African safari tips and all you need to know

All You Need to Know Before Going on Safari in Africa

In Africa, Namibia, South Africa by Jurga24 Comments

Going on safari for the first time you probably have many questions. There are hundreds of guides telling you where and when to go, so I’m not going to go into this. This post is intended to give you all kinds of practical tips which will help you prepare for an African safari no matter where or when you go.

What you need to know before your first African safari

No matter how many pictures you have seen or what expectations you have, the very first moment you see African animals in the wild will be unforgettable. I still remember ours as if it was yesterday. It was 10 years ago, on the very first day we arrived in South Africa. We landed in Johannesburg in the morning and drove straight to Kruger National Park. In the evening a couple of hippos showed up at the river, just meters away from the terrace where we were having dinner. It was such an amazing experience!

Now that I told you how great it is, I also feel obliged to tell you that not every moment of every safari will be the highlight of your trip. Far from that! You might be driving for hours and hours with not much to see. But then you will, you always do, and it will all be worth it!

Oh, and back to the amazing part. You WILL want to stay longer. Take my word for it, you will. Book a few nights extra. Flying to Africa is not cheap, so get the most out of your trip!

If you are traveling to Africa with kids, make sure to read this post as well: Everything You May Want To Know Before Taking Kids on Safari in Africa.

Waterbuck male antelope on African safari

Waterbuck male antelope

 

What to do and not to do on safari in Africa

1. Be open-minded and flexible. Every safari drive is unique and therefore unpredictable, so try not to stress about the things you cannot control. Sometimes you won’t see much, sometimes you’ll see a lot, sometimes the ride will take longer than expected, and sometimes it will be tougher than expected. Be prepared for warm and for cold, for wind or sun, for mosquitoes and flies, and mostly for a rough ride. While most of the time you will be driving on gravel or sand roads, sometimes the driver might decide to cross a river, drive through the bush, or cross a stone field… We did all of this when following a herd of desert elephants in Namibia and it was an amazing experience!

2. Obey the rules and stay safe. Stay in your car at all times, the rules are there for a good reason. Animals are very well camouflaged and often you don’t see them until it’s too late. Don’t approach the elephants too closely, don’t make noise, keep your hands and your camera inside the car near the cats, and never stand between the hippo and the water. In fact, hippos are very aggressive and are the most dangerous African animals after mosquitos, so you don’t want to get them upset.

Well camouflaged lion and his prey in African savannah

Do you see a lion in this picture? What about a wildebeest? A predator maybe just a few feet away from you even if you don’t see it

 

3. Ask questions. Most safari guides are very knowledgeable and you can learn a lot about the animals and their behaviour.

4. Ask to stop. You think you see something in the distance, but are not sure, or you want to take yet another picture of a zebra? Don’t be afraid to ask to stop the vehicle – the guides are there to give you the best safari experience.

5. Take lots of pictures. The first time you see a zebra you’ll probably take 25 pictures of it, the next time – 10, and by the end of the week you’ll hardly notice it. You can always delete the pictures afterwards and only keep the best, but take pictures when you can because you may not get a chance for a better shot.

African elephant walking on a road between cars

Don’t get too close to the elephants and hope they don’t get too close to you

 

Guided safari tours vs. self-drive safari

Depending on the country and the place you are visiting, you don’t necessarily need to partake in an organised tour in order to see African animals in the wild. Kruger National Park in South Africa, Etosha National Park in Namibia – these are just a couple of examples of the parks you can easily visit on your own. Often you will see animals just next to the road, outside the parks.

We have been on numerous safaris in South Africa and in Namibia, and we have done both – safari rides with a guide as well as on our own. My advice for you is to do both. None of these formulas guarantee that you will see more animals, you just have to be lucky. First time we were in Kruger NP, we saw Africa’s Big-5 (Elephant, Rhino, Lion, Leopard, and Buffalo) on the very first day. While we saw lots of different animals during a guided tour in the morning, we encountered 3 out of Big-5 later during the day when driving in our own car.

