How Safaris Work

By: Patrick J. Kiger
Lion, majestic king of African feline wildlife.
A well-camouflaged lion hides in the tall grasses of the African veldt. See more safari pictures.
Kim Wolhuter/National Geographic/Getty Images

For many people, the word "safari" conjures up faded, sepia-tone images from the late 1800s and early 1900s. You know the ones: A khaki-clad man wearing pith helmet brandishes his rifle and proudly poses beside the carcass of a slain beast in colonial Africa. But, as you might imagine, like most places, Africa has changed in the last century, and the venerable tradition of the safari has changed with it.

Maybe there are still macho hunters out there who long to trek into the wild like Teddy Roosevelt and Ernest Hemingway and bring back endangered species.


More recently, the travel industry has expanded the meaning of the word safari to include journeys and expeditions not necessarily related to the search for wildlife. For example, there are safaris by camel in Egypt, safaris into Australia's famed outback and adventure safaris in Alaska. But the most popular kind of safari -- the kind that most people still think of as the ultimate adventure -- continues to involve exotic animals and spending time in Africa's unique landscape. In this article, we'll focus on that classic African adventure.

How did safaris begin and where are they today? Let's dive into the past on the next page.


The History of the African Safari

The word "safari" was introduced into the English language by 19th-century English explorer and linguist Sir Richard Burton (not to be confused with the more famous 20th-century movie star). Burton got the word from Swahili, an African language. It's derived from the older Arabic word "safariya," which means "a voyage or expedition" [source: Skinner].

British hunters like Cornwallis Harris and Charles Baldwin began venturing into sub-Saharan African in the mid-1800s in search of game, and their accounts of spectacular adventures spurred others to organize trips following in their footsteps. One prominent late-1800s safari enthusiast was the German hunter, naturalist and photographer Carl Georg Schillings, who took some of the first spectacular photographs of lions, elephants and rhinos in their natural environment. By the beginning of the 1900s, entrepreneurial British and European settlers in Africa -- who became known as "white hunters" -- were organizing and promoting safaris for affluent outsiders who wanted to bag some of the continent's spectacular game [source: Herne].


One of the most famous safaris was staged on behalf of former U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt and his son Kermit, between April and June of 1909. The two Americans, accompanied by a British "white hunter" and 250 African porters and guides, landed in Mombasa, Kenya, and trekked westward across what was then British East Africa into the Belgian Congo. They then turned back northeast and finished in Khartoum in the Sudan. Along the way, the Roosevelts shot more than 500 animals, including 17 lions, 11 elephants and 20 rhinos. The former president published a 1910 book, "African Game Trials," which further enhanced the allure of safaris with its breathless, colorful accounts of adventures. For example, Roosevelt wrote of his up-close confrontation with a rhino: "The big beast stood like an uncouth statue … he seemed what he was, a monster surviving over from the world's past, from the days when the beasts of the prime ran riot in their strength, before man grew so cunning of brain and hand as to master them" [source: Eyewitness to History].

But that was then. On the next page, we'll look at today's safari experience.


What types of African safaris are available today?

A safari participant lines up a dramatic camera shot of an elephant in Africa.
Michael Melford/The Image Bank/Getty Images

Obviously a lot has changed since Teddy Roosevelt's day. With Africa's exotic wildlife increasingly threatened by loss of habitat, poaching and climate change, today's environmentally-conscious visitors tend to be thrilled just to catch a glimpse of a rhino in the wild, and have no desire to bring back heads or horns to hang over a fireplace. Moreover, African countries increasingly are working to develop wildlife watching and ecotourism as sustainable industries that bring in much-needed income and create jobs in local communities.

In South Africa, for example, where millions of tourists visit annually in search of the "big five" animals -- elephant, rhino, buffalo, lion and leopard -- there are 14 locally-owned-and-controlled safari operations certified by Fair Trade in Tourism South Africa, an organization that promotes ethical travel practices. And while local safari entrepreneurs once offered fairly rustic accommodations, they're increasingly developing more comfortable bush camps and luxurious safari lodges, where wildlife watchers can relax and dine in comfort after a day of adventure [source: Van Wyk].


Today's safaris make great family vacations (provided that the kids are at least 8 or 9 years old, the minimum age allowed by most companies). There are a wide range of variations in accommodations, from the luxury lodges available in some social networking site for various African safari operators.

