending on your destination. Hepatitis A and Typhoid vaccines are almost always required.
Your doctor will probably prescribe Malaria preventative medication for travel to sub-Sahara Africa. This is in a pill form that you begin taking before your trip and continue a week after leaving the area. NOTE: Malarone, the most common medication prescribed can cause intestinal upset. We highly recommend bringing Imodium or similar OTC medicine with you as a precaution.
Yellow fever is present in Kenya, Rwanda, and Uganda, and though not often found in Zambia, you will need to show a vaccination record before entering South Africa from any of these countries.
For more information, consult your country’s health department website:
Anticipate the trip of a lifetime
Luxury safari camps book way in advance, so you’ll likely have a long wait before your trip. Use this time to get ready for your destination. Reading about a traveler’s first time experience on an African wildlife safari and what other travelers learned about adventure travel is a fun way to pass the time. Savor the anticipation!
Photography prep for an African photo safari
We strongly suggest bringing a ‘real’ camera on safari. Though cell phone cameras are great and getting better every day, the images you take on safari may be good enough for you to frame. A dSLR, an advanced mirror-less camera, or even a high-end point and shoot will produce images with enough resolution for wall photography.
Regardless of the camera you choose, the months before your trip are a great time to practice your photography and learn some post-production techniques. Take your camera to a wildlife sanctuary or zoo and try out different settings. Practice taking pictures of your backyard birds. The birds of Africa are just as photogenic as the animals!
Learning about your destination before traveling will always enhance your trip. Reading, even reading fiction, will give you an insight into the culture and history of a country. We put together reading lists before every trip, including fiction and nonfiction books.
Clothes and gear for an African photo safari
It’s tempting to head out to outdoor outfitters to put together an iconic safari clothes wardrobe. But before you do, spend a little time in your closet seeing what items you already have that will work for the trip. Avoid bright colors (especially blues and black in East Africa – tsetse flies!) and remember that Africa is dusty – whites won’t stay white…
Most luxury safari lodges offer laundry but not necessarily the gentle cycles we may use at home. Don’t bring delicate fabrics or items that take forever to dry. Loose fitting long sleeve shirts and long pants are recommended to protect from mosquitoes and tsetse flies. Add a lightweight fleece jacket or packable puffer for cold morning drives, and you’ll be all set.
Use the money you’ve saved by using items in your closet, to invest in some safari gear and gadgets. You will use those new lightweight binoculars every day on safari. A new camera, lightweight duffel bag, or some other gear might be perfect for this trip of a lifetime.
Packing With Luggage Restrictions
And this is where it gets tricky. Unless you are doing a self-drive safari, you will have restrictions on luggage for this journey. Small planes and game vehicles are tough on bags. You will need to pack your very limited stuff in duffel bags or equivalents.
Luggage weight and size restrictions are real. On our first trip, we were allowed 50 lbs. (22 kg) in total luggage weight (including photography and hand luggage) in soft sided bags only. On our last trip, the limit had dropped to 35 lbs. (~16 kg) The airlines weighed our bags twice on the trip, and fortunately we were under the limits. Others at Wilson airport in Nairobi were dumping clothing from their bags in the terminal. Avoid this by packing wisely:
- Packing for an African safari
- The challenge of packing carry-on only for safari and my actual pack-out capsule What’s In My Bag – African Safari
Over-packer tip: A photo vest, or similar, will hold a lot of heavy tech. I carried my phone, iPad, binoculars, and kindle on my flights. I may have looked a bit chunky, but no extra luggage charge! This is when I really appreciated my Scottevest jacket – the interior pockets were more secure and not as touristy looking as the usual photographer’s vest.
And you’re off! Prepare for adventure!
No matter how long you’ve waited for your dream trip, it’s likely you’ll feel some anxiety as the trip approaches. A trip to Africa involves a very, very long flight as well as the usual overseas travel concerns of visas, illnesses, and transportation. (The good news is that English is spoken everywhere!)
It’s normal to be worried as well as excited. I’m a worry-er and have benefited from developing some strategies for lessening my stress while traveling.
Taking a 15+ hour direct flight, or a series of long flights, is daunting to the most experienced traveler. If you’re lucky enough to afford a first-class ticket, the trip can be easy, but for many of us, funds have gone into the luxury game lodge accommodations rather than the overseas flight. For those of us in coach class, we’ve put together some ideas to make the flight easier.
And finally you arrive and you’re off. Three nights at one camps and three at another! Packing and unpacking or living out of your duffel. And amazing adventure but it’s easy to get overwhelmed. Spend some time before leaving home to create a system to organize your gear and bags.
Have an INCREDIBLE trip! There is no question but that it will be the trip of a lifetime!
Any More Questions?
Would you go on safari in Africa without a guide? Self-driving safaris are a great way to enjoy the parks on a budget. Many people choose to travel this way and enjoy the ability to schedule their day their way. This was not an option we considered as we like the interaction with the guide, appreciate his expertise, and didn’t want the hassle of driving. YMMV
What are the best itineraries for an African wildlife safari? The best itinerary is the one that works for you, your interests, and your abilities. Some people might be able to go three weeks with twice daily game drives, but for most of us, it’s best to plan a mix of activities. Break up your trip with a few days in a city, or schedule in beach time. If you’re usually very active at home, plan a few days of hiking.