Wild African giraffes on the road in Namibia

You will often see wild animals on the road while driving in Africa

 

Advantages of guided safari tours:

  • No driving. You don’t have to drive and concentrate on the road, so it’s a much more relaxing.
  • Better visibility. You sit higher, there are no windows and so you see everything better.
  • Knowledge. You can learn a lot about African animals from the safari guides. You quickly feel like an expert by being able to tell the difference between all different sorts of antelopes.
  • Expertise. The guides have lots of experience. They know where and when to look for certain animals and they often see them long before you do…
  • Communication. Safari guides constantly communicate with their colleagues and exchange information so they can bring you to the centre of the action in no time.
  • Accessibility. In some parks, private vehicles are only allowed to drive on certain roads while guided tours have fewer restrictions.
  • Kids are more engaged. It’s easier to get the children engaged and interested in the whole safari experience on an open jeep safari ride than when driving in your own car. Don’t listen to the people who tell you that young kids don’t appreciate safari. They do. You just have to find the ways to get them interested and engaged. Get your kids a good pair of binoculars and play a game of who sees a certain animal first, and you are all set.
  • Picnic in African savannah and sundowners. Some of the very best memories of safari experiences we had were the ones where we had breakfast, picnic lunch, or a sundowner drink in the middle of an African savannah. It’s just something you have to experience at least once.
  • Night drives. You cannot go on a self-drive safari at night. You are not allowed to drive at night in the parks and it’s not a good idea to drive in the dark in Africa anyway. If you want to hear lions roar or see them hunt at night, you’ll have to book a night drive. I still have to meet the first person who actually thinks that night drives are worth it, but it’s a very unique experience. Don’t expect to take any pictures at night, just enjoy the ride and hope that you get to see some action.


Discover the Serengeti Trail 728x90

It pays to travel to Africa with a big family or a group of friends. You pay for a regular safari ride and end up with a private driver and a whole big jeep for yourself because they don’t necessarily fill the jeep if they already have 4-6 places sold. Very often, young kids are free of charge or get a discount as well. It’s not always the case however, so don’t count on it. If you want to be certain that you will be on your own, you have to ask for it and probably pay much more.

Herd of desert elephants in Namibian desert near Palmwag

We could have never followed these desert elephants if it weren’t for our local safari guide and his off-road driving skills

 

Advantages of a self-drive safari:

  • Flexibility. You can decide where you want to go and how long you want to spend at a certain place and don’t have to worry about being stuck with a group of 10 other people who take 101 pictures of a giraffe in all possible angles and still complain when the driver wants to go on. OR you can stay longer, follow and watch the animals as long as it suits you without having to worry about other people or a schedule.
  • Better pictures. Usually you will have better chances to take pictures of the animals if you don’t have to compete for the best spot with the other people in the same vehicle.
  • Cost. Needless to say, self-drive safari is much cheaper than an organised ride. Safari rides, especially private ones, can be very expensive. Sometimes it might be cheaper to stay at a luxury lodge with all-in formula (food and safari rides included) than having to pay for a hotel and safari rides separately.
  • Heating and air-conditioning. This might seem irrelevant, but wait till you sit in the open jeep driving 40 miles an hour before sunrise or after sunset. Or when you find yourself in an open savannah in the heat of the day with no shade whatsoever.
  • Children’s age is not an issue. Some safari rides will not permit children under a certain age, usually under 6. This is mainly because of the safety concerns in the proximity of predators. In your own car, you can take children of any age on a safari ride and you stop as close to the lions or leopards as you wish. Just try to limit the noise and keep the windows closed.
  • Kids entertainment. If you are traveling with very young children, they might not have much patience during long safari rides. It might be easier to keep the kids entertained in your own car. I rather have my kids watching the animals than playing games on a tablet, but we often listened to some children’s music during safari rides as it kept the kids quieter.