Here's a taste of three types of safari lodging:

  • Permanent camp -- On these safaris, you're based in a permanent tented camp or lodge from which you experience game walks, drives and even hot air balloon safaris during the day (especially in the morning and late afternoon, when the animals are most active). Most of the national parks have ideally-situated lodges and/or permanent tent "hotels," where visitors can eat, sleep and relax with all the comforts of home and even some gourmet meals. This type of safari is considerably more expensive than most camping safaris.
  • Mobile permanent camp -- In this case, you visit several different camps and lodges, traveling from one location to the next via Land Rover, six- to eight-seater minibuses with roof hatches, open-sided trucks, or by air in light aircraft.
  • Mobile -- On a mobile camping safari, you stay in a temporary camp each night. These camping safaris often cater to budget travelers who don't mind roughing it a bit (no flush toilets or running water) in exchange for the chance that a hippo or elephant will wander through camp at night. The quality of accommodations runs the gamut from basic to luxurious, with luxurious including 30-foot tents, showers, bathrooms and furniture [source: Bain, etal].


Map of Africa

Cartographic vector illustration for educational mapping.

There are a great many fascinating destinations in Africa for a visitor, but most of the best opportunities to experience the continent’s incredible diversity of wildlife and natural habitat are in the eastern and southern regions. Various African nations have their own advantages and attractions for Safari goers. Kenya, which probably is the most developed country in terms of economic and tourist infrastructure, is most famous for safaris. But neighboring Tanzania, the locale chosen by Ernest Hemingway for one of his most famous safari stories, "The Snows of Kilimanjaro," has an equally rich diversity of wildlife and safari opportunities. South Africa has been working hard to develop and promote its safari industry, and offers numerous locally-run safari operations. Zimbabwe, Botswana, Zambia, and even the obscure African kingdom of Swaziland are rich in animals and birds, and offer a range of possible trips and safari operators from which to choose. Uganda now offers gorilla-tracking trips, an option that's gaining rapidly in popularity among those who are interested in our endangered primate cousins.

In fact, you may want to think of your trip to Africa as just an introduction to a continent that you can visit again and again. For your initial safari, you might choose to visit Kruger National Park in South Africa or the Serengeti National Park in Tanzania. Both of those parks afford you with a good opportunity to see the so-called big five animals -- lion, leopard, elephant, buffalo and rhinoceros -- and are the best places to get a classic safari experience. If you're able to return to Africa again, you can pick a different locale, and perhaps pay more attention to other denizens of the African wild, such as birds and insects, and to the diverse flora [source: Harrison]. See the map to give you some idea of the continent's geography and climate, and the location of some prime safari areas.


Where are the best places for an African safari and what animals can be seen there?

Cartography illustrating education through vector map.

Each country in Africa offers its own set of exotic beasts and natural wonders. Here's a primer of what you might encounter on safaris in the African countries that are most popular for safari adventures:

  • Kenya -- In the southwest, the Masai Mara National Preserve is a haven for all of the big five animals, and you may see all of them in a single morning. Amboseli National Park has both elephants and spectacular views of Mount Kilimanjaro, and Lake Nakuru has flamingos, giraffes and leopards [source: Richards].
  • Tanzania -- This nation's treasure includes the famous Serengeti National Park, where you can see millions of hooved animals -- zebra, antelope, gazelle and wildebeest -- and the Ngorongoro park, located in the crater of an extinct volcano. Another unique attraction is naturalist Jane Goodall's chimpanzee sanctuary in the tiny Gombe Stream National Park near the Burundi border [source: Finke].
  • South Africa -- Most of the large game in South Africa is concentrated in its well-organized national parks, particularly the largest and most famous, Kruger National Park. Kruger's rest camps are built within protected enclosures, its roads are good, and it's easy to tour in a private car as well as in organized groups. South Africa is home to the last substantial populations of black and white rhinos, and also has lesser known animals such as the Kori bustard, the world's largest flying bird [source: Renssen].
  • Swaziland -- This small African monarchy's parks include the Mkhaya Game Reserve, home to black and white rhinos, and Mlilwane Wildlife Sanctuary, one of the few places where you can see wildlife on foot, on horseback and from a bicycle [source: Pinchuck, et al].
  • Botswana -- The Chobe National Park has elephants and a large, lively population of baboons who greet visitors at the park entrance. Gemsbok National Park has the famous black-mane lion and huge herds of gemsbok, a type of horned antelope. The vast Central Kalahari Game Preserve features giraffes, brown hyenas, lions, leopards and cheetahs [source: Main].
  • Zimbabwe -- This nation has spectacular scenery, including the majestic Victoria Falls. But you'll also want to visit Hwange National Park, with its huge elephant herd and 400 bird species [source: Anderson].
  • Zambia -- South Luangwa National Park is a good place to see hippos, while Kafue National Park has large prides of lions [source: Harrison].