Some things to consider when booking a safari ride

  • Duration of the ride. Make sure you are well informed about the duration of the ride. Some will only last an hour or two, while some others can take the whole day.
  • Time of the day. The very best time to watch animals is usually early in the morning or in the evening around sunset. This doesn’t mean you won’t see animals during the day. We saw lions with cubs, rhino’s, elephants, leopards, cheetahs and many other animals in the heat of the day. So my advice would be to go looking for the animals whenever you have a chance. After all, that’s the reason you go to Africa, isn’t it? You may even want to consider a night drive, but don’t expect too much from it.
  • Size of the group. If you have a choice, always go for a smaller the vehicle and a smaller group.
Black rhino crossing the road at Okaukuejo in Etosha

Black rhino crossing the road just in front of our car

 

What to pack for an African safari

  • Soft-sided travel bags. Whether you are planning on taking a small plane in Africa or joining an organised tour, you better pack light and take a soft-sided duffel bagtravel bag. Don’t take hard-shell suitcases to Africa. Your bags WILL get dirty, so don’t feel embarrassed to take old luggage on a trip to Africa. Nobody cares.
  • Camera equipment. Take the very best camera you have and the best tele lens you can afford. 200mm is minimum. There is no way you can take nice pictures of the animals with your smart phone. Pack at least 50% more memory cards than for the other trips of similar duration. Always have extra batteries and charge them every time you can. Don’t forget a tripod. It will be of no use during safari rides, but you’ll see animals at the waterholes and other places as well. Here you can find more advice in regards to the best camera equipment for safari photography.
  • Electrical adapters. There is not one standard electrical adapter in Africa, so you should check which one you need depending on where you are going. Here is a short list of a couple of popular African safari destinations and the plugs they use. South Africa and Namibia type D/Mtravel adapter M. Kenya and Uganda type Gtravel adapter G. Botswana, Zimbabwe and Tanzania one of the previous two – type D or type G.
  • Binoculars. You cannot go on safari without binoculars. Well, you can, but it’s more fun if you have a pair. As a minimum make sure that children have their own binocularsbinoculars.
  • Mosquito repellant with DEETdeet
  • Sunscreen and sun glasses
  • Small backpack is very handy to store all your belongings during long safari rides. Make sure it closes well, otherwise you’ll have sand over everything.
  • Drinking water and light snacks. You should always have some drinking water with you. Organised safari rides will often provide water and other drinks and sometimes snacks as well, but you might need to wait till they stop somewhere, so it might be more convenient if you have your own, especially if traveling with children.
  • Flashlight (always) and/or a headlamp (if camping). You will use flashlightled all the time and a headlampheadlamp is extremely helpful when camping.
  • First-aid kit, medication and a good travel insurance are essential for any trip to Africa. If you are prone to car sickness, you may want to take some medication with you. African roads can be really bumpy. Always take medication against diarrhea when you go to Africa and make sure you are ok with all the vaccinations. Depending on the area, you may need to take malaria pills as well.
Jumping Springbok antelope in Africa

It took a very good camera and lots of luck to get a decent shot of a jumping Springbok

 

What to wear on safari and colours of clothing

Don’t pack too many clothes and don’t bother with brand new or special safari-style clothing. In Africa you can wear pretty much anything. Whatever you wear, it will get dirty very quickly. You’ll get used to it.

It can get very cold or hot on safari, so make sure you are well prepared for both. Every time. It’s not because it’s hot when you leave for a ride at 3pm that you will not be freezing cold on the way back after sunset. Always dress in layers. I advise to wear closed shoes, otherwise your feet will be freezing cold in an open vehicle in the morning or in the evening. Most safari tours foresee warm blankets in the car, so don’t be afraid to ask for one if you are cold.

You don’t necessarily need to dress in khaki or light brown tints. Camouflage clothing should be avoided altogether as it’s considered military and is forbidden in some African countries. Wear comfortable clothes, preferably in neutral colours. But, as already said in my post about packing for Namibia, don’t worry about the colours too much. If you have to buy something new for your trip to Africa, then go for the neutral tints. Otherwise just pack what you have. I saw people in pink, bright red, white, orange, and green jackets and sweaters on safari rides. In fact, I also wore a red jacket on safari in Namibia several times. It just happened to be the lightest jacket I own and I only wore it on safari when it was cold (=dark) so the colour didn’t matter at all.

Young child on safari in Africa

You don’t necessarily have to wear neutral colour clothing on safari

 

SAFARI CLOTHING PACKING LIST

– Windproof jacket
– One or two (fleece) sweaters
– A pair of long pants, trekking pants are best, but jeans will do too
– 1-2 pairs of shorts or convertible pants as they give you more flexibility
– T-shirts or shirts for 7-10 days
– Sun hat
– Closed shoes
– Swimming gear
– You may want to pack one smart outfit to wear for dinner, but it’s not really necessary in Africa. We stayed at a couple of luxury lodges during our trip and usually just wore jeans and a shirt, a blouse or a light sweater in the evening.

One last tip. Go on every single safari ride you can and make the very best of your trip. If I had hadn’t joined the very last ride the night before we flew home, I would have missed the rare opportunity of seeing a pangolin and a couple of lions with their prey.

Favorite Namibia photos

Lions with their prey. Namibia

 


If you are in Europe, you can find some safari clothingsafari ideas here.

Disclosure: this post contains affiliate links. At no extra cost to you, we get a small commission if you buy a product using these links. Thank you!

If you found this post useful, please share it and pin this image!

All you need to know before your first safari experience in Africa

 

You May Also Like
All You Need to Know Before Going on Safari in Africa was last modified: July 26th, 2017 by Jurga

Like what you've read? There is more...

Comments

  1. Hello Jurga !
    I enjoyed reading your post on “All you need to know before going on safari in Africa”. I am going to Uganda for a two week safari beginning of June. Very excited.
    I’ve read so much stuff about avoiding black and dark blue colors – supposedly mosquitos are attracted to black (and other dark colors) and the tse-tse flies are attracted to navy blue or such. Have been going to the second hand stores to get neutral colored t-shirts and long sleeve shirts. All the “technical” clothing these days are brilliant colors. That’s all I have.
    Our safari is lodge to lodge, so no camping. I suppose while being in a jeep for safari drives, the color of your clothing will not deter the animals?

    1. Author

      Hi Tanis. I can imagine how thrilled and excited you are about the upcoming trip to Africa! I’m sure you’re gonna love it!
      As for your question regarding the flies and the mosquitoes… I honestly don’t have the perfect answer. Make sure you are ok with all the vaccinations and malaria pills, that’s the most important thing.
      Regarding colours. Mosquitoes seem to be attracted to darker colours and strong smells, so shower often, avoid using perfume, use DEET spray, and stay inside as much as possible after dark. Sleep under the net (most lodges in Africa have it installed). You could also consider using permethrin-treated clothing, but I don’t think it’s really necessary since you are not camping.
      The tsetse fly is attracted to bright colors, very dark colors, metallic fabric, and the color blue. Not much left, right? 🙂 The problem with tsetse is that it bites during the day, and you really want to avoid that one! I think that covering your body is more important than the colours. You may want to use a head net if there are many flies around.
      Some wild animals seem to be upset with bright colours, but since you’ll probably be sitting in the jeep most of the time, that should not be a big issue.
      My advice is to try to avoid bright (red, orange, blue ..) and black colours during the day and cover up as much of your body as you can. I don’t think it matters that much at night though, so if you need to take a sweater or a jacket for in the evening and have one in black (or red, or whatever), I wouldn’t worry too much about it.
      If you are planning on getting new clothes for the trip, buy them in somewhat thicker materials and neutral colours. Think long sleeves, thick socks, and long pants. You can certainly find neutral-color clothing. Try amazon, you can even search by colour. I’d get 2 long-sleeved shirts, a pair of light brown or khaki pants, and 2-3 pairs good quality trekking socks. You can wear a t-shirt under the shirt to absorb most of the sweat, that way you can use the same shirt longer and only switch t-shirts every day. In most African countries you can have your laundry done at the lodges at a very low price, so don’t pack too much.
      Hope this helps. Enjoy your trip!