What's the best way to see the animals?

Whether you're staying at a posh lodge or a rustic tent at a temporary campsite, each day, you'll make it out into the wild to catch a glimpse of the wildlife. There are many ways to venture out. Here are some examples:

  • Walking safaris -- These expeditions travel between campsites and/or lodges by vehicle or boat, but when they stop in wild areas, tourists get the opportunity to walk around on foot, under the watchful eye of a guide.
  • Mobile safaris -- These trips usually make use of 4X4 vehicles driven by guides to roam over a wider area, and they're the preferred style in many places. You'll also find bus or van tours in some areas.
  • Fly-in or wing safaris -- These tours use aircraft to cover an even larger area more quickly than the vehicle tours. It's also a great way to see the breathtaking expanse of Africa from the air. Be sure you're comfortable flying in a small plane, though.
  • Canoe safaris -- These expeditions paddle down the Zambezi or other rivers between camping and lodges, with stops along the way for walking forays in the wild.
  • Self-drive safaris -- This is the most flexible arrangement of all, though it's best reserved for the savviest travelers who've been to Africa before. You drive your own vehicle and book your own accommodations, so you can explore at your own pace.
  • Migration safaris -- These trips follow vast animal populations on the move in their annual treks in quest for food and/or water. They provide a chance to observe some of the most amazing collections of wildlife you’ve ever seen, but the animals, not you, control the itinerary [source:].


How much does a safari cost? How do I choose one?

An elephant is seen at dawn at Samburu National Reserve in Kenya.
James Warwick/Image Bank/Getty Images

There are so many different possible options for your safari that it's difficult to set a rule-of-thumb for what you should spend. Instead, first, you should do some research to determine what you'd most like to see in Africa, and then balance that against your vacation budget. Don't forget to factor in your age, fitness level and expectations for comfort. If you're accustomed to staying in posh hotels on trips, for example, the backpacker-style accommodations that you'll find at some cut-rate camps in the bush will come as a major shock.

Fodor's writer Julian Harrison advises spending six to nine months planning your trip, and a year in advance isn't unreasonable. Harrison also cautions travelers that self-serve Internet booking isn't as reliable in Africa, where the travel infrastructure isn't as sophisticated as in other places. If you book online, you may set yourself up for some logistical nightmares. You'll also want to set aside money for gratuities and vaccinations that you'll need to protect you against diseases. You'd probably do well to enlist the services of a travel agent who's experienced in African adventure tourism [source: Harrison].


According to Harrison, there are price ranges to suit almost every budget. At the high end, a traveler who wants luxury can book accommodations at a fancy travel lodge for $1,500 a night. At the other end, travelers can get by spending about that much for an entire eight-day budget safari, as long as they're comfortable pitching a tent with the group out in the wild [source: Harrison].

One major expense to factor in is air travel. At press time, one major carrier, South African Airways, advertised prices of around $1,000 each way for flights from New York City to several South African cities [source: South African Airways]. But of course, those prices are subject to change. Your agent may be able to find you a cheaper package deal.


When should I go?

Generally, it's easier to get around in Africa during the dry season, which in east and southern Africa runs between late June and October. During that time, animals tend to congregate around water holes and rivers, so they're easier to spot. Plus, the foliage is less dense, so you can get a better view of them. One downside to the dry season, however, is that's also the part of year when lodges and camps are most crowded, and prices are often the highest.

In truth, though, the ideal time to go on a safari ultimately really depends on which parks and preserves you want to visit, what animals you hope to see, and what mode of local transportation you're interested in using. If you're primarily a bird watcher, for example, the rainy season is the best time to visit many areas. Serengeti National Park in Tanzania is the rainy season home for the vast herds of hoofed animals who migrate there in search water. So in that particular area, the rainy season is the best time to see the greatest abundance of wildlife, including the park's famous lions and other predators.


You should be forewarned, though, that if your ambition is to see a specific event, such as the wildebeest migration in the Serengeti, timing your visit can be tricky. Those events vary in date from year to year, based on climatic conditions, and are difficult to predict accurately in advance. So it's good to have a plan B in mind, as well [source: Fitzpatrick, et al].

What do I take on a safari?