  2. We are going to South Africa in July with our two girls 12 and 9. I just bought a bigger zoom lense for my camera, just wondering what you used as a camera body and lense for the shot of the springbok? That is an excellent shot!!! Hoping I get something that good. We will be on safari for three days at Kapama. Did your kids take malarial pills? We are going in (their) winter and were told by our travel agency that it is very low risk…………but I still am nervous about not giving my kids the malarial pills.

    1. Author

      Hi Tammy. We haven’t been as far North as Kapama, but we were in Kruger for 3 days in July and we didn’t take any malaria pills at that time. We didn’t take them in Namibia in July either. In Namibia we didn’t see any mosquitoes at all, in South Africa there were some, but they say it’s too cold and too dry for malaria mosquitoes… So yes, it’s indeed very low risk in that period in those areas, but the decision to take the pills or not is totally yours. Talk to your doctor if you are not sure.
      As for the camera and the lens. Photography is my hobby and I usually carry my best camera and lenses when we travel. The springbok picture was taken with Canon 5D Mark II and Canon EF 70-300mm f/4-5,6L IS USM lens. This picture was a real challenge as springbok starts to run the moment you approach and by the time the vehicle stands still enough to take a picture they are usually gone. But most animals are not jumping around like that and you should be ok with any DSLR camera and at least 200mm zoom lens. Don’t count on taking good safari pictures with your smartphone or a pocket camera though, you really need a camera which is fast enough to capture the action. Take some time to read a bit about your camera settings and try to photograph in Aperture mode – it gives you more control over the settings so you can get a picture you want. If you are not sure about the settings, don’t worry and use Automatic mode – recent cameras can handle most situations pretty well. Have a good trip! You will love South Africa!

  3. Have you been to SA? We’re traveling to Krueger park in January as a part of self drive trip. Do you recommend an organized safari ride or is it not necessary?

    1. Author

      Hi Andy, yes we’ve been to Kruger National Park once for 3 days. We booked a safari ride on one day and afterwards explored the park on our own. We liked both and we saw just as many animals (maybe even more) from our own car. There are several advantages of a safari ride in Kruger though: they are allowed to go on gravel roads which are off limits to tourists, the drivers communicate with the colleagues all the time so they can bring you straight to the centre of the action, and you don’t have to drive. If you have time, try both.

  4. This is a fantastic post! We did a self drive and a guided tour through Dinokeng park in South Africa! We only saw 3 out of 5 of the big 5. I guess that means I just have to do it again!

  5. This is such a great comprehensive guide. We are looking into doing a romantic safari getaway and this will definitely come in handy. Thanks for pointing out the benefits of both self-guided and organized tours. I think that we would’ve thought it would be too complicated to even consider a self-guided tour but you have reassured us!

    1. Author

      In some countries you cannot really do a self-guided safari, but for example Namibia or South Africa can perfectly be explored individually. Make sure to do some research for your destination before you go, Kelly.

  6. Oh wow, this is amazing! Heaps of great advice – didn’t know camo coloured clothing are forbidden in some countries.. I liked how you did a comparison between a self guided and a tour drive, helpful for when I ever plan on doing a safari 🙂

    Your photos are stunning.. Almost didn’t spot the lion in the photo!

    1. Author

      Thanks Caroline! That picture of a lion was intended to show how difficult it is to spot the animals. It’s really not a good idea to get out of the car when driving through a safari park. It amazes us every time how the animals blend into their surroundings!

  7. Your article was a fount of knowledge! And your pictures were amazing!

    My hubby & I are going on a safari this coming December. It is summer in that part of the world — any additional tips?

    Having read the pros & cons between a private game drive & a self-drive safari, I am glad we are trying both!

    Have you tried going in a hot-air balloon around KNP? I still haven’t decided if it is worth it or if I should do the balloon ride in Cape Town.

    1. Author

      Hi Cathy, glad to hear you found this info useful. Thanks for taking the time to leave a comment.
      Additional tips for Kruger in summer? You probably need malaria pills, even more insect repellent and sun protection. If I’m not mistaken it’s the rain season there, so maybe a light rain jacket as well.
      As for hot-air balloon rides, we haven’t done that – neither in Kruger nor in Cape Town. I’d imagine that Cape Town should be more spectacular, in Kruger in december you’ll probably only see green trees. But I might be wrong, so try to google for more information or check on the TripAdvisor for reviews of people who have done this.
      Have a wonderful trip!

  8. Hello. I´m Flavia Zenke and i`ll try to speak in english. I would likie to travel with my husband and my baby (three years old) in febrary to Kruger Park. My sun is very young to go in Safari? Thanks

    1. Author

      Hi Flavia, It’s really difficult to say. First, Kruger Park is malaria area in February, so that’s something to consider when traveling with such a young child. Second, many organised tours will probably not take a 3 year old on safari rides. On the other hand, you can definitely visit Kruger with your own car with a child of any age, just keep the windows closed. 😉
      If your travel plans are not fixed yet, you may want to consider the Southern part of South Africa which is malaria free. There are some private game reserves there and Ado Elephant National Park close to Port Elizabeth is also nice to visit. Hope this helps.

    1. Author

      Thanks for taking the time to leave a comment, Megan. Glad you found this post useful for your trip to Africa.

  9. I appreciate the information on preparing for an African safari trip. I agree that it is important to remember that not every single waking moment will be this amazing trip, sometime it will just be boring driving. I would imagine that there are a lot of boring parts of Africa, but overall it is an amazing experience and one that you will remember.

    1. Author

      That’s definitely true, Ben. It wouldn’t be a true safari experience if you wouldn’t have to look for animals first, would it? 😉

  10. What an amazing information and photos you have! We are planning to go on safari end of November up to beginning of December. We have a three year old daughter (she’ll be 3yrs 9ms at that time) and our worry is the malaria. On that dates/month I have mentioned, does she need a malaria pill if we go to Kruger? We might be renting a car from Joburg to Cape Town, is it safe to drive in SA? Thank you.

    1. Author

      Hi Nerissa, from the information that I have, yes, Kruger is malaria area in that period. Talk to a doctor, I really cannot recommend what to do. I hear there are special malaria pills for kids, but we have no experience with that (always avoided malaria areas/seasons with kids). Good mosquito repellent is a must in any case!
      As for driving. The first thing you see when you leave Johannesburg are numerous warning signs next to the road telling you that it’s a highly dangerous area and you should never stop, etc. So it definitely doesn’t feel safe there. But a few hours later you are in Kruger and you forget all about it. We never felt unsafe anywhere else, nor had any problems driving in South Africa. But, of course, you have to be careful and use common sense. Don’t leave any valuables in the car (better still, don’t even pack anything that is not absolutely necessary), just as you would do in other places I suppose. Don’t drive after dark (this has more to do with the animals, but also people walking on the roads, etc). In Kruger stay in the car at all times even if you think there are no animals nearby.
      Hope this helps you a bit. Don’t worry too much, South Africa is an incredible country. You’ll love it!

  11. Thank you heaps for additional infos. I will take note everything you said and we will just stay in malaria free areas for safety reason. Just followed in Instagram ?. Safe travels!

  12. The tips are so amazing with a lot of advice and I liked the way how you compare between self-guided and a tour drive and this is helpful for me whenever I plan for a safari in the future.

Leave a Comment