This man is a bit too close to a cheetah in Masai Mara National Reserve in Kenya.
Art Wolfe/Getty Images

You probably already know that you'll need a passport and visa for your travels, prophylactic shots before you leave, comfortable khaki-colored clothes, and that a luggable, durable duffle bag is essential for transporting your stuff. But here are some other things you'll need for almost any kind of safari:

  • Camera equipment -- Ideally, take both a digital SLR with interchangeable lenses to capture images of wildlife and the environment, and a cheap point-and-shoot camera that you can pull from your pocket to capture the human side of the trip. For shooting animals, you want to have at least a 300mm long lens, and for birds, a minimum of 400mm is essential. Also be sure to take along spare batteries and multiple SD flash cards, since in many parts of Africa, you may have trouble getting an Internet connection to upload your photos to the cloud after you run out of space [source: Brakspear].
  • Mobile phone -- Even rural areas of Africa are rapidly becoming wired, and 3G access is becoming available as well [sources: Shiner, Killian]. Nevertheless, you should do some research to find out what degree of connectivity is available in the areas you plan to visit. If you really can't afford to be disconnected, you can rent a satellite phone these days for as little as $8 a day, plus costs of roughly $1.10 to $1.75 per minute. But be forewarned that if you use one to connect to the Internet, the data speeds are far slower than what you're accustomed to [source:].
  • Bottled water and purification tablets -- Waterborne diseases remain rampant in Africa, so be careful what you drink or use to brush your teeth. Keep a bottle with you at all times, and carry purification tablets in case you run out of bottled water.
  • Eyeglasses -- You may be a habitual contact lens wearer, but in dusty, hygiene-challenged rural Africa, you should revert back to glasses with frames. Be sure to pick ones with scratch resistant lenses.
  • Skin protection -- A hat with a brim, sunglasses and sunblock are essential if you're spending long hours in the unforgiving African sunshine. Chapstick or lip balm is a good idea, too. Mosquito repellant is absolutely essential.
  • Adapters for charging electronic devices -- Electrical service in Africa is at a higher voltage rate than in the United States, so you'll need the right adapter plug to charge your devices. You can buy a kit with the types needed for various African countries [source: Brakspear].

Are you ready to start planning your African safari trip? For more information on travel adventures and exotic animals, visit the links on the next page.


Lots More Information

Related Articles

  • Anderson, David. “On Safari.” Focus on Africa Publications. 2005. (Nov. 1, 2011)
  • Bain, Keith, etal. “Frommer’s Kenya & Tanzania.” Frommer’s. 2010. (Nov. 1, 2011)
  • Brakspear, Patrick. “On Safari in Africa: 101 Things to Know When You Go.” Passion for Africa Publishing. 2008. (Nov. 2, 2011)
  • Finke, Jens. “Rough Guide To Tanzania.” Rough Guides. 2002. (Nov. 1, 2011)
  • Fitzpatrick, Mary; Parkinson, Tom; and Ray, Nick. “East Africa.” Lonely Planet. 2006. (Nov. 2, 2011)
  • Fox,Killian. “Africa’s mobile economic revolution.” Observer. July 23, 2011. (Nov. 2, 2011)
  • Herne, Brian. “White Hunters: The Golden Age of African Safaris.” Henry Holt and Co. 1999. (Nov. 1, 2011)
  • Harrison, Julian. “Fodor’s African Safari, 1st Edition.” Fodor’s. 2004. (Nov. 1, 2011)
  • Main, Michael. “African Adventurer’s Guide to Botswana.” Struik Publishers. 2001. (Nov. 1, 2011)
  • “On Safari with Theodore Roosevelt, 1909.” Eyewitness to History. 1997. (Nov. 1, 2011)
  • Pinchuck, Tony; McCrea, Barbara; and Reid, Donald. “Rough Guide to South Africa, Lesotho & Swaziland.” Rough Guides. 2002. (Nov. 1, 2011)
  • “Rentals.” (Nov. 2, 2011)
  • Richards, Dave and Richards, Val. “Safari Guide Kenya.” Globetrotter. 2002. (Nov. 1, 2011)
  • Renssen, Marielle. “Safari Guide South Africa.” Globetrotter. 2002. (Nov. 1, 2011)
  • Shiner, Cindy. “Africa: Cell Phones Could Transform North-South Cooperation.” Feb. 16, 2009. (Nov. 2, 2011)
  • Skinner, Annabel. “Tanzania & Zanzibar.” Cadogan Guides. 2005. (Nov. 1, 2011)
  • South African Airways home page. (Nov. 1, 2011)!loadCountryLanguage.action?request_locale=EN&splashLocale=EN&splashCntry=US&isCookieEnabled=true&gclid=CO6bmYmOlqwCFcx-5QodOHYINg&mpch=sem
  • “Types of African Safaris.” (Nov. 1, 2011)
  • Van Wyk, Sharon. “Safaris with soul: Big game brings big benefits to local communities.” Mail & Guardian (New Zealand). Sept. 22, 2010. (Nov. 1, 2